The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Teaching Reading by Reading

I have a fairly large network of professional colleagues through the Internet that I chat with on a regular basis. A topic of conversation recently has focused on how teachers teach reading. Two of these educators have especially gotten me thinking a lot about how I do reading in my classroom. The first, Donalyn Miller, is a fairly well-known personality in the world of teaching reading. (She has a book, called The Book Whisperer that is required reading in many education courses. I haven’t read it yet, but I will soon!) The other is Katherine Sokolowski, who happens to teach fairly close to me. She recently wrote a blog post about AR (accelerated reading programs), Lexile scores (a number used to determine the level and quality of book a student “should” be reading, and reading programs in general.

Both of these educators expressed the same sentiment, which I have shared with other teachers. This is how Ms. Miller describes her reading program:

1. Read a book. 2. Share it with another reader. 3. Chat about it. 4. Repeat 1-3. That’s MY reading program.

Here’s the (slightly more detailed) description of Ms. Sokolowski’s reading program:

So what is my reading program? Books, kids, and a teacher who reads. Pretty simple, but effective. No need for expensive programs. No need for comprehension tests that only test a surface level of comprehension. No need for a leveled book. Just read.

Now, the thing is, I do use leveled readers in my class. They are short selections that are easier for students to read so that they can focus on  specific reading strategy, such as predict, clarify, re-reading, and making inferences. I also have my students work in reading groups where they read a leveled text that uses Lexile scores to guide their instruction. The goal if the leveled reading is for students to develop their skills and to engage in discussions about different texts.

I also use our basal reading anthology to introduce different stories each week. Most of the stories in the anthology are the complete text of a selection, but there are a handful that are only excerpts. I use the basal reader for the same reason as the leveled texts: I want to teach a specific reading strategy that my students can apply to their own reading.

But the main focus on my reading instruction is on reading. I firmly agree with both Ms. Miller and Ms. Sokolowski that the best way to teach reading is to have students read. In fourth grade, we have a goal of building our reading stamina to a point where the students can read for 45 minutes without interruption every day. There are some teachers who have argued that this time should be longer, but the reality is there are only so many hours in the day to teach and I have a lot more to teach than just reading. But my students do a lot of reading in my classroom. Whenever they finish a task, they are encouraged to take out a book and read silently. When we come in from another activity, such as fine arts, library, P.E., or recess, and there is some administrative task that needs to be done, my students know that they should read silently while they wait for instruction. And when we are doing our literacy block in the afternoon, the students read and write about their reading. After all, the best way to teach students to read is to let them read!

For parents who ask, “What can I do to help?” I have a few suggestions:

  • Make sure your child has a place to read at home. It doesn’t matter if it is a bedroom, a chair in the living room, or just a quiet corner somewhere. Just so they have a place to read.
  • Ask your child what he or she is reading. Ask questions. Who is the main character? What is the problem in the story? What do you think will happen next?
  • Let your child see you reading. Part of our Million Minutes Challenge is to get family and friends to join with students in reading. Another part is to expand what we think of as “reading”: books, newspapers, magazines, websites, audiobooks, graphic novels, etc. They all count.
  • Help your child build a personal library of books. Our school has an awesome Book Exchange program that helps them do just this. Our local libraries also often gently used books at very low cost.

My reading program isn’t perfect yet, but I am going to keep working on it, I will keep reading about it, and I will keep doing everything I can to make sure that every student who passes through my classroom knows that reading is valuable and important!

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