Moving readers from struggling to proficient 

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Changing teacher practices can help children build new relationships with books and improve their reading ability.

Too often, when children struggle to read, educators assume the problem lies within the children themselves. But, in fact, decades of research have shown that whatever children’s innate skills, strengths, and abilities may be, what really matters are the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of the teachers and other adults in their lives.

In my own work with struggling readers, I’ve found it helpful to ask myself — regularly, as a matter of habit — a trio of simple, straightforward questions: What is it that proficient and fluent readers actually do when they encounter texts? How different is that from what our most vulnerable students are asked to do? And what would it take for educators to close that gap?

Rather than holding lower expectations for children who are struggling to read and rather than giving them lesser experiences with text and language, shouldn’t we seek to provide them with the very same kinds of resources, supports, and encouragement that the most fortunate children receive? Shouldn’t all students have opportunities to make connections between what they read and what’s going on in their own lives? Shouldn’t all students be encouraged to take ownership over their reading growth and development? What would happen, I ask myself, if more teachers embraced what I call “restorative” literacy practices, meant to bridge the gap between, on one hand, what we know to be true for proficient and fluent readers and, on the other hand, what is all too common for struggling readers?

Plenty of books

Proficient and fluent readers . . .

Have access to books. Plenty of books.

Struggling readers . . .

Often see that books — and literacy — are owned by schools, libraries, and “rich people.”

Restorative literacy practice  . . . 

Ensures that books and other reading materials are for all of us. Educators set up Little Free Libraries at schools, maintain a book swap table in the school lobby, or seek donations for quality multicultural books to share all around. They place a sticker inside books noting they are for all children in the community to keep, swap, or share so they don’t get in trouble with their parents or guardians. They offer blank notebooks for scribbling, drawing, and writing. They invite the local librarian to the school and help families obtain library cards. They host regular storytelling events, book clubs, and free book fairs in their neighborhoods or apartment complexes.

An army of adult support

Proficient and fluent readers . . . 

Have hours of access to adults — from parents and grandparents to the next-door neighbor — reading aloud to them. They also have access to kind and patient listeners to practice reading to, such as a favorite uncle or the beloved family dog.

Struggling readers . . .

Are often deemed as having “reading deficiencies” and needing “intervention.”

Restorative literacy practice . . . 

Enlists an army of adults, either community volunteers or an all-hands-on-deck staff, to read books aloud to individuals or small groups of young children. Includes children who already know how to read in these groups. Reading aloud increases vocabulary, imagination, understanding of third-party narration, critical thinking skills, and comprehension. Abundant opportunities for reading aloud set all children on a path toward a lifetime of reading.

Choice

Proficient and fluent readers . . . 

Choose books to expand their worldview or to read for pleasure, starting from where they are. They browse bookstores and libraries until something grabs their interest.

Struggling readers . . .

Are often given books to read by teachers who assume they know their reading level and what will interest them.

Restorative literacy practice . . . 

Provides several choices of books and material for children to read, not just by their readability levels. Teaches children how to choose books that closely match and expand their background knowledge, abilities, interests, and motivation.

Exploration

Proficient and fluent readers . . .

Begin to engage with books by browsing the front covers, reading the back covers, scanning a few pages throughout the book, and reading a few paragraphs in the introduction.

Struggling readers . . .

Are often asked to start reading aloud right from the beginning.

Restorative literacy practice . . . 

Lets children see the covers, read the back material, and scan through the pages. Helps children think about the purpose of reading the chosen book. What do they already know about the topic? What are their predictions? What do they hope to learn? Do they even want to read this?

Settling in to read

Proficient and fluent readers . . .

Decide when and where to read. They know some books are to be read at a table, some can be enjoyed on a couch, and others can be tucked into a bag for reading on the subway or a bus. They settle in, get comfortable, perhaps with some tea, ambient music, and soft lighting.

Struggling readers . . .

Are often asked to read aloud at a horseshoe table in front of the teacher with harsh lighting and much noise and distraction from the bustle of the classroom.

Restorative literacy practice . . . 

Offers children cozy corners for reading, equipped with bean bag chairs, soft moveable furniture, an area rug, and soft lighting. Some lucky classrooms have an old claw foot bathtub lined with blankets; others have large refrigerator boxes with pillows to crawl into. Some schools offer quiet, living room-like spaces in their buildings separate from busy classrooms. A few schools start their mornings by offering a quiet reading time as a consistent transition from stressful home environments to school.

Reading deeply and thoughtfully

Proficient and fluent readers . . .

Read silently and deeply in a nonlinear manner, thoughtfully returning to miscued words and misread phrases to think about their meaning. They read ahead and reread. They think about the text and carry an inner voice to help them negotiate the information being conveyed.

Struggling readers . . .

Are often asked to read aloud by sounding out letter-by-letter and word-by-word.

Restorative literacy practice . . . 

Encourages children to read for meaning. And for fun! Assures them that good readers are not exacting readers. Avoids correcting their mistakes that do not change the meaning. Lets children read ahead and go back to catch their own miscues. Encourages plenty of independent silent reading time, including the reading of books that seem easy or that students have already memorized.

Using cognitive and linguistic strategies

Proficient and fluent readers . . .

Know what to do when they are stuck on words that don’t make sense.

Struggling readers . . . 

Are often removed from classrooms for “special education” in phonics, using flash cards, learning vocabulary words, or reading bland low-leveled books in an isolated and fragmented manner.

Restorative literacy practice . . . 

Teaches children strategies for what to do when coming across unknown words or phrases. Teaches them to cover the tricky word with their finger, read ahead, and go back for context clues, think about another word that might make sense, ask a peer or an adult, look it up in a dictionary or online. Teaches children phonetic strategies within the text, not in isolation on worksheets or computers. Decoding helps comprehension but also background knowledge and comprehension helps decoding at the same time.

Owning their language 

Proficient and fluent readers . . .

Who are bilingual or speak a variation of English, such as African-American English, know that the phonemes and syntax of their spoken language do not always transfer to or match the language presented in text.

Struggling readers . . .

Have their spoken language ignored or corrected so they develop a narrative that they are not good readers.

Restorative literacy practice . . . 

Allows children and teachers to explore their knowledge about multiple languages in an objective manner. Treats no single language as “standard.” Recognizes that everyone has an “accent.” Teachers can let go of the phonemes or syntax that are different and, instead, foster and listen for meaning and understanding.

Using information in text

Proficient and fluent readers . . .

Can read deeply for tests, research, projects, or writing by annotating, taking notes, sorting and classifying information, and citing.

Struggling readers . . .

Are often stuck with taking simple multiple-choice tests in which they try to guess at the right answer.

Restorative literacy practice . . . 

Teaches children practical study skills using a variety of tools, such as highlighters, colored pencils, sticky notes, index cards, graphic organizers, or notebooks. Teaches them to circle key words and underline associated information. Teaches them, when reading fiction, to highlight characters in one color, their characteristics in another color, and the time and setting in yet another color. Helps them identify key problems and their resolution.

Honing critical thinking and analytical skills

Proficient and fluent readers . . .

Discuss with peers or with their inner voices what they have learned from reading a text. They hone their critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills as they read increasingly complex information. They think about how information is relevant to their lives and how they want to use it.

Struggling readers . . .

Are often asked simple comprehension questions in which they come up with answers that they think the teacher wants to hear.

Restorative literacy practice . . . 

Allows children to express multiple views, even if those views feel controversial. At the same time, teachers can assure emotional safety by not allowing bullying, claims without evidence, or racist language.

Shouldn’t we seek to provide struggling readers with the very same kinds of resources, supports, and encouragement that the most fortunate children receive?

Originally published in September 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (1), 37-39.

© 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.

 

DEBORAH WOLTER (wolter@aaps.k12.mi.us) is a literacy consultant at Ann Arbor Public Schools, Ann Arbor, Mich., and author of Reading Upside Down: Identifying and Addressing Opportunity Gaps in Literacy Instruction (Teachers College Press, 2015).
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