Intense and Intentional

My mantra for the 2014-2015: Be intense and intentional about raising the reading level of every child.

In this age of educational over-complication, driven by test scores and wonky teacher evaluation tools, when you are told to teach close reading strategies to six year olds and develop lessons around structured, academic argumentation in kindergarten, the smartest thing any one of us can do is lift up our child’s reading ability.

Seems too simple to believe. But there it is.

I spent the first month of school going over all the pertinent data of every child in my school, looking for students in need of reading intervention. That’s what interventionists do, after all. Sifting through the data, I made a shocking discovery: kids who read well do well on standardized tests. Those kids who walk around all day with the Divergent books or The Fault in Our Stars or the Alex Rider spy adventures under their arms did very well on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge.

Wow, what a surprise, right? But the conclusion sat there large as life.

Tests favor good readers.

Of course, this makes perfect sense. Readers have the word knowledge and the background knowledge to meet whatever testing tasks educational overseers throw at them.

The greatest revelations often hide in the most obvious places. Sometimes they are hidden by a little smoke and a few mirrors.  In this case, the smoke and mirrors are called data driven instruction. Data tends to point us toward tasks that students performed poorly on. Then we teach toward tasks. Persuasive essays. Constructed responses.

We often work under the mistaken assumption that all we have to do is work a little harder on these tasks to see the results in higher test scores. Of course, that rarely works. You simply can not take a student reading one, two, even three years below grade level and get a grade level test result from the child.

It’s time to forget about building the better test taker, and it’s time to become intense and intentional about on building the better reader.

We need to assess the reader thoughtfully and thoroughly, gathering data on vocabulary, comprehension and writing. Data doesn’t just go way. We need good data, but we need to use it right. We need to find a starting point so we know in where we have to go. Once we have a baseline on every reader,  we can start lifting them up.

Wait, you are thinking, you mean the way to conquer the Common Core, the PARCC and a slew of misguided assessments is to ignore them altogether and just teach reading?

You’re damn skippy.

Of course, you will want some proof. Well, check out the books by Emily Kissner, The Forest and The Trees and Summarizing, Paraphrasing and Retelling. I don’t know Emily, but I know her fine books. In them, she makes the point that her kids score well on tests, although she does little “test prep.” What she does is raise the reading level of her students. I’ve heard noted educators like Jeff Anderson, Kelly Gallagher, Cris Tovani and Penny Kittle make the same point.

It’s about the reader, not the test.

If you want your students to demonstrate growth this year, then take a leap of faith. Forget the Core and Tests. Concentrate on the reader.

Be intense and intentional about making every student in your class a better reader.

Here’s one final warning:

It’s tempting to pick one aspect of reading and to fixate on it. That’s a common fallacy at the root of many reading programs which come with loads of bells and whistles for teaching everything about reading. Too often, these reading programs fail to deliver promised results because they isolate reading into parts.

A reader is more than the sum of the parts.

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Six Literacy Myths We Hear Too Often

Myth: Kids can read the words out loud and they can recall what they just read on a literal level. Therefore, they can read.

Reality: Poor readers are often good word callers. That’s how their reading issues slip by. Recall is not true comprehension. Students need to explain the meaning and importance to what they have just read and connect new ideas to previous information before we can call it comprehension.

Myth: The kids are smart enough, but they don’t put out the effort necessary to be successful in class and on tests.

Reality: The kids are smart enough, but they lack the systematic thinking routines, and they have large gaps in their schema. They often don’t know how to use background knowledge to build deeper understanding of what they read. They do not effectively use working memory to build comprehension. They often read through difficult words or confusing parts of the text rather than applying strategies to fix their comprehension.

Myth: Teaching test-taking strategies is more important than teaching comprehension strategies.

Reality: Kids make mistakes and poor choices on standardized tests because they lack word knowledge, word attack skills and background knowledge about the topics. They can’t deduce an answer without understanding what each answer choice means. 

Myth:  Students don’t learn anything from reading easy books.

Reality: When students read texts that they can read with 99 or 100 percent accuracy, they improve their stamina and fluency.

Myth: Teaching literary elements is the same as teaching comprehension.

Reality: Comprehension requires a complex interaction of thinking strategies and routines. Working on isolated literary elements won’t help students understand the text. In fact, this approach will frustrate many readers. 

Myth: Traditional skill are the what the kids need.

Reality: Traditional skills like cause and effect and sequence of events are actually post-reading tasks. They are a way of demonstrating comprehension and depend on the student actually understanding the text they have read. Telling students to find the main idea isn’t the same as teaching students how to find the main idea. Students need to learn how to think while they read before we work on using information after they read.

Myth: Teaching to the Common Core State Standards will make kids better readers.

Reality: The standards largely describe what students should be able to do with information they have read. They don’t address how we should teach students to understand they reading.