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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