These coded book collections (using letters, colors or numbers) are all the rage in many schools. The idea is for kids to find “just right” levels of books to read, based on an assessment from the teacher. For independent reading, we want kids to be able to read almost all the words without struggle. We usually push them one level higher during small group instruction when the teacher can support and assist. Some teachers do this in their individual classrooms and some schools have entire school libraries set up this way. If your reading program includes this approach, you may want to rethink it. There are question marks about this approach which may indicate it is actually holding our kids back. Perhaps we should instead focus on helping kids find books that are worth reading in their minds. Interest in a subject is a powerful thing. If you have ever seen kids fighting to read Harry Potter books, which could be way above their “just right” levels, you know what I mean. Maybe next year we might focus on helping our kids get excited about a book - any book - regardless of the level.
Explicit Phonics Instruction
The evidence has been clear for a long time on this topic. We need to include systematic, explicit phonics instruction in our K-2 classrooms. Older kids in need of remediation, special ed students and English language learners can benefit from phonics instruction during latter elementary school years and beyond. But here’s the problem. Many teachers only rely on the phonics built into a basal reader or simply have a “word study” or “working with words” center in their classrooms. If you have a basal series, you likely ignore much of the phonics instruction that is built into the lessons. AND, in many basal series, phonics instruction is spread out across all of the elementary years. Students don’t get the explicit instruction when they need it; during the critical time when they are just beginning to read. If you are using a “balanced literacy” approach you likely have a center in your room dedicated to phonics. But, you are not likely to provide systematic, explicit instruction in phonics. In all cases, you have probably not taught a critical phonics skill; syllabication. The omission of this skill in most phonics programs and approaches is startling. We have to teach kids how to break a newly encountered word into its parts because we can only decode one syllable at at time. This skill must be taught well if we want kids to get beyond a 2nd grade reading level.
If we want kids to become great readers, we need to expose them to content they cannot yet read. For young elementary students, this means we have to incorporate listening into our curriculum. Think about read aloud time in your classroom. Are you strategic in your selections? Do you use this time to increase exposure to topics in science and social studies? Do you read complex text to students - more complex than they can read themselves? As teachers and parents, we often think about reading aloud to our kids as a fun activity. And it should be. But we should also use this precious time to share information about the world that will spark their imaginations, engage them in meaningful conversations, and introduce them to words and texts they would not otherwise know.
Reading workshops can be a great part of literacy instruction. Kids love this time when they discuss literature with their peers. Teachers love this time when kids can work independently so they can focus on small groups. But...if this is the only time kids are grappling with comprehension issues, it can lead to a suppression of text complexity. In order for students to stretch in their understanding of more and more complex texts, they need support from someone who can help them make sense of it. The biggest growth in comprehension comes when kids are supported in reading texts that are MUCH more complex than they could read independently. We have to make sure we are sharing texts with our kids that are worth reading and support them to engage successfully with the texts. This is how they become better readers.
Reflect, Reflect, Reflect
Is it working? How do we know? There seems to be way too much data that may or may not lead to improvement. How can we easily understand if kids are making good progress? Too many assessments sometimes complicate our understanding and rob us of instructional time. All we need to know is how much our kids are reading and what they are choosing to read. If they are choosing more complex texts (assuming we don’t confine them to levels) and enjoying them, they are making good progress. That is really all we need to know. We may want to consider focusing on reading logs and reading conferences more than other assessments to get at the heart of reading. This will help us understand if kids are becoming more confident and joyful readers.