Teachers do not need standardized tests to understand what their students know and still need to learn. Watch this guided reading lesson with first graders to see how the teacher weaves assessment throughout the lesson. In order to move our students toward proficiency on rigorous reading standards, we must support teachers in becoming skilled assessors throughout each lesson.
For decades teachers has been trained to provide "just right" reading materials to their students. The conventional wisdom has been that students should operate within what has become known as the zone of proximal development or ZPD. A student should be assigned independent reading that has just a little bit of challenge so that learning occurs without frustration. As a result of this thinking, many school and classroom libraries have been organized around a leveling system. Students are aware of their reading levels and directed to read books that are at just the right level. I thought much of this was solid educational practice until my own son began to read.
Daniel was just finishing first grade when he discovered an illustrated version of Lord of the Rings on the book shelf in our home. He started asking about the book and my husband described the story to him. He said, "I am going to read this book." Keep in mind that Daniel was not even six years old at the time. He was just beginning to read very simple books by authors like Dr. Seuss. Although he was doing well, he was not exceeding first grade expectations. Books by an author like Tolkien would certainly not have been within his ZPD at the time. When he announced he would be reading this book, I just said, "OK," thinking that he would likely just look at the pictures, ask questions and allow us to read to the book to him. But that is not what happened. The summer between first and second grade was the summer that Daniel read Lord of the Rings. He asked for help of course...a lot in the beginning. As the summer progressed he asked for less and less assistance to read the words, but was increasingly interested in talking about the story. He wanted to understand character motivations and plot structure. He craved more information about the fictional world which the characters inhabited. Daniel's interest in the story propelled him far ahead of what he should have been able to read. He finished the book that summer and continued to be an exceptionally strong reader and writer. Daniel is all grown up now and writes for a living. He lives to tell stories and create exciting new worlds for readers and audiences. I shudder to think what may have happened if we had steered him away from the book that drove his obsession with story telling.
By now you may be thinking that my son is the exception. It is a rare child who will read Tolkien before turning six. While that is true, I have seen this sort of scenario play out over and over again. Do you remember when Harry Potter was first published? If you had been around any elementary school kids at the time you would know that reading this book became sort of a right of passage. I personally witnessed many struggling readers begin to find reading independence through the Harry Potter series. It was suddenly very cool to be a reader and kids just craved these stories. Even if they weren't great readers yet, they would struggle and work and struggle some more so they could read Harry Potter. Children who had never before read a whole chapter book, were suddenly devouring a 312 page novel.
Unfortunately, I also witnessed many kids completely shut down in the wake of the Harry Potter wave. The first book in the series was published just as many school libraries were being "leveled." Some teachers and librarians, in their quest to get kids reading "just right" books, denied kids access to Harry; instead directing them to books that were shorter and easier to read. Children were told they weren't good enough at reading yet to read Harry Potter. The adults missed a golden opportunity to create lifelong, enthusiastic readers, that would likely never happen again.
There is research to help us understand the role that interest plays in reading. This article by Denise Johnson and Anne Blair provides a good overview about the role of self-determination and reading success. What we know is that students who are allowed to read what is interesting to them will read more and will naturally choose things with varying levels of difficulty. If we want to help children become lifelong readers, we must help them find joy in reading. Books that are truly "just right" are the ones the kids really want to read.
The image above is the "hole in the wall" that was created by Dr. Sugata Mitra in India. Dr. Mitra simply placed a computer in the outside wall of his office, and allowed anyone to use it. This was significant because his office is located in a slum in India with some of the worst living conditions in the world. He deliberately placed the computer at the eye level of children so they could access it. What happened there, and later in several other locations in India, exceeded his expectations. Kids were able to figure out how to use the computer in just a few hours, even though they had never seen one before, and lived in a place with no modern conveniences. Soon the children were teaching each other, even helping one another learn to read. After seeing this happen again and again, Mitra created new learning centers called SOLEs, meaning self organized learning environments. Each SOLE is a desk with a computer that is large enough for 3-4 children to work together. Children are asked a big, complex question and then left on their own to find the answers. As the children worked, Mitra realized they needed just a little encouragement, so he created "Granny in the Cloud." Volunteers talk to the children via Skype, on a large monitor on the wall. These "Grannies" just tell the children they can do it and prompt them to keep working on the problem. Mitra described these experiments in 2010 in a TED Talk:
Encouraged by these results, Mitra has now created a "School in a Cloud" to bring his idea of minimally invasive education to more children. He has also created a SOLE Toolkit for parents and educators who want to create similar programs in their homes or schools.
Dr. Mitra recognized that the Internet has changed everything. Teachers are no longer the purveyors of knowledge. Children can learn whatever they want, whenever they want, if they have access to the web. If you doubt a child's ability to learn and engage digitally, just watch a one-year-old with an iPad or smart phone. At about 15-18 months, toddlers are able to open apps and engage in games and content. If our digital natives are to benefit from schools, it is time we redesign learning environments and learning activities. Schools must require children to become responsible for their own learning and provide the tools necessary for them to do so. A minimally invasive and personalized approach is needed to move education into the information age.
There has been much written about differentiation in the classroom. When teachers think about differentiation, they generally think about providing three levels of instruction: on level, below level and above level. We are trained to gear the bulk of instruction to the middle. These are the "typical" kids who fall within the expected level of functioning for their grade. We then adapt the instruction to meet the needs of kids who may be below level, and extend the learning for more advanced students. If we do this well we will have decent results in terms of achievement. However, we will not engage all learners effectively. What is really needed in schools is a personalized approach to learning. The goal of personalization is to not waste the learner's time. We want every student to be fully engaged in learning all the time.
This idea is incredibly important when it comes to reading. Students who grow into lifelong learners with a love of reading need to be allowed the time and space to read as much as possible when they are young. It is very unusual to find a preschool or kindergarten child who doesn't love books. They love it when we read to them, engage them in choral responses to books, and talk about stories. They are just naturally drawn to it. However, if they fail to master the basic decoding skills in first or second grade, reading becomes laborious and tedious. They start hating it and usually don't catch up if they don't master the basic skills by grade 3. Advanced students have the opposite problem. If they are forced to work on basic skills for too long, they become bored and will disengage from all reading activities.
Every classroom in the early years should include explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics (decoding skills). Although many people will tell you that the English language is challenging, it is still quite simple. There are a finite number of letters and sounds. There are very predictable patterns, with a few teachable exceptions. Once a child has mastered these, she should not be forced to continue instruction in decoding. Unfortunately, many classrooms either fail to explicitly teach basic decoding skills, teach them in a non-systematic way, or continue teaching them as part of a "basal" series long after they have been mastered. What is needed is a completely individualized system that will provide explicit instruction over a period of time. This instruction will have an end point. A good example of such a system is Reading Horizons. Once this instruction is completed, the child will be free to engage in a host of other literacy experiences that are critical to future learning and to develop a love of reading.
Instructional time is truly a precious commodity. We get 180 days of school each year. There are usually about 10-15 days when instruction is interrupted by testing, assemblies, bad weather, or other unusual events. Instructional time for literacy is generally 90 minutes (1.5 hours) per day. That means that we can only count on about 247.5 hours per year. If you were to calculate that according to a standard 40 hour work week, it would only equate to a little over 6 weeks. Think about your work like. How much can be accomplished in 6 weeks? In order to ensure success, we must manage instructional time in such a way that it is never wasted for any child.
Janine Walker Caffrey writes about reading, education and a few other topics related to happiness and life in general.