In the Classroom: Teaching Reading

In the past week I’ve read two completely oppositional articles on teaching.  The first was “Tyranny of the Test: One Year as a Kaplan Coach in the Public Schools” by Jeremy Miller.  It is a superb piece providing a disturbing, real, and moving view of the specifics of legislation that has made Kaplan such a player in the schools, the sad realities of testing, teaching, and more.  The second was “Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like.”  This is a very different sort of article, Mokoto Rich is a reporter for the New York Times, not a teacher, and so she comes to this topic quite differently — following a teacher as she begins this “new” method in her classroom — children choosing their own reading material.

The method is one of choice — individual reading rather than the whole-class-reads-one book method.  It isn’t, for all Rich suggests it is, new.  It was around when I started teaching in the early 70s and was around even earlier among those with a progressive mindset.  Choice is at the heart of Montessori, open classroom, whole language, constructivism, and many other pedagogies that have waxed and waned in popularity over the years.  I’m glad Rich featured Nancie Atwell, someone who inspired me twenty years ago with her seminal book, In the Middle.  She, along with others, gave me some  excellent tools that helped me to fine-tune a method I already had been using — now known as readers’ workshop.

A few years after that I spent a summer at Princeton studying classical children’s literature. I came back to my classroom determined to bring some of that magic into my teaching.  Since then other experiences have helped me to continually refine how I teach reading.  At the moment, in broad sweeps (leaving out the specific lessons that I do), here’s an overview:

  • Independent Reading.  My students are all expected to always have a book they’ve chosen to read.  The only homework I assign is to read for at least 30 minutes a night. I monitor the reading by having the children write the book title and the pages read.  I can easily determine how their reading is going by those pages.  If a child is only reading ten pages in 30 minutes night after night, for example, something is wrong and I will investigate.  I encourage them to drop books they don’t like and work hard to help them find ones they do.  Periodically I invite them to prepare readings from these books for the class for our weekly Literary Salons.   I have private conversations with them about their readings. They write about the books in response journals (and on blogs).  All the stuff mentioned in Rich’s article and many other places.
  • Reading Aloud. I always am reading aloud a book, ideally one the kids can’t get themselves yet. Last year I read The Graveyard Book and When You Reach Me before they were published, for example.  I’m still mulling over the first book for this year.
  • One Book for the Whole Class.  I do believe in occasionally reading a book together. I think that there can be a very special experience when a group comes together over a book.  And I have to say, I don’t get the vehemence some have against doing this. While I understand how it has been done badly, it can also be wonderful.  I mean, what about those communities that read books together?  Book groups?  Book clubs? Why can’t teachers orchestrate something similar in their classrooms?  Certainly, I hope I do.  We begin the year with Charlotte’s Web and end it with The Wizard of Oz. Both are wonderful experiences.
  • Group Books.  We do a study of historical fiction prior to the kids writing their own.  As part of the preparations I have the kids read books in small groups.
  • Research. Sometimes I think people are so invested in getting kids to love reading that they forget that there is all kinds of reading.  Sometimes it is to get information.  My students read widely when working on their historical fiction stories about Mayflower passengers. They read primary sources, secondary sources, all sorts of stuff.

Okay. I could go on, but I won’t.  Reading is so many different things to so many different people so it stands to reason there would be many different ways to teach it and many different ways to learn it.

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18 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction, In the Classroom, Reading, Reading Aloud, Teaching

18 responses to “In the Classroom: Teaching Reading

  1. Thank you so much for this–it’s so much of what I did when I was an English teacher and what I’m trying to help my new teachers learn now that I am a middle school librarian and new teacher mentor. :-)

  2. EXACTLY. I have been as disturbed by the second article as the first one. I grow weary of people who do not know the background writing about all this “new” stuff. Thanks, Monica, for saying it so succinctly.

  3. I probably have a little different take on the Times piece. I appreciated hearing more about reading workshops and their origins. Because I blog about kids’ books, I had heard of Lucy Calkins and Nancie Atwell, but would not have known about them otherwise. Perhaps that’s the case for some other parents, too. I always like hearing where educational practices and ideas come from.

    Your classroom always sounds wonderful, Monica!

  4. I went to elementary school in the ’70s and we had “reading time” for the last 25 minutes of the day, everyday, and we could read whatever book (or comic book) we wanted to. The younger classes usually had the teacher read to them but by about third grade we were on our own.

    I thought it was interesting to see this piece the same week that Reading Rainbow ran its last episode due to loss of funding.

  5. Susan, the piece was fine; it was the implication that it was something new that grated. Atwell was on the scene years before Calkins as far as reading goes (Calkins started out focusing on writing workshop) and there are others who came before Atwell. I was trained in this method before I had my first classroom! I even remember buying collections of trade books from big school publishers — it was big in the 70s.

  6. Maybe it was new for her school district. I interpreted the piece to be about Lorrie McNeill’s struggles to get this program implemented in her public school district in an inner-ring suburb of Atlanta. The issues raised about the students being labeled “gifted and talented” and thus placed in a class where they’re permitted to choose their reading are important, as I suspect the children in the lower tracks are reading in unison decontextualized passages from “scientifically-proven” textbooks and filling out worksheets. Perhaps Ms. Rich was wrong to tout Ms. McNeill’s approach as new, but NCLB has had a real impact–and for the most part a not very good one–on reading in schools with children labeled “at risk.”

  7. Lynn, indeed! The Kaplan article I referenced provides a very different view of things.

  8. My favorite 4th grade assignment was to pick a book we had read that hear and create a four page newspaper with headlines and articles. I remember writing a story about Almanzo and that cute Cap Garland bringing wheat back to the starving town.

    That teacher also read us The Phantom Tollbooth and On to Oregon, two of my favorite books. Also, The Black Stallion, which I would not have read on my own because I wasn’t really that into horse books but in fact liked it very much.

    Alas, that teacher was not very sympathetic when I went down to the library to resarch Narcissa Whitman (which surely she should have anticipated after reading us On to Oregon) and came back sobbing after reading how she was massacred!

  9. Re Jeremy Miller’s piece: In MultiCultural Review, we published several articles over the past few years on the impact of NCLB on urban schools and their teachers. And reading Miller’s piece reminded me of how much things have changed since I taught in two NYC high schools (including one 3,000+ student school in Brooklyn that was later shut down as a failed school). In those days, teachers had a great deal of autonomy, for better or worse–I hope that in my case it was for better. But as the examples of the teacher who worked all night on her “observation” lesson plan only to be preempted by the Kaplan program and the math teacher whose methods were directly contradicted show, NCLB presumes the incompetence and fungibility of classroom teachers.

  10. Monica, I am glad you wrote me so that I would realize in following up that I lost some tweets over the weekend; I was not using a laptop and depending solely on “tweets” to refer me to blog entries…and I missed this posting of yours. I should also include “up front” the issue of children/youth “choosing books on their own” is a core concept of RIF and has been from the day of its founding 43 years ago; it is a concept we believe is vital to our work. But then, our work is not the teaching of reading but helping children and youth to discover the love of reading, the joy of reading. So, at this point in my education career I am focused by mission on “choice.” However, I appreciate very much your overview of the five basic “broad sweeps” you have outlined in your posting as these are all pieces of the whole I used when teaching 6th graders. The bottom line for me is somewhat like your closing line, and above all, I always tried to do what I had been taught and that is to build upon the strengths of the individual student. Thank you for sharing your classroom with all of us regularly, you are an inspiration and make me nostalgic for the classroom where real work with students really happens.

  11. I believe I would enjoy being a student in that classroom.

  12. I’m going to be volunteering with a local group to read & discuss short stories with 6th graders, so this post is AWESOMELY helpful to me right now!

    I loved this best of all: “I encourage them to drop books they don’t like and work hard to help them find ones they do. Periodically I invite them to prepare readings from these books for the class for our weekly Literary Salons. I have private conversations with them about their readings. They write about the books in response journals (and on blogs).”

    It’s awesome you teach kids it’s okay to stop a book you’re not loving. :-) And I love the idea of having them prepare readings. Off to read your literary salons post now!

  13. Pingback: In The Classroom: Reading Aloud « educating alice

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  17. wow.. great job… this article is mentioned in the examiner…

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