What teacher has worked on reading comprehension with students, not truly knowing that it was the right lesson or strategy, and in the end unable to tell if it was effective? This one. Comprehension instruction is a large part of my job as a fifth grade teacher, and I’ve had many students on grade level, and have seen many struggling students improve. How? Well, I worked hard, put lots of love in, read lots of books and websites, and made the best plans that I could. What worked? Can I say for sure?
Maybe that’s too harsh. I was an early adopter of the use of sticky noting strategies. In this way, we predicted, observed, connected, and inferred. Furthermore, I have used Reader’s Apprenticeship and text structures to help students with informational text. The list could go on and on, and I feel like all these years I have been learning strategies to teach, but not prescriptions on when to teach them. It’s similar to the vaccination approach, it’s good for everybody, so everybody gets it.
So instead of having a solid plan for teaching strategy, it was more like jazz cooking. Let’s throw a little pepper there, some predictions here, and saute it with cause and effect. My current approach is a 180 degree turn. Assess the students. Find patterns. Form need based groups (Samuels & Farstrup 2011). For instance, I may focus a small group on forming questions or literal comprehension. These goals stem from reading assessments or reading responses. For instance, the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) provides an individual Lexile number, and groups students by RTI tiers. Using this, all tier 3 students (Intervention students) will have a DRA test to determine instructional goals, along with a few in tier two that I need more information on. Tier 1 students can be assessed in reading letters, responses, conferences, and my version of layered curriculums (based on Kathie Nunley’s work). Now, I can make assessment based decisions. Knowing what the students need has been powerful, and students tend to become engaged when they experience teaching directly connected to their needs. The notion that, “students who scored below proficient on their state’s fourth-grade high-stakes comprehension assessment were struggling for very different reasons (Samuels & Farstrup 2011)” is obvious, but without ongoing assessment, a teacher works like a doctor who performs no tests, yet continues to treat the patient with what sounds relevant.
I have made two major changes in my reading workshop. First, I am asking students to think strategically. Instead of teaching one strategy at a time in sequence, which was helpful earlier in the year, I’m now working on asking students to choose a strategy that works for them and the type of text that they are using. In my small groups, I ask the same question, but I am there for support. After months of strategy instruction, when I asked my small group what strategy they were using for informational text, they said things like, “read the text slower” and “read words correctly more.” That surprised me, but now I knew that instead of thinking strategically, they were only previously using the strategies because I told them to do it and had not internalized the process. Now it begins, further discussion centered on, “What comprehension strategy is best?” and now getting answers like observe-wonder-link, gist, metacognitive log, and BIG FOX. Samuels and Farstrup (2011) relate that the most effective comprehension instruction occurs in small group and individual settings.
I used to teach my social studies whole group. I belabored topics, thinking that I was meeting all students needs. Social studies text is complex, but not all students need intense support. I based my small group targets first on comprehension assessments and social studies unit assessments, asking, “Which students were performing below expectations?” After some data analysis, I ended up pulling in students with low test scores, low comprehension, and some ‘high’ readers who should have no issues based on their test scores, but may be struggling to apply the strategies or simply attend to the text. All students in this intervention group improved unit test scores, some by 20% or more. During the current unit, I decided to keep meeting with them, and our next test is in a few days and I’m extremely excited to see them succeed again.
I still have some questions. Some things come and go in the classroom. An example, I start reading journals at the beginning of the year, and students are excited about it for weeks, but eventually that honeymoon period dies out and I start getting reduced quality in work and morale. Students need routine, but they also have a need for relevance, including the need to mix it up. Can I keep students interested in thinking strategically through the year and beyond by spicing it up with engaging text and new and relevant strategies? Will I find myself returning to the comfort of teaching a strategy at a time? Can I keep students engaged in my small groups after spring is in full bloom? The journey continues, and as I grapple with these questions I am investigating how staying connected, incorporating technology (thanks MACUL 2013!), and developing Problem Based Learning Units will help sustain this growth.
Samuels, S.J. & Farstrup, A.E., Eds. (2011). What research has to say about reading
instruction (4th edition). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.