When in-person schooling shut down almost exactly a year ago, parents everywhere began to worry about the same thing: what would we do if our children fell so far behind that the process of catching up would present a significant barrier to success? The truth is, we don’t have as much quantitative data about student literacy acquisition (or the lack thereof) over the past 12 months as we would like, but that does not mean we cannot begin the process of working with children to figure out what their reading experiences have looked like, and where to go from here. When it comes to making strides in literacy, simpler is usually better. The following strategies can be incorporated with relative ease into classes regardless of curriculum or content-specific constraints.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that people who have become experts in their fields give over 10,000 hours of practice or prep time to their pursuits. Naturally, this high number has excited some controversy, but the operative point is that slow, incremental progress toward a specific goal is particularly effective with literacy acquisition. A child who reads just 15 minutes a day will become better not just at reading but at other related skills, such as textual comprehension and decoding vocabulary. Giving students in any content area silent reading time not only provides some much-needed calm amid our current transitional storm in school; it also results in measurable gains over time. Perhaps daily reading is not possible in school if curriculum pacing is tight, but working individual reading time into the instructional period between once and twice a week can be a great place to start. Giving students the luxury of quiet reading might seem like a frivolous use of time (particularly with more content than usual to cover at this time of the year as we play pandemic catch-up), but giving students those 15 minutes to engage with texts usually winds up saving time in the end with reading intervention and remediation.
Growing up, I was an avid reader and remain one to this day. However, when I was in high school, I rarely read the entirety of any assigned texts, mainly because they held limited to no appeal. With apologies to the great John Steinbeck, I remember struggling through my summer reading homework, The Grapes of Wrath, while sitting in a canoe on the lake and deciding that life would be just fine if I never read another word. When we argue that students must read certain texts in school, what is the basis for our insistence? If our view is that all people must learn to grapple with denser or more challenging texts at some point in life, that may not really be true. Even if it is, our priority should be to examine how students engage with what they read before we start worrying about what exactly they happen to be reading. There is validity to nearly anything a child might wish to read, whether it is a book, a magazine, a graphic novel, or the back of a cereal box. Every examination of a text results in learning, and when students choose what they read, their level of engagement leads to higher achievement. If we let our classes self-select texts as much as possible, we will gradually see gains, not to mention an increased willingness to read that will endure in the years to come.
One of my personal shames as a teacher is that when I taught assigned reading earlier in my career, I also administered frequent reading quizzes to determine whether students were compliant in completing the work. I now realize that I was really quizzing behavior (i.e., doing the reading homework) over skills, and that I created an unnecessary and high-pressure situation to debrief the books we read rather than finding more enjoyable ways to help students interact with text. Instead of giving quizzes, handing out worksheets or doing similar reading checks, what if we asked students to share their knowledge in a more divergent, creative way? Students could be asked to focus on an object that has meaning in the book and write (or talk) about why they selected that particular object. They could pull out quotations that resonate with them, write them on the board (or a shared doc), and then walk around and comment on one another’s selections. There are so many ways to open up intellectually stimulating and lower-risk conversations about reading, not to mention just as many methods for teachers to determine how students are receiving the text. If we prioritize making the process fun rather than constantly looking for accountability, students will not view reading as punitive or cumbersome, and will be more willing to read increasingly challenging texts.
When we face a shortage of quantitative data on reading, we sometimes use our intuition to make guesses about how students might be doing. Over the past year, we have heard the term “learning loss” a little too much. Perhaps “learning disruption” is a better and more accurate term, one that speaks to any instructional interruptions being out of the control of our students. It is entirely possible that some children might be doing better than we think with their literacy skills, and that being out of school was even a benefit. Instead of settling in to do a lot of catch-up work, we might avoid deficit thinking by doing some shorter and more frequent reading assessments. If students returning to school buildings are given a baseline in their first week, we can consider testing them again in the next couple of weeks that follow. Otherwise, we might be putting too much faith in reading scores or Lexile levels that are influenced by the shock of being back in person rather than analyzing an accurate measure of performance. In terms of stamina, shorter assessments are likely better at this point for kids who are unaccustomed to a new classroom setting. Instead of giving tests with a long reading passages, shorter passages with fewer questions can provide just as much information about literacy skills. Plus, with a shorter assessment, we can assess students more often without a heavy grading load or long periods of time spent testing in class.
Determining how to mitigate possible learning disruption in literacy is not as straightforward as we might like, but that does not mean we cannot enjoy the journey to working on reading skills with students. With a little bit of time, some flexibility and an eye toward making reading fun, we can facilitate the growth of literacy skills on terms that will engage students and keep us from feeling overwhelmed. The process of post-pandemic recovery has begun, and we are just beginning the process with our students into taking stock of where we have been, where we are, and where we need to go.
Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World