The key to reading comprehension: TALK!

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In discussions about children learning to read, we hear a lot about the importance of reading aloud to children. What we don’t hear? How important it is to talk with children about what they read. Did you know that every single deeply researched approach to reading comprehension instruction is rooted in having discussions about text?

TALK ELICITS STUDENT THINKING

While it would be very cool to be able to jump inside a child's head to determine what they are thinking, we can’t! Talking with children about what they read – and eliciting their thinking – is the only way we can know what they are thinking. Without talk, we can’t know what they are thinking and, perhaps more importantly, we can’t help mediate their misunderstandings or find out places where their world knowledge is interfering with their understanding. Don't have time for talk? If we say we don't have time to talk with children about the texts they are reading, then we are saying we don't have time to teach reading comprehension.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

The research on talk in classrooms is really clear. More talk = more learning. But all too often classrooms are pretty quiet places and reading comprehension is documented through worksheets. If we want to shift reading comprehension outcomes, we have to shift the talk norms in classrooms. We can do this by providing students with frequent opportunities to think and reason, and to do that thinking and reasoning in conversation with others. You’ll be amazed at what unfolds!

Want to learn more about the importance of talk?

Check out the Accountable Talk framework

Learn more about teaching talk norms and routines in classrooms

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Are you pronouncing phonemes accurately?

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Teaching children the correct letter sounds is an important part of teaching beginning readers. When you are modeling the individual sounds that letters make, you must pronounce them in a way that makes them “blendable.” Be careful not to add a vowel sound such as a schwa (an uh sound) or a short u sound after each individual sound. For example, when sounding out the word bat, you want to say /b/ /a/ /t/ not buh – a – tuh.

Asking students to blend sounds is hard work! It becomes a lot harder for students if they are hearing the sounds pronounced incorrectly.  This video pronunciation guide may be helpful to you. Hang in there -- the consonants start about half way through the brief video. And here’s a handy chart for your reference! DOWNLOAD

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Ten reasons why reading comprehension scores haven’t budged in decades

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Despite many attempts to improve reading instruction in the United States, student achievement outcomes remain much less than ideal. In fact, there is no correlation between increases in federal spending and increased performance in reading for either elementary or secondary students. Switzerland aside, the United States spends more per student when compared to every other country in the OECD yet scores just 17th on the overall reading scale. Throwing money at the problem hasn’t helped. So what explains why reading comprehension scores haven’t budged in decades?

1. Teachers feel unprepared to teach reading comprehension.  Most teachers are committed to teaching reading comprehension but have very little idea regarding what they are supposed to do to support the development of proficient reading comprehension skill. In early elementary literacy, there is some hard-fought consensus regarding the type of instruction that supports students in learning to read. We need a similar consensus in the upper elementary grades. A start: text-based discussions, daily interactive read alouds with discussion, mini-lessons that are explicit and include modeling and an opportunity for guided practice, small group reading instruction with explicit teaching of phonics and word solving, and a 5-day cycle of vocabulary instruction built off of the robust vocabulary instruction model introduced by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan.

2. We ignore content. Content matters! The romantic idea that we can teach children a number of isolated strategies and then they will be able read the world is simply false. We must make content matter. Bonus: Students like learning about the world. Have you ever seen a class get super excited about a topic? Caves! The Solar System! How rocks are formed! Erosion! The possibilities are really endless.

3. We have made reading boring and irrelevant. By ignoring content, we have made reading really boring for many children. Reading a random text passage that may or may not be of interest (or relevant to the curriculum) and then filling out a worksheet about main idea and supporting details isn’t going to help students like reading and develop as skillful comprehenders. No one reads a book because they want to learn about personification.

4. There is no choice. Students rarely have opportunities to read texts about topics, people, and ideas that interest them. As such, they have very few opportunities to develop identities as readers – with likes, dislikes, favorite authors and series where they are eager to read the next book.

5. Students have very few opportunities to read connected text that is appropriate for their reading level. In a recent study I conducted, out of 36 hours of instruction, very little instructional time was spent with students actually reading texts independently! Students spent a lot of time talking about texts in the abstract (what do you think this text might be about?), being read to by the teacher, talking about the process of reading (what do good readers do? Good readers make predictions), and completing activities that assessed whether or not they comprehended. But students were not actually reading. If we want students to get better at reading, they need the opportunity to read connected text that is appropriate for them (e.g., not too hard, not too easy). We wouldn’t expect someone to be a skillful swimmer if we never let them get in the pool!

6.  We do not explicitly teach students about how texts work. What is a flashback? How does dialogue work? How do pronouns work in texts? Our classrooms are well-equipped to serve children who can already comprehend texts well, while providing very few learning opportunities for students who need to learn to comprehend skillfully.

7. We have defined reading comprehension incorrectly. Overall we are thinking about reading comprehension as a construct that involves a number of aspects of authors craft such as character traits, identifying the setting, and understanding personification personification. Or, we treat reading comprehension as a set of strategies (summarizing, questioning, etc.) rather than the ongoing process of making meaning while actively reading texts.  If we continue to define comprehension in an isolated way, we will always have a comprehension plateau. The RAND Reading Study Group defined reading comprehension as the process of simultaneously extracting (decoding) and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language. Constructing meaning is best accomplished through discussion.

8. Basal reading programs are the only intervention we have at scale. Commercially produced basal reading programs tend to carve up the reading process into an amazing number of tiny parts and there is no attention to content. One day students might read a text about Danica Patrick, the next a story about John Glenn, and the third a fictional story about two friends who decided to go grocery shopping for their elderly neighbor. The purpose of the basal lessons is often skill focused, for example, learning to summarize, but it doesn’t matter if students learn anything about the world in the process.

9. Reading research is not communicated in ways that are accessible to teachers, policy makers, and other stakeholders. There is an amazing amount of research in the area of reading comprehension, and yet the materials produced from most research efforts is not written for those who have the potential to change the landscape of reading comprehension instruction.

10. There is the idea that teaching science, social studies, geography, and history is not teaching reading. If we help students negotiate scientific and historical texts, they might learn something about science and history…and their reading comprehension will improve, too!

These are ten ideas, but there surely are more (we are too worried about standardized testing, for example). What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you!

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What Concepts of Print Do Children Need to Know?

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In order to be proficient readers, children need to know a number of things about how print works in the English language. These include the idea that:

Print has meaning
Print can be used for different purposes
Text in English is read from left to right and top to bottom
When you get to the end of a line you return sweep back to the beginning of the next line
There is a difference between letters and words
There is a difference between words and sentences
Where you start reading a book
Words are separated by spaces
Punctuation marks signal the end of a sentence
Books have front and back covers, title page, and a spine

Once a child has developed an understanding of these concepts, you do not need to keep teaching them - they are fairly straightforward concepts that are continually reinforced as children continue to develop as readers and writers.

Download this comprehensive Concepts of Print Assessment, originally designed as part of the Michigan Literacy Progress Profile.

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Can we teach all students to read well by third grade?

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Do you live in a state that has a third grade reading policy? A policy that mandates that all kids need to read well by the end of third grade, the year when reading abilities can predict the likeliness of high school graduation?

Reaching this goal – truly ensuring that all students can read at grade level by third grade – is a huge challenge. If we are committed to ensuring that all children read well when they exit third grade, we must ensure that every child has a teacher at every single grade level PreK through third grade who is well-versed in the specialized knowledge and skill required to teach early elementary reading.

The Importance of High Quality Literacy Teaching in the Early Elementary Grades

We know that having amazing teachers in the early elementary grades results in increased academic achievement, reduced grade retention, increased graduation rates, and an increase in overall earning power as an adult. Ensuring children can read well changes life trajectories. Strengthening learning in early years is much easier and cheaper than more costly solutions later in life and provides the greatest return on investment.

However, literacy achievement outcomes in the United States remain much less than ideal. Why, despite considerable investment, has there been no significant movement in early literacy achievement? This is especially bewildering in an area where, as many scholars have noted, there is some hard-won consensus with regard to the types of learning experiences young children need in order to become proficient readers and writers. Researchers and practitioners mostly agree on what high-quality early literacy instruction looks like!

Teaching young children to read is a really important part of the work of an elementary teacher. However, teacher certification programs often provide minimal training that specifically targets early elementary literacy teaching. In some states, teaching candidates take just one course focused on beginning reading instruction. There’s just no way you can learn all of the specialized knowledge to teach reading in such a short period of time. Imagine a candidate pursuing K-8 certification in the state of Arizona. After completing two required courses on teaching reading (along with a range of other program requirements) the candidate student teaches in fifth grade and is then certified to teach K-8. After graduation, the candidate is hired to teach first grade but has no formal teaching experience at those grades and minimal preparation through university coursework. If teaching early elementary literacy requires specialized knowledge and skill, we currently cannot guarantee that all certified teachers have been trained to do this specialized work.

Teaching Early Reading is Difficult but Doable Work

Teaching young children to read is challenging work that requires specialized knowledge and skill beyond simply knowing how to read. Early elementary teachers must be steeped in knowledge of language development, phonics, and understanding how beginning readers move from early decoding to more skillful reading. Yet there is an ongoing perception that early elementary grades are the easiest grades to teach. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Changing third grade reading outcomes will require having a highly trained early reading teacher in every elementary classroom.If states want to meet the challenge of having all kids read well by the end of third grade, they must invest in building teacher capacity in the early elementary grades with learning opportunities that are focused specifically on doing this important, specialized work.

Please Stop Doing Round Robin Reading During Guided Reading

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Many teachers use round robin reading, especially during guided reading. I’m here to tell you, it needs to stop. I know! I know! Your students really like it! It helps you move through difficult material efficiently! But round robin reading is not helping your students develop their reading skills. If you want your students ot be stronger readers, you must have them reading the text independently — and during guided reading, this is a non-negotiable. Asking students to do round robin reading during guided reading is like asking students learn to swim by watching others swim. Sure, you can learn a few things, but you learn to swim by swimming!

When you have students do round robin reading, you are making each student responsible for only a small part of the text. Maybe they are reading a single page (which might be just one sentence!) or maybe a short paragraph. Regardless, this means that your students aren’t provided with sufficient opportunities to improve their fluency or gain automaticity in recognizing words. Guided reading should give students many opportunities to read and puzzle about words – and doing round robin reading (or one of its variations, such as popcorn reading) robs them of this opportunity.

Round robin reading also works against building students’ reading stamina and comprehension skills. The constant interruption of round robin reading is doing your students no favors.

What should you do instead?

If you find yourself relying on round robin reading during guided reading, asking this set of questions to yourself might be helpful:

1.     Is the text that you picked too hard?

2.     Have you done a text launch (before reading) that sets students up for success?  I’m not talking about having them predict what the text is about or taking a picture walk — but really digging into the words?

3.     Have you given them word solving strategies so that they can puzzle about words they don’t know?

4.     Would doing a sight word warm up at the beginning of the guided lesson help students read the targeted guided reading text more proficiently?

Are You Using Read Alouds to Build Reading Comprehension?

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If you want to improve reading comprehension in your classroom, you should be reading aloud Every. Single. Day.

Interactive read alouds are your most powerful tool to support PreK-5 students in developing their reading comprehension skills.  There are so many benefits! When you read aloud and ask students really amazing questions, you provide your students with a chance to:  

•       Engage in conversation about great texts – it is this dialogue that builds comprehension

•       Hear a strong model of fluent, expert reading and thinking

•       Access grade level content regardless of their decoding abilities

How are teachers currently using read alouds?

Teachers often believe that the purpose of a read aloud is to use them to introduce isolated skills. I’ve walked into classrooms where the beginning of the read aloud sounds something like “We are reading this book today to learn about personification.” Focusing on isolated skills in this way not only overcomplicates read alouds, but it also communicates to students that the end goal of reading is to acquire a range of strategies. Then, as assessment data rolls in, we wonder why our students aren’t demonstrating strong comprehension skills!

Let’s back up.

Many teachers are taught that literacy needs to be broken down into dozens of isolated skills and strategies and that by teaching students these isolated skills one after another they will then become skillful at comprehending complex texts. But by focusing on these isolated skills, we lose site of the fact that we want students to construct meaning from texts. We want them to comprehend. Doing this requires students to build a clear picture in their head of what is going on in the story. They need to view reading is an active, strategic process.

As teachers we need to start with the idea that the goal of reading is for students to read a text and understand it. This is what we should be teaching and modeling as we read books aloud to students.  

How does this relate to interactive read alouds?

 

Effective read alouds focus deeply on what is happening in the text and require teachers to ask questions that provide students with the opportunity to think about what is happening in the text. A teacher might ask: Let’s think about the actions of Peter so far in the story. How do you think he is going to solve the problem?

 

Asking these strong text dependent questions requires careful advance planning. Without this careful advance planning teachers resort to questions such as “What is your favorite part?” or “Marie went on a cake walk in this story. Have you been on a cakewalk? That’s not to say that these types of questions can’t be used – but they don’t require any thinking and reasoning about the text for children to answer them and so they are not strong questions to support students’ in developing their comprehension skills.

 

The bottom line: if you want to shift your reading comprehension outcomes, find some good books and start reading them aloud each day in your elementary classroom.

 

Defining Reading Comprehension

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We have made reading comprehension SO complicated!

The RAND reading study group defines reading comprehension as the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction.  But what does THAT mean? Extracting is decoding. Constructing is comprehending. You have to be able to read the words. Then you have to be able to understand those words.

Over the past three decades we’ve made reading comprehension synonymous with using reading strategies. This viewpoint has overcomplicated reading comprehension. It is more helpful to think of reading comprehension as an active, interactive, strategic process that occurs before, during, and after reading a piece of text.  Let’s take a look at what this means.

BEFORE reading a reader sets expectations for the text using what they know about the text and the world. A reader might think: 

  • I see that this is a familiar author. I know the characters in this story!

  • Oh, this text is historical fiction. I know there’s either going to be a fictional character in a real historical place or a real character in a fictional setting.

  • This book is about whales. I know a lot about whales. Let’s see if I learn anything new.

  • I’ve never read anything about this subject. I’m going to have to read slowly.

This is not about looking at the front cover and predicting what the text is going to be about. Teachers often do this in the service of activating background knowledge. If you are going to activate background knowledge, it should happen in a targeted way. For example, if you are reading a book about how fish catch their prey with your students, you wouldn’t ask “Who has been to the beach?” Instead you would want to ask a more targeted question such as, “Has anyone even been stung by a jellyfish?”

DURING reading the readers job is to be in active conversation with the text – the reader should be constantly asking AM I COMPREHENDING? It is during reading that the reader is making a really clear picture in their head about what is going on in the text. Maybe that includes following a storyline, constructing a timeline of key events, or understanding a process. The job of the reader is to make sure that mental picture is clear and complete. And if it’s not, the job of the reader is to care that it isn’t complete, and to work to make it complete. In classrooms, we help children build this skill through talking about what they read. During read alouds we pause and ask questions as a way to model for students the active process of reading a text.

AFTER reading the reader monitors understanding. Have I understood what was read? Do I need to reread? Are there still parts I don’t understand that I need to clarify by talking to someone else or reading something else? This is when the reader makes sure that their mental picture is complete.

We can help children build their comprehension skills by supporting them as they engage actively, intentionally, and strategically with texts.

Creating a Print Rich Environment

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Many parents wonder how they can organize books in their home to help develop their child’s literacy skills. In the classroom, this is called “creating a print rich environment”. You can create a print rich environment right in your home, too! Below are six ideas to get you started:

  • Have multiple places where your child can access books (bedroom, playroom, living room)

  • Have children’s books on low bookshelves

  • Have small baskets of books where you don’t want a bookshelf

  • Post a calendar and make lists so that literacy is seen as an everyday practice

  • Talk about written items that you use and see (menus at restaurants, recipes, signs you see on stores or while driving)

  • Imagine ways in which you can add print materials to your children’s play spaces. Does the play restaurant need a writing tablet? Are their building directions for a construction toy that children could read?

Creating a print rich environment at home has many benefits!  Making books and other literacy materials readily available reinforces the idea that print has many purposes, provides your child with easy access to print materials, and helps your child recognize the role of print in their everyday life!

Why should we care about awesome literacy instruction?

I’ve been in the field of literacy for over sixteen years — first as a teacher then as a teacher educator and researcher and now as a consultant focused on supporting teachers and school leaders to enact high quality literacy instruction in their schools. Literacy is a civil right — and high quality instruction in schools is one pathway towards ensuring that students are supported in being skillful readers and writers.

OpenLiteracy’s mission is to make knowledge about best practices in reading and writing instruction accessible to everyone. The work of teaching reading and writing well – and ensuring that all children have access to amazing instruction -- is totally doable. And yet…..

In the United States, forty-two percent of school-aged children struggle to advance beyond basic levels of reading comprehension. The statistics are even more alarming in the area of writing. While most students learn to decode text and identify main ideas, many never advance beyond basic levels of comprehension and fail to use writing effectively in even basic communication. Students of color and children living in poverty are disproportionately represented within the lowest levels of reading and writing ability, as demonstrated by the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

There is an abundance of knowledge about best practices in reading and writing. Let’s work to make that knowledge accessible to all.

What is Phonological Awareness?

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Phonological awareness means knowing that language is an object, something that may be analyzed and manipulated by them in different ways: to rhyme, to play word games, and to talk about. Phonological awareness is an umbrella term, meaning that is a broad term that encompasses a lot of sub skills (including phonemic awareness!). 

 

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Phonological awareness involves the detection and manipulation of sounds at four levels of sound structure:

word: the ability to hear individual words
syllables: the ability to chunk words into parts at the syllable level
onsets and rimes: the ability to segment words at a unit smaller than syllables
phonemes (phonemic awareness): the ability to segment individual sounds in words

How does phonological awareness develop?

While phonological awareness skills don't always develop in a linear pathway, some phonological awareness skills are considered simpler than others. 

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Why is phonological awareness important?

  • Phonological awareness is directly related to reading ability

  • Although the relationship is reciprocal, phonological awareness precedes skilled decoding

  • Phonological awareness reliably predicts later reading ability

  • Deficits in phonological awareness are usually associated with deficits in reading

  • Early intervention can promote the development of phonological awareness

  • Improving a child's phonological awareness can and usually does result in improvements in reading ability

5 Ways to Model Writing

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There is increased attention to writing instruction and the importance of writing skills to later life success. Below are five ways you can model writing as a communication tool.

1. Have a family message board

Use the message board as a way to model writing as a form of communication. You can

a.    Encourage your child to watch adults leave messages for one another.

b.    Read those messages aloud in your child's presence.

c.     Write messages to your child on the board. For example, on the day that you are going to visit a grandma or grandpa, you could write "Today we are going to Gigi's house!" and show your child the message over breakfast.

2. Make lists

If you and your child are spending the day together, make a list that outlines your plan for your day. If you are doing the writing, let your child watch you write the plan. You will want them to see that you begin at the top of a piece of paper, write from left to right and then return to the left for the next line. Say the words slowly as you write them.

Making grocery lists is another way to model writing. If you make a grocery list and take your child grocery shopping with you, draw a little picture next to some known items. Give your child a pencil and the list and allow him/her to cross off the item once it is in your cart.

3. Make a calendar

Give your child his or her own calendar and use it as part of your bedtime routine. Record special events on the calendar. At the end of each day, talk about what your child did. Let him or her dictate what he or she wishes you to record for the day. At the end of each month you have a written record of your month!

4. Write notes

Writing notes, such as thank you notes and letters/postcards to friends, cousins, grandparents, teachers, etc., is an important way to communicate the importance of writing as a communication tool. If your child is not yet writing,  have your child sit next to you at a table and dictate thank you notes for holiday and birthday gifts.

5. Make a small book about a recent experience

Stack two or three pieces of paper, fold them in half, and staple the edge. Then create your own book using an experience the child has had. For example, after a birthday party, you may wish to write about and illustrate the guests. "I went to Mila’s birthday party." could be on page one with a drawing of Mila; "George was at the party." could be on page two with an illustration, and so on. “We played with water.” could be on page three. Depending on your child’s age, you can help with the illustrations or the child can add the illustrations. You can also make simple pattern books (I like to jump. I like to swim. I like to run.)

 

Suggestions modified from Ready for Reading: A Handbook for Parents of Preschoolers, by A. Bishop, R.H. Yopp, H.K. Yopp, 2000 edition, p. 37-39.

Easy Ways to Build Literacy Skills: Quick Word Games!

One of the most important things you can do is talk with your child. Talk supports your child’s literacy development by building their vocabulary, their knowledge of how language works, and their awareness of language sounds.

During the course of your day, there are often moments when you need to fill the time — during a car or bus ride, while you are waiting for the doctor, or while you are walking to school. Below are a few quick literacy games that will spur conversation with your child and develop crucial literacy skills along the way!

  • Find a . . . . . Can you find a…(horse, cow, stop sign, skyscraper, ambulance, truck, etc.)

  • How many . . . .How many traffic lights will we see on our drive?

  • Color challenge . . . . Can you find three (purple) things?

  • Alphabet hunt. . . . Can you find the letter (S)

  • Letter sound game . . . . Can you think of a word that starts with the sound /b/ (as in b)

  • Rhyme Time . . . . How many words can we think of that rhyme with (cat)

These games are quick and fun and can support the development of important beginning reading skills.

 

Teaching Content is Teaching Reading

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For the past fifteen years I have taught courses and professional development workshops on the topic of reading comprehension instruction. It is always difficult to know where to get started with any training that aims to disrupt teachers’ current thinking about reading comprehension instruction. A group I worked with recently was terrific – engaged with the big ideas right from the start and eager to engage in thoughtful discussion.

When I asked participants to define what it means to teach children to comprehend text, they responded, as participants always do, with a long list of strategies such as summarizing and visualizing, and isolated skills, such as identifying the main idea and supporting details. When I press them to articulate why they teach their students these strategies and skills, really interesting conversation begins. In the United States, the teaching of these isolated skills and strategies has become the end goal of reading comprehension, rather than a set of tools that supports students in actively constructing meaning from text. This needs to change.

A second interesting trend I always find is that no one mentions that comprehension should involve negotiating meaningful texts and content. This is not surprising, but is a perhaps the biggest problem of reading instruction in this country. We are spending an amazing amount of time in language arts instruction, and yet a) students reading comprehension scores are at a plateau and b) students score increasingly poorly on tests that require world knowledge. Why? Perhaps because we spend the first four years of school acting like students don’t need to develop any world knowledge.

In a study I conducted I observed a one-hour reading comprehension lesson in which fourth-grade students were reading a text about Saturn; the primary focus of the lesson was having students identify the main ideas and supporting details of the text. I asked the teacher if she cared if students learned anything about Saturn and she replied: “No. You know I think it’s interesting to them…but it’s not anything that’s in our science curriculum or not even coming up next year in fifth grade or any time soon, so no, it’s just one of those things where I thought the way the article was laid out would do a good job of working on this idea of main idea, supporting details and text structure”

In his 2006 text The Knowledge Deficit, Hirsch shares a similar example of a class of 9-year olds reading a text about a grasshopper storm in which students are learning to “clarify.” The point of the lesson was not to learn anything about grasshoppers, weather, or ecology but instead was focused on the practice of reading strategies. Hirsch argues, “The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose maneuvers that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students’ achievement in reading” (p. 14).

The romantic idea that we can teach students strategies to negotiate texts and then they will be able to read the world is simply false. Content matters, and must be taken seriously as we help students negotiate complex texts.

This video really got participants thinking: Teaching Content is Teaching Reading

What Is Phonemic Awareness?

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There is overwhelming evidence that kids need really strong phonemic awareness skills as a foundation for beginning reading and writing. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds – phonemes – in spoken words. This is a critical stage in a child’s literacy development.

Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?
Phonemic awareness is essential for learning to read. If you don’t have strong phonemic awareness skills you cannot decode words. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that a child’s phonemic awareness ability is a strong predictor of success in learning to read and spell. Children who are unable to identify and manipulate the sounds within spoken words typically have difficulty mapping sounds to print and therefore struggle with reading and spelling. The good news is that phonemic awareness can be explicitly taught. Directly teaching children how to hear, recognize, and manipulate the individual sounds in words typically has a positive effect on a child’s reading and spelling skills. 

It is important for you to know that there is a developmental trajectory to phonemic awareness, which means that there are easy phonemic awareness tasks, and ones that are more difficult. Children will be able to complete the easier tasks before being successful with more advanced phonemic awareness activities. For example, identifying a word that matches a target phoneme (e.g., which word starts with /f/: fish or dish?) is much easier than asking a child to substitute the phonemes in a word (if you change the /f/ in fish to a /d/ sound, what word do you have?)

What Is A Phoneme?

A “phoneme” is the smallest unit of speech sound. For example, the word pan has three letters and three phonemes (p/a/n). The word sheep has five letters but just three sounds, or phonemes (sh/ee/p).  Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds – phonemes – in spoken words. This is a critical stage in a child’s literacy development.  A child has phonemic awareness when the child can demonstrate an awareness of individual phonemes and can manipulate them in different ways. We see evidence of this important milestone when children can rhyme one word with another (pan - fan), list words that begin with the same sound (bus, boy, bye) or end with the same sound (ship, jeep, and shop), break words into individual phonemes, and blend phonemes together to make a familiar word.  Listen to the phonemes  here !

A “phoneme” is the smallest unit of speech sound. For example, the word pan has three letters and three phonemes (p/a/n). The word sheep has five letters but just three sounds, or phonemes (sh/ee/p).

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds – phonemes – in spoken words. This is a critical stage in a child’s literacy development.

A child has phonemic awareness when the child can demonstrate an awareness of individual phonemes and can manipulate them in different ways. We see evidence of this important milestone when children can rhyme one word with another (pan - fan), list words that begin with the same sound (bus, boy, bye) or end with the same sound (ship, jeep, and shop), break words into individual phonemes, and blend phonemes together to make a familiar word.

Listen to the phonemes here!

Reading Comprehension is an Active Process!

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Students with strong reading comprehension skills typically view the process of understanding texts as an active process. That is, when reading a text of any kind, a strong comprehender is constantly working to construct their understanding of text by actively asking questions, making inferences, and connecting information. This matches how reading comprehension is defined by literacy scholars, who define reading comprehension as an active process in which the reader simultaneously extracts and constructs meaning from the text using cognitive processes such as inference, attention, and reasoning.

By contrast, struggling comprehenders might interact with text in a somewhat passive way – simply reading through the words on the page without any expectation that they should understand and make meaning from those words in some coherent way. Sound like some readers you know?

As teachers, parents, or tutors, we can support students in developing the viewpoint that comprehending text is an active process and one that they are in control of. One way to do this is by having readers annotate the texts they are reading.  Importantly, we must keep text annotation simple – making it too complex can distract students from actually making meaning! I’ve suggested four simple markings readers can use to annotate texts as they read. This is one way to develop students’ reading comprehension muscles. 

Teaching Reading Comprehension

We are currently failing a majority of students in American classrooms when it comes to reading comprehension. When teachers are asked to explain what they are supposed to do in the service of reading comprehension instruction, the answers are quite varied — ranging from strategy instruction to think alouds to discussion based approaches. If we want reading comprehension instruction to improve, we should probably be clear about what reading comprehension instruction is.

In 2002 The RAND Reading Study Group defined reading comprehension as “the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language”.

The idea that reading is an interactive process was not introduced by the RAND group — in fact, literacy experts have been operating with this idea for decades. But what does this definition have to do with reading comprehension instruction? In other words, if reading comprehension is about extracting and constructing meaning, what does this mean for teachers?

Reading comprehension instruction should be instruction that supports readers in extracting and constructing meaning. Since the early eighties, a vast majority of this attention has been focused on the design of instruction that helps students become proficient in strategies such as predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing. The idea is that if you learn these strategies, you can read the world!

While strategy instruction has played an important role in focusing attention on the idea that we need to teach students to comprehend, too much strategy instruction is far removed from its original purpose — strategy instruction has become the goal — rather than thinking about strategies as a tool to support the end goal of comprehending the texts we read. If a student can ask a bunch of questions about a text but still has no idea what is going on in the text, the student has not comprehended what he or she has read.

In thinking about what strategy instruction should be, I think there are two important considerations:

1. It might be helpful to shift the discourse from strategies to strategic — a teacher’s role in comprehension instruction should be squarely focused on helping students construct meaning from text by helping them understand what it means to be active, strategic readers. Comprehension instruction should be focused on puzzling about text, reading between the lines, relentlessly figuring out what is going on in the text — all because meaning matters and students are working to construct meaning.

We need to teach students to care when comprehension breaks down — when the picture in their head is fuzzy or when they just plain don’t understand. They need to be encouraged to look back when two pieces of information seem contrasting or confusing, and they need to keep track of who the pronoun references are referring to when they shift from Johnny to he to that guy (all referring to the same person!). They need to know that texts aren’t all neatly packaged — or even all that considerate. Constructing meaning takes work! For many students, especially proficient readers, these behaviors come without instruction, but we can’t assume that all students will adopt these behaviors if we don’t teach them that these behaviors matter. This is what comprehension instruction should be about.

2. We need to stop operating as if the genre and discipline don’t matter. Learning a hodge podge of strategies with a bunch of random texts is not going to help students read the world. When they get to their high school history textbook, or are asked to negotiate primary source documents, or have to make sense of complex diagrams in science, generic strategies aren’t going to work. Specific genres and disciplines have features that students need to know about, and we should teach this important information explicitly.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on reading comprehension instruction and how we can help students become savvy text comprehenders.