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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Reading for Real: The Benefits of Silent Reading in the Classroom

One way that motivation and engagement are instilled and maintained is to provide students with opportunities to select for themselves the materials they read and topics they research. One of the easiest ways to build some choice into the students’ school day is to incorporate independent reading time in which they can read whatever they choose. Yet this piece of the curriculum is often dropped after the primary grades. 
~Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy

Do you want your students to love reading? Allow them to read more.

We over-complicate this. We ask students to read, but then we ply them with onerous reading logs or written responses that transform reading into a detested chore.

For over twenty years, I taught my students how to read well, but I'm ashamed to admit that I only occasionally inspired a lasting love of reading. Too few students went on to become voracious readers for me to claim success in this regard.

But that changed last year when I began to include sustained silent reading (SSR) in my classroom. For many years I followed the edict that independent reading was meant for home, and that it should be recorded in a draconian manner in a reading log. But after experiencing the headaches of these logs with my own daughters, I vowed to find a better way.

In prior years, the irony never escaped me that many times during transitional periods, I was forced to admonish students to put away their self-selected books because we were moving on to the next part of a lesson. In other words, "How dare you read in Reading class?"

If you’re a fan of the television drama Law and Order, you know that suspects are identified by determining motive and opportunity. We can grow readers by providing these two variables! In my classroom, SSR time is called SQUIRT (Super Quiet Uninterrupted Independent Reading Time). This fifteen minutes, which occurs at the start of each 90 minute block of ELA, is held sacred by providing everyone, including the teacher, the opportunity to read quietly.

Just a few benefits of SQUIRT observed since its inception:
  1. Students see their teacher, and their peers, as models for reading.
  2. Students have immediate access to a wide variety of reading materials. 
  3. Reading takes on a social aspect when students read together (even quietly) or when students are allowed to discuss selections or recommend books to classmates. 
  4. The reading session acts as a "palate cleanser," allowing students to set aside the drama of the previous class periods and prime their minds for language instruction. 
  5. Students wrestle with content taught in the classroom using books of appropriate challenge and personal interest. According to the Educational Leadership report titled Synthesis of Research/ Reading Comprehension: What Works, a prime benefit of independent reading time “is the sheer opportunity to orchestrate the skills and strategies that are important to proficient reading—including comprehension. As in sports and music, practice makes perfect in reading, too.” 
  6. Students build a vast store of vocabulary and subject area knowledge. That same Synthesis states: "Reading results in the acquisition of new knowledge, which, in turn, fuels the comprehension process. Research of the late 1970s and early '80s consistently revealed a strong reciprocal relationship between prior knowledge and reading comprehension ability. The more one already knows, the more one comprehends; and the more one comprehends, the more one learns new knowledge to enable comprehension of an even greater and broader array of topics and texts."
  7. The teacher can observe student reading behaviors firsthand.
That last benefit is especially powerful. Many teachers use self-assessments to gather initial impressions of students' reading habits and preferences. Steven L. Layne provides an excellent self-assessment in Igniting a Passion for Reading, an invaluable resource for those teachers seeking to grow avid readers. But ongoing observation yields equally valuable results.

On a daily basis I note what genres and topics interest individual students, and I also note who can persist with longer texts over time. I observe how students' book choices are influenced by those of their peers or by the book they’ve just completed. I can confidently recommend “next-reads” for individual students based upon what I've seen them enjoy. For example, the student who just finished the nonfiction baseball book Why is the Foul Pole Fair? might be interested in reading a DiMaggio biography or some short fiction by Kinsella.

Realize that Sustained Silent Reading is NOT a reading program. SSR is not intended to take the place of direct instruction or student-centered inquiry approaches to language arts. In an article at, Joan Sedita, founding partner of Keys to Literacy, additionally warns that
“Educators must be careful to not consider SSR as an intervention for struggling readers or as an activity that can take the place of direct, systematic instruction to address weaknesses in reading skills. For example, for students who need to develop fluency skills, research has not yet confirmed whether independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback improves reading achievement and fluency … because struggling readers are not likely to make effective use of silent independent reading.”
So how can teachers make the most productive use of SSR in the classroom? 

Below I've listed potential problems which teachers often share, along with some suggestion solutions.

Students will use this time for activities other than reading. 

Only if you let them. From the beginning, establish strict guidelines for SSR and enforce those guidelines with vigilance, especially when first initiating the program. Modeling cannot be overemphasized.

Some students will come to class without anything to read.

Create a “recommended reads” section of your classroom library stocked with popular titles, short stories, magazines, etc. This also serves as an excellent resource for early finishers to find a quick read.

How will I know that students are “really reading” during quiet reading time?

Institute occasional opportunities for students to share what they’re reading with others. Check out this fun assessment suggested by educator Catlin Tucker. Other check-ins are available, such as those suggested in No More Independent Reading Without Support. The authors explain that “when we set children loose day after day with no focus or support, it can lead to fake reading and disengagement… It’s our job to equip children with the tools they need when we’re not there.”

My administrator doesn’t see the value in this activity.

Share some of the quotes on this page, as well as research from the links collected on my original roundtable hand-out.

I can't see myself reading with them; it simply isn’t a good use of my time.

Students need to see their teacher enjoying literature. Plus, you need time to read widely in many genres and authors in order to confidently recommend texts to your students.

We teach according to the standards. Quiet reading doesn’t have a place in our curriculum.

Concepts discussed in class can be extended to discussions about students’ independent reading. If the class is studying similes and metaphors, for example, students can be asked to look for these in their own reading. Students can also be encouraged to bookmark examples of writing which they feel to be exemplary in any way.

We like the idea of independent reading, and we feel that time spent reading is necessary. But we need help teaching students to read mindfully.

For this, I would recommend Doug Lemov's Reading Reconsidered and a method he calls Accountable Independent Reading (AIR).

In a chapter titled Approaches to Reading; Reading More, Reading Better, Lemov writes, "Accountable Independent Reading involves students in reading texts independently... and allows teachers to assess whether effective reading is actually happening. Much of the reading students do in school fails to meet these criteria. And, unfortunately, the students reading the least are often the ones who need to read the most." Multiple experiences with AIR (in its various forms described in the book) help students to read more purposefully when reading on their own.

We can’t allow choice reading, but we want to use SSR for assigned reading. How can we ensure that students are engaging with the text?

Choice reading is really the point of SSR, but having students read an engaging assigned text is a step in the right direction. Accountability can be ensured through a guiding question, post-its, or a written reflection that allows students to focus on those aspects of the text which appeal to them or challenge them at their independent level. And again, refer to the AIR methods described in Lemov's Reading Reconsidered.

What excuse is keeping you from taking the plunge? I would love to hear your experiences in the comment section below.

Recommended Reading:

In No More Independent Reading Without Support, authors Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss ask, "What if there was a time when things slowed down? No rotations, activities, or worksheets—just you, your kids, and books. Would you take it?"

From the publisher: "We know children learn to read by reading. Is independent reading valuable enough to use precious classroom minutes on? Yes, writes Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss, but only if that time is purposeful. DEAR and SSR aren’t enough. Research shows that independent reading must be accompanied by intentional instruction and conferring. Debbie and Barbara clear a path for you to take informed action that makes a big difference,"

For additional online resources, access the original roundtable document presented at the "Hot Topics by Top Teachers" session at the 2016 New Jersey Educational Association Conference.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Mentor Text Display Cards

I frequently use mentor texts in the classroom, and students find them incredibly valuable as exemplars for their own writing. But too often in the past, our experience with mentor texts has been "out of sight, out of mind." Students simply forget them over time. So how can we keep mentor texts forefront in students' minds?
For each exemplar text we study, whether it be a picture book, poem, article, or excerpt from a novel, I've posted a simple letter-size display card listing the book title, author, illustrator, genre, theme, notable text features, and a text excerpt (see example below). On a bookshelf adjacent to these cards, I've shelved all of the mentor texts we've already read, as well as those I intend to use in the near future. You can view my sample Mentor Text Display Cards for Picture Books, or Mentor Text Display Cards for Novels

With just a few cards posted, already I've seen several benefits:

  • During free reading time, students will return to these texts since they're familiar and meaningful.
  • Students struggling to recall text features or literary devices will look to these cards for help.
  • Students now make discoveries of their own in their independent texts, and some have even suggested book excerpts for future sharing. This, in itself, is revealing, because students are noticing features and literary devices that haven't been formally introduced through our other texts.
  • The collection of cards serves as clear evidence of our classroom goal to create a common culture of literacy, while recognizing unique attributes of each text that we study. 
While I created the first few cards, I see no reason why future cards can't be made by students themselves. The blank prototype card I've provided is easy to duplicate and edit. After reviewing the cards I've shared, you may also decide that what I've chosen to illustrate on my cards doesn't quite serve your purposes, so I welcome you to customize them as you see fit. If you're a Google Docs user, simply open the link that I've shared, click on File in the top menu, and choose Make a Copy to create your own editable set of cards.

Looking to the future, I see some other uses for these cards:
  • Printed out, these cards can be inserted in the books they reference. That way, even if you choose not to use a book in a given year, a student can still benefit from the information the card provides.
  • Individual cards can be saved as pdf files, and these can be digitally stored for student access. My own teacher website has an index that would work well with this concept.
  • I chose to post my cards chronologically, since students will remember a book that was read "a long time ago" (two weeks ago!) and find it easier to reference if the cards are posted by occurrence. But I can also see posting cards closer to those shelves that they might reference. So my Fever 1793 card might be posted adjacent to the historical fiction section of my class library, and my Fellowship of the Ring card might be located near the fantasy section.
  • As students read their own books, they can create their own display cards to illustrate the "take-aways" of their individual texts.
Via Google slides I've provided you several cards to get started (all the books on these cards have been featured on this blog; see links below), including a blank prototype for editing online, as well as a blank that can be printed out if you prefer students to create a card using paper and pencil. Again, you will need to open the link, click on File in the top menu, and choose Make a Copy to create your own editable set of cards.

Need help teaching theme and theme statements? Check out this previous post. You can also check out my write-ups or activities for any of the following books or stories featured on the sample cards:

I'd love to hear your ideas for these cards, as well as ways you plan to customize them for your own classroom.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Student Presentations that Don't Suck

Most of us have heard of the inspirational TED Talks. We would love for students to give classroom presentations that were just as engaging and thought provoking.

Slightly less well-known than TED talks are the Ignite Talks which allow speakers only five minutes; additionally, the accompanying slides to each talk advance automatically every fifteen seconds. Now this is a format we can definitely adapt and use in the classroom!

One of my favorites is Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, speaking about How to Get 5 Million People to View Your Website:

Another favorite is Scott Berkun's Why and How to Give an Ignite Talk, which not only gives a cool insight into the Ignite format, but also provides a pretty compact lesson of effective storytelling. This one is more school appropriate, and this Ignite video could even serve as a "how to" for middle and high school students to plan their own talks:

For your next staff meeting or student presentation, give this format a shot. Perhaps just three minutes instead of five. Sometimes less is more!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Cool Trick for Managing Text Excerpts in Google Docs

My students and I often analyze text excerpts via Google Docs. I paste a substantial portion of a text into a Google Doc, students make their own copies, and they then highlight and annotate that text using the commenting feature. (This is a great way to manage self-selected close reading discussions). Difficulties arise, however, when it comes time to share, and students need to direct each other to their chosen passages. We either waste time counting paragraphs, or search for sentences at the bottom of this page or the top of that page.

I knew that sentence numbering was an option in Word, but everything I read online indicated that it wasn't possible in Google Docs. Then I stumbled onto the following video, which presented a perfect solution. Check it out, and then read on for a few helpful tips learned through our trial and error.

So simple! And my further suggestions and observations:

  • This tool is ideal for structuring annotations from close readings. See even more suggestions for improving your close readings.
  • Teach students that they can't change the font style or size of either the text or the numbers. Changing either will skew the line/number correspondence. (The Docs commenting feature does not change line spacings).
  • Show students how to use the Control + F function. Control + F opens a tiny dialogue box at the top or bottom of the screen (depending upon the browser you're using), and this can be used to quickly navigate the entire text by line number. So if a student says, "My passage begins around line 245," the entire class can type 245 into the "Find" box, hit Enter, and jump immediately to that location without scrolling. (Note that "line 243" would not work, since no line was specifically assigned that number). Students soon learn that key words from the text can also be searched this way, allowing them to locate desired text passages when building arguments.
  • Do you need to manually create that narrow number column every time? Nope. The video points out that after numbering a substantial number of pages, you can save the Doc as a template. Just keep in mind that font style, font size, and line spacings must all match those of the numbered column in order for this to work with future text insertions.
  • Can you number paragraphs instead of lines? Absolutely. But this would need to be done manually, and it would likely make more sense to number the paragraphs using a narrow column to the left rather than to the right.
  • Can two students work on the same Doc and both leave comments? Yes, and both sets of comments would show authorship. But in my experience, this leads to students racing through the text to get to the "good parts," while losing meaning and depth in the process.
  • Keep in mind that copying a Google Doc does NOT preserve comments. So a student could make a copy to share the same text with a friend, and the copy would be comment-free.
  • When else would line numbering prove helpful? If you were providing students with a passage accompanied by questions, you could refer them to specific lines within the passage easily.

Hope this helps! Let me know how you tweak it to work in your own classroom.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Reading Response Sheet

I've posted before about close reading in the classroom, and I continue to believe that close reading experiences are often most powerful when students select the passages for study.

In addition to providing students with text excerpts in Google Drive for annotating, I have also occasionally used a simple Reading Response Sheet, which you can access as a pdf or via Drive for your own editing purposes (go to File, and Make a Copy; you can then alter and edit to your heart's content).

I resisted every urge I had to over-complicate this thing, and with good results. Students felt the freedom to write only as much as they thought they would need to participate in the classroom discussion; some took laborious notes with supporting page and paragraph numbers, while others wrote gist statements with sporadic page numbers. In all cases, however, the sheet slowed them down to consider what they were reading, and to settle upon one or two excerpts that they felt passionate about discussing.

Hope you find this useful! Let me know how you might modify it for your classes.