Teach More, Test Less, Empower Teachers (and Students!): Musings of a Retired Reading Specialist
By Dr. Sam Bommarito
For the past several years I’ve contributed articles to the St. Louis Suburban IRA newsletter designed to give teachers good ideas and resources to try out during the school year. Now that I have just retired, I am continuing that tradition, using slightly different formats (op-ed/memoir) to talk about a volunteer reading project I am currently carrying out at a private suburban school. I am doing a weekly meeting with selected students in grades 3, 4, and 5 and supporting the learning specialist in that building with her students in grades 1 and 2. My group size is 6. All the students have been identified as needing extra support in reading. As I describe what I am doing for them I will also tell you about my methods and resources. I hope you will find that some of those methods and resources might prove useful to you and your students. More information about the methods and resources mentioned in this article can be found in a Goggle Drive folder accessible at https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B5yrrnpuy5mjWHlnRTRxbzdVNWs&usp=sharing
How you spend your class time determines what kind of student performance results you get. Time is your most valuable commodity. Over my career I’ve found that following a Reading/Writing workshop format helps me to maximize my use of teaching time. Key components of workshop organization include whole group, small groups, sharing, ad hoc strategy groups and conferencing. Mini-lessons can done within these frameworks. The key to successful mini-lessons is that they are based on effective “kidwatching” (instruction the students really need!) and that they are short and focused. In my project I plan to make use of three teaching resources for strategy lessons. The first is The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo. This book includes one-page lessons for 300 different reading strategies, both word recognition and comprehension. The lessons are inspired by e-mails, tweets and requests from readers of her other Heinemann books. The next resource is the second edition of Lori Oczkus’s Reciprocal Teaching at Work: K-12. My final resource is the strategy lesson book found in the companion program to Raz Kids called Reading A-Z. These lessons have one key advantage–each lesson is tied directly to the Raz Kids Leveled Library (e.g. a Level E book around which the “main idea” lesson is built). Strategies are best learned if the student uses them in appropriate text immediately after instruction. The organization of this Raz-Kid resource makes that very easy and there are multiple leveled texts for each strategy. (links in folder for all resources, including a link where Serravallo gives an overview on how to use her new strategies book).
A common complaint that is heard in virtually every teacher’s lounge in the nation is that so much time is required for test practice that very little time is left for teaching. Just today, the New York Times reported that the White House “declared Saturday that the push had gone too far, acknowledged its own role in the proliferation of tests, and urged schools to step back and make exams less onerous and more purposeful.” (link in folder). My solution to that is to limit test practice to that which is needed to get students used to the question formats they will face. The remainder of my teaching time is spent teaching. In addition to using strategy lessons I also plan to do weekly workshop conferences with each child. My mentor text for conferencing is How is It Going by Carl Anderson. This highly recommended book carefully explains the teacher’s role in conferencing (Chapter 2, p. 25 ) and conferencing basics (Afterward p. 185). Conferencing can and should be an important form of teaching. Many times teachers I’ve worked with have said “Dr. B., I don’t have time to conference.” My retort is you don’t have time not to. You don’t have to start with your whole class. I suggest picking one or two of your very highest performing students and one or two of your very lowest performing students and to conference with them every 2-3 weeks. I think you will like the results of that experiment enough to expand your conferencing. This can be done whether you use a workshop format or not. Anderson’s book gives you what you need to get off to a good start in conferencing. I would mention that Carl is coming to a conference in Columbia Missouri next year. (link in the folder!)
One way to test less is to build ongoing assessment into your teaching, therefore expanding the time between summative assessments. I am using Learning A-Z’s Raz-Kids program. The leveled books in the on line library include well-written fiction and non-fiction books. Each book comes with questions based on common core standards. These are automatically scored and the teacher can access both individual and group results. The bulk of the student’s time is spent reading the books, not answering the questions. I will let the students pick their own books at their levels. The program allows me to control what levels they can access. So the students will be doing self-selected wide reading and I will be getting detailed information that allows me to discern student performance patterns in comprehension.
In addition, Raz Kids allows me to send my student messages and allows my students to send me recordings of their book reading. These features greatly enhance my ability to conference with students based on effective “ kidwatching.” Because of this program, my conferencing is not limited to my once a week face to face work with them. I can send timely advice at any time I wish. Messages can be written or oral. The ability to send oral messages helps me give very specific feedback to them about how words work (e.g. pronouncing a word family for them, or pronouncing a digraph for them or demonstrating prosody to them). Messages can be sent to the whole group, selected members (ad hoc strategy group) or just an individual student. My hope is by the end of the project all my readers will be reading more like storytellers and will be comprehending and remembering the books they read.
Empower Teachers (and Students!):
My belief that teachers should be empowered is research based. Readers are invited to read the ILA book about the first grade studies (link in folder). That classic research found that no one method of teaching beginning reading works best, that every method benefited from a phonics supplement and that teachers accounted for more of the variance in reading performance than methods. That is why I shy away from “teacher proof” methods and materials and look for methods and materials that serve as tools for teachers. Such resources give teachers choice in how to use the resources in the most effective way. For the project I’ve looked for materials that empower me as a teacher to help my students become better readers.
Another thing I am doing in this project is promoting “reading like a storyteller”. I know our local ILA members are familiar with Tim Rasinski. I’ll be using his rubric for oral reading and providing the 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students with copies of that rubric. Rasinski maintains that fluency is not a matter of speed, rather it is a result of the 4 components of prosody. His notion that fluency is the gateway to comprehension is a powerful one. I will be using his materials , especially his rubric (link in the folder). As students read within the project, one of the things I’ll do is to ask them to do, is to pick a favorite book from the on-line library. They will record and re-record their reading of that book (or selected pages from that book) until they are satisfied that they are reading like a storyteller. Only then will they send the recording to me.
Read more, test less, empower yourself and your students. I hope this article has provided you some ideas about how to do that and some links to things that will help. I hope you are visiting (will visit) our St. Louis Suburban IRA website. If you aren’t already a member please join! We meet three to four times a year and our planning committee always lines up great speakers. Over the years our speakers have included the likes of Tim Rasinki and Lori Oczkus. As a result of St. Louis being the site of the national ILA conference, our council is doing a read and feed literacy project which will result in thousands of books be distributed to children in selected Title one schools. Expect posting on our website about that!
I hope you will take time to comment on-line about this article. You will be able to do that on our website, (link provided). Most importantly, I hope you will include in your comments links to things that have helped your students with their reading. In that way we can empower each other as teachers. Have a good school year. Remember that research shows you know your students the best and that at the end of the day you are the one who will make the most difference in how your student’s learn.