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Literacy

4 Reading Strategies to Retire This Year (Plus 6 to Try Out!)

A look at a few popular literacy practices that shouldn’t make the cut—along with fresh strategies that experienced teachers and literacy experts recommend instead.

August 12, 2021

As a novice teacher, Timothy Shanahan recalls doing round robin reading with his third-grade students—even though his professors in graduate school strongly advised against it, and he vividly remembered his own negative feelings about the practice, he confesses in a 2019 blog post.

“I used it because it kept the kids on task, I could be sure they read the text, and frankly, I didn’t know what else to do,” writes Shanahan, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former director of reading for Chicago Public Schools. “I was wrong. … They were telling me not to do it 50 years ago, but these days round robin appears to still be de rigueur, and it will be 50 years from now if we don’t end it ourselves.”

It’s not uncommon for classroom literacy practices to stick around in spite of, as in the case of round robin, well-established research and readily available resources offering a variety of research-based alternatives for improving reading fluency and deepening comprehension and engagement. In fact, when literacy specialists Gwynne Ellen Ash, Melanie R. Kuhn, and Sharon Walpole surveyed teachers and literacy coaches to more deeply understand “the persistence of Round Robin Reading in public schools in the United States,” they found that close to half of the 80 teachers they surveyed admitted to using some variation of round robin, and more than 30 percent “acknowledged that the research said Round Robin Reading was not best practice but they used it anyway.”

As students return to school and educators begin to plan for instruction that adequately challenges kids but also catches them up after a year of uneven pandemic learning, there’s a valuable opportunity to reconsider—and ultimately retire—some of the stale literacy practices that research suggests aren’t the best use of limited instructional time. We combed through our Edutopia archives to find practices that shouldn’t make the cut and selected more effective alternatives that come recommended by literacy experts and experienced educators.

4 LITERACY PRACTICES TO RETIRE

Reading logs (and other rote accountability tasks): Like many teachers, Allie Thrower had her fifth-grade students fill out daily reading logs as part of their homework. But after some time, Thrower, now an elementary school continuous improvement coach, noticed that her students’ log entries looked the same each day. “It was always 20 [minutes],” Thrower writes. “My students seemed to be reading merely because they had to—not because it opened up windows to the world, because reading about a character who looked like them brought them a sense of belonging and hope, or because they wanted to learn how to change the world for the better.”

After discussing the topic with colleagues and digging into the research, she realized that “many parents and educators had strong negative feelings about reading logs,” Thrower writes. And a 2012 study of the practice found that “students with mandatory logs expressed declines in both interest and attitudes towards recreational reading in comparison to peers with voluntary logs, and attitudes towards academic reading decreased significantly.”

Turn-taking oral reading practices: In this type of practice—round robin reading is probably the most common; similar approaches include popcorn reading, combat reading, and Popsicle stick reading—students “read orally from a common text, one child after another, while the other students follow along in their copies of the text,” writes Todd Finley, a professor of English education at East Carolina University. Finley surveyed more than 30 studies and articles about this close-knit family of reading strategies and concluded that oral turn-taking reading practices like round robin stigmatize poor readers, weaken comprehension, and sabotage fluency and pronunciation.

“To be clear, oral reading in other formats does improve students’ fluency, comprehension, and word recognition, though silent or independent reading should occur far more frequently as students advance into the later grades,” Finley notes.

Awarding prizes for reading: In a well-intentioned effort to motivate students to read more, schools and teachers sometimes offer prizes for meeting reading goals—rewards might range from small items like stickers or bracelets to movie or amusement park tickets, gaming tokens, and fast food coupons. But research shows that extrinsic motivators like these don’t do much to build reading habits and, especially among students who already enjoy reading, may actually decrease motivation to read, say literacy experts Barbara A. Marinak and Linda B. Gambrell, authors of No More Reading for Junk: Best Practices for Motivating Readers, in an interview for Education Week. Instead, offer rewards that are closely aligned with reading, like books they can keep and extra reading time, for example.

Overemphasis on reading as a discrete skill: Traditional ELA reading curriculum tends to focus on exposing students to unfamiliar subjects while teaching them ostensibly transferable skills like summarizing and finding the main idea. But a growing group of educators, writes journalist Holly Korbey, are shifting away from this approach, based on research indicating that predominantly skills-based instruction does little to improve overall reading proficiency for many students.

In the landmark baseball study, for example, Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie found that “struggling readers who knew a lot about baseball did better on a reading comprehension test about the topic than strong readers who knew nothing about the sport,” Korbey writes. Similarly, high school students who “met a basic knowledge threshold on a dense topic like ecosystems had much stronger performance on a reading test about ecosystems than those who didn’t,” she notes. “For low-income students and students of color, these disparities were particularly pronounced.”

6 READING APPROACHES THAT WORK BETTER

Reading accountability partners: After quitting reading logs, Thrower tried several alternatives before settling on reading accountability partners, a strategy where partners meet daily for 10 minutes to discuss the previous day’s reading. “The practice may seem simple, but the results have been impressive,” Thrower says, noting that pairings work best with students who will challenge each other academically and encourage each other emotionally.

Via mini-lessons, she helps students understand their roles, discusses how to hold peers accountable and how to be receptive to feedback, sets kids up with guiding questions, and circulates among the groups to make sure everyone’s on task.

Choral reading: In this oral reading activity, the teacher and class read a passage aloud together, reducing “struggling readers’ public exposure” and extending the length of the passages that kids are exposed to, writes Finley. Or try a variation on choral reading in which “every time the instructor omits a word during oral reading, students say the word all together,” Finley suggests. Lowering the stakes for all students in this way allows everyone to practice reading for longer chunks of time and smooths out modeling hiccups and individual fluency issues. The research, meanwhile, shows that the practice results in marked improvements in decoding and fluency.

Scaffolded silent reading: Silent reading is important, but before sending kids off with a book, consider scaffolding the activity by pre-teaching vocabulary, providing a plot overview, and maybe introducing a K-W-L activity.

“Many of us, myself included, are guilty of sending students all alone down the bumpy, muddy path known as Challenging Text—a road booby-trapped with difficult vocabulary,” writes Rebecca Alber, an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. “We send them ill-prepared and then are often shocked when they lose interest, create a ruckus, or fall asleep.” When pre-teaching vocabulary, “introduce the words to kids in photos or in context with things they know and are interested in,” Alber suggests. “Give time for small-group and whole-class discussion of the words.”

Teacher read-aloud and modeling: It’s tough to find time in the school day for read-alouds; however, “reading aloud to students each day is not only a productive investment; it also has powerful benefits for learners of all ages,” writes educator Christie Rodgers, who routinely alloted five to seven minutes to the task every day with her fourth- and fifth-grade students. It’s a practice that’s rewarding and beneficial for middle and high school students as well.

“Throughout my 25 years in education, the read-aloud was my way of getting the most stubborn students to fall in love with reading,” says Rodgers. Besides being enjoyable—a 2019 report from Scholastic found that 83 percent of students ages 6 all the way to age 17 surveyed said that being read to was something they either loved or liked a lot—it’s also a powerful opportunity to model reading strategies, stopping frequently to wonder out loud and thus showing students “what good readers do when they don’t know a word, understand a plot twist, or agree with a character in the story,” Rodgers writes.

Reading buddies: For this practice, pair upper-grade classes with lower-grade ones—third graders with pre-K students, for example—and plan to set aside at least one 30-minute session per month for students to read together. Kids can work in pairs, but groups of three work too. “Let the younger students pick the books at first so they get hooked with an interesting read,” says Ryan Wheeler, a behavior specialist in Houston, Texas.

The practice builds community, but it’s also a powerful literacy tool. “Reading buddies allows younger readers to see what being fluent looks like as they have a peer model demonstrating reading skills,” notes Wheeler. “For upper elementary students who are struggling with grade-level reading, the opportunity to access easier reading material without stigma or shame while sharing with a novice reader can create a positive experience with an activity that may otherwise be less than enjoyable.”

Building background knowledge: Background knowledge—about the topic and about the world in general—“plays an important role in helping students make sense of a text because the things readers already know work like a scaffold on which to build a more complete, and nuanced, mental model of the subject matter,” writes Holly Korbey. Try pre-teaching key vocabulary and concepts, and reduce the cognitive load by linking the new, unfamiliar material to material they’ve already learned.

In order to teach the kind of knowledge-rich lessons that will effectively boost students’ reading comprehension, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, author of The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads, tells Korbey, “teachers should emphasize a cohesive, well-sequenced curriculum with lots of background information on different topics embedded within it so that no students are left hanging when they read.”

Ultimately, beyond abandoning ineffective practices, the deeper work of motivating kids to read starts with connecting them to books that genuinely reflect their own interests—and giving them some choice in the matter. This may require being flexible about reading levels so kids are exposed to texts that provide them with an abundance of cultural, racial, and socioeconomic perspectives and cater to a wide variety of reading tastes across a broad range of reading levels—from books that are easy to read to ones that pull them into unfamiliar and demanding territory.

When we provide young readers with a rich mix of books, Melanie Hundley, a former English teacher and now professor at Vanderbilt University, tells Korbey, it primes students to feel more engaged and excited to take on tougher texts. “If kids will read and you can build their reading stamina, they can get to a place where they’re reading complex texts,” says Hundley. “Choice helps develop a willingness to read… [and] I want kids to choose to read.”

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