Monday, April 18, 2011

Reluctant Reader 911

Does it always seem like it’s your students that like to read least that have the most excuses for not reading?
  • I don’t have a book.
  • I can’t find my book.
  • I don’t like my book.
  • I have to go to the bathroom.
Anything, but “I can’t wait to read.”

The hard reality of the situation is reluctant readers are the ones who need to read the most because very often they are reluctant because they are struggling. But we ask, “How? How do I get them to read more?”

What we’ve got here is reluctant reader 911 and what this calls for is:

Reluctant Reader Triage

  1. Be sure that somewhere in your room you have a bin of books designated for each of your reluctant readers. Instead of allowing these readers to return to your bookshelves on a daily basis, allow them one day to gather several titles that they think they might be interested in. Guide their choices and encourage them to put in picture books, comic books, non-fiction books and magazines. Be sure these collections contain no less than ten different titles. Forcing students who make a sport out of avoiding reading to take time to thoughtfully consider their interests helps to eliminate the “book” problems often faced by reluctant readers.
  2. Build in breaks. Nothing is more daunting to a child who knows that they are going to have to spend the next thirty minutes doing the very thing that they hate most. If you want to build stamina and commitment to reading, allow your reluctant readers to use a sand timer to help them measure reasonable chunks of reading time. When the timer runs out, allow them to get up and take a quick walk to the water fountain or stand up and stretch and then return to their reading. Even dedicated and sophisticated readers glance up from the page from time to time. Built in breaks makes the marathon seem do-able. And remember, for a reluctant reader, reading is a marathon.
  3. Validate their feelings. As teachers, we are very often cheerleaders for reading. We say things like, “What do you mean you don’t want to read? Reading is great!” And granted, we genuinely believe this, however, for the child who is reluctant, it’s merely a reminder of yet one more failing. Instead of coaxing, simply say, “Yep, I know how hard it is to do something you don’t want to do. When I don’t want to do something, I figure out a plan to make it do-able. Let’s figure out together what might work for you.”

And what might work for these readers might just be one of these suggestions or it may be another carefully mapped out intervention. The important thing to remember is this: The needs of the reluctant reader are critical. More pages, more often equals more improvement. Swift and thoughtful response could mean the difference between reading life and death.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

How do I Know if They’re Really Understanding?

Yesterday I had a conversation with a teacher that started like this, “I have a second grader reading Harry Potter.”

Now, before I go any further, I have to ask: Is your “good fit” book radar flashing? Whenever I hear “second grade,” “Harry Potter,” and “reading” in the same sentence, the red light begins to blink. So I listened as this teacher shared how this child could name all of the characters and tell about Hogwarts Express and the sorting hat and a whole slew of other highlights from Harry Potter. She was very impressed and asked me, “So, what do you think? Is he understanding?”

This is the million dollar question that we all seem to be asking all of the time. But I didn’t want to answer her right away, so instead I shared this story, which I also want to share with you.

When I saw Kelly Gallagher on Tuesday afternoon he gave us this statistic: Three out of four people who leave jail go back within three years. He challenged us to think about what this says…and what it doesn’t say. And then he challenged us to do the same with children.

I went home and tried this with my fifth grade son. I wrote the statistic on a piece of paper and asked him, “Matthew, what does this mean?” He replied promptly. He said, “It means that three out of four people get out of jail and then go back.”

Do you see what he did there? He parroted back to me what the words say. But does he really know what they mean? Based on what he said, I would say no, so I prompted him further and said, “Yes, you’re right Matthew, that is what those words say, but what do they mean? He looked at me quizzically and took a moment to ponder this question a bit. After some thought he said, “I think it means that jail isn’t a good place. I think it’s kind of like Harry Potter. When Bellatrix Lastrange got out of Azkaban, she wanted revenge. When she went in, she was mean and nasty, but when she got out, she was way worse. I think it means that jail doesn’t help people become better.”

Wow. What a change. Now, I’m convinced that he not only understands that statistic, I’m also convinced that he really understands Harry Potter.

Understanding isn’t about summarizing what words say. It’s about thinking about what they mean. At the end of this exchange, I turned back to the teacher and asked her the same question she asked me, “Is he understanding?”

What do you think?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Come Away from the Dark Side

On Friday, I met Andrew, a smallish, third grade boy who wore his distaste for reading like a badge of honor. We all know these kids. They proudly announce how they don’t read books and how reading is stupid and boring. Often, when these readers (or non-readers, as the case may be) make this proclamation, we teachers say things like, “Oh, Andrew, how could you say that? Stories are filled with action and excitement. Stories are wonderful.”

When we say things like that, our intentions are good. We know that if our students hate reading, they won’t want to do it, and if they don’t want to do it, they won’t practice and get better. It’s only natural to want to cajole them away from the dark and twisty side.

But I didn’t say that to Andrew when he told me that he doesn’t like to read. Instead, I said, “I get what you mean. Sometimes, when I read, I can’t picture it and I feel like it doesn’t really make any sense. When this happens, I don’t really like to read either.” When Andrew heard this, he softened a bit. He allowed me to come with him into his book and we flipped through the pages and talked about the pictures and how the pictures make the story come alive.

…Or I should say, I talked about that.

Andrew listened and then after careful thought and consideration, he said, “Yeah, but I don’t get how you do that. How do you see pictures in your mind?”

This took me by surprise. On the one hand, I recognized that Andrew hates reading because it doesn’t make sense, but on the other hand, I made the assumption he visualized as he read.

Our notions of what children can and should be able to do cause us to take for granted what students ARE doing. These assumptions can lead our teaching astray. Andrew’s comment was the quick jolt of reality that I needed to shake me awake and remind me to listen actively and adjust my teaching to his needs. Coaxing him from the dark side won’t happen from simply validating his feelings about reading. Now it’s time to give him the tools he needs to understand.