Over the next couple of months, I’m going to be posting some excerpts from Reading Reconsidered here on Field Notes. This is the beginning of Chapter 5, which discusses how and how much students read.
Reading Reconsidered: Chapter 5
Approaches to Reading: Reading More, Reading Better
Consider, for a moment, how much reading you were required to do in college. Almost assuredly there were days when the time you spent reading stretched into hours. Some classes probably required a book a week or a daunting array of journal articles—possibly both. Maybe you glanced at the syllabus and asked aloud, “Five articles by Tuesday?!” Did your professors not understand that you were taking more than one class at a time?
The message was clear: you had to read a lot if you wanted to understand whatever discipline you studied and meet the standards of economics, chemistry, political or literary theory. Extensive reading gave you knowledge, context and perspective, an ear for how the discipline talked. It was required not just to “pass” but to earn a degree and enter society. But we don’t really need to convince you of that. If you are reading this book, the importance of reading probably requires little explanation. Extensive reading gave you what you needed to succeed, but it was not easy. You needed lots of practice to prepare you.
Almost ten years ago now, our first graduates from Uncommon Schools reported back from college campuses and described a version of this struggle. They encountered not just difficult reading but daunting quantities of it day after day. The extent of the reading pushed to the limits even those who graduated with flying colors. But not every one of our graduates did finish college. For many, reading loads were one reason why.
Other chapters in this book describe steps you can take to make sure students read better, more perceptively, and across all formats of text. Still, we should also remember that quality reading requires quantity reading. Students must read not only well but also widely and extensively.
Running is a decent analogy. If you want to be a distance runner, you have to put in the miles. Sure, you can improve your results by refining your strategy and studying up on the science of training. In the end, though, there is no way around the fact that success requires a lot of road miles. In the case of reading, we sometimes refer to this as “miles on the page.” Quantity matters.
This observation points out two challenges. The first is that most students don’t read as much as they should, both in and out of school. A few years ago, for example, a colleague of ours followed a sample of students through their day at New York City public schools and found that, on average, students were reading for twenty minutes per day. Twenty minutes! What’s even more disheartening is that almost 40 percent of students did not read at all during the school day. Of course, this assumes that during the time students were reading, they were reading well and attentively, which is no sure thing.
Surely, 20 or 40 or 60 minutes of reading a day doesn’t cut it. In fact, even if students read for twice what those numbers suggest, it would still not likely be enough.
Getting young people to read more has perhaps always been a challenge, but today there is increasing competition for students’ attention, both in school and at home. Some of the world’s brightest people spend their lives designing devices and applications to make everything that could possibly distract students instantly available almost every moment of the day. The buzzing, pinging, and flickering reminders cause students (and many adults) to disengage not only from “mere” reading but also from the sort of sustained, uninterrupted reading that the most demanding texts require. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, the average American teenager reads outside of school for an average of four minutes per day on weekends and nine minutes per day on weekdays.1
Fascinated by our colleague’s finding following some of New York City’s school children, we set out to measure the amount of time spent reading in classrooms of a sample of middle school teachers from a variety of schools we worked with. The average was seventeen minutes per hour for English and reading classes. The rest of the day it was assuredly lower. More important, seventeen minutes was significantly less than the amount of time teachers thought they were reading. This points to the second challenge: we may read less than we think we do in our classrooms. The time that we allocate to “reading” is in fact spent talking about reading, say, or talking about topics brought about by reading. Less often is that time filled with actual reading; how many road miles students really log with reading is an open question.
We have discussed this finding with teachers at our workshops. They often observe that we all suspect that if we could simply make our students read more—a lot more—and love reading more, much of the reading gap might be eroded. Yet this is not so easily done. There are student barriers—students often don’t want to read, or we don’t really know how well they are reading—and teacher barriers. One teacher at a workshop noted that his own perceptions were an issue. He didn’t feel as though he was teaching if all that students were doing was reading. When his students read in class, he lived in fear that an administrator would walk into his classroom.
In this chapter, we reflect on tools that teachers can use to maximize road miles: to help students read more, enjoy reading, and accrue the benefits of extensive reading. We’ll start with a look at three different approaches to reading: reading independently, reading aloud, and listening to oral reading.
Module 5.1 Approaches to Reading
Of course, teachers must balance the amount of reading students do with the quality of the reading they do. Three different approaches are worth considering. The way these three approaches are implemented—and the balance among them—can have a dramatic impact not just on the amount of miles students cover but also on the quality of their reading—even their love and passion for reading.
There are clear benefits to giving kids robust opportunities to interact with text in each of the three approaches we discuss, but each also has limitations. As we look at these benefits and limitations, it’s important to remember that it’s not a competition. The goal is not to identify the best format for reading but to recognize synergies that can allow us to use all three in conjunction—to give students the most meaningful and productive interactions with the texts they read.
Students Reading Independently
Reading independently is ultimately how students read on exams, in college, and in their adult lives, so it is especially important to give them lots of practice in doing so. On both sides of the Common Core debate, there is clear consensus that all kids should have ample opportunities to read independently, which is why in countless schools and homes across this country, parents and teachers alike stress the importance of making sure that students have a book in their hand as much as possible.
At the same time, there are limitations to reading independently, and some of these limitations go unacknowledged. Most significant, there is very little accountability for readers when they are reading independently. Readers, especially our most struggling readers, often practice reading poorly by inscribing errors when they read independently. They might decode vowel sounds poorly, drop word endings, or skip over words they don’t know. They might read quickly or idly and fail to process the meaning of the words. As a result, they don’t effectively practice—or get better at—reading, and they miss opportunities to make meaning out of what they read. Independent reading, for all its strengths, is also, well, independent. Part of the pleasure of reading—sharing the story as it unfolds—is tacitly sacrificed.
Students Reading Aloud
One way to address the limitations of independent reading is to design it for greater accountability (more on this in Module 5.2). Another is to balance it with other approaches to reading. Giving students, especially developing readers, frequent opportunities to read aloud in addition to reading silently is a great way to do this, though students’ reading aloud also has benefits and limitations.
On the plus side, when students read aloud, they are able to practice fluency, decoding, and most of all prosody—the art of using rhythm, intonation, and stress to connect words into meaningful phrases. This, you might say, is a hidden skill, relevant even—perhaps especially—for older students who read complex texts for which the ability to create such linkages can be a key to unlocking the text’s meaning. Having students read aloud also provides rich and constant data to teachers on the quality of their reading. Without reading aloud, we know far, far less about the quality and skill of the reading students do. With that constant data come opportunities for immediate—and therefore highly effective—corrections.
Most important, having students read aloud connects students with the pleasure of reading. A classroom where expressive reading by students is the norm, where students take pleasure in books—pleasure that is visible to their peers and therefore infectious—is a classroom where students change their relationship to reading. In that classroom, students come to understand why every culture on Earth tells and loves stories.
However, there are downsides to students reading aloud. One is the challenge of what the students who are not reading are doing when one student is reading aloud. Are they staring out the window? Looking at the text and pretending to read? Teachers are, in fact, often instructed not to have students read aloud in class for this reason. This strikes us as throwing out a very valuable baby due to some easily addressed issues with the bathwater. Later in the chapter, we will discuss modifications and adaptations that can address this challenge.
Another limitation of student oral reading is that it may not fully prepare students to read on their own. In fact, it can result in student reading that is more focused on expression than comprehension—reading during which it is all but impossible to stop and reflect. These issues, generally, are remediable via adaptation, and simply require balance—that is, the use of student oral reading in combination and synergy with silent reading.
Students Listening to Oral Reading
The third approach to reading is reading to students. It is often the “forgotten” approach among the three, especially for older students, and it too presents a set of benefits and limitations.
A clear benefit is that when teachers read aloud to their classes, the best reader in the room breathes life into the text by modeling fluency, creating meaning, and adding drama. Reading aloud to students also communicates a love and a passion for great books. Perhaps most important, it allows students to access a text well beyond what they can read on their own, enabling them to familiarize themselves with more complex vocabulary, rhythm, and patterns of syntax. Although many educators recognize this benefit in regard to younger students, the benefits of reading to older students is much less often considered. For example, scientific writing, as we discuss in our chapter on nonfiction, has its own unwritten rules and stylistic conventions—the way, for example, some clauses are meant to be parenthetical and de-emphasized. Reading part of an article from a scientific journal to your students would help them hear those rules and conventions, as well as make it more likely that subsequent reading will accurately capture a text’s tone and meaning. This may be the best way we can think of to address the nonfiction micro rules we discussed in chapter 3.
The downsides of reading aloud to students are more clear-cut. Reading aloud involves teacher modeling, not actual student practice. The teacher embeds meaning in her own expression—meaning that students may not infer on their own. Everyone has to read at the same pace—and from the same text.
Given the benefits and downsides of the three approaches to reading (listed in Figure 5.1), the goal then is to use each of them in a strategic way which ensures that we can maximize its benefits but also minimize its limitations. Recognizing these benefits and limitations, this chapter outlines a set of concrete actions teachers can take to improve both the quantity and the quality of reading that students do—to ensure that our students log as many high-quality road miles as possible.
For independent reading in the classroom, we use Accountable Independent Reading, an approach that helps ensure that independent reading is accountable and of high quality. For students reading aloud, we call our approach Control the Game, subtly engineering how you call on students to read aloud in a way which ensures that not only the primary reader but all readers are benefiting. And finally, for students listening to oral reading, we keep our approach simple and call it Read-Aloud.
Module 5.2 Accountable Independent Reading (AIR)
The vast majority of high school and college classes require students to complete and absorb extensive amounts of independent reading. They also require students to both discuss and write cogently about what they have read—sometimes moments, hours, or even days later. Almost every assessment serving as a gateway to college admission is built on a student’s ability to read, retain information from, and comprehend a text independently. In those critical settings, students have to make sense of what’s read without their classmates’ or teacher’s help.
Recognizing the need to increase the amount of independent reading students do in preparation for college, many classrooms utilize sustained silent reading (SSR)—essentially designated times for students to read, quietly, from books of their choosing. Whether called DEAR (Drop Everything and Read), FUR (Free Uninterrupted Reading), or any other clever acronym, the idea is to get students more reading road miles by letting them read books that interest them. There is often little in terms of assessment or accountability surrounding this free reading time; it’s just time spent with books.
On the surface, programs like DEAR offer a compelling solution. They get more books in more kids’ hands and get more teachers, schools, leaders, parents, and students reading. In Marilyn Jager Adams’s analysis of reading research, she notes that “if we want them to read well, we must find a way for them to read lots,”3 and we agree wholeheartedly. Yet general SSR methods can focus on reading quantity to the detriment of reading quality. Enter Accountable Independent Reading (AIR).
Accountable Independent Reading involves students in reading texts independently (and silently post grades K–1)—and allows teachers to assess whether effective reading is actually happening. Much of the reading students do in schools fails to meet these criteria. And, unfortunately, the students reading the least are often the ones who need to read the most. Some flip idly through pages, gazing at pictures, while others read lazily or poorly, practicing and reinscribing weak habits as they go. This kind of “reading” fails the accountability test.
The key to making AIR effective is preparing students to read on their own productively, accountably, and efficiently. To effectively bring AIR to your classroom, you want to encode success in reading independently, then start to increase both difficulty and length to build stamina.
First, let’s take a look at some of the barriers we face in making sure that independent reading is accountable—and consider how to overcome them.
Barriers to Accountable Independent Reading
Given the necessity of effective, independent reading, teachers would be doing their students a disservice if they failed to provide them with extensive opportunities to practice reading on their own throughout their school careers. However, attempts to increase independent reading can quickly butt up against three key barriers: accountability, stamina, and the report-back lag.
The Accountability Challenge
The first barrier teachers face in ensuring successful independent reading is the accountability challenge. As we’ve already noted, when students read independently, it’s hard to be completely sure whether they are actually reading. Or whether they are practicing effective habits or inscribing poor ones. Or that independent reading is not functioning regressively—that is, as an activity that causes good readers to get better by practicing effective habits, and bad readers to get worse by reinforcing bad habits (for example, dropping word endings, reading hastily, not attending to punctuation). Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent. It’s perfect practice that makes perfect.
What can we do to increase the amount of perfectly practiced reading that students do? To prepare students for successful independent reading, we can systematically build opportunities for successful practice that also include effective and efficient ways to constantly test for mastery—especially before adding complexity and/or further autonomy. We are preparing our students for a marathon, not a sprint, but well before anyone can run a marathon, he’s got to be able to run a mile.
The Fitness Challenge
The second reading challenge shares the stuff of running challenges—namely, stamina. The fitness challenge has to do with a student’s ability to read long and challenging texts. One former student noted, in reflecting on his first, struggle-filled year in college, that he simply wasn’t able to read the fifty or sixty pages of challenging text assigned per class per night that his privileged peers often were. This was nearly his undoing. Students not only need to gradually grow more autonomous as they read but also need to build their stamina to read and concentrate for long blocks of time, a task made even harder by the highly distracting world we live in today.
A colleague who is a marathoner once described the challenging monotony of marathons by saying, “The hardest part of running a marathon is doing the same thing over and over without stopping for three hours (four or five for the mortals among us). The real challenge has less to do with running; it would be hard to play the tuba or even talk to a friend nonstop for three hours.” Students need to encounter gradually longer stretches of reading to get in better and better shape as they inch closer and closer to the college marathon. Even though giving students long, sacred blocks of DEAR may seem to address this challenge, if students aren’t held accountable for that reading, then it’s unlikely that they are building stamina for actual reading. Building stamina for reading has a distinctive wrinkle: you have to understand and remember what you’ve read.
The Report-Back Lag
Unlike a marathon, which is over once you cross the finish line, reading requires that you remember it well enough to write or talk about it in a meaningful way. And you may have to retain the insights and understandings gleaned from your reading for minutes or hours or days before someone asks you to reflect on it. Difficulties around the length of time between the time something was read and the time it needs to be recalled make up the report-back lag.
Simply reading the seventy-five assigned pages of a biology textbook as part of your Biology 101 course assignment is not enough. You need to be able to make sense of what you’ve read and be able to recall it later, whether on an exam or in a later lab experiment. The report-back lag poses a significant challenge when asking students to read independently: not only do they have to actually do the reading, but they have to comprehend it and remember it at a later time.
Now that the challenges teachers face in getting students to read well by themselves have been defined, it’s time to dive into how to surmount them.
Accountability Tools for In-Class AIR
Several key tools are useful for making independent reading accountable, enjoyable, and successful. The accountability tools that follow address the barriers that we face when giving our students meaningful and productive opportunities to read independently.
Limit Text and Gradually Increase
AIR should begin with limited text—reading in short intervals, under the watchful guidance of a teacher—before gradually moving toward longer stretches and extended reading assigned for homework. It’s better to start by reading smaller chunks with greater accountability and comprehension than to read more text at lower quality. For developing readers or very hard texts, you might start with chunks as small as a single sentence and build up to a paragraph. The goal is to make a habit of reading independently and reading well, even if that means starting with and confirming comprehension after just a few lines of text. Starting with limited sections of text enables you to assess comprehension more accurately and consistently at more frequent intervals. Even very small doses of independent reading with seemingly modest goals can result in high amounts of student error at first—all the more reason to start small and scale up. The goal is for students to become socialized to reading well every time they read, at least as much as it is to increase the amount of time they read.
To build stamina over time, increase the amount of independent reading done in class. Lengthening the amount of text for AIR does not necessarily mean you should simply look to add a paragraph or a sentence each day. Gather data through questioning and observation, ensuring that written work demonstrates that students comprehend what they read independently before you add longer chunks of text. Before assigning longer independent portions, it’s important to keep a pulse on pacing and accuracy.
Find a Focal Point
As students read on their own, consider providing a focal point before you dispatch them to read whatever chunk of text you’ve assigned. For example, you might say, “As you read this next paragraph independently, look for three details that describe the setting of our story” or “Take one minute to read the next paragraph on your own. I’m going to ask you what Theo learns about his mother in this paragraph, so make sure you’re looking for it.” Tell students what they should look for before they start reading. As is true of any skill, mastery (in this case, students’ comprehension and readiness to take on longer reading) can be gauged only through a reliable Check for Understanding. Assigning a focal point gives you a reliable measure.
A focal point allows you to see whether students comprehended a key component from their reading and were reliably able to absorb the details that make strong comprehension predictable. Almost everyone can think of something vague to say after they read a paragraph; what you want to know is whether students can answer a specific question.
Further, this method allows students a reference point for metacognition—another step toward intellectual autonomy. After they read, they can ask themselves, “What did Theo learn about his mother?” “Where was the conflict?” If they can’t answer, they know they need to reread.
Set Time Limits
Beyond assigning how much to read and what to read for, teachers can do a lot for the long-term growth of AIR by giving students finite time limits—limits that are tight and manageable but also sufficient and scalable. Initially, providing one to two minutes to read and mark up a few sentences gives students who work at different speeds the opportunity to finish, while not providing so much time that the fastest readers get distracted as they wait for the rest of the class to finish. Again, the goal initially is to read well, so the incentive should not be to rush. Following an independent reading chunk with an oral or written Check for Understanding can confirm that students comprehend the main takeaway of that portion of the text. And you can always dig deeper with additional written questions for your faster readers.
As any teacher of thirty students can tell you, there will be a wide range of comprehension in AIR across a classroom. Some students will read quickly, but not understand much. Others will read slowly and have a firm grasp on comprehension. And still others will both read slowly and have trouble comprehending the text. Given the range of possibilities found in any one classroom, you’ll want to think about how to best differentiate AIR tasks to support and meet the needs of all students. Another way to gather data on the spectrum of reading skills in your class is to allow a finite period of time for students to read, without indicating how much text they have to read. Instead, have them use a hash mark to indicate where they are when time runs out (“When you hear the timer, mark the spot you’ve read up to”). Doing so allows you to assess the varying speeds with which different students move through content.
Over time, of course, you’ll want to gradually release students to read longer chunks of text, for longer periods of time, with less scaffolding. As students progress, try including questions for analysis and slowly eliminating focal points before AIR—but only after your students have reliably demonstrated their ability to establish meaning of key elements of the text. You should also strive to systematically increase the amount of independent reading that students complete in class.
Assign an Interactive Reading Task
Add a level of accountability to your focal point by giving students an interactive reading task. For example, you might ask students to “Read to the bottom; write ‘conflict’ in the margin next to the place where we learn what the conflict is” or “Meet me at the top of page 104, and be able to describe the conflict that develops. Have at least one piece of evidence underlined to support your answer.” The result is a double line of accountability: one which ensures that students have actually read independently, and the other which shows that students have understood what they have read.
The data you gather from observable markups can then inform discussion. You might choose students to Cold Call or Show Call (project their text markups on a document camera, as described in TLaC 2.0) on the basis of margin notes you have observed (for example, “Let’s take a look at how Joaquin marked up his text. Notice that he underlined two pieces of evidence of our setting. Who had a different piece of evidence?”). While this helps support students who may not have identified the conflict in this selection of text, it also supports students more broadly by giving strong examples of interactive reading from their peers.
Confirm and Scaffold Comprehension
Following periods of AIR, confirm comprehension through both written and oral checks (for example, “In one sentence, describe the contrasting settings that appear in the opening paragraphs of Tuck Everlasting”). You may also consider having students read back chunks of text as evidence that supports their answer, as in, “Read back the part that demonstrates how the author uses figurative language to describe the contrast between the two settings.”
Consistently checking comprehension for AIR is essential to ensuring meaningful reading. Written checks are even more accountable because every student in the class must complete them. They also better allow you to scaffold for different reading levels by varying the types of written comprehension checks. Initially, for struggling readers, your comprehension checks should be more about establishing the literal meaning of a passage. For more advanced readers, you may want to include additional comprehension checks that ask them to analyze meaning. Logistically, both of these comprehension checks should be available to all students. You might just have students first answer the “establish meaning” question before posing more challenging questions—giving faster students an opportunity to answer harder prompts. This is also useful because sometimes our fastest readers aren’t actually reading carefully enough; the comprehension checks can cause them to go back and reread to confirm their own understanding—a useful college prep habit to develop.
As you release students to their independent reading, the classroom should be silent. And while that means establishing a strong culture of discipline among the students in your classroom, it also means establishing strong habits of discipline for yourself. Remember to try not to talk while your students are reading—if you repeat the directions, say, or make comments loudly enough for public consumption, you run the risk of disrupting comprehension.
AIR for Homework
Over time, AIR should become increasingly independent and autonomous. This should include accountable independent homework reading. Much like AIR in class, AIR outside of class should begin with small chunks and should stress accountability first and foremost. Remember, high-quality reading is what we want. Gradually, the amount of nightly reading should increase.
AIR assignments should not be confused with independent reading that students do nightly in books of their own choosing—and presumably in books at a reading level that is unlikely to cause them to struggle. For example, at Uncommon Schools, elementary students are asked to read independently at home for fifteen minutes per day—and up to thirty minutes independently in the upper grades. Although reading is tracked by parent-signed reading logs, this does not prove that students comprehend what they read, but it does help establish a lifelong habit of reading.
Accountable independent homework reading, by contrast, builds in an accountability check for comprehension. Checks serve as a means of holding students accountable for what they have read outside of class and help address the report-back lag, requiring them to remember what they have read after a brief passage of time. They also provide students with appropriate practice with the expectations of high school and college—being held responsible for reading done independently at home.
Comprehension checks can take a number of forms—classroom discussion, written assignments, or quizzes to name a few—and can vary in length at the teacher’s discretion. A closed-book reading-check format—which includes three to five written-response questions that are specific enough to require careful reading and that are relatively straightforward if such reading has been completed—is one effective way to hold students accountable for out-of-class reading. The idea behind a reading check is to ask a quick-to-administer sample of questions about the text to see if students understood key aspects. You aren’t trying to ask about the whole chapter; you’re just asking enough questions that you have pretty reliable data.
Also, just because you give a reading check does not mean you need to grade or score it. If you graded on a variable-interval schedule—grading every second or third one or ten students’ papers each time—you’d get a decent sample and build a healthy habit of accountability for simply doing the reading. That said, it is better (1) to use a simple reading check that you can grade every time than a more complex one that you can’t, and (2) to discuss the answers afterwards so as to fill in gaps any students may have, before moving forward. As with any Check for Understanding, the data you get from student answers will help drive instruction and determine the effectiveness of the independent reading done outside of class. In later grades, significant chunks of reading should be done outside the classroom.
The accountability tools described here work in conjunction with each other to help build students’ independence in logging high-quality miles on the page. Each of these tools can be gradually released across the course of the year as more and more students demonstrate that they are ready to successfully read independently. But even once that independence has been established, giving students opportunities to practice reading aloud is still crucial. Enter Control the Game.