In a year of massive educational challenges schools now confront the latest new challenge. How to bring students back to the classroom after a year of reduced learning and social isolation, with dramatically increased inequity.
This raises the question: What to do first—over the summer perhaps, even before the new year starts–especially in the area of reading.
I’ve been thinking about that question and my proposed first step might be surprising but I’ll make the case for it here. It’s an idea called book club modeled on an approach my colleagues and I used in founding our first school in Rochester almost 15 years ago.
Book club involves reading whole books aloud together with students- cover to cover. It builds fluency, vocabulary attention and community via reading. These things are critical and often overlooked. Another way of thinking about it is as a tool to maximize time spent reading well (versus, say, talking about reading.)
In a minute I’ll share some more details about how, but first a few words about fluency. “Research shows disfluency causes as much as 40% of the variance in students who pass [state] tests versus those who fail. This is true for every testing grade,” Student Achievement Partners wrote in a recent report. Almost half of what we measure in reading is the ability to read with fluency—or it forces us to realize that analysis and interpretation cannot happen without a fluent reading.
The science behind why is straightforward. Working memory—the site of our conscious thinking–is powerful but limited. Being “better” at critical thinking does not expand the size of your working memory. The key to applying more of thinking to analytical tasks is to automate more mundane tasks the brain is asked to do at the same time. To think deeply you have to read text “at the speed of sight” as Mark Seidenberg puts it. You need to be able to absorb the meaning and syntax at almost no load to your working memory. And fewer students than you think can do this- especially with complex text. Especially with reading rates going down,
This applies at all grade levels. Students rarely get practice reading for speed and expression of meaning (prosody) beyond grades 2 or 3 but it is just as important. As one study revealed:
“Reading fluency predicted…marks in all literacy-based subjects, with reading rapidity being the most important predictor. School level did not moderate the relationship between reading fluency and school outcomes, confirming the importance of effortless and automatized reading even in higher school levels.”
Constant practice reading aloud and exposure to high level models of fluent reading by a teacher develops fluency. But it also makes the process enjoyable because it’s a shared group task built around a book that we’re bringing to life.
The second thing to be aware of is the importance of rebuilding attentional habits. “The hallmark of an independent learner is his ability to direct his attention toward his own leaning,” Zaretta Hammond writes in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, but students are increasingly not in control of their own attention. It is, as Maryanne Wolf writes, increasingly fractured by constant exposure to screens. Skimming, and states of attention that last just a few seconds before some new distraction is introduced, are now normal states of cognitive engagement- both with texts and more broadly. Your students read for a few seconds, check their phones, distract themselves and maybe pick up reading again. And maybe don’t. To say they are reading is ot say something different than it meant 15 years ago. You cannot think deeply unless you can sustain states of focus and concentration (this is the topic of Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work).
The way to combat this is by building an environment characterized by regular, sustained states concentration, where students are insulated from technology and where focus is maintained by both a sense of “flow” (getting caught up in a moving and meaningful task like the narrative of a good book) and group dynamics-seeing everyone around you do the same.
Students, it is worth noting, have spent the last year in a tech intensive environment where their attentional capacity—already fragile by the standards of past generations—was surely reduced by virtue of their living in a crucible of distraction via constant screen exposure and the reduced attention it socializes. There’s a good chance we’re going to have to rebuild attention.
A third benefit of book club is that is builds community around and through books and makes books a social and shared experiences. There is a difference between discussing a book together and experiencing it—as a story—to which we bring the full array of our emotions and responses. When we we are in a room with others sharing the experience draws us together and makes reading meaningful.
“I will always remember the moment my class realised Eric is the father of Eva’s unborn child in An Inspector Calls. The audible collective gasp. A sea of [stunned] faces,” a teacher shared in response toa recent Tweet on this topic. This social aspect of reading builds community and in the end will be the way we make the case for the book- it’s connectedness
So book club draws on these three things: Fluency, Attention and Connection:
You choose a book and read it aloud together focusing on story more than analysis. If your group is 10 students great. if it’s 20 great. When we did this at Rochester Prep many years ago we used every teacher in he building (not just ELA teachers) and made slightly smaller groups for students who needed especially high amounts of practice.
The teacher does perhaps a third of the reading aloud (plus or minus 25 percent) modeling expressiveness and the sound of the authors prose and bringing the book to life.
Then students are called on to read short sequences of unpredictable length in unpredictable order as in this video. The teacher occasionally steps in to push the story along. She praises and asks for expression in reading. This technique is called Control the Game or as it will be called in TLAC 3.0 FASE Reading. (You can see an example of Control the Game here:
In book club the teacher may add brief pauses to explain/pronounce vocabulary words or key background knowledge or assumptions but only very briefly. (and thus unlike what you see in the video). It’s about reading more for sustained periods.
I’d do this for 45 minutes or perhaps even an hour a day. Maybe with short independent reads at night. I ’d try to read three good books cover to cover in the course of the summer. Most likely kids would come to love it but they’d develop their foundations: fluency, attention and vocabulary most quickly this way.
If you would like information about the Reading Reconsidered Curriculum, visit us at https://teachlikeachampion.org/reading-reconsidered-curriculum.