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This is part of a series on empowering readers. If you’re interested, I also have a self-paced course  where I walk you through practical ways that you can empower your students in the reading process.

Some people say that it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission but I disagree. In my experience, it’s often best to try new things by getting the support of leadership. If they are skeptical, simply use the word “pilot.” Administrators love the word “pilot,” because it lets them off the hook. It says, “this is an experiment and we’ll see how it works.”

“I want to do an experiment,” I told my principal, as I stepped into her office and grabbed a handful of candy.

“Doesn’t surprise me,” she answered.

“I want to do a reading intervention class again. I know I’m slated to do an enrichment class but I want to try reading intervention again.”

“That’s the experiment?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, um, I want to try reading intervention with a twist. I want to call it an enrichment class but have students who qualify for reading intervention.”

“I’m not sure I’m following you.”

“We can still do reading intervention. I will go over which standards they aren’t mastering. I’ll cover some discrete reading skills. However, instead of putting them in front of the computer, we run a journalism class on even numbered days and do silent reading for the odd numbered days. We treat it like it’s an enrichment class but I will still track how well they master the standards,” I said, before launching into a larger pitch for a different kind of reading intervention program. I handed her the typed up syllabus with goals, activities, a rationale, and research to back it all up.

“John, we already have a pretty clear reading intervention program,” she pointed out.

“I get that. But I just want to pilot this. Let me see how it works.”

She nodded. “You can give it a try for four weeks but we’ll have to look at the data to see if it works.”

The experiment paid off. When my reading intervention students took the district benchmark tests, they had higher gains than the other reading intervention classes. As I mentioned in my last article, this particular group did well because they scored consistently better from question number one all the way down to question number fifty. The other intervention groups saw a decline after the first two reading passages. This seemed to suggest that the biggest factor was reading endurance or reading stamina (how long students could last).

A few caveats. My sample size was small. I had twelve students. I also couldn’t prove that reading stamina was the strongest variable. It might have had to do with the label of “enrichment” over “intervention.” The strongest variable might have been voice and choice. My students were able to select their own reading materials. However, even with the other factors at work, my students were developing reading stamina because I had shifted from working to reading.  In other words, they spent less time doing assignments and more time actually reading books.

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Shifting from Working to Reading

The first time I taught reading intervention, I didn’t actually teach students anything. Instead, they sat down in front of their computers with their headsets on and completed various drills on an adaptive learning program. I simply walked around to check that students remained on-task as students did vocabulary work, word work, some grammar drills, and eventually reading comprehension questions. If they got enough questions correct, students would move to the next level.

This adaptive learning program should have worked perfectly. Ideally, students would receive personalized instruction in a precise and efficient manner. However, reality turned out to be more complicated. Students spent so much time doing digital worksheets that they spent very little time actually reading. This stop-and-go approach meant they never had a chance to get into the flow of reading. It was a bit like driving a car and pulling over every half mile to assess one’s driving instead of having an extended period of time to get out onto the open road and drive. Or worse yet, it was like learning how to drive by practicing each discreet skill in a parking lot and never going anywhere.

Although I knew that students needed to develop reading stamina, I initially struggled with the idea of having students read for extended periods of time. To be honest, I was afraid. How would I guarantee that students were staying focused? How would I hold students accountable if they weren’t turning in an assignment? What about the specific skills that they needed to practice? What about the test? If students read for fun, it might not translate to higher test scores.

Kelly Gallagher uses the term “readicide” to describe how certain reading practices kill the desire to read. In his book by the same name, he describes well-intentioned assignments that accidentally killed the love of reading. Things like having  students annotate every paragraph, summarize information on every page using a sticky note, and engage in endless test prep. Often, we use these strategies to teach discreet reading skills rather than having students read for longer period of time. Other times we use these strategies to hold students accountable for their reading rather than trusting students to read on their own.

As Gallagher puts it, “To become a lifelong reader, one has to do a lot of varied and interesting reading.” My reading intervention students needed to read more and to read from a larger variety of interesting reading. That’s when I began developing my new plan for a different kind of reading intervention class. Students would practice skills while they read instead of spending twenty minutes per class period doing drills. They would read for longer, uninterrupted periods of time. We would focus on reading for pleasure.

Initially, I shelved my plan. I wasn’t ready to make the leap from working to reading. I didn’t want to give up control. I didn’t trust students to read for an extended time without requiring them to do multiple assignments. I needed to rethink accountability.

Rethinking Accountability in Reading

Initially, I viewed accountability through the lens of punishments and rewards. If I didn’t grade it, students wouldn’t do the work. Or, at a minimum, students wouldn’t put in as much effort if something went ungraded. This sentiment wasn’t wrong. I had seen students slack off on assignments when I told them that it wouldn’t be graded. I was afraid that the same thing would happen in my reading intervention class. Even if I focused on a “reading for fun” approach, I knew that students would slack off if I didn’t collect any assignments or provide any grades.

Eventually, I began to think about what accountability looked like me in areas of my life. While punishments and rewards were sometimes a part of the process, sustainable accountability nearly always began from a sense of personal commitment. I sought out accountability because I wanted to accomplish a goal or change a behavior. Often, this type of accountability was relational. Whether it was a conversation with a mastermind group or the informal social pressure of a tight community, the strongest forms of accountability were built on trusted relationships rather than rewards and punishments.

As a teacher, I began to shift my definition of accountability from punishments to transparency. If you consider the root word of accountability, it’s the idea of making an account of what you have done. It’s the notion of making one’s thinking visible and sharing it transparently with others. When this happens, students are able to improve in their metacognition. Here, they set goals, monitor their progress, and make adjustments in their reading strategies. The authors of How Learning Works conceptualize this as a cycle:

So, the goal, then, is for students to make plans, select strategies, monitor their progress, and reflect on their learning. Notice that this happens as students make their learning visible. It’s a natural part of the reading process. Here, students are engaging in frequent self-assessment. However, students don’t need to stop reading in order to “take an assessment.” Instead, they can assess as they read. It can help to think of assessment as a verb rather than a noun. Assessment is what we do, not what we take.

Going back to the car metaphor, we often assess our driving while we drive. When we are first learning to drive, this assessment feels deliberate. You ask yourself, “Am I in the center of the lane?” When you make a turn, you evaluate whether you cut the curb too closely. You frequently check your speedometer to see how you are doing. Over time, this assessment process grows more automatic. As your self-efficacy as a driver grows, you assess less often. In fact, it actually becomes dangerous because veteran drivers can get overconfident and fail to assess their own driving. But regardless, we tend to assess while we drive. Similarly, we are constantly assessing ourselves while we read. We’re asking, “Did I get this? Does this make sense?” It’s what we do as readers.

Sometimes assessment happens after students finish reading as well. They might engage in a short self-assessment as a form or a self-reflection. However, they might do a quick think-pair-share with another student. As a teacher, you can decide whether or not you will grade these shorter assessments. We did not use formal grades in my reading intervention class. Instead, we focused on goal-setting and informal, formative assessments. However, some teachers might choose to provide a participation grade as an extra accountability measure. But the focus should be on viewing accountability through the lens of transparency by making the learning visible and empowering the students to own the assessment process. When this happens, they improve in their metacognition.

What Does This Actually Look Like?

In my first reading intervention class, students spent about 35 minutes completing assignments and around 5-10 minutes actually reading. Most of the time, they would only get through one short passage with multiple questions. When I piloted the new reading intervention class, I flipped that ratio entirely. Here’s a sample of what that looked like:

3 min: Focus on a reading strategy ahead of time. Students select from a list of reading strategies based on their reading goals. These are the strategies they will practice while they read.
35 min: Read. In this phase, it’s entirely uninterrupted. Students have the permission to jot down notes, underline text, or write in the margins. However, that’s not required. The goal is reading stamina.
3-5 min: Fill out a Google Form where they assess how well they read, how focused they were, and which reading strategy they practiced.

On another day, it might look like this:

3 min: Read a set of critical thinking questions about plot development, language, characterization, themes, etc.
35 min: Read. In this phase, it’s entirely uninterrupted. Students have the permission to jot down notes, underline text, or write in the margins. However, that’s not required. The goal is reading stamina.
3-5 min: Engage in a think-pair-share with a partner while answering the critical thinking questions from the warm-up. Note that they do not have to write anything down. This can be verbal.

Honestly, this second approach was hard for me. It took weeks for me to trust that partners were actually engaging in the think-pair-share. I had a hard time letting go of control. However, the more students engaged in these conversations, the more I realized that the assignments I’d created had actually been getting in the way of meaningful discussions.

What about close reading?

I’d like to share some nuance here. The “read more, work less” approach has its limitations. There’s a time and a place for using close reading strategies during independent reading time. As readers, we all have times when we re-read a text and write annotations in the margins. We underline words or phrases that stick out to us. We stop reading for a moment to make connections in the text to other parts of the text or to reflect on how a passage relates to our lives. We nerd out on the language an author uses or we re-read a critical phrase that seems to foreshadow an important plot element. But the point is that we do this when it’s necessary.

The key is to help students identify when and how to use these close reading strategies. If we want students to own the reading process, they need to view close reading as a strategy rather than an assignment. It can help to teach students when a person typically chooses to close read a passage and when they choose to read for an extended, uninterrupted time. Close reading works well for dense documents and primary sources. When I taught social studies, students engaged in multiple close reading excercises with the Bill of Rights. By contrast, when they read an article from The Washington Post, they didn’t need to use the same close reading strategies. With fiction, close reading works well when there is a heavy use of figurative language or when the phrasing is more complex. My students used close reading strategies to make sense out of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” They used these strategies several times when reading Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. However, they didn’t need to use close reading for most of Maze Runner, Harry Potter, or The House on Mango Street.

We can empower students to find the specific situations where close reading makes the most sense within a text. Often, students will choose to close read on a second or third read of a passage. They might read an entire novel but go back to a few critical moments of the book and engage in close reading as they look for evidence to back up a claim. When doing a book review, they might focus in on a key paragraph of a novel and close read it without ever re-reading other parts of the same chapter. Here they see that close reading serves a very specific purpose of slowing down the reader and taking a deeper dive into a very specific part of a story.

It also helps to approach close reading as a skill rather than a codified process. Initially, I had a seven-step close reading process with colors and symbols students would use as they examined the layers of a text. I even made an anchor chart that students could follow. But then I realized that students were following the chart with fidelity but they weren’t paying much attention to the text. They were so focused “doing it right,” that they weren’t thinking about the text itself. At that point, I taught students some close reading strategies but then told students to personalize it to their thinking process. This increased student ownership.

Ultimately, if we want students to become empowered readers, we will students to fall in love with reading. Students will need to do fewer tasks but more thinking. They’ll need to engage in more reading but less work.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

One Comment

  • Susan Scott says:

    This is exactly what I needed to read! I have a class of “lower level” grade 12 and a few grade 11. It was billed as a reading and writing class for college to entice them to join. I want to do very similar work as you described here, but not sure about the journalism piece. What else could I slip in there (being very intentional of course!) Really thinking about The Knowledge Gap and what my students don’t know (we’re in Saigon). I was going to use a lot is AOW. What do you think?

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