Beyond the serial illnesses and perpetual lack of sleep, my first year teaching was a set-up for the rest of my professional life as an educator.
With an undergraduate degree in economics and an early career in real estate development where I analyzed the merits of new deals, I came to teaching with a practiced analytical lens.
Recognizing the Problem
My first year AH HAH moment. . .
- Not every student in my 4th grade class was on grade level in regard to their literacy or numeracy.
- The curriculum and materials did not in any way account for this reality.
This was 15 years ago. Instruction was primarily delivered via whole class instruction and student activities. I quickly realized my students that read below grade level struggled in all academic disciplines. I marinated uncomfortably in this ‘knowing’ for a while-frustrated by the disconnect between the curriculum/my instruction and my students’ needs. Some of my students were soaring, learning every day, while others just slogged through the day learning little. I was missing the mark. It drove me nuts.
Understanding the Problem
The essential question that drove my insanity was how do I get all my students to love learning like those who are already successful in my classroom? How can I shape my teaching and the curriculum, so ALL my students engage enthusiastically to learn? What is my responsibility in this dynamic? Some teachers told me to chill out-that it was not my responsibility to worry about those that don’t learn what is taught well. That perspective did not work for me.
Addressing the Problem
The first realization was I needed to break from my current approach. It just wasn’t working. So, after relentless research through reading and discussion with respected veteran colleagues, I took a risk. I decided a love of reading might address many of my worries for my students. Towards that end, I begged, borrowed and stole (like any effective teacher) any trade books across a continuum of reading levels for my classroom. Research by Dr. Richard Allington indicated that the volume of reading was the best pathway to growing reading achievement, so applying the human axiom that we prefer to do what we are successful at, I started an independent reading program in my classroom by putting three components in place:
- An assessment of each reader in my class in order to appropriately match readers with texts, so a high success rate would be ensured.
- A diverse collection of books that met the distribution of reading levels in my classroom and offered choice to students.
- A system of accountability on daily reading volume and reading growth over time, especially around comprehension.
It was a mess to start: books everywhere, confused parents and a hesitant administration. Systems had to be developed to manage the flow of books in and out of our classroom library, to level books for easy identification, to offer feedback on student accountability, for ongoing assessment to move students up the reading level continuum, and to schedule time for students to choose an ample weekly diet of independent reading books. Pangs of doubt that I was just creating chaos and not supporting my goal for creating a love of reading to drive higher reading achievement ate into my already deficient sleeping time.
Independent reading: classroom library
But one bad day, when everything seemed to go awry and desperate to regain control of my classroom, I declared 10 minutes of silent reading of independent reading books—and thunderbolt, silence descended-not one complaint! Shocked, I realized my students must like to read their independent reading books-my hypothesis was proving true. If kids can read and understand a text, they will read more! New rule: carry your independent reading book with you everywhere. Independent reading became a go-to when lines had to be quiet or assemblies were late to start or even when students completed math tests early. By the end of my first year, I was thinner and harried to the bone, but my students were reading a significantly greater volume of text—and although some of them may not have admitted it publicly, they actually enjoyed reading.
Growing Success with Common Core Standards
A love, or strong like, of reading may not solve all my students’ problems, but it clearly had a positive impact. Students start to see themselves as readers, general academic confidence grows and academic performance across disciplines nudges upward. Please, ask any teacher with an established independent reading program about student outcomes. By 2nd grade, the CCSS Anchor Reading Standard 10 expects students to read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently (in that grade band). The roadmap to meeting this standard is at least in part dependent on a robust independent reading program that holds students and teacher accountable.
To scaffold growth in comprehension, see any LearnZillion lesson set on reading at the appropriate reading level. These lessons not only reveal the thinking process readers employ to create meaning from any text but also offer an instructional approach to support a teacher’s practice using any fiction or non-fiction text.
What are your thoughts? In the comments below, please share any resources you find helpful for matching readers to texts.