By the Educator Collaborative Associate Vanee Smith-Matsalia
Today the entire educational system is aflame with the so-called “reading wars.” We are asked to choose one of two teams: team “Science of Reading” or team “Balanced Literacy”–as if we’re all part of a YA love triangle and have to choose our love interest. Meanwhile, ChatGPT and House AI are plotting our downfall. Sounds dramatic, yes, but such is the educational landscape these days. It doesn’t have to be.
Remove the media attention, the political volleying, and winner-takes-all mentality, and you are left with the truth. There is no “one size fits all.” There is no winner or loser in literacy instruction. There are only steps and strategies that can be used to the benefit or detriment of our students. A tool is just that, a tool. How it is wielded determines the outcomes. Put a hammer in the hands of a violent person, and you will get violence. Put one in the hand of a carpenter, and you get a statue. The same is true for literacy instructional tools.
In order to increase literacy, we need to know who and what requires intervention. Of course, all students at all levels should be getting Tier 1 literacy support in every subject matter and every classroom. These are our front-line approaches to literacy: direct and explicit vocabulary instruction and comprehension strategies. Teaching, practicing, and explicitly interacting with vocabulary is key, and every teacher in every classroom needs to be doing this. Using comprehension strategies like summarizing, annotating, paraphrasing, and making inferences about a text or problem seem basic, but they are actually vital skills needed for all readers in all contexts. Intervention, however, goes beyond Tier 1 literacy. Many of our students come to us needing more.
The question is, where does secondary education fit into all of this? By the time the students reach us at the secondary level, they should already be “literate,” right? Skills like being able to decode print text and have phonemic awareness aren’t in our standards and don’t fit in our multi-pronged pacing guides. Does that mean that we have no space in reading instruction for these kinds of skills? Of course not! At the secondary level we are reading interventionists, and, yes, this can be done in the language arts classroom without heavily impacting our curriculum or pacing guides. In secondary education, standards-based instruction is the head of curriculum, but if standards are the head, then reading is the spine. The best part is that this does not have to be limited to a language arts classroom. Literacy belongs to all of us, and the following tips are cross-curricular! What’s even better is that they are well-researched and vetted as being effective. Quality practices without massive time investment are a recipe for success and are realistic approaches that teachers can actually use.
Tip 1: Assess
The first step is figuring out which students need support. There must be baseline assessment data that gives us insight into students’ reading levels. There are several different reading level and fluency assessments–from 1:1 fluency tests with the teacher to computer-based assessments. The educational space is littered with assessment tools like NWEA, Read180, and a number of other options. I find that the simplest and briefest options tend to be best for me. After all, I do have a class to teach. The Accelerated Reader (AR) test takes, on average, 20-30 minutes. That still leaves me time to get to my lesson. I also really enjoy the WhooosReading diagnostic assessment, because it can be given/taken in small chunks over a few days and is fairly simple. I also really like it because students can self-select fiction vs non-fiction and what genre and topic they’d like to be assess on. This choice keeps interest high and decreases quite a bit of testing fatigue issues. Win-Win! It doesn’t matter which assessment system we choose so long as it is able to provide us with baseline data for our students and some level of skill diagnostic. I run these assessments once per quarter as starters, just so that I am constantly tracking growth and can ascertain if my interventions are working! That leads us to Tip #2.
Tip 2: Targeted Skill Building
When you have 36 students in a room at 4 or 5 different skill levels, 5 or 6 times a day, the idea of targeted skill building can seem overwhelming, and you’re right…it is. This is why we have to think strategically. Again, there is always the use of pre-built systems like System 44 or Edmentum and giving students 15 minutes or so a week to work at the level/pacing that their programs have designated for them. I use the Whooo’sReading.org insights tool because it groups students by need for me and assigns them skill-based remediation that they can use with whatever reading that I am already working on in class, so it doesn’t have to be separate from my regular instruction. I like how seamless it is, and I enjoy that my students have no idea that they are working on something different. I just say, “This Friday, instead of SSR, go into your WR account and use The Hunger Games novel to do the assignment that I left in there for you!” They are none the wiser. I do wish, though, that it had decoding or phonics lessons available for my students who are struggling more than the rest. This, however, is just one of MANY options for targeted skill building.
Mini-lessons are our secret weapon. I mean it. If you haven’t tried this yet, start. The trick is sneaking them in at opportune moments. We can create decoding-based mini-lessons as a starter once per month or maybe one on easy reading strategies, and then employ those skills throughout the rest of the month and year intertwined with what we are already teaching. This way, the interventions do not interfere with the curriculum and actually enhance it for all students. Those who need the remediation get it. Everyone else gets additional tools to put in their literacy tool belt, which is never a bad thing (and also a key aspect of Universal Design for Learning)! I choose my skills-based mini-lessons depending on which skills the program that I am using suggests are the greatest needs by class period. Yup, that means different mini-lessons for different classes, or even for small groups. My secret? I record myself doing the mini-lessons and drop them into different groups based on who needs them, which is super easy to do using Google Classroom and a host of other learning management apps. I create 3 or 4 short lessons (5 minutes or so each), drop them in my classroom as “Grammar Lesson- w/ Date” and assign certain lessons to certain students. You can even find brief pre-made video lessons on YouTube if you aren’t apt to make them yourself. It sounds complicated, but once you do it the first time, it will seem simple. Want to make the best of your time? Work with your team or department and have everyone make a few and have a shared library! Wham! Bam! Built-in literacy instruction.
Tip 3: Strategic Reading
Our students need to read. All of them do, but this is especially true for those who need targeted intervention. Students need intentional, engaging, and meaningful reading opportunities with discussion. This matters. I cannot stress enough how much this matters. This looks like shared small group readings of articles and short stories that are already in our units with comprehension tools and no-opt-out reading. This looks like letting students choose if they want to read a sentence at a time, a paragraph at a time, or a page at a time in their reading groups based on their comfort level and building as the year goes on.
Talk about reading! Do it often and do it well. We need to choose high-interest texts and topics that OUR STUDENTS care about, not our childhood favorites. This year, I have let my students use the Webtoons app on their Chromebook or read articles on Sports Center or ESPN and then offer each of them 3 minutes to “spill the tea” on what they read to anyone in the room. They love dishing on current love triangles, or on whose team stomped whose. They compete to see who has read the most chapters of Lore Olympus. This is when students get to use the skills I sneak in. Literacy intervention without practice is wasted time, and since when did teachers have time to waste?
These small tips and strategies are not my instruction. This is not part of my curriculum. My pacing guide remains unaltered and unmoved by these real-life literacy practices. My argument unit, research unit, and the rest still march on with standards-based instruction remaining king in my room. Reading intervention is simply part of a well-oiled machine, and is not in any way limited to the language arts classroom. These tips are a realistic way to build reading instruction and intervention in the secondary classroom. Reading intervention is attainable in any context with strategic thinking. Try, and let me know what you think.