August 7, 2014

5 Ways to Make Middle School Students Better Readers

We are all gearing up for the beginning of the school year.  Some of you reading this may have already started your school year.  Wherever you're at in your back-to-school journey, the blog post I am typing this afternoon I think will pertain to any middle school teacher out there, regardless of the content area you teach.  I love to reflect on the teaching practices and methods I've used in the past and set goals based off of that reflection.  You will rarely find me anywhere without my little notebook that I carry around to jot down thoughts, new ideas, things I want to change, items I want to talk with somebody about, etc.  This afternoon as I was jotting down teaching goals for this school year, I had a moment of clarity while writing down goals for my reading instruction.  I realized my number one goal for the school year was this: to make the 25 students in my 6th grade language arts class better readers and writers.  And when I say "better," I don't just mean "a little bit better than when they started 6th grade." I'm talking about students who see themselves as readers, enjoy reading, and who show at or above grade level reading skills by the end of 6th grade.  So what am I going to do in order to attain my goal? I'm going to go back to basics and concentrate on the essential, non-negotiable parts of what I have learned students need in order to become better readers.  Here they are:

1.  Time

Time is number one on my list because without time for students to read and see themselves as readers, they never will be.  As teachers, we must put our money where our mouth is.  If we say we value students seeing themselves as readers, but never give them any independent reading time during class, we are contradicting what we say we value.  I have witnessed time and again reluctant readers in my classroom who say they hate reading matched with the right book, and given an uninterrupted amount of time to enjoy it, get hooked and become almost addicted to reading.  It is human nature to make time in our life for the things we enjoy, and to not make time for other things that we have a negative connotation with or do not find important enough to incorporate into our schedules. The more we get students "hooked" into reading during class time, the more that will transfer to them reading outside of class, and we all know the correlation between students' reading time and reading levels.  The more students read, the better they will be at it.  Seems a little too logical, huh?

For me, personally, I know that in order to give students more independent reading time, I need to be more cognizant of keeping my minilessons mini and work really hard to keep transition time and routines efficient to maximize the minutes we do have.

2.  Exposure to text in a variety of instructional contexts

Using the Reading Workshop model to teach reading, I ensure that all of the students in my classroom will be exposed to a variety of authors, genres, and topics throughout the school year.  The daily Interactive Read Aloud I read with them allows students to hear a text and experience it as an audience.  Students' independent reading is self-selected and gives them the opportunity to read what they want, when they want.  Guided Reading has students reading at their instructional reading level with teacher support in small groups.  Literature Circles expose students to reading grade level texts and engaging in conversation with their peers.  All of these different instructional contexts allow students to get to know who they are as readers and who they want to become.

3.  Conversation

Students must learn how to put words to their thinking about reading.  If we constantly require students to only write down their thinking about reading, we are sort of squashing the awesome conversations students could be having with one another and as a class.  I am going to make a conscious effort this school year to build in time for student talk about text at the end of the class period during the "share" portion of the minilesson.  I also want to really dig into helping students develop the skills necessary to engage in meaningful small group conversations about reading.  It's one thing to put them in a group to talk about a book, and it's completely another to teach them how to engage in meaningful conversation.

4.  Focus on skills not tasks

A huge focus of teaching right now is always making the standard you are covering that day known by using an "I Can" statement, a minilesson statement, writing the standard on the board, etc.  I think sometimes we, as teachers, get confused between what we are asking students to do that day and what we are asking students to take on as readers to carry with them and apply again and again as they read any book in their future.  I want to be the teacher that teaches students what it means to be readers who are able to think deeply about what they are reading.  I don't want to be the teacher who teaches that readers "do Venn Diagrams."  Here are a few examples to add a little more clarity to what I am saying.

Minilesson Focused on a Skill:

-Readers think about how the characters change in a story so that they can analyze how the changes impacted the plot.

Minilesson Focused on a Task:

-Readers keep a chart of how characters change in a story so that they can analyze how the changes impacted the plot.

The difference in the minilesson is subtle, but the wording we use with students when it comes to the minilesson statement for the day is our way of communicating with students what's important for them to take on as readers.  These minilessons MUST be based on thinking.

5.  Celebrate Reading

I'm not talking balloons and cake, although these things are never out of the question.  I'm talking about the moments where students feel valued as a reader by their teacher, their parents, other students, etc.  As teachers, we can deliberately create these moments for students to celebrate what they've accomplished as readers by:

-Holding reading conferences with students and then continuing to informally follow up on the progress students are making on their independent reading material.  It's amazing the impact a teacher can make on students as readers just by showing interest and asking how a book is going.

-Having students give book talks on books they've finished and loved.  Giving students ownership on sharing a book they liked with the class is going to create a positive domino effect.

-Assign students to talk about their reading with parents at home.

Students need to feel good about what they've done as readers.  It will make them more likely to want to accomplish even more.



17 comments :

  1. I just always love reading your posts. You have so much insight and I learn so much from you! One thing I did last year, and I did not plan this, it just happened, is that students would bring me their independent reading book and I would skim through from where they left off and put a sticky note where they needed to read to that night. Oh my goodness, they loved it! The would march up to my desk and be so proud to show me that they not only read up to the sticky note I set but PAST IT! I would ask them for a quick summary about what they read that night. Sometimes, I would give them a jolly rancher, sometimes just a high-five and "way to go".
    When people find out I teacher middle schoolers, I am almost always greeted with "ohhh, " or " ugh" or "oh my goodness, how can you?" like it's this huge hardship--yet they've never done it so how can they knock it? I taught elementary and when I was offered to teach 7th grade, it took around 6 months until I realized how much I love teaching this age group. Anyways, keep posting here and also your fantastic products in your store.

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    1. I love the idea of giving students goals with their independent reading books and checking back in with them about it the next day. You are so right about middle schoolers....I think they're the best, too! It's so true that if we just show some interest in what they're doing and care, they're going to meet you in the middle! Thank you so much for your kind words about my blog and store! I appreciate it! Have a great school year!

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  2. Hi Kasey! If you are doing a class novel, do you do it separate from workshop? Or on different days? Trying to figure out if I should use workshop schedule everyday.....(is the class read just in place of independent read)

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  3. Hey Betsy! If you're doing a whole class novel, you could still run a workshop format and have students read the novel during independent reading time and a book of their choice if they finish the reading for that day early. I've transitioned away from doing whole class novel units, but do incorporate a common text to refer to during reading minilessons through Interactive Read Aloud. Check out different ideas I've put together for structuring your literacy block with different time allotments here: http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/How-Should-I-Structure-My-Literacy-Block-RW-and-WW-Time-Recommendations-1358613. Hope this helps a little! Scheduling is so tricky for middle school LA teachers!

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  4. Hi Kasey, I agree with teaching a skill rather than a task. A skill is transferable to other texts. I teach middle school 6th grade language arts and social studies. Last year my classes read the excellent novel Wonder. I read it while they read it, modeling a think aloud by commenting on certain sections and encouraging them to do the same. This was a novel the majority of students read cover to cover and enjoyed. I highly recommend it. This school year I have a goal for my students - they will become literate democratic citizens. I have class sizes of around 40 and know this will be challenging, but by incorporating themes and reading to address this goal, I am sure it can be done. Thanks for your insights.

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    1. I am familiar with Wonder. The 5th grade teachers at our school read it to their students as an Interactive Read Aloud and students LOVED it as well. :) It's crazy that you have 40 students in a class! Wow! I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and I wish you a very happy school year. Your goal sounds awesome as well!

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    2. Thanks. I am also using your spelling observations for spelling. I told my classes that this year they would choose their words and they were so confused having always been given words. So it may take a while for them to "get it".

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    3. It's always a process when giving students more choice when they're used to having limited choice. It makes them take ownership of their learning and some students are perfectly content in having their learning dictated to them. You're definitely going the right route...just keep consistently doing what you're doing and your students will adapt! :)

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  5. Hello, I'm a fairly new 6th grade ELA teacher who is thinking about implementing Readers & Writers workshop this year. I teach with a 90 min block schedule. I was wondering, for guided reading, do you use novels or shorter, leveled readers? If you use novels, which ones would you recommend for 6th grade? Thanks!

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    1. Hi Tracy,

      For guided reading I use a variety of texts depending on the group. our book room is filled with texts of all genres, shapes, and sizes, and I choose the text I think would work best for the specific group of students I'm working with. A huge factor to this is their reading level, so I would say it's not really grade level specific. We do not use leveled readers for guided reading as in a book series. We use the F&P leveling system to level authentic texts. I'm going to attach a link to a freebie from my TpT store. It includes the titles of the books in our book room. I hope this is helpful to you.

      http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Starting-a-Middle-School-Book-Room-Freebie-773077

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  6. Kasey,
    In Common Core, and the new assessments that it brings, there is a huge emphasis on reading and analyzing nonfiction texts. I am planning my reading intervention class right now, using lots of your strategies, but I was curious how you include nonfiction texts in your instruction?

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    1. The CCSS standards for literature and informational texts are asking students to apply similar reading skills to different types of texts. I get asked this question a lot, and I want to address it in a blog post, so thank you for the inspiration....stay posted on a blog post about nonfiction in the near future. :)

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  7. I really enjoyed this blog. I especially love the Interactive Read Aloud idea. So many times, it was difficult for me as a middle school reading teacher to get my kids to try new genres. IF they actually enjoyed reading, it was always one genre only. This allows for the students to get that experience without it being a “pulling teeth” situation.  I also had my students, at the end of each six weeks, pull two questions from a bag. They had to answer each question about a book they had read during the six weeks. This was a student selected book. The class was allowed a Q&A after the two questions were answered. This allowed for the class to be exposed to other genres and interact with each other through engaging conversations. Many times, students would start lists of books that were discussed and check them out for themselves later. If I were to do it again, I would do this activity more than once during the six weeks. It was neat to watch and listen as my reluctant readers became knowledgeable, excited readers. Thank you for your post!

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    1. That is an awesome idea, Kasi! Thank you for sharing. Knowledge is power, and a teacher can never have too many ideas.

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  8. Hello! I found your blog to be extremely insightful and full of information! As a middle school ELAR teacher, I found that your blog had a lot of information that I can potentially put into use immediately. One thing that stood out to me the most was the idea of introducing students to a variety of texts and contexts, but using this exposure through guided reading. I am definitely a fan of guided reading and I think it is an instruction tool that really helps students comprehend and understand the text on a conceptual level. Also, I enjoy thinking aloud and modeling my thoughts and analysis with my students while I read. I think it helps to teach them how to think and analyze while they are reading a text. All in all, I enjoy your blog! I look forward to reading more posts!

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    1. Thanks so much for your kind words. It sounds like you're right in line with how I envision middle school LA to be and are doing awesome things in your classroom.

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