Monday, October 12, 2015

More Reading and Writing, Less "Stuff"!

About a month or so ago, I started a series on my Facebook page called Nurturing Literacy as a way to promote best practices in literacy instruction. As well, I wanted to share reminders of how to foster a love of reading and writing in our students.  My most recent tip is pictured above and is really something that is at the core of my teaching philosophy. When I was a classroom teacher and later a reading specialist/literacy coach, I found that I had to be very intentional in making sure that one, I was not doing most of the talking most of the day and two, that during reading and writing blocks, and in content lessons that my students were doing actual, authentic reading and writing.

At least for me, I can get so caught up in pre-reading activities such as activating schema, building background information, and pre-teaching vocabulary, that there isn't that much time left for the students to actually read.  Again, I have to keep myself in check and be intentional in limiting before reading activities so that students have a large chunk of time to read.  Richard Allington confirms my beliefs:

The issue is less stuff vs. reading than it is a question of what sorts of and how much of stuff. When stuff dominates instructional time, warning flags should go up. This is true even when the activity, in some form, has been shown to be useful. Activating students' background knowledge before reading (Pearson & Fielding, 1991) and generating discussion after reading (Fall, Webb & Chudowsky, 2000) is useful. But three to five minutes of building background knowledge is probably enough; spending most of a 90 minute reading block on building background knowledge seems an unlikely strategy for improving reading proficiencies.  
(2002 Richard Allington,

And then there are during and after reading activities. My stance on this is that we should not drown students in questions to answer and worksheets to complete.  Personally, I cringe when I see a 100 page packet for students to complete during and after reading a chapter book or novel. After 25 years in education, I have found that this practice does not motivate students, does not foster a love for reading, and is really not necessary to have them answer a plethora of questions for each and every chapter. Time would be better spent having students answer a reader response question and then having them get back to reading.

Another article written by Allington and Rachael E. Gabriel states:

First, eliminate almost all worksheets and workbooks. Use the money saved to purchase books for classroom libraries; use the time saved for self-selected reading, self-selected writing, literary conversations, and read-alouds. 

 ( 2012 ASCD,-Every-Day.aspx)

Many renowned and seasoned teachers such as Nancie Atwell, Regie Routman, Donald Graves, Jeffrey Wilhelm, et al,as well as recent teacher-researchers such as Kelly Gallagher an Donalyn Miller all emphasize that it is critical that teachers create many opportunities for students to read and write throughout the day. I am very selective in the tasks and activities that my students complete.  Is this worksheet really necessary?  Should I continue to do DOL (Daily Oral Language) or have students read or write at the beginning of the day or class period? As for the latter, I did eliminate my DOL and instead had students writing in their journal (a part of their Writer's Notebook) for "bell ringer" work.  And fast finishers?  Instead of another worksheet or skill practice, I allow my students to do independent reading.  Again, these practices are not only supported by research, but also from my own personal experiences.  Kelly Gallagher, author of Readicide, makes a plea to teachers:

Readers need to read a lot before they become good readers.  This should be nonnegotiable. Unfortunately, I have found that schools have become such extremely busy places that authentic reading experiences are often buried under lectures, group work, films, worksheets, and test preparation.  ( Readicide, p. 58)

Of course, this does not mean that there is never a time and place for the occasional worksheet, craft, or explicit teaching.  One lesson that I have learned is that we need to teach with a sense of urgency, but even more importantly, we need to encourage, inspire, and motivate our students to grow as independent readers and writers. As I am creating a lesson plan, I ask myself two questions:  Is this best practice according to the research and my own action research? And, I ask myself if my plans will help to develop my students as motivated and independent readers, writers, and thinkers. What do my students need to be successful?  Do they need 1:1 explicit teaching and support?  Would it be best for them to be in a guided reading or writing group? What about test prep and CCSS alignment, curricular scope and sequence?  Well, let's just say that I often teach like a pirate! Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate, explains pirate teaching this way:

Pirates are daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success.  They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence. They are entrepreneurs who take risks and are willing to travel to the ends o the earth for that which they value (p. xii).

If you can show your admin that your teaching practices get results, then you will be supported even if you stray from the norm.  I am thankful for the trailblazers like Nancie Atwell, Donalyn Miller, Paul Solarz, and Dave Burgess, just to name a few.  Not only did they take a risk, step out of their comfort zones, and eliminate the fluff and stuff from their lesson plans, but they documented their learning and experiences, thus providing rich research from which we can learn.

The answer to the complicated questions and concerns about our nation's schools, students, and test data may be really simple: allow time, much more time in the classroom for students to read and write.

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