Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Cornerstones of Reading

            Cornerstones are the most important part of the foundation of a building.  The building will fall without a well-chosen cornerstone, so it is important to ensure that these stones are strong.  If you want a strong reading program, you need to carefully make sure all parts of reading are supported. 
            The first necessary step in reading is one which is most common – reading aloud.  Students need to have time every day to read aloud, whether individually or chorally.  This can be a short story, a chapter from a novel, an article from a magazine or a newspaper, or an assignment from a textbook.  If a child reads something aloud, they do not skip sections, as they might if they are reading silently, and they are more likely to pay attention to what they are reading.  If they have a great deal of difficulty reading a section aloud, it may mean that the child is not ready for this level of reading, so it could tell the teacher that they need something different.  Reading aloud is important to any reading program.
            Reading silently is also vital to reading.  I recently heard a study over how much time students in public school spend reading silently per week.  What would you expect?  As a note, this was an average from grades K-12 and I do not know how wide-spread the study was, but it included at least a couple of large metro school districts.  Over a week-long period, how much was expected during school hours to read silently?  The answer shocked me – 50 minutes!  Not even an hour of silent reading per week!  When I heard this, I patted myself on the back.  My fourth grade students kept what I called DEAR Time (Drop Everything And Read) for 20 to 30 minutes at least 4 times per week, plus I had scheduled times in our routine where each day they read one subject’s reading silently.  In our class, we ended up with about five hours per week – more than five times the findings of this study.
            How is that possible?  Was the study flawed?  My thought at first was that the study was wrong.  How could students go through the day and not be required to read silently?  Then I started thinking about the lessons of other teachers which we discussed in the teacher’s lounge, and I started thinking it may not be wrong after all.  I also know that I had to work hard to protect our silent reading time, especially if we were running behind in another lesson.  Most teachers recognize that if children are to read silently, they do not need someone wandering around, distracting them.  If a principal walks into a room and the teacher is sitting behind her desk or at the front of the room, s/he usually assumes the teacher is being lazy (or at least the teachers think they are thinking that).  Most principals require teachers to turn in lesson plans which cover any activity which may occur if they enter the classroom, and reading silently doesn’t “look” as good on a lesson plan as an activity. 
            Think about your reading program – do you have a regular time every day for your student(s) to read silently?  I hope so.  If not, how could you rearrange your day so that you can work it in?  Reading silently gives students time to practice their reading skills, and they should have practice with books of their choosing as well as readings that are required for education.
            A much overlooked cornerstone of reading is listening to someone read aloud.  Oh, for younger children, this occurs regularly because they may be unable to read on their own.  What about pre-teens?  What about young teenagers?  High Schoolers?  Do you read to them?  If not, you should.  In my classroom, I tried to read for at least 15 – 20 minutes four or five days per week.  I chose books which were slightly higher than the class’s reading level, and usually books which I knew they would enjoy (and I would also), but that they would never choose on their own.  Classics such as “Tom Sawyer,” “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” and “Hatchet” found their way into my class every year.  I would also change a few of the other stories with other classics, and occasionally a requested book.  When children have nothing to do except listen to a story, they relax and listen.  They also learn inflection and other vocal techniques which they would never have learned if they were left on their own.  Children who read in a monotone have probably rarely been read aloud to.  Even when my step-daughter was sixteen, we read “The Chronicles of Narnia” together, and we both enjoyed it.  Children of all ages should be read to by an adult.
            Finally, peer reading is a necessary element in any reading program.  This is simply where a student reads with another student. In my classroom, we had at least 3 days per week where we would have peer reading.  Twice were self-directed, once was teacher-directed with our reading textbook.  I always gave students the choice of changing readers after every paragraph or after every page.  The students were allowed to sit where they liked (under tables, in corners, behind my bookcase – they were very creative sometimes).   During the self-directed times, I told them everyone had to have your own book to read.  Then they had a choice:  They could either take turns reading one person’s book for 15 minutes and then read the other person’s book (this would have been my choice, but it was not everyone’s, and that was fine), or they could read one page from one book and then the other reader would read one page from the other book.  This second choice worked well with informational magazines or non-fiction books.  Novels were usually used with the first choice.  It did not take long for this time to be the favorite times of the week.  Even with 14 different conversations going on at the same time, it was easy for each set of students to listen to his/her partner.  This activity greatly helped with comprehension, because the students did not want to admit to their peer that they did not know what the story was about, yet they also did not mind asking their friend for clarification for a specific piece of information.  They would also joyfully exclaim over things which they were both interested in.  As long as they were not being so loud that they were disrupting other groups, I allowed short conversations, as they were almost always related to the book they were reading.
            Reading aloud, reading silently, listening to an adult, and reading with a peer are all important aspects to a comprehensive reading program.  They should all be done several times per week, if not daily.  Even in public school, it is possible to have individualized reading instruction if all four elements of this comprehensive reading program are met.  Students will improve comprehension, fluency, and overall enjoyment of reading if they are given the freedom to read using these four cornerstones of reading.

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