Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday's Five - Teaching Reading without Putting Students in a Coma

Every teacher has had moments when they realize that their students have a glazed look in their eyes, are drooling on their textbooks and are on the verge of slipping into a boredom coma.  We strive to make our lessons interesting, fun, and engaging, but sometimes we fail.  Sometimes our hands are tied because we have been told by our superiors that we need to use scripted lessons from XYZ Textbook company because such lessons are backed by research, aligned to our state's standards, and helped a neighboring district increase state test scores by 3% last year.

I seem to get that glazed, drooling, semi-comatose look from my students at times when I am teaching reading.  I love teaching math, history, and civics.  I've gotten quite good at ditching the textbook in those subjects, letting students have more autonomy over their own learning, and creating lessons that are engaging.  Reading is another story.  I'm the rare elementary teacher who dislikes teaching reading.  Because of that, I've lacked the confidence to totally ditch the textbook like I do in other subjects.

Photo Credit:  David Castillo Dominici

It's not that I don't believe reading is important, or that I don't like to read.  I do.  My problem is that I've found it difficult over the years to find ways to make the required reading series interesting in any way, and I've had difficulty identifying ways to ensure my students will pass state tests without it.  Lately I've made a great effort to devise ways to both become more textbook free, and make our reading series/textbook tolerable.  I've still got a lot to learn, but here are five ideas that I've used with some success:

  1. Teach non-fiction reading skills in other content areas.  Educational research has shown for decades that students learn best when reading is taught within content areas.  Why school districts are ignoring this research and cutting social studies and science classes in the hope of increasing reading test scores is perplexing to me.  A much better strategy would be to provide professional development to science and social studies teachers so that they can teach reading skills.  I've found that once I get my students engaged with topics in those subject areas, reading information about those topics becomes more relevant to them.  
  2. Let students choose the subject matter of their reading choices.  A few weeks ago I told my students to read the next story in our textbook, which was a narrative about a paleontologist.  Three students looked interested.  Seventeen moaned.  I moaned.  I don't really care if my students know about paleontology, dinosaurs, or anything else in that story.  What I need them to know is how to identify setting, conflict, etc.  Why should I force them to read something that they hate?  I changed the assignment on the spot.  Each student was allowed to pick one of six topics, and I handed them short books on those topics.  They still learned what they needed to and were much more interested.
  3. Don't make students take a test on everything they read.  I read a lot.  If someone forced me to take a test on each article, blog post, book, and magazine I read, I'd probably read a lot less.  I'd imagine our students feel the same way.  It's hard to build a love of reading in our students if we don't allow them to love reading.  Isn't that the reading skill that's more important than all the others?
  4. Use technology to give students purpose for reading.  Writing the main idea of the passage they read in their notebook is not purposeful.  Just typing that sentence makes me one step closer to the semi-comatose state I described earlier.  Let them publish a book review on your class website or wiki.  Let them create a study guide.  Let them share their opinions about what they read in a blog post.  It is impossible to create such things without comprehending what you read.  If students have a purpose they care about for reading, they are much more likely to practice good reading skills like re-reading, deciphering the meaning of words, etc.
  5. Allow students to get creative by incorporating the arts into reading class.  Forced to read a boring textbook narrative?  Ask students to create a comic book representation of the story that includes the rising action, conflict, climax and conclusion.  Have students turn the narrative into a screenplay and then videotape themselves acting it out.  See if students can create and record a ballad that tells the story in song.  Better yet, give them the option to choose any of those three, or another creative way to retell the story.  For informational/persuasive writing, product advertisements, commercials, and pamphlets can be great opportunities for students to get creative. 
The biggest issue I run into when trying to implement some of the above ideas is time.  We are supposed to read one textbook story per week.  Sometimes I feel like I'm not doing my job if we spend three weeks exploring one topic.  I have to remind myself that students are learning more when they are emotionally connected to the material they are studying, and that quality always trumps quantity when it comes to learning.  It would be a lie to say that I don't fall into the trap of "covering" material and topics at times.  Perhaps that's why I find teaching reading more difficult than math and social studies.  I don't find myself falling into that trap as often in those subjects.

What are some ways that you keep students engaged when learning to read?  Have you done any of the above activities?  Do you have suggestions to improve them?  What have you tried that didn't work?  What are some stumbling blocks you face when trying to make reading fun and interesting for your students?  I'd love to hear your ideas.  Please share with us in the comment section below, and pass this post along to others in your networks so that we can get their ideas as well.

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