Monday, April 15, 2019

Tackling the Reading Comprehension Conundrum

In my last blog, The Reading Comprehension Conundrum, I wrote about factors, often not identified, that negatively impact comprehension instruction, particularly in developing countries. This blog will focus on one pivotal way to tackle the comprehension conundrum by making an alteration to the trajectory of teacher preparation.

Many efforts to improve how well children can read with understanding by the end of primary school, fall far short. (USAID – Landscape Report of Early Grade Literacy, 2016. pp. 33-34) Those efforts often fit into one of two categories that impact instruction. They either switch-up or add-on to the status quo by introducing new reading materials, improving production and distribution of books and tablets, and providing more in-service and coaching support for teachers. But here’s the thing. While new efforts add-on and switch-up, they almost never dig-down to fortify the teachers’ own literacy and second language (mostly English) foundations. New efforts do not fill in the gaps that teachers are so acutely aware of when they have the responsibility of teaching young students how to read and write. As one anguished young Ethiopian teacher said to me, “How can I teach my students what we were never taught?”

Visualize creating time and space to address the gaps in the teachers’ own reading, writing, and second language proficiencies before asking them to go out and teach those vital abilities. Why not dedicate a portion of the teacher-preparation certificate and diploma programs, to a life-changing, teacher-changing course requirement? Give teachers who did not have the benefit of literacy-rich homes and classrooms, the mentors and the models that can enable them to visualize and internalize the strategies they need to teach their students. Teachers can have the capacity and agency to be the expert in their classrooms. Here is one significant way the reading comprehension conundrum can be tackled.

The Authors’ & Critics’ Circles 

The critics’ circle
When you walk into an Authors’ & Critics’ Circle in progress, you will be struck by the informality of the scene even though you are in a Teacher Training College classroom. A cluster of early-grade student teachers are gathered around their mentor, an experienced literacy teacher. She is holding a picture book so that the illustrations and the print on the page are in full view of the gathered students. She is running the index finger, of her free hand, under the words on the page as she reads aloud with amplified expression. Then, mid-sentence, she looks up and exclaims, “I think I know what is going to happen next!” And proceeds to tell the captive audience what her prediction is and why she is making it.

Reading aloud and thinking aloud with The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

The group’s mentor is reading aloud and thinking aloud. The student teachers are regaled, in this way, each morning they meet. She is modeling, with clear intent, the strategies that research has identified as the reading behaviors used by all proficient readers. When this mornings’ reading and thinking aloud is over, the mentor will guide the group through a retelling of the events in the story and a reflection on what she thought about as she was reading. Making predictions based on information in the story is one of the two strategies she is focusing on in this class.

The mentor knows from experience that after three days of reading and thinking aloud, early-grade children would be jumping out of their seats, anxious to give their predictions, ask their questions and guess (infer) what the characters are thinking. The student teachers, being more reserved and cautious, will wait to be invited to share in the thinking aloud but they will, and they will be experiencing what readers do when they read to make meaning. Because the conversation around reading strategies is consistent and explicit, the student teachers are developing the metacognitive awareness all high-functioning people bring to their work. 

They will also be absorbing the mentor’s seamless way of drawing the listeners’ attention to the many early literacy skills beginning readers need to learn. While thinking aloud, she will elaborate on and clarify different print features, the story structure, vocabulary concepts, story genre, and background knowledge. The exploration of the text, during and after the reading, generates ideas for the writing that takes place in the Authors’ Circle.

The authors’ circle
The student teachers’ mentor has created a safe and comfortable setting for the unfamiliar and unpracticed work of being an author. Using the brilliant insights that Lucy Calkins introduced to teachers around the globe, she first and foremost, honors the ownership the author must have over his or her writing, from topic selection to each and every revision made. (Even when the author is 5-years-old.) 

As the group transitions from the critics’ circle to the authors’ circle, some participants return to the desks grouped around the room where they will continue to work on their personal narratives. Again, it was Calkins who showed us the efficacy of asking students to write about topics that are personally important to them – their engagement is high, they are “experts” on their topics, and because they want others to understand what they have written, they are motivated to learn and use the conventions of writing correctly (i.e., spelling, capitalization, punctuation, grammar, and syntax).

Other student teachers gather at a large round table with their writing in hand. They will be sharing their rough drafts with their classmates for the purpose of getting their feedback (constructive responses). Because the student teachers have had model lessons for every step in the writing process, they will be prepared to listen for what each writer has done well and what needs work. They have also learned how to language their comments so that each person feels supported, never embarrassed.

Because the student teachers are learning how to write clearly and effectively, they will not be dependent on corrections or grades to judge the quality of their work. They will carry with them the criteria for proficient reading and writing when they have classes of their own. They will also know, from their own learning experience, that early-grade students’ literacy skills will progress rapidly if each and every reading skill is reinforced by using the flipside of the skill when they write (not copy) their own words and sentences. Conversely, their writing skills will be reinforced when reading. 

If you have not thought about it before, try this. Name a reading skill, such as decoding (breaking a word up into letter sounds so it can be pronounced) and match that skill to its corresponding writing skill. (Answer: The corresponding skill is encoding or stringing sounds together to spell a word.) How about knowing, when a capital letter comes after a period, that is a signal a new sentence is beginning? Would that knowledge come in handy when writing? How about identifying and naming what the connection is between the sentences in a paragraph to get the main idea? Would that skill come in handy when expressing ideas in writing?

Logistics for making Authors’ and Critics’ Circles part of early-grade teacher education and certification
Adding a course, such as the one described here, to the teacher preparation syllabus in Teacher Training Colleges or university programs that offer a specialization in early-grade education, can take on several different sizes and shapes. Regardless, of context and circumstances, three major considerations will be:

  • Scheduling the number of terms, the number of days a week and the length of each class so that the time dedicated is sufficient for the processing and acquisition of core skills and strategies.
  • Qualified literacy mentors, if not on staff, would need to be recruited either through a collaborative arrangement with a nearby university; work with an NGO that provides teacher education for their partner schools, or hiring an independent literacy consultant. Ideally, teachers who have completed the Authors’ and Critics’ Circles course would become a growing community of early-grade literacy mentors.
  • Course costs are minimal. Funds are needed for read-aloud books, a course resource book for the student teachers, paper supplies and access to copying machines. Computers and internet access, while always valuable assets to education, are not essential to the quality and effectiveness of this course. The addition of the literacy mentor to the teaching staff can potentially be ameliorated by the reorganization of the syllabus if an evidence-based assessment of the courses given, were to point in that direction.

An In-service Authors’ and Critics’ Circle 
The longer the arc, the deeper the development of expertise, and the more clinically-based teacher education is, the greater the probability will be that teachers will be highly effective, and students will thrive. While in-service courses seldom deliver long-term, in-depth learning for teachers, the foundational literacy course, we are describing, can be a huge asset to practicing teachers. Two in-service options are (1) holding classes after early-grade students are dismissed or (2) providing an orientation and launch of the circles during a term break (compensation provided) and continuing meetings throughout the year on a monthly basis.  

If you know of similar efforts to address the literacy and second language proficiencies of early- grade teachers, please share them in this space. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Thank you for your engagement!

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