by Elizabeth Liberatore
Plan to turn complexity into comprehension
Reading, like any activity, requires plenty of practice to perfect. You cannot expect piano students to master a technically demanding score by Chopin or Beethoven unless it is practiced in bite-size portions. Reading is no different. Only when students are routinely exposed to quality literature with embedded skills that reinforce standards can students raise their literacy and comprehension skills.
“Unpack” Literature Standards in the Classroom
But how do you make a reading lesson equal parts attainable and rigorous for your students? You “unpack it.” Reading standards today are big and complex, embedded with at least three or four smaller skills. Students need to “make inferences” while also “explaining what the text says explicitly” and referring “to details and examples in a text.” Any one of those subskills warrants a lesson unto itself.
Small, bite-size skills help introduce your students to academic vocabulary, high frequency words, and other proficiencies needed to master the larger standard. Once students learn the subskills within a standard—such as reading and rereading, annotating unfamiliar and/or repetitive words, locating literary devices, and so forth—they will approach the larger standard with confidence. Assessments of each subskill within a standard allow you to better gauge students’ trouble spots in mastering the overall standard.
Make It Approachable Without Compromising Rigor
How often should students be practicing their reading? According to Dick Allington, author of What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-based Programs, students ought to read 300 minutes every week. That’s a lot. Constant distractions like entertainment on devices such as computers or iPads and students entering and exiting the classroom can make it difficult to allot that much time to reading without shortchanging other subjects. Even when 15–30 minutes of reading is spent in after-school programs or as homework, the suggested 300 minutes per week will be met only if students practice a daily reading routine in the classroom. That is, students need to read daily and practice mastering the skills they need to unravel today’s complex reading and literature standards.
Planning is teaching—teach a plan! Pack two ingredients into each week: clear, explicit instruction of key reading skills and sufficient reading of engaging, complex texts across all subjects. Take time to unpack the reading literature and informational text standards and work through them methodically. Then challenge students with complex texts on which they can practice the subskills they need to master. As long as your weekly reading routine has a consistent structure that students can easily digest, you can be assured that their comprehension and literacy skills will improve with every lesson they complete.