7 Ways to Increase Comprehension in Struggling Readers

If you have never had an opportunity to go to one of Dr. Archer’s conferences and you are even remotely interested in literacy, you need to figure out a way to go to one. Beg your administrators, save up your change, have multiple yard sales, ANYTHING to help you make it. Dr. Archer is charismatic, entertaining, and generous. To top it all off, the strategies that she presents are research-based as well as practical. She focuses so much on active participation that it is easy to see why her methods are so effective.

My top 7 Take-Aways from the Conference

1. Don’t commit assum-icide. Sometimes we, as teachers, forget that our students don’t come pre-packaged with the information that want them to know. Because we assume, we generate gaps in our students’ knowledge. These gaps interfere with comprehension to a great extent. It seems logical, but I know that I have been guilty of assum-icide.

2. One of the best things you can do for struggling students is to *teach* them. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but, if you really think about it, how much time to do we actually get to do this? It is the explicit instruction that really helps the struggling readers. Discovery learning definitely has its place, but if the students have no knowledge base, there is little chance that they are going to discover on their own.

3. Teaching reading should not just happen in the Language Arts and English classes. Every subject area has an incredible opportunity to teach reading strategies to help their students become fluent readers. Content area teachers need to get out there and share information with their students while teaching them HOW to read it. 

4. Without automaticity, comprehension is inhibited. With fluency comes comprehension. If a student’s cognitive energy is being put into decoding, there is no energy left for comprehension. It is essential to give students the skills they need in order to be fluent readers. 

5. Practice, practice, practice. I know that I am very good at initial instruction. I can get my kids rip-roaring ready to go. The units that we work on are (usually) successful, and the students demonstrate mastery at the end. Dr. Archer asked us what would happen if we tested our students two units down the road. Would they demonstrate the same amount of mastery?I realized that my students might not. Practice is key. Working in cumulative review into my lessons will help prevent my students from losing what they’ve  learned.

6. Teach vocabulary explicitly. Pick the words that you want your students to really own. They need to be unknown words, abstract in nature, and applicable. Boutique words (words that students will never see in their real lives) aren’t ones that should be focused on. This made me think of the short story “The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry. One of the vocabulary words that the teacher edition suggested for explicit instruction was mendency squad. Would that be a vocabulary word that is worth spending the time teaching? I am going to start asking myself that question more often, now.

7. Get an English Language Learner dictionary. These dictionaries give student friendly definitions. When you teach vocabulary, you need to provide your students with definitions that they can understand. Anyone who has checked out a dictionary lately probably has noticed that the definitions aren’t readily accessible to your average adolescent reader. The definitions in these dictionaries take the work out of creating denotations that are understandable.

Final Thoughts
There was so much more that I learned from the conference. The three days were not in vain. I just know that I am excited to see how the new practices and procedures increase the success of my struggling readers. For those of you who have heard Dr. Archer, I have one final thought. Woo-woo. 🙂

8 Big Ideas

I was recently turned on to this post by Scott McLeod (thanks to Twitter). Mr. McLeod writes about the GenYes Blog’s post about the 8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab. As I was perusing the “8 Big Ideas”, I started thinking about what goes on in my classroom. The ideas outlined seem like no-brainers, but I had to ask myself if I followed the concepts presented. After all, part of being a life-long learning is reflection, correct? The process was very eye-opening to me.

I realized that I still need to work hard on learning by doing. Trying to figure out how to make reading and writing a hands on activity is something that I struggle with. One of the ways that I am going to try to address this is by having my students be more hand on with their learning. I am going to go over the standard with them (thank you, Common Core Standards, for allowing me to do this without my brain exploding) and then ask THEM what they need to know in order to master the standard. I know that it will make planning more extensive, but the benefits will greatly outweigh the costs.

This segues perfectly into the next idea that struck me as pertinent: learning to learn. By giving my students more control over their learning, I will be giving them skills that will help them for the rest of their lives. Maybe it will encourage them to take the next step and the next and eventually not be so reliant upon other people to give them information. I also know that it is going to be a long process to get my students where they need to be. Many of them will be frustrated and challenged more than they’ve been challenged before. However, once they get started, they will enjoy it.

Hard fun is the third concept that stood out to me. Once they get used to the difficulty of guiding their own learning, they will start to see the fun in it. When I think of the classrooms of teachers that I admire, I see the students working hard, but having fun. The teachers in those classrooms take a challenging, abstract idea and make it the students’ responsibility to make it concrete. They guide the students, of course, and give them the help that they need when they get stuck; they also allow the students to fail over and over again in search of the solution. The thing is, the students love it. I like to think that I give my students some opportunities like this. I also know that I could do so much better at providing these sorts of things for my students.

Big idea #5, taking time, is one that worries me the most. I know that I can give my students unplanned time in the classroom. In fact, I do it often. When I say unplanned, I don’t mean letting the students do whatever they want. I mean that they have a task to complete in a certain amount of time, but how they get there is up to them. Unfortunately, my ability to give my kiddos time to learn how to manage it is limited by the requirements of the district. In this time of benchmarking, testing, assessing the assessments, and high stakes testing, the timeline of my classroom is determined by my administrators. Instead of being allowed to go more in-depth with what my students are learning, I have to fit 20 performance objectives into four-week intervals. I have to figure out a way to help my students get to where they need to be while still passing the “formative” pencil-and-paper tests required by the district. Maybe giving them the skills to learn on their own will help.

This is only the beginning of my musings on this topic. I know that I will have many more epiphanies as my brain chews on these concepts.