Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Four Instructional Practices So No One Falls through the Gaps

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Four Instructional Practices So No One Falls through the Gaps

Article excerpt


Much has been written about the decline of middle school students' reading habits and their tendency to plateau out. While the focus has been on establishing the cause for the decline, engaging students in quality literacy experiences has generally been overlooked as a logical solution. Needless to say, things are changing for the better in our classrooms. I see engaged, excited readers who, when asked what they are reading, cannot help but do an oral retelling of every detail in the latest 'hot book' they have discovered.

Similarly, with writing, I regularly hear students talking enthusiastically about their publishing. I have witnessed communities of students and adults enjoying publication celebrations, such as the examples shown in Figure 1. I have walked down school hallways, where students are so engrossed in reading or writing that there is calm and serenity. However, it has not always been this way.

Three years ago, when I started doing consultancy work full time in schools, I was appalled that classrooms had so few books. Some teachers were embarrassed to point to their skimpy class libraries and exclaimed, 'This is it!' Others pointed to graded, neatly arranged sets of readers and explained, 'That is what we have to use.' When I looked around rooms, walls were decorated primarily with commercially produced posters and neatly coloured blackline masters; writing was seen as a chore and students did not like to write ... and, in many instances, nor did teachers. Interruptions, either over the PA system or people coming in and out of classrooms, were most disconcerting.

These days, I am seeing something very different. Basically, the change has come about because teachers have embraced four fundamental instructional practices that have had a profound impact on their daily literacy blocks. These fundamental practices have turned classrooms into communities of readers and writers. In the following sections, I talk about these fundamental practices, with reference to the literature and examples of what is working.

Instructional practice 1: Free voluntary reading

Free voluntary reading (FVR) involves students reading on a daily basis for an uninterrupted time--in most cases, a minimum of 20 minutes. Reading books every day is the only activity that relates reliably to proficiency in reading and creates avid readers (Atwell, 2010). Taking time to read a self-selected book is seen as a priority and it is an integral component of the literacy block (as opposed to being tacked on at the end of the day, often after lunch as a 'quieten-down, cool-off priority').

A research synthesis of 51 studies by Krashen (2004) found that, to improve students' reading, 'they simply need to read more'. They need ongoing, regular experiences of free voluntary reading. Students choose from a quality collection of books and read for extended periods of time. Krashen goes on to explain: 'No single literacy activity has a more positive effect on students' comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, spelling, writing ability, and overall academic achievement than FVR' (p. 51).

Other research studies have found that the impact of free voluntary reading is far reaching. Students' motivation and interest in reading improves; they read more and discover that reading is pleasurable; they develop superior knowledge and their understanding of English increases; their reading stamina and thinking skills improve (Allington & Gabriel, 2012; Gallagher, 2009; Wu & Samuels, 2004). Unfortunately, research into free voluntary reading indicates that those who need the most support in reading--struggling readers--read approximately 75 per cent less than their peers in regular classrooms (Allington, 2013).

Free voluntary reading presupposes that the reader has a choice of what to read. This implies that teachers have to trust students to make choices. Choice matters! …

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