Years ago in a workshop, Shelley Harwayne asked us to think about how many books our struggling readers were reading on any given day. When you think about struggling readers, they may be reading a book that they’ve chosen on their own during independent reading time, and they may also be listening to a book being read aloud by the classroom teacher. Their special education or reading teacher may be reading another book with them. A parent volunteer may come in and ask them to participate in a book club about yet another book.
With all of the right intentions, this child who struggles with reading may be expected to engage with 3-5 books per day. For younger students who can often read books in one sitting, this is not usually a problem. For older students who are beginning to read chapter books, sustaining comprehension for multiple chapter books at the same time may be too much of a challenge.
This question by Shelley Harwayne from years ago has stayed with me. It reminds me to always think of the school day from the child’s perspective, especially through the eyes of the most struggling readers. As I sit back and watch us fanatically align curriculum, set up pacing guides, and work with other teachers to create common assessments, I worry that this is aligning our work as teachers, but not necessarily the learning for individual students.
Our next focus as a profession is to look at alignment as it impacts each child. How does each child’s day of literacy scaffold learning to meet challenges he/she encounters? We need this perspective especially for the most struggling readers. I worry that some of our students have many days that don’t make any sense to them at all. The day makes sense to the adults in the school, but struggling students may be spending their time jumping from one activity to another without understanding how it fits together with the rest of their learning.
This is not to say that aligning to the standards isn’t important. It seems very beneficial for student learning. But without also aligning our work to each child’s needs, we may be missing the bigger goals for some children. When we use the same system that we create with every child — regardless of whether or not they meet that child’s needs, we have gone too far. We need to be flexible in our use of the tools we are creating.
When we, as teachers, spend a great deal of time creating a pacing guide that meets all of the state’s standards, this pacing guide does not always meet the needs of individual children. For example, if we have decided that in January we will all read biographies because this is an important genre, maybe a biography is not the thing that will help Jonathan move ahead in his reading. Exposing him to biographies in another way or at another time may make more sense for him.
Rethinking Schedules for Struggling Readers
Struggling kids are usually working with several people each day. Parent volunteers, classroom aides, peer tutors and others all might be supporting these children. Struggling readers come in and out of the classroom, moving from specialist to classroom to volunteer to classroom. They are never in one place for any sustained period of time. And because our school day moves at the pace of a runaway train, teachers who work with children seldom have time to talk and think about how all of the pieces fit together.
As a variety of support people (volunteers, reading specialists, special education staff) work with struggling readers, are they giving them the same messages about reading and what it means to be a reader? Or are the messages so fractured that children are never able to develop their own identity as readers because they are so busy moving from activity to activity, book to book, message to message? Are those adults who are working with our most challenged readers collaborating to meet long-term needs as well as short-term needs? Or is the work we do with struggling readers a hit or miss strategy that never provides a solid scaffold?
In the name of testing and annual progress goals, we are frantic to help students achieve academic success. But if we are so frantic that we don’t take the time to step back and reflect on the impact on each student’s day, we are not accomplishing anything.
It’s time to take the next step in alignment and commit to looking hard at our struggling students’ daily schedules. These are the critical questions I have been asking myself in considering the needs of any one struggling reader:
- How many transitions does he/she have?
- How often is he/she in the classroom for an entire workshop?
- Are all of the people working with this child working on the one skill, concept, or need that will move this child forward as a reader?
- What in this child’s day is not what this child needs?
- What can we get rid of that does not make sense for this child?
Asking myself these hard questions helps me use all the resources available to me in flexible ways. When I put the child at the center of aligning assessment, curriculum and teaching, I often find their schedule is the first thing that needs to change.