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K–12 teaching and learning · from the UNC School of Education

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When I reflect on all the academic areas that I teach, I believe that no area is more important than reading. Reading is the stairway to all other forms of reading and knowledge. When a child does not learn to read efficiently, then all other curriculum areas become inaccessible. Providing children with a literacy-rich environment early is indeed crucial to both reading and writing success. Increasing students’ access to real literature books inspires in them a love for books and a continuing motivation to become lifelong readers. As an elementary educator who structures her classroom environment by focusing on reading across the curriculum, I want to share some of the successful strategies and practices I have found. Together, I call them SEARS — "Students Engaged Authentically with Reading Strategies."

DEAR (Drop Everything And Read)

Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) time is a time that is set aside daily for independent reading by both students and teachers. Every person in the class is to drop everything and read. DEAR time takes in consideration a variety of student interests and ability levels, because each student selects for himself or herself the book or books he or she wishes to read.

Rules for DEAR time include:

  • Everyone in the room must read a literature book of their choice.
  • The book or books must be selected long before DEAR time begins.
  • No getting up after DEAR time has begun.
  • No talking or moving during DEAR time.
  • Everyone must read silently.
  • No interruptions. (I even place a "DEAR TIME: DO NOT DISTURB" sign on my door.)

The major goal of DEAR is to encourage students to read independently for extended periods of time. I usually begin the year with 5 minutes, later increase the time to 10 minutes, and get students to read for longer periods of time as the year progresses. By the end of the year, my students are usually reading for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Many times they will beg for more time to read. Older students may call this time USSR (Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading).

Through the years I have built a large classroom library. In this classroom library, I have included books from a variety of genres and books written at various reading levels. Books surround the students. They are everywhere: on shelves, in baskets on their desks, in corners here and there, in centers, and even plopped on the carpet in strategic locations. Studies have shown that students who are immersed in books are more likely to become life-long readers. Thanks to monthly Scholastic Bonus Points, I have a tremendous library of over 3,000 books. (This has taken years to develop.)

Creating a literature-rich classroom environment for DEAR time has also helped students to love this time. I have positioned beanbag chairs, a quilt, reading rugs, a rocking chair, pillows, and stuffed animals throughout the room. Creating these cozy areas for reading will entice students to have a comfortable feeling when reading books and develop a sense of security when reading. I even get on the floor with the students during DEAR.

To further encourage a love of books, I read excerpts from some of my favorite books aloud to class, showing the books to let them know that the book is available in the class library. I deliberately let students see that I place a priority on reading. Pretty soon the students are saying, "Mrs. Allen, you have lots of favorite books!" I allow time daily for a couple of students to share one of their favorite books and tell a little something about it. Taking time to do these types of activities shows the value of reading and sharing good books. I keep a daily DEAR log to record the name and author of the books read by each student.

Reader’s Theater

Reader’s Theater is a technique that I use about once a month. It is a fun way to read literature books and makes them more genuine and appealing to students. I usually copy the book and then highlight the parts for each student to read. Actors and actresses get together to practice reading their parts. There are no props or costumes. They will rehearse several times as a group before presenting their production to other classmates. Students are assessed according to clarity of voice, appropriate volume, inflection when reading dialogue, and overall group cooperation. My main purpose for using this kind of reading is to get students enthusiastic about reading stories by allowing play with oral language and giving students opportunities to feel at ease and not threatened when reading in front of their classmates. There are many scripts on the Web that you can easily access to use with Reader’s Theater (see sidebar).

Literature circles

In literature circles, students choose their own reading books. I provide a list of books that are available for circle time and copies of the actual books. Sometimes I focus the selections on a specific theme, literary strategy or genre of literature. Then we create temporary groups based on the students’ book choices. There will be several different structured groups of four to five students in each literature circle. Groups meet at a regularly scheduled time to read, take notes, and, finally, discuss their books. As students read their books silently, they are encouraged to take notes in written or graphic form on ideas or topics that they may want to discuss with their group. Students have different roles as they openly discuss their literature. The roles that I include in my literature circles are the discussion director, graphics guru, culminating project chairman, debriefing dictator, and word wizard. The discussions are informal, and, upon completion of the discussion, students write or illustrate individual reflections in their literacy response notebooks. As a teacher, I schedule the groups so that I can become a kid watcher and listener. I bite my tongue and become the silent facilitator. Assessment is based on my anecdotal notes taken from my observations, group projects including graphic organizers, as well as the individual student’s literacy response notebook.

Teacher read aloud

Effective literacy programs provide activities that support learning, and research has proven that reading aloud to children constructs a valuable link to becoming literate. When teachers models oral reading, they help children understand the structure of written language, expanding their knowledge of words, and enable them to learn new ways to use language. I remember vividly from my elementary school days when my teachers would read a book to us after lunch each day. Now, some forty years later, when I think about these reading experiences, I smile. And as a teacher today, guess when I read aloud to my students? After lunch.

WEBs: Wonderfully Exciting Books

These reading experiences are based on a theme or a genre of literature. I select books based on concepts and skills outlined in the North Carolina Standard Course of Study, and the students read them together as a class or in small groups. By selecting these books, I am able to expose students to quality works of literature. Many of these books are Caldecott or Newbery Award winners. This guided reading time balances my literacy program by helping me to teach students to read fluently and with comprehension. We usually read a trade book several times, each time for a different purpose. It is not unusual for us to reread a book four or five times. Rereading the book enables children who couldn’t read it fluently the first time to achieve fluent reading by the last reading. High-frequency words and new vocabulary are repeated over and over to promote retention of these words.

Each student has his or her own copy of a trade book and carries it home each evening. Students have a ten- to fifteen-minute reading assignment nightly. Students must either read the book aloud to one of their parents or have their parents read the book aloud to them. This time is recorded in the student’s home reading log. Again, this stresses the importance of reading not only at school but also in the home. It has proven to be a valuable time for parents and children to share books as well as allow for quality time together. Research on these "lap reading" experiences has also shown that good readers had parents who read to them. One of the major benefits of "lap reading" is that it gives children a positive attitude toward reading by making it an enjoyable experience with a person whom they value. This is a good way to encourage literacy within families.

Once students feel proficient with the trade books, they must write in their WEB journals, reacting to these pieces of literature. This is not a retelling of the book; instead, students are asked to look at the events in the story and relate them to their own personal experiences. These response logs show the relationship of literature to real-world events and enable students to see authentic connections to their own lives.

Book buddies

This is shared reading time with a "book buddy," usually an older student from another class. Students choose a book from the school’s media center or from home. Sometimes I use older students within our school, and sometimes I work with high school teachers to get high school students to visit and read to or with students. Another way that I have used BBs is to allow my students to partner with younger students. Older students make good role models for younger children.

VIPs

This is a volunteer partner reading program that I organize with parents, community leaders, citizens, and senior citizens of our community. These adult partners visit our classroom twice a week for approximately thirty minutes to listen to small groups of students read. Sometimes I will ask the VIP to read to the students, which once again demonstrates that everyone values reading.

Poetry and song

Another effective way to help readers interact with text is through the use of poetry and song. Building the bridge from nursery rhymes to other forms of poetry or songs is an important element in an effective literacy program. Starting on day one, we create a poetry and song booklet. The first entry in our poetry booklet is our class theme song. I use "Rainbow Planet" by Jim Valley. Songs and poetry can explore friendship, family, cultural diversity, character building, ecology, historical events, holidays, and much, much more. Poems with monthly themes are added as the year progresses. By creating these songs and poems in printed versions, students can see other ways text is used in their lives. Stressing the three R’s of poetry — rhyme, rhythm and repetition — allows students to feel the spirit of poetry. They quickly develop a love and understanding of this rhythm and rhyme and gain the skills they need to creatively produce their own poems.

Listening centers

A variety of books can now be purchased as audio books either on cassette or CD. Several listening centers can be set up in your classrooms to allow students more practice with reading and hearing text. These literacy experiences can bridge the gap between a child’s reading vocabulary and their listening vocabulary, which is actually higher for struggling readers. Hearing the story helps children develop more understanding than reading silently, because additional meaning comes from the voice of the reader. Audio books provide another voice other than the teacher’s, which will help maintain interest. These audio books keep the students moving at an even tempo, and many times will encourage them to read longer books than they would ordinarily read by themselves. They reduce frustration, decrease fatigue, and boost motivation in the reluctant reader. For my lower-level readers, this strategy has helped tremendously with vocabulary, comprehension, and motivation. Audio books will also help your ESL students.

Content area reading

There are many trade books in both fiction and nonfiction forms in science, social studies, and even math that can introduce content-related concepts. Using these books brings cross-curricular connections to the surface and students begin to see a holistic approach to learning. Content area reading stresses that students "read to learn" instead of "learning to read." It is here that I address strategies for helping readers learn to apply their reading skills as tools for learning. Using the Internet and content-specific software can be very effective when performing this type of reading. Teaching students to use new technologies is important as we delve into content-related information. Using WebQuests and online scavenger hunts are excellent ways to tap into the vast resources available on the Web.

"READ 2 LEARN" journals or Learning Logs are often used in content area reading. When students write their thoughts down on paper they gain a different perspective on the reading material. They may use a KWL organizer to help guide their learning paths. With a KWL organizer, students make a list of what they Know, what they Want to know, and then what they Learn. This method requires students to ask questions that define their purpose for reading. These logs can also be useful for note taking, creating concept maps, brainstorming ideas, drawing Venn diagrams, and creating pictorial representations of the concepts.

Different genres of literature catalog

Keeping a list of all the books read throughout the year is another technique that helps students understand how authors develop their stories. By classifying books read into the different genres, students can pick each story apart, analyzing the uniqueness of each to determine the genre and then catalog the title under a particular genre. This enables students to begin the process of understanding how they, too, can write stories that contain the characteristics of that particular genre.

Final thoughts

These are a few of the methods that I use to create a balanced literacy program in my classroom. Using these techniques has successfully promoted student growth in reading year after year and, more importantly to me, has instilled in my students a love for books. I attribute this to the endless hours of authentic and engaged reading that we do daily. Completing pages of a workbook is not, and won’t ever be, my definition of real reading and real learning. Learning requires growing, discovering, and broadening one’s horizons. It is when one becomes engaged with the world and encounters a quest for understanding and meaning that knowledge becomes learning. Being able to read and comprehend opens many windows of opportunity for our students. I believe that it is our responsibility as teachers to reach inside each and every child to nurture their natural curiosity in whatever ways we can. Students see me modeling effective reading and can feel the love that I have for books. This becomes contagious, and I am sure that many of my students will become lifelong readers.