I wrote this six part equity series to better understand the inequities surrounding the ways in which we teach and assess reading and writing skills in the United States. I wanted to know more. Not only that, I wanted to find practical solutions for the problems all teachers (not just English teachers) face, such as:
- A lack of understanding about how to teach reading and writing effectively and with equity in mind
- The immense challenge of helping 30+ students with many differing needs
- Students receiving low grades and over again on assessments, throughout the entire school year
- Systemic racism and how it all plays out within our educational institutions
After writing the six parts in this series (they are all linked below), I’ve discovered that these topics are fraught with a lot of controversy and many historically significant events that have had massive ripple effects.
My hope is that by synthesizing all the information, I can help busy teachers make informed decisions in their classrooms when it comes to choosing the most impactful and equitable ways to teach.
Through my research I’ve come to also understand that teachers have immense power. We have the ability to face the inequities within our school systems head on with the choices we make in our classrooms.
Before we get too deep into the topic of teaching and assessing reading, we need additional information if we are to be on the same page when it comes to all the many terms related to this topic.
Please take time to carefully read through the key terms below before reading through this article.
Also, if you missed the other parts of this six part series, Rethinking Common English Teaching Practices with Equity in Mind, you can read/listen by clicking the links below.
Workshop– a method of teaching that empowers students to become readers and writers in and outside of the classroom. This method of teaching involves a system wherein students work toward publishing pieces of writing and developing identities as readers by choosing the books they are interested in. Workshop also prioritizes developing a supportive community of readers and writers.
Equity-the act of treating people fairly. This is not to be confused with equality which is treating people equally. Our students are all unique and have different needs, so treating them all equally is just not possible, but treating them fairly and with their individual needs in mind is possible.
The Reading Wars/The Literacy Wars- the debate about how to teach reading. The science of reading camp, whole language camp and balanced literacy camps are at odds with one another. Read more about this here.
Whole Language– young children learn to read naturally over time with exposure to relevant and engaging print. Read more about this here.
The Science of Reading– there is a systematic, predictable process that we can use to teach children to read that involves prioritizing phonics instruction, especially in K-2. Read more about this here.
Balanced Literacy– an approach that prioritizes independent reading time, leveled readers, cueing students to use context clues while they read and giving students authentic, real world reading experiences. Read more about this here.
Reading Opportunity Gap– many students in our schools receive fragmented learning experiences in literacy causing a gap in their reading skills. It’s not what students bring to school that’s causing a gap in skills, it’s the instruction they get in schools that is the cause. Read more about this here.
Assessment- collecting data and making decisions about that data to improve learning or evaluate learning with a letter/number grade.
Formative Assessments- informal assessments done to collect data at the beginning and middle of a unit in order to inform lessons and scaffolds for students.
Summative Assessments- formal assessments done to collect data at the end of a unit to find out what students have learned and retained as well as to inform remediation steps.
Five Reading Skills Needed to Be A Successful Reader
- Phonological awareness– identifying words that rhyme, recognizing alliteration, syllables, segmenting a sentence into words
- Phonics– systematic instruction in letter-sound correspondence in order to decode the letter sounds to read words and sentences
- Fluency– read aloud strategies that focus on pace, phrasing, punctuation, and intonation
- Vocabulary– understanding of words and their meanings
- Comprehension– understanding what is read and being able to summarize, connect, predict etc.
Now that we are clear on the key terms and background about teaching and assessing reading, let’s get to the problems and my proposed solutions…
Problem #1: The Reading Wars
The “reading wars” are being “battled” across America and have been going on since the 20th century, some might even argue since the 19th century. These “wars” are really just a heated debate about how to teach reading to K-2 students. But, the history behind the “reading wars” has had tremendous ripple effects for upper elementary, secondary, and other subject area teachers too. This is because literacy is embedded in all subject areas.
If you feel a little out of the loop, here’s a quick summation of what the reading/literacy wars are all about…
The science of reading camp says it is essential that students get daily, explicit phonics instruction in K-2 classrooms. If students don’t get this instruction, many of them will not learn to read at the level of their peers. They say, yes, lots of students do learn to read naturally and pick it up easily, but lots do not. And what happens to those students who never get the explicit phonics instruction they need? They move up to grade levels where teachers are focusing on more advanced reading skills and with teachers who aren’t trained in how to teach reading explicitly with phonics instruction.
Whole language advocates believe that students need to be exposed to engaging texts, relevant purposes for reading and a community of avid readers in order to develop as successful readers. Phonics is usually not a big priority in whole language classrooms.
Balanced literacy proponents seem to take a more “balanced approach” hence the name. This camp says they integrate all facets of reading, however when science of reading folks and others look closely at the balanced literacy curricula (Units of Study by Lucy Calkins), they’ve argued isn’t as balanced as the purport to be. Science of reading supporters said this curricula actually circumnavigates direct phonics instruction by using the three cueing method. The three cueing method involves using clues (pictures, other words, background knowledge) to read challenging words rather than looking directly at the letters in the word and applying phonics skills to decode the word.
But, maybe you are are wondering, why do secondary teachers need to pay attention to what’s being debated in elementary classrooms? Shouldn’t K-2 teachers be the ones responsible for foundational reading skills like phonics? Why should secondary teachers have to deal with phonics?
The short answer is that many of our students get to us without the skills and so, we need to pivot, to remediate and provide what our students come to us needing.
If students don’t know how to read or are struggling in their reading skills it is absolutely unfair and inequitable to give these students Ds and Fs all year long on the assessments we are administering.
So, with all this disagreement, what in the world is an elementary and secondary teacher to do?!?
1. Be Aware of All Areas of Reading Instruction
When it comes to teaching reading in the secondary classroom, assumptions about students abound. The first assumption usually made is that students should have learned to read already. But, the fact is that in every single middle and high school classroom there are students struggling mightily with reading and writing.
Elementary and secondary teachers who want to close the reading opportunity gap need to be aware of all areas of reading instruction: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
In secondary classrooms, we tend to focus most of our attention on higher level reading analytical skills such as close reading, writing about reading and discussing reading. However, we must face the fact that many of our secondary students need practice with the other areas of reading instruction too.
Elementary teachers often use a combination of whole class instruction and centers to focus on phonics and fluency. But, how can a secondary teacher make time for phonics and fluency? See possible solution #2 & 3 below…
2. Read Challenging Texts Aloud
Even with this awareness that many of our students can’t read, what often happens in secondary classrooms is that phonological awareness is not given the time of day, because it’s assumed that students already have this skill. But, students’ low reading levels and comprehension assessments prove otherwise.
Students aren’t given enough opportunities in the majority of secondary classrooms to practice fluency. They aren’t reading aloud or listening to their peers/teacher read aloud. They may be exposed to challenging texts with tier 3 vocabulary (words that are very content specific) but are being expected to read and understand these words without support from their teacher.
Reading aloud to students and analyzing texts for extended periods could almost be considered taboo in secondary classrooms.
But, reading aloud to secondary students is an easy and effective way to cover both phonics and fluency.
A teacher might encounter a really challenging word and talk with students about strategies for figuring out how to say the read the word aloud. This opportunity is lost in many secondary classrooms because teachers assume students don’t need this kind of instruction. But, they are wrong, many students would greatly benefit from teachers reading aloud and talking through challenging texts, and explaining tier three vocabulary.
It’s important to note, reading aloud an entire novel is not what I’m recommending. I am, however, recommending that the most important scenes (the ones students will take an assessment on) in your whole class novel book should be read aloud, analyzed and discussed with students.
3. Facilitate Regular Conferences with Struggling Readers
In part three of this series I discussed a new approach to conferencing with individual students. In a nutshell, I proposed we stop trying to give every student an equal amount of our time in conferences. We can’t deny the fact that some students need a lot more help and time with us than others.
Equity is all about giving students what they need, and not about giving them all the same thing.
So, identify those students who struggle with reading early in the year and work with them more one-on-one or in small groups. This is where the workshop model and centers can really be powerful tools for secondary teachers.
The workshop model is part of the “Balanced Literacy Approach” and Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study. It’s important to note that the balanced literacy approach is currently being put into question right now and even being abandoned by many schools and districts.
I still think the workshop model has a place in our classrooms. This method of teaching allows teachers to conference with struggling readers and writers. When implemented effectively, workshop can also increase student engagement and motivation.
But, what kinds of things can you do to support these struggling readers during conferences with them? The most simple and easy thing you can do is to read with them! It’s really not that complicated. Have them read to you, help them with what they need support with, in the moment.
Maybe you’re thinking this might be embarrassing to do with certain students all the time in a mainstream classroom. It won’t if you normalize these types of conferences. Students also need to be well managed and engaged during the reading work time portion of conferences. Check out this article about how I manage teaching a whole class novel and facilitate reading workshop.
Problem #2: Teacher Training
Most secondary teachers weren’t explicitly taught how to teach reading. I’ll admit that I wasn’t when I went through teaching school fifteen years ago. Yet, every single year secondary teachers have students in their classrooms who barely know how to read. These students often don’t even have an IEP or 504 plan, and it’s left to the teacher to figure it out. This is wrong, but it’s the reality that we all face.
Some of our secondary students come to us barely able to read and we assume that elementary teachers are the ones to blame. However, we have learned through the “Reading/Literacy Wars” that this is a complex issue, and is not easily solved by choosing one method over others. Each method has its benefits and drawbacks. The bottom line is blaming one camp or another or one grade level or another, does not solve the crux of the problem…our students are struggling to read and write.
In addition, it’s important to be aware that social studies and science is not being prioritized the way that reading and writing are in elementary schools across the country. Why? Because reading and writing test scores are so abysmal and schools choose to cut these subjects in order to focus more on reading and writing. This is a problem because cognitive scientists and those who have studied the science of how people read have pointed out the importance of background knowledge in order to increase comprehension.
To sum up the problem, many secondary teachers aren’t aware that our students are lacking in both background knowledge and explicit phonics instruction. I know I wasn’t. To make matters worse, we weren’t ever taught how to explicitly teach reading with phonics. If we were, we aren’t sure how to find time to cover phonics when we have to focus on more advanced reading skills like literary analysis.
1. Be Aware of Deficit Mindset
This article published in the Assessment and Curriculum Development (ASCD), is an important one to read when it comes to deficit mindset. The quote below from this article can give you the gist of the problem when it comes to having a deficit mindset around students who struggle with reading and writing in our classrooms…
“There is danger in seeing struggling, special needs, or at-risk students…as needing some sort of specialized—and often watered down and segregated—program…When day-to-day instruction in literacy is left to someone other than the general education teacher, the stage is set for exclusionary practices. With lower expectations and fewer opportunities, the cycle of exclusionary practices unwittingly becomes the cause of underachievement.”- ASCD
General ed teachers need to realize and understand that inclusive, heterogeneous, regular classroom environments can be incredibly effective places to learn reading skills. Remediation can be done effectively in general education classrooms.
2. Ask for Support
We know that general education classrooms can be effective places to support struggling readers, if done intentionally, thoughtfully, and tactfully.
But, many of us have no idea how to do this.
It’s important to speak up about our lack of knowledge when it comes to how to approach remedial reading instruction in our classrooms.
If we speak up, maybe our administrators and district personnel will take notice. But, admitting something like this as an English teacher is rough. Sharing articles and resources can help. See the work cited at the end of this article for resources you can bring to your administration about this problem.
3. Help Students Build Their Background Knowledge
Cognitive scientists like Daniel Willingham have found through his research that literacy is supported when students are exposed to lots of information to develop their background knowledge or schema. Willingham and other cognitive scientists have proclaimed that children in schools need to be exposed to lots of information in many areas related to our society, the world, science and history in order to be successful readers. How can you do that? Read more nonfiction with your students. Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week could be a wonderful place to start.
Problem #3: Too Many Assessments, Not Enough Remediation
All classroom teachers, no matter the grade, conduct many types of reading assessments. The assessment results help to monitor student progress, make lesson plan decisions, diagnose learning differences, and provide students with grades. I have a lot of experience with these reading assessments because I have taught grades 3-8. I’ve listed examples of the types of assessments I’ve utilized in both the elementary and secondary settings below.
Common Elementary Classroom Literacy Assessments
- Universal Screeners (taken 3 times a year to catch deficits throughout the year)
- Phonological Awareness Assessment
- Oral Reading Fluency Assessment
- Comprehension Assessment
- Running Record
- Timed Reading Fluency Assessment
- Sight Words Test
- Spelling Test
- Vocabulary Test
- Nonsense word assessment
Common Secondary Classroom Literacy Assessments
- Universal Screening
- Reading Quiz
- Reading Comprehension Test
- Reading Log
- Literary Essay
- Socratic Seminar
- Portfolio Assessment
- Anecdotal Record
We know that reading encompasses these main categories: phonics, decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
So, what specific skills are we assessing when it comes to these main categories?
We are mostly assessing comprehension, vocabulary, higher order thinking, and discussion skills in secondary classrooms.
But, what if older students are struggling with phonics, decoding and fluency? What then?
Secondary students have a wide range of needs. Some need remedial phonics instruction. Some need fluency practice, some need extra comprehension support.
Most middle and secondary classrooms do not assess this wide range of areas when it comes to reading.
It’s assumed students don’t need phonics, decoding or fluency practice unless they are referred to the special education staff, go through the IEP or 504 process and qualify for support services.
In addition to all of this, many middle and high school assessment tools assess comprehension and fluency rates but these assessment tools don’t provide support or next steps if a student has low comprehension or fluency rates.
1. Identify Your Struggling Readers/Writers
You can determine which of your students is struggling with reading/writing in many ways.
Here are a few ideas: using your school’s chosen assessment software, observation during independent reading/writing time, writing pre-assessments before starting a writing unit, reading pre-assessments with comprehension passages and open ended questions after reading a short article/short story.
Write the list of students on a piece of paper stored in an easy to find and visible place that is accessible to only you. It’s important that the list always be top of mind whenever planning new lessons, activities and assessments.
2. Locate Extra Assessment Tools/Ask Your SPED Department for Help
Once you determine which of your students is a struggling reader/writing you’re going to want to find out more about what is going on for them.
Which of the five areas of reading (phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) are they struggling most with and why?
It’s important you get the opportunity to listen to these students read aloud to you as well as talk with them about various texts. Your SPED department should be able to help you locate assessment tools that can help you determine your students’ ability to decode words/sound words out, track their wpm (words read per minute), and accuracy. It may also be important to refer the student to the SPED department for more in depth assessments. Just be careful of deficit mindset explained in problem #2.
3. Provide Scaffolds for Independent Reading
Students who struggle with reading are definitely going to struggle to read independently. Here’s a list of scaffolds you can use when assigning independent reading:
- Provide a short synopsis of the text along with the definition of any key vocabulary
- Provide the background knowledge necessary to access the text
- Allow students to read the text aloud in pairs, afterward debrief as a class
- Read the most challenging parts of the text (or the parts you are going to assess) aloud to students
- Let student volunteers/students who are eager, read aloud (don’t cold call struggling readers, ever)
- Always debrief as a class and provide summations/cliff notes of what the text was about
- Allow students to listen to the audio versions of text when possible
- Provide guided notes for students to track comprehension while they are reading (do not grade this, rather, use it to assess how a student is doing with their independent reading)
- Don’t use reading logs (unless it is helpful to a particular student), they are usually a waste of time
4. Allow Opportunities to Retake Tests and Revise Writing
Students should have ample time to struggle with the content, get feedback from the teacher and have opportunities to learn from their mistakes, all before receiving a grade.
But, what do you do if only a portion of a class has these specific needs? Not everyone needs to retake a test or revise a paper.
I recommend dedicating one to two weeks to the retake/revision process. Students who did well the first time can always learn from the revision process too. If it’s a reading/vocabulary test, students who did well the first time or don’t necessarily need to retake time can read books of their choosing.
One important note about dedicated retake/revision time though. There can be stigma and peer shaming if this in class retake/revision time is not handled in a thoughtful way.
Here’s how I go about doing this in a tactful, respectful, and kind way…
I urge all students to retake/revise.
I explain to students during retake/revision week that those who are retaking/revising may have already received an A, they may have received a B and want an A or they may have been absent. This information is all confidential. I explicitly state to my students that retaking and revision are excellent ways to grow, learn, practice and retain skills. I end by explaining how repeated practice is a powerful way to retain information long after you’ve learned it!
This way students feel empowered when they choose to revise writing or retake a test.
Millions of students are struggling with reading for reasons outside of their control and detailed throughout this article. Students with reading difficulties can’t read well and yet they are continually given assignments and tests that require them to read at or above grade level. Then, these students are punished with D & F grades. It’s a terrible situation for any student to be in.
But, there is hope for these students.
If these struggling students are identified by a thoughtful teacher and that teacher takes specific actions to ensure these students get the scaffolds and support they need, things can improve.
Once a student starts to receive individualized support and opportunities to work with the teacher they can begin to make up for the deficits that have accumulated over the years.
Imagine if these struggling readers had a teacher in every grade, aware of these issues and doing what they can to provide individualized attention and support. These students could climb out of the reading deficit hole, with the help of teachers at all levels, from elementary, to middle to high school.
It truly does take a community of dedicated teachers from all grade levels to make an impact of this magnitude.
So, tell me in the comments, are you one of those teachers? Which part of the solutions I’ve proposed from this article do you think you might be able to take on this year? Let me know in the comments! I can’t wait to hear from you!
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Hanford, Emily. “Kids Struggle to Read When Schools Leave Phonics Out.” The Hechinger Report, 11 Sept. 2018, https://hechingerreport.org/kids-struggle-to-read-when-schools-leave-phonics-out/.
Hanford, Emily. “Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read?” Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read? | Hard Words | APM Reports, APM Reports, 10 Sept. 2018, https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read.
“New Evidence on Teaching Reading at Frustration Levels.” New Evidence on Teaching Reading | Shanahan on Literacy, Shanahan on Literacy, 14 May 2017, https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/new-evidence-on-teaching-reading-at-frustration-levels#sthash.kveZFyKo.530OIoy2.dpbs.
Nietzel, Michael T. “Low Literacy Levels among U.S. Adults Could Be Costing the Economy $2.2 Trillion a Year.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 1 Sept. 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2020/09/09/low-literacy-levels-among-us-adults-could-be-costing-the-economy-22-trillion-a-year/?sh=ffa13934c904.
Winter, Jessica. “The Rise and Fall of Vibes-Based Literacy.” The New Yorker, 1 Sept. 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-education/the-rise-and-fall-of-vibes-based-literacy.
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