In this six part series I will outline exactly how I’m rethinking my workshop classroom with an equity lens. Check out part 1 about rethinking writing workshop here. 

Before getting started with part two about rethinking reading workshop, we need to define workshop and we need to define equity. Here is my very brief definition of both…

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. 

Now that we are on the same page about what workshop and equity mean, let’s get started…

In the rest of part two of this series I will outline three possibly problematic reading workshop practices and how we might improve upon these practices with equity in mind. 

Independent Reading Time

What is Independent Reading Time?

Reading workshop teachers allow students to choose books they are interested in and provide time in class to read those books. This time can be called independent reading time, SSR (silent sustained reading), or DEAR (drop everything and read). Books like The Reading Zone by Nancie Atwell, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller and Book Love by Penny Kittle have really been the catalyst for this type of activity in classrooms. 

The Problem

So, why is this a problem? For many students it isn’t a problem at all. Many students have discovered a love of reading before entering our classrooms. These students appreciate this quiet time to dive fully into books they enjoy. 

But, every teacher who has tried reading workshop knows, not all students appreciate this time or use it wisely. Some students spend the entire time “fake reading” or searching for a book and complaining they don’t like reading. 

Reading workshop advocates advise conferencing with these students, or even trying alternative forms of reading such as audio books. These are fantastic ideas, however all students (not just struggling readers) need exposure to challenging texts with the guidance of a teacher. Many teachers dedicated large quantities of time to independent reading when that time could be used to discuss, interpret, analyze and write about challenging texts, with support from the teacher of course. Students who are behind many grade levels need exposure to challenging texts, they need to hear fluent readers reading aloud and some need direct and intentional support with phonemic awareness and reading comprehension. 

It’s also important to note that reading workshop advocates often state that students learn to read by reading, just like a piano player learns to play by playing. However, not all students learn to read so naturally. Some students need a lot more direct instruction and supported practice. Also, learning to read is not the same as learning to analyze, think critically about a text, write about it and discuss it in a way that allows for deeper understanding. We must teach close reading and annotation directly.  

The Solution

There’s an incredible book that I highly recommend all English teachers read: Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov. Lemov urges teachers to read aloud much more. He points out that it’s become taboo to read aloud in secondary classrooms. Lemov argues we need to expose our students to challenging texts that are multiple grade levels above our students’ reading levels. It’s vital for students to learn how to decipher texts that are above their grade level or about topics they aren’t familiar with. Students need to know how to tackle challenging texts. If they learn how to tackle challenging texts, they will be armed with many tools to be successful in high school, college and beyond. Lemov provides a roadmap for how to go about teaching close reading and deep analysis of challenging texts. So, the solution to this problem is to limit independent reading time. We need to make more time for whole class read alouds, close reading, writing about reading and discussing hard to understand texts. 

Comprehension Strategies

What are Comprehension Strategies?

Comprehension strategies include visualizing, making connections, making predictions, making inferences, asking questions and summarizing. They are utilized to help students understand and interpret what they read.

The Problem

Many teachers might wonder how teaching these strategies could be a problem. In order to explain the problem I think it’s important to explain an experiment that was done in the late 1980s called The Baseball Experiment

In the baseball experiment, researchers discovered that students who had a lot of background knowledge about the subject of baseball and were considered “low readers” did better on the reading assessment than students who were considered “high readers” with little background knowledge about baseball. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The more background knowledge you have about the subject area you are reading about, the more likely you will be able to comprehend that text, write about it, discuss it, and use all the comprehension strategies successfully, without these comprehension strategies being taught directly. The problem is that teachers spend an enormous amount of time teaching comprehension strategies, they neglect the actual content of the text. 

The Solution

Spending time teaching comprehension strategies actually takes away time from understanding the actual content of the texts being read. The solution is quite simple. English teachers need to prioritize reading nonfiction texts about a wide range of subjects such as Social Studies and Science, to build background knowledge! 

The more knowledge students can acquire from the content of the texts, the better they will be able to understand a variety of texts and build confidence in their ability to write about and discuss the texts too. Comprehension strategies such as visualization, making connections and summarizing are natural byproducts of understanding what is being read. Comprehension strategies don’t need to be taught so extensively and directly, they occur naturally when a student shows understanding of the text. 

Reading Levels

What are Reading Levels?

Reading levels are determined by assessing students’ reading skills (fluency, words read per minute, comprehension) and then categorizing students in various ways depending on how students scored on the assessment. 

The ways in which students are assessed can vary and so can the ways in which teachers use the results in their classrooms. Some common assessments at the elementary level are DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Early Literacy Skills), Fountas and Pinnell benchmark assessments and running records to name a few. At the upper elementary and secondary level reading assessments might include STAR reading or Accelerated Reader to name a few. 

After the assessment, teachers might choose to reveal the “level” to students so that they can choose books that are “just right” for them to read independently. Teachers might also use the data from the assessment(s) to group students based on their reading levels. The problem is that there is no evidence that these strategies actually improve students’ reading skills, and actually could be detrimental. Biases may also play a role in the ways that teachers group students… 

“Over multiple studies, recently published online in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, both student and practicing teachers were more likely to refer lower-income students to a lower academic track and higher-income students to a more challenging track, even though their scores were the same.” (Are Classroom Reading Groups the Best Way to Teach Reading? Maybe Not). 

The Solution

Teachers need to assess students’ reading levels to understand which students may need extra support. But, students do not need to know their score/reading level to receive this extra support. Teachers should also avoid grouping students by reading level or restricting what students can read because of their reading level. 

As discussed in the section about reading comprehension strategies, “low level reading students” who have a lot of background knowledge on topics can read advanced texts because of their background knowledge! All students need exposure to complex texts with guidance and direct instruction from the teacher. No student should be restricted from reading an advanced text just because of a score they received on a reading assessment.

Wrap Up

Reading workshop practices allow students the opportunity to develop independent reading lives and a love of reading. However, we must incorporate other methods into our teaching practices. We aren’t just workshop teachers, we are multifaceted and have a wide range of tools and strategies available to us. Of course we need to continue assessing students to determine their reading levels, but this is just one data point! Our students are multifaceted too. They are so diverse and have knowledge and experiences we aren’t even aware of. Some students have had extremely positive experiences as readers and some have only had negative experiences. Some students have traveled to many places, some have only ever been to the city/town they live. Some have parent(s) who read with them and others may have parents who can’t even speak English, let alone read it. No matter our students’ backgrounds or prior experiences, we need to make time for the following:

  1. Read challenging texts aloud with our students.
  2. Provide direct instruction on close reading and analytical thinking, writing and discussion skills.
  3. Build our students’ background knowledge by incorporating more nonfiction texts about history, current events, and science. 

Teachers who care deeply about social justice and equity in our schools need to be open to new (and old) ways of teaching that meet the needs of a wide range of backgrounds and abilities. Direct instruction, lecturing and reading aloud are considered “old school” by many teachers, but many students benefit from these strategies as well as more free flowing workshop methods. Instead of closing ourselves off to “old school” strategies that have become taboo, we need to open up to old and new strategies and methods, to reach our diverse student population. Let’s stop the pendulum from swinging and bring in more balance. This is how we can move toward more equity in our classrooms. 

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