Early October brings a mix of emotions in the classroom. On the one hand, there is the elation of feeling that we have finally come together as a class. The mix of personalities has settled into a cohesive culture with its own inside jokes, traditions, and routines. (My class this year has taken to making up imaginary students to sit at the empty desks, complete with name labels and supposed personalities. And they have taken on the stuffed toy lobster, which has sat unnoticed on the shelf for years, as a special mascot. I just love to watch these things happen.)
But by early October, I also have a very clear picture of the task that I must accomplish by the end of the year. Looking at the DRA scores of my struggling readers, it was easy to feel daunted by the expectations of the Common Core to get these readers into grade-level reading selections. "How can I do this?" I asked my husband. "How can I get someone at a DRA 18 into a level 40 book?"
My husband, who teaches third grade, was a little calmer than I was. He also has a longer memory. He said, "Didn't you write a whole chapter about that in your book?"
"But it's--" I started, ready to argue, and then I stopped because I realized that he was right. There it was, in The Forest and the Trees, a long section about giving different kinds of support to readers as they work with grade level text. Right.
So I do know how to do this, I thought. As I planned for the upcoming weeks of instruction, I considered my readers carefully. The notion of before, during, and after has helped me to frame my lessons.
Before Reading: Building Automaticity
To build automaticity with the words in the grade level text, I've been making speed drills, flash cards, and word sorts. These look different depending on the text and the groups.
For Weslandia, I pulled out one and two-syllable words. One group focused on the one-syllable words. Words like loom, built, and wove are a real challenge for them. With another group, I worked on syllabication strategies. We worked on words from the text like civilization, innovation, and devise. With each of these lessons, I focused on using a decoding strategy that wouldn't just help students with words from this text, but would help them to decode words in future texts as well.
For Molly's Pilgrim, I pulled out all of the compound words. I made cards by separating them (school/yard) and then we put them back together. In this case, I focused on understanding the compound words. Many students had never heard of a "schoolyard" before, so we talked about making sense of the compound word by putting together the meanings of the other words. I included some other words on the speed drill as well, organized by the number of syllables, so that it was easy to listen to tailor the list for different readers and listen to them read the words over multiple days.
With each of these activities, I also used the words that we practiced to build predictions for the text. "In the text we'll read next week, Molly has trouble reading the word Thanksgiving. Why do you think this might be?" Then we shared our thoughts about why this might happen in the story.
Before Reading: Building Background
It's also important to build background knowledge for all readers. While we were working with Weslandia, I wrote a short little passage about the Roman civilization for students to read as their homework fluency practice. This passage got them to say the word "civilization" repeatedly throughout the week. Because we are also starting our study of Greek and Latin roots, this text built some instant connections between our reading and word study.
During Reading: Strong Sustaining Strategies
I am also working this year to give every reader the chance to independently interact with grade level or approaching grade level text. To make this successful, I have to think very carefully about the sustaining strategies that they will use. Where will they have difficulty? What can I do to support them?
The syllabication strategies we practiced before reading become very important here, as readers have to try to figure out words on their own. This goes hand in hand with the "clicks and clunks" that we've already practiced. Identifying where meaning breaks down is a necessary step to better comprehension. If struggling readers aren't aware of what difficulties they are having, they can't utilize better strategies! After we spend time reading silently, we can talk about where those clunks occurred and how we can fix them.
During Reading: Embedded Questions and Reading Road Maps
I also like to use these activities to help readers make meaning in a text. Embedded questions are simply questions that you insert into the main body of the text. They are a wonderful scaffold for helping readers to make inferences as they read. Think about the key ideas that a reader will need to gather from a section, and then write a question that cues them to think about those ideas.
Reading road maps are similar. They are based in the idea that reading is like a journey. Sometimes they are organized as before, during, and after, as this example. I've stopped trying to make mine "cute" and use a simple table design.
After students have read the text and we've talked about our clicks and clunks, we go deeper into analyzing the story. Struggling readers and ELL students really benefit from having a notebook full of resources to help them answer questions.
For example, consider character traits. A question might ask, "What trait of the main character helps her to resolve the conflict?" A student who needs help in reading will benefit tremendously from having a list of character traits to refer to while answering this question. This list will help the reader to be able to focus on gathering the text details to support an answer to this question. Lists of themes work in the same way. When a reader has a list of universal themes to refer to, identifying and supporting a theme becomes a much easier task.
Getting students who are reading significantly below grade level to comprehend grade level text is a tough task. By planning scaffolding before, during, and after reading, I can help to make the task a little easier.
A note on materials: I've created several Common Core friendly materials for Weslandia and Molly's Pilgrim...if you would like any, please write to me or leave a comment. (Make sure that you put your email address in the comment! If you don't, I don't have any way to reach you. )