Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading: Part One

Teachers know that most adolescents lack motivation to read, both academically and recreationally, yet we can see how crucial it is for students to develop reading interest and stamina in order to become competent readers and flourishing adults.

As a kid, like most of you, whole-class novels built up the entirety of my ELA curriculum; however, there was (and still is) a huge push across the last decade or so for more independent choice reading. Yet as with most things in education, with that push, it’s obvious that there has been an even more recent reactionary, theoretical pendulum swing back towards more rigorous, shared texts, inspired by the CCSS or otherwise.

Unfortunately, when districts try to operate from these competing and drastically swinging philosophies, this further inhibits adolescents from becoming life-long readers.

It’s frustrating—I’m saying this in the most mild-mannered sense, because trust me when I say that some days I’m beyond frustrated—because there is some much literature out there that presents competing and often misunderstood theoretical perspectives.

If you’re reading this blog, than you’re probably just like me, a self-proclaimed, literacy professional literature junkie. You love studying the craft and working to foster adolescent literacy.  You’ve read everything from Rosenblatt, Krashen, Allington, Beers & Probst, Lesesne, Schmoker, Fisher & Frey, Gallagher, Allen, Burke, Harvey & Goudvis, Keene, Marzano, Kittle, Newkirk, Routman, Smith, Tovani, Miller, and on and on and on. You’ve read it all.

The thing is these texts should work to inform our knowledge of adolescent literacy and thus impact our classrooms. Instead stakeholders (other teachers, coaches, administrators, parents, publishers, politicians, etc.) take these sometimes competing philosophies and—rather than take what these researchers have to say and find a balanced approach—use them to make drastic, one-sided decisions that have long-term impact on students.

Sadly, this dispute of philosophy begins to ignore the canon of research and slip slides its way into the classroom, appearing as very heated English department debates, Twitter battles, and blog rants (maybe a bit feisty like this one!) that call for either more rigor that whole-class novels provide or bemoan the disparity of voluminous reading that only choice novels can offer.  Teachers question whether novels should be shared as a whole-class texts or if students should freely chose novels according to their own interests and plans for growth, when instead these stakeholders should be discussing ways to find balance between them.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I want to expand the conversation about whole-class novels and choice-only reading. I’m going to do my best in this blog series to share and translate the vast body of research on both “sides” of this debate.

In a dispute that has very loud voices on either end,  it may be unpopular to ask stakeholders to “chill out” and just seek some balance, but I encourage you to share the research you’ve read and experiences you’ve collected in your own classroom.

There’s no need for the literacy pendulum to keep swinging when there is still so much work for us to do.

I look forward to engaging with you in this important goal. Either respond here in the comments section or tag me on Twitter (@B10LovesBooks) using the hashtag #seekbalance. Thank you.

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Tip for Teaching Vocabulary & Word-Level Comprehension: Word Chunks

Q: What are  Word Chunks?

They’re simply the Greek and Latin parts of words (i.e. prefixes, roots, and suffixes) that make up most words in the English language.  Kelly Gallagher and Kylene Beers both talk about teaching vocabulary or word-level comprehension by means of introducing students to these word chunks. Mike Schmoker, author of Focus, explains that the most effective classrooms “repeatedly practice and master…the 50 most common transferable word chunks…to build up students’ reading vocabulary” (2011, p. 104).  In other words, the highest performing teachers make time to introduce these word components to students.

Q: Why should I introduce my students to Word Chunks instead of just teaching them a list of actual vocabulary words?

If teachers reveal what’s behind these repeated Word Chunks, students will 1) have a better grasp of how the chunks make up the meaning of individual words and 2) they’ll also gain a deeper understanding of texts as a whole, because we all know comprehension is essential to the game.  And let’s be honest: not all kids have caught on that these chunks are repeated throughout our language; furthermore, they don’t realize the chunks have meaning on their own.

I always thought that my students would develop better vocabularies by just reading more. (Reading more is the solution to all the world’s problems, isn’t it?) And yeah,  they do learn more words, but only to an extent.  This indirect, cross-my-fingers-and-hope-type of vocabulary instruction wasn’t cutting it, especially for those kids that come from print-poor homes. The word poverty was so dense in my room that students needed serious rehab in order to get back on track.

Initially, I used a list of SAT vocab words given to me by my department chair.  Now, you see, we don’t use the SAT in Michigan, and “list” is a bit of a blurry word for this haphazard collection of overhead transparencies, each depicting a word with a punny cartoon drawing on it: “The condor is full of candor.” (If I actually could find the picture from all those years ago, you’d see a big ol’ bird swooping down to chop on some smaller creature whilst calling out, “Be prepared. I am going to eat you.”) I’ll just speed up the year of agony on this one and let you know that giving kids a random splattering of 100+ words—even if they did have cute pictures—didn’t really work.

Kelly Gallagher’s Word Attack Strategy: “The 30-15-10 List” (from Deeper Reading, p. 73)

Then <cue the cheesy music>, Kelly Gallagher walked in to my life, and a new intellectual crush was born.  Reading Reasons.  Deeper Reading.  Readicide. These books totally changed my understanding of reading instruction provided by my EDU 100-level courses.  

In terms of instruction, most reading/writing workshop teachers have pushed rote memorization out of the classroom; however, Gallagher says that it does have a place—albeit limited—in terms of memorizing the meaning of the most common word chunks.  He’s “not advocating some of those word dissection programs where students are asked to memorize hundreds and hundreds of prefixes, roots, and suffixes. The amount of time spent on these programs takes away from reading time, which is where the most effective vocabulary acquisition occurs. But students can benefit from knowing —that is, memorizing—some of the ‘staples'” (2004, p. 72). <<P.S. This don’t-buy-the-program talk reminds me of Teri Lesesne’s UNprogram post >>. Essentially, Gallagher says that if we want our students to comprehend the vocabulary in complex texts, they need to memorize the meaning behind the core chunks of most words.

Q: How should I roll out my instruction of the Word Chunks?

Gallagher provides 55 of the most common chunks in Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12 (2004). Like Gallagher, I dole them out to students five terms at time, snowballing the list slowly until I am convinced that they’ve mastered all of the terms.  For example, I might introduce #1-5 in the first week, #1-10 in the second week, and then stick with #1-15 for the third and fourth week, before adding another five terms in the fifth week.

Word Chunks Pre-Test on Google Forms

Initially, of course, I do a pre-test with my students.  This is very quick and informal, because I use Google Forms to create the quiz.

Get the actual document here: Word Chunks – Student Study Pack

After that, my students work from a document that I created, drawing on Robert Marzano’s research about best practice for acquiring vocabulary, which includes drawing visual representations and generating word examples that use the chunk.

Generally, we spend under ten minutes of direct instruction on this each week; however, my students could easily suck up more of our class time as they try to impress one another with more unique examples of the word chunk in practice. So, I caution you to be aware of this early on when you introduce this to your students.

As we move through the 55 terms, I do mini-quizzes about every other week. These quizzes gather the snowballed list in a varied fashion (i.e. the terms that we’ve mastered—or should’ve mastered by now—are absolute fill-in-the-blank and the newer terms—especially when we get later into the big list—have some matching word-bank options). These quizzes are combined with our Mentor Sentences study, so about half the quiz is on the Word Chunks and the other half is on our Sentence-of-the-Week. <<I’ll try to do another post sometime soon to share how Jeff Anderson helped me face my fear of teaching grammar by introducing Mentor Sentences to my students.>>

While it took me a little getting used to, this notion of having my students memorize a concrete list of terms, the impact on their comprehension is just so obvious.  I see the students independently applying the meanings during reading conferences or collectively grappling with the meanings across our curriculum. For example, during our Great Depression unit in U.S. History, they had a very lively conversation about the term “mortgage,” because “mort” means die or death: “Aaagh! It’s ‘mort’ because you’ll be paying the bank ’til you die!” Even the math and science teachers on my team say that our students use the word chunks to help define academic vocabulary in their classes. With that… what more could I ask for? 🙂

Professional Development: Close Reading

Are you looking for ways to improve your students’ comprehension, critical thinking, and reasoning skills all while meeting the Common Core State Standards?  If so, you will not want to miss this one-day learning experience surrounding Close Reading.  Through reading, viewing video, and dialogue, you will discover dozens of practical strategies and engaging techniques that are guaranteed to improve student achievement.  This learning adventure is interactive, goal-focused, and instruction-based.

Tips for Getting Kids to Do More Choice Reading

“When face time is limited and testing demands are heavy, many teachers struggle to make meaningful connections with students. In this Michigan Reading Association break-out session, two high school teachers share ways of using YA lit as the voice that connects us to our students who run the gamut from at-risk to honors. They will also explore how to establish classroom libraries with current titles and relevant technologies.”

This Prezi was co-created with Lindsey Tilley, teacher at Northview High School, for the Michigan Reading Association Annual Conference in March 2012 and the Inter-Institutional Teacher Education Council of West Michigan Fire Up! Student Teacher Conference in October 2012.

Q: How do I hold my students accountable to choice reading?

A: Because many kids haven’t been given choice in the past, I am always amazed how simply challenging my students to read at least 20 choice  books during the school year actually makes them strive for this specific goal.  My students don’t always realize that there isn’t a grade attached to this goal, but because we talk about what we’re reading all the time in class, they want to maintain this community standard of success.

Some ways, I do this are the following:

  • “Require” they read a variety of genres, like Donalyn Miller’s mixed genre requirement chart. This pushes them out of their comfort genre, so even if the book their reading isn’t a higher Lexile level, it will probably be more complex for that student because he/she is tackling a new format.
  • Show them how to keep track of their reading rate, like Penny Kittle’s pass-around clip board method.This is a way for students to begin to take ownership of their own data. Schools are so data-driven that we might as well put some of that responsibility into the students’ hands; besides, once they start to monitor their own progress, they find it fascinating.
  • Ask them to analyze text complexity, like Teri Lesesne does with reading ladders. This reflection invites students to respond to their success and set goals for the future.  In fact, students are incredibly honest in their reflections. Take Aaron, who read 8 books in 12 weeks, for example: “I would say that this trimester I haven’t shown any growth as a reader, because I am still staying inside of my comfort zone as far as genres go.  I have however noticed an increased reading rate in myself and increased pleasure level from reading books, but I know that I need to pick books that are more challenging.” <<Here is the link to my Reading Ladder assignment description>>

Q: How do I find time to confer with all of my students, especially with large classes?

A: Honestly, this is a big challenge for me. For years, I admitted to my curriculum coach that I was actually afraid of conferring. I created all kinds of excuses questions to “get out of it,” maintaining that I should be reading when my students were reading.

  • What if I say the wrong thing or don’t know how to respond?
  • What if I haven’t read their books and they know?
  • They’re finally all reading! Aren’t they just going to stop reading if I’m not modeling what a good reader does during SSR?
  • Won’t everyone stop and talk to one another  if they either hear me whispering with a student?

Eventually, I realized that my excuses were getting in the way of best practice. I began with Regie Routman’s Informal Reading Conference form found in Reading Essentials; however, I found after a year that I spent too much time with each kid. This is a great “script,” but I wasn’t able to frequent everyone as often as necessary. This year, I physically shifted from using my binder notes to a small “detective” notebook. I’m basically doing a blend of what Donalyn, Penny, and Patrick Allen suggest. This has really changed the story of conferring for me, especially since it’s no longer one of horror.

genrestack

Q: How do I support my students’ choices?

A: On the first day of class, my students participate in a what we call Book Speed-Dating. I’ve also heard it called a Book Pass or  Book Frenzy. This activity is a fast way to expose students to a wide variety of books in our classroom library. Soon afterwards, I give my students a reading survey/inventory, mostly a blend of things I found from other expert teachers. Also during the start of the term, my students sign up for Goodreads accounts <<Slide # 6 of this VoiceThread video lesson plan shares a screencast tutorial of how students can sign up for Goodreads>> to learn what their classmates are reading and how to find suggestions for well-liked titles.

As the school year progresses, we regularly discuss as a class what we’re reading with one another through Book Waterfalls and daily Book Talks. This is really the key. Before I begin, students always have their To-Read Lists open and ready. In addition to regular book chats, I post what “Mrs. Beaton is currently reading…” just outside my classroom door. This year, I also took Donalyn’s suggestion and added the same information to my email signature.

Q: How do I promote “Book Love“in my classroom?

A: We do this a number of ways: tweeting authors, creating book waiting lists, showing YouTube book trailers, etc. But to get students into what Kelly Gallagher calls “reading flow,” or giving students the chance to engage themselves with books the way that everyone else does, we try to promote the notion that sometimes finishing a really great chapter or book is just more important than carrying on to our agenda’s next activity. So, in whispered tones, I’ll occasionally announce something like “Hey everyone, we’re nearing the end of Silent Reading; however, we’re going to keep going until Tristan finishes MazeRunner.” While my students think they’re “getting away” with something, this is really more about showing them what life-long readers do.

Q: How do I build my classroom library?

A: I have found the most success with Donors Choose and used book sales (like from public libraries and Amazon), yet I’ve also acquired books through Scholastic books sales, Ebay, and personal book donations from student/family/friends. Finally, I am very lucky to work in a school district that helps me build my library as well.  

The videos of my students featured below are embedded within the Prezi.