All children need to understand that part of being literate is reading and writing every day. Children who are having difficulty need lots of successful reading and writing experiences to develop the habits of literacy.
A good way to provide those is to set aside time every day apart from instruction -- 10 to 15 minutes when children read books, magazines, or newspapers they choose themselves. When children finish reading, they need time to tell a partner what they've read. The idea is that they're using information they've picked up and are conveying it to someone else. That provides practice in thinking and comprehending.
There should be a time, apart from instruction, when children write every day -- in journals, letters to friends, writing captions for drawing and cartoons.
Are you providing needed prior knowledge to help students succeed with the whole class?
Sometimes it is a good idea to provide prior knowledge support for small groups needing extra help before you activate prior knowledge with the whole class. For example, if the class is reading Wolves by Seymour Simon (1993), you might pull together those students who have extremely limited knowledge with a few who have more knowledge to do a structured preview using the illustrations. Then when the whole class does K-W-L, those with less background will be able to experience success. This is often called Advanced Support or giving the kids a "jumpstart".
Do you vary the approach to literature, taking cues from the child?
One child may want to have the book read to him or her, another may want to read it with a partner, others may want to read it on their own. Some students may even want to read the book several times. When teachers give students the opportunity to decide for themselves which way they want to read a story, kids often make better progress.
Do struggling readers have a strong foundation in cracking the code?
Beginning readers experiencing difficulty often require more support to build a systematic understanding of letter-sound relationship. They need more decoding and phonics experience, which they can get by reading lots of books with repetitive sounds and language patterns and by having many opportunities to write using invented spelling. When words appear that have a certain pattern, list them. Highlight the pattern with a colored marker. Let children build their own words by cutting up words, using individual letter cards, or magnetic letters.
Do you provide plenty of opportunities for children to respond to what they've read?
The more opportunities children have to respond to their reading, the better readers they become. Encourage such responses by asking questions in whole-class discussion, in small groups, and in classroom literature circles. Other good ways to encourage response are response journals and bulletin boards on which students can write comments.
Response activities give you a good measure of students' comprehension, showing you where to reteach if necessary. If, for example, you notice that students are making certain inferences about the characters, go back and use examples from the book to model the strategy of inferencing and have students locate places in the book where they can also model inferencing.
Do students have story fatigue?
With children having trouble, more time on the same story may defeat your purpose. Sure, some students want to hear some stories over and over, and that's fine. But know when to move on. Success often comes later when students have varied reading experience.
Are you overcomplicating the instruction of a piece of literature?
Sometimes we overcomplicate the process by trying to do too many activities that don't fit together for any real purpose. For example, often we don't need to preteach so much vocabulary. We only need to develop essential related vocabulary. Many times it's better for kids to get a sense of the story and then focus on the vocabulary.
Are you seeking home support?
Here are some techniques I've observed in classrooms lately to foster home support. One teacher created The Take-Home Journal -- a plastic bag with a book and a notebook in it. There are these simple directions on the front. Your child has brought home the book, Flight. Read the book with your child and talk about it. Then use one page in the journal to write what you all thought about this book.
The Take-Home Journal comes back the next day and then goes home to someone else. The teacher shares the family journal entries in class.
Another teacher sends home a writing kit packed in a briefcase with paper, pencils, and crayons. The kit encourages kids to write a story or a book at home with their family members. These ideas -- which encourage shared reading and real writing -- are much preferable to sending home worksheets. When you ask families to discuss, read, and write with their children, you're asking them to reinforce your most important goal: to help students develop the habits of literacy.
Are you trusting your own judgment when it comes to skills instruction?
Here's a good way to think about skills instruction: it has an important place and its place is at the time the students need the particular skill. In other words, we don't just teach the long A or the main idea because they come next in the book. We teach the long A or the main idea if we can see that knowing the skill would help students do a better job of comprehending. Teach skills at the point students need them. You'll be twice as effective.
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