The Common Core requires students to read more than ever, but the type of reading – and how they are assessed on that reading – can seem pretty different from how most of us learned to read. Instead of reading only fiction, our students are being pushed to branch out and read nonfiction earlier and earlier. However, the core strategies for teaching Common Core reading remain the same.
So how do you teach Common Core reading, anyway?
A National Reading Panel Report published in 2000 suggests that there are five major areas where students struggle that can be supported with direct instruction or coaching:
- Phonemic awareness
Phonemic awareness has to do with the ability to think about and pronounce sounds in spoken words. Direct letter instruction is useful in helping students understand the link between the spoken and written word. This is especially true of students who are younger, are learning English as a second language, or who have some sort of learning difference. However, for the vast majority of students, learning phonemic awareness in a vacuum reaches peak usefulness at around 18 hours of direct, focused instruction — this includes instruction from teachers at school, intervention specialists, and tutors.
Phonics bridges the gap between spoken and written English, teaching children the relationship between letters on a page and written English. Phonics is a useful tool in instruction for students of all backgrounds and strengths, but it is important to remember that it should not be treated as a workbook activity. Just like with phonemic awareness, teaching phonics works best in the context of speaking and reading. And while phonics is important to teach, its usefulness is generally limited to decoding and encoding, and it doesn’t necessarily address issues having to do with comprehension.
The third element of successful instruction is instruction in fluency. Fluency here means the ability to read a text rapidly and accurately with expression. This distinction means that we are discouraging students from simply decoding and word calling and encouraging them to read as we do as adults – scanning the page ahead even as we read aloud and instilling emotion into our words.
The fourth pillar is vocabulary. Both oral and reading vocabulary can be taught directly and through reading. In teaching how to learn vocabulary, it’s as important to teach the skills necessary for vocabulary acquisition (dictionary and internet use, root study, etc.) as it is to directly teach words themselves. With direct instruction, we can successfully introduce 8 – 10 words a week. Indirect instruction covers words encountered in reading and listening to adults speak and is often a larger component of vocabulary acquisition if only because there is no vocabulary filter on the world.
The last component is comprehension. Comprehension can be seen as our overall goal in reading instruction, of course, but coaching comprehension strategies creates good readers just as surely as learning vocabulary and working on fluency. Good readers read for meaning rather than words. They read with purpose and ask questions as they read. Comprehension strategies are skills we can and should teach at every level of reading instruction rather than waiting for students to get to an arbitrary ‘acceptable grade level.’
So why do students struggle?
Every student is different, but after working with thousands of students here at AJ Tutoring, we’ve noticed that there are some commonalities as to where students struggle at what time. Problems with phonemic awareness and phonics generally manifest early in the reading process. Issues with vocabulary tend to develop over time as the relative vocabulary sizes of students who read for pleasure and those who don’t diverge. In our practice here at AJ, we tend to see vocabulary problems come to a head as students are preparing for middle and high school entrance exams like the ISEE and SSAT. Fluency is also a problem that can come up at any time as the pace of a class outstrips the pace of a student’s learning. Reading comprehension, similarly, can become a noticeable problem as late as high school or college even with comfortable readers if they don’t have the skills to know how to ask themselves questions and engage with text.
How we can help
The number one thing is, obviously, for children to read. To read often and widely, to read alone and in groups. Current research on teaching literacy suggests that to create high progress classrooms – classrooms where students consistently attain high levels of academic achievement regardless of their background and are successful at Common Core reading – we must structure our tutoring time in such a way that students are interacting with text at least seventy five percent of the time.
Our sessions are built on the “read – write – read” format. A typical session might include a brief warm up activity, such as using a three minute singalong as a shared reading activity to promote fluency or a quick game of memory to practice sight words before moving on to the main part of instruction.
The second part of our sessions is generally in the form of guided reading. The tutor introduces a text at or slightly above the student’s reading level for the student to read out loud. The tutor may pause the reading to ask questions about what the student thinks will happen next or to double check that the student has been thinking about what is happening in the text. Guided reading can also be a good time to address issues having to do with phonics and phonemic awareness in the context of meaningful text and to promote good habits in attacking unknown problems.
The next part of session is typically dedicated to writing. For younger students, this time might be as simple as working writing just a couple sentences at a time that the tutor and student can check and read aloud together. For older students, this can be as complex as an ongoing writing project such as a short story or longer essay.
The last part of the session is generally reserved for another reading activity, although for older students there is some flexibility. These second reading activities generally are smaller in scope and may include activities like having the student dictate a sentence to the tutor, which they can then read back, or creating and reading sentences from individual words written on moveable sentence strips. For older students, this time is valuable for teaching the sorts of skills they will be expected to know as part of Common Core reading, such as how to read for meaning in nonfiction and synthesize information into usable pieces. This can be done either with direct reading instruction or through ongoing projects that require students to gather information from multiple texts, such as small research projects that can be done in session.
Planning and results
The last five minutes of session are generally reserved for a recap of instruction for that day with the parent and discussing any homework. This ensures that parent and tutor are on the same page about progress and areas of difficulty, and is also a good time for positive reinforcement for students. To be told that they are doing a good job with something is one thing. To be praised in front of a parent by an instructor can be even more powerful.
Our goals for our students
It is always our goal as tutors for our students to outstrip us and to gain agency and independence as readers and learners. We’d love to talk with you about how we can meet that goal and master Common Core reading together!