I remember how excited I was to be offered a job teaching 6th grade ELA fresh out of college. Finally, I was going to be able to do what I spent years preparing for. It was my first teaching job and I was going to change the world. I now smile at what a novice I was and how I thought four years of college was enough to prepare me for the challenge that awaited me on the other side. My program at college did an awesome job preparing me for what to teach but I was totally unprepared on how to teach to the vast amounts of needs that my students had. I had no idea of how to recognize reading gaps let alone what to do once they were recognized. I was handed the approved curriculum and I assumed that those who designed it, made it full proof. I believed just by doing exactly as the curriculum instructed that all my students would learn. I was dreadfully wrong.
What I have learned over the years is that in most cases curriculums do an awesome job of building an infrastructure of what to teach, when to teach it and even how it should be taught to students who are on level, maybe one year beyond level, and if you’re lucky, maybe two years below level. I’d even like to believe that curriculum designers see the teacher as expert and account for teacher adjustments to the curriculum that will best serve their students. I’d like to think, when these experts are building and developing the curriculum the intellect of the educator is taken into account. The same is not always messaged by school districts, often when faced with instructional challenges, teachers are told to just follow the curriculum.
As a new teacher I wanted to do the best job I could, I didn’t want my students to suffer due to my learning curve and would often ask school leadership to advise me when I encountered struggles. A little-known secret is that, most of the time when teachers are beginning their career, we often teach the way we were taught, thus is the reason why effective models are important. It’s not always a bad thing but innovative and current research-based practices have taught us that we should strive and be prepared to accomplish greater. Particularly for me, during the early days, those I sought answers from would always fall back on two answers, go to training, use the curriculum. They weren’t wrong, but they weren’t exactly right either. I did need to master the curriculum as well as attend the trainings my district offered but I also needed to learn how to plan and teach for learning deficits and offer my students the educational expertise they deserved. In order to allow the curriculum to be a useful guide I needed to know what worked best for students who had deficits. During my years in the classroom, I had students ranging from primary reading levels to on-grade level and unfortunately there were just no quick fixes for teaching in a way that met the needs of all. Teachers ranging from beginners to veterans face the same challenge, what do we do with the vast amount of proficiency levels within our students?
When I was faced with struggling students, I had no idea why my students wrestled with on grade level materials. As a new teacher I didn’t know how to identify gaps let alone how to administer and utilize diagnostic assessments. It took me years to figure out ways to serve the district and my conscious. What the district expected me to do and what I actually needed to do was sometimes at odds. What I mean is that, I was expected to follow a pacing plan, but it didn’t seem to take the intellectual pace of my students in account and in all fairness, how could it, nothing is full proof. I was lost and so were so many other colleagues around me. We didn’t even know where to start and we chose to suffer in silence at the cost of ourselves and our students. What we as teachers didn’t know wasn’t worth the feelings of isolation and being discredited so we played along just like everybody else. I probably wasted 5 years just navigating the system in order to get what I needed in order to grow in instruction.
Once, I got the nerve up to ask school leadership for a reading assessment and was told that we just couldn’t afford it and was even questioned as to why secondary students needed a reading assessment. The years of fighting the secondary reading assessment battle changed with common core. The amount of reading that students are expected to digest and respond to on summative state assessments had increased tremendously and with it so did the attention to secondary readers. Thank goodness for that that small favor! I was no longer wasting time explaining the why because the style of the assessment had fought that battle for me. But in that one giant step there are still a million others that need to be taken.
A large majority of secondary literacy teachers are not aware of what to do when students are struggling with reading. Contrary to what some may think, this is a huge burden for us. A teacher’s success is directly connected to the success of his/her students. If they are behind, we feel obligated to assist, but the question remains who is there to help us get better. We all know that reading is necessary in all contents and even more so in life. Therefore, it is necessary that when we encounter struggling readers that we know where to begin. The recommendations below are some ways that I have instructed teachers on getting started although there are many alternate ways and I encourage you to research and try those out as well. Out of all recommendations I give, below are the ones that teachers are able to do effectively with minimum support.
Secondary Students-When you Suspect Deficits are reading related
- Administer a Lexile assessment. There are free ones available online, like San Diego Quick or Read Theory.
2. Provide Support
- There are lots of online resources that give access to pre-leveled text for free to teachers. Use the leveled text as a resource to assist with strengthening the comprehension levels within your students at a level that they can actually access. A few online resources are below;
3. Make Time to Talk
- *Similar to guided reading form leveled reading groups
- *Utilize text at both instructional and independent levels
- *Students sit together and read text as well as answer comprehension-based questions either provided by you or the source you are using…you want to use questions that probe student thinking.
- *Students share their answers within the group as you rotate around to each group listening in tracking the comprehension of students through the answers the provide.
4. Analyze Talk by Tracking Comprehension
- Student Offers Text Support
- Is the student able to support text interpretations with textual evidence?
- Student Offers Logical Responses
- The answers provided by the student provide substance to the text?
- Student Offers Author’s Wit
- Scrutinizing the Reasoning and Intention of the Author within the Text
- Non-Fiction: Is the student able to provide reasoning behind the author’s reasoning?
- Fiction: Is the student able to analyze characters and why they make the choices they make?
- Scrutinizing the Reasoning and Intention of the Author outside the text
- How does the author want me to feel? Regarding…. What in the text supports your answer?
- Scrutinizing the Reasoning and Intention of the Author within the Text
- *The World
No matter what content you teach, the above steps can be easily fused into your existing teaching practices. Not only does it provide students with much needed reinforcements to help with deficit areas, but it also has built in scaffolds as a way to help address the specific needs of all students. It doesn’t take a lot of time and doesn’t require a major shift in instruction, and yet the benefits of implementing are huge for every student in your class. Einstein once said, "In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity." Take the opportunity!
Author Bio. for Toya Tate-Rose:
Over the 20+ year span of Toya’s educational career, she has served as a Teacher, Academic Coach, Leadership Coach, School Improvement Specialist and Instructional Administrator. She often comments, that her passion is working with leaders and teachers as well as coaching and guiding schools through the school improvement process and improving classroom instruction for both teachers and the students they teach. After graduating from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, she began her career in Clark County School District where she taught Language Arts at both Middle and High School. Toya also has a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction. She has also taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District as well as Atlanta Public Schools as a Middle School Teacher and Literacy Coach.
Improving educational settings for both teachers and students has always been a work of passion for Toya. She was able to put this passion into practice while living in Pittsburgh where she worked as a consultant for Pittsburgh Public Schools in the field of School Improvement with a focus on ELA. Her work allowed her to coach teachers and leaders on Readers and Writers Workshop and also worked alongside District Superintendent's, Principal’s, Teachers, Students and Parents. She coached and guided them through the process of improving academic achievement in urban schools. Her work in Pittsburgh also involved briefing District Superintendents, District Directors and the Deputy Superintendent of Schools on the progress and status of school academic goals.
In Pittsburgh, Toya worked with eight K-8 schools and under her leadership, all of the schools posted increases in reading proficiency 2 1/2 times greater than the district over the course of the 2007-2008 school years. Toya, a native of Los Angeles, wanted to continue her work in L.A. and was hired by "The Partnership of Los Angeles Schools" also serving in the role of Coordinator of Instruction in ELA as well as School Improvement Specialist. She has also attributed her knowledge of Charters to her role as Director of ELA for a Los Angeles Charter Organization. While there, she not only trained Middle and High School teachers on CCSS practices as well as Readers and Writers Workshop, but also advocated that all students were taught balanced literacy in order to achieve unsurmountable reading and writing achievement. Toya is most proud to be serving in her current role as an Instructional Administrator in a major school district in California.