Starting where they are
Excellence in student achievement and reading in middle level and high schoold depends on analyzing student’s comprehension strengths and deficits and instructing them accordingly.
A three-pronged approach to excellence in reading and student achievement is needed in middle level and high school. The first steps to excellence in reading and student achievement are to disaggregate data and set goals. Schools should analyze three to five years of assessment data for the middle level or high school and average student achievement data to establish baseline information. Once the baseline is set, educators can set specific student achievement goals that can be accomplished within a three-year period of time. Students should be placed in the following categories only after they are identified as performing at these specific levels by their results on norm-referenced or criterion-referenced reading comprehension assessments:
* Those reading and comprehending at grade level
* Those reading and comprehending no more than two grades below grade level
* Those reading and comprehending two or more grades below grade level.
A course of action and suggested goals for each group of students follow.
Students Who Comprehend at Grade Level
These students often are unconsciously competent comprehenders. They can intuit to answer basic or advanced comprehension questions, but they are not necessarily conscious of the processes they use to acquire those answers. A goal for these students is to become consciously competent comprehenders. Students in this group need to carry on metacognitive discussions in which they are expected to do one or both of the following:
* Prove their answers are correct by identifying supporting data in text or other sources
* Specifically explain the process they used to acquire their answers.
Such discussions should occur in groups of two or three students so each student is more individually accountable for the discussion. If discussion groups consist of five, seven, or more students, individuals can hide in the group and not be engaged in any manner.
To help students develop this metacognitive process, teachers must be consciously competent themselves and able to explicitly teach this process to the students. That is, teachers must be able both to state the proof for their answers and specifically explain the processes they used to acquire answers. If students are to perform well on college entrance exams or in the workplace, the ability to prove answers and explain multiple ways of acquiring answers are essential skills.
Specific areas in which teachers must work to develop students metacognitive processes are:
Comprehension Skills Essential comprehension skills are summarizing, predicting, clarifying, questioning. Advanced comprehension skills are understanding the concepts of cause and effect, time and sequence, compare and contrast, and list and enumerate
Strategic Reading. Strategic reading tools include activating prior knowledge, question-answer relationships, think alouds, graphic organizers, and fix-up strategies.
Metacognitive processes. Students must be able to prove answers are correct and state the process they used to acquire the answers.
In middle level and high schools, these skills are usually taught by whole class instruction. However, during this instruction, teachers engage all students by:
Ensuring that the students understand the purpose for reading
* Requiring students to listen to other students’ answers and use hand signals to indicate they agree, disagree, or are unsure about the answer given
* Having the students discuss their answers in pairs or trios and use evidence from the text to prove their answers or explain the process they used to answer the question.
Students reading at grade level must continue to expand their vocabulary. There is a direct relationship between the size of studen& vocabularies and their ability to comprehend written and oral communication. Students need, at minimum, a 60,000-word vocabulary to graduate from high school. Students with limited vocabularies have difficulty performing well on college entrance exams or any other high-stakes assessments. Students can increase their vocabularies with the following practices:
* Practicing sustained silent reading (SSR) approximately 200 minutes per week (100 minutes at school and 100 minutes at home). When doing SSR, students should be reading nonfiction material at least 60% of the time. Nonfiction texts have a greater variety of vocabulary than fiction texts.
* Using more sophisticated vocabulary in school written and oral communications. For example, the word said is commonly used. Teachers can ban the use of this common word and require students to use such words as related, implied, uttered, or proposed.
* Observing educators who use more sophisticated language. Such language will eventually become part of the students’ oral and written communication.
* Receiving direct vocabulary instruction that goes beyond the typical “look words up in the dictionary and write them in a sentence” exercise. The most effective and brain compatible form of vocabulary instruction can be found in the book Words, Words, Words (Allen, 1999).
Students Who Comprehend No More Than Two Grades Below Grade Level
Students reading no more than two grades below grade level should focus on the same skills and competencies as students reading at grade level, with an added element of vocabulary development. However, students below grade level should be learning reading strategies and developing comprehension skills. Students at grade level should be reinforcing skills and expanding content knowledge. Below grade level students should demonstrate at least 1.5 to 2 years growth in reading comprehension in a year, and their improvement can be measured by the Degrees of Reading Power Assessment.
Students must complete formative assessments to determine their exact strengths and deficits in vocabulary, comprehension skills, strategic reading tools, and metacognitive processes. If students are in grades 6 or 7, their advanced decoding skills must also be assessed. Advanced decoding skills include six-syllable types, prefixes, suffixes, base words, and word roots.
Once these assessments are completed, students should be assigned to groups of no more than seven according to the skill they are to learn. Students at this level need explicit instruction to accelerate their reading comprehension. Often, they are performing below grade level because they do not intuit, and they need explicit instruction to make the same connections that students who read at grade level make on their own. Instruction must take place in small groups so the teacher can provide systematic, explicit instruction to help the students comprehend. Once a student has learned a particular skill, he or she moves to another group to learn a new skill. In addition, students at this level also must practice SSR for at least 200 minutes a week, which will increase their automaticity, fluency, and vocabulary.
Students Who Comprehend More Than Two Grades Below Level
Many students in this group are at risk of dropping out of school mentally, if not physically. They need intensive systematic and explicit instruction to accelerate their reading comprehension. A goal for these students is to demonstrate 2 to 2.5 year’s growth in reading comprehension in a year. Without this level of growth, there is little hope these students will be successful in any aspect of education. Their growth can be measured by the Degrees of Reading Power Assessment, the San Diego Quick Assessment List, and the Literacy First Process Phonics Assessment.
Students at this level must also complete formative assessments to determine the specific strengths and deficits in their phonics and advanced decoding skills. The first step in formative assessment is to administer the San Diego Quick Assessment List to determine the approximate grade level at which the student can “call words.” If the student is able to call words above the fifth grade level on the San Diego Quick, the student possesses basic decoding skills and should be treated as reading no more than two grades below level. If students call words below the fifth grade level on the San Diego Quick, they are likely to have deficits in basic decoding skills. Those students must be evaluated on the Literacy First Phonics Assessment to determine strengths and deficits in their decoding skills.
Once the students’ phonics skills are identified, they must be instructed in small groups to provide the intensive systematic and explicit instruction they need to develop automaticity in calling words. Coupled with phonics instruction, these students need spelling instruction at their correct developmental stage. The book Words Their Way (Bear, Inverizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 1999) provides an assessment tool, as well as numerous activities that are far more effective than traditional spelling instruction that requires students to memorize words or write them 5 to 10 times each.
In addition to phonics and spelling instruction, students at this level typically have limited vocabularies and little understanding of comprehension skills and strategic reading tools. Therefore, they must also receive systematic and explicit instruction of all the competencies and skills. Their reading curriculum should be similar to that listed for the other groups of students, except that they must first be taught the basic decoding skills so they can use the skills and competencies that are dependent on reading with automaticity and fluency. This means a reading speed of at least 90 words a minute.
As with the other groups, students far below grade level must also practice SSR for at least 200 minutes per week to increase their automaticity, fluency, and vocabulary. Finding appropriate texts is extremely important at this level. Students must be able to call 19 out of 20 words during SSR, or they will not develop either fluency or vocabulary and the SSR is wasted time.
This last group of readers needs teachers who are both highly skilled reading teachers and totally committed to helping students accelerate their reading comprehension. The typical middle level and high school English teacher or language arts teacher may be strong instructionally and very committed, but if they are not consciously competent in every aspect of the reading curriculum; do not know the difference between a vowel digraph, a consonant digraph, and a consonant blend; or cannot state the attributes necessary for summarizing, they will have extreme difficulty teaching the students in an explicit manner.
Students reading more than two grades below level should have at least 90 minutes of reading instruction per day, plus 20 minutes of SSR daily. In most middle level and high schools, this means students will likely lose an elective. This may result in some disgruntled parents or students, but principals and counselors must hold firm and emphasize that students’ success in school and life is dependent on the ability to read at grade level. Excellence in reading and student achievement is possible in every middle level and high school if the principal provides the necessary curriculum, instruction, assessment tools, resources, and intervention strategies. PL
* Bear, D. R., Inverizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F (1999). Words their way Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.
* Allen, J. (1999) Words, words, words. York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Paula Whittier (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior consultant for the Professional Development Institute, which provides reading staff development and consulting services to middle level and high schools nationwide. She is a former middle level and high school English teacher, guidance counselor, and district administrator.
Bill Blokker (docblokk@aol. com) has 20 years experience as a middle level and high school teacher, coach, and director of vocational education and is a senior consultant for the Professional Development Institute.
Copyright National Association of Secondary School Principals Oct 2001
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