By Guest Blogger, Lynmara Colón
As a mother of twin girls, I try not to compare them often. However, most of the time this is easier said than done. From the time they learned how to walk, to who rode their bike without training wheels first, I tend to remember those milestones. Reading seems to be on that list too, as my daughters had different experiences on how they experienced reading at school. From the moment they were born, their room was filled with books and quotes. We took weekly trips to the library and made the Scholastic Book Fair a family event. We gifted them books on special occasions, read them stories at night, and shared our reading lives with them. I was confident my girls would love reading as much as I did.
Their reading lives were wonderful until they entered the 3rd grade. For most children in the United States, this is their first experience with the famous state assessment. It was then when the passion and excitement for reading changed drastically for one of my girls. I noticed her intentionality about meeting “the required reading minutes” on the weekly log, her disengagement to read anything other than what was required in class, and her love for reading fading. One day during our normal library visit, I asked why she did not seem excited about books anymore; her response broke my heart: “I cannot fit books in my life, Mom. I have to be good at reading passages if I want to pass the test.” And just like that, my daughter gave me a glimpse of what probably happens in many classrooms around our country; packet reading in an effort to assist students in passing a state test.
That year my daughter took her first state reading assessment and scored within the average range. Her sister who continued to read for pleasure scored in the advanced category. These scores became autopsy data of what we suspected would happen. As we evaluated how her reading diet suffered, we knew it would be reflected on her final results. What I find fascinating is that even when we know this practice is not supported by research and does not work, many students in the United States continue to be served packets with passages on a daily basis.
I understand the pressure state assessments have on our teachers, let alone our students. As a former teacher and school administrator I recognize the challenges we experience in schools every day when it comes to reading engagement and creating literacy environments that will support best practices. However, I know that worksheets or packets are not the answer either. Our students need teachers who are intentional about carving time during the day to make room for independent reading with authentic text. It is only by doing this that we can model healthy reading lives that will take students beyond a state assessment. I challenge you to take a moment and think of some strategies we can put in practice in our schools to support our students in becoming passionate readers:
- Rethink Stamina - Contrary to what many believe about using passages to build stamina, it is the time spent on reading what will help students increase their ability to sustain reading. Independent reading gives students choice and the opportunity to read for longer periods of time. Reading stamina is closely related to reading engagement. If I get to choose what I read I will most likely be engage. I have been in education for over 15 years and have yet to see a student excited to read from packets. Given them choice and the time to read and watch their stamina increase.
- Trade the worksheets for books - Skip the line at the copier while saving some paper and ink. There is so much you can do with a book. Have students read independently, write reviews, write a new ending, blog about it, or even present about what they love from the text. This practice will get other students excited about reading while promoting oral language.
- Include the school librarian in your daily planning - When was the last time you shared your curriculum sequence with your librarian? School librarians have a wealth of knowledge and resources you can use to enhance your lessons.
- Give your students access to books - Make it a point to have books available in your classroom. Ask PTO, attend garage sales, or ask for donations.
- Monitor reading support - Be reflective about your support to students during independent reading. Having a plan to know your readers and give feedback adds great value to their reading life.
- Initiate the conversation about your reading life - How many times have you walked into the teachers’ lounge to hear conversations about what reality T.V. show your colleagues are watching? What if you initiated the conversation about current books you are reading and what makes them awesome? There are so many amazing titles out there that can engage students in reading more. If we want to be relevant to our students, we need to current on the types of books they are reading. By doing this you are sending a message about the importance of being intentional about books we select to support them in their reading journey.
- Use the Scholastic Book Fair to build relationships - Relationships are built when we take the time to know more about each other. The Scholastic Book Fair is a great opportunity for you to observe what type of books your students gravitate towards. It is also a great opportunity to support them on how to select books they are excited to own. Use your observations to support them beyond the book fair; recommending like titles for the rest of the year. Scholastic has many resources online that can help you plan for what could be a magical event.
- Be the one who changes practice - Next time a colleague hands you a worksheet they believe will help you assess a student’s comprehension, teach them a better way. Share with your colleagues’ best practices and ways we can assess how much our students know by holding reading conferences where students are using authentic text.
We are teaching the next generation of leaders. Worksheets will not teach students to deal with many of the challenges they will face in life. Testing and packets will not prepare our students for the workforce. I challenge you to think beyond the test by having students read independently every day. You will soon learn that by doing this, the “test” will become an event that neither you or they will be stressed about because you will already know the result: passionate readers who will earn a passing score.
Colón brings the perspective of a teacher, assistant principal, and principal—positions she has held since joining education in 2003. She was named assistant principal at a Title I school and served there until becoming principal of Mary Williams Elementary School in 2014, serving over 1,000 students in grades K-5. There, she was able to increase reading engagement by leading a culture of literacy.
She now heads the office that provides comprehensive registration services to English Learners and immigrant children, and translation and interpretation services to a school division serving over 90,000 students. These students represent 124 countries and 149 languages. Colón holds two master’s degrees, in curriculum and instruction, and in educational leadership. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in education through Old Dominion University.