Great readers are made; they are not born (to paraphrase Vince Lombardi). After all, children don’t enter the world knowing how to decode words, make inferences, or cite evidence. They grow into great readers by learning great habits—accumulating a rich database of skills that add up to the ability to read fluently. Some children pick up those habits when adults read to them. Others will not reach those heights without targeted instruction in the classroom. In a habit-focused classroom, all students get abundant opportunities to practice new skills correctly, so when they sit down to read without our guidance, they can access those tools automatically. Here are 10 game-changing tips for making your students great readers by habit.
1 | Build habits at the moment of error, not at the moment of success.
The most critical moment in reading instruction is when a student gets something wrong. If the student continues practicing the skill incorrectly, he or she will build weaker habits. Intervene with a targeted question, such as “How does this part of the text help you understand this character?” Doing so allows master reading teachers to transform moments of error into opportunities for success, simultaneously preventing poor habits from taking root and building great ones in their place.
2 | Change how students talk about reading, and you’ll change how they think about it.
If you think student-driven literary discussions should be reserved for high school and college classrooms, think again. Too often these activities don’t happen in elementary classrooms because we don’t expect our youngest readers to be capable of participating in them. But great discussion, like great reading, comes from building the right habits. If we intentionally train our students in the habits of great discussion—making eye contact with peers, prompting a peer to go deeper, building on what the previous speaker has said—they can conduct extraordinarily rich conversations among themselves. And when they drive the discussion, they learn far more rapidly and are more prepared to make their own way to the right conclusions about a text.
3 | Put great reading and great writing where they belong: hand in hand.
Just like adults, students use writing as a valuable tool for gathering their thoughts about a text and communicating their ideas to others. By leveraging this to your students’ advantage, you’ll develop their writing skills in tandem with their reading skills. For example, starting around second grade, students can prepare for a discussion about what they’re reading by answering a focus question in writing beforehand: “What is the author trying to teach us in this story? What specific lines or phrases from the text help to reveal that information?” Then, you can review written responses to get a better understanding of what guidance the students will need during the discussion.
4 | Use guided reading instruction to match the right skill and text with the right student at the right time.
To reach the new bar set by the Common Core, we’ll have to accelerate the rate at which we teach students the skills of reading. Our students, meanwhile, still need us to meet them where they are. Guided reading lets you do both. It gives students the chance to master skills and allows you the opportunity to address miscues in the moment. By providing this scaffolding and support, you’ll help students access complex texts—all while making sure they learn the skills they need at the pace they need.
5 | Make prompting normal.
How many open-ended questions do you ask of your students on any given day? “Open-ended prompting is so unusual in schools that when a teacher does it, the students normally change their answers, because they’re sure a teacher prompt can only mean they got the wrong answer,” says Molly Branson Thayer, director of literacy at Chicago’s Urban Education Institute. If our goal is rigorous discussions around reading, we can’t let this be the case. Students thrive when they expect to be prompted and when that prompting is targeted to help them problem-solve and articulate their thinking. (See “Universal Prompts” in sidebar for examples.)
6 | There is magic to effective prompting, but the magic is replicable.
Watch a master reading teacher prompt students, and you might wonder how anyone can come up with the right prompts so deftly. But you don’t have to. As much as your students can surprise you, it’s also possible to predict the errors they’ll make as they learn specific skills, and to plan prompts that will get them back on track. My book Great Habits, Great Readers includes prompting guides
that list the most effective prompts to respond to student errors when they struggle with particular skills. For example, if students struggle with a technical term in an informational text, you might ask, “How does this section add to the definition you’ve provided? What else does your definition need to have to be complete?”
7 | Be picky when you choose texts.
Text level matters, but not all 400 Lexile level texts are created equally. Imagine that you have a group of students reading at 400L who are able to understand stories focused on one main character but they struggle holding on to multiple characters and their different points of view. To make sure your students practice this skill during your next guided reading lesson, you’ll need a 400L text with plenty of primary characters—a text with only one protagonist wouldn’t be helpful. It’s just as critical to select a text that demands the right skills of your students as to select one at the right level.
8 | Don’t let the drive for evidence replace the need for the right evidence.
Citing text evidence is a crucial skill, one emphasized by the Common Core. Students won’t develop it, though, unless you require that they cite the right evidence to support their point. How can you make that happen? Go back to No. 1: Build habits at the moment of error. When you ask a
student for evidence, evaluate the quality of his or her response, and keep prompting until you get the right evidence. Hold to a high standard in that moment to give your students what they need, when they need it.
9 | To get the most out of read-alouds, leave the rocking-chair mentality behind.
When you picture a read-aloud, what comes to mind? A teacher reclining in a rocking chair, reading to enraptured students? The trouble with that image isn’t the rocking chair itself but the passive approach to read-aloud that it suggests: Sit back and read to your students, and meaningful enrichment will follow. That method can certainly get students excited about reading and model how fluent reading sounds, but when a read-aloud is leveraged intentionally, it can offer far more. Choose texts that require students to use the skills they need to learn. Ask questions that allow them to put those skills to practice. In doing so, you can transform a read-aloud into an invaluable opportunity to build reading habits, all while students savor the joy of being read to.
10 | To make sure students fall in love with reading, make sure they are reading.
Independent reading time is an essential component of any reading program: It’s a chance for students to put together everything they’ve learned in reading lessons and fly using their own wings. But it only works if they really do spend that time reading. Providing a rich class library, setting the expectation that students will read for the entire period, and holding them intellectually accountable for what they read will lock in their success as lifelong independent readers. An easy-to-implement tip: Get them to write about what they read, posing a targeted question to help unlock their comprehension.
Paul Bambrick-Santoyo is the managing director of Uncommon Schools–North Star Academy in Newark, New Jersey. He is the author of Driven by Data, Leverage Leadership, and Great Habits, Great Readers.