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3 Reading Teaching Strategies to Ditch, Add

Jordan Catapano

We all know how important reading is. For me, the more I’ve taught and the more I’ve researched literacy, the more I’ve been modifying my teaching strategies to maximize student outcomes. Based on my reflection, there are a few classic classroom reading teaching strategies I’m throwing out, and several others I’m doubling down on. Sometimes certain practices are adopted because that’s the way we were taught growing up, and it was “Good enough for us.” Others arise out of a fad, a mandate, or just genuine convenience. Ultimately, it is our own ongoing study and commitment to reflection that will help weed out the ineffective practices and teaching strategies. Here are some ineffective classroom reading practices I’m weeding out this year:

1. Popcorn Reading Teaching Strategies

It’s not hard to find naysayers for this common class reading practice, and I am adding my name among them. The typical critiques of this reading practice include:

  • It doesn’t accomplish the reading goals it intends to.
  • It forces unwilling students to read aloud.
  • It decreases student attention.
  • It can reduce comprehension.
  • It increases student anxiety.

Teachers who utilize popcorn reading, spirit reading, or round-robin reading often believe there are advantages to this strategy related to enthusiasm and fluency. But researchers beg to differ. One such researcher, Melanie Kuhn, associate professor at Boston University, published in the Literature Research Panel that, “Unfortunately, the problems with these procedures outweigh any perceived advantages.”

Fortunately, Kuhn reminds us there are replacement strategies that work more effectively without making students feel uncomfortable or distracted. Partner reading, echo reading, and teacher read-aloud may be more effective reading skill techniques I’m more likely to implement in my classroom.

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2. Speech Reading

Sometimes I’ve gone soft on students and called something a “Speech” or a “Presentation” when it really wasn’t. Speech reading is when students compose a speech or presentation, head up to the front of the classroom, and simply read their composition to the class. While I like the idea of students sharing their writings, I don’t like the idea of fooling students into thinking that their ability to read a composition to the class is the same thing as giving a speech or a presentation.

Instead of allowing students to just read in front of class off of a sheet of paper or off of the slide presentation they prepared, I’m going to focus on teaching speech preparation and speech delivery skills. These skills are very different from reading out loud, and include elements like eye contact, vocal variety, and gestures. Good speaking skills are different from merely good reading skills, and I’m kicking out any opportunity for confusion between the two.

3. Timed Reading

I know that the standardized tests and AP exams my students regularly take require them to read passages within a set amount of time. However, I also know that the vast, vast, vast majority of reading my students will do in their lifetime is not bookended with a time limit. Quality reading takes place when students’ minds have the space to read without having to think about how many words per minute they need to complete.

Dr. Timothy Rasinski, professor of Literacy Education at Kent State University, argues in his article “The Case Against Timed Reading” that, “I know of no compelling research that has shown that instruction to improve reading speed actually leads to profound and lasting improvements in reading comprehension or overall reading proficiency.”

Instead of asking students to read as fast as they can or to click a stopwatch when they begin a passage, Rasinski recommends students engage in authentic reading tasks. The more often and more widely students read, the more their word recognition automaticity increases, which in turn will increase their reading speed. When we read only so that students’ reading speed increases, the purpose and reading is superficial, and we don’t actually accomplish what we want to anyway. When we allow students to read more authentically, students experience a wide range of benefits, including increased speed.

Three Reading Practices I’m Adding

There are lots of positive reading practices in classrooms for all ages, and I’m proud that my classroom features many of them. Here are three practices I’ve been learning more about and I’m especially focusing on incorporating.

1. Independent Reading

As a high school English teacher, my curriculums have strongly centered on literature. While this has led to many great opportunities for us to explore complex texts as a class, I have left out the opportunity for students to read their own books independently. In fact, too often it is due to my own assignments for students that they have no time for reading on their own.

As defined by the School Library Media Research, “Independent reading is the reading students choose to do on their own. It reflects the reader’s personal choice of the material to be read as well as the time and place to read it.” The beauty of independent reading is that students choose what they want to read, without the typical school assignments or reading exercises attached to it. It makes reading stop feeling like work and start feeling like fun.

Research demonstrates that students who do substantial independent reading are more likely to demonstrate a positive attitude towards reading and sustain it as a practice throughout their lifetime. I want my students to recognize that reading is not just something teachers assign and students begrudge, but is a positive habit that can lead to a more fulfilling life. So while I’ll retain the majority of our standing literature curriculum, I’m also going to incorporate and emphasize the place independent reading has in student literacy development.

2. Sustained, Silent Reading (SSR)

Similar to independent reading, I’m going to allocate more time to reading right in my class. In the past I’ve asked students to complete the majority of their reading outside of class. Jonathan Bergmann, one of the pioneers of the flipped classroom, agrees that literacy instructors were the original utilizers of the flipped model … but what if we reversed this flip and brought more reading back into the classroom?

Jim Trelease, author of “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” called Sustained Silent Reading “Read-aloud’s natural partner,” and explained that reading “Is a skill—and the more you use it, the better you get at it. Conversely, the less you use it, the more difficult it is.” SSR is more than just leading students to the media center and asking them to find a book to read. This is facilitating specific time in your classroom – or even your whole school – where students can just sit back and dive into a good book.

We communicate to students what we value by the time we spend in class doing it. So if we allow students to simply spend time reading – no book reports, no projects, no questions at the end of each chapter – then we are communicating to them that reading for pleasure is in itself a valuable and enjoyable endeavor. Steven Gardiner, who literally wrote the book “Building Student Literacy Through Sustained Silent Reading,” summarizes it like this: “If sustained silent reading has an ultimate goal, it would be to create lifelong readers. SSR gives students the choices to explore authors, genres, and topics worth their reading time.”

3. Annotating

This third reading practice admittedly goes somewhat against the other two. While independent and sustained classroom reading help to encourage student appreciation for reading, annotating requires more work and a different mental approach. In fact, I would argue that we read for pleasure and we annotate for two entirely different reasons.

While pleasure reading is, well, for pleasure, annotation serves a different purpose. I want students to understand that difference so they can make decisions about whether or not to annotate. It would be a pity for a student who is reading for pleasure to feel the pressure to annotate; and it would equally be a pity for a student who needed to study a particular passage to be unequipped to engage in annotative practices.

The Center for Writing at Purdue University calls annotation, “An active reading strategy that improves comprehension and is the beginning of the learning and remembering processes.” Why? Because annotation is a physical interaction with the text that leaves a record of an individual’s thoughts while reading. Strong annotation skills are simply the recording of strong critical thinking skills, which are appropriate to engage in while reading an important or complex writing from which a student hopes to learn.

So the teaching of annotation really will come in two steps for me: First, I want students to understand when it’s appropriate or not to utilize. Second, I want students to understand how to do it effectively so they can incorporate it into their reading practices at appropriate times.

What reading teaching strategies are you ditching, and which are you doubling down on? Tell us what’s important to you and your students in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website