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March 1, 2020

Must-Haves for Reading Instruction

In my 32 years of working in education, I have studied what the experts say about reading instruction, listened to dozens of presentations, read a myriad of books and research articles, and scrutinized publishing companies who promise that their reading programs will answer every reading need. I’ve watched the debates over whole language vs. phonics, basal texts vs. trade books, and the merits of a workshop approach vs. a more systematic approach. With the age of technology came every kind of program imaginable to assess, monitor, and teach reading.

In an era of accountability (i.e., state and national testing), ongoing monitoring of students’ reading results is now a way of life and has placed greater pressure on teachers to become reading experts. So with all the opinions, theories, and methods out there, what are the real “must-haves” for teaching reading? In this article, we’ll cut through all the noise and look at the practices of master teachers who understand how to put research into best practice and combine the best of all approaches.

Create an Authentic Reading Environment

This is an easy one: offer lots of choices! Fill your classrooms with trade books, magazines, electronic options, fiction and nonfiction, and content-specific materials. Having a lot of books to encourage reading may seem like a no-brainer, but when I used to travel to different schools, too many times I saw classrooms devoid of books. Typically, this happened at schools that relied on textbook companies to guide reading.

Your classroom should be full of authentic reading choices (i.e., choices that mirror the real world). Outside of school, people don’t log on to their reading devices to read a basal text, nor do they grab one off the shelf. Basal textbooks might be an efficient choice for classroom instruction, but they’re not of high interest to students. Instead, provide students authentic choices of texts they’ll actually want to read.

Model the Joy of Reading

Many students start school with no reading experience, so we put a great emphasis on introducing them to the written word and reading aloud together. However, as students get older, their interest in reading diminishes as instruction shifts focus to other subject areas.

Teachers must model not only the importance of reading, but also the joy of it. Reading aloud doesn’t have to stop after kindergarten. You can share stories, articles, comic books, and human-interest pieces with students of all ages. If you show enthusiasm for the written word, you’ll remind your students why it’s so valuable to find information and entertainment on something other than YouTube and Twitch.

Read throughout the day, no matter what the content area might be. Let students see you read, and read often. Read to students and with students. Don’t just be an observer of their reading; be a reader yourself.

Tailor Instruction to Your Students

It’s important to listen to the experts, but it’s also important to contextualize what they say and design reading instruction that makes sense for your students and your school. Remember, programs don’t teach students; teachers do.

The first step to creating intentional instruction is knowing your students, knowing their interests, and knowing where they are in their reading journey. Assess their reading skills, and let their needs guide your instruction. Here are some things to keep in mind as you tailor your strategy:

  • Create a structure, whether it’s through a workshop approach or a specific systematic approach.
  • Make sure your structure allows for direct instruction, practice (both independent and group), dialogue, listening, speaking, and writing.
  • Design with purpose, which means being able to explain why you are implementing specific instructional practices. Don’t just do something because you feel like you’re “supposed to.” Make sure everything you do helps you reach your goal: to make your students better, more enthusiastic readers.

For example, you might design a series of lessons focused on comprehension where students ask questions while they read and use the text to find answers to their questions. The purpose is to help students learn to question, problem solve, answer questions, and gain new information.

Offer Students Choices

When I first started teaching third grade, I had a young man in my class who had been retained and was a struggling reader. He hated to read! After assessing his readability level (which was well below grade level) and talking to him at length about his interests, I gathered an array of books for him to consider based on that information. I controlled the readability of the options, but he got to choose the book he finally wanted to try. He practiced independently and with me, and I can still remember the pride in his voice when he told me, “This was the first book I have ever read to the end!” A reader was born!

Student choice increases student engagement; I had firsthand observations of this. When I chose the books, students’ interest and engagement decreased. How many texts were you assigned in school that you had to force yourself to read and then forgot immediately because you had no connections to what you read? Engagement will increase when students can choose their own texts. So again, make sure your classroom offers your students a variety of things to read, including access to online books and articles.

Be Fluid and Flexible

Teaching reading does not occur in a regimented, lock-step manner. Students do not all read at the same level, at the same time, and in the same way. It cannot be a one-way approach, like “I must teach phonics first, then comprehension later.” Reading involves an integration of many things, including phonics (for younger grades), comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, oral communication, listening, and more. These skills should not be taught in isolation, but in correlation with each other. Thus, reading instruction should be fluid and flexible, shifting according to students’ needs and the focus of a particular lesson.

More Ideas for Teaching Reading

Teaching reading is an intricate science, with a multitude of proven strategies and methodologies. One article can’t possibly address all the nuances of reading instruction, but if you include these simple “must-haves,” you will be on your way to effective reading instruction.


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