Students must be actively engaged while reading to make meaning from text, so developing an engaging and motivating classroom environment is crucial. Students are more likely to read and read with accuracy when they believe they are supported and safe, believe they will be successful, are able to choose engaging texts, and have a sense of independence in their reading (Shanahan et al., 2010).
To promote successful reading and reading instruction, you and your team need to support teachers to
- create a safe and supportive reading environment;
- help students see themselves as successful readers and discover the benefits of reading;
- provide engaging texts; and
- give students opportunities to collaborate about text.
Create a safe and supportive reading environment.
Providing a safe and supportive academic environment is critical for the continued practice and enhancement of students’ reading skills. In a safe and supportive environment, students believe that their teacher and fellow students will support them when they take academic risks, even when they are unsuccessful. Feeling safe to take academic risks can encourage students to stretch their literacy skills, such as attempting to read aloud in front of peers or answering an especially difficult comprehension question.
A quick way to provide support for students is by doing a think-pair-share activity (also known as “Think-Turn-Talk”) to discuss the question or prepare with a peer before responding in the whole class setting. This brief interaction serves to provide wait time and peer input to those who need it, an opportunity for the teachers to listen and informally assess, and a way to engage every student in the class.
To create safe environments, teachers can model what it looks like to take risks, such as reading in front of students and using think-alouds to figure out the meaning of challenging text. Teachers are especially effective when they perform a think-aloud by preparing and acting out what is challenging for students. The text is not actually challenging for the teacher, but performing such a think-aloud allows students to hear how a skilled reader works through the syntax and vocabulary of a text that would be challenging to him or her. Teachers can also model and emphasize the importance of effort, well-reasoned guesses, and “smart mistakes” over actually getting the correct answer. Teachers might also share real examples of how they have worked through challenging texts in their professional or personal lives.
Modeling academic risk taking and maintaining a focus on effort can help students develop what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” Students with a growth mindset believe that their intelligence and their skills are constantly changing and that their hard work can lead to improvement. Dweck’s research shows that some students also have “fixed mindsets,” or the belief that their intelligence and skills are fixed—set in stone. Those with fixed mindsets believe that they are poor (or strong) readers and that no amount of hard work (or lack thereof) will change this fact. The more that teachers can encourage growth mindsets in students, the more that students will take control of their own learning and reading (Dweck, 2006).
Designing reading activities that are challenging but attainable with effort can also help develop a safe and supportive environment. With high expectations like this, students begin to appreciate that effort is necessary for success and that failure is a necessary part of learning. When students encounter difficult reading tasks and successfully complete them, it is important for teachers to provide specific praise for students’ efforts, such as “Great job using comprehension strategies. I noticed how you stopped at the word acquiesce and used the sentences before and after to get a sense of that word’s meaning.” Praise such as this enforces that effort is what improves outcomes rather than a fixed innate ability. Students also need honest and timely corrective feedback to know when and how to course-correct.
Help students see themselves as successful readers and discover the benefits of reading.
As students learn to read, they develop identities as readers and notions about how good readers read; this continues throughout middle and high school as students update their understanding of “good reading” and of themselves as readers based on their experiences. Read-aloud activities are crucial to this process from early childhood throughout schooling. Teachers at all levels should read aloud to students regularly, actively engaging them in the process. Reading aloud to students at the secondary level can provide ongoing models of fluent, grade-appropriate reading, which are especially important for students who are struggling. Read-alouds can provide access to text that these students would not be able to successfully read and comprehend independently. Successful participation in discussions about text read aloud can also help strengthen students’ notions of themselves as capable of comprehending text.
As students develop their reading identities, it is important for you and your team to give reading a prominent role in classes and at your campus. Students see the benefits of reading when teachers model the positive effects of reading in their daily lives. For example, a teacher might comment on something she read in a newspaper, magazine, or blog that is relevant to the students or a recent class discussion. Teachers might ask students what topics they are interested in personally and help connect them with texts about those topics through the library or online research. In doing so, teachers model how reading is useful in their lives outside of class.
Provide engaging texts.
Text selection is closely tied to student engagement. Readers are more likely to be engaged while reading if the text is relevant to their lives. This is true for adults and students. When choosing texts for students, consider providing texts with themes that are directly relevant to their lives and that they have expressed interest in. For example, secondary students are often interested in reading about people their own age or slightly older. Often, struggling readers at this age enjoy nonfiction texts that relate to interests in their lives such as automobiles, technology, entrepreneurialism, sports, relationships, crafts, or hobbies. Many students at this level are also interested in texts about social justice, current events, cultural heritage, and how things in the world work.
Providing students with opportunities to choose among an assortment of high-interest reading materials makes it more likely that students will find books that appeal to their personal interests. Self-selection of books can help students become independent, confident, motivated, and enthusiastic about reading. To support this, teachers can fill their classrooms with books and set up attractive and prominently located libraries (Morrow, 1996). Many ELAR teachers also schedule time for students to go to the school library. While this is most commonly associated with an instructional unit on research, your teachers might consider regular visits to the library to encourage students to select and read books for pleasure as well.
Ensuring that students choose books that are neither too easy nor too hard further helps them stay engaged. The accuracy of student reading helps determine whether a text is too challenging for a student to read independently. Reading accuracy scores are usually generated by determining the percent of words in a text that are read correctly by the student. One way to categorize reading accuracy scores is by assigning them to one of three levels.
- Independent level: 95–100% of words read correctly
- Instructional level: 90–94% of words read correctly
- Frustration level: below 90% of words read correctly
Ensuring that students select books at their “just right” level for independent reading can be a challenge. Teachers might set up systems for organizing classroom texts to include information about genre, author, or subject matter (so students can find books of interest to them) and about the difficulty of texts (so students can locate books they will be able to read). Choice is very important to adolescent learners, so providing access to a wide variety of texts that are engaging and relevant—and in a variety of readability levels—is one of the best ways to encourage independent reading by secondary students.
Teachers can also provide students with access to texts that are beyond their independent reading level by varying the instructional activities. For example, texts at students’ instructional level can be used to engage students with paired reading activities, and texts at the frustration level can be used as read-alouds.
The To Learn More section below provides a resource from the University of Utah Reading Clinic that discusses reading levels. Many schools use assessments that produce a reading-level indicator, such as a Lexile score, which helps link readers to text that is likely at their instructional and independent reading levels. In these cases, students’ reading levels can be provided, and if books are labeled, students can quickly and easily identify which books are within their reading range. Lexile.com offers a search that provides book recommendations based on both reading level and areas of interest.
Give students opportunities to collaborate about text.
Engaged reading at school should also involve students’ working together in meaningful interactions that focus on text during language arts as well as content area lessons. This topic is explored more in depth in Part 2.
TO LEARN MORE: To learn more about reading levels, you may want to visit the following website:
The University of Utah Reading Clinic provides an interesting discussion of reading levels and how teachers can use reading levels to provide students with engaging “just right” texts. This website includes information relevant through 8th grade.