A “Hands-Off” Approach to Reading

By Heather Johnson © 2004, Revised 2007, 2013

Several years ago, I read a book that changed the way I taught reading in my multigrade, one-room school.  The book, What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing  Research-Based Programs by Richard Allington (ISBN 0-321-06396-1) provided the research I needed to follow through on some of my own teaching intuitions.

My appetite for this book had been building; during a seven year absence from teaching, I had done some reading and informal research into homeschooling methods and philosophies.  I was struck by the fact that homeschooled children often became strong, avid readers, with unusually mature skills in critical reading and comprehension. What, I wondered, were these homeschooled children receiving that many children at school were not?  I was able to draw my own conclusions, but had no way to verify them.

Upon my return to teaching I inherited a multigrade class of ten students which included seven very reluctant readers spanning Grades Two to Six.  What type of reading instruction would work best for these children and also be manageable for me?  I decided to act on my own intuition.  Later that year, I was thrilled to find the success I was seeing in my students also substantiated in Mr. Allington’s book.  His analysis of the research on the effects (positive and negative) of different components of traditional reading instruction spawned many suggestions; suggestions that made teaching reading far more engaging for the children, far simpler for me, and more effective and enjoyable for us all!

Basically, I used a “hands-off” approach to reading instruction.*  I did not impose or attach any written assignments to the children’s reading, other than the requirement that they record the title of every book they read.  I did not assign reading materials, although I did make lots of suggestions, offered lots of attractive and accessible choices, and did a lot of sharing of what I knew and loved about authors, illustrators, and books.  I still designed literature units (Biographies, Myths, Canadian Authors, etc.) to allow us fresh foci for reading themes, but, until these children became eager readers, I left out the written assignments, and even then, kept them to a minimum.  I wanted reading to be non-threatening, if not downright enticing!  Every day we talked about the books we were reading.  Sometimes we did this semi-formally (as in “Book Talks”), but mostly we talked conversationally, and incidentally, as opportunities arose.  We read for an increasing amount of time each day until we were reading silently for a solid thirty minutes every morning and every afternoon (occasionally for longer, when the children asked, or when we were all so absorbed by our reading that time slipped by on us).

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* I am, however, still very ‘hands-on’ when I am teaching pre- or emergent readers how to read.  My methods are eclectic and include direct instruction, repetition, whole language activities, and lots of oral practice.  When do I do this?  When the rest of my students are deeply engaged in their quiet reading!  I have two precious, uninterrupted blocks of thirty minutes twice a day, every day (!) to devote to the very important task of getting my early primaries to read independently.

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How did I evaluate the children’s reading?  Through discussion, either as a class or individually.  The reading instruction I needed to do, I did conversationally, sometimes (once a week or so) integrating literary concepts with art, drama, or creative writing.  I based these lessons on the stories, poems and novels I was reading aloud to the class, since these provided our common literary experience.  As the children’s repertoire of favourite books and authors grew, so did the depths of our discussions, and the children’s eagerness to read new titles.  This was especially true when a new book was introduced by a classmate.  As the children spent more time reading, their skill levels in fluency and comprehension strengthened with very little intervention other than monitoring and modeling from me.  (Certainly there were no worksheets!)

Two important factors in the success of my reading “un-program” were 1. my gentle but firm belief that each child would grow to love reading, and 2. my consistent expectation for appropriate (ie: reading) behavior during quiet reading times.  I was quite strict, especially in the beginning.  I wanted to communicate that reading was important enough for us to set aside special time each day to read silently and independently; the children, therefore, had the obligation to be engaged in reading (not talking, or wandering around the classroom) for that time.  I was intentional in my training; I knew this approach to reading would only work if the children were capable of engaging themselves in the task.  Once these habits became second nature to the children, I could relax the rules now and then, knowing they had the self-discipline and motivation to get back to their reading.

One of Mr. Allington’s most enlightening points is how little time is actually spent reading in any given school day.  Valuable time allotted for reading is instead spent bringing the class to order, listening to the teacher give instructions, then after a brief time reading, answering worksheets, or writing assignments.  Reading is a complex skill, and one that requires a great deal of practice.  Instead of reinforcing reading, these added-on activities mean a child is reading less than he could be. My own thought is that reading is like sleeping – a reader needs time to settle into “deep reading” (like “deep-sleeping”) which is when the benefits begin.  Children are simply not given large enough chunks of uninterrupted school time to get hooked on reading.  That, and the fact they are seldom (if ever) given the opportunity to read without having work attached to their reading are two weighty disadvantages that many homeschooled children do not encounter.

There is only one way to learn to swim or ride a bike – by doing it.  The same applies to reading.  Take a close look at your school day; are you providing your students with the time they need to practice and master this skill?  So much of their success in and out of school depends on their ability and attitude towards reading.

I have now been reading with the same group of children for more than five years – and reading is what they still love to do!  Due to the success and simplicity of Mr. Allington’s suggestions, I cannot fathom teaching reading any other way.

My Reading Approach Six Years Later….(2013)

I am no longer teaching at our one-room school, but am currently teaching in a multigrade classroom of 15 students in Grades 6-9.  My approach to reading remains much the same, based on its continued success.  Our conversations, given the older ages of my students, are perhaps more in-depth and complex, and often include our observations about the literary elements and devices in shared literature experiences.  Our shared reading includes theme-related novels, genres, picture books, poems, online recitations by poets, and student readings of the opening pages of their favourite novels.  I am also beginning to implement student blogging as a way of responding to literature.  The blogging occurs after a class discussion, and allows the students time to consider the perspectives shared before composing their own responses in a thoughtful and articulate post.  Later, they are encouraged to respond to each other’s posts, to make further connections to their reading, and to acknowledge and extend interpretations, insights and questions about their shared or self-selected reading materials.

“But what about formal assessment?” I hear someone asking.  My summative assessments are also informal:I jot down notes, I ask students to keep a list of their reading, I require some students to read aloud with me regularly so I can help them develop strategies for comprehension and/or fluency. I have informal one-on-one discussions with each student in a given time period, as well as many class discussions.  Students give one book talk a month and then answer questions from their classmates about the book (which has often been previously read by at least one other classmate or myself).  Occasionally, I ask students to write a learning log (perhaps after a particularly powerful experience with literature) to share what they have learned and why each of these things is meaningful and/or will be helpful to them.

I also encourage all my students to develop a “daily reading habit” at home, and converse with my school parents about the importance of maintaining this practice during the middle school/high school years.  Occasionally, I will ask parents to monitor, and/or students to record their reading at home, and to share what this experience is like, what makes it work (or not), and what can be done to make it better.  I offer my classroom to students who want to read during lunch hour rather than at home.

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About Heather Johnson

Mutligrade teacher in BC, Canada. Am currently in a Masters program in Curriculum & Instruction through UVIC. Wife, mom, fair weather gardener, foul-weather knitter, ponder-er and pray-er, new to technology, but through it, am discovering a new way to learn and express myself.
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