Written by Gen
Seven weeks ago our preschooler became a big sister. We had tried our best to prepare her for what a new baby in the house really means: lots of crying and less attention for her. She seemed to understand, but we braced ourselves for tantrums, jealousy, and regression. So, I was pleasantly surprised one day when I had to leave the baby, screaming, in the living room, so I could prepare to feed him. As I rushed, I heard our daughter shout, “Don’t worry, I got him, Mom!” The crying suddenly stopped and when I entered the room, our daughter was sitting beside the baby, library book in hand, reading to her brother.
I love that reading was the first thing she thought of to solve a problem, and that she uses it to soothe. I also love the confidence with which she read that book, because it wasn’t a simple reader or decodable text, it was a popular tradebook. Did she know every word? No. Did she end up reading many of the words correctly anyway? Yes. Did she read the intended message to her brother? Most definitely!
This sweet little vignette warmed my heart, but it also sparked a sense of concern within me as an educator and parent. I came across the cartoon above from The New Yorker shortly after seeing my own children sharing that beautiful reading experience and it made me reflect on the current climate of literacy teaching today.
So very many literacy programs for both classroom and intervention that are out there today ask our students to recall or spell sight words, match parts of words to phonemes, and name events. In other words, they train children to, “sit,” “stay,” and “heel” when it comes to reading. Check out those highlighted action verbs. If they are sounding familiar, then you must be an educator. They can be found under the “remembering” category from Bloom’s Taxonomy. It is the lowest level of complexity. Following are a few of my thoughts regarding why we must advocate for teachers to use their own expertise to choose or modify curriculum to require students to use deep thinking skills during every literacy lesson.
You know what kids, particularly those who are struggling readers, are good at? Compartmentalizing. You know how I know this? I can’t tell you how many students come to me able to name every sight word in their classroom flash cards but fail to recognize them in text, or who answer complex questions during a read aloud but can’t seem to recall simple plot events from a basic leveled reader. It is because of this talent that we as teachers of literacy must balance every literacy lesson with the entire spectrum of Bloom’s hierarchy. Look at curriculum carefully. Many will fool the untrained eye by implying that all levels of the hierarchy are covered in different parts of the day. A common example that I come across often is when higher order thinking skills are covered during the interactive read aloud, and lower orders (i.e. skills) are covered in small group lessons. Another example is when an intervention is a phonics-only program. This is a problem because of that special talent kids have to compartmentalize their learning. You may inadvertently be teaching students to think deeply when you read, but to only recall words when they read.
Another thing that many small children are good at is thinking about anything other than what you’re talking about during whole-group lessons. So if we ask for higher order thinking only during whole-group lessons then we’re not reaching everyone, and we won’t even know who we’re missing day-to-day.
You know what else students who are fragile readers are good at? Habituating inefficient reading behaviors. Ever had a student that you just couldn’t get to fix a letter or word reversal? Or to look closely at print? Habituation. If these students are continually taught to read with only the lowest level on the hierarchy, it will be very difficult to teach them to think deeply while they’re reading later on because all of their formative years were spent knee-deep in only phonics. They will have habituated not thinking while they read.
So what do we do?
Infuse every literacy lesson with the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Ask students to solve, evaluate, test, innovate, and theorize in every lesson from whole-group to small-group. The easiest way to do it? Guided reading. Whatever model you use, guided reading should include the following elements:
- Word learning
- Word study
- Authentic leveled text reading
- Teacher prompting promoting the use of meaning, structure, and visual information (MSV) to problem-solve
- Text discussion
- A teaching point regarding text processing
There are lots of opportunities to develop critical thinking during a guided reading lesson. In my opinion, the key here is prompting the integration of MSV while the student is reading. This is what will take students’ problem-solving to the highest levels of Bloom’s. Instead of asking themselves only, “what word is this?” They will be asking themselves things like:
“How will I solve this?”
“What information will be useful to me?”
“What is most important here?”
“What fits with the theme of this book?”
“How do I know if my attempt is right?”
This causes the student to judge and justify, predict and adjust while reading, all of which are in the highest categories of Bloom’s: evaluating and creating.
Your school doesn’t use guided reading? Consider adding this type of prompting to your small group lessons when kids are processing text or during reading conferences during independent reading.
And let’s not forget about confidence. When a child’s theory of reading is more than word knowledge then you get scenarios like the one that happened between my children.
Through his research, Dr. Richard Allington (2002) has found that expert teachers are effective regardless of the curriculum or program that is used in their schools. So, it is our duty to continue to deepen our understandings of reading and writing acquisition and instructional techniques. To me, this means keeping up on the research behind all view points regarding literacy, it does not mean learning the ins and outs of a particular program. When we become experts on reading and writing acquisition, it will not matter what program we have in front of us, we will know how and when to modify or diverge from it in order to help our students reach their potential as readers and writers.
Keep the Fire Burning for the Kids
I worry for my daughter who will begin formal schooling sooner than I would like to admit. I worry that a compartmentalized, phonics-driven curriculum will turn off her confidence and teach her to sit, stay, and heel rather than think, innovate, and be herself. We must strive to develop even our youngest readers into deep thinkers in every lesson because, if there’s anything I’ve learned from my daughter, it’s that children are born to think critically and with confidence- who are we to turn it off?