It’s a sobering but compelling reality that students who “struggle with reading are more likely to drop out of high school, to end up in the criminal justice system, and to live in poverty” (Hanford, 2018). Put more pithily and, perhaps, more encouragingly, Dr. Seuss insists that the “more that you read, the more that you know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Don’t you love that Dr. Seuss can put such a truth into memorable verse?
Who of us does not want our kids to “go,” after all, to be happy, honorable, faithful, and, yes, successful?
Still, it appears that American schools are largely failing their students. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, fewer than 40 percent of American 4th graders are proficient readers. That means that six out of ten American 4th graders are not reading proficiently at their grade level. Demographically, many of these students cannot even be considered “at risk.” By some estimates, “one-third of America’s struggling readers are from college-educated families” (Hanford, 2018). While some of these students wrestle to overcome legitimate learning challenges, the likelihood of outcomes for the rest of this population of students is troubling. Can’t we do better?
“Better” is exactly what we try to do at RCLS. In fact, we are pleased to know that, according to our recent NWEA results, more than 82 percent of RCLS 4th graders qualify as “proficient” readers. The process of creating this level of reading success begins just as soon as kids start school. In kindergarten, students start the school year learning to associate sounds with letters, to read a core set of sight words, and to enjoy story. If you were to stop in the kindergarten classroom, you might hear a story being read to attentive students or to see Mrs. Andersen leading a phonics lesson, giving students important building blocks for early reading. These little ones are learning big skills, a critical step for the progression that is yet to come....
1st Grade: The Priority of Phonics
By first grade, RCLS students are fully engaged in the work of decoding written language, something that must be explicitly taught, according to decades of scientific research. RCLS uses Saxon phonics, an intensive program that is based in the Orton-Gillingham method of reading. Every time students are presented with a new sound––individual letters, blends, digraphs––they experience the phonetic unit tactilely, auditorily, and visually. That approach, plus constant repetition, a regular review of known sounds, and the experience of decoding language in the context of engaging, rich literature ensures that we don’t leave anyone behind, Mrs. Martinson explains. The literature that accompanies 1st-grade phonics lesson––Caps for Sale is a current text, for example–– works “like magic,” she says. “Fun, captivating stories work to unlock the joy of reading,” she insists. “I want to turn kids on to reading. I want them to gravitate to good books, and the way to do that is to give them good literature with which to learn.”
3rd Grade: Reading to Learn
RCLS’s 3rd-grade teacher, Mrs. Wooten, agrees. By the time students get to her, they are no longer “learning to read.” Instead, they are “reading to learn,” and she offers them a line-up of what are considered classic titles by which they can do so. In her classroom, students do a lot of reading as a class. Books like Fudge-a-Mania and Charlotte’s Web are often read aloud while students follow along. “This gives students the opportunity to hear how story sounds and to see and hear fluency,” she explains. Of course, students practice that fluency, too, and Mrs. Wooten also works to develop a strong understanding of basic elements of literature. Characters, point-of-view, conflict, resolution, and more—these are the “what” of literary art that RCLS 3rd graders learn. Importantly, they also consider the “why” of literature, a necessary question for texts that contribute to the development not just of reading literacy, but of cultural literacy––a knowledge of texts that have shaped our common language and even our culture. Also, “we talk a lot about an author’s purpose,” explains Mrs. Wooten. Is an author trying to persuade? Is there something we are to learn from the text? Even if a text is entertaining, can we discern another purpose of the writing?
5th Grade: Literature and Life
As students progress through the grades, this is a question they ask with increased frequency. In 5th grade, for example, Mrs. Woolman thoughtfully chooses her titles for classroom read-alouds and quarterly novel studies so that students have ample opportunity to consider the ethical function of a text. When she is reading a text aloud to her class, she wants students to relax and enjoy narrative, but she also generates questions and discussion along the way. “I choose books that will prompt kids to adopt different perspectives, to step outside of their own bubble,” Mrs. Woolman explains. Put another way, consider that literature extends life, in a way, so that students may experience more. As literary theorist Martha Nussbaum (1990) explains, without the interpretations of life that literature offers, human experience is “too confined.” Story illuminates various and particularized circumstances and choices, thereby granting knowledge in a way that philosophy or “facts” cannot. As Mrs. Woolman applies this in her classroom, she is certainly concerned about developing an understanding of literary devices and other aspects of literary analysis––these are the skills of a rigorous curriculum, after all––but she is also concerned that kids develop a sense of empathy and understanding from story. Newberry winners like Number the Stars and Year Down Yonder are part of the collection of books that Mrs. Woolman uses for novel studies to encourage this. “I like novel studies for the reading experience of vocabulary development, following a plot line, and making predictions, but what I really love to see is when kids begin to make connections between fiction and history or when they get so excited about a text that they read ahead.” Could history repeat itself? What might we do to encourage human flourishing? Is that really what life is like for some? These are questions born out of an intentional exposure to literature that shapes learners—and people.
7th Grade: Expanding the Reading Repertoire
You can be sure that RCLS middle-school teachers hold such an objective, as well, and they implement creative strategies to that end. Mrs. Strohschein’s “40-book challenge,” for example, is an ambitious but compelling reading program for 7th-grade learners. This challenge arises out of a desire to motivate kids who think they don’t like to read. “I tell students,” Mrs. Strohschein says, “that if they don’t like to read, they just haven’t met the right book yet.” Her objective with her early-teen learners is to prompt students to widen their repertoire of texts so that they may develop a life-long habit of reading. “So many students gravitate to a single genre of literature, but there is much to be enjoyed from the full range of available literature.” To that end, she is challenging her students to read 40 books this year, but she mandates that they come from a variety of genres: fantasy, non-fiction, historical fiction, mystery, and poetry are some of the required genres. In addition to facilitating an expanded reading repertoire, this program offers another opportunity to practice targeted skills from class. This week, for example, students were studying point-of-view, so they considered this literary device in both their curricular and challenge reading. Mrs. Strohschein knows it is an effort for students to read more than they are required, but that is the point, and she is reading right along with her students so that she might model the practice of “finding time to read.” The program is proving to be quite motivating to students, Mrs. Strohschein reports. Recently, she overheard some students recommending books to one another. She was delighted to hear students spending their free time talking about books. “I want students to read for fun and to read with a purpose,” she explains. To experience, to understand, to find more of what they enjoy––this is surely part of what it is to read with a purpose.
Here at RCLS, we seek to offer students a foundation on which they can build in later stages of learning. Necessarily, literacy is a significant component of that foundation. Even in their final year at RCLS, 8th graders are busy building that foundation through a variety of texts that include Anne Frank, Charles Dickens, and William Shakespeare, whom the students will encounter again in high school. At RCLS, we are committed to fostering a culture of literacy, shaped through an exhaustive phonics curriculum, a collection of meaningful literary titles, compelling classroom discussions, and ample independent reading opportunities through both Accelerated Reader and other classroom challenges. Altogether, this is a culture that shapes learners into critical thinkers and caring, conscientious human beings. Indeed, this is a culture of literacy that shapes human beings who will “go.”
We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. -C.S. Lewis
Hanford, E. (2018). Hard words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? APRreports.org. Retrieved from https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read?fbclid=IwAR3pWQN9W3fZKnweKGgoTIDjsxWY73aPOKv6N4ejQXN-T6B_nLV00Feubzc
Lewis, C.S. (2012ed.). An experiment in criticism. Oxford: Oxford UP.
Nussbaum, M. (1990). Love’s knowledge: Essays on philosophy and literature. New York: Oxford UP.