#curiositycrew “NO BOOKS FOR YOU” pt2

How do we follow up the brilliance of Dr. Mary Howard? Well, I recruit a couple of my brilliant buddies for a follow-up post. If you happened to miss part one with Mary here is a link.  Today Curiosity Crew members Susan Vincent and Roman Nowak are sharing their views as it comes to reading, working with striving readers and the importance of individual approaches to intervention that view the student first.

A coach does not...

Susan Vincent, teacher education at Miami University Regionals, proud former Reading Recovery teacher leader


“A coach does not limit their player’s potential by making them do a drill in isolation…”

When I read this in Brent’s post, it reminded me of research I learned about at a Reading Recovery conference. The research focused on two kinds of practice in learning a new, complex skill. This research has been applied to various contexts, including basketball, tennis, and music.  One type of practice is called blocked practice. This type of practice breaks down a complex skill into sub-skills. The sub-skills are then drilled in isolation until mastered, before moving on to the next subskill. The other type of practice is called random practice. It requires the learner to practice sub-skills within a larger context, such as a basketball game or a piece of music. The sub-skills are needed in a random fashion, rather than just repeatedly performed.

Research shows much greater gains in skills when using random practice. Explanations include the fact that in random practice, the learner must remain more engaged because they are needing to make decisions and choices, rather than just simply repeating an action. Another explanation is that the learner must actively “re-learn” the sub-skill or generate the solution again each time it is needed.

Does this relate to independent reading? I think so. When our classrooms devote inordinate amounts of time to blocked practice, we are robbing our learners of the chance to be more actively engaged in reading books, where they can practice a variety of sub-skills in authentic circumstances.

Do we need to eliminate blocked practice? Of course not. All learners need some concentrated practice of sub-skills. But each teacher (and administrator) needs to take stock of how the majority of their students’ time is being spent. Especially struggling readers. These readers are fed an even larger diet of sub-skill drill, often barely reading books at all in their school day. We have evidence of what works. Large amounts of whole-text reading, with feedback and instruction from a teacher, and some daily learning of sub-skills has been shown to be extremely effective. Let’s just do it!


When a flower

Roman Nowak, High School English Teacher, Student Success Leader, Agent of Transformation

“Reading is like dreaming with eyes wide open.” – unknown

Reading is a magical experience. It helps you imagine, it helps you see and feel through eloquent words and stories. Yet much of what is going on in our schools is hindering this same magic from being experienced by so many kids.

There is nothing like when you see the face of child light up after a good story or get excited to share something that he or she just read. When kids can feel the emotions that characters bring out in them, it becomes an extraordinary experience. So when we encounter kids who struggle with reading, who have challenges feeling those emotions and understanding those words, why do we isolate them and ask them to perform small meaningless tasks to simply try and get them to level? Reading and storytelling has always been a communal activity. From ancient civilizations, communities would gather around the hearth and share traditions, lessons and stories. These stories, later written down, were always meant to be shared and talked about. So how can we recreate this magical experience in our classroom? We need to be bold, brave and do what it takes for kids; all kids.

There is no easy answer and there is not definite formula that will work for all kids. As educators, we need to understand that as unique as each child is before us, every reading intervention must also be unique. Therefore, I would like to suggest the following to all educators:

1) Avoid labels. Although labels and categories have been used to help us be efficient (from categorizing species, to organizing stores, etc.), people cannot be treated in the same way. We may think that offering the same solution to all larger group of kids, not at level is the easier answer, but that is not the case. We need to meet each child where he or she is. Whether you have a newcomer to your class from another country, a student who has not been read to as a child, a boy who struggles to find meaning in chosen texts, a student who finds difficult connections with emotions experienced in a story; we need to avoid grouping students by labels and thinking that one solution will work for them. We must remember that we are not vaccinating our population against illiteracy, we are helping them discover the power in voice and the written word.

2) Always set high expectations. No matter the students you have before you, believe and share your high expectations with them and their parents. It is a common misconception that when we have struggling readers or learners, we bring down the levels that we expect them to reach; this is the most devastating belief we can share. Let students choose stories and books that interest them. Help them navigate the words, the strategies and the supports needed to understand the meaning in the stories. Do not destroy the dreams of the children before you by telling them they are not capable. Guide them down a path of learning and discovery that will bring them to where they want to go.

3) Know that time is flexible. This may seem impossible in the current structure of grades and levels, but be bold, and challenge the status quo. Remember what George Evans shared: “Every student can learn, just not on the same day or in the same way.” We need to stop expecting that all kids will follow each other and all be at the same levels of reading as they progress through school. This is an impossible expectation. Acknowledge that unicity of each child and help them become more prolific readers, no matter the starting point. Advocate for your students, that no matter the label (English-language learners, special ed, gifted, etc.), you are there to support them: their heart and soul as readers. When you focus on each child, you cannot go wrong.

So I would personally like to thank the leaders and heroes such as Donalyn Miller, Pernille Ripp, Mary Howard, Jennifer Lagarde and countless others who not only advocate for access to books but who also challenge educators to teach reading with our heart. It is because of their passion and leadership, that educators such as myself can find our voice and stand in unison to do what is right for kids.   

Some may say that challenging a system is impossible, but I refuse to believe that. When it is for kids, nothing is more important, nothing is impossible. Let us remember, the wise words of Alexander Den Heijer: “When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” So I challenge each and every one of you! Help each flower in your classroom bloom and help share their colour with the world.

Thanks again for reading everyone. I want to thank my dear friends Susan who is often on the front lines battling the forces of drill and kill and the Canadian Kindness Ambassador and my future podcast co-host (project yet to be titled) Roman for their contributions this week. If you are looking for some more thoughts on how we can individualize our approach to make sure we maximize the joy for all our students I would suggest you check out this brilliant post, “On Reading Rewards” from Pernille Ripp who Roman mentioned above. I can not count the times I have recommended all teachers of literacy to check out her blog and go buy her book Passionate Readers here. We all learn best when we learn together. We are passionate about this because the stakes are so high.

Tune in tomorrow when my dear friend Kitty and I close out this 3 part series. But I have a sneaking suspicion it will not be the last Curiosity Crew Series. We missed a few of our people this time 🙂

2 thoughts on “#curiositycrew “NO BOOKS FOR YOU” pt2

  1. I want to forward this to every teacher I know! What a powerful message. It makes me think of a situation that happened recently where I was told about a kindergarten student who hadn’t learned any letters. I asked about instruction and was told that during small group reading time he read letters on flashcards, read an alphabet linking chart, and traced the letters in his name. For writing time, he was given a sheet of letters to trace. After a great discussion about why we want students to learn their letters – to be able to read & write authentic messages, we decided to minimize the amount of work spent in isolation and greatly increase his work in continuous texts. After 3 weeks, the student now knows 5 letters (with glimmers of other letters on the way), uses random letters to write stories that he eagerly retells, and my favorite part is that instead of rolling on the floor during independent reading time he’s reading his patterned texts and the writing he has written about the books he’s read. His teacher says he’s also trying to show all of his friends around him his “good books”. Kids really don’t need to know all of their letters and sounds to be able to read and write. In fact, we are doing them a great disservice if we don’t decrease the skill and drill time and spend more time showing them ways to “read” and “write” authentic messages for meaningful purposes from the very beginning of their schooling.


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