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Catching Struggling Readers Before They Fall with Pat Johnson and Katie Keier (PODCAST)

Choice Literacy

Pat Johnson and Katie Keier are the authors of Catching Readers Before They Fall. In this podcast, Franki Sibberson chats with Pat and Katie about their latest thinking on teaching strategies to struggling readers.

Pat and Katie write together at their "Catching Readers" blog:


A full transcript is available below the player.

Franki: Pat and Katie, you've both done so much work in learning how best to support struggling readers. Can you share any new learning or thinking you have about this topic?

Pat: Sure. I'll go ahead and start with that. I guess my current thinking springboards from something that Katie and I tried to parse out in the book a little bit, and that relates to strategy teaching . We sort of got a start in our book, I think it's around chapter 8 and 9, where we tried to figure out some things about the difference between teaching strategies and teaching for strategy, so children will take them on and use them independently. And we really believe that the reading process system is so integrated and it's really hard to separate out those strategies because as kids are reading, those strategies are constantly overlapping.

So I guess my thinking is that I want to figure out more about this, especially where it pertains to struggling readers; when is the teaching of strategies getting in the way of a child's reading; and if we want that process to work quick and automatic then can we really teach one at a time? We wrote in the book that you can spotlight a strategy as opposed to doing this heavy-handed teaching where you teach it in isolation just so you can check it off that you taught it off your list or something, but I want to play with it a little bit more and think about, do we need more strategy teaching with struggling readers than with other children, and how can we figure out if the kids are really using them to deepen their comprehension? And right now I don't have a lot of answers but I have a lot of questions, and it's one of the things I'm going to investigate a little bit more.

Franki: That's interesting. Katie, how about you?

Katie: Yes. I've been focusing a lot lately on our youngest learners, doing my work in the last several years in public schools as well as being an adjunct professor at American University. I've really been exploring literacy acquisition in our youngest learners through play, and really meaningful language opportunities, and just recently really looking at how digital literacies are changing the way that our children are acquiring language. I'm realizing more than ever how critical early intervention is. 

I've been teaching for 19 years, grades first through eighth, but I've never taught kindergarten. This year, as a literacy specialist, I had the opportunity to work closely in a kindergarten classroom, and I was just really intrigued with how all the children, but especially those who are just learning English, how they're gaining these foundational literacy skills that are essential for their success in school and in life. So I've really been reflecting a lot about early intervention and what we can do as classroom teachers to make sure that all of our children have the best possible foundation as early as possible. So I decided the best way to learn more about this is to get back in the classroom, so next year I'm actually going to be going and teaching kindergarten for the first time. 

I'm excited. My 20th year and I'll be a first-year kindergarten teacher. I'm really looking forward to it, though. I'm looking forward to doing a lot of teacher research and looking at the area of play, literacy, the digital literacies as well. I really think that early intervention within the context of the meaningful, engaging play, and lots of literacy-rich experiences are a key component of the effective early childhood programs.

Franki: Wow, that's smart thinking, both of you. Now I have two new big things to think about. Do you see any similarities in struggling readers, or do you really see them all as very unique?

Pat: You know, I know this will sound kind of odd but actually both are true. In that overarching sense, all struggling readers, they do have something in common, and that is they're not building that reading process system to help them. They've sort of misinterpreted or misunderstood what reading is all about. It's like they think it's all about sounding out the words, or calling the words right without any of the thinking. That's sort of why, in Catching Readers Before They Fall we said that 80 percent of kids will build that reading process system, no matter how they're taught. 

But those 20 percent of kids who are really struggling, they need all of us to understand more about the reading process. You can't put that process in their head. That child needs to build it. So having said that, I do believe that each and every struggling reader is also different in what he needs from us at any given time, and we really need to watch them closely. It's not enough to say what their DRA level -- "She's a 14 or he's a D or a G reader." We need to find out what that child does at the point of difficulty and support him there.

And I think about when I'm reading with kids I'm always looking to see something about reading process. Is he self-monitoring? Or is there a fluency issue right here? Or is he just sounding letter by letter and not thinking about what would make sense or sound right? Does he need to learn more about how to search and gather information to solve those words? I'm observing those things so that I can support him right at that moment, because he or she needs to see that what I'm helping him with, what I'm asking him to try, could really work for him. And when he gets that feeling, that "Oh, this actually worked for me," then he's more likely to use it another time.

Now, I'm sort of referring to one-on-one conferring with kids and doing that spot teaching right in the moment, but I could also take notes on that child and then bring together a small group based on those same needs. What it really all comes down to is that I really feel that all teachers need to learn more about running record analysis and how to take really good anecdotal notes, not just saying, "Oh, he missed that word. He missed that sound," but "What am I looking for? What can I teach him in terms of the thinking that comes with reading, those in-the-head strategies that need to be going on?"

Franki: No matter what type of intervention a child gets, the classroom must also be really supportive of his or her needs. What types of things should classroom teachers think about in order to make sure that our classroom environments really support the needs of struggling readers?

Katie: Pat and I think that a balanced or a comprehensive literacy approach best meets the needs of all of our learners, but especially our most struggling. We think that children should be active participants throughout the day, that they're working on tasks collaboratively and that they're talking, lots of purposeful talk about tasks with expert others, whether it be expert teachers or other students. And that classroom teachers also need to make sure there is plenty of time for meaningful reading and writing every day, and that might be teacher-guided but as well as lots of shared experiences and, of course, independent practice. 

Our struggling readers, we think, need a great deal of modeling - lots of shared demonstrations and then time for guided practice, what we know is gradual release of responsibility. And we also feel that we have to scaffold our instruction and be willing to provide lots of time working within the child's zone of proximal development, that place where the child can do a task with our help. Our struggling readers need to have lots of time working in just-right text. We can't let them waste time on activities that are too hard for them or that don't have a meaningful purpose. And it's also essential to have those small groups that are focused on individual needs, with groups based on where each student is as a reader, not just what their level is but what they're working on as they're building their reading process system. 

But I think as important as that instructional piece is, you've got to have a classroom climate. You've got to have a strong, safe, supportive classroom environment that encourages risk taking, and that feeling that it's okay to make mistakes as we're learning together. I think teachers have to make sure and build a strong community early on, from the very first day, because we want our students to feel confident and secure and have that strong sense of self-efficacy, that feeling of, "Yes, I can do this." We want them to see themselves as readers and writers.

Franki: So many things to do. Okay. I love the title of your book -- it's one of my favorites -- and your blog, Catching Readers Before They Fall. It's brilliant. Can you talk a little bit about that title and how it connects to your beliefs of how you got to that title?

Katie: Sure. It's kind of funny. We actually wrote the entire book under a different title that we loved. We really thought we loved the old title except that we could never remember exactly how it went. So as the book was in the final editing, our fabulous editor, Phillipa Stratton, suggested that we might think of a more user-friendly title, so we started brainstorming. We had big lists going and trying to search for that perfect title. Catching Readers Before They Fall came to me one day while I was running in the woods, a place where I do most of my best thinking and reflecting. 

And I was really thinking about what did we want most for teachers to get from our book, and what did we want most for the children they would be teaching? So we felt that the title captured that, because Pat and I believe strongly in early intervention and making sure that all children have the chance to be successful. We truly believe that catching readers before they're left to struggle, feel like a failure, and ultimately learn to dislike reading is the key here. So helping teachers understand reading process and be able to help their most struggling readers is why we wrote the book. 

We recently read an article by Richard Allington called "What At-Risk Readers Need." It was published in Educational Leadership, the ASCD journal, in March of 2011, and he talks about how we know who is at risk of becoming a struggling reader at the very beginning of kindergarten, but schools often don't put things in place until much later. And we agree completely that more needs to be done early in order to truly catch those struggling readers before any time is wasted, and before they can fall into a system of remediation, special education, or even grade retention.

Pat: I was going to add a little bit to that, too, because I'm thinking about those older kids. We've all had fourth through eighth graders who have given up -- they hate reading; they don't choose to do it on their own. Even though we believe in early intervention and believe down the line that that could help us, these kids still do exist out there. And the answer for that is they really need to be getting hooked on books. Teachers need to make that extra effort. They find texts for those kids and non-fiction articles, something that interests them so that the kids will actually do the reading. 

And I know you have to keep up on children's literature, and Franki, you know this because your blog with Mary Lee is always offering us new books and good books that kids might be interested in. I was thinking about one other thing that Nancy Atwell said. Gosh, it was a long time ago, but her first book, In the Middle -- I think it was her first book. Everybody loves that book. But I remember her talking at a conference once, and this is years ago, and she was thinking of all the different ways of what her title meant. 

But one of the things I remember her saying was, "You have to get kids reading in school, in a really good book, something that interested them, so they land up in school in the middle of the text, and they can't wait to get home and read some more." That's what I'm just thinking. Even though we believe in early intervention, we also have to be catching those readers who are older.

Franki: What mistakes do you think we as a profession are making when it comes to supporting our most struggling readers in schools? What suggestions do you have, as a profession, for us to change that?

Pat: There are a few things, and I think we are all guilty of them at some time or other. The first one that comes to mind for us is that too many kids are in books that are too hard for them. It's such a common mistake. They need to be in books that are easy enough so they have that practice of putting their system to work. But we tend to back down. When the fourth grader really wants to read the popular book, we let him walk around with a book that's too hard for him, and we drag him through this novel unit group. 

Now, I'm not saying he can't read it. If he wants to read it and be part of the discussion, fine, but we have to make adaptations. He needs to read it with a partner, or have a parent read it, or a volunteer, or listen to it on tape. But then that same child needs to be taught at his own level, too. So if he's participating in the literature circle groups where someone else is reading him the text, that's wonderful, but that's not his only reading instruction. He needs to be instructed in guided reading more on his own level.

Another thing I thought about is a mistake we make as a profession: it's the time issue, and this isn't new. Literacy folks have been saying this for years: kids are not spending enough time in school reading real books, and people always complain, "I don't have the time." But we do. The time is there. We're just choosing to spend it doing something else, so we've got to look at that. We've got build that stamina for kids reading for longer and longer periods of time in school.

I know that Regie Routman and Lucy Calkins have always talked about building stamina, and recently, in Patrick Allen's new book, that he writes, his Conferring book, he has a really nice section on how he builds stamina with his kids, for longer and longer periods of time of in-school reading. There was one other thing. The third thing I thought of, a mistake we make in relation to struggling readers, is that some of us keep hoping for that miracle cure, that kit, that box of materials, that computer game or whatever that will fix the struggling reader, or even some other teacher who is going to come along and take him out of my classroom. But those days are over and none of that stuff worked anyway.

We still have lots and lots of struggling readers. But Katie and I really believe that struggling readers belong to all of us, and that belief really permeates what we do in schools. We believe that all teachers need to take stock of the struggling readers, learn more about it, figure out how to help them, and we need to stop asking for that quick fix, and instead grow in our own knowledge and read professional books and go to conferences, talk to colleagues, and put your heads together as you focus on some struggling readers. And then all of us can learn how to teach those hardest-to-teach kids, and I think it will strengthen your faculty if that happens.

Franki: Right. So you said we're kind of all guilty of these mistakes at one point. I know I am. How do we balance choice and independence with struggling readers? Often, I know I've done this, as teachers we take a bit more control when it comes to struggling readers. We know that we want them to have the just-right book, but we also want them to own that. How do you think about giving them choice and independence while still meeting their needs as readers?

Katie: I agree. I've been guilty of doing that as well. We definitely believe that all children should have choices, and they need to be able to pursue their passions in our classrooms and beyond. When we think about what motivates us, often choosing what we want to do or what we want to read helps motivate us. I think that the freedom of choice needs to be open to all children, not just the ones for whom the reading comes easily. Our struggling readers need time reading independently, enjoying books they've chosen, and being able to live the life of a reader, not more time doing teacher-directed worksheets or activities that distract from real reading. 

But at the same time we definitely support the idea that readers' workshops provide time for reading from those just-right books, but we also believe in balancing those books with free choice or just plain fun reading. I think so often students don't have the opportunity to pursue their passions and the things they're really interested in in school, and it's up to us as teachers to help them find books, articles, or websites that can help them really extend their personal interests. They need a balance -- it comes down to balance. They need a balance of that explicit literacy instruction and independent reading where they can practice putting a reading process system together. 

In the rooms that I work in, the book boxes the students have include a bag of just-right books that we've read together in guided reading or perhaps a one-on-one conference, and for the most part they are teacher-chosen books. I want to make sure that my struggling readers are spending a great deal of their independent time in books that are a good match for them. It allows them to practice what we're learning and to construct that working reading process system. And without that support, I know we've all seen our struggling readers simply flipping through the pages or just zoning out during this important independent reading time, so that's definitely important. 

But I think, at the same time, they need to have books that they've chosen completely on their own in their book boxes. So in addition to the bag of just-right books, they have books that they've chosen. We want them to see reading as fun and enjoyable, and if that means having a bunch of books about, say, snakes or tornadoes, or maybe the newest graphic novel in their book box, even if they're not able to read it, they can still read the pictures and they can be engaged in something meaningful, interesting, and fun, that they have chosen. And we often see kids that being the motivator really helps them move forward in their reading, and it empowers kids, and it has them see that reading is something we can do to learn more about things we're interested in. 

At the same time, back to that time issue, we have to make sure there's time in the day. Perhaps first thing in the morning, when they arrive, when they can just choose to read from all the books that are out in the classroom, or those books in their box. Maybe right before dismissal, or I try to save at least 10 minutes of reading workshop where they can just enjoy those free "look books," as I call them, and they can read them by themselves or with a buddy. We also make sure there are books everywhere in the classroom -- in the math area, at the science station, in a basket by the bathroom in the hallway, to read while you're waiting for a friend, in addition to a well-stocked classroom library. 

I kind of see the whole room to be a library of sorts, so that everywhere kids look they see books, and they can pick up one that might interest them. And I think the bottom line is we want them to get hooked and we have to leave time for choice in order for this to happen. But equally important, we also need them to be constructing a reading process system, and that's where our teacher-guided, small group, and one-on-one instruction happens, and they really go hand in hand. I think it's important that the books we choose for our struggling readers and guided reading, as well as the books they choose, that they reflect their interests and their passions, because we want them to not only learn to read but we want them to love to read.


Choice Literacy