September 21, 2017

By Mona Yoast

When I was a Reading Recovery teacher, “Back to School” meant screening the lowest-performing first-graders for placement in the program. As I walked students down to my room for the assessment, I would try to put them at ease by telling them we were just going to do some reading and writing together. I’ll never forget the day one young student looked at me sadly and responded, “But I don’t know how to read.”

This broke my heart, but these are the children that Reading Recovery targets.

Thought of as a “safety net,” the idea of Reading Recovery is to intervene early, before students experience failure. The program combines early identification, proven instructional practices, and one-on-one instruction, empowering the teacher to tailor each lesson to the learner’s specific strengths and needs to accelerate reading development. With this approach, even the student that started with no confidence was reading at grade level just 18 weeks later.

Many schools do not have the resources and staff to provide this kind of specialized, one-on-one intervention for every student. But there are essential lessons we can learn from Reading Recovery practices that we can use to help all students become successful readers.

First, early identification and intervention are critical. Decades of research have shown that students who do not read proficiently by third grade are likely to fall further and further behind in future grades, making them four times less likely to finish high school.

In Reading Recovery, I used a one-on-one assessment that took 30+ minutes to administer and another 30+ minutes for me to analyze the results.

Thankfully for today’s busy teachers, there are now assessments that take 20 minutes or less to determine which students need extra reading support, which skills and sub-skills they’ve mastered, and what they need to learn next. This saves hours of instructional time, plus and gives educators better insights into student learning! It’s not surprising that many states, including Arkansas, Michigan, and Mississippi, have approved these assessments to help educators quickly identify struggling readers in the early grades. In fact, Mississippi has seen three years of academic gains among its youngest students.

How can teachers make the most of this instructional time? Once again, we can learn from Reading Recovery methods.

Reading Recovery emphasizes the importance of practice when it comes to learning and mastering skills. In Reading Recovery, students build reading skills by reading books in their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)—that is, books that students can mostly read on their own but still offer some challenges that they will need to work through. Learning occurs as the teacher expertly coaches students to draw upon known skills or strategies to work through the challenge, and then reinforces how students worked through the challenge so they can employ that same strategy later.

Why is reading practice so critical? Reading is a process whereby a reader generates meaning by sampling information from three separate cueing systems: meaning cues (pictures, previous story events, background knowledge), structure cues (sentence structure, grammar, pattern), and visual cues (letters, words). Acceleration happens when readers learn to orchestrate these three cueing systems at once, and that can only happen when they are engaged in actual reading. When a student hits a challenge in the text, the teacher prompts him to pay attention to the cueing system he is missing.

These simple interactions have a huge impact on reading development. As a student’s ZPD increases, the level of challenge he encounters increases, and that is what continually fuels his reading growth. Knowing where a student is in his reading development, understanding what he needs to learn next, and matching him with “just right” books for instruction and practice: this is the secret formula that accelerates reading growth, especially in the early years.

As with assessment, there are great tools that can help teachers find engaging, age-appropriate books that match a student’s ZPD. And when that student looks back at you with a look of delight because she just read a book that was too hard for her a few weeks earlier, it’s all worth it!

What strategies have you used to help struggling young learners become confident, capable readers? Let us know in the comments below, post on our Facebook, or tweet us at @RenLearnUS!

Looking for more great insights into boosting reading growth in the early grades? Read our blog on instructional strategies for 7 early literacy pillars, to learn how to use early literacy best practices to boost reading achievement and give young learners the best start in school.

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