It took fifteen years of teaching and professional development before we felt confident in teaching reading to students in upper elementary. Teaching reading is one of the most important skills any teacher is responsible for, but it is often taught by stabbing at strategies until something works-only to find it doesn’t work for the next student.
The most important thing we’ve learned is that reading comprehension skills are also skills related to grammar, word parts, word families and patterns, and writing. The same skills are used in a variety of ways.
If a student missed one of these skills, they trip over it in everything else.
By the time students get to the end of Grade Three, if they aren’t reading at grade level, they are unlikely to catch up. So, what is a teacher to do?
The gap between Grade Three and Grade Four widens as reading strategies change from decoding to comprehending. Some students can decode but don’t understand what they’re reading. Other students cannot figure out the words, but can explain what they mean if it is read to them.
Reading intervention teachers often spend the time breaking down reading to help students build strategies for decoding and encoding words. While it seems like decoding is separate from comprehension, they are connected in many ways.
A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for reading instruction. Once students get to Grade Four, there is less focus on moving up through the levels to getting deeper into them. We changed our reading groups from exclusively reading levels to comprehension skills as the focus. What a difference it made!
Roads and Potholes
Think of learning to read as a road. There will be speedbumps as students learn new words or strategies. Generally, when the road starts out, the skills needed are minimal. Strategies like “sound it out” work well.
The road starts to wind, twist up, and race down hills. Using the same strategies makes continuing difficult. Word parts need to be taught to help develop an understanding of English (even though all the words have at least one rule-breaker). There will be bridges and valleys and mountains as students start to read more and more complex texts and need to rely more and more on their reading ability to learn about other subjects.
There is a saying that young students learn to read while older students read to learn. If a student is missing some of these skills, the road just stretches out in front of them while they stay at a stop watching their classmates drive on by.
These are the potholes. Students get stuck on a few strategies, not all of them. Once these strategies are taught, the road is smoothed back out and students can catch up at an amazing rate.
We looked at our students and found the potholes. Once we started actively teaching the specific skills they needed, they made huge leaps. Some of the students made up more than a year of progress.
And it was because we changed how we used our reading instruction minutes.
Repetition is Important
While it might be boring to you to repeat the same lessons or the same strategies with students, this repetition is what helps the brain of your students make the connections to the strategy. Most intervention programs rely on repeating the skill (usually with different content each time) to help build an understanding. Isn’t there a rule out there that you have to do something twenty-one times before it becomes a habit? This is true when using reading strategies.
If you’ve ever watched a movie or TV show more than once and caught something you didn’t notice before, you’ve benefited from repetition. This is why toddlers love hearing the same book over and over. It’s the brain’s way of processing information. Intervention teachers use the same texts over and over to teach new skills because students are confident with the words and can focus on a strategy.
We cannot assume that repetition is the easy way out, so don’t be that teacher who comments on a student rereading a book. Instead, ask what they love about the book and then share something you reread (everyone has something they like to read again).
Grammar Connects to Reading
Often grammar lessons are pulled out of reading activities and taught separately. They usually look like worksheets. Not only is this boring, but it takes away the reason for learning all those word and grammar rules.
When students understand how punctuation changes how you say a sentence, they will start to understand how punctuation helps a person understand an author’s intent. When a student can break a word down into parts, it makes it easier for them to learn new words. When students begin to understand the meanings of common prefixes, suffix and roots, they begin to expand their vocabulary.
So, we started looking at how we could connect the grammar activities to our reading and there wasn’t anything out there.
Weekly Reading Skills Were Born
Our Weekly Reading Comprehension Skills activities came from two problems: we needed to expose our students to content from social studies and science and we needed to teach all the grammar related outcomes from the English Language Arts curriculum.
We started writing short texts for our students since all the materials available were usually textbooks and were written by university professors who clearly have never spoken to nine year old children.
These texts turned into little grammar activities in our reading groups. We would learn prefixes, suffixes, and syllables as a way to break down unfamiliar words. We saw how learning these skills started improving the word solving skills of some of our students who struggled with decoding.
We started creating questions about the text beyond the “read the text and answer the questions.” They got to use their higher-level thinking skills like connecting and evaluating.
Then we started turning these little grammar exercises into activities students could work on while we met with reading groups. We regrouped our students based on the skills they needed, rather than their reading level. For example, one group needed help using context clues while another group needed to work on retelling.
Bam! We had an idea. Maybe other teachers had the same problem.
We started designing a year’s worth of topics…and then Covid-19 hit.
We sat down and looked at some of the topics that rarely get discussed because there just isn’t time to get to everything. We created activities for each topic and put them together in a workbook. Then the pandemic hit and we discovered that the paper-pencil option wasn’t going to work for distance learning.
We went digital. Now each set contains a paper version and a digital version that uses Google Slides.
Set 1 Becoming Canada
* Canadian Flag
* Statute of Westminster
* Charter of Rights
Set 2 Weather Wonders
* Weather Forecasting
* Permafrost (You can try this one for free)
* Fabrics & Fibres
* Climate Migration
Set 3 Confederation
* Macdonald & Cartier
* Expanding West
* Excluded Voices (Indigenous People)
Set 4 Canadian Chemistry
* Peanut Butter
* Green Ink
Set 5 Canadian Injustices
* Chinese Head Tax
* Internment Camps
* Komagata Maru
Set 6 Eclectic Electricity
* Electric Eels
* Internet Data Centres
* Electric Cars
Set 7 Canadian Groundbreakers
* Willie O’Ree
* Elsie MacGill
* Stanley G. Grizzle
* Mary Two-Axe Earley
Set 8 Wild Wetlands
* Busy Beavers
* Making Wetlands
* Uses of Peat
Just the Social Studies Set
Just the Science Set
The Whole Year Long Bundle
Our plan was to assign a topic with its activities each week. Students would work on this during our instructional reading time. While we met with reading groups, the rest of the class would work on the activities. It took a bit of trial and error to figure out how to balance the activities with teaching so the students could work as independently as possible.
We wrote the reading passages to be close to the independent reading level for each grade. This means that the recommended levels for each grade are slightly below the instructional level. The reading level during independent reading is lower than instructional reading as there is no support for the student as they read.
The topics were further discussed during science and social studies instruction, which was made easier because students had a bit of information or were familiar with a topic because they had read about it in their reading passage. This helped connect science or social studies with our reading instruction and vice versa.
When Covid-19 hit in the middle of the school year, we were so grateful that we’d already been doing the reading activities with our students. Making the transition to distance learning was easier for the most part because our students were already familiar with how the weekly reading skills worked. They were able to pick up from where we left off in class (making the bulk of the work easier since we just needed to stay a few weeks ahead of our students).
What About Differentiation?
Yes, we’re getting to that. Not all of our students are currently working on the weekly reading skills. Students who are reading below grade level have similar activities and passages, but they are written slightly lower. It wasn’t possible to get every topic written for students right away, but we’ve been slowly writing for other levels.
We will also be adding different reading levels to the passage sets we’ve already created, but this will just take a bit more time.
This means students might be reading a different topic and completing different activities, but they are all doing the weekly reading skills during reading instruction.
Our reading groups are grouped by skills, not just levels, so no one in the class really knows why a group is at the table-because it can be for so many different reasons. We do meet in leveled groupings from time to time as well. We like to mix it up as much as possible.
You can read more about Setting Up Guided Reading.
And now for the repetition…worksheets?
Each activity works on a skill. Each of these skills has a mini lesson in the teacher guide. Once a student has done this activity once (or maybe twice) they are usually able to do it again without much support.
This is the way our weekly reading skills work.
Each week, fewer and fewer skills are new, which means fewer and fewer need to be taught a mini lesson. This means students are working toward independence.
If you’re wondering if this will be boring for students, we only use a skill twice within a month of lessons. This means a skill is reviewed roughly every two weeks. In the course of a school year that’s only eighteen times (assuming you have no short weeks or school disruptions due to worldwide pandemics). That’s not too much.
These are basically worksheets…if you use them as worksheets. We do not. Students do these activities and then we reinforce the skills in our reading groups with students. All of these skills can be used with any text-that’s why it’s so important that students know and use them.
We will write another post specifically about how we use these skills in our reading instruction.
What About Those Potholes?
As we review the work students finish, we use that information to group our students in the next reading groups (or if the whole class is missing a skill, we teach it to the whole class).
When the potholes get filled, students take off so much faster. Their growth is huge and sometimes it’s difficult for us to keep up.
Within the first few weeks, we found that more and more of our students were finishing the whole set of activities well within the time they were given. This is when we started adding in the extra bonus activities in each set. These activities are meant to extend the skills and for lack of a better word-keep them busy with meaningful activities. These skills are designed to support science and social studies by working on specific skills like researching, writing, designing, and synthesizing.
Get filling those potholes to send your students cruising.
Have you tried our weekly reading skills? We’re looking for feedback to help improve them and make them more useful. Please leave a comment below or contact us by email.