S1 E12 - What Does an Upper Primary Reading Lesson Look Like?

The Velveteen Rabbit Teacher Guide

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Transcript Summary 

Many upper primary teachers are very used to having small groups and running guided reading lessons as a core part of their literacy block. Equally, many of us are used to teaching from a novel and having a novel study present in our classrooms. If we are already teaching with a rich text, we are able to level this up with some key practices. If we aren't there yet, we have a little more work to do, but moving to structured literacy is absolutely possible. However,  please know that this process of organizing really comprehensive, useful reading lessons is not something that you have to be perfect at overnight.

To help point you in the right direction, I'm going to share with you my experiences of unpacking and working with two books in particular. They are,

1) 'Reading Reconsidered' from Doug Lamov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway and 

2) 'Robust Comprehension Instruction with Questioning the Author - 15 years Smarter' from Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Cheryl Sandora. 

You may recognize Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown from the book 'Bringing Words to Life', and you might recognize Doug Lemov from the book, 'Teach Like A Champion'. These authors are very experienced, and they have a lot to share with us.

A key features of a robust reading lessons is that we are not differentiating the texts that students are reading. We are differentiating the amount of support that we give children to access what's in those texts and the thinking and learning that they need. 

How do I decide what text to choose?

It is important to know that texts need to be rigorously chosen to be slightly more challenging than what the children can access on their own. What we are talking about here is not just decoding but in the language and the content. We can always read to children while they follow along if they're not there with the decoding. But if we want children to extend their comprehension skills, to develop their thinking skills, to build vocabulary, to learn how to engage with richer, higher-order texts, we have to not just expose children to them but actively teach them how to engage with those texts.

The way that I managed things in my own classroom where I had a year three to six class with a broad range of students was for every moment of time to used in active learning by the students. This involved every student having a copy of a rich text in front of them and I read to them as they followed along with their ruler. At various points in the lesson, I stopped and asked a variety of questions that every student had to respond to. At the end of the lesson, there was a written task for students to complete. There was no busy work and every students was engaged for the whole lesson.  I called this 'whole class guided reading', and when I came across the texts that I am about to share, it was very affirming and I was able to refine my practice. 

Let's start with Doug Lemov's Reading Reconsidered and have a look at some of the key features.  Reading Reconsidered gives us a framework to help us engage children with rich texts in a way that has everyone with eyes on the page and has everybody thinking. Now the book is very big on talking about background knowledge and vocabulary, and I don't think that that's new for any of us these days; we know that you can't comprehend a text if you don't have adequate background knowledge and you don't have the vocabulary. So this is a huge implication for assessment, which we don't have time to get into today, but certainly, children need background knowledge and vocab in order to actively and accurately comprehend what's happening in a text.

If you want to know how to teach vocabulary,  Beck, McKeown and Kucan's book, 'Bringing Words to Life', is a great book. It is hugely practical and a pretty easy read for us busy teachers whose brains are exploding half the time. So I'd recommend that one.

In terms of background knowledge, our goal is to actively seek knowledge-building experiences, and I'm going to save that one for when we talk about 'Questioning the Author' because there are implications there for how we choose background knowledge texts. 

One of the key features in bringing words to life is this idea of close reading, and I'm not sure that this idea is new to many of us. It wasn't to me in my whole class guided reading that I was engaging with. We were examining texts and exploring it. So close reading is not new to us, but how we engage in close reading is where Reading Reconsidered really comes into its own.

One of the first concepts in Reading Reconsidered is effective questioning. It really opened my eyes to learn about a thing called 'text-dependent questions'. Now, this applies for early years teachers as well, not just upper primary and secondary too.  Text-dependent questions are questions that, unless you understood what was happening in the text, you couldn't answer. Let's take the story of the 'Three Little Pigs'. You could ask the question, "Why were the pigs scared of the wolf?"  buy you don't have to have read the story to be able to have a guess that they were scared because the wolf was going to eat them.  But if you asked the question, "What did the second little pig build his house out of?", you wouldn't be able to answer that if you weren't familiar with the story. So when you are asking students questions, make sure that they actually need to have understood the text to answer correctly. 

The next concepts are toggling and zooming. Moving between establishing meaning to analyzing meaning that's called toggling. The other element that this book describes is the concept of zooming,  If we think of this as a continuum, we can switch between word level questions and text level questions. Zooming works the same way that it does on a camera. We're going to zoom into the word, zoom out to the phrase, maybe then zoom out to the author's intention at text level and then in the next questions, we can zoom back in again. So zooming in and out and toggling are two of the key features when it comes to the types of questions we're asking and knowing how to engage children in really thinking about these texts.

When it comes to students actually reading, you will see this next idea featured in our short story units inside The Resource Room. It will be really clear to you because in the plans we give you for our short story units, there's a yellow box around particular paragraphs that are labelled 'Accountable Independent Reading'. And what this is, is an opportunity for children to literally independently read a passage with particular questions in mind that they have to answer.

Rosie's Journey Teacher Text

So many schools have 10 minutes silent, independent reading or 20 minutes silent, independent reading as a daily feature of the classroom. When that happens, we have no idea what those children are thinking. We have no idea whether they're actually comprehending, whether they're decoding, whether they're actually thinking about this thing at all. So Accountable Independent Reading is not about testing children. It's about monitoring how they are engaging with the text.

So in the unit for Rosie's journey in Year 3-4, we ask the students to list the things that Rosie took with her on her journey. And this might seem pretty simple, and yes, it's very literal, but what that does is addresses the minimum reading standard for year five for NAPLAN, which is to locate directly stated information in a narrative text. In this way, you can assess children.   One of the questions that we have asked all the time is, "If my benchmark reading assessment isn't getting the job done, how do I assess comprehension?" This is one of the ways. We are engaging children with rich text, and we're asking them to really think about what's in it and provide some evidence of their thinking.

Of course, you are going to have children who, at different points, cannot decode the text you are giving to them. Remember, we're challenging students in terms of language and concept.  We're not just focusing on decodability. In that instance, an adult could read that student the text. They could have a more developed reading partner do the decoding, but they have to answer the questions on their own, at least orally. 

Our goal in the upper primary is to connect reading and writing in our literacy blocks. For so long, we've been used to organizing our literacy block in reading time and a writing time. We can bring that together, absolutely. And one of the ways we can do that is to have students write about their reading.

The second book I found really useful is Robust Comprehension Instruction with Questioning the Author - 15 years Smarter from Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Cheryl Sandora. Now, as I've already said, these two out of these three authors were the authors of Bringing Words to Life. So if you liked that one around vocab, you are also going to like this particular one. The book begins with an explanation of established practices in comprehension instruction and discusses why they may not be the best thing  and how we can build some new understandings in this area. So rather than thinking about comprehension strategies or comprehension skills as we have in the past, where we'll teach inference for a term and summarizing for a term, these authors suggest a cognitive processing model of instruction. That's what they call it, and it's an approach that works for all areas across the curriculum. So instead of relying on teaching standalone skills, which we know are not a thing in comprehension, this cognitive processing model views comprehension as a reader's active process of attending to information in text.

Questioning is a key aspect of Beck, McKeown and Sandora's approach.   This was so powerful to me to read about because they say that instead of just asking questions, we are going to pose queries that children think about. There is a subtle difference here, and let me unpack that.  It all comes down to the fact that comprehension is a gradual process and that we teach students. That, as readers, we take on a text little by little, idea by idea, and we build our understandings.

One of the things that we're going to do as teachers is to anticipate the challenges that a student may have, and this is where this idea around selectively choosing the background knowledge we build comes in.  So we have to have read the text, and as we read, we have to think about where might my students' misconceptions arise. That's the focus of background knowledge building and vocabulary. The things they'll be able to figure out for themselves based on what you know of them, we don't need to go into too much detail about. Let's anticipate their challenges, and then let's think about how we can help front load information in vocab, but build the bridges for them to actually comprehend. The role of the teacher here shifts from quizmaster to that of a facilitator of thinking.

When it comes to planning, Questioning the Author asks us to do three steps, and this is page 25 if you've got a copy of the book. The first step is to identify the major understandings that the students should develop from a text and anticipate obstacles to comprehension. What do I actually want students to get out of this,  what do I want them to understand, and what things might get in the way of that?

The second step is segmenting the text to decide where in the text to stop reading and initiate discussion. Think back to reading reconsidered and that idea of the text-dependent questions. If we bring all of this together, we've got some really robust reading instruction going on now.

The third step is developing initiating queries and potential follow-up queries. So we are going to think about the queries we'll be asking in order to get children to think, but we'll also identify where might they run into trouble and what follow-up questions might I need to ask if I pose a query and they're sitting there looking at me blankly? We want to scaffold and structure students' thinking as much as necessary. Hands off as much as possible, hands-on as much as necessary, and if we think about scaffolds in that way, then we'll be able to use them really well.

These two books, Questioning the Author and Reading Reconsidered, are two very powerful ways to think about how we structure a reading lesson In Upper Primary.  Our goal is to get children thinking. Our goal is to get children applying the background knowledge and vocabulary that we've taught them to think about the text in answering the question: what is the author trying to tell me, and how do I know?  

The following books can be purchased from Seelect Educational Bookshop in Adelaide and online. https://www.seelect.com.au/ 

1) 'Reading Reconsidered' from Doug Lamov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway and 

2) 'Robust Comprehension Instruction with Questioning the Author - 15 years Smarter' from Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Cheryl Sandora. 

 You can find fully written text based units inside the Resource Room. Click here to learn more. 



Episode 12 - fabulous thank you.

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Tania Schmidt

Great episode!

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Makes so much sense, thank you

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