Elementary Curriculum: Frequently Asked Questions About Reading Instruction
Q: What is a reading workshop?
A: In Souderton Area elementary schools we provide instruction through a Reading Workshop model. The teacher facilitates the workshop and provides the students with direct instruction through mini-lessons, conferences, and guided reading. Students apply and practice the learned strategies through independent reading while the teacher meets with small groups and individuals. At the end of the reading workshop, the whole group comes back together to share and reflect on the original teaching point, and on reading challenges and successes.
Q: Why are instructional books leveled?
A: To maximize the effects of instruction and to assist students in their reading development, teachers need to match appropriate books to each reader according to the reader’s individual needs, strengths, and stage of reading development. Irene Fountas from Lesley University and Dr. Gay Su Pinnell from Ohio State University created a leveling system to help teachers provide effective reading instruction for each child. The Souderton Area School District elementary schools use this Fountas and Pinnell leveling system.
Not all books in a classroom library are leveled. Leveled examples provide models for the children as they select books sorted by genre, topic, authors, writer’s craft, and other categories for independent reading. Students learn strategies for choosing books that they are capable of reading by matching their own selections to the characteristics of books the teacher has shown them in the classroom.
Q: How are books leveled?
A: When looking for books in a library or a bookstore, children will not find shelves of “A” books, “B” books and so on. Some publishers do use their own systems to level their books. The reliability of these levels vary greatly.
We use the Fountas and Pinnell leveling system to maintain consistency across the district. This system uses alphabet letters to sort and label the various categories of books. These categories are determined by the difficulty of the books and the book characteristics that support and challenge readers. For example, the layout of print, the book format, the language structure, and the complexity of the theme are some of the characteristics that can make a difference in a student’s ability to read and understand a text. It is not a simple process to assign levels to books, because the characteristics are always considered in relation to each other. Also, the steps between the levels are not equally spaced; the differences between levels at the lower end of the system are not as great as the differences at varying points along the scale. Therefore, a student may appear to leap through several levels and then remain at another level for a longer period of time.
Q: How does a teacher determine the appropriate level for each child?
A: The teacher regularly administers a series of running records to each student to determine the appropriate independent and instructional levels for that child. During a running record conference, the child reads a leveled passage aloud and the teacher records the reading behaviors, substitutions, omissions, repetitions, self-corrections, and attempts.
After the child reads, the teacher then asks the child to orally retell the passage and to answer questions that will help the teacher to ascertain the child’s ability to understand the content. Through a series of running records, the teacher is able to determine the child’s independent level, instructional level, and level of frustration.
The independent level is the level of material that students can read and understand without support. The instructional level is the level at which learning takes place and at which the teacher instructs the child. This is the level at which the teacher provides the needed support for challenging vocabulary, concepts, and prompting to employ new strategies. Books that present too many challenges to the reader, both in recognizing the words and with understanding the concepts and events, are considered to be at the student’s level of frustration.
Q: Why does my child bring home books that seem too easy for him?
A: Through guided instruction, the teacher teaches strategies for comprehension and word recognition and decoding, and builds the students’ engagement and stamina for reading harder texts for extended periods of time. Students need the opportunity to practice these skills and strategies using books that are accessible to the student at an independent level – a level where no help with words nor vocabulary and concepts is needed. This practice with easier texts allows the student to become a more fluent reader.
At school, each child is provided with books that are accessible, so that he has the potential for fluent reading. These books must be texts that the student has already demonstrated that he can read with high accuracy. The books that have been practiced in school and other books at that same level are then sent home for more practice. While rereading these easier texts, the child is able to practice and focus attention on all aspects of becoming a fluent reader. Fluency is far more than just rate of reading; fluency also includes phrasing, stress, intonation, and integration. Fountas and Pinnell (When Readers Struggle: Teaching That Works. 2009. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann) describe the five characteristics of fluent reading:
- Phrasing – Paying attention to punctuation and the natural breaks in language makes reading understandable.
- Stress – Proper stress on words is directly related to the reader’s construction of meaning. The reader can relate different meanings with different word stress.
- Intonation – It is through intonation that readers interpret the text for the listener. (Examples: lowering the voice at a period, stopping at a period, raising voice at a question mark, using emphasis at an exclamation point, using quotation marks to make the voice sound like the character is talking, making the voice show what you think the author meant or that you understand what the author means)
- Pace – The reader cannot fully use language structure and meaning if they read too slowly. Difficult text forces the reader to read at a slower rate.
- Integration – Practicing with easier texts helps readers “put it all together” and become a more fluent reader.
It is impossible to teach and practice fluency when a text is too hard. For this reason, the teacher sends home books that the child can read without any assistance and can demonstrate enjoyment of reading fluently by integrating the proper phrasing, stress, intonation, and pace.
Q: Should I never give harder books to my child?
A: Students often want to rush into more advanced chapter books or to read a popular series. Reading at a “difficult” (or frustration) level can leave a student with the impression that reading is not supposed to make sense and is not pleasurable. With lots of easy independent reading and targeted instruction in school, students will find reading pleasurable with just enough challenge to empower them. This combination leads to the creation of lifelong readers.
If your child cannot read the book without assistance with words and/or vocabulary and content, do not expect your child to be able to read and fully understand the book independently. There is a difference between being able to read the words and being able to understand the nuances of language and the situations and author’s intent. However, you can enjoy this book together with your child by using this more challenging book as a read-aloud and a shared reading where you read most of the text and provide the unknown words without drilling and forcing the child to “sound it out.” The recommendation is to read this book aloud to your child.
Children can understand more sophisticated and complicated books that are read to them than the books they can read alone. No matter how much your child reads alone, it is still important for you to read aloud to him. You can model fluent reading for your child. In addition, you can talk with your child about the characters, the vocabulary, the plot, the author’s use of words and style, and make connections with the story. With such discussions, you will increase your child’s ability to comprehend more complicated texts.
Reading aloud to your child gives your child an advantage. Children automatically pick up knowledge of written language as they listen. Understanding words in spoken language comes before understanding them while reading. Listening to stories and talking about them helps children to develop a background of knowledge and an enjoyment for books that will contribute positively to their abilities to read alone.