Curriculum Should be Adapted to Fit the Student Not the Other Way Round: My Advice to a Staff Developer Creating a Professional Development Program by Dr. Sam Bommarito

research creative commons Blue Diamond GalaryLast week I talked about the topic: “Using Research to Jump to Confusions P2: Looking at How We Could Teach Students about Comprehension Strategies.” I promised that this week I would share with my readers some advice I’ve just given to a staff developer on what her staff development could look like for a PD plan she created for this coming fall. Her plan spans several months and is designed to teach her staff how to implement guided reading. My advice to her reflects practical applications of what I’ve had to say in last week’s blog entry. My advice is grounded in a key assumption. That is that curriculum should be adapted to fit the students and their needs, not the other way round. I will now share some of the points I shared with her.

Point one: I think you will find some useful ideas in Burkins and Yaris’s book, Who’s Doing the Work?:
How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More. Be sure to visit their website: Here is why I suggest looking into these ideas.

I was taught in reading/writing workshop that the most important planning question for a teacher is:

What work am I leaving for the students and why?

When B&Y came to speak at one of our local ILA meetings, I found what they had to say helped me scaffold teachers into answering that question in a way that leads to better lesson plans. B&Y feel we sometimes over-scaffold when doing Guided Reading lessons. Teachers should be mindful of this potential problem. They need to leave enough work for the students so that students can grow both their meaning making and decoding skills.

Point two: Make sure your teachers know where GR fits in the overall reading program. I’ve long thought that how you spend your instructional time, is highly predictive of what instructional results you get. Read what B & Y have to say about the things we tend to underdo and overdo in our overall reading program. Adjust you program accordingly.

Point Three: READING IN LEVELED TEXT IS NOT THE ONLY READING STUDENTS SHOULD BE DOING. If you adjust your overall instruction as advised above, you will find that students will do a great deal more reading more than just leveled texts. Fountas & Pinnell, Lucy Calkins and others say that classroom libraries should be organized by interests not by levels. I especially like Calkins idea about leveling classroom libraries. She maintains that teachers should have a portion of books that are leveled. However, most of the classroom library should be organized by interest. When I taught my teachers how to make use of this way of organizing classroom libraries, I recommended they use the leveled portion of the library with selected students who needed additional work in book shopping. These texts could be used to provide examples for these students that could scaffold them into making better book choices over time. Teaching student to book shop is critical. Consistently picking only books that are well above their ability to decode can lead to students abandoning far too many books. They need to be able to pick text that fit their interests, that they can make sense of and that they won’t abandon. Otherwise they can fall into a cycle of not reading at all or of abandoning so many books that they never start the cycle of wide reading that characterizes students who become lifelong readers.

Point Four: Remember that a child is not a level. Why use leveled text in our GR groups? I believe that using leveled text for the GR portion of reading instruction makes it more likely that the text will be in the child’s ZPD (zone of proximal development). HOWEVER, TEACHERS NEED TO PICK THE TEXT FOR MORE THAN JUST IT’S LEVEL. Text features are CRITICAL, especially if you want them to read complex text in both fiction and nonfiction. This brings us back to the question of what work are you leaving for the student and why? For instance, if you are doing the heavy lifting for decoding (by providing text they can decode relatively easily), that can leave you more time to scaffold them into learning how to handle other complexities of interacting with that text. There are many such possibilities. If you want students to learn how authors of non-fiction scaffold readers into learning the meaning of specialized language in their content area, then use text that is rich in this feature. Whatever your teaching point might be for the lesson, ask yourself does is this text you picked provide a target rich environment for that particular point? In that way you assure that there will be many potential teachable moments during your lesson. Be sure to give your students chances to talk about the text and how they are making meaning from that text. Also give them opportunities to write similar kinds of text for themselves (as I did in my inference lesson). Doing all this will give them authentic chances to employ the strategies they need to unpack the meaning of the text and to become self-aware of the strategies they employ.

Point Five: Teaching students comprehension strategies is a different animal from teaching them testing strategies. When teaching students testing strategies you goal is have them learn how to handle questions designed to test their reading. On the one hand, I believe it is necessary to help students learn how the various test questions work. This is especially true of the multiple-choice questions that seem to dominate many reading achievement tests. However, teaching students how such questions work is not to be confused with teaching them to use reading strategies. I recommend just enough test practice to get students used to the nuances of handing the test questions. Such test practice usually results in a bump in achievement test scores. Unfortunately, I seen situations where most, if not all the school year is spent in test taking practice. “Comprehension instruction” becomes an endless cycle of answering various questions about short passages in hopes that the scores will continue to rise. My experience has been that after the initial bump in achievement scores that comes from the students learning how to handle particular kinds of testing questions there then comes a long, long plateau of no further growth. In order for students to make growth in reading there needs to be new instruction. Teachers need to provide time for students to think about, talk about and write the text they are making meaning from. Are we trying to create a nation of test takers or a nation of thinkers? The only path to creating the latter is one that includes time for rich and varied conversations about what they read and chances to write about what they read using some of the various crafts good authors use. My remarks about how to teach inferences in my last blog entry should give you some ideas about how that might play out for other reading and writing strategies. It is critical that we stop overdoing the teaching of how to handle test question and start using the instructional time we save to provide students time to carry out meaningful text interactions

In conclusion, I think you created a solid well thought out PD plan to implement guided reading. I hope the points I’ve made will help you carry out your plan in a way that will reflect some of the newest ideas on what a good literacy program can and should look like. Remind your teachers constantly that how they spend their time is highly predictive of what their results will be. Make sure that they learn to be purposeful in the work they leave for their students. Help them learn how make sure that work is meaningful. Make sure they allow students ample time for meaningful conversations around complex text. I think these are the keys to helping your PD plan to be successfully implemented.

Dr. Sam Bommarito


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