Ben Fisher – a member of our PLC – asked this question about reading and my response is below. There is no intent to be contrary in my answer – it’s just the way I think, which always has some bais in the need for equity in American WL classrooms.

Here is Ben’s question for the PLC –

Hey Ben! I am presenting a PD to teachers of my school on Monday about literacy strategies. I am going to model and have them practice some strategies that I feel are high leverage with ELLs and struggling readers. I was looking for your input…

I’m planning already to show them Write and Discuss, Embedded Readings, and 3 Lap Reading (a la Jon Cowart) as powerful ways to get eyes on scaffolded academic texts. (I’m also going to sing the gospel of SLOW, of course.) Are there any others strategies you can think of that would be good for content area teachers to get students working actively with text in different ways?

Thank you!!

My way too lengthy response:

Hi Ben –

I personally feel that there are no such thing as struggling readers if they are accepted as where they are by the instructor.  I am opposed to class-wide reading activities of any kind, because the wide range of kids’ abilities in a typical American classroom automatically creates imbalances and, in my view, there are no reading strategies out there that can truly erase them.

I hold equity as more important in a WL classroom than language gains by the few.

Reading input differs greatly from listening input, where it’s very easy to blast an entire group of 35 kids with high quality auditory input and, as long as they are focused on the message, they all process it just fine with no splitting the class into those who can and those who can’t, as happens in reading.

Notice that auditory input is an unconscious event, whereas reading, when kids are forced to read up above what their rich bed of auditory input can naturally provide, requires immediate activation of conscious thought. This is not what comprehensible input is, not how it works and is thus in conflict with Susie’s message on reading that kids should read as if what they are reading is “like a movie in their mind”.

The moment the class starts a certain class-wide reading activity, many of the “strugglers” are immediately disenfranchised through no fault of their own except to be “where they are” as readers. We can’t teach them with faster processors physically next to them in the classroom and expect any particular reading activity to work for them simply because their base line staring point in being able to read a text differs so widely from faster processing readers next to them. 

So, for me it’s all about free reading. Same for Krashen, I think. I’m not aware that much of his research if any was done with groups of teenagers, esp. of the YouTube generation. Would love to learn more about that aspect of his research, but wasn’t it mainly about researching individuals? I just don’t know.

So, in my view the whole thing about reading is that it needs to be preceded by a goodly amount of auditory input as a base for reading. The way I see the way reading happens in the mind – and of course I am no researcher so it’s just my opinion – is that the mind bases what it reads entirely on sounds that it has heard and has understood, vs. when we use reading “strategies” (I don’t even like the term) it’s no longer based on deep sound identification (i.e. associating previous meaning with sound from stories w/o any thinking at all) but rather on how well the kid can think and make associations while doing some scaffolded activity.  

The important thing in that regard is to do what we see done on Sesame Street, which is really how kids learn to read – all based on recognized sound that slowly turns into the ability of the whole mind to decode reading by connecting it to sound. Otherwise we shove everything up into the conscious faculty and kids sitting in the room next to higher performing decoders who think faster than them are left out and it must be a really shitty feeling for them.

One of my last buildings in Denver Public Schools was 99% Latino but the new arrivals, many of whom weren’t lucky enough to get much reading done in their home countries, really struggled and it is one great kid who about six years ago who taught me not to try to include him in the class because it isn’t fair. He needed more auditory input in French I before he could read, because he didn’t join it until January. Hugo taught me that more auditory input is a requirement for reading that builds confidence. He just came up to me after class one day and said he couldn’t do it, and yet he had very high intelligence.

So, I’m just saying in my own opinion based on my own experience how well they read is 100% about how much auditory comprehensible input they’ve had and not about finding the magic bullet teaching activity that will rule all the others. When we lose our focus in input, and put our hopes in decoding and thinking about meaning in reading, we float away from the research. Again, it’s just the way I see the reading game from where I am sitting these days.

Susan Gross always said in her workshops that what they read should be “just like a movie in their minds” which thought is in opposition to the practice of “teaching-kids-to-be better-readers-via-scaffolded-strategies that kick the kids up in to their conscious minds, where CI just doesn’t happen.

If you notice, the TPRS people always tell the story first then read it and rinse and repeat in that order and not by reading first. We tried it the other way around here in the PLC – reading sentence that had the target words in them and then telling the story afterwards focusing on those targets about 12 years ago as an experiment in our classrooms and it really fizzled. The kids needed to hear the CI first before the visual decoding piece could work.

Also connected to my position that scaffolded academic texts/authentic texts cannot possible be easily (effortless as per Krashen) interpreted by kids with so few hours of auditory input. As I see it, the 500 hours that we get in a four-year program are not even close to what kids need to be able to read anything but very basic texts. It’s all about the time spent hearing before reading can happen, and to thrust academic texts on kids who lack sufficient auditory background is unfair in my view. 

Where’s the rush to get them to read? One of those outdated linear curriculums? They’re not ready, so why is it so important to us to get reading gains when I firmly believe that if a study were done on this topic, or maybe one has been done but I don’t know it, it would tell everyone to chill on the reading thing and stop doing those horrible class-dividing novels and just wait and take much more of the 500 hours available in four years and do a lot more input, with the kids reading, for the first two years at least, only the stories they create because they know the words and then reading the Brandon book, etc. in level 3, when it becomes fair for all the kids the room. The fast readers love it because it is so easy for them there in level 3 and the slow ones because they can do it too. I keep wondering where the fire is with reading? Can’t we give them the time we need first and keep our classes as a group through four years, thus keeping our enrollments way up and guaranteeing our job security. What’s wrong with that?

OK really rambling here so I’ll try to stop the stream-of-consciousness obnoxiousness here.

Kids should in my view “read down” (my term) – always basing their reading at the level of vocabulary collected through their ears. The problem with trying to push kids to “read up” to more complex texts w/o the basic auditory background is that it resembles school in that way, which is always a conscious concrete analytical left brain process and so to activate that in kids w so little auditory experience is not very loving – they need so much more listening than we think they do before they read…. 

But that’s just me. 



15 thoughts on “Reading”

  1. OMgosh I think I didn’t clarify enough! This PD will be for content-area teachers, not WL teachers. Think science, math, English, history, health, etc. So we’re thinking students that are either native English speakers or long-term ELLs.

    We are very much on the same page about having reading in our WL classes be pleasurable and easy. (I also don’t do whole-class novels, etc.) I was asked to provide this PD for content area teachers to bring our WL magic into their classrooms. What strategies do WE have in our WL world that we can bring to them to make reading great, given the constraints of their curricula, etc.? 🙂

    Thank you! Sorry for lack of explaining. Lol

  2. I’m glad though Ben, bc I have always wanted to clarify my ideas about reading, and as the years have gone by I didn’t realized how radical I have become. When I first started bringing my reading ideas to the TPRS community I was met by lots of blowback. People who sell novels certainly didn’t want to hear the “trash the novels” refrain from anyone. I’m glad at least one person is against the novels. Just not fair to the kids.

    1. I am 100% with you. I was reminded of the examples I have seen where 98%, then 95%, then 90% (and so on) of the words in a text are previously known, and how it becomes so much more difficult as the familiarity decreases. I think of the crazy texts that are thrown at kids these days – crazy because they often seem so disconnected from their lives, and expect certain background knowledge that not all student necessarily have – and I just worry about them being able to wade through the incomprehensibility.

      I’ve talked with another teacher about how content area teachers should like…essentially PQA new, important vocab, even the academic stuff. That way, the sound matches up with the meaning, which matches up with what they read on the page, like you said, and they can enjoy it more easily. Thank you always for your thoughts – and I’m still open to more CI world stuff that we think might be good to help our poor kids in their other academic classes!

  3. Ben said:

    …texts that are thrown at kids these days … often seem so disconnected from their lives, and expect certain background knowledge that not all student necessarily have….

    I think that all in our profession could agree with that. Then why do so many of them continue pushing texts that only some students in their classroom can read? I see it as because the old model that lies buried so deeply in so many teachers’ minds is that there are smart kids and then all those other kids.

    The hypocrisy in our field is that many teachers – probably as many has half of them – know what the research says, that anyone can learn a language if they hear it enough, but it runs into the brick wall of ego in teachers who have an unconscious bias against those kids who don’t process so fast.

    Until that bias is gone, we will continue to see reading done in ways that cross wires w the research.

  4. I don’t agree w the position that we should be front load, PQA content vocabulary, etc. in a targeted way so that later the kids can later read the academic text. How long has that thinking been around, at least 10 years maybe a lot longer? Has it been shown to work, really?

    Why? Because boring is boring. If the kids aren’t into the content of their standard core classes, which can be more than boring, if the kids are not into it, then how is all that front loading of vocabulary going to get a foothold in the kids’ interest?

    I used to agree that it is possible, but now I don’t. Who has proven it? Where are the studies? Content is either interesting to the students or it’s not. Can’t put lipstick on a pig. When you’ve got to teach a boring curriculum in some core class, it automatically goes in favor of the few.

    What they need to do in those classes in my opinion is try to teach about 25% of what they have to currently teach. They need to find ways to honestly go narrow and deep with interesting stuff, and quit trying to rope the kids in via other alternatives.

    Hey it’s just my opinion.

  5. In other words Ben, it’s really less that the kids don’t have the vocabularies to read the text, it’s because the texts are boring.

    And there is a second reason they can’t read it. By forcing kids to learn boring stuff, we are part of a general blanketing of their potentialities as human beings bc we don’t require that they do anything but memorize. I certainly wouldn’t get all interested in a class bc some teacher PQA’d words like ontogeny with me. Boring is boring. I remember memorizing at Washington U – St. Louis as an undergrad that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. You could PQA that shit all day with me, I don’t give a rip. It’s elitist garbage for biochemistry geeks. Can’t we offer curriculums to kids that are less exclusive and more human? Do we have any responsibility in our work not just to teach the material but to make life interesting in the way we design curriculum? I think yes.

    My new book and my star curriculum don’t bore kids, by the way. I worked for 40 years to figure it out. We can’t keep boring kids. They’re on to us. And they have been the whole time, but we were too full of ourselves to notice. I call for a complete revamp of every single curriculum in existence to make it more accessible to real kids under the university level and make regular old secondary kids – many of whom are not going to college and deeply need to see how beautiful the world is – see the fine fabric of life as it expresses itself in learning things. Or we could continue the memorization-testing cycle that is just so boring.

    No apologies for that rant, either. Been wanting to say it for a long time. How about we rate teachers not on test scores but on (a) how much they don’t require memorization and (b) how much they use Socratic discussion to explore things via reciprocal back and forth human communication in a social setting. Or we could ramp up the testing.

    Who is going to write, or who has written the book about how our nation is failing in education because of memorization? That’s be a good one to read.

  6. Hey Ben Fisher. We met at ACTFL in the Garden District Airbnb. Nice to hear from you!

    I did an hour long PD for our whole school (k-12) on this kinda thing. We’re being pushed by the school district to apply WIDA standards more heavily and so my supervisor thought I could help the staff make sense of the WIDA matrix through my CI lense. We have an amazingly high population of ELL students at my school here in Rogers Park, Chicago, mostly from Africa and Mexico. Many teachers get frustrated with the challenges of pushing literacy growth with our students.

    I totally agree with Ben Slavic that the answer is cease and desist with boring kids. It seems that so many teachers follow a curriculum without knowing much about its effectiveness. So many push through content without going narrow and deep. They feel obligated to do so. It’s a funny thing, because our admin certainly aren’t pressuring teachers to push through content. Teachers just don’t seem to know how to slow down.

    In my PD I stressed the tenants of Krashen’s theory. I related all to what WIDA was presenting to second language acquisition theory. I threw the WIDA mandates up against those tenants. I shined the light on how students will acquire if they are interested in the message, so we have to talk to students in ways that they understand and about things that are interesting to them (comprehensible and compelling).

    For example, to front load a whole group book, I would tell a story similar to the one found in the book rather than PQA key vocabulary.

    Many of the activities we do in the beginning level foreign language classes are novel and cute and fun. Perhaps that’s what your admin was thinking of when asking you to share your strategies. But we can get away with doing some of these cute and fun activities, maybe even those targeting vocabulary, because they are novel AND because students co-created those stories. They’re interesting and easy. The core subject areas don’t have co-created stories.

    I don’t think the core subject areas would benefit from co-narrated stories. But, the teacher could draw some pictures, or characters even, that somehow represent the content they’re trying to teach. Like you said in your recent book, Slavic, how children love to see adults draw pictures for them, like the little prince in Le Petit Prince.

    Krashen, as Slavic says, would say that the core subject areas need more independent, free choice reading. And it has to be easy! So, Ben, maybe your PD could be mostly about how to implement independent, free choice reading programs all around. I’m sure they all know a little about it. I’d love to have our PDs focus on sharing insights regarding independent, free choice reading programs.

    1. Sean! Hey hello!!! So nice to see you here, too. I always appreciate your comments in this PLC so it’s nice to get one directed at me!! 😀 And it was so nice to meet you in New Orleans – let’s run into each other again sometime!

      Sigh, the PD is delivered and I did the best I could do then. I spent a significant amount of time talking about speaking more slowly and clearly, and enjoying words. I was thinking about Alisa’s comment the other week on Ben’s post about tasting the words – how these are very real interventions for students with speech delays, and how tasting words can lead to language being more playful and fun. Maybe if some of that landed with the teachers that attended, everyone will slow down and calm down, and maybe help our pubertating children to get some calm enjoyment in their day as well. Language is magical! Enjoy it!

      Each student at our school has a class where 30 minutes of it is spent reading their book of choice – which is great, except that of course it came with a program all about “leveling” and “leveling up” and “being able to do things at such and such level.” I shuddered when I heard of a rep from the company that created the program telling a kid that they shouldn’t read a book because it “wasn’t at their level.” It was “below their level,” but they wanted to read it, damn it! Let kids read! We would think it could be so simple…the teacher had to do damage control after that.

      If I get another chance, maybe I’ll just hit em with the Krashen and let them slowly melt their brains trying to put it together with all the boring mandates in our district. Plot twist: it won’t work. Some of our programs are so hurtfully boring.

      As was, they heard about going slow, write and discuss, embedded readings, and a bit about personalization. I got the vibe off some that some of these things were things they were aware of in some way as “things teachers should just do,” especially in regards to differentiation for ELLs and students in SPEd, but feeling so burdened by curricula, admin, etc. when would they possibly have time to prepare them on top of everything else? And then there are others who THINK they are doing things like this but actually…aren’t. Sigh.

      They will never have our fun, I fear. Which is a double-edged sword of enjoying the magic of being the fun, exciting class while also simultaneously resenting and being happy for being the sheltered cove in the boring storms of their middle school lives.

      But! Here I am in year two of teaching, and I still have hope. Onward, with the love and thoughtfulness of my colleagues (you) at my back.

      1. Ben Fisher you display the maturity of a teacher in their prime after twenty years in the classroom. This is a beautifully written comment at the core of which I find this gem:

        …they will never have our fun, I fear….

        That’s exactly it. And the myridad reasons for that are beyond our grasp. It’s just where teaching is these days and we can do little but go in to work every day and share a spark of what makes us so happy in our work with CI.

        The biggest mistake would be to try to force feed our secret to others. We can only model the behaviors we think constitute best practices. Lasting change comes slowly, always and forever, always and forever….

        Why, some might say, are we so happy? It’s because, of all the roads coming off the traffic circle, we’ve taken the right one. Even if it is hard to get CI going in our classrooms, and yes yes yes it will be a challenge, and we may not always feel happy, still we know that we have found the right road and the right research (the ONLY research but never mind that…) and that brings happiness in knowing that with each new day we will learn more and get closer to who we want to be as teachers. We have taken the road that leads to professional fulfillment. We are on the right road.

        Those of our colleagues like your audience Monday aren’t “there yet”, if they haven’t drunk the Krashen Kool Aid. Bless their hearts.

        I used to get a lot of blowback for saying stuff like that in the TPRS community. I don’t care. I just don’t care.

        And knowing that ppl like you are out there in just their second year writing stuff like you did above, hey, I’m good. We are the future even though some of us are old as the hills. It’s good. You’re there. So many great teachers I’ve met. I’m confident. We got this.

  7. Sean said:

    …it seems that so many teachers follow a curriculum without knowing much about its effectiveness. So many push through content without going narrow and deep. They feel obligated to do so….

    This is so spot on. I wonder if we have ever taught the child, if we’ve ever put them first, instead of always putting the material first.

    It’s like the branch of the cherry tree is there, just out of reach, and we make them jump up instead of acting like adults and pulling the branch down to them. We can do it, but we don’t. No blame. But maybe we should think of more ways to pull the branch down to their level.

    An example of this is when working from an invisible character with both physical and psychological characteristics that have originated in the group, depth and interest are generated in that character. Students become authentically involved with what is going on in class because the characters reflect genuine concerns of the students in our classrooms about life (vs. school)….

    1. Apparently the company who makes our ELA curricula has essentially two models that they can provide: the exploratory, wow-look-how-cool-the-world-is-let’s-learn version (often marketed to higher SES/whiter schools), and the hit-em-with-the-graphic-organizers-until-the-skills-we-want-are-there version, whose rote memorization-y nature is often found in lower SES schools. Take a wild stab as to which version my predominantly non-white students get.

      Spanish WILL be where they get to marvel at the world, enjoy something fun together, and be real people. On that, I insist.

      1. Yeah. That’s some BS right there. It stinks. And it’s a big topic. One answer is to lower class sizes. And the Chicago Teachers Union is winning in our battle to lower class sizes. For a few decades we have not been able to bargain for class sizes, unlike all the teacher unions in the surrounding suburbs. Just recently, we’ve pushed through legislation to be able to bargain for class sizes again. It’s happening in Chicago!

  8. We need a new curriculum that doesn’t break the language into pieces to be checked off on each successive test, which is a function of memorization and therefore gives false results, but rather focuses on the language as a whole as it interweaves with the interests of the child to form a kind of fabric, a linguistic fabric that mixes w the child’s interests to bring real results that are not based on memorization.

  9. I appreciate all your points above on reading as well, Sean. Another area to look at is story creation with the kids. What TPRS did and one of reasons I had to break with them was that they were using the story to teach words when they should have been using the story to teach the language.

    Targets make the kids focus on parts of language so that they cannot grasp the language in its entirety because it just isn’t interesting enough, because, precisely, targets lead to boring stories. Try to have an interesting conversation with someone but only using the words “fell down”, “cried” and “lucky”.

    Krashen has stated for years as a result of incredibly good research that targets constrain interest.

    Languages don’t exist in pieces that can be grasped consciously; they exist as a whole that can only be grasped with complete unconscious focus on the message. When kids are asked to latch on to boring messages how can anything go narrow and deep? Those poor kids try w/o much success all day to latch on to boring messages in their other classes.

  10. Bravo to you, Fisher, for getting so involved so early on in your career! I hope you don’t burn yourself out! Stay around for awhile, okay!?

    It sounds like you gave your peers at your school lots to chew on during your PD. Nice work. I don’t know what grade levels you’re working with, but I do believe that all teachers at every grade level could tell more stories, in addition to offering students a compelling selection of easy-to-read books. I tell personal stories all the time in my Spanish heritage classes. Almost everyday, another personal story. A big hit, recently, was my story of when I supposedly went poo poo in my pants when I was 8, scared witless as we drove around the volcano in Hawaii. My mother and brother, who did the laundry later that day, said I did. I don’t recall. But I was scared.

    I might ask them to analyze my story telling techniques. How did I show rather than tell? And I ask them to be storytellers, from time to time.

    Not as often, but I will tell modified versions of these stories to my non-heritage Spanish classes. The non-heritage can only stand 5-8 minutes of me telling a story before they start to fade. Well, many of them, at least.

    I love telling stories to both classes. I especially love telling stories to the Heritage classes. It’s a delightful interaction. There’s often a back-and-forth where students react or ask a question. I delight in learning how to be a better storyteller, using dramatic pauses, for example, or blowing up a scene and building suspense. And the management piece is pretty easy. So long as I have a strong awareness of multiple important details of the story I can include I can effortlessly pause if a student is being disruptive then jump back into the groove. Oh, and I always tell my stories after 20 minutes of free choice reading. They are always, practically always, very chill after 20 minutes of reading.

    A big reason why I like telling stories so much in my Heritage classes is because I’ve struggled building relationships with students in these classes, being a non-native speaker. By telling stories, I’ve come to find my own, unique voice as a speaker of Spanish, often cut with a quick laugh at my own mistakes or mishaps. I’m so grateful that finally, this year, I have a strong relationship with the Heritage kids.

    But, like you say, Fisher, if you could do a round #2 of your PD… if I could do a round #2 (which I might have to, since we’re getting audited by WIDA) I would love to focus just on teachers being storytellers.

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