Strategic Reading Groups: Guiding Readers in the Middle Grades

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Jennifer Berne & Sophie C. Degener

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    Foreword

    What a timely guide to comprehension development by Jennifer Berne and Sophie Degener. The importance of developing students' comprehension of challenging texts is clear in this era of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Berne and Degener provide a well-conceived path to strategic reading development using informational texts. They show concretely how teachers can identify and address comprehension issues for capable as well as more challenged readers. The specific focus of this intervention is to identify each student's reading abilities and then guide them in becoming more strategic. It is like all good coaching; the coach first watches and listens to the student's performance and then identifies one or two areas for focused attention so they can improve. While that may seem simple, providing such instruction has been a challenge for teachers because there is such a range of abilities in any class and many readers don't evidence problems with the assigned readings. It has also been a challenge because many teachers don't feel confident in coaching students to higher levels of reading performance. In this book, Berne and Degener lay out in detail ways teachers can quickly identify students' current strategies and coach them in using more advanced or appropriate ones. The multiple examples of dialogues between students and teachers provide wonderful models for teachers to follow.

    It is always special to be invited into the development process of careful literacy educators. Berne and Degener share how their design for middle grade strategic reading has been developed during their current work with teachers. Their suggestions throughout reflect their sensitivity to teachers' contexts, questions, and constraints. As I read the text I was amazed at how they regularly addressed key issues teachers need to have resolved before they will alter their instruction. The clear distinction they make between teaching literature and strategic reading is important; too often, middle grade teachers have focused only on teaching with quality literature. Now, with the CCSS insistence on a balance between reading literature and reading informational texts, this model provides a clear roadmap for teachers and schools. It also helps remind teachers that all students need to read challenging texts to keep moving forward in their literacy so they can be confident in reading the increasingly wide range of materials and text formats expected in this information-rich era. Another issue regularly raised by teachers is how to find time to do everything asked of them. Berne and Degener address this issue directly by providing possible schedules for reading and language arts instruction so time can be allotted for strategic reading groups with one-to-one coaching.

    As I read the text I was also reminded of how important it is that teachers find ways to hear each of their students read orally. During my graduate studies I received a call from the local high school English chair. She explained that while substituting in a junior level English course she had spotted a young man who was clearly a nonreader. She wanted me to tutor him—which I subsequently did. How much better it would have been if Claude and similar students could have been identified much earlier; the longer their lack of reading skill persists the more they suffer. The pain of not reading well is a huge burden many students carry. Students won't be able to hide their lack of reading abilities if middle grade teachers regularly listen to their students read orally and guide their strategic reading development. That's one of the great gifts of this book; it provides teachers clear directions and multiple examples of how they can include regular monitoring and coaching of all students in their curriculum. The result of successful strategic instruction helps fulfill the global Standard 10 of the CCSS—students should Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

    Thanks to Jennifer Berne and Sophie Degener for providing this clear and complete guide for middle grade teachers and students.

    DonnaOgle

    Acknowledgments

    It has been our great privilege to work with middle school teachers throughout the Chicago area who have helped us to see the importance of continuing small group strategic reading instruction into the middle grades, and have provided us input in figuring out how best to do that, particularly given the unique circumstances of middle school teachers and students. We appreciate these teachers' openness to new ideas and willingness to give strategic reading groups a try, most often with great success.

    We are also exceedingly grateful to our colleagues at Neah-Kah-Nie Middle School in Rockaway Beach, Oregon, who have taught us so much about what it takes to scaffold teachers into this practice. Thanks, particularly, to Jim Severson, a remarkable middle school principal who believes that all leaders are learners and has pushed our thinking about the ways that administrators can best support innovative middle school literacy practices.

    We have also been fortunate to have an amazing group of National Louis University doctoral students who, through a research internship, tried out our model for strategic reading groups with students at their schools and then provided professional development on strategic reading groups to the teachers at their schools. Throughout this work, they provided us with specific feedback that has helped us fine-tune our own professional development work with teachers and school districts, which in turn has directly impacted the writing of this book. For support for these doctoral interns, we thank the International Reading Association who awarded us a Gertrude Whipple Professional Development grant that funded a portion of their work. Special thanks go to Shirley Davidson, a doctoral student who not only worked with students and teachers on strategic reading groups but also reviewed the research on middle school literacy and small group instruction in the middle grades.

    We are thrilled to be working with Corwin, and in particular, we would like to thank Carol Collins, who has supported our work on this book, provided helpful ideas for making the book better, and demonstrated a sound understanding of why this work is so important. We are also grateful to the reviewers of this book, who brought a keen understanding of middle school dynamics and needs that helped shape our revisions in ways that will make the ideas contained herein even more meaningful to middle school teachers.

    Finally, as always, we have learned so much from our own children, Allyson, Justin, Luke, and Peter. We send them off to school each day, hopeful that their teachers will listen carefully to what they can do and support them in what they can almost do. We wrote this book with the belief that our own children's teachers might read it. For us, there is no more important audience.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    David Callaway, Language Arts Teacher

    Rocky Heights Middle School

    Parker, CO

    Julia Dewees, English and Social Science Teacher

    Vista del Mar Middle School

    CUSD BTSA/Induction Program Staff Teacher Development System

    San Clemente, CA

    Rachel Hanson, Gifted Eighth-Grade Language Arts

    Lakeside Middle School

    Cumming, GA

    Patricia (Patti) Hendricks, Seventh-Grade Language Arts Teacher

    Sunset Ridge Middle School

    West Jordan, UT

    Melanie Mares, Language Arts Teacher Leader

    Lowndes Middle School

    Valdosta, GA

    Rachel B. McMillan, Literacy Coach

    Ocean Lakes HS / Corporate Landing MS

    Virginia Beach, VA

    Lyndon Oswald, Principal

    Sandcreek Middle School

    Ammon, ID

    Ann Richardson, Coordinator of Gifted/Language Arts—Secondary

    Fayette County Schools

    Fayette County, GA

    Joseph Staub, Teacher (Resource Specialist)

    Thomas Starr King Middle School

    Los Angeles, CA

    Michelle Strom, Language Arts Teacher

    Carson Middle School

    Colorado Springs, CO

    About the Authors

    Jennifer Berne, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Reading and Language at National Louis University. She teaches courses in the teaching of writing and the teaching of comprehension. She is also an active staff developer, working in K–12 classrooms in implementing best practices in contemporary reading and writing.

    Sophie C. Degener, EdD, is an Assistant Professor in the Reading and Language Department at National Louis University, where she teaches literacy methods to preservice teachers as well as courses in beginning reading and reading research. She works with many school districts around the Chicago area on the topics of balanced literacy and differentiated instruction.

  • Afterword

    As we explained in Chapter 1, we designed strategic reading groups as scaffolds for new, urban teachers who struggled with the logistical issues related to small group instruction. It seemed logical to us that the first step was to reduce the amount of time spent in the groups, as this was certainly the most obvious way to attend to some of the management issues the teachers were experiencing. It was our goal to cut as much of the fat out of these groups as possible, to shift any instruction that could be done whole group to a whole group context, and focus on what was absolutely necessary instruction within the small group.

    We knew that the individual interaction between teacher and student was a priority, and we designed our groups to highlight this most important component. We assumed that once teachers got these groups tighter and their classroom management improved, they could go back to what we had observed to be more typical small group work, with a focus on before-, during-, and after-reading strategies that the teacher felt was suited for the particular group in front of him.

    However, we became more and more moved by the simple act of student reading to teacher, and the interactions that resulted. We realized that instruction needed to remain on the spot and designed to address individual student needs, and that generalized reading strategies were more appropriately taught whole group. It is now our belief that no matter the experience level of the teacher, this is the most productive use of small group time. The teachers we have worked with echo this belief. They describe relationships they've developed with students that they hadn't had before, and that they hadn't expected to form during strategic reading groups. They tell us that their students look forward to strategic reading groups, and they miss them if they are canceled due to an assembly or other class disruption. Teachers report knowing more about their students' reading than ever before.

    We spend time in middle school classrooms modeling strategic reading groups for teachers with their students. Most often, we have a large number of adults observing the groups. Each and every time, we have a moment of panic: “What if it doesn't work? What if I have nothing to say with all these people watching me?” But each and every time it becomes more and more clear that strategic reading groups are consistently effective. We always learn something about the students we listen to, and we are always amazed at what can get done in the course of 2 minutes.

    We encourage teachers to dive in and try this practice. At first, it may feel awkward, but our coaching of dozens of teachers has shown us that in fairly short order it becomes an important piece of excellent literacy instruction.

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