7 Qs to Ask About Reading

Okay, so you’re a principal and hearing a ton about dyslexia legislation and reading problems, and you’re in this facebook group where people are talking. But what does it all mean for your your school? How do you know if your students are getting proper instruction in all aspects of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, word study, fluency, and comprehension? Here’s a starting point for your own reading research!

1. Does your curriculum include systematic phonics instruction?

The jury has decided – phonics MUST be taught. All of us from the “whole language” era got jipped. Just ask my husband to spell anything without autocorrect and you will see what we mean. Comprehension is foundational and totally necessary to becoming a reader, but most kids don’t learn to read without systematic phonics that teaches letter names and sounds in a planned series of instruction.

2. How is phonemic awareness addressed in assessment, curriculum, and instruction?

Phonemic awareness is “reading you can do in the dark,” meaning, it’s all based on SOUNDS. Here’s an example: Say big. Now change the /b/ to a /p/. What do you get? Pig. No “reading” is necessary, but this type of skill is essential in the reading process. More and more researchers and experts are determining that it is actually phonemic awareness that is the basis for all reading (a great resource for this is David Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success). Kilpatrick even asserts that reading words is not a visual process and that addressing phonemic awareness deficits could eliminate up to 50% of reading difficulties. In fact, one of the first warning signs of possible dyslexia or other reading difficulties is students that struggle to identify and produce rhymes, a foundational phonemic awareness activity. So – what is your school doing to TEACH and ASSESS phonemic awareness?

3. What is your philosophy on students choosing books?

Ask your school what the philosophy is for student choice in books. At school, students should be given multiple opportunities during the day to read at their INSTRUCTIONAL READING LEVEL, the level at which they are learning to read (which could be different for all students in a class), and practice using their skills at that level with teacher support. There are 9 different factors that go into whether or not a text is ‘readable’ for students–including interest, genre, prior knowledge and vocabulary. How does your school promote reading at independent and instructional reading levels AND partner with parents to provide books that are read-alouds for home (for those books that are too hard but soooo interesting!)?

4. How many assessments do you give to monitor student reading – how, what, and when?

It’s no secret that schools sometimes over-assess and under-instruct, so ask what the assessments are and how they are used. If assessments aren’t being used to change instruction, other than a few benchmark assessments throughout the year, then they aren’t worth giving. Unfortunately, sometimes individual schools and teachers don’t have any choice on the matter of when assessments may be mandated by the state and/or district. Also, make sure the assessments vary with a variety of cultures, experiences, prior knowledge and backgrounds represented. Research shows that students comprehend at a higher rate when the characters in the book look, talk and act like them and those in their lives. Therefore, if the assessments do not reflect your students, families and their experiences, look for additional options.

5. What do you do when students are not learning to read at an expected rate?

The answer to this question should be answered with some form of Response to Intervention (RTI). Here’s the breakdown of how we teach in schools today:

Tier 1: Tier 1 instruction is instruction that is given to ALL students; it’s typically what you find in curriculum maps, textbooks, and lesson plans. Our hope is that approximately 80-85% of students “get it” after Tier 1 instruction.

Tier 2: Tier 2 instruction/intervention is given when Tier 1 instruction didn’t work. It’s typically administered in small-group format where groups are formed based on missing skills. This should be systematic, evidence-based, and assessed with a CBM (curriculum-based measure), not a randomized teacher-created assessment. This comprises about 10-15% of students.

Tier 3: Tier 3 instruction/interventions are delivered if students still don’t respond to Tier 2 OR students are significantly behind the grade level (think 2+ years). These interventions can be delivered in small group or individually, but the intensity is typically higher than a Tier 2 intervention including increased time in the intervention. Human beings should be administering Tier 3 interventions in a perfect world – not computers. Tier 3 instruction is for a small handful of students, usually about 5%

6. How is “spelling” addressed?

Parents LOVE spelling lists; it’s one subject that feels the “same” from their own schooling, so they understand it, thus, they feel like they can help their kids with it. But here’s the bad news – traditional spelling lists where we encourage students to memorize the spelling of words are not helpful. Spelling should actually be “word study” and should be based off of phonics, syllables, prefixes, suffixes, and roots, depending on a student’s age and reading ability. If your kids are receiving a list of words on Monday, memorizing them at home Tuesday-Thursday, and taking a test over them Friday, that is NOT wordy study, and that’s not teaching. Schools and teachers should provide quality word study instruction, just like every other subject. Just like we don’t expect parents to teach students fractions, we shouldn’t expect them to teach “spelling,” either.

7. What is your definition of dyslexia?

The answer to this question should be a little complex. If your school believes dyslexia is flipping letters and numbers, that could be a red flag. Dyslexia is “a learning disability that is neurobiological in origin” (https://dyslexiaida.org/definition-of-dyslexia/). It is characterized by a complex set of brain processes and symptoms, and the most evidence-based solutions are systematic, not merely strategies. The really only known solutions to dyslexia are phonemic awareness training and systematic phonics instruction. Depending on your state, your school may or may not be able to screen for dyslexia. Dyslexia is a medical diagnosis to the neurological origin. Right now, in the state of Missouri, all schools are required to have systems in place to screen all students for possible reading disorders in grades kindergarten through 3rd. Make sure your school and district are up to par here.

What other things have come up at your school? Share a comment here or message us on Instagram @themodernprincipal or Twitter @modernprincipal !

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