Why a Broad View of Reading Growth is Exactly What Teachers and Students Need Right Now

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As the school year comes to a close, we imagine that during Independent Reading you are kidwatching and admiring how much and in how many ways the children have grown as readers. As you kidwatch, remember those early days of the school year when Independent Reading lasted 10 minutes. Remember when students were hesitant to share their ideas with a reading partner. Now, reflect how far your readers have come. Consider the conversations they can have now, the books they are choosing now, the way they see themselves as readers now. Linger in that joy. 

That growth did not happen by chance; that growth happened because of your instructional decision making that centered students.

This is why a broad view of reading growth is exactly what teachers and students need right now. Too often, reading growth at the end of the school year is reduced to a number or letter alone; reading growth is defined by a set of discrete skills that can be measured by standardized tests. These standardized tests don’t capture the joy of what actually happened in your classroom over the last school year, but those tests are what “count” as data. Growth in a student’s attitude toward reading or ability to choose a broader range of texts to read isn’t counted. 

The disparity between what is tested and what we value is not new. In 1995, NCTE warned that a “…preoccupation with large-scale testing leads to distortion and reduction…” (NCTE Resolution, November 30, 1995.) Current policy and testing practices still reinforce the misconception that student reading growth encompasses only the accumulation of skills and strategies (Afflerbach, 2022), narrowing the definition of what constitutes reading growth. As practitioners, we know that reading is more complex than that. What constitutes reading growth and how it is measured needs to better reflect this complexity (ILA, 2017) and include aspects of reading such as engagement, motivation and self-efficacy. Because it all counts.

As your school year comes to a close, please don’t spend time regretting what you didn’t get to or focusing on what the students still can’t do. Instead, use your teacher-collected formative small data, such as kidwatching notes, conferring notes, artifacts and reflections from the students themselves, to tell the story of each reader. This way, you will tell a narrative of progress for you and the students.

What does reading growth encompass?

Thinking about what reading growth encompasses involves measuring the immeasurable. How a student develops and changes as a reader in a school year under the expert guidance of a teacher isn’t quantifiable. To imagine new spaces of possibility for broadening the definition of reading growth, we turn to the role of reading identity. In an earlier post, we described reading identity as having five aspects (attitude, self-efficacy, habits, book choice and process) that develop throughout the entire year.

Using these five aspects as a guide, we collaborated with teachers and students to make the immeasurable more visible. When we posed the question “What is reading growth?” in conversations with teachers and in classrooms with students, their answers were wonderfully varied. Here a sampling of responses:

Reading growth can mean finding a new series.
Reading growth can mean reading for longer stretches of time.
Reading growth can mean choosing to read when there is extra time.
Reading growth can mean determining and learning lessons in a novel.
Reading growth can mean talking with a new partner.
Reading growth can mean learning more about a topic.
Reading growth can mean talking about your thinking as a reader.
Reading growth can mean changing your mind after reading about an issue.
Reading growth can mean discovering a new author or genre.
Reading growth can mean having a wider repertoire of decoding strategies.
Reading growth can mean understanding that putting in effort leads to growth.
Reading growth can mean finding new favorites. 
Reading growth can mean feeling that you are a reader.

This wider stance on reading growth offers teachers and students space to learn and develop within a narrative of success. Success breeds success both for teachers and students. This start to a more nuanced and inclusive definition of reading growth not only honors the successes teachers and students experience every day, it contributes to a larger conversation about what it means to teach readers, not just reading.

Expanding reading growth in your classroom
As teachers, we can look for visible signs of growth through kidwatching, listening and conferring. These are among your richest sources of data. At the same time, we also want to ensure that a larger understanding of what it means to grow as a reader is something we convey to students. 

By starting conversations about growth with, What are the ways in which you have changed as a reader? What made you change?, we help make the idea of growth more concrete and at the same time push students to consider the reason for that change. This helps them see how their efforts led to that change and realize that those same efforts could lead to future change as well. Prompt students as needed with additional questions to encourage them to consider all aspects of reading identity. These questions might include: What new reading habits have you developed? What have you learned about yourself as a reader? What reading challenge did you overcome? What are you proud of?

Here are several suggestions for integrating talk about reading growth into your classroom:

Conduct an inquiry into reading growth.

  • Start with the prompts: “What are the ways in which you have changed as a reader? What made you change?”
  • Encourage students to tell stories about themselves as readers and how their reading life has developed. They might include details such as the first book they read on their own, their old preferences and how they have changed over time, or strong reading memories from school or home. What do these stories teach students about what it means to grow as a reader?
  • Spark conversations by revisiting class artifacts, such as previous class anchor charts, student reading responses, class read-alouds from earlier in the year or lists of students’ book choices throughout the year.

Devote time to ReDiscovery conferences.

  • In initial Discovery Conferences, you devote time to learning about students’ identities as readers. Imagine what insights you and your students could glean from ReDiscovery conferences.
  • Add the word “now” to the original questions.
  • Include questions such as the ones suggested in the reading growth inquiry (above) to guide the students to reflect on their growth in all aspects of reading identity.

Support students as they reflect on their own reading growth.

  • Encourage students to draw or write about how they have grown or changed as readers, prompting them to consider all aspects of their identity as readers: habits, self-efficacy, attitude, book choice and process.
  • This work can also be supported by re-visiting classroom artifacts such as old reading responses, classroom anchor charts or browsing former favorites in the classroom library.
  • Some students may choose to reflect alongside a partner, using their partner’s reflections to build upon their own.

Invite students to celebrate their growth.

  • Tailor this celebration to match the work your students have done around reading growth and their preferences for sharing. Keep in mind that some students might want to share, while other students might feel more comfortable keeping their reflections to themselves.
  • Options include gallery walks, Padlets, Jamboards, and partner or small group conversations in the class or with different classes.
  • Write letters to the next year’s teacher telling that teacher about their reading identity, reading growth, and hopes for the upcoming year of reading.

Trust That All Growth Counts

What do you want to carry with you as you close the year? Carry with you a trust in your instructional decision making. Carry with you a belief in yourself as an impactful teacher of readers. Carry with you the grace to let go of practices that are not effective. Carry with you your ability to imagine possibilities for each one of your students.

What do you want your students to carry with them as they leave your classroom? Encourage students to carry with them a strong belief in themselves as readers. Encourage students to trust that they are now and will continue to be readers into the summer and the next school year. Encourage students to understand that their efforts led to their growth as readers. 

End the year as you started it, by trusting yourself and trusting readers.

Student Designed Libraries

Dear Teachers,

Are you wondering about how to get your students involved in setting up the classroom library? It may seem overwhelming. We get it. Here’s a way to do it without dismantling the library that you have already set up:

  • Gather the students around the library. (We understand that this is tricky depending on the guidelines that are in place.)  Ask the students what they notice about how the library is already set up.  Put their ideas on a chart. 
  • Explain that you put the library together by thinking about what books they would want to read and that you wanted to make it easy for them to find those books. Tell them now it is their turn to set up the library in a way that makes sense to them.
  • Spread some new books  on the floor. Ask the students to think about how they would put the books together. Would these books go in baskets that are already in the library? Do we need to make and label some new baskets?
  • You can repeat this process for an entire week; it can take 10 minutes a day, in small groups and with partners. By the end of the week, you will have a number of new baskets, the students will have a sense of ownership over the classroom, and the energy for Independent Reading will go up as they pick books from the library that they created. 

Here are some examples to inspire you. So go ahead and get started! What’s the best that could happen?

Jen & Hannah

Why Independent Reading is Exactly What Students Need Right Now

As the school year approaches the half-way point, reflective educators everywhere are taking a close look at student growth, considering what next steps for each reader might be and making plans for relevant future instruction. Too often, this reflection is coupled with pressure to fit in all the units of study or to cover predetermined grade-level content. As a result, teachers are caught between what their students actually need and what curriculum requires, (even when these two needs are at odds with one another).
This is why independent reading is exactly what you and your students need right now…and always. Independent reading is a research-backed literacy practice that satisfies this balance while also nurturing the unique voices and purposes for reading of each student. Independent reading time and again has demonstrated the potential/ability to develop reading comprehension ability, vocabulary, grammar and spelling (Krashen, 2004), spark critical conversations and actions for a more just world (German; Bomer & Bomer), improve reading fluency (Allington, 2014), nurture empathy (Laminack & Kelly, 2019), build content knowledge (ILA, 2018), and nurture resilience (Routman, 2002)…and that’s just the start of the list. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Reflection and Discovery: The Power of Independent Reading in Reading Identity

Over the course of our careers, we have always found reflection a valuable tool in our efforts to match our beliefs to our actions. As young, idealistic, energetic first year teachers, we would often stand in our empty classrooms at the end of the day and reflect on each part of the day.  After a particularly challenging day, our reflections included questions such as: “How did I react in the moment when things went awry? How do I want to handle those moments? What can I do differently tomorrow?”  After a particularly successful day, our questions shifted to: “What did I do that worked today? How can I do that again tomorrow?” As classroom teachers and now as consultants, regardless of how the day goes, our reflective work centers around three key questions of identity:
Who am I as a teacher?  
Who do I want to be as a teacher?  
How do I get there?
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Letting Go of Labels and Trusting Reading Identity

My son pours over illustrations and devours graphic novels, especially those with sophisticated potty humor.  Dav Pilkey has mythical status in our house. Garfield comics abound.  Chris Van Dusen’s illustrations merit hours of close study.
Yet despite his love of reading at home, my son did not see himself as a successful reader at school.  During independent reading, he studied the illustrations and rarely focused on the words. By October of first grade, he was labeled as “disengaged” and a “struggling reader.” And although those words were never said directly to him, he felt their weight.  
My son watched his friends read increasingly difficult texts and was aware that he could not read the words with similar success.  His teacher tried to support him. However,  she inevertantly made the all-too-common, label-led decision to focus on what my son was notdoing as a reader. She focused on word solving strategies yet, he rarely applied these strategies to his independent reading.  Over time, my son internalized the message that his interactions with the illustrations were not a strength, they were a distraction.  
In March of first grade, COVID happened.  Overnight, my work as a literacy consultant  disappeared.  And as a mom, my work with my own reader took on a new life.  My husband and I decided to homeschool Charlie through second grade.  I was back in the classroom…or the basement that we now use as a classroom.  
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Building Better Independent Reading: Creating Classroom Spaces for Independent Reading

Teachers have the unique opportunity to start fresh each year. This fresh start often begins with designing the classroom space for a new group of students. Think of the classroom as a blank canvas for your students; what messages does it send about the type of learning that is promoted and valued in that space?  As we linger in classrooms, we uncover the stories of individual and collective learning. 

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