If you teach older students learning English for the first time or “Long-term ELLs” (a designation states like NY use to say a student has passed the time they set for when he or she should have mastered academic English, usually 6 years), then you have seen the pattern: they speak and understand spoken English quite well, they may even have strong decoding skills, but their comprehension of written text is far below grade level (see sources below for relevant studies).

A recent evaluation of interventions determined that these students (if they receive targeted intervention) often receive services focusing on phonics, vocabulary knowledge or strategy instruction. Essentially, smaller units of language and steps or strategies they can apply to texts that are often taught with additional scaffolds.

If these common methods were working, perhaps we would see increasing graduation rates for this population (speaking specifically about trends in NY, where I teach). Not that I want to draw a 1:1 causation between these two phenomena since we know there are always other unrelated or correlated obstacles these students have to confront.

However, as a teacher, I find this a frequent conversation among colleagues throughout my years teaching. “XYZ can’t read or write. They need some basic English intervention.” Or, worse, the assumption is there is a cognitive delay. Certainly, there have been students for whom this was true — letter-sound correspondence was something they genuinely struggled with and had other processing issues that inhibited their long-term memory, etc.

But I think this suggestion comes up because reading instruction is too often seen as a strictly cognitive process that happens entirely in a student’s head, and so we only ever look there for solutions to the problem.

Also, reading is often reduced to a set of strategies and then taught as steps: teach them how to do XYZ and that should help. However, this is a misconception. Some students do benefit from this, but strategies are text-specific and need-based.

Case in point: the last time I went skiing, I was in high school. Someone can teach me great strategies to stop on a downhill slope but if I’m still in my car on the way to the mountain, they might as well be saying nothing.

Teaching reading strategies is often like that: the teacher says “we are all going to practice inferring” (a skill which, when used to understand something I guess can be called a strategy), plucking kids out of their context, the direction their minds would have otherwise gone, and placing them into an entirely teacher-selected context, often with some excerpted text provided, and then expect them to not only produce the desired skill but understand it in all its subtleties that they can then consciously apply it in their own text on cue.

I’ve taught this way. It was my frustrations with this that led me in search of new researched approaches.

What is the point of requiring a specific thought in the text? In what way does it benefit the student? It is designed to facilitate assessment, not learning. I’d argue it isn’t even very good for assessment, especially for students for whom reading is constantly this kind of alienating experience. Reading becomes a performance for an evaluator. Reading a text someone else chose, to use strategies or apply skills someone else is both determining and evaluating, makes for a terrible learning environment.

On the other hand, there are teachers seeking ways to make reading meaningful for all, and turn all students into readers through a variety of methods (you’re probably one of them!). They see how, for far too many students, reading is something they only do in school, for school purposes, with texts the teachers have chosen and with questions the teachers wrote to lead a discussion as well as evaluate correct interpretations.

Making texts available that reach all students’ interests is an indispensable requirement of all schools, and allowing students to choose those texts is crucial for turning toward a culture of reading that is enjoyable. Discussions, turn & talks, Socratic seminars are all attempts to place student voices at the center, as well.

And without discounting those efforts, the question of instruction–especially for those who are deemed struggling readers and are emergent bilinguals — still hangs in the air and it is essential to this conversation because:

“It is important to note that simply involving students in talk about text, as is done in a number of instructional approaches to comprehension, does not necessarily mean that the talk will be dialogically organized (O’Connor & Michaels, 2007)” (Aukerman, 2016).

So, how do we create democratically-organized classes that include all learners as equals and provide interventions that can target those who have decoding skills but may not be demonstrating comprehension?

Although any good intervention should be multi-pronged, student-led discussion of texts they choose is the one prong to rule them all.

Letting students lead their discussions about texts they have chosen, without the teacher pre-determining where they will end up is necessary for letting this particular population of students to experience agency through problem-solving in texts, using strategies as the need arises (learning them from peers or teachers who follow into discussions by suggesting or modeling with strategies or scaffolds) to comprehend.

Because the reality is we all process information differently, at different paces, coming from different individual experiences, etc., and that needs to be honored deliberately through the curriculum design. The truth is even when they can’t name a strategy, they are often doing something to make sense of the text and a good teacher will notice and point out to them what they already know. This, again, is a good way to avoid the deficit model approach.

Reading in groups the way Marie and I do –often referred to as dialogic reading instruction — is not only an intervention backed up by research, it is enjoyable when done well. It is also most reflective of the kinds of things real readers do with texts.

Listen to our upcoming podcast to hear more about how this is done.