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May 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 8

How Elena Learned to Love Reading

Students who live in poverty lose three months of reading achievement each summer. Let's change that.

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One evening last summer, I meandered to the mailbox thinking about how much I missed my middle school students. I had recently retired from 32 years of teaching. As I sorted the mail, a letter from Elena fell out.
Mrs. D.,At the beginning of summer I made a goal to read at least three books. I just completed my ninth book and have already started the tenth. … Many people tell me the main character in your favorite books is who you want to act like, so you change your personality to be more like that character. I believe them. For example, because Katniss in The Hunger Games was brave, I started acting as brave as I could. Books have helped change the way I act toward people and look at problems. I guess in my own way I can say you have taught me to walk two moons. Thank you for teaching me to write and read.
I taught Elena language arts from 4th to 7th grade. I'd received dozens of text messages from her that summer, each sharing some discovery she'd made in her reading or her plan for what she wanted to write. By reading throughout the summer, Elena—who comes from a family with no steady income and who attends school in one of Colorado's poorest districts—was beating the odds.
Research shows that, on average, students who come from poverty achieve less academically and drop out of school at a higher rate than their wealthier peers (Krashen, 2011). According to an interview with Anne McGill-Franzen (2010) in Reading Today, a meta-analysis of 39 studies found that poor students lose an average of three or more months of reading achievement every summer, whereas economically advantaged students gain a couple of months.
Students from poor homes usually spend their summers with fewer education or enrichment opportunities—and fewer available books. This effect has been termed the summer slide—which, of course, doesn't mean a wild ride that ends in a refreshing splash. This slide can result in a poor student being as much as four years behind a wealthier one in terms of literacy skills by the time both students graduate from high school.

Getting to Engagement

How can we motivate students who live in poverty to read and write from June to September? The broader question is, How can we make them excited about reading all year? Richard Allington (2007) says that to keep students reading in summer, we must place books in their hands that "they can and want to read"—but it isn't just a lack of books that leads to the summer slide. It's a lack of motivation.
When I was hired at Elena's school, only 4 of its 50 middle school students were avid readers. The others said they rarely read; when they did, it was mostly to earn points on Accelerated Reading tests. If we are to get students of poverty to read during the summer months, we must employ instruction during the school year that not only ensures students can read, but also makes reading desirable.
When I began teaching Elena and her classmates, their attention lagged during lessons. They were bored and disengaged. During my years at the school, the students and I went on a journey that gradually increased the number of readers in my class from a handful to most. Students began reading on the school bus, in the cafeteria, in the stands during ball games—and during summer. Eventually, the school earned accolades on Colorado's state assessment program and in 2010–11, it won a Governor's Distinguished Improvement Award and a Center of Excellence Award for being one of the schools in the state that demonstrated the highest rate of student longitudinal academic growth.
While teaching these students, I discovered new methods. I also rejuvenated techniques from my 27 years in elementary schools to find what feeds engagement in reading, especially for students living in poverty.

Ground Instruction in Relationships

My first year of teaching was in a bush village in Alaska. My Haida Indian charges quickly taught me that kids must love their teacher and feel loved in return to learn to their fullest. Although I worked diligently to plan exciting lessons, gaining the attention of children who'd spent their first five years of life exploring the beaches and river of their village was a challenge. As the year plodded along, I began to understand each of these 16 students and their private hurts and joys. The more I loved them, the easier it was to get their attention.
Twenty-seven years later, as I struggled with Elena's class (nicknamed the "class from hell"), this lesson became important again. No matter how difficult Elena's class seemed, I needed to love them. During the first months, they weren't easy to love; by the end of the year, they were my best-behaved class and paid attention even to lessons that weren't so exciting. One-on-one conferences helped me get close to each student. I found unconditional love was the best tool in my teacher's tool kit. First, I gave them love; in return, they conducted themselves like individuals worthy of that love.
Two decades ago, Lucy Calkins (1991) gave this advice:
One of the challenges we as writing teachers face is that we must begin teaching writing before we've grown to love each child. Once we can look at loud, blustery Joel and know the vulnerability and earnestness just beneath the surface, it's not hard to teach him. Once we have found that quiet Diana has so much to say if only we listen … it's not hard to teach her. … Our first objective, then, is to fall in love with our children, and to do so quickly. (p. 11)
When we have relationships with students, it's easier to engage them, and when they are engaged in our lessons, they learn how to read—and increase the chance of their doing so over the summer. Let's take up Calkins's challenge to "fall in love with our students quickly." With students from poverty, we don't have a moment to waste.

Use Strategies That Feed Motivation

Once the foundation of relationships is laid, five key instructional choices motivate students to read and write.

Explain Why It Matters

Gail Boushey and Joan Moser (2006) believe that students as young as 5 years old need to understand the reasons behind what their teachers do. Students in high-poverty schools especially need to understand that the time they spend attending to our lessons will help them accomplish things in the world. When I prefaced lessons with a short explanation of why we were learning this content or skill, students acted more interested. Elena became interested in learning about punctuation when she saw that it made her writing clearer to readers.

Provide Choice

Choice is a powerful motivator. Students need to choose the books they read and the topics they write about. I'm not suggesting that teachers shouldn't dictate the genre learners read or write in. I insisted that my students write in many genres, but I never chose their topic for them. For an essay, I'd help them brainstorm issues in the world they wanted to change and choose a topic based on these passions and beliefs. During independent reading time, students chose books they were eager to read at their level within the genre we were studying.

Confer Often

Not only did weekly one-on-one reading and writing conferences help me assess and teach students, but they also provided a chance for each student to have a private visit with me about books they were reading and pieces they were writing. Although low-income parents are generally caring, they're often busy. Poor students may have no one at home with whom to celebrate their reading and writing lives. I believe knowing that she'd have my individual attention every week motivated Elena to work hard.

Use Texts at Students' Levels

Students who don't read and write at grade level spend the majority of their school day being frustrated. Frustrated learners are rarely motivated learners. I had my middle school students choose books at their reading level, not their grade level, and accepted the best writing they could do, while still suggesting gently how they could improve. I used rubrics that gauged improvement to assess and grade writing.

Provide Time

Students of poverty often don't have access to an appropriate time or place to read and write at home. When teachers carve out hours for literacy work in the school day, students may fall in love with reading and writing—and somehow find the time and space to continue even in chaotic homes. I gave Elena and her peers vast amounts of time to read and write. After short minilessons on comprehension strategies, students spent 30 minutes reading and writing.
As my class learned to process text at deeper levels, they were more likely to choose to read in class and at home. This made it easier to place books into their hands at year's end that they enjoyed and that were at their level.

Leverage Teacher and Student Talk

How teachers talk to students about their work matters. Our words can support or diminish how a student thinks of him or herself as a learner. As Peter Johnston (2012) notes,
Words change the life of the classroom. They change the worlds the children inhabit, and consequently who they can be, what they will feel, what they can know. (p. 4)
I believe it's even more important to choose words carefully for impoverished children than for children who are surrounded by successful adults. A fellow student of Elena's told me, "Sometimes we need a Mrs. D.–type lecture, where she tells you you're too good of a person to behave in such a manner." I learned the "Mrs. D.–type lecture" from my colleague Linda Owsley. She would look into an offending student's eyes and ask, "Does that honor the fine young man [or woman] you are?"
Knowing that the way I talked to Elena might affect her reading and writing for years, I thought hard before our first conference. I pointed out a beautiful sensory image she'd written—and ignored the many places where her writing made no sense. Elena became "the girl who writes with powerful sensory images" in our class. I showed Elena how to clean up confusing sections of her writing, but only after pointing out how powerfully she conveyed images—and gaining her trust.
After noticing how quickly Elena took to our editing lessons, I started to call on her more, prefacing my questions with, "What does our class English teacher think?" Elena began to see herself as someone who crafts lovely imagery—and who might become a teacher.
We also need to let students talk with one another. Vocabulary enrichment is crucial for low-income students, as Beck, McKeown, and Kukan (2002) explain:
A large vocabulary repertoire facilitates becoming an educated person to the extent that vocabulary knowledge is strongly related to reading proficiency in particular and school achievement in general. The practical problem is that there are profound differences in vocabulary knowledge among learners from different socioeconomic groups from toddlers through high school. (p. 1)
Hart and Risley's research (1995) found that children from families on welfare heard an average of 616 words per hour, compared with 2,153 words per hour for children in wealthier families. Their follow-up study found that children with higher vocabularies at age 3 scored higher at later ages on tests of vocabulary, listening, syntax, and reading comprehension.
Students of all ages love to talk about their passions and opinions, but their stamina for listening is low. If teachers push that stamina, kids tune us out. If we break up teacher talk with student talk—which I call purposeful talk—we have a higher chance of keeping students engaged. For instance, to teach inferences, we might model making an inference, then set students up to share their inferences with a partner.
Calling on raised hands is the weakest way to have students discuss; the same five or six students do all the sharing. Often, those who need to think and speak most are those who tune out. Intentional talk among diverse learners is important for increasing engagement because it tends to increase people's thinking and vocabulary. In the same amount of time it takes to call on two students, all students can think and share their thinking, using and extending their vocabularies. Students who engage in classroom discussions not only boost their word knowledge, but also often become more motivated to learn—and read.

Spreading the Engagement

Recently, Elena's discussions with me about her summertime reading motivated some middle school teachers I was working with. As my professional development session began, teachers greeted me with the expression teachers acquire when they realize their first day back to school won't be spent doing much-needed planning. One teacher kept asking me if my students really chose to read and write on their own time.
After her fifth interruption, I set my phone down at her desk and asked her to scroll down to Elena's texts as I continued speaking. She read quietly for several minutes before exclaiming, "You all listen up. Her kids do read and write during the summer."
My journey with Elena and her peers was the most rewarding one of my life. As I drove to the airport after my presentation, I envisioned receiving this letter from Elena: "Mrs. D., please come to my college graduation." I smiled, dreaming of Elena "sliding" into a better world.

Allington, R. (2007). Speech given at the Colorado Council International Reading Association.

Beck, I., McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life. New York: Guilford.

Boushey, G., & Moser, J. (2006). The daily five. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Calkins, L. (1991). Living between the lines. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hart, B., & Risley, R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Paul Brookes.

Johnston, P. (2012). Opening Minds. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Krashen, S. (2011). Protecting students from the effects of poverty: Libraries. Colorado Reading Council Journal, 22(1).

McGill-Franzen, A. (2010). Interview. Reading Today, 27(6), 3–6.

End Notes

1 Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech is Elena's favorite book.

2 Seventy-two percent of the students in Elena's school are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

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