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September 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 1

Redesigning Reading Instruction

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How can schools help teachers better meet the needs of individual students as readers? Simply apply some common sense.

Children differ as readers. This is not new information, and neither is the idea of differentiating reading instruction. Everyone remembers either teaching or being a member of a low, middle, or high reading group. Likewise, educators created special education, Title I, English as a second language, gifted education, and reading intervention programs to meet children's differing needs.
Classrooms are more diverse than ever, but teachers may be less able to rely on special programs for students that they feel least prepared to teach (Walmsley & Allington, 1995). Consequently, differentiated reading instruction can no longer be seen as an intervention or as a remedial measure; it's the way to teach all students. One-size instruction never fit anyone, but it is time to discard the old patterns and redesign reading instruction with diverse students in mind.

What Differs But Shouldn't

All students need opportunities to sit in the driver's seat, to navigate, and to make choices in their reading. Unfortunately, we may be differentiating reading instruction in ways that have severe consequences for students. We know that the amount of time spent reading separates successful from unsuccessful readers (Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988; Stanovich, 1986) and that allowing students to just read is the only way for them to become truly engaged in reading (Nell, 1988; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In many cases, however, only good readers—who are likely to read outside of school anyway—get opportunities to read in school for any worthwhile periods of time. Struggling readers, especially those in special programs, typically get low-level, fragmented skill instruction rather than opportunities to actually read and write (Johnston & Allington, 1991). Even in regular classrooms, teachers may vary instruction for students in ways that hurt rather than help struggling readers, for instance, by slowing the pace of instruction so that students have fewer overall experiences with print (Allington, 1994). By differentiating opportunities to read, schools may actually widen and increase reading differences among students.
Many popular school reading activities, such as oral round-robin reading, masquerade as common reading experiences but do little to develop reading skills and engage individual students. Many teachers use round-robin reading as a crowd control measure to "make sure everybody gets it." But the value of this unrehearsed oral reading is lost on students, many of whom share the sentiments of one 6th grader who confessed, "I just volunteer to read because it takes the slow people forever to get it done."
Extensive studies of class novels—everyone reading the same book at the same time regardless of individual abilities or interests—which pervade the reading curriculum in the upper elementary grades and beyond, may also fail to give children reading opportunities. Although a unit on a novel may consume weeks of instructional time, students spend little time actually reading. When they do read, teachers control what and how much. Teachers may spend inordinate amounts of time on related bells-and-whistle activities to make the book seem more interesting, to make students experts on that particular book, or to test their knowledge of the book's content. Ironically, the 6th grade students that my colleague Karen Broaddus and I surveyed and interviewed (1999) explained that it was getting time alone with a book that actually helped them develop interest in reading further and make sense of what they read.

What Is the Same, But Should Differ

Like the whole-class novel, curriculum driven by grade-level textbooks is the antithesis of differentiation. We know that students will get better at reading and learn more through their reading when they are provided with reading materials that they can negotiate nearly effortlessly. That means books that students can read with approximately 98 percent accuracy in word identification and that include mostly familiar concepts and vocabulary (Betts, 1954). Generally speaking, when students are missing more than 10 words out of 100 in a passage (less than 90 percent accuracy), the material is too difficult and the reading experience unproductive and frustrating for students. But finding good materials for a particular student means more than looking at numbers; students also need books that address their personal interests.
How often do children in schools, particularly those who struggle with grade-level texts, get to work with books that they can actually read and want to read? Probably seldom. Teachers use the materials they have or the grade-level books sanctioned by the district or designated for their curriculum (Worthy, Moorman, & Turner, 1999). When learning to read, there is nothing magical about any single book. Different students need different books, and all students need many books.

What Schools Can Do

We do not need new methods for differentiating reading instruction. For teachers to make good decisions about students in the classroom, we first need some fundamental changes in policies made outside the classroom.
Prioritize time for reading in the school day. Although teachers see the value of independent reading, they often let it fall by the wayside because they feel that they need to spend time on basic skills and preparation for high-stakes tests, especially for their most struggling students (Worthy, Turner, & Moorman, 1998). Giving all students, especially those experiencing difficulty, more time to read in school is the most certain way to help all students become more skilled and engaged and even to be more prepared to achieve on standardized tests.
Educators have implemented voluntary free-reading programs, such as Drop Everything and Read, with the intent to give all children time to read what they want to read, but these activities may send the wrong message to students and teachers about the place and purpose of sustained independent reading. If engaged reading is so important to students' reading development and to their learning of new concepts, then it should figure most prominently where it counts the most—during the most critical instructional times and across the content areas. If students are to learn from their reading, they need time to read—and not just in reading class but in science, math, and social studies. Students need time to explore their personal reading interests by listening to teachers read aloud from a range of materials and by spending time with teachers to try out different books and topics. Administrators and instructional leaders need to reassure teachers that independent student reading and time spent helping students find materials they want to and can read are valuable.
But quality time for reading in any subject area cannot happen in fragmented school days (Allington, 1994). Uninterrupted instructional periods and block scheduling that allow for integrated and interdisciplinary learning will more likely ensure that children get to read during critical instructional times. Perhaps most important, children who need the most time to read need to do so in the classroom instead of leaving the room for instruction that might have a negative impact on their reading development.
Allocate more resources for a wide range of reading materials, and let teachers and students decide what to buy. When asked where the novels in his room come from, Randy, a 4th grader, replied tenuously, "Someone in the other building, like the supervisor of the school, supervisor of something. . . Someone picks them out and it's not anyone in this school, I don't think." Randy had problems with reading the novels, which were above his reading ability and didn't match his interests. Those who decided what Randy's class would read did not know anything about Randy, his reading abilities, or his interests.
No one knows more about what students can and want to read better than the students themselves and the classroom teachers who observe, support, and evaluate their reading on a day-to-day basis. I have learned that teachers who feel the least equipped to meet individual needs in reading are those employed by school districts in which someone outside the classroom makes decisions about which books to buy and which books children will read.
The mandating of particular reading materials by districts or schools and limiting the volume and diversity of materials available in classrooms have far-reaching implications for students. Access to books makes a big difference in children's early literacy development (Neuman, 1999), but children from low-income families, in particular, have fewer books available to them in schools in comparison to students who attend schools in higher-income neighborhoods (McGill-Franzen & Allington, 1993). Also, if students read only those texts mandated by schools and districts for whole-class study, students would come away with a narrow range of reading experiences.
Duke (2000) found informational texts almost nonexistent in 1st grade classrooms, and in my own research in middle schools (1999), 6th graders reported a similar lack of nonfiction in their classrooms. To give students the variation and quantity of books that they need to become proficient readers, schools must put significantly more money into buying a wide range of books for classrooms and allow teachers, who are in the best position to identify individual student needs, to make decisions about the materials that they will use for instruction.
Develop better reading teachers instead of looking for better reading programs. Allington and Walmsley (1995) argue that there is no quick fix for reading difficulties, and Duffy and Hoffman (1999) refer to educators' search for a perfect method for reading difficulties as the pursuit of an illusion. No single method, program, or book will help accelerate the needs of all children or any subset of children. Only knowledgeable, reflective teachers can respond to the diverse and ever-changing needs of individual students. As Duffy and Hoffman (1999) put it, teachers impose harmony on inherently uncertain and ambiguous classroom environments by cutting across philosophical lines, combining methodological techniques, and adapting programs and materials to the particular needs of students (p. 11)
Investing in teachers rather than programs may be a difficult challenge for many schools and districts to accept, given the current state of policy throughout the country, with many state legislatures requiring schools to use a specific reading program or to choose from a limited number of approved methods. Ironically, any reading program may not make much of a difference for students in classrooms in which teachers are not prepared. Further, knowledgeable, reflective teachers adapt these programs to meet the needs of their students (Duffy-Hester, 1999).
Without a doubt, establishing a balanced reading program that responds to individual students is complicated (Ivey, Baumann, & Jarrard, in press), and helping teachers become flexible and reflective in their teaching may seem difficult and time-consuming when compared with implementing a packaged reading program. But it is time for schools to take what seems like the hard road. Instead of professional development in which teachers learn how to implement particular reading methods or programs, teachers should try out a range of practices or conduct self-initiated research in their classrooms (Duffy-Hester, 1999). In the school where Broaddus and Bloodgood (1999) conducted research, teachers were given time in the school day to serve as reading tutors in their own building. Teachers reported that the greatest benefit from this experience was their own professional development. Making decisions about one child's learning helped them make better decisions about all students in the regular classroom.
School policy, whether it originates at the building, the district, or the state level, needs to support teachers in ways that allow them to meet individual needs. As Duffy and Hoffman (1999) argue, "policy should be less restrictive, not more restrictive; it should give teachers room to move, not limit them to one method or one way of thinking; and it should encourage flexibility, not compliance" (p. 14). In the abstract, this sounds like a significant shift in thinking, particularly in this age of high-stakes testing and accountability. But when applied to what teachers need to help individual students—more time, more materials, and more opportunities to develop their expertise—it does not sound risky at all. It sounds like common sense.

Allington, R. L. (1994). The schools we have. The schools we need.The Reading Teacher, 48, 14–29.

Allington, R. L., & Walmsley, S. A. (Eds.). (1995). No quick fix: Rethinking literacy programs in America's elementary schools. New York and Newark, DE: Teachers College Press and International Reading Association.

Anderson, R. C., Wilson, P. T., & Fielding, L. G. (1988). Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside school. Reading Research Quarterly, 23(3), 285–303.

Betts, E. A. (1954). Foundations of reading instruction. New York: American Books.

Broaddus, K., & Bloodgood, J. W. (1999). "We're supposed to already know how to teach reading": Teacher change to support struggling readers.Reading Research Quarterly, 34, 426-451.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Literacy and intrinsic motivation. Daedalus, 119, 115–140.

Duffy, G. G., & Hoffman, J. V. (1999). In pursuit of an illusion: The flawed search for a perfect method. The Reading Teacher, 53, 10-16.

Duffy-Hester, A. M. (1999). Teaching struggling readers in elementary classrooms: A review of classroom reading programs and principles for instruction. The Reading Teacher, 52, 480–495.

Duke, N. K. (2000). 3.6 minutes per day: The scarcity of informational texts in first grade. Reading Research Quarterly, 35, 202-224.

Ivey, G. (1999). A multicase study in the middle school: Complexities among young adolescent readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 34, 172–192.

Ivey, G., Baumann, J. F., & Jarrard, D. (in press). Exploring literacy balance: Iterations in a second-grade and a sixth-grade classroom. Reading Research and Instruction.

Ivey, G., & Broaddus, K. (1999, December).1700+ students speak out about middle school reading. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Reading Conference, Orlando, FL.

Johnston, P., & Allington, R. L. (1991). Remediation. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research, vol. 2 (pp. 984–1012) New York: Longman.

McGill-Franzen, A., & Allington, R. L. (1993, October 13). What are they to read? Not all kids, Mr. Riley, have easy access to books. Education Week, p. 26.

Nell, V. (1988). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Neuman, S. B. (1999). Books make a difference: A study of access to literacy.Reading Research Quarterly, 34, 286–311.

Stanovich, K. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 24, 7–26.

Walmsley, S. A., & Allington, R. L. (1995). Redefining and reforming instructional support programs for at-risk students. In R. L. Allington & S. A. Walmsley (Eds.), No quick fix: Rethinking literacy programs in America's elementary schools (pp. 19–44). New York and Newark, DE: Teachers College Press and International Reading Association.

Worthy, J., Moorman, M., & Turner, M. (1999). What Johnny likes to read is hard to find in school.Reading Research Quarterly, 34, 12–27.

Worthy, J., Turner, M., & Moorman, M. (1998). The precarious place of self-selected reading. Language Arts, 75, 296–304.

Gay Ivey is the William E. Moran Distinguished Professor in Literacy at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. She is the co-author with Peter Johnston of Teens Choosing to Read: Fostering Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Growth Through Books (Teachers College Press, 2023).

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