All children need instruction, but some children need substantial amounts of truly high-quality teaching to learn to read and write alongside their peers. What all children need, and some need more of, is models, explanations, and demonstrations of how reading is accomplished. What most do not need are more assignments without teacher-directed instruction, yet much of the work children do in school is not accompanied by any sort of instructional interaction or demonstration.
Children are routinely asked questions after reading but are infrequently provided with demonstrations of the comprehension strategies needed to answer the questions posed. In short, too often assigning and asking are confused with teaching. When the teacher-directed instructional component is left out of the lesson, it enormously reduces the potential of many activities (e.g., maps, webs, summary writing, response journals) for supporting the acquisition of complex comprehension strategies (Fielding & Pearson, 1994; Pressley, 2006). With no clear instruction, children are left to discover the strategies and processes so important to skillful readers and writers. Some children puzzle through the activities assigned but never discover the thinking patterns that proficient readers use.
Modeling, explaining, and demonstrating are essential teaching activities if all children are to learn to read and write. Teachers model the reading and writing processes by engaging in them while children observe. Reading aloud to children, for instance, provides a model of how reading sounds and how stories go. Composing a list of things needed for a project provides a model of one function of writing. Talking about how a newspaper story made us worry provides a model of response to text. Models are essential, but models do not give children much in the way of information about how proficient readers actually accomplish such feats.
Reading aloud to children is one way to model fluent reading and thoughtful talk about books, stories, and responses. While read-alouds have become increasingly popular, research indicates that nearly one-third of classroom teachers rarely read children's books aloud to their students (Hoffman, Roser, & Battle, 1993). They also offer guidelines for read-alouds:
- Designate a time each day for reading aloud, not a time-filler slot.
- Select quality literature to read.
- Discuss the books read with children.
- Create groups for children to share responses to books read.
- Reread selected pieces.
Explanation is probably the most common method teachers use to help children understand how one goes about reading and writing. Unfortunately, explanations can get wordy and often require a specialized language. We tell children that a good summary includes "the most important ideas," but some children are left wondering how to tell which ideas are most important. Unfortunately, explanations are often unhelpful. Children can define the main idea, for instance, but they still cannot construct an adequate summary reflecting the important information in a text. Explaining a process is an improvement compared to simply assigning students work, but many children do not acquire useful strategies from explanations alone.
Demonstration is teacher talk about the mental activities that occur during the reading and writing processes. Demonstration usually involves modeling and explaining along with demonstrating the thinking that occurs while reading and writing. For instance, a teacher might compose a summary of an informational passage on an overhead projector in front of the class (Cunningham & Allington, 2007). The teacher provides a model of the writing process and, ultimately, a model of a written summary. The teacher might work from a map or a web following an explanation of the essential summary elements. A demonstration would occur as the teacher thinks aloud during the composing, making visible the thinking that assembles the information for the summary, puts it into words, and finally creates a readable summary of the information presented. Similarly, the teacher demonstrates the complex mental processes that readers engage in while reading when she talks children through a strategy for puzzling out an unfamiliar word while reading a story. For example, "I can try a couple of things: Read to the end of the sentence; look at the word and see if I know any other words that might help me figure it out; ask myself, `What makes sense here?'; double-check what word makes sense against word structure; read the sentence using the word that makes sense and has the right letters." Demonstrating such thinking and how thinking shifts from incident to incident ("Here I can look at the picture to get a clue"; "I think the word will rhyme with name because it is spelled the same way"; and so on) gives children the chance to see that skillful strategy use is flexible and always requires thinking, not rote memory of rules.
Children only infrequently encounter such demonstrations in most classrooms. Children who find learning to read difficult often see the teacher and other children reading and writing, serving as models, but they wonder, "How do they do it?" All children benefit from instruction, but some children need incredible amounts of careful, personal instruction, with clear and repeated demonstrations of how readers and writers go about reading and writing (Duffy, 2003; Harvey & Goudvis, 2000). Left without adequate demonstrations, struggling readers are likely to continue trying to make sense out of lessons, but rarely will they accomplish this feat. Some of these children learn to score better on tests but never really learn to read and write.
If we are to teach all children to read and write, then models, explanations, and demonstrations of how we go about reading and writing will be essential elements of instructional programs. While some children may discover the effective strategies that proficient readers and writers use so easily and flexibly, other children require substantially more careful and personalized teaching to acquire the same strategies.
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