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Tuesday / April 20

How Do You Engage Developing Middle-Grade Readers?

Throughout my career as a middle school principal, teachers have expressed frustration over finding appropriate reading materials for older students who read below grade level. They want students to be excited about what they’re reading – not embarrassed that they’re reading a book written for a younger child – and they want students to feel successful as readersOften that requires some background knowledge and scaffolding from a teacher or peer. Many of the teachers in our school recently discovered, thanks to Guided Practice for Reading Growth, a new and successful way to use poetry and short texts to support developing readers. Teachers point out that these short texts engage all middle school readers, but especially those reading below grade level who feel embarrassed about reading “baby books.” 

The teachers I work with tell me that students enjoy watching and discussing the videos that build background knowledge. They praise the chart listing the strategies students practice with each poem or short text and that lessons include analytical thinking. I like the authors’ emphasis on independent reading to build students’ stamina and improve reading skill. My goal is to sustain our school’s culture of reading, and this book supports the initiative! 

See for yourself… you can download excerpts from Guided Practice for Reading Growth and try out a lesson in your classroom. David L. Harrison’s original poems and short texts stories provide interesting, engaging, age-appropriate material for Laura Robb’s guided practice lessons. The book offers teachers ready-to-go reading materials and lessons, as well as links to video clips that students can watch to build background knowledge before reading each poem or short text. 

Here I interview Laura and David so you can hear in their words their inspiration for the short texts and lessons, as well as how the lessons support students’ reading growth. 

David, can you explain what brought you and Laura together to write this book? 

Laura and I are not only longtime friends and colleagues, we share key core interests, especially those of early literacy and reaching young readers. She and I have talked for years about creating a book together. One evening over dinner at a literature conference, Laura and I were visiting across the table and she began describing a new idea she had for a book we could do as partners: reaching out to middle grade readers who were reading at least two years behind their grade level. I knew she would explain it more fully later, but I immediately knew one thing: I was in! 

Laura, how did you develop these guided practice lessons? Were they teacher tested? 

Lessons grew out of my work with students entering fifth grade who read on a first-grade instructional level. My goal was to build students’ self-confidence as readers through short, motivating lessons using texts that were readable and relevant to their lives. Part of instructional reading, guided practice lessons invite students to do the thinking, talking, and questioning and increase their desire to read while enlarging their background knowledge, vocabulary, and fluency. I selected short poem and articles.  

Everything in the book comes from conversations with real kids and teachers. I surveyed students during conferences to discover their interestswhich helped me to choose motivating materials and develop short lessons that students completed over three consecutive days. Fifth grade ELA teachers working with me tested the lessons, and their feedback allowed me to adjust and refine.  

David, can you explain the process of deciding on topics that would engage this age group? 

Laura provided a first list of subjects to consider and I added to it. As the list grew, each topic had to pass several litmus tests, the first being: Would it capture the interest of our readers? Sitting at my keyboard, I would imagine a 5th grade boy somewhere who needed to get better at reading, wanted to desperately, and deserved something to read that grabbed him, made him want to push on to learn what was coming next. Somewhere else an 8th grade girl had exactly the same problem, except she was four years older than the first student. About all they had in common was they were both developing readers. My challenge was to keep both kids in mind with every decision I made and word I wrote. 

Laura, in the book you offer two kinds of guided practice lessons. Can you explain each one and how they can help learners? 

While working with students, I observed their growth, strengths, and questions to identify areas needing practice such as: writing about reading in notebooks and trusting their thinking about questions and prompts. Instead of overloading students with too much practice, I created two different lessons: Partner Discussion anShared Reading Lessons. In the book, both types of lessons open with students enlarging their background knowledge by watching one to twocompleting word work, and then silently following as teachers read the text out loud with expression and fluency.  Lessons close with quick assessment ideas and suggestions for supporting students. 

  • Partner Discussion Lessons ask teachers to pair-up students and invite partners to select questions or prompts they’d like to discuss. Teachers remind students to provide text details to support their responses. In addition, writing about reading that can improve students’ comprehension is a feature of these lessons. There are guidelines for teachers to model in a “cold write” for students who in turn use the model as a resource when they complete notebook writing.  
  • Shared Reading Lessons invite students to think about a text’s meaning independently. Teachers divide texts into meaningful chunks, pose open-ended questions, provide think-time, and ask students to volunteer and respond using text details as to support ideasStudents risk sharing ideas in classes where teachers build trusting relationships and create a community of learners where everyone feels safe.  

David, I noticed you include a variety of genres—is there a reason for this? 

My poems and texts needed to engage kids as much as four years apart in age and who would have vastly different interests and social priorities. I needed to appeal to their age appropriate intellectual and social development, using vocabulary to allow access to the material without the frustration and discouragement they’ve so often encountered. To accomplish that we wanted to present a wide variety of subjects presented in a rich menu of genres. Our final selections were chosen based on variety of subjects, balance of topics, awareness of diversity among our readers, backgrounds, and core school subjects.  

Laura, you offer directions to teachers for developing their own lessons. Can you explain why?  

David and I agreed it was important for teachers to be able to create their own guided practice lessons. Having this skill allows teachers to choose texts they believe students will enjoy and create lessons that respond to needs students reveal during practice and while conferring. Directions for developing lessons are in the book’s Appendix as well as two poems and two short texts by David. Teachers will also find lists of texts they can explore to find short pieces.  

Written by

Evan Robb is the principal of Johnson-Williams Middle School in Berryville, Virginia and author of The Ten-Minute Principal. Prior to being a school principal, he was an English teacher, department chair, and assistant principal. He leads sustainable change initiatives that transform school culture, increase achievement, and prepare students for their future. 

An author, teacher, coach, and speaker, Laura Robb has spent the last four decades in middle school education. She is tirelessly committed to children and adolescents, and has a knack for showing what best-practice instruction looks like day by dayCurrently, in addition to her speaking and consulting, she works part time in grades K-8. She is the author of two other Corwin titles, Read, Talk, Write35 Lessons That Teach Students to Analyze Fiction and Nonfiction (2016) and Vocabulary Is Comprehension: Getting to the Root of Text Complexity (2014).  

David L. Harrison is the author or co-author of over 100 publications for children and educators. His work has inspired plays and been set to music. He has been featured at hundreds of conferences, workshops, literature festivals, schools, and colleges – and even has an elementary school named for himGuided Practice for Reading Growth is his first collaboration with Corwin. 

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