Reading And Writing Are Important For A Successful Literacy Program
Traditionally, special education teachers have focused on remediation of specific skills deficits that are isolated from connected texts and presented in the form of phonics worksheets and sight-word practice. Looking back at my own years of working with students with special needs, I found myself guilty of using repetition of isolated reading skills. Small-group instruction focused on worksheets as the main reading method. My graduate courses in educational theory led me to current research in reading instruction, including the constructivist theory of learning, wholepart-whole methods, and authentic literature. The online conversations validated for me the value of trade books when used with special education students. Many participants felt it was difficult to do activities in reading other than a worksheet when each child was working on individual objectives.
Unfortunately, in my own classroom, I began to have concerns for my students’ progress. In questioning them, I was dismayed to learn that little or no reading took place outside the classroom or school. My students were not able to generalize, or transfer, skills they had acquired from the special education room to the general education classroom. I decided to observe my students; before long, it was evident the students became comfortable with the format of the worksheet rather than develop, competency of the skill. Hence, if I used another format, scores began to drop until the students familiarized themselves with the new worksheet format. Research suggested that when teachers overemphasize skills without providing meaningful activities, students find little value in reading and writing. My concerns for effective reading instruction for students with special needs was what prompted me to return to college to pursue my master’s degree. My studies aided me in being able to learn how to effectively design research; more important, they gave me the confidence to realize that research begins in my own classroom. Through research, I became aware of terms such as constructivism, whole language, holistic learning, and literature-based instruction. Many articles contained views from educators like myself, with varying ideas and experiences with the concepts I was studying. Realizing that many teachers wrote about personal discoveries made while in their own classrooms encouraged me to grow and change professionally. Professional growth came through adopting methods that have not only proven to be effective within my own classroom but also addressed my concerns of motivation and generalization.
Many of my students have talked about one or both parents’ being in prison, of not getting enough to eat at night, of parents fighting late into the night making it difficult to sleep, or having siblings taken from the home and placed with other relatives. The schools within the district are divided according to grade levels. My building houses approximately 395 students. Currently, there are 24 general education teachers and 4 special education teachers with approximately 18 students per classroom. For the purpose of this article, students discussed were taken from general education classrooms and placed in a learning-lab setting to receive reading instruction. In the learning lab, one special education teacher and one instructional assistant are available to my students.
Students with reading problems need opportunities to practice reading material on their level with not too much difficulty in word recognition. Reading can be frustrating for students who struggle with decoding. When reading is difficult, children’s attitudes about reading become poor, and they avoid reading activities. I further noted that when children do not read books, they are unable to develop fluency and gain additional knowledge to help with further reading experiences. My purpose for change was to motivate students in the area of reading. Past research has linked the frequency of reading with reading achievement and positive reading attitudes. I became aware of the importance of ownership and authentic reading and writing activities. Ownership, as I understood it, means that students would have freedom of choice in reading texts and activities.
Through conferencing with each student, I learned that students frequently chose books that were at their frustration level rather than their instructional level. Once I discovered this, I encouraged students to choose a book and conference with me about the book’s level. Together we began to choose textbooks that were at the instructional level for the students.
Imagine giving students the gift to see that they can read when they have the opportunity to read appropriate and motivating books! It was exciting to see my students become interested in reading. Research confirmed that providing children with choices of books, allowing them time to read, and providing opportunities to discuss books with others creates an environment that encourages children to want to read. Students were encouraged to discuss books as a group or with me individually.
Addressing reading skills was easier than I had originally expected. To further allow the students ownership and choices, I created folders with a variety of activities that addressed different skills. By allowing students to choose books and activities, I felt they were being given an individualized reading program that met their individual needs.
I asked all students to complete “main idea” posters for each chapter. We retold stories by making group books, we located story elements from our stories and newspaper articles, and we did a great deal of writing. These activities helped students maintain previously learned skills. The reading program became one that included many elements of reading and allowed the children to make sense of what they were reading, rather than struggle with pieces of reading with no meaning. I taught the children skills for decoding using a “whole-part-whole” approach. Whole-part-whole instruction embeds word-identification instruction in the context of real reading and writing. Whole instruction introduces children to good literature that allows them to read, comprehend, and respond to the text. Next, teachers select words from the given text and use them for direct skills instruction, which is the “part” to this approach. Finally, the teacher gives additional reading and writing activities to allow students to apply these skills, which brings the student back to the “whole.” This approach was successful with my students. The choices of activities are endless.
The use of real text and an array of activities appeared to have a positive effect on my students and their level of motivation toward reading. When students sense the power of literacy in their lives, they develop ownership of literacy and make it a part of their everyday lives at home and at school. Choices imply that students are empowered in the classroom interactions and decisions.
Integrating writing became an important change within my classroom. I wanted students to see the importance of writing. Students did a great deal of writing without realizing it while they did their reading activities. They enjoyed the activity itself enough that they did not realize that writing was a natural part of reading. These activities, found in the activity folder, allowed students the opportunity to express themselves and focus on meaning making, rather than being given a worksheet that required them to choose the correct answer by circling it. Students were writing their own books with accounts about their lives. Once students finished writing about a time in their lives, I asked them to edit their work and do rewrites. When students were finished with rewrites, they went to the computer to type their stories, print them, and illustrate them. Once the story was complete, the page was laminated. At the end of the year, the students bound the stories into their own books, authored by them. Response to this was positive; students were excited about the final copy.
Students can use journaling to understand characters, predict plot lines, discuss characters’ actions, question their own reactions to the story, and relate the book to experiences in their own lives. My students used all these techniques with positive responses. Students kept “literature dialogue” journals with another special education class and enjoyed the anonymity that came with this form of writing. While journaling with the other class, students opened up and related their own lives to that of the story character. Students also responded well in personal journals. Predicting allowed the student to relate prior knowledge to the reading task at hand. Students then formed ideas or predictions about the text to be read.
Overall, the changes I have made in my reading program have had a positive effect on my students. I have observed an increase in their motivation to read. My own observations were important to my decision to continue with this approach to reading; more important, however, I wanted to know what my students were thinking. Children’s written responses to text are valuable for discussion sessions, which reveal their understanding of the text.
Feedback from classroom teachers stated that these same students were volunteering to read orally in class and becoming active participants in social studies and science projects done in groups. The students used learned skills and generalized them to other areas and, best of all, viewed themselves as readers in any context.
Reading and writing are important for a successful literacy program, especially for students of diverse backgrounds. Many of our students face difficult home lives; and, as teachers, we can help some of these students understand the challenges in their lives through the literacy program. The use of authentic reading and writing tasks has had a positive effect on my students. My own journey through the reading wars was one of trial and error. I have learned that, ultimately, my comfort level with reading instruction had to come from my students and me.
Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.