You are here


Rooted in Reading

If kids can't read, it's a universal problem. Is an "every teacher is a reading teacher" initiative the solution?

One a recent middle school walk-through, Steve Youngblood was astonished by what he found in the gymnasium. There wasn't a basketball game-or any other competition for that matter-in sight.

Instead he found a class sitting on the floor, engrossed in graphs depicting their skills progress. The teacher was discussing related vocabulary words and reminding the students that their written descriptions should be clear enough for someone to decode without actually having to study the graph itself.

Welcome to P.E. class in Clover Park School District in Tacoma, Wash. No, the district hasn't declared physical activity unconstitutional. It has just adopted "every teacher is a reading teacher" as one of its seven core beliefs. "I tell our principals and our teachers that whenever we hand a student something to read, they become a teacher of reading," says Youngblood, assistant superintendent for schools.

"Poor readers of words are often poor readers of math symbols." -Willy Wood, educational consultant

Why the need for reading in every class? Even students who master the decoding of language may very well have trouble comprehending it. "They don't understand that when you read it's a mental process that's going on," says Rachel Billmeyer, a consultant and author of several books on teaching reading.

Creating a picture for what you read is something we all do pretty well with fiction, but students often have trouble with these mental models as they read non-fiction, says Patrick Daly, author of Scholastic's Read 180 program, which offers help in this area.

It's the text structure of non-fiction writing that often stymies comprehension and enjoyment. You may have a compare/contrast concept in one paragraph, then a cause/effect sequence in the next, explains Willy Wood, an educational consultant who has worked with about 200 districts in Missouri and beyond. "You can be a good reader in English class, walk down the hall and be a poor reader in science class." That's why it's logical to teach reading in subjects other than language arts, he says.

A growing number of schools are not only catching on, but going a step further. The slogan "every teacher is a reading teacher" is making an appearance in district strategic plans, school improvement plans and even as a conference focus theme.

And it's not just a result of the focus on reading since No Child Left Behind. Throughout the 1990s, teachers beyond grade two began seeing themselves as reading teachers, says Ruth Nathan, a third-grade teacher in Alamo, Calif., university professor and LeapFrog SchoolHouse reading consultant. The reasons include students entering the upper grades without good reading skills, the standards movement and the accompanying interest in differentiated instruction.

"One of the things we have to remember is that there are already students that have been left behind [in reading], and many of those students are in grades 4-12," says Beth Wray, president of Pearson Learning Group, a publisher of materials to help teach reading strategies in math, science and social studies. These students need help in becoming proficient enough to graduate and become productive citizens.

"Every teacher is a reading teacher" is also "not just a current hip phrase," says Cathryn Harvey, vice president of sales and marketing at Curriculum Associates, which has a line of supplemental reading materials. She sees it as a deeply rooted belief of successful educators who realize that the "teachable moments" of reading instruction occur all day long.

Spine of Success

Those teachable moments seemed few and far between at Clover Park's Lochburn Middle School when Co-principal Gary Wilson came on board in 2000. Ten principals had come and gone in eight years, and every facet of the school seemed to be in bad shape, from climate and academics to parent involvement and discipline issues. In the test scores arena, Lochburn was last in the district and last in the state among schools with similar demographics. It was branded a failing school. "There were a lot of good kids, teachers and parents, [but they were] just kind of in a down mood," Wilson remembers.

The administrative team enlisted teachers' help in gathering data, in curriculum mapping for language arts and math and in writing a school improvement plan. One new reading strategy was introduced each month for all teachers to start using in the classroom.

After noticing the small, out-of-date library collection, the school invested in good literature and required students to have a book to read with them at all times. The school also launched a home reading program, with prizes awarded for progress, that requires students to spend half an hour reading per night.

Today, huge gains have been made in testing, with last year's state test scores being the highest the school has ever received, Wilson says. Kids are reading and enjoying it. As far as the staff goes, "their energies are completely changed around," he adds. And the whole district knows it. The teachers are in high demand now as workshop presenters in other schools.

"In most districts, teachers close their doors and don't know what anybody else is doing," Wood says.

"It really does take a strong administrator and a strong process to make sure best practices are being used."

So he and other experts recommend a school improvement plan-with teacher buy-in-focused on reading. "You can look at any school and ... the value or standard or status of the school-it's really because of the principal," says Jane Meyers, lead coordinator of professional development online production for the San Diego County Office of Education.

District support for reading across the content areas is also a must, experts say. After all, "reading is a continuous strand that must be taught ... from kindergarten through high school," says Jennie Eddy, an elementary school reading specialist for Moore (Okla.) Public Schools. While the "every teacher is a reading teacher" phrase isn't officially used in Moore, Eddy says it's an underlying belief and cornerstone that was supported when the district established a new curriculum coordinator position to assist all teachers in incorporating reading strategies.

Billmeyer, a reading consultant, suggests that administrators introduce reading strategies in staff meetings. For example, she says a "save the last word for me" approach works well in discussing an article. In small groups, each teacher pinpoints a particular statement and, round robin style, the others in the group respond to it. Finally, the teacher contributes the "last word" by sharing his or her thoughts. Practicing among colleagues better equips teachers to use reading strategies in the classroom.

Latitude's Attitude

When introducing the "every teacher is a reading teacher" concept, however, administrators shouldn't expect immediate understanding or buy-in. "Most teachers don't feel that they know enough about reading-and most of them don't-or [they think] that it will mean a lot more work for them-and it might," says Wood.

When he starts off his reading comprehension workshop in a middle or high school, Wood notices content-area teachers staring at their language arts colleagues. "And I say, 'Don't look at them! They don't have any more training in teaching reading than you do.' " As a former English literature teacher, he speaks from experience.

The "not me" (or "why me?") attitude is rarely seen at the elementary level, where teachers have generally always seen language arts as one of their responsibilities. But in middle and high school, "reading becomes an invisible part of the curriculum," says Jerry L. Johns, president of the International Reading Association. "Schools will have special reading programs and sometimes a teacher to help with reading, but in a sense nobody owns it."

With their text-heavy textbooks, social studies and science teachers will often be the first to accept that student success depends on teaching reading strategies. "Math teachers don't see [the connections] as readily," says Daly, whose title at Scholastic is director of intervention publishing. Wood agrees that "they tend to be the hardest case to crack." Yet, at the Read 180 program validation sites, math scores of students who have learned strategies for understanding word problems have increased.

Wood adds that "the numbers in math are part of language, too. It's a symbol system just like words are. "Poor readers of words are often poor readers of math symbols."

Barrier or Not?

Negative attitudes toward universal reading efforts are a product of these facts of life: inadequate pre-service preparation, lack of time for learning new strategies and a misunderstanding of what reading is.

If most English education majors only receive a class or two in teaching reading, it's a sure bet that most pre-service teachers with other specialties take none. And NCLB's focus on content-area specialty leaves even less room for pre-service training in reading, Wray points out.

One possible solution is working with universities to bring classes to the district. For example, the University of California at Berkeley, Extension offers its Certificate Program for Reading and Literacy Development in local school districts and at the Alameda County Office of Education.

In middle and high school, "reading becomes an invisible part of the curriculum. In a sense, nobody owns it." -Jerry L. Johns, president, International Reading Association

Of course, making time for continuous learning is no easy feat. In St. Johns County School District in St. Augustine, Fla., which formally expects all teachers to be teachers of reading, a "substitute cadre" was the answer. Diane Solms, director for instructional services, explains that the group was trained on three specific character education lessons for each grade, K-5. Upon request, the cadre travels to a school to relieve teachers so they can attend a reading training session.

Regarding the problem of defining reading, experts say that teachers tend to recognize it as decoding but forget about comprehension and fluency. That's why Clover Park administrators have in-depth discussions with teachers about what it means to read, beyond the decoding part, says Kathy Lemmer, administrator for school programs.

Roomful of Readers

When planning professional development in reading instruction, consider whether teachers in all the content areas will be lumped into the same sessions. "It's hard to train with all subject area teachers in the room at the same time," Wood says, since every activity must be presented with the caveat that it might not apply specifically to every subject. But, a mix of teachers promotes sharing across the content areas, especially with all-encompassing topics like teaching note-taking strategies, Johns says.

Training formats, of course, can vary based on district and school needs. Some options include:

A reading cadre. In St. Johns County, this group of elementary, middle and high school teachers has committed to intensive annual summer training to support reading instruction. Throughout the school year, the members assist other teachers in their own and other schools.

Sheree McArthur, an inaugural member and first-grade teacher at Cunningham Creek Elementary, is often called upon to train teachers in guided reading techniques. She has even made a video on classroom management for guided reading that has been shown district-wide. "I'm just so excited about what I've learned that I can't help but go back and share it. It's really ignited a new passion for what I do in the classroom when I teach reading. It's like when you find a great sale and want to tell others about it."

Job-embedded staff development. When St. Johns' newest high school, Pedro Menendez, opened three years ago, educators learned that 75 percent of the junior class had not yet passed, or even taken, the reading-intensive FCAT, a Florida state test required for graduation. Teachers worried that students weren't picking up the meaning of texts, says Assistant Principal Nancy Little. Non-English teachers realized it was their responsibility to help "pick up the slack."

Little and three teachers, from social studies, special education and foreign language, joined the reading cadre. The social studies department got involved by purchasing the Accelerated Reader program from Renaissance Learning for U.S. history students. And the district curriculum staff met with all teachers periodically during a common planning time to provide reading tools that could easily be incorporated into the classroom. "There was just total buy-in from the staff," Little says. Solms adds that the job-embedded model is now being used by another school in the district.

Model classrooms. Another of St. Johns' efforts are model classrooms. Largely in elementary schools, these are classrooms where "the teachers are so good at their craft that they welcome other teachers watching them teach," Solms says. The literacy blocks can be observed by any teacher, and some of the model classrooms at the high school level are taught by non-English teachers.

Modeling might also be accomplished by having a school's reading teacher or librarian visit classrooms regularly, much like an itinerant teacher would, says Marylyn Rosenblum, an education market consultant. Keeping it fun would promote reading for pleasure, not just to pass a test.

Afterschool and summer classes. At Lochburn in Clover Park, teachers can opt to take various classes on topics they have requested, such as rubrics, Wilson says. Throughout the district, Lemmer adds, about half of all staff members attend summer in-service offerings (teachers are paid for 12 hours worth of workshops, but they can take as many as they want).

Book study groups. These are part of St. Johns' annual summer institutes for all interested teachers, with Solms and other district curriculum staff facilitating the discussions. At schools and local bookstores during the year, "teachers as readers" groups can meet during contract time for more book talks.

Product-embedded help. Some textbooks and teaching materials include built-in reading supports for teachers to use as they introduce topics. The books in LeapFrog's Read-It-All series, for example, include comprehension, vocabulary and fluency instruction tips right in the margins. Vendors may also offer help for teachers using their programs, such as Curriculum Associates' free Web-based training.

Online courses. San Diego County has developed two online teacher courses in reading, Reading In Secondary Education for 7-12, and Teaching Reading in Every Classroom for 4-8. The online format allows teachers to learn anytime and place, says Meyers, who helped develop the programs. They are now being used by 10,000 teachers throughout the country. (, a K-12 marketing and technical support firm, distributes the program and provides help for users.)

One high school sends one out of every three teachers to RISE training, with that teacher being responsible for training the other two. Another school using this model has trained all of its principals, plus several teacher leaders, in the program.

Ongoing workshops. Billmeyer says multi-day training sessions work best. The teachers will meet for a few days to develop a personal action plan. Then they'll go try the reading strategies in the classroom and meet to reflect on their experiences. Johns agrees that "good programs will present themselves once and then come back another time," whether it's to reach the same teachers again or to train district rookies.

Down to Business

Incentives for professional development help motivate teachers to learn more about reading. Credit toward a credential or a higher salary is offered by some San Diego districts for teachers taking the TREC course, which has 16 modules that are the equivalent of a university semester.

St. Johns' reading cadre members get a stipend, plus service points for attending the summer training and additional money for mentoring sessions during the school year. "That just speaks volumes," McArthur says, about the district realizing that her time as a teacher is valuable.

But it's the training content itself, once teachers are exposed to it, that can be the biggest draw. Tips for introducing new vocabulary and reading non-fiction texts are especially useful to content-area teachers, experts say.

For example, Pearson Learning materials help social studies and science teachers show students how to recognize and understand the crucial cause/effect passages. And at Menendez High, Little says students will read social studies books with a pad of Stickies notes on hand to flag questions and note reactions to the text.

Wood says that if he could introduce only one reading strategy to a group of content area teachers, it would be reciprocal teaching. With solid research showing improvement in comprehension, the technique involves small group, student-led discussions.

The group reads a chunk of text silently, and then each member uses teacher-provided prompts to lead the group through a specific reading strategy: summarizing ("This text is about..."); clarifying ("Here's what I didn't understand..."); questioning ("How is this character like that character?"); and predicting ("It seems logical that this would hap