By: Karin Mussman
Do we want students to be able to read accurately and fluently? Of course we do!
Do we want students to be able to understand what they read? Again, of course, yes!
Comprehension is contingent on students being able to read at least 95-98% of the words and know the meanings of those words (Schmitt, et. al., 2011). “Without a strong background in basic skills like decoding and vocabulary-building, reading comprehension is impossible” (Pressley, M. Comprehension Instruction: What Works). As Randall Klein, stated in his most recent visit to Westside Community Schools – the vast majority of reading difficulties occurs at the word/sound level.
Even our middle schoolers and high schoolers who struggle with reading (including the ones that didn’t in the primary grades) often have difficulty at this most basic level — with vowel sounds and decoding multisyllabic words. This, along with district trend data, is why our district found it imperative to focus on improving our students’ understanding of foundational reading skills in order to have the greatest likelihood of developing proficient readers and learners for life.
At Westside Community Schools, we have had many conversations throughout the year-long adoption process of instructional routines, including stakeholder interviews, action research, and dialogue regarding the impact on our all of our learners (highest, middle & struggling). The research is clear that using instructional routines within our core curriculum is the most efficient and robust way to teach skills – in this case, our foundational reading skills.
DEFINITION & INTENT
A very quick definition – just to ensure that we’re all having a common understanding of Instructional Routines (IR): Instructional Routines are the use of a consistent, explicit format for teaching a discrete skill/process/procedure in classrooms – similar to what we do when teaching classroom procedures for behavior or sharpening pencils.
Instructional routines are generalizable to any subject area. They are research-based, interactive modes intended to engage students and increase their chances of successful learning by reducing the effort required to learn a procedure that otherwise may vary by the day, teacher, or lesson. Instructional routines utilize consistent, clear, concise, and easily replicable language for both the teacher and the student – so that students know and understand exactly what is expected of them, with limited teacher talk. This is the most efficient way for saving instructional time within our classrooms so we can focus on the content. Below is an infographic (adapted from davidwees.com) that helps explain the observed patterns of time allocation across the research of IR.
“Routines are the foundational architecture for creativity, and in the classroom, they give birth to deeper reading, rich writing, and meaningful conversation.” –Tanny McGregor, author of Comprehension Connections
Our district’s use of instructional routines, as a form of explicit instruction, is focused on the critical content of foundational reading skills for grades K-1 (see chart below). Skills are sequenced from easier to harder with distributive practice throughout the lesson and year. Skills are broken down into discrete steps with modeling from the teacher, guided practice with the teacher and group, individual turns, and immediate corrective feedback.
Through this, we build high accuracy, automaticity, vocabulary, background knowledge, and strategies for approaching unfamiliar or difficult words, which then allows students to be able to comprehend what they read. Most importantly, we are building success and enjoyment in being able to read, which will allow providing students the skills and desire for the wide reading of text and purposes. This is instructional best practice.
INTEGRATION & IMPLEMENTATION
It is important to note the integration with equally large projects and priorities in our district. The words/sounds being taught are directly from Journeys, as designated in the curriculum map by the Language Arts Toolbox team. This is the same content we have taught in the past, simply with more rigorous and precise teaching practices and practice distributed across the year. As part of the core curriculum, we expect nearly every student to learn and, more importantly, completely master these words. The 10-15 minutes of instructional routines for the phonemic awareness/phonics/spelling segments (see chart above) of the whole group language arts lesson follow the Ashlock Templates for K-1, as these early primary grades are the key times (and sometimes only times) to teach this.
Implementing best-practice instructional routines is about early intervention/preventative efforts. It is about solidifying the foundational skills students have so that we do not continue to see the slippage in intermediate grades of students; we thought they had solid reading skills but were actually missing some critical foundational skills.
Instructional routines are the manner in which the district has determined these foundational skills are best taught in the core. From that basis, it is absolutely expected to utilize further individualization of these routines/skills within small group instruction according to the needs of the students, another core principle of our district approach. Instructional routines benefit all our students, just as warm-ups and stretching benefit all athletes of every level. For example, even NBA players still run drills for dribbling or shooting free throws, in order to build muscle memory that acts below conscious thought and to maximize the chance to stay automatic and fluent with these foundational skills before adding complexity to the plays.
At times, all of us have a tendency to introduce a topic and move on before our learners have fully achieved mastery and long-term retention of skills. Student brains need to warm-up and build successful momentum on these basics in order to achieve the greatest likelihood of success when integrating with more complex reading text and comprehension analysis. This is why the content is part of our core curriculum, and this new approach to teaching it through explicit routines provides a brisk pace to minimize the length of time spent on these skills while maximizing the amount of content and practice students receive in that time.
BENEFITS FOR STUDENTS
The benefits are evident for all our students. Our highest learners often know the words or the sounds because they have already been reading and have a large sight word vocabulary; however, in later grades, in some cases, these same students do not always know the backbone of word units or advanced sound spellings when applied to even more difficult concepts. As important, if not more so, is the leadership role that our most advanced students play as an example for others. Their fluency and accuracy serve as an inspiration and model to the totality of the classroom.
Our average learners benefit from becoming more automatic at these foundational skills so they can then focus their cognitive energy on growing in accuracy and reading levels as well as reading for meaning. Students already performing above average also make growth in their reading skills by participating in these routines.
Our struggling learners benefit from hearing correct answers from their peers, the explicit breakdown of skills, the error correction strategy, and the safe, structured learning space. Students are provided guided practice so they are less likely to make errors, and the predictability of the language and routines allow students to focus on learning the content instead of trying to figure out what the teacher is asking them to do. Without these preventative/early intervention efforts to improve the phonological awareness skills of students, we have what’s called the “Matthew Effect” and these students get further and further behind their peers.
As a final piece to the value and utility of these routines, we then use the embedded formative assessments within the instructional routines as data to determine which students need additional practice/instruction in this area and who does not. Most often, our highest (and average) students will not need any additional work, as this enhanced core instruction is sufficient, whereas our struggling students will continue to get more work in this area in small group and/or intervention.
Preliminary evidence of the impact of these routines is exciting and powerful. Teachers report that they better understand their students’ reading skills and needs and can apply this to planning for small groups. Teachers have both an abundance of and simplicity in understanding formative data from which to make decisions about individual students and their class as a whole. Additionally, targeted observations in the classrooms by the trainer have shown dramatic improvements in teaching practices and student outcomes. Student performance data is the greatest testament to this initiative, as we are seeing gains and increased proficiency in these classrooms.
“Explicit instruction in sounding out words, which has been so well validated as helping many children to recognize words more certainly (e.g., Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998, online document), is a start in developing good comprehenders – but it is just a start. Word-recognition skills must be developed to the point of fluency if comprehension benefits are to be maximized.”
Carnine, D. W., Silbert, J., Kame’enui, E. J., Tarver, S. G., (2004). Direct Instruction Reading (4th ed.) Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, Pearson Education. Inc.; and Columbus, OH, Merrill Prentice Hall
National Institute of Child and health and Development (NICHD; Reid Lyon, 1998)
Pressley, M. Comprehension Instruction: What Works
Report of the National Reading Panel Teaching Children to Read, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000
Richardson, Sallie, “Implementation of Effective Instructional Routines, Praise Statements, Response Opportunities, and Error Correction through Professional Training, Coaching and Observation” (2014). All Graduate Plan B and other Reports. Paper 450.
Schmitt, N., Jiang, X., & Grabe, W. (2011). The Percentage of Words Known in a Text and Reading Comprehension. The Modern Language Journal, Vol. 95.
Simmons, D. C. & Kame’enui, E. J. (2006). A Consumer’s Guide to Analyzing a Core Reading Program Grades K-3: A Critical Elements Analysis, Center on Teaching and Learning, College of Education, University of Oregon
Simmons, Kame’enui, Harn, & Coyne. (2006) Core Instruction: What Are the Critical Components That Need to Be In Place to Reach Our Goals?
Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington DC: National Academy Press.