Reading is hard, so let’s break it down

Many students struggle with reading – two-thirds of 8th-grade students read below proficiency levels (NAEP 2019). It’s only natural to avoid something we find difficult, but for struggling readers, that means less reading, less learning, and ultimately more frustration as the deficit grows over time.

Reading seems like too big of a challenge, the goal of proficiency out of reach. Breaking it down into achievable steps makes it possible to bridge the distance. Skills are just part of it – students also need to believe they are capable to read more often and with purpose.

So let’s break it down.

Step 1: Reduce text to the simplest component. If students can process words almost automatically, cognitive resources can be applied to comprehending what they are reading. New information is processed in short-term memory, which can hold about 5-7 items and takes a lot of cognitive energy. The more we can overlearn and move information to long-term memory where capacity is virtually limitless, the more we can apply our brainpower to higher-order thinking.

Dual Code Theory shows how the brain processes information along visual and verbal channels. When both channels are activated, retention is higher. In BrightFish Reading, we apply this concept by breaking text down into its component words and phrases. Students build automaticity of the simplest to the most difficult words, and then phrases. At each step, students are asked to match both visual and sound targets – the visual and verbal channels – accurately and at a rate that is fast enough to be considered automatic.

Step 2: Understand words in context. Word meaning is inextricably tied to word recognition. In struggling readers, limited vocabulary knowledge is a significant barrier to comprehension. Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimated that the average child enters first grade knowing some 6,000 words, rising to about 45,000 by high school graduation – acquiring an average of 3,000 words per year. White, Graves, and Slater (1990) found that below-level readers learn just 1,000 words a year.

In BrightFish Reading, we help students tackle this barrier by working on word meaning and usage prior to reading a text (pre-reading). Moving from word recognition to meaning in a structured process enables students to build the skills and confidence to extract information from the text they read.

Step 3: Apply knowledge to comprehension. Complex interactions between word knowledge and comprehension make it difficult to isolate one from the other. For some readers, there are gaps in word recognition. Others lack inferencing strategies to glean the meaning of new words from context clues. Approaching word recognition, vocabulary and comprehension as interwoven skills can significantly improve outcomes for struggling readers.

Students work on skills in sequence in BrightFish Reading – from word recognition to vocabulary usage to comprehension. Even in the comprehension portion, students answer questions about facts and details on individual paragraphs. The final sequence has students reading the entire text and demonstrating their understanding of higher-order concepts such as author’s purpose, the impact of tone and language, and summarization.

Step 4: Increase sustained reading. Breaking text down into smaller chunks makes it possible to move from shorter sessions to longer periods of sustained reading. Students are more likely to keep going if they are challenged but not frustrated and always in charge of the pace. Moving from short paragraphs to longer passages in a structured sequence creates a sense of control and achievement. Rewarding concrete steps along the way motivates students to spend more time reading.

Step 5: Reinforce and reflect. Data is critical for helping teachers monitor their students’ progress and provide specific and high-value feedback. The key is making data chats a part of the daily teaching practice and using the information to isolate areas of weakness and missed learning goals. Giving students the opportunity to provide their own reflections increases engagement and ownership of the learning process.

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