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How to Raise the Roof on Teen Reading Levels

Guest Blogger: Nawal Qarooni

Nawal Qarooni is Lead Literacy teacher for the middle grades in a charter school in Chicago. She has also taught language arts in Brooklyn, New York and was a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. She holds masters degrees in both journalism and education.


Nawal Pic.JPGReading has been on my mind nonstop since August when the school year began. I have been semi-obsessed with reading since I was a child, and I am now observing a love of reading unfold at home with my one-year-old daughter, who refuses most toys, but constantly seeks us out to read her books.

Unfortunately, many kiddos don't share my daughter's pure love of reading. This year, I've been charged with raising reading levels across grades five through eight at the charter school where I teach. Our school-wide goal is to ensure that 90 percent of students achieve one year of growth, no matter where they fall on the reading spectrum. This requires pushing our highest—level readers to tackle evermore difficult texts and engaging our very low readers in a subject they have long struggled to master—all while continuing to realize gains with the majority of readers who inevitably fall somewhere in the middle.

Needless to say, this is no easy task.

To achieve our goal, we are piloting a new reading model we developed over summer break, which groups students in reading classes not by their age or grade, but by their formal reading level, so that all students in each group have the same needs as readers. The idea is that teachers will tailor their texts and objectives to address their students' unique literary weaknesses, leading to major growth across all levels. In addition, every teacher in the middle school is tasked with teaching the reading block, meaning even the science and math teachers are part of the fight to raise reading levels. This keeps reading class size small to maximize engagement and learning.

We are buttressing the new program with community initiatives that encourage a passion for reading, such as a school-wide bookmark-designing contest and posters outside of every adult's doorway highlighting a book they love.

And we've seen some success with our program. After one trimester, 80 percent of our readers grew. But we're still not there yet.

I know we have it good at our school. We have a principal dedicated to trying new methods and teachers who know what they're doing. I have visited schools in the past where 8th graders were consistently reading at 4th grade levels, with no administrative support or teacher incentive to drive change. And the most difficult truth is that those kids—teenagers reading as if they were 10—are unlikely to ever catch up.

When kids can't read at grade level, there are two enormous problems. First, there is a lack of interesting texts at their actual reading level. Middle school students want to read about major conflict and relationships, and lower level texts tend to be written about fluffier stuff. Second, their reading difficulties transcend problems in language arts classes. It means they struggle in math, social studies and science too, because directions look complex and all content-area text is cumbersome to get through. It also means they'll struggle through high school, if they make it, and in the adult world. Just think about how much reading must be done on a daily basis.

To raise reading levels, one must pore over texts at his level--in quantity. It's not about students reading difficult writing and trying, in vain, to comprehend. It's about taking in books at whatever level they're reading independently, and devouring stacks of that level writing, until they understand it so well they can move up to more challenging language, sentence structure, and narrative.

The solution to the reading crisis, of course, is multi-faceted, but there are some easy first steps.

Someone has to be transparent with kids about how to improve so they know how to affect change for their own futures. The only time I've seen massive growth—jumping several trimesters in just a short while—was when the student was aware of what needed to be done to improve, and he was involved in the process of his own education.

The other way to raise reading levels is to individualize reading instruction for each child. All reading strategies should be modeled and practiced with text right at the student's instructional reading level—where some components are challenging, but it's not completely over the kid's head. That is what our program aims to do.

Lastly, students have to be exposed to adults and peers around them who care about reading, enjoy reading for pleasure and for knowledge, and can explain or show them why reading is essential for the success of their daily lives. Teachers can express their love of reading by reading themselves during the first 10 minutes of independent reading or by posting the book they are currently reading on their classroom wall.

I wish schools across the country took reading instruction as seriously as we do at our school. I wish adults were transparent with kids about how to excel. And I wish, more than anything, that all students could see at least one person in their lives who is passionate about reading. I know it would change their worlds.

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