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Author Interview With Jennifer Serravallo: 'Understanding Texts & Readers'

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Jennifer Serravallo agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, Understanding Texts & Readers.

Jennifer Serravallo (@jserravallo) is the author of over 10 books on reading assessment and instruction. She was a a NYC elementary teacher and later a senior staff developer at Columbia University's Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She has also taught graduate and undergraduate courses at Vassar College and Teachers College.

LF: One of your previous books, The Reading Strategies Book, offers an extensive - and exceptional - menu of sorts sharing multiple strategies that teachers can use in different individual lessons. It seems to me that Understanding Texts & Readers provides a more holistic guide for reading instruction and where those previous strategies - and a whole lot more - fit into the big picture of teaching students how to read.

Is that a fair description?  And, whether it is or isn't, can you say more about your purpose behind writing it?

Jennifer Serravallo:

As is true with all of my books, my aim is to help teachers better know their students in order to tailor their instruction. The tools I provided in The Reading Strategies Book are in the form of strategies organized by reading goals. However, as I detail in The Reading Strategies Book, strategies can look and work differently across texts at varying text levels. That's where Understanding Texts & Readers comes in. The information I provide about leveled texts and how it relates to comprehension offers teachers the tools of clearly defined text characteristics and many examples of student responses with annotations. This knowledge will help teachers choose the right goals and the right strategies at the right time to support students' comprehension.

LF: There is always a lot of discussion about the role of book-leveling in the classroom, and you talk about it in your new book. Can you summarize your perspective?

Jennifer Serravallo:

I think most of us have heard the phrase, "Books are leveled, readers are not." I agree. To me, this means that books are leveled based on their text complexities and characteristics which we can then use to support students as they navigate their way through their books. We shouldn't, though, steer children to read within one reading level at a time, since so many factors influence students' comprehension--including memory, stamina, a reader's age, prior knowledge, the cultural relevance of the text, and so on. I go into detail about these variables and more in Part I of Understanding Texts & Readers. I believe it's crucially important that students should select books based on their interests first and foremost. As teachers become well versed in characteristics of leveled texts, and as they work to know their children well, teachers can serve as guides to help students select texts knowing that a range of text levels is likely to be "just right" for any individual child on a given day.

One big debate is whether or not children should know about text levels, and I weigh in on this in the book. Some leading educators whom I respect greatly have said "no," because in their classrooms, instruction with leveled texts happens only during guided reading where teachers are making the text selections and children therefore don't need to know. Other leading educators I respect greatly say that we don't need to keep text levels a secret from children; when they are selecting their own texts it can be one piece of information they can use to decide if they want to read a book. Whichever camp you're in, I think it's important not to tell a child they couldn't read a book they wanted to read (even if it was harder or easier than what they typically read) or steer children to only one level (see variables, again, above).  And I would never refer to a child by a level. In the book, I offer lots of examples of ways to shift our language so that we put text levels in their proper place, and offer teachers a lot of background on varying viewpoints so they can choose for themselves how they'll use them in their own classroom.

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LF: What would you say are three "take-aways" you'd like readers to....take away after reading your book?

Jennifer Serravallo:

One, I'd like my readers to see that reading levels are tools. Levels are not part of our students' identities; rather they provide a way for teachers to understand what work students should do in the books they choose from the classroom library. Hopefully, teachers can use Understanding Texts & Readers to develop a deep understanding of text characteristics within particular levels and learn what the student work within those levels can sound like. Understanding texts will then allow them to understand their readers.

And two, on a related note, matching books and readers is not as simple as it may seem. A number of factors impact what students can comprehend from a text, and those factors, in turn, allow a child to read a range of levels and text types. Given the many variables--including text type, length of the text, the genre, a reader's prior knowledge--the one that many still pay the most attention to is the level of a text. I hope that my readers will cast a wider net when matching students with books and take a more holistic approach. As they get to know their readers for who they are as individuals, they will have an easier time matching them with books that suit their interests as well as their comprehension.

Third, a single assessment often doesn't give us the entire picture. As you get to know your students, consider their work within an entire chapter book by administering a whole-book assessment. Observe them while they read those books and assess their engagement using an engagement inventory. Listen to them while they talk about their interests in and out of school so you know what titles to gather for your classroom library. All of this information works together so you know the types of books your students will be able to read with a high level of accuracy and comprehension that also pique their interests, and so that you can find appropriate goals to help them grow.

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LF: I particularly liked your section on assessment. Could you highlight a few key points about reading assessment that you think is important that readers keep in mind?

Jennifer Serravallo:

When students start to tackle chapter books there is a lot of work they need to do as readers. The books are longer, they have multiple episodes, there are more characters and those characters are changing. Readers' comprehension in such a book is hard to assess in a 100-word passage as is done with a running record. Around this time, when your students start to read books at Level J and above, I suggest using a whole-book assessment. When you invite students to read a book in which you've carefully planted sticky notes containing prompts, their responses to those prompts will reveal a great deal about their comprehension. In fiction texts, for example, the open-ended prompts invite students to show how they are making sense of plot and setting, characters, vocabulary and figurative language, and themes and ideas. Students' responses to those prompts can then help you see what your readers are doing well and what their goals for reading might be. It takes the nebulous concept of comprehension and makes it more visible, allowing you to see what your students really notice and think about while reading. In Part IV of Understanding Texts & Readers I provide a more thorough plan for how teachers can create, administer, and use whole-book assessments for their readers.

LF: Can you explain - and elaborate on your perspective - about balanced literacy and the so-called Reading Wars, and how your book navigates it?

Jennifer Serravallo:

Balanced literacy implies there is a balance. There needs to be a balance within a literacy block between the amount of teacher talk and student talk, between teacher choice and student choice, between the amount of reading and writing a child engages in during a given day, and so forth. Teachers should also balance components of literacy instruction within a day and across a year. These components include whole-class minilessons, shared reading, interactive read-alouds, small-group and one-on-one lessons with students based on individual goals, strong phonics instruction, and, of course, independent reading. My preferred framework for reading instruction is balanced literacy with a strong reading workshop at its core, where instruction is meaningful individualized to student goals.

Critics of balanced literacy sometimes advocate for a "synthetic phonics" approach, where children are taught about letter sounds in isolation like code-breakers. While I do believe there is a place for strong phonics instruction, it's a mistake to do this without strong comprehension instruction, and teaching kids how to word-solve in context, using, as Marie Clay and Ken and Yetta Goodman have said, several "sources of information" and "cueing systems," including meaning and knowledge of language structure.

Understanding Texts & Readers strikes a balance between the different philosophies by enabling teachers to support their students in concrete ways through demystifying what it means to comprehend. The assessments, student work samples, and guides to text complexities I provide are all important tools that can help teachers understand what their students are doing as readers, so they can goal set, and then monitor their progress over time.

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LF: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you'd like to share?

Jennifer Serravallo:

I'd like to say this: At the end of the day, what matters most is that, as teachers, we get to know our students in a holistic way. How Understanding Texts & Readers aims to do this is by offering teachers a variety of lenses through which to see our readers so we can invite students into the work of goal-setting and deep comprehension. When students know how books go and what they can do to better understand the content of their books, they will ultimately enjoy their time spent reading, both in and out of the classroom.

LF: Thanks, Jennifer!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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