Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Skills and strategies

Over the past few months I’ve had many instances when teachers have come to me frustrated with the lack of progress they see in a particular student. Regardless of the grade or age of the student, the conversation often sounds like:

“I’m about to pull my hair out with X! We have worked on short vowel sounds [or silent e, or blending, or sight words] until I think I’m going to scream! He’s still at a DRA __ after all this time and so now I’m starting to think it’s a processing problem [or attention problem, or issues with home life, or laziness]. Can you PLEASE help me??”

Usually I ask to see the student’s running records and together the teacher and I begin analyzing the student’s errors. During this process, I’ve come to two realizations: 1) many teachers are not very comfortable analyzing running records, and 2) the tendency in analysis is to look at skills the student is missing rather than also taking into account behaviors the child is missing.

The two points are obviously related. In the past, I think we’ve “covered” analyzing running records in the same quick, all-inclusive manner that the Red Cross uses when questioning you before you give blood. “Do you asdflkjl? In the past 3 months have you lksleksjfl? Do you now or have you ever had awoiuo, weoioux, or qoiuoxghr?”

Well, maybe not that quickly. But we make the mistake of assuming the listener has as much experience with this task as we do, and so we don’t slow down and really delve deeply into the purpose of “records on the run”, which is to put ourselves in the place of the reader and open up his or her head. We really want to be able to see the text as the reader sees it, and from there determine what the reader knows and needs.

Which brings me to point #2. Too often we look only for the skills we believe a reader is lacking. But skills are only half the story. What a reader does with those skills – the strategies he or she employs – determines whether a reader is successful or not. Oftentimes a teacher and I can put our heads together and realize that what the student reads is complete nonsense. This student needs to ask himself, “Does this make sense?” and begin to self-correct his errors. Other students are obviously not using picture clues and would become much more efficient readers if only shown how.

I propose that we use a form like the one below when analyzing student reading:

What is this child definitely able to do?

What would be most helpful for this child to learn next?

Perhaps by changing the way we look at students, we can change the way they look at text.

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