March 11, 2016

Educators need strategies to teach reading beyond the basics, say experts at CIES

Written by Jillian Slutzker, Senior Writer and Editor, Creative Associates International

Vancouver—Though early grade reading has long been a focus of the international development community, going beyond the basics and helping students reach higher levels of fluency and comprehension has not received as much attention, experts said on March 7.

“What do we do when we are starting to see the results of all these amazing, focused reading programs that we are working on around the world?” posed Cory Heyman, Chief Program Officer at Room to Read, a panelist at the Comparative and International Education Society conference

Without the proper strategies to reinforce existing literacy skills and build higher level reading skillsets from there, Heyman said educators and program implementers risk that “all the amazing things [students] had learned could potentially dissipate.”

Creative tackles the middle school challenge

The need to answer the question of “what happens next?” in reading education is particularly acute in the middle school years, said Jeffrey Coupe, Senior Education Associate at Creative Associate International.

At this developmental stage, said Coupe, learners should have moved beyond fluency and automaticity, and should be using reading as a means to learn content. Middle school readers should also be progressing toward reading to appreciate multiple viewpoints and comprehend texts on different levels, such as literal and inferential meanings.

“Books really help us think broadly about different ways we can move through life, and I think as a middle schooler those are the kinds of things you really want to expose them to,” said Coupe.

However, the challenge is that educators—particular in subject areas like science or history—are often not equipped with the teaching strategies to integrate good reading skills and comprehension into subject-area curriculum.

Educators must be able to provide students with “the tools that they need to be successful as disciplinary learners as well as readers,” said Coupe.

In Morocco, Creative’s Reading for Academic Skills and Individual Development in Middle Schools project worked with the Ministry of Education to better integrate reading skills across subject area curriculum as a means to learn content and train educators in improving reading instruction across subjects.

The project, which was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, also prepared educators to support students in developing confidence, self-efficacy, and other metacognitive strategies to improve reading comprehension and critical thinking.

“What do good readers do? They motivate themselves. They make connections to prior experience, prior texts or the world,” said Coupe, noting that building these skillsets at this developmental stage is essential.

The project worked to create a “reading culture” and instill a love for reading among middle school students, he said.

In middle school, learners often lag behind due to a combination of social behavioral and academic reasons, he explained. In the Morocco project, early warning systems helped educators and families identify learners who may be lagging behind and intervene to address the challenge.

Different learners, different levels

At all stages of reading, particularly in the primary grades, learners will progress at different levels, said panelists. Learners will span a spectrum from letter recognition at the most basic to word recognition, fluency, comprehension and finally, inference.

Panelists said that literacy develops in particular patterns and that systematic instruction is going to lead to success—students achieving the basics of letter and eventually word recognition.

But beyond the basics of early grade reading, teachers must feel they have the capacity to reach learners at different abilities. Teachers can be supported in this with guided reading books, for example, targeting learners at multiple levels.

Another strategy, is to continually assess learner progress so that teachers may adapt their approaches based on individual performance.

“What needs to be done every day is teachers walking around as they give tasks, seeing how well students are performing, and altering their teaching based on what they learn,” said Shirley Burchfield, Vice President of the Africa Division at World Education.

USAID: More progress to be made

While educators and program implementers must turn their attention to what happens after success in early grade reading in order to support students in developing fluency and comprehension, equipping students with basic literacy skills is still a challenge.

“We have to remain optimistic that we can get there,” says Penelope Bender, Senior Education Advisor at USAID. “But when we look at the data across counties we’re still seeing that we’re not there yet.”

Core instructional strategies, like basic decoding of letters, is still priority for many teachers and students.

However, says Bender, as we strive to equip more and more students with basic reading skills, we can implement teaching strategies along the way that will also support higher level reading success.

Even learners who cannot yet read can practice comprehension through oral stories. Learners with beginning levels of literacy can start to develop expressive writing skills through drawing pictures.

“Those are the skills you need to build on from the beginning to help children as they move on to upper grades,” says Bender.