A decade of studying exemplary reading teachers reveals that effective instruction cannot be packaged in a common script because such teaching is responsive to children’s needs. Richard L. Allington and colleagues at the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement have been studying the best elementary school teachers for ten years. They have concluded that effective teachers produce better achievement, no matter what materials or programs they use.
In this long-term study, these researchers studied teachers from schools that reflected the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the nation and that enrolled substantial numbers of poor children. First- and fourth-grade teachers were observed, interviewed, and videotaped for at least 10 full instructional days. The teachers in the study had been chosen for their effectiveness at developing reading and writing proficiency.
However, the researchers found that these teachers developed students’ academic proficiencies well beyond the ability to score higher on reading and writing achievement tests. Allington sought to provide a clear picture of what exemplary elementary teaching looks like and to challenge school administrators to examine whether their daily practice and long-term planning were designed to foster such teaching. Ten years of study revealed common features of effective elementary instruction.
50 percent of time in reading and writing
Students in effective teachers’ classes often spent 50 percent of the class day actually reading and writing. In typical classrooms it is not unusual to find that children read as little as 10 percent of the day. In many classrooms, a 90-minute reading block may produce only 10 to 15 minutes of actual reading. Allington warns that when “other stuff” dominate instructional time, administrators should be concerned.
“Other stuff” includes test preparation, copying vocabulary definitions, and completing after-reading comprehension worksheets. Exemplary teachers know that extensive reading is critical to developing reading proficiency. Their students do more guided reading, more independent reading, and more social studies and science reading than students in less effective classrooms.
A varied supply of books for different reading levels
Developing readers need much more high-success reading than difficult reading. These teachers realize that the highest-achieving students spend most of their time reading books they find easy — texts they can read accurately, fluently, and with good comprehension–and they consistently make greater gains than average or low-achieving students who are challenged by materials they find difficult.
It is the high-accuracy, fluent, and easily comprehended reading that provides the opportunities to integrate complex skills and strategies into an automatic, independent reading process. Many of these teachers spend their own time and money developing classroom libraries that provide a rich supply of reading materials to students at all levels.
Modeling reading and writing strategies
Effective teachers routinely give direct, explicit demonstrations of the cognitive strategies that good readers use when they read. They model their thinking as they decode a word, monitor themselves for understanding, summarize while reading, or edit when composing. They are constantly saying “watch me” or “let me demonstrate.”
These teachers take on the responsibility of crafting explicit demonstrations of skills and strategies that most commercial materials lack. They model these as lessons to the whole class, to targeted small groups, and to individual students in side-by-side instruction. Furthermore, these teachers know how to foster transfer of these strategies from structured practice activities to students’ independent use of them while reading and writing on their own.
Lots of talk in classroom
The nature of talk in these teachers’ classrooms is very different from that observed in more average classes. These teachers foster lots of talk between themselves and students and among students. This talk is purposeful problem-posing and problem-solving talk related to curricular topics.
Teachers’ talk with students is more conversational than interrogational. Teachers and students discuss ideas, concepts, hypotheses, strategies, and responses with one another. Teachers pose more “open” questions. Allington believes that we understand too little about the nature of classroom talk. The talk in exemplary classrooms was highly personalized,
providing targeted replies to students.
Give longer assignments
These teachers develop projects that often take 10 days or more to complete. Students read whole books, complete individual and small-group research projects, and work on tasks that integrate several content areas. Far fewer worksheet-type tasks are assigned.
These students are also more often engaged and less often off-task than students in other classrooms. Tasks assigned by teachers often involve student choice, although students do not have an unlimited range of task or topic choices. The diversity of students’ work also makes it more difficult for students to rank each other’s work as best or worst. Both these factors appear to increase motivation.
Allington warns of oversimplifying the complex nature of good teaching. He states that these traits seen in highly effective teachers’ classrooms interact in complex ways to support student learning. He emphasizes that proven programs or specific curricula will never produce reading proficiency on their own.
The teachers he studied took on the responsibility for their students’ achievement. They seemed to feel no particular pressure from state testing schemes, perhaps because their students performed so well. They were highly autonomous and highly accountable for what happened in their classrooms.
They were the architects of the instruction they offered and felt responsible for the outcomes. These teachers accepted the professional responsibility for developing high levels of reading proficiency but insisted on the autonomy to act on their expertise.
“What I’ve Learned About Effective Reading Instruction” Phi Delta Kappan Volume 83, Number 10, June 2002 Pp. 740-747.
Published in ERN September 2002 Volume 15 Number 6