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Professional Practice

Creating a Reading Culture

Rod Harvey

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Many moons ago, I used to live in a depressingly boring suburb where all the houses looked identical and where nobody could afford private education. My mom, being the daughter of a farmer, saw reading as an activity for lazy people and my father didn’t read the newspaper because he used to say that he could get the same information on TV. As for myself, reading meant scanning the TV Guide or gazing at the same ingredients on the same cereal box while munching my breakfast every single day. In short, there was hardly any reading culture to be found anywhere around me.

At school, I would eventually be introduced to an old SRA reading laboratory. I completed the easiest level of the box and for the first time of my life I was met with some positive reading appraisal. I immediately got into that reading approach and struggled all my way up to the last level within a year. At the end, I had nothing left to challenge my reading ability, so I was forced to consider reading a book. I started to read a childish looking edition of The Hobbit and was logically compelled to read the entire Lord of the Rings. That created a reading culture in my life.

Many moons later, I came to teach in Brunei, where I eventually joined a PD given by the former director of CfBT Brunei. I was thrilled by the rediscovery of this reading approach and rapidly shared my excitement with my principal, who later became an English Head of Cluster in Bandar. She also had had the opportunity to learn how to read with the exact same approach and she instantly matched my enthusiasm. In no time, our school diverted the library budget towards purchasing several SRA kits and we tried many different ways of using this multi-level method with our students. We eventually came to the conclusion that the best reading outcomes emerged from early morning reading sessions. Not long after, Reading A-Z became the new ‘hype’ in Brunei and I simply reorganized that reading material into an SRA kit. That led to similar reading improvement over the course of one month.

Increasing interest in reading

Last year, I was invited by the SBC (School Based Committee) to give a presentation on early morning reading programs. During that presentation, I suggested channeling early morning high energy level into short reading sessions. Although an early morning reading program usually requires about 30 minutes to conduct before regular classes, to keep the program appealing to short attention span readers, the actual reading task shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. I also highlighted the importance of keeping the program optional to maximize students’ commitment. Using colorful, attractive reading material shouldn’t be overlooked either. I’ve seen reading programs using poorly printed handouts written with excessively small prints about the size of insurance contract footnotes. Obviously, reading programs like these were bound to fail. If you wish to convince students to read for enjoyment, your reading material should at least pull a minimum of attention. Even better, students should have a say in what they will read by offering them a wide reading selection. The best reading programs for that will normally include multi-levelled or color-coded systems like SRA or Reading A-Z. Not only are these differentiated by levels, they are also differentiated by choice.  

Improving reading capacity

To improve reading capacity, comprehension questions should always be linked to specific learning skills. Although Read Theory is also a popular multi-level approach, it has the great disadvantage of not providing feedback referring to specific reading skills. Students receive a Lexile value and that’s it. With Reading A-Z, most of the questions are about main ideas, supporting ideas, author’s purpose, opinions, facts, problems, solutions, inferences, vocabulary, and sequencing. These different types of questions are most of the time clearly identified in the marking schemes, so you know where your students struggle the most. There is a similar feature in SRA kits which refers to an even wider scope of reading skills. Unfortunately, it is only found in the upper level SRA kits (the blue and purple boxes).

Once a problematic learning skill has been identified, it is important to address the issue as soon as possible. This should be done during normal class time since you’re unlikely to have enough time to do that during early morning reading sessions. Problems will regularly arise with questions dealing with main ideas, opinions, facts, causes and consequences. If these are not discussed separately in class, students aren’t going to progress quickly.

To improve reading capacity, students should also be encouraged to consult dictionaries as much as possible. However, small paperback dictionaries are usually unappealing to students. Looking up words will always be more enticing when done online, especially with the Cambridge Dictionary, which provides simple definitions, useful pictures, loads of synonyms and even Malay translations at the bottom of the same page. Students should always compile the new vocabulary in specially dedicated notebooks and remind students that synonyms are easier to remember than long definitions. Students should also learn how to create online vocabulary flashcards on applications like Quizlet and Anki. These are fantastic online applications optimizing the transfer of information into your long term memory.

Assessing reading ability

When assessing literacy in Brunei, it is important to reduce the focus on pronunciation. This aspect can be challenging for some nations used to limited phonetic variations like in Japan, but it is generally not a serious problem in Malay speaking countries since students are usually well-trained in accurately reading Arabic. When asked to read in English, students will normally transfer acquired skills and will seldom experience persistent problems with pronunciation. The Reading A-Z running record evaluates pronunciation and comprehension, but for most secondary school students in Brunei, the pronunciation assessment results will be disproportionately high compared to the reading comprehension results. Moreover, insisting too much on correct pronunciation may also produce unreliable time consuming reading assessments that can blur comprehension. Indeed, focus on pronunciation may redirect attention that could have been used to clarify understanding.

There is another big hurdle for teachers wishing to use the Reading A-Z running record to evaluate their students. The Reading A-Z Lexile is mainly determined by the complexity of the core reading and it doesn’t always reflect the difficulty of the questions. Although a Lexile for a text can be very low, the questions attached to this text can be quite above the ability of weak readers. For example, 265L texts are regularly matched with main idea and supporting idea questions, which creates a huge discrepancy between the texts and the questions.

To avoid these two important problems with the Reading A-Z running record, I strongly recommend using SRA kits to determine reading levels of students. The conversion table below will help you to convert SRA levels into Lexile scores.

If you don’t have an SRA green box at your school, Read Theory is still a much better choice than Reading A-Z for low reading ability summative assessments.

Keeping all this in mind when evaluating your students, if you increase interest in reading by conducting early morning reading sessions with colorful attractive multi-levelled reading material, you may expect an average increase of 100L per month for any group of secondary school students, provided that you promote vocabulary study and offer occasional reading skill support. Then, like my primary teacher many moons ago, you might also end up creating a reading culture for some of your students.

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