I have another story to tell about reading–a story about educational trends that may lead us astray if we get too caught up in them.
“Authentic” reading is one such trend in Language Arts. I have heard principals deny programmed reading materials to Reading and Language Arts teachers because they were not “authentic,” and current “best practices” dictate that we use only authentic texts in our classrooms (these are texts that readers might encounter in daily life: advertisements, novels, newspapers, etc.).
Current “best practices” also dictate that we match text to reader, texts that “meet the needs of the learner.”
What are we to do when these two “best practices” conflict?
The current trend is for teachers to meet students’ needs with authentic reading materials at all costs, and that such materials be at a level that meets the needs of the reader. Using authentic materials will be a sounder practice, according to some educators, than using programmed materials.
Finding such materials may not always be possible, but even if it were, the authentic texts are not always as effective as the inauthentic, programmed reading materials—and sometimes not as high-protein or age appropriate. Is it reasonable to expect the teacher to find the right set of authentic books for the wide range of abilities in a typical core classroom, and to prepare to teach them all or provide materials for all? Aren’t skills often best learned in a controlled, graduated environment? We don’t place a beginning dancer in advanced ballet—especially if s/he is challenged by dancing in the first place. Life for a core Language Arts teacher today entails many difficult decisions, and is further complicated because many are expected to be Reading teachers as well as Language Arts teachers.
There are varieties of programmed reading materials, but I have found authentic SRA (Scientific Research Associates) reading materials to be wonderful resources for struggling readers (and other readers as well). The SRA Reading Laboratory has reading passages that are well written and of varied genres, which include questions to develop comprehension and language skills. Students get their results immediately as well.
The SRA reading passages offer many advantages to developing readers. They are clearly leveled so students can visualize and measure their progress as they work through the cards. The comprehensive SRA kit offers different cards for different reading skills. If speed is an issue, there are pace cards. If inference is an issue, there are one-paragraph passages that focus primarily on making correct inferences. Finally, there are long passages that develop reading endurance and comprehension as well as offering information on the structure of language, vocabulary, and spelling.
An extra perk with SRA is that the content of the passages is also beneficial. Nonfiction passages include biographies of famous people or facts about science and nature. Fiction passages tell exciting stories with information about their subjects whether it be horse training or life in the Arctic. In short, they provide background knowledge that many struggling readers are lacking.
I enjoy teaching authentic great works of literature to all students, but a Reading and/or Language Arts teacher needs a comprehensive bag of tricks for all kinds of students and different reading environments. An SRA kit serves well for several types of students and situations.
Michael was a student who “hated” reading anything of any length. He didn’t like any kind of book I suggested and also had trouble making correct inferences from his reading. His parents were tired of trying to entice him to complete independent reading assignments. We met and decided to put him on the inference cards for homework in place of the authentic reading most of the other kids were doing for independent reading. He much preferred the short 10-question cards. His parents scored them immediately for him, and they discussed why an answer was wrong so he wouldn’t make the same mistake again. By the end of the year, he had covered three grade levels of cards. When I gave the post-test on inferences, he had grown by 5 grade levels. Our last unit was reading a novel independently. Michael read a novel, and he commented to me that he had read the whole thing and enjoyed it. That was the first time I had heard a positive thought about reading from him.
Zeya was a Burmese student I taught in 6th grade. He was a struggling reader because he didn’t know written English very well, and he had trouble sitting still and concentrating for more than a few minutes. One day when other students were reading and he was, as usual, having a hard time finding an “authentic” book that would engage him on his level, I pulled out a low level SRA card for him, one of the inference cards that has 10 one-paragraph multiple choice questions. He gave it a quick glance, saw that it wasn’t too long, and went right to work. When he finished, he came up to me and said proudly, “I can do this!” He had finally found a place to start.