What’s wrong with using this instructional approach to boost literacy?
In Mr. Smith’s third grade classroom, a number of children had trouble with the morning lesson on finding the main idea in a shared text. While the students worked, Mr. Smith carefully noted which children were struggling, and then made a plan to put the five strugglers in a small group for more instruction the next morning. He wanted to give them a double dose, another chance to practice finding a main idea in a piece of text so they would master the skill and become stronger readers.
While done with the right objective in mind, Mr. Smith’s approach for improving literacy skills among his third graders was misguided because “finding the main idea” is not a literacy skill – it’s a literary performance. Literacy performances are tasks that bring together a number of different skills; as a result, a student’s struggle with completing a performance could be caused by any number of reasons, including specific foundational skills (see November’s post) that are underdeveloped. Among Mr. Smith’s students who struggled, perhaps two of them couldn’t do the work because of decoding problems, and three others might have struggled with the vocabulary in the text, or the complex sentence forms. Grouping these five readers to work on finding the main idea isn’t likely to make them better readers: they need support with the underlying difficulties.
Like many teachers we see, Mr. Smith had the best of intentions and followed teaching protocols considered tried-and-true by his instructional leaders. He noted which children struggled with a reading task, and then was completely responsive by offering all those who struggled a double dose. While he was right that these children needed additional support for literacy success, they needed to work on their particular skill challenges, not a second opportunity to find the main idea.
As we travel to districts, we notice that state testing and popular curricula lessons are encouraging more and more strategy instruction, including literacy performance work—making an inference, summarizing, drawing conclusions, and the list goes on. And very often teachers do what Mr. Smith did for those who struggle to complete these tasks, without digging one level deeper. While literacy performance practice can be an integral part of a literacy block, with instructional time a precious commodity, we need to make certain that individual children’s foundational skills are addressed and supported if we want to seriously address how to move them forward.