C. S. Lewis once said, "We read to know we are not alone." Unfortunately, our struggling readers in middle school often feel very much alone. They are left on the perimeter of understanding in every class they attend. For many of them, we have turned our focus from learning to read to reading to learn and we've made the switch before they were ready for it.
I moved into the position of middle literacy coach after 10 years of teaching 8th grade language arts. During those 10 years, the administration went back and forth between listing my class as a reading class and a literature class. My focus changed with the name, but even when I was attempting to teach my students to be better readers, I was not doing the best job. I knew they needed help, I tried to give it to them through instruction in reading strategies but I didn't understand nor did I know how to adequately address the lack of fluency that many of them came to me with.
I've learned much in the last six and a half years that I have been a literacy coach, but that fluency piece has still been slow to come for me. After looking at some longitudinal data, it was apparent that our struggling readers are not making the gains necessary to close the gap. Something had to change. And in January, those changes will begin. Intervention groups that are all currently working on comprehension will be restructured to deliver an intervention that suits their needs better. I have set up an intervention using REWARDS authored by Anita Archer to address the 5th and 6th graders who are still struggling with phonics and decoding. Another set of students will be using the Read Naturally program to help increase their oral reading fluency. And the students who are not struggling with phonics or oral reading fluency will continue to get direct instruction in comprehension strategies. But I worry that even these additional interventions are not going to be enough to close the gap.
My district, beginning in the two elementary buildings is using the Response to Intervention (RtI) model. Our two feeder elementary schools each have a literacy coach who is addressing the needs of students in their buildings. But the three of us still feel frustration at building an intervention system on a foundation of sand. In the middle school, I know I am doing what needs to be done for Tier 2 of interventions.
But Tier 1, the classroom, is not strong. In our district, we don't have a set reading curriculum. The basals that exist are old and falling apart. And while I do not think a basal reading set is the way to go, we haven't had any money to buy any books AT ALL in the last three years, not even trade books. Content areas like science and social studies should be supplementing their curriculum with material accessible to struggling readers. But although most text books in science and social studies are up to date, those content areas haven't had money for supplemental books either. And when struggling readers are presented a text book written above the level at which they can read, it is no wonder that they fall behind and feel alone.
So, while I am excited about starting our new programs in January, I am still worried about these struggling readers. They need interventions that begin in the classroom, with teachers who have to walk the tight-rope of meeting every child where they are and moving them forward in the way that is best for them. They also have to do this in a way that does not become drill and kill, as it often does for the strugglers. As we help them to become more literate, we have to try not to create aliterate readers. It is not an easy task we take on.