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Hooking Kids
On Reading


Despite schools focus on reading, many students still are not reading independently or for pleasure. A program developed by a college professor stresses hooking students on reading by introducing them to challenging subject matter that interests them. Included: A description of a comprehensive reading program.

Despite all the emphasis on reading programs and encouraging students to read, many children, especially minority students, still do not read with a high level of comprehension and fluency, independently, or for fun, according to Dr. Sally M. Reis, a professor and the department head of the educational psychology department at the University of Connecticut where she also serves as principal investigator of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Critical to making children joyful readers, according to Dr. Reis, is letting them read books that interest and challenge them.

So to encourage children to tackle more difficult material and read on their own, Dr. Reis helped develop the Schoolwide Enrichment Model-Reading (SEM-R), which exposes students to a variety of topics and reading materials and offers support to help them move on to higher levels of reading and extended periods of independent reading. The program has been used in urban districts in Connecticut and Florida.

Dr. Reis talked with Education World about (SEM-R), and how she has seen it make a difference for some students.

Dr. Sally M. Reis

Education World: How can the Schoolwide Enrichment Model-Reading (SEM-R) particularly help improve the reading skills of minority and urban students?

Dr. Sally M. Reis: By focusing on making reading more enjoyable and more relevant!

[During one study], in phase one of SEM-R, teachers selected literature to read aloud to students, interspersed with higher-order questioning and thinking skills instruction. These "book hook" sessions were 10 to 20 minutes in length, and high interest, challenging books were used in this read-aloud component.

In phase one of the after-school SEM-R, all participating students met as a group for 20 minutes to listen to sections of these books that were read aloud to them by the researchers and guest readers. Books were selected based on their match with students interests as expressed in their reading-interest assessments, as well as on their potential to offer cultural enhancement and enrichment. For example, a theme one week was historical views of prejudice, and the books were selected for this population for diversity as well as point of view and genre.

Also included were books that we believed might appeal to the Hispanic students in the afterschool SEM-R.

The second phase of the SEM-R emphasized the development of each students ability to engage in structured silent reading time, using self-selected, high interest books for 45 to 60 minutes. During this phase, Supported Independent Reading (SIR), students were supported by individualized reading conferences. Each child in the group had at least two opportunities for independent reading with a researcher or teacher at least once or twice each week.

The urban students in this study were encouraged to select books that were slightly above their current reading level, and researchers continually assessed the appropriateness of the challenge through conferences with each student during every session. Teachers and research team members found that the majority of students selected book that were too easy for their skill level.

Students were told that they could take these easier books home to read but, during class, they were required to select books that were more challenging to read. Students were also given high interest books as gifts.

"children are not reading enough in school or at home and when they do read, most children are reading content that is not an appropriate match.
During this reading time, research team members provided individualized support and instruction to all students. With the advanced readers in this study, teachers discussed higher order themes and asked critical questions about reading, focusing on synthesis, and literary discussions such as connecting text to text, and text to self. Books were selected to be sensitive to students multicultural backgrounds, as many had multicultural themes and content and they were made available in both Spanish and English.

In the third component of SEM-R, students remained in the same homogeneous groups to which they were assigned in phase two, and were encouraged to move from teacher-directed opportunities to self-choice activities over the course of the intervention. The time for this phase was approximately 25 minutes.

Activities included opportunities to explore new technology and engage in discussion groups, writing activities, creativity training in language arts, learning centers, interest-based independent or small group projects, continuation of self-selected reading, and book chats.

The intent of these experiences was to provide time for developing and exploring student interest in reading. Each component of the SEM-R was developed to help students increase their reading skills with practice and coaching of differentiated reading strategies, in conjunction with efforts to increase automaticity and self-regulation in reading.

EW: What drawbacks, if any, do you see to the current approaches to teaching and encouraging reading?

Dr. Reis:I believe that there are two major challenges. First, children are not reading enough in school or at home and when they do read, most children are reading content that is not an appropriate match. That is, the books they are reading are either too easy or too hard.

Second, the wide range of instructional levels in all classrooms makes it difficult for teachers to offer appropriate reading instruction to all students. Our research has found that a wide range of instruction spanning eight or nine grade levels of reading achievement exists in the average third or fourth grade class. Teachers currently have students who read several grades above and below grade level in the same classroom and most feel that they are not able to effectively differentiate instruction for students of all levels of achievement.

EW: What needs to be done to help children become fluent readers, rather than just going through the motions to answer questions?

Dr. Reis: Children have to read more and they should be reading content that both engages and challenges them! They should have opportunities to read different genres and read non-fiction. They should have the chance to learn to self-regulate in reading: that is, to develop the habits of reading each day and reading for longer periods of time.

Children also need the opportunity to encounter challenges more often. Two central challenges for educators are identifying the correct levels of academic difficulty for each student and finding methods for ascertaining whether texts are appropriately challenging. Jeanne S. Chall and Susan S. Conard in 1991 described an optimal text as one that is slightly above a students reading level, thus requiring the student to make an effort to read the text, and occasionally, to ask for assistance.

"Teachers currently have students who read several grades above and below grade level in the same classroom and most feel that they are not able to effectively differentiate instruction for students of all levels of achievement.

To achieve optimal challenge, a reader must encounter new concepts and language. In a model for instruction based on this idea, a zone established as a proximal level of difficulty allows students to work with adult assistance in a guided practice. Work in the SEM-R is undertaken with a clear goal -- children assisted by adult evaluation of independent performance. [Psychologist and educator] Lev Vygotsky, for example, believed that studying challenging material in this way enabled students to learn more complex material than they could learn without support.

EW: In a recent Washington Post article, some educators said that giving children books to read that are too far above their reading level just frustrates them. What is your response to that?

Dr. Reis: I concur. I would also add that it is frustrating when the books are too easy for them. Again, with such a wide range of achievement, however, it is very hard for teachers if they are trying to use basal reading series that cater to students at grade level.

Mismatched textbooks and an absence of support for students who read well above or below grade level have negative effects! Very few researchers, however, have formally studied the impact of using books that are too easy for talented readers and too little research has been conducted on books that are too hard.

In reading, educators usually determine the appropriateness of a text based on factors such as sentence length, vocabulary, readability, skill development, and content. Some researchers recommend fluency tests to judge readability, but this method does not address content difficulty or students interest in the text. The latter, student choice, should be emphasized as important in the process of finding the optimal student-challenge match and our research on SEM-R suggests that students who make their own choices based on interests enjoy reading more!

EW:What are the obstacles in today's classrooms to using an approach like SEM-R?

Dr. Reis: Obstacles to using SEM-R involve having limited classroom libraries or school libraries, direct instruction reading programs, and teachers inability to use differentiated reading instruction across many different reading levels.

I believe that [recent] statistics, coupled with the limited fluency increases that occur as students approach middle school, suggests that what many teachers are teaching has not been effective and it is time for a change.

In a recent study conducted by the American College Testing Program (ACT), scores of 1.2 million high-school students who took the ACT college-entrance test were reviewed, and results showed that only 51 percent of last year's high-school graduates who took the exam had the reading skills they needed to succeed in college or job-training programs. These results represented the lowest proportion in more than a decade. Of particular significance in this study was the high percentage of culturally diverse and low income students who were unprepared for college-level reading, including 79 percent of black students, 67 percent of Hispanic students, and 33 percent of students from families with annual incomes below $30,000.

EW:What are some indicators or ways of measuring that a child is reading with greater fluency and comprehension?

Dr. Reis: In our study, we used regular reading conferences, as well as more formal assessments.

Curriculum-based measures of oral reading fluency were individually administered as a pre- and post-test to assess students' speed and accuracy when reading aloud. Oral reading fluency reflects the complex combination of both lower-level and higher-level processes, and it can be considered a reliable indicator of overall reading proficiency.

To measure oral reading fluency, each student reads an unpracticed, grade-level passage of connected text for one minute. In this study, each student read the same three separate oral reading fluency passages for both pre- and post-tests. Third through fifth-grade students were each administered one third-grade, one fourth-grade, and one fifth-grade passage. We also used the Iowa test of Basic Skills reading comprehension subtests.

However, the teachers we have worked with over the last four years consistently told us that the conferences were most effective in measuring fluency and comprehension!

This e-interview with Dr. Sally Reis is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Published 11/08/2006