Learning to Fly
Successful graduates may still need some structure in order to develop true independence.
One of the questions that is frequently raised with me is whether the gains students make can be seen transferring to the classroom. After all, if they really have made progress, it should show in their academic learning.
Indeed it does.* Teaching students decoding skills to fluency creates more room in working memory to deal with the meaning of what they are reading. Students also feel more confident and engage more readily with texts. But it is also important to influence teacher perceptions to ensure that they now realise what the student is capable of. Likewise, parents need to be well informed so that they now hold higher expectations, and can help guide the student towards new habits of reading.
The key to influencing these perceptions is reporting. We make sure that regular updates on progress are issued to all teachers working with the student, and follow with an end of programme report. These reports are detailed, charting students’ progress and commenting on changes in their demeanour and effort during their time in the programme. Having a compelling narrative helps everyone involved with the student to relate to the journey that they have made, and to make space for altered aspirations.
We also ensure that we follow up every student each year following their graduation. We test them to make sure that their gains have been maintained. In the rare event that a student has regressed, we put them back into the programme and build their basic skills to greater fluency. Where comprehension is still an issue at graduation, we move them to a small group comprehension programme.
Improved performance in the classroom is only one aspect of being a good reader. We also want students to be confident and inquisitive enough to read on their own. ‘On their own’ means ‘not because the teacher told me I had to.’ How to make sure that they are independent without withholding that independence from them? The scaffolding of the programme has to be taken away, but it needs to be done carefully, so that students do not falter, but continue to grow in confidence.
Our solution is to set up a Graduate Book Club. Students who have graduated become members of the Club, where once a week they talk about books they are reading and recommend them to other graduates. As a result the students are now choosing what books they would read, and modelling independent reading to each other. Books can be chosen from the library or from the collection of ‘high interest’ books we have accumulated in the Literacy Centre. Students keep a reading log which they take home, and which parents are asked to sign, This becomes a competitive focus. An LSA leads the group and also shares what she is reading. Each student remains in the book club for about a term, until they are truly independent.
There can be a poignancy to letting go of students after travelling with them over a difficult road. But there are other rewards: seeing a student previously thought of as ‘learning disabled’ performing in a poetry cafe; hearing a student who had believed that she could not learn volunteering to read Romeo and Juliet aloud; seeing a student predicted to fail his GCSEs moving on to a Russell Group university.
Guiding students to independence does not mean letting go immediately. With thoughtful planning to help them develop new patterns of behaviour, they can sustain the gains they have made and succeed beyond everyone’s expectations.
One way to hook students into reading is to help them discover a series that they enjoy. We have compiled a reading list of 41 high-interest fiction series for older children and young adults. You can download the free pdf here.
*Although if teachers are expecting students’ comprehension to suddenly improve, without being prepared to teach specific comprehension strategies for their subject, then they are likely to encounter disappointment.
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