Teachers who work with early readers know that these students need lots of encouragement, support, and feedback as their skills develop. A balanced literacy program includes opportunities for that type of engagement through quality whole group teaching, in small groups, and with individual reading support. Small group literacy instruction is a crucial component of this balanced approach because it gives students a low risk environment to practice and apply new skills.
Teaching small groups and guided reading isn’t as easy, though, for teachers who are teaching fully remote or hybrid. On top of the challenge of supporting these emergent readers from a distance, the reading opportunity gap continues to widen because of the lack of access and the decrease in face-to-face interactions.
Being dedicated to helping your students build literacy skills means you have to take advantage of the time you do have with them. Here are some tips on how you can get the most out of your small group instruction whether you are in person or remote.
- Have a routine. A routine helps assure that students are building on prior skills and connecting those with new concepts. Here’s an example.
- Warm up 3-5 mins. Review prior skills.
- Introduce students to new concepts through direct teaching and modeling
- Support students while they apply the skill by trying it together
- Provide encouragement and feedback while students try it on their own
- Check for understanding and close.
- Try different grouping strategies for guided reading groups. Work with small groups that are at the same instructional reading level, or pull students who need reinforcement of a particular strategy. Pair students with their classmates in the classroom, or experiment with breakout rooms. Whether you are in person or remote, use independent reading to build reading stamina.
- Balance your instruction. Small groups shouldn’t concentrate only on introducing a new leveled reader. This time is an opportunity to provide literacy intervention for a variety of skills including:
- Acquiring new vocabulary
- Understanding Science or Math through literature
- Increasing Fluency
- Building Comprehension
- Document what happens during your small groups. Assess and track student progress and achievements. Using a tool like BookNook, you can build assessments into your routine and easily monitor progress overtime. Keeping track of students interests can also help you know your students as readers and suggest books that you know will foster their love of reading.
- Find good digital text. If you’re teaching remotely, you still need to choose good literature, but you also have to think a bit more practically about the books you use. Ideally, you want to be able to display it easily while teaching and provide access for students afterward the lesson so they can build their fluency. Also remember, any good library collection provides quality literature at a variety of levels and both nonfiction and fiction text.
Small group time can be a powerful intervention for any reader. These tips can help you get the most out of your teacher-led groups. However, it isn’t just an opportunity for literacy instruction, it’s also an opportunity for you to build relationships with your students. Take advantage of this smaller setting to give you and your students a break from a hectic schedule or Zoom calls. Then tackle reading.
Fighting the Opportunity Gap
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What is the Opportunity Gap? The term “opportunity gap” refers to any significant and persistent differences in academic performance between different groups of students. Groups are based on categories such as ethnicity, race, gender, disability, and income. Opportunity gaps are typically measured by standardized tests and there are evident gaps in test scores among many different groups of students. Test score gaps often lead to longer-term gaps, including high school and college dropout rates as well as employment as an adult. The National Education Association has found that, “Despite decades of overall progress in narrowing the achievement gaps, disparities in educational outcomes related to poverty, English language proficiency, disability, and racial ethnic background still persist.”
Learn more about the students affected by opportunity gaps on the National Education Association website.
The Opportunity Gap in Regards to Reading: There are few instructional tasks more important than teaching children to read. The consequences of low achievement in reading are costly to both individuals and society as a whole. Low achievement in literacy correlates with high rates of school dropout, poverty, and underemployment (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Wagner, 2000). The 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results show that more than 6 out of 10 U.S. 4th graders are not reading at grade level. For low income students in high-poverty schools that statistic jumps to 8 out of 10 students reading below grade level.
Up until the end of third grade, most children are learning to read. Beginning in fourth grade, however, they are reading to learn, using their skills to gain more information in subjects such as math and science, to solve problems, to think critically about what they are learning, as well as reading to learn for pleasure. Up to half of the printed fourth-grade curriculum is incomprehensible to students who read below that grade level, according to the Children’s Reading Foundation.
The National Research Council asserts that “academic success, as defined by high school graduation, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy by knowing someone’s reading skill at the end of third grade. A person who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by that time is unlikely to graduate from high school.” As policymakers, parents, administrators and teachers are searching for answers to help solve the reading gap, a single catch-all instructional program or method that is effective in teaching all children to read does not seem to exist yet. Though there may not be a one size fits all literacy curriculum, Bond and Dykstra’s research (1967/1997) has confirmed that regardless of the quality of a program, resource, or strategy, it is the teacher and learning situation that truly make the difference.
Importance of Early Intervention: The truth is, the opportunity gap starts widening before children even have the chance to enter the kindergarten classroom. According to The Children’s Reading Foundation, “The achievement gap happens when there is a preparation gap in a child’s earliest years.” Organizations such as First 5, The Children’s Reading Foundation and Avance believe strongly that educating families and providing high quality early childhood education are critical in closing the opportunity gap.
Early identification and intervention with young students, who are struggling with reading, has been proven to help them gain the skills they need to close the reading gap between themselves and their grade level peers ( Vaughn, Wanzek, Marray, Scammacca, Thompson, Woodruff, 2009). Even when students are not reading words yet, you can predict who will have trouble by assessing their ability to identify letters and produce letter sounds. Though some students do not respond as quickly to reading intervention as others, it has been proven that the earlier a child has a solid foundation of phonemic awareness, the better off they will be as a reader long-term. Becoming a more fluent reader and acquiring comprehension skills will be easier for students who have acquired strong foundational reading skills and have the tools to work through decoding new words.
This issue does not just have an impact on our nation’s literacy rate, it also has an impact on our economy. Economic research by Nobel Prize-winners and Federal Reserve economists, in economic studies in dozens of states and counties, and in longitudinal studies spanning 40 years—demonstrate that the return on public investment in high quality childhood education is substantial (Calman, L., Tarr-Whelan, L., 2005). In The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40, they found that every dollar invested in quality early childhood care and education saves taxpayers up to $13.00 in future costs. These savings can be attributed to reduced costs from lowered crime rates, decreased welfare payments and less funds dedicated toward repeat students or special education curriculums.
How BookNook is Helping to Close the Opportunity Gap: BookNook is working hard to fight the reading achievement gap with decades of research on literacy education, technology powered by artificial intelligence and partnerships with some of the Nation’s leading educators. The BookNook digital reading application provides scaffolded literacy activities for students at an individualized instructional level. A classroom full of students can all be working on tailored strategic practices, allowing teachers or reading guides time to oversee and check-in with those students who need additional support. BookNook has served 3,500 unique students in 13 states during the 2018-2019 school year alone and offers 800 lessons that are mapped to cover over 100 literacy standards. They have completely changed the way that educators, volunteers, and near peers address reading intervention for students.
Michael Lombardo, CEO of BookNook stated, “I believe that literacy is an economic survival skill in the 21st century. I believe that reading is both a human and a civil right. Solutions that work for a hundred, a thousand, or even ten thousand students are an important part of the solution, but the scope and seriousness of the early reading crisis demands a bolder, more scalable, and more sustainable approach.”
How Schools Can Work Towards Closing the Opportunity Gap: The Anne E. Casey Foundation, which published Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters and A Research update on Third Grade Reading suggests focusing on the below factors that contribute to third grade reading proficiency:
School Readiness – Help families prepare their children for kindergarten. Research continues to show that fewer children from low-income families (less than half) are ready for school at kindergarten entry, compared to three-quarters of children from families with moderate or high incomes. For children from low-income families, preschool attendance is one of the strongest factors in school readiness; attending a high-quality early childhood program also predicts higher levels of achievement at age 11. A followup study of the Abecedarian Project found that by age 30, participants were four times more likely to obtain a college degree than nonparticipants. Entering school ready to learn can improve one’s chances of reaching middle-class status by age 40. And a study of the Child-Parent Center program found a long-term return to society of $8.24 for every dollar invested during the first four to six years of school, including prekindergarten.
School Attendance – Missing school has negative effects on student success. A report by Johns Hopkins University researchers suggested that the national rate of chronic absenteeism is 10 to 15 percent, meaning that 5 million to 7.5 million students miss at least 10 percent of their school days every year. The premise that schools fail to detect high levels of chronic absence because of data issues was confirmed by a study conducted jointly by the Child and Family Policy Center and Attendance Works. Other studies confirmed that chronic absence has a negative effect on students’ academic performance and cognitive development, especially for children from low-income families.
Summer Learning – Prevent “Summer Slide” and provide programs and resources that help keep students engaged and learning over summer. Studies of summer learning programs in several different contexts all confirmed that high-quality summer programs can disrupt learning loss. Research on children from low-income families also offered new evidence that having access to books can decrease the effects of summer learning slide and significantly improve scores on state reading assessments; the largest effects were for the most economically disadvantaged children.
Family Support – Provide parent education that will empower parents to better support their children. Research published right before Early Warning helped explain how environmental factors like hunger, housing insecurity, parental depression and abuse influence the epigenome (the human “operating system”), making it more likely that specific genes will or will not be expressed. Other new research draws a link between the stress of poverty, hormonal changes and impaired learning ability. However, new research reveals that even after the epigenome has been modified by extreme childhood stress, the damage may be reversed. Furthermore, positive social-emotional experiences for young children, along with supportive family and community environments, reduce the likelihood of negative modifications to the epigenome that might impair learning.
High-quality teaching in home, community and school settings. New research underscores the importance of enriched home learning environments and parent engagement in preparing children from low-income families to succeed in school. A five-year study of more than 1,850 children and their mothers found that children whose learning environments were of consistently low quality were much more likely to have language and literacy delays before kindergarten, while supportive home learning experiences could help close the school readiness gap. The Alliance for Early Success (formerly the Birth to Five Policy Alliance) published a policy framework tool that provides options for improving learning, health and family support for children from birth through age 8, with a priority on children from low-income families and other vulnerable populations; a U.S. Department of Education guide for educators recommended strategies to help students in kindergarten through third grade understand what they read; the American Federation of Teachers published a summary of strategies for improving the transition from child care, preschool and home settings to school; and a report by the Center for American Progress proposed reforms to boost the effectiveness and efficiency of public investments in early childhood education.
Another way for schools to get more parents involved is to provide resources at the school, becoming a “full-service community school.” Full-service community schools help remove barriers by locating, partnering and coordinating local service providers that offer:
-Primary health, mental health, and dental care
-Family engagement, including adult education
-Expanded after school learning time or summer programing
-Postsecondary education and career option awareness
Additional strategies from the National Education Association (NEA) for Closing the Opportunity Gap at Your School or District
In conclusion, the opportunity gap is a serious issue that has an impact not only on a child’s academic success during grade school years, but also their chances of graduating from high school and college as well as employment as an adult. Research shows that early intervention and providing resources to families help fight the achievement gap. Your school can help close the opportunity gap by offering parent education on how to help their child be prepared for kindergarten, hold families accountable for their child’s attendance at school, provide summer learning programs to prevent summer slide, offer parent education to help empower parents in supporting their child’s learning and work towards becoming a full-service community school that provides resources for families, encouraging them to be more involved with school and see school as a positive and helpful community for not just their child, but their whole family. There are countless organizations that are continuing research on this topic and searching for ways to better support students, their families, their teachers and their schools and there is an endless list of action items you as a teacher or administrator can take on to help fight the opportunity gap at your school. Spreading the word about the opportunity gap and how to close it as well as aligning yourself with like-minded colleagues and organizations is a great place to start. The opportunity gap is a complex issue, but consistent small steps towards closing it will add up.
Bond, G.L., & Dykstra, R. (1997). The Cooperative Research Program in First-Grade Reading Instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 32, 348–427.
Calman, L., Tarr-Whelan, L. (2005). Early Childhood Education for All: A Wise Investment. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/workplacecenter/docs/Full%20Report.pdf
National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2017). 2017 NAEP National Achievement-Level Results for Grade 4. Retrieved from https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_2017/nation/achievement?grade=4
National Education Association. http://www.readingfoundation.org/reading_research.jsprieved from http://www.nea.org/home/13550.htm. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/20380.htm
National Research Council. (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Edited by C. Snow, S. Burns, and P. Griffin, Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2010). Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. Retrieved from https://ed.psu.edu/goodling-institute/policy/special-report-executive-summary
The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2013). Early Warning Confirmed: A Research Update on Third-Grade Reading. Retrieved from https://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-EarlyWarningConfirmedExecSummary-2013.pdf
The Children’s Reading Foundation. School Readiness. Retrieved from https://www.readingfoundation.org/school-readiness
The Children’s Reading Foundation. Third Grade Reading Success Matters. Retrieved from
Vaughn, S., Wanzek, J., Murray, C. S., Scammacca, N., Thompson, S. F., & Woodruff, A. L. (2009). Response to early reading intervention: Examining higher and lower responders. Exceptional Children, 75(2), 165-183. https://doi.org/10.1177/001440290907500203
Wagner, D.A. (2000). EFA 2000 thematic study on literacy and adult education: For presentation at the World Education Forum, Dakar (April 2000). Philadelphia: International Literacy Institute.
Creating a Literacy-Rich Environment
By Samantha Burke
About the author: Samantha Burke is a credentialed reading specialist that has worked with children in the San Francisco Bay Area for ten years. She enjoys creating innovative learning opportunities for students and resources for their parents through her tutoring company, Valley of the Moon Learning.
Literacy-rich environments provide opportunities for students to interact with print and literacy tools in a meaningful way. By creating a supportive environment that is literacy-rich, students have more opportunities to practice literacy skills including: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, listening and speaking in authentic ways. The way a classroom is set up, the materials that are accessible and the way interaction with materials is modeled will influence how students engage with literacy in it. Here are some simple things you can do to help promote a literacy-rich environment for your students. Happy Reading!
Have different types of age-appropriate reading materials available:
You never know what students might really take a liking to. Try incorporating a variety of books, magazines, newspapers, comic books and menus into your projects, games, play areas or classroom library.
Play games that promote reading:
Bananagrams, Spot It, Sequence Letters, Boggle, Hedbanz, Story Cubes, Sight Word Bingo, Tall Tales: The Game of Infinite Storytelling, and Reading Rockets has a list of games you can make yourself here.
Create cozy places to read:
Comfortable places to sit or lay with good lighting. You can add pillows, stuffed animals and even small lamps in your classroom to make it extra cozy.
Switch books out seasonally:
By changing up book options, children will be more interested in looking through books. They will like seeing what’s new, what’s the same and what’s gone. The library and sites like Thriftbooks are great resources to help spice up your classroom library.
Incorporate reading opportunities into your classroom environment:
Label things around your classroom and school – better yet, have students help you do the labeling. For younger students you can add words and symbols to blocks, label items in dramatic play area, as well as add notepads or dry-erase boards to play area.
Introduce students to as much vocabulary as you can and give them opportunities to use their vocabulary:
Talk to them about experiences, ask them about their opinions, model using language that will help them better communicate with others.
Look for reading opportunities wherever you are with your students:
Walking around school, sitting in the library, on a field trip, waiting outside for dismissal, waiting in the lunch line.
I hope you find these tips helpful in creating a literacy-rich environment in your classroom. If you have any additional ideas please feel free to share in the comment area below!
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Engaging students in meaningful conversations about what they are reading is so important in helping students get the most out of instructional time. Getting students engaged in reading and talking about what they are reading will encourage them to develop deeper comprehension skills, practice higher-level critical thinking skills and make connections with the text and each other. Several studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between behavioral engagement and achievement-related outcomes for elementary and high school students (Connell, Spencer & Aber, 1994; Marks, 2000; Newmann et al., 1992; Skinner, Wellborn, & Connell, 1990).
So what exactly is an engaged reader?
An engaged reader actively thinks about what they are reading- absorbing, reflecting and predicting. They are involved at a deep level and motivation is inherent. In this article you will find tips that will help you create a more engaging, student-centered approach in your classroom, while also maintaining structure.
What studies show
As educators, we know that home influence plays a large role in students’ reading habits as well as motivation, and that many children enter the classroom at a disadvantage because of this. Research has found that helping students become more engaged with reading while at school can have a significant impact on their overall reading habits and skills. This is supported by a study done in 1999 by Guthrie and Schafer that was a secondary analysis of 1994 NAEP data:
Guthrie and Schafer (1999) found that engaged readers have much better text comprehension and reading achievement than do disengaged readers. Beyond that simple fact, however, engaged reading can overcome major obstacles to achievement. For example, low levels of education in the family and low income usually pose obstacles to reading achievement. Students with less-educated mothers nearly always score lower in reading comprehension than students whose mothers have more education. However, Guthrie and Schafer found that engaged readers who had mothers with a low level of education achieved more highly than disengaged readers who had highly educated mothers. For example, a student with a less-educated mother who reads “almost every day” for enjoyment has a better reading achievement and text comprehension than a student who reads “never or hardly ever” but has a mother who is highly educated. A similar relation occurs for engaged reading and income. Low-income students (receiving free or reduced-price lunch) who were engaged readers scored highly on achievement tests. These engaged readers were comparable in text comprehension to students with higher income (not receiving free or reduced-price lunch), but who were disengaged readers (Baker, Dreher, Guthrie, 2000).
Studies like this demonstrate how significant a teacher’s influence can be on a child’s view towards reading.
Show genuine interest
As a teacher I find it easy to get caught up in the motions and not take the time to truly engage students in a deep, meaningful conversation about what we just read. It’s understandable to try to increase the engagement of your entire class by moving quickly through post-reading questions. However, I’ve found that jumping from student to student and question to question tends to lead to less interesting dialogue and poorer engagement. This results in your students feeling a lack of interest on your part. Remember: quality over quantity. Your students desire not only to be heard, but to feel listened to. You can show them that you are listening to them by taking notes and asking specific follow-up questions. I promise you that if you do this, your students will feel valued, be more likely to share, and will give their answers much more thought.
Another way to show your genuine interest, is to encourage students to draw connections from the literature to their personal lives. These personal associations, often referred to as “heart connections,” animate the readings and make them more relatable to students. This method will drive higher amounts of quality discussions with students while decreasing mediocre student answers. Because of time constraints, only a few students will be able to share out loud. This is why I recommend utilizing partner shares and written reflections to hold all students accountable and give everyone a chance to share their thoughts in some way.
Ask open-ended questions
Open-ended questions are questions that don’t have a right or wrong answer, which makes kids feel more comfortable engaging in conversation. Open-ended questions also encourage more than just yes or no responses and provide the opportunity for a real conversation to be had. Some examples of book related open-ended questions are:
- Which characters in the books would you like to meet in real life?
- What part of the book did you think was the most exciting?
- How would you change the book’s ending if you could rewrite it?
- If you could be a character in the book for one day, who would you chose to be and why?
- If you could be friends with any character in the book, who would you like to be friends with and why?
- What do you think the author wanted us to take away from this book?
- Would you read other books from this author? Why or why not?
- Is there anything in this story that is similar to something that has happened in your life? What was it and how is it familiar?
- Did any of the characters remind you of someone?
- Would this book make a cool movie? Video game? TV show? Why or why not?
You can always further extend questions by asking, “Why?” or “Tell me more.” If a student responds to a question by saying, “I don’t know,” you can respond by saying, “Well let’s think about it.” Saying “I don’t know” might just be a reflex for the student, in which case just give them some time to think without pressuring them! If a student gives a short answer, you can say things like, “Tell me more about that” or “What led you to that answer/belief?”
Projects related to reading
Some young students get so nervous when the class is having a discussion. Which means that even though they may have some great questions in mind or answers to contribute, they are too shy or anxious to raise their hand, or may freeze up when the attention is on them. Combating an environment of anxiety starts with you, the reading guide. You can create a more casual setting for students to discuss reading by having them create brochures about where their book took place, write a letter as their character, create a board game, book board or poster about their book, create a test about the book(including answer sheet), write an advertisement to encourage other children to want to read the book or have students bring stories to life by creating a 3-D scene from their book. Projects on reading give students time to think and reflect on their thoughts on the reading and present them in an orderly fashion that makes sense to them.
I know this one is a tough one. When you ask a question, give your students ample time to gather their thoughts and reflect. This is also a great opportunity for students to share feedback with their peers or in a small group before responding to the question to the whole class. As a teacher, it can feel uncomfortable waiting in silence, but students will greatly benefit from this reflection time. By allowing them to think of meaningful responses that will spark an engaging dialogue, everyone wins.
One way to maximize reflection time is to ask your students to write their initial thoughts about the post-reading questions on a mini journal/notepad. Then have them break up into mini groups of 3-4 and share what they wrote down. The group can then share with the class what they discovered after conversing in their groups. Not only does this exercise encourage everyone to speak up, it also promotes collaboration and teamwork! I strongly recommend talking to your students about what reflection time is, and why it is important. I’ve found that explaining the benefits of reflection time makes students feel engaged and empowered.
Make it fun
If you make book discussions fun and engaging it will calm your students’ nerves and make the discussion less formal and more inviting. Below are a few ideas to spice up book discussions:
- Games that include questions about the reading are a great way to facilitate book discussions in a fun way. I’ve seen this done by creating a board game, dice game and even common reading questions written on a beach ball that you toss around the class and have students choose a question about the story to answer.
- If you’re starting a new book, it might be fun to add some decorations to the classroom that are related to the book or dress up like a character from the reading.
- Having other staff members at your school be a part of bringing a story to life really adds to the fun and also helps build community. With younger students, I’ve had our principal, secretary, school specialists and parents deliver mail, messages or packages to our class from characters from our stories. I’ve also seen guests dress up as characters and come to a classroom for a Q&A session with students.
- Game show or trivia game – create questions related to reading, form teams and maybe even have some prizes!
- Change where you read – the school garden, field in the schoolyard, school library or perhaps a nearby park.
- Plan field trip around reading – if the story took place somewhere you are able to bring your students(or somewhere somewhat similar) this is a great opportunity to connect your students to the reading and their community.
Learn how BookNook helps engage young readers:
Baker, L., Dreher, M., Guthrie, J. (2000). Engaging Young Readers: Promoting Achievement and Motivation. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Connell, J. P., Spencer, M. B., & Aber, J. L. (1994). Educational risk and resilience in African American youth: Context, self, action, and outcomes in school. Child Development, 65, 493-506.
Marks, H. M. (2000). Student engagement in instructional activity: Patterns in the elementary, middle, and high school years. American Educational Research Journal, 37, 153-184.
Newmann, F., Wehlage, G.G., & Lamborn, S. D. (1992). The significance and sources of student engagement. In F. Newmann (Ed.), Student engagement and achievement in American secondary schools (pp. 11-39). New York: Teachers College Press.
Skinner, E. A., Wellborn, J. G., & Connell, J. P. (1990). What is takes to do well in school and whether I’ve got it: The role of perceived control in children’s engagement and school
achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 22-32.
University of Washington: Center of Teaching and Learning. Engaging Students in Learning.
Retrieved from: https://www.washington.edu/teaching/teaching-resources/engaging-students-in-learning/
For further reading on this subject, check out the below articles:
How to Encourage Students to Read for Pleasure: Teachers Share Their Top Tips
Let’s Stop With the Worksheets and Create Engaged Learners
Tell Us More: Reading Comprehension, Engagement and Conceptual Press Discourse