Once upon a time, teachers could curate the material they deemed meaningful for their students to learn. Without fear of time constraints, they would watch their students soak up knowledge like a sponge. That is, until the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative triggered a big push for the adoption of a school-wide reading basal, a preset curriculum meant to strengthen students’ command of reading, vocabulary and linguistic concepts.
Now, we’re teaching in a world where the content you’re teaching -- from the basal your school adopted five years ago -- may not match the rigor on your state’s assessment. As states look to refine the way they assess the mastery of standards, production companies are playing catch-up, revising their materials to reflect statewide changes. Even then, your school may still be under the five-year contract for the basal format you are currently using, which means your school’s requisite texts may not be as in-depth as you’d ideally like.
This leads to the question: Should I stop teaching from the basal? The short answer is no.
But why not?
1. The basal is adopted by your school and may need to be considered for students’ promotion.
2. Each story in the basal covers a specific reading standard from your state. Each question on the test, provided with the basal, also addresses several learning standards.
Experience has taught me that exclusively relying on the two 80-minute sessions the state allots to assess students’ learning is not enough to determine the overall learning of a student. Having the quantitative data from the basal’s assessments serves as a good reflection of the student’s learning throughout the school year. This data will also come in handy if you need to prove a student is a candidate for promotion. If you throw the basal on the bookshelf and never use it, you won’t have the data needed from the core curriculum adopted by your school and approved by your district. Use your basal! It is your back-up support. In addition, here are two strategies to challenge your students and help them meet state testing standards:
Exposure and SupplementationYou should have freedom as a teacher to provide your students with the best authentic reading experience possible. One of the best ways to teach reading, in my opinion, is by supplementing your basal reading program with a good chapter book. Here are just two of many examples:
Charlotte’s Web by E.B White, is a great book to teach the standards Character Traits and Compare and Contrast.
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillio is a great book to teach Point of View, Context Clues and Cause and Effect.
You can find both of these books and many others on Scholastic and at other book sellers. This gives your students an opportunity to be exposed to reading beyond the reading basal.
Another way to provide your students with material that will match state’s testing is to give them frequent practice with the question types and question stems they will see on state’s testing. The key is to know your standards and access question stems for each of your standards. This will help you create standard-driven questions to assess your students’ mastery level.You can couple these questions with your chapter books, class discussions, and even your school’s reading basal.
Here are links to standards and question stems that you can use to provide your students with the exposure they need in order to address reading comprehension questions with confidence:
Close Reading Strategies
Close Reading Strategies is another great way to teach your students to be experts at reading comprehension. There are several very complex definitions for what close reading is, but the much simpler definition I like to use is reading a text enough to understand it, retell it and answer questions about it. To provide the necessary rigor that is required, all you need to do is provide your class with the same short and complex text to read daily. You will need a general comprehension focus for reading --, deciding if you’re reading to learn the main idea, find the author’s purpose or determine the plot of the story -- are examples of comprehension focuses. In addition, make sure you pre-plan your discussion questions. Remember to use question stems from your standards provided in the links above. This will make your planning easy and will also ensure your instruction is driven by rigor. Check this free Close Reader Cheat Sheet to get you started.
Teachers should be the architect of learning experiences in their classrooms, but it’s sometimes hard when we don’t have all of the resources needed. Still, it’s not impossible. I encourage you to grab that chapter book you loved as a student and ask your administrators and district office for the question stems that are required for state’s testing. Make a trip to your closest teacher’s store or make use of this wonderful world of technology and search for passages that are complex enough to read daily while also developing stronger comprehension skills and strategies for your students. Use your reading basal as the layer of support you may need. At the end of the school year, you can be confident you engaged your students in deeper learning and standards-driven instruction that not only allowed them to grow as independent readers, but will also prepare them for reading in years to come.