I am a survivor of the color-coded SRA cards stored in boxes at the back of the classroom. I do not remember a single word I read on those cards, but I do remember how painfully boring and predictably systematic the stories were. Luckily, I grew up in a home environment where daily life involved reading. I devoured Judy Blume, fell asleep to my mother’s voice reading C. S. Lewis, and sat on my father’s lap as he read the paper. I made connections with quality texts. Many children are not as lucky as I was to have a rich, supportive reading environment to build critical literacy skills.
So, when I started teaching elementary school, I vowed to create a culture of words, where the reading process included an element of choice. I had a Fountas & Pinnell leveled library in my room, and each child had an awareness of which letter corresponded to their reading ability. During silent reading, students chose their own books. Sometimes, they would choose a more advanced book to challenge themselves. Other times, they would choose below their reading level. However, they were always within range, and they would always pick something of personal interest.
I determined their reading level as well as their progress over the year by using Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS). And if a student was greatly below grade level, I would use the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) to gain a more detailed portrayal of the way an individual child processed the words on a page.
Meanwhile, the students’ daily interaction with quality content included read-alouds, independent reading, and book clubs. Daily minilessons, inspired by the work of Lucy Calkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, would engage students in conversations about how readers interact with the text, make meaning from words, have phonemic awareness, and note the complexity of language.
These are all academic skills. What charts and metrics struggle to capture is the wonder of reading I learned at my parent’s side. Readings that both reflected my own experiences, hopes, and dreams while opening my eyes to other people, other experiences.
Curriculum providers must find texts that sound both familiar voices and diverse perspectives, addressing a variety of interests and learning styles from leading publishers. They must consider how likely such texts will engage with a contemporary student. They must take on the challenge of accessing and including high-quality content.
Like two sides of a coin, a joy in reading complements competency in reading; nothing damages literacy more than the frustration due to a lack of skills or having the skills but reading materials that are uninspiring.
What I learned from my students and colleagues about teaching reading is that figuring out how and at what level a student reads are valuable tools, but what is more valuable is what a student reads, for quality content is what captures, inspires, and creates life-long readers. The challenge is discovering, accessing, and including high-quality content in the curriculum. Individuals and organizations striving to develop high-quality curriculum materials need to be mindful to provide a wide diversity of reading materials to support a wide diversity of students and student populations and not simply focus on tools and techniques.