Relevant Books, Positive Experiences

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For the last four weeks I’ve run an intervention group full of sixth graders who receive special education services for a range of specific learning disabilities (SLD), including basic reading, reading fluency, and reading comprehension.  This intervention time is a thirty minute block built into the day, and it changes for students every month depending on their needs.  I’ve run this type of group several times this school year with sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and like the others, my group in February was a “book club,” in that we read a book together out loud.  At the middle school where I teach, we promote Donalyn Miller’s 40 Book Challenge, and getting students with reading disabilities to read for pleasure is not only challenging for the students, but for their teachers as well.  In the past these intervention times have focused on teaching students to use strategies when they read, mainly as an attempt to improve their ability to show comprehension on a standardized test, but this year I asked my administrators if I could try something different.  I wanted to teach comprehension by reading an actual book with students that – and this is the crazy part – they would actually enjoy.

My administrators were supportive, and they let me run with it in my own way, but some of my fellow ELA teachers were skeptical.  Their raised eyebrows and doubtful hmmmms were basically a pat on the head and a “Bless your heart” from educators who have tried in vain, year after year, to get kids with SLD to read and enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong – I work with wonderful teachers who strive to meet the needs of all students, including those with SLD, every day. But we all get discouraged when students’ losses seem to pile up and their wins are few and far between.  When working with students with SLD, the wins often come in very small increments and must be celebrated as if they are huge, which can be exhausting. Many hate school because it’s so difficult for them, and that feeling colors every academic experience they have.  Plus, they’re middle schoolers.  They’re a tough audience, folks.  One factor, in my opinion as an educator, is crucial when teaching students reading comprehension and when trying to show them reading can be fun – and that is book relevance.  Here are some book choices, and ways of presenting the activity, that work for me and for my students.

For students with SLD, I like books that are short, age-appropriate, high interest, and challenging without being too difficult.  I also like books written in verse, because when students look at the pages and see they are NOT filled with words from margin to margin, they start to think maybe they really can read a whole book! Here’s a list I like to call –

Books Written in Verse That Middle School Students w/ SLD Won’t Hate

Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

House Arrest by K.A. Holt

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

The Good Braider by Terry Farish

Beanball by Gene Fehler

Hidden by Helen Frost

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Love That Dog and Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

At the beginning of a new “book club,” I start to build, or build upon, a relationship with the students.  It seems simple, but I smile at them, let them know with my words, tone of voice, and body language that I’m happy to have them in my group.  Even middle school students like it when teachers show them they are enjoyable human beings, even if they won’t admit to it!  I ask them to share something they are looking forward to, and then I share as well.  I ask them questions about their lives that may relate to the topics or themes in the book we’ll read together. Since they are struggling readers, I always start out reading aloud myself. Students need to hear a story come to life so I do all the read-aloud things – tone of voice, inflection, character voices, and accents (that gets a laugh out of them!).  Many have not been read aloud to at all, or not since they were babies, and it’s important for them to hear it modeled. I let them know I will never call on them to read aloud, easing lots of visible anxiety – but I will take volunteers. I always have a couple of students who will volunteer when the pressure is taken away, and nonjudgmental support is given. I set up rules for what following along looks like, and monitor it throughout. I explain words and concepts they don’t know because often, students’ background knowledge is very limited, and it greatly affects their comprehension. All of this is done with a positive attitude toward students and reading. Now, I do get the audible groans and slumped shoulders when I tell students we’ll be reading a book, but I’ve never had students hate it when we’re finished.  And that’s really saying something – they’re middle school students.  They like to hate EVERYTHING.  They won’t always be allowed to read something they enjoy, but it’s my mission to show students that reading CAN be enjoyable and they CAN be successful.

I once heard a fellow teacher say “Remember, for many students their interaction with you may be the only positive experience with a teacher they have all day.”  I always keep that statement in mind, because for students with SLD, they experience more failures in their academic lives than successes, and I want them to feel success with me. And maybe, just maybe, if they enjoy this reading books thing with me, they’ll pick up a book on their own, read it, and enjoy the experience.  Or at the very least, not hate it.

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