How I teach reading to a class that spans 7+ grade levels

In the elementary classroom, there’s little differentiation in terms of placing students in different classes. English Learners who are new to the country are placed with similar aged peers even though if they were to arrive one year later, they would have a completely differentiated schedule in middle school (or high school if they arrived even later). While I teach in a school that separates out advanced academics students, this placement is largely based on test scores. Some students just don’t test that well. In fact, I was one of those students. In other cases, those students were strong readers but weaker in mathematics so they weren’t ready for a whole advanced curriculum.

So what does this mix of levels lead to? 

A classroom with students who are still reading on a Kindergarten or First Grade level and students who are reading above grade level. Currently, my 2019-20 classroom of 27 spans K-9th grade reading levels. That’s more than 7, but I usually span at least 2nd grade – 8th grade in my 6th grade class.

So what do I do?

I embrace the workshop model. If you’re not familiar, a reading or writing workshop has the following components.

Reading and Writing Workshop

  1. Whole class minilesson (10 minutes that includes a hook, teaching point, active engagement, send off)
  2. Conferences and/or small groups during the independent work block
  3. Closing/Reflection
  4. *Optional – Mid Workshop Teaching Point

Most of my current students are just below or on grade level, so I at least have the benefit of knowing that my whole group lessons do tend to hit the majority of my class’ needs. There are many ways that I can adjust those whole class minilessons to meet the needs of struggling learners, especially, but often, I focus on meeting their needs during the other part of workshop and keeping my minilesson short. Often, if I were to add in a different text or alternative, it would cut off my small group time and work time.

Here is a brief description of how I meet the needs of each group:

Strong Readers

The extremely strong readers require some differentiation, but their independence once set up with a task is great. These students also require shorter conferences as they can take a teaching point and run with it faster. I rarely hold small groups for those independently strong readers as they just need a push to get going. 

Readers Focusing on Primary Skills

First of all, my choices with these students depend on the level of independence they can exhibit during work time (reading appropriately leveled books) and how much pull out they receive from other staff, but here is what I do next:

    1. Leverage Technology – My school has some programs such as Imagine Learning which is useful for teaching primary skills and language since it teaches in both Spanish and English to support vocabulary growth. MyOn and other programs will read aloud to students. Some students will do Starfall or other primary apps and games, but by sixth grade, these are less and less appealing.
    2. Matching Games – I love getting students set up with a quick game that works on phonics or phonological awareness. I have access to matching sets that have a letter and a picture where the picture’s word starts with that letter. These puzzles are all self-checking because they only fit when they match. Even though these are primary skills based, students tend to do these without much concern. This might be because games are a part of my classroom environment in general.
    3. Read Aloud with the student – I wish I could do this more than I do, but nothing beats just reading with the student and talking through vocabulary. I also like doing sound or word hunts such as “Look for a word that ends in -ing, Which words start with ‘ssss’; Which words rhyme; Which words have the same sound at the end; What is the base word of started?” Just playing with words, recognizing patterns, and talking about words is great.
    4. Buddy Reading – I will borrow from primary and teach students to buddy read. They can take turns, alternate pages. Granted, this works better when you have students who are at least within similar levels.
    5. Primary Writing Pages – I will take the primary pages that have a large picture at the top and lines for sentences at the bottom and give them to students. Sometimes, I’ll write sentence frames for students to get started. Sometimes, I’ll write that sentence frame in both Spanish/home language and English if I feel that’s meaningful and helpful for the activity. Not all ELLs read and write in their  home language, so that isn’t always beneficial.

On grade level students

These students tend to have some gaps in comprehension so it can be helpful to teach them how to use reading partnerships. I also like doing strategy small group lessons with students in this way. I can have them gather with me to work on phrasing in reading fluency or inferencing by using what you know isn’t true, for example. I can do a quick 2 minute lesson on what I want to teach them, we can practice using a short shared text, then I can have them work on that same skill in their own independent reading book. I can do this structure with book clubs or with independent reading/choice books and still group by strategy. This is my favorite type of small group in the upper grades. I use data from DRA2 Assessments and other classroom data to create these groups. It is fine to see some students more often and some less often. With some groups, I often only have to see them once in a small group then follow up in a conference, and they’re much stronger in that skill.

Students 1-2 years below grade level

These students need a delicate balance of challenge and support. I find many of these students want to read what their on grade level peers are reading, but they are mystified as to how to get there. I also see these students resist accommodations such as read alouds/audio recordings, graphic organizers, images and visualizing. I will often allow these students to reach for the more difficult texts so that they can feel part of a book club. Many people might criticize this choice (and that is 100% fair). I think I would feel differently if I were teaching even a grade younger. In sixth grade, though, they want to feel accepted, and if I bar them from participating in a book club that’s reading something that’s a grade level or two above what they can read independently, they will hate me for it and they will believe that I don’t believe they can do it. If they can come to the realization that the book isn’t working for them, then we can readjust in a healthy conversation. Also, when everyone else moves onto a new book, they can re-read the one they already read and experience greater success the second time around with new peers. Choices matter, and the more choices I remove for a student, the more they see the limits I place on them as a limit in my belief in their abilities rather than a logical choice based on their zone of proximal development. Will they get everything out of that book at the same level as their on grade level peers? No. Will they learn more if they’re happy? Yes. Will they learn a lot from the models of their on grade level peers? YES! They will learn so much by being in a book club. Even if they mostly listen in on their conversations and don’t add as much as other peers, they’re still gathering valuable cues of what a reader does. Does this mean I let them just struggle and sort of shuffle along? No! I also am going to be extra vigilant reading with this student pivotal passages of the text and teaching them in small groups. Also, they should be getting instruction at books in their levels perhaps in guided reading or strategy groups, depending on their level. They will not always be stretching themselves by reading challenging books for book clubs.

Students who “seem” fine but also seem, well, not fine

I write a lot more about the path I take for older students who are missing foundational skills and might need intervention here. In short, I often see sixth graders who struggle with phonics, phonological awareness, decoding and spelling multisyllabic words, basic punctuation and grammar rules, fluency, phrasing, and expression. These students require instruction in these areas. First, I do more assessments to gain information such as the CORE Phonics survey and running records. Then, I will pull them in small groups to teach them these foundational skills. If possible, this is going to happen at least 3x/week for 20 minutes following an intervention program or curriculum of some kind. This will serve as documentation should I need to move forward with some other process within my school. 

So what does that schedule look like?

I don’t do it all every day. I currently have a 60 minute language arts block and a 30 minute intervention block. I would be happy with two blocks of 45 minutes as well. If I did not have the two separate sessions because I taught middle school, I would essentially flip-flop between these models I describe below and probably build in 10 minutes of independent reading or 10 minutes of freewriting depending on the focus of the current unit to balance it out.

My 60 minute block is dedicated to language arts projects that involve some kind of written final product – whether that is a reading response or one-pager, a book talk/trailer, a picture book, a memoir, a website, a research essay, a notebook of poems, etc. That block of time almost always follows the same structure of minilesson, work time and conferences, and closing. I find conferences most beneficial for teaching writing although I will occasionally call a group of students all struggling with one skill together with me. More often, I will offer students to come to me if they need help with the minilesson skill or if they’re behind or whatever my prompt it. This often gets students asking for help that need it that’s more open since it’s self-directed. I am not singling anyone out for support, but I can by going to them later. I definitely do not distribute conferences evenly; many students need more time with me and that is okay.

During the 30 min intervention block, I center this time on independent reading, so we do multiple lessons on fix up strategies, reading stamina, reading behaviors, choosing just right books, etc. in class before we settle into reading. Once students can *mostly* be trusted to independently read, I can start conferences. I always do lots and lots of mini conferences before I settle into small groups. I will run through a set of strategy groups over a couple of weeks. 

For instance, here is what that 30 minute block has looked like for me this year at various times.

Possible Structures

Day 1 – Minilesson, Work Time and Conferences with extreme students (either side); closing with progress shared

Day 2 – No minilesson; 2 small groups each 15 minutes

Instead I might do:

Day 1 – Minilesson and Reflection on Book Club goals; Book Club Discussions; closing with goals for next time

Day 2 – No minilesson; 2 small group(s) each 15 minutes and/or conferences

Instead I might do:

Day 1: Long read aloud, minilesson with partner discussion, goal setting/closing

Day 2:  No minilesson, independent reading and conferences

Instead I might do:

Day 1/2/any: Minilesson; 1 small group; Conferences; Closing

Or I might combine some of those to form a week. If I’m doing small groups, that’s going to take at least 3 days of my week. Some weeks, I only do conferences, especially in the first quarter of the year when we’re still building reading stamina. I also will conference with book clubs for our first book club of the year which is different from a small group lesson with them as I just respond to what I see and hear vs. planning on what to teach beforehand.

Flexibility First

I think the key to meeting the needs of students is flexibility. I can’t follow the same exact structure every day, but I can follow the same structure for a few weeks at a time. When I shift, I just explain to students what the new structure will be. There are enough similarities (minilessons, book club talks or book partner talks, small groups with the teacher, independent reading, independent writing about reading, conferences, whole class sharing) that once they know the pieces, I can shift those pieces around to suit their needs. Don’t worry about finding the perfect structure or system that will meet all of your needs. It doesn’t exist! I sympathize with those of you who “have to” follow a certain time structure to everything within a block as that can be exhausting. Give yourself grace! As long as you are talking with students and looking around and staying engaged, you’re doing it right!

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