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Wednesday, 15 August 2018

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Reading Recovery’s Lessons for Regular Classrooms

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

“Lessons Learned: Applying Principles of Reading Recovery in the Classroom” by Kayla Lewis in The Reading Teacher, May/June 2018 (Vol. 71, #6, p. 727-734),; Lewis can be reached at

In this article in The Reading Teacher, Kayla Lewis (Missouri State University) says she was not thrilled when her district made her to go through Reading Recovery training as she transitioned to being a literacy coach. She had ten years of classroom experience, a master’s degree in reading, and had taught literacy at the university level. What could Reading Recovery add? Lewis was familiar with Marie Clay’s pioneering work in New Zealand, Reading Recovery’s track record with struggling readers, and its spreading implementation in the U.S. beginning in the 1980s. But the training just didn’t seem relevant to the work she was about to do coaching K-5 teachers.

“I am not ashamed to admit that I was wrong,” says Lewis. “Reading Recovery training and the teachings of Clay had a profound effect on my teaching and forever changed the way I view students who struggle.” Lewis believes that Reading Recovery, while it focuses on individual instruction for at-risk first graders, contains a number of instructional insights that can be helpful to all elementary teachers:

• Observing well – “It is essential for us to put aside our own agendas and really notice what students are able to do,” says Lewis. One of the most helpful tools is video – teachers watching themselves after a lesson and thinking through all the teaching moves they made and their students’ responses.

• Focusing on what students can do – “Struggling students would come to me needing assistance, and all I saw were the holes and the tangles,” says Lewis. She learned how to zero in on the competencies and knowledge students brought to the table – “roaming around in the known” is a Reading Recovery routine in early lessons. When students are overwhelmed by all the standards they have to master, frustrated, and feeling like failures, finding areas of competence is the key to building confidence and ultimately skillful reading and writing.

• Working in the zone of proximal development – Vygotsky famously defined the optimal learning zone as what students can do with assistance – what they can almost do. It’s impractical for teachers to apply this principle to a whole class, says Lewis, but in small groups, teachers can use assessments and observation to tune in on each child’s Goldilocks level of difficulty and scaffold their progress with just the right amount of support, not wasting time on things they can already do and not frustrating them with tasks that are too difficult. Of course children’s zones move up as they become more proficient, prompting the teacher to make constant adjustments.

• Knowing the difference between scaffolding and rescuing – During her Reading Recovery training, Lewis asked for her coach’s help with a particularly challenging student. The coach watched a lesson video and said, “You’re hovering.” A little defensive, Lewis said she was helping the student. “No,” said the coach. “You are making him dependent on you. Every time he struggles, you jump in and help him.” Again, Lewis pushed back, saying she was doing her job, teaching the student. The coach corrected her: what she was doing was rescuing the boy, teaching him to wait for her support every time he got stuck, instead of having him struggle a little and learn something new. Lewis says this was a pivotal moment in her development as a teacher. Going forward, she always kept Clay’s principle in mind: “The teacher never does anything for the child that he could do himself.” Lewis suggests three questions for classroom teachers: Do your prompts promote independence or dependence? Are you scaffolding or rescuing? and Who’s doing the work here?

• Taking responsibility when a student isn’t progressing – “As a classroom teacher, I used to say, ‘All students can learn,’ but I am not sure that I truly believed it,” says Lewis. “I cannot tell you how many students I unnecessarily referred to our special education testing team. Most of the students I referred did not qualify. Why? Because they did not need special education; they needed me to do a better job of teaching them.” Most struggling readers have a difference, she says, not a disability. Another Clay mantra: “If the child is a struggling reader or writer, the conclusion must be that we have not yet discovered the way to help him learn.” Through observations and assessment, the teacher needs to figure out what’s going on, reflect on which teaching moves aren’t working, and make the appropriate adjustment.

• Less teacher talk – “As a teacher, I talk a lot,” says Lewis. “We all talk a lot. It is part of our job.” But during Reading Recovery training, she realized that what she was saying was often getting in students’ way. “Once I realized the power of my words,” she says, “I did less talking and made the talking that I did do more precise. I learned to listen and observe, and in those quiet moments, I was able to see what my students could do without my support and constant interrupting. I will not say it was easy. I often had a hard time biting my tongue, but as I became quieter and more deliberate in what I chose to say, my students became more untangled.”

• Seeing that no two readers are the same – Lewis has learned that one-size-fits-all book introductions and all-purpose lesson plans don’t connect with many students. She suggests that classroom teachers systematically cycle through their students observing two or three a day, taking running records, and learning the type of prompting and support each one needs. “Over time,” she says, “you will have gathered information on each student in your class, and another cycle of observation can begin. The time and effort will pay off when your students have one of those light-bulb moments that we teachers live for.”

• The importance of teacher teamwork – After she completed Reading Recovery training, Lewis served as a literacy coach in her school, working closely with a colleague who taught Reading Recovery, building bridges among Reading Recovery, regular education, Title I, and special education teachers. This meant that students heard “the same language, the same prompting, and the same type of instruction in all places,” says Lewis. “Hearing one voice allowed many of our students to make more accelerated progress than any one of us could have achieved alone.”

• Being a lifelong learner – “I have learned that there are so many people who know so much more about reading than I ever will,” concludes Lewis, “and in that, I have learned to listen.” She urges all teachers to take this stance. “Soak in the knowledge of those around you. Read often. Keep up with the latest research. Reflect on your own teaching practices. Ensure that your knowledge never remains stagnant and that you continue to grow in your learning.”

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