Reading Comprehension Strategies for Non-readers

From my own experiences, what I’ve found most helpful with working with poor readers are the pre-reading strategies or preparatory work that we can do with students to really “hook” them into a piece of text.  I recently had the task of teaching a 6-7 grade class (of all non-readers and behavior problem students) about the 3 main types of volcanoes.  Rather than just get into the 2 paragraphs, I began with a website that showed them video clips and photos of different volcanoes erupting.  I know they didn’t have much background knowledge of volcanoes; I know they didn’t have good strategies for coming up with questions about a piece of reading, so I needed to give them visuals which would stimulate some ideas or connections for them.  They thought it was so cool—one student said, “you mean there’s different kinds of volcanoes?” and they were into it; they wanted to know the three types.  We read (the 1st grade level text) about the 3 main types and then looked at the pictures and video clips again to match the types with the real photos/videos.  I am certain they never would have even bothered to be interested without that “visual hook,” that thing that needed to be done to capture their interest and prepare them for the reading.  When I wanted to go back to review the three types of volcanoes the next day, I reminded them of the pictures and video clips that they saw to help them remember.

One thing I find difficult to teach to students who are poor readers is the meta-cognitive stuff about reading.  Some of them can hear themselves stumble when they read out loud when something doesn’t make sense, and they go back.  I think the RAP (read, ask what’s important, put it in your own words) strategy will work well for that too.  This strategy has helped me teach them the idea of paraphrasing—so if they can paraphrase what they read then I can be reasonably sure they are understanding and monitoring their understanding.

Questioning during reading is something I’ve become very practiced at.  My students have become very good at answering my “how” and “why” questions.  I want to show them how they can find the answers to the different kinds of questions.  Break questions down into “in the book” and “in my head” questions.  In my classroom we keep a list of questions everyone asks as we read.  For example, when we were reading The Iliad, some of the questions my students came up with were “Will Paris die?”; “Will Achilles die?”; “Who was good and who was bad?”; “Why was Paris called a coward?”; “who will win the war?”  Then I can work with them further on how to better discover the answers to the questions—will we find the answer in the book or will we have to think about it?  Then I can ask them, “will we need information from the story to think about it or can we answer it without the book?”  I want to be able to get them to a point where they can generate questions for each other without my prompting.  Learning to distinguish between kinds of questions will help them in their other subject areas too. Teaching them to think about reading isn’t just teaching them to think about reading—it’s teaching them to think about the world.  I always love when one or more of them say, “ok, so now Dawn is going to ask us how this character is like a real person and what advice would we give them if we met them blah blah blah,” and they do it with a bit of exasperation and sarcasm because I always ask it and they are so sick of hearing it, but they do it– and I’ve made them think about things in the world that are different from what they are used to.

One thing we are fortunate enough to be able to do in a small, alternative setting is to help generalize reading strategies through the other subject areas.  Students at ONTOP take different classes every day (like they would in a mainstream high school). But one of our goals is to focus on literacy—get them to read and think at higher levels than they do now so they won’t feel so intimidated in a high school class.  When teachers teach a reading strategy or a vocabulary strategy then the other teachers in the building will also model and use that strategy in their subject area.  There are only 6 teachers, so it’s easy to collaborate and we have support for each other—it makes it easy to give the students as much exposure to strategies as possible.  This is one of the main things that helps our students learn to read and comprehend more quickly.  We don’t need all those reading accommodations that the students needed in mainstream education because we use text that they can read and have the time to teach them strategies and expose them across subject areas—you just can’t get that kind of package deal in a mainstream high school classroom where the goal is to get through the curriculum rather than teach the student how to read.  Learning and practicing strategies for reading helps the students gain confidence and self-esteem which will make sitting in a mainstream high school class less intimidating.  A couple of years ago I had a student say to me, “you tricked me into liking reading.”  He became the first in his family to graduate from high school.

Edmodo and Group Collaboration

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2 middle school students read and prepare to collaborate as a group using Edmodo.

Today one of my middle school literacy classes worked on continuing to read the story “The Ransom of Red Chief.”  While they did that they prepared to ask each other questions using Edmodo (a social media tool).  I’ve talked about this resource in a previous post, and it is a resource that I love to use, and my students also enjoy it a lot.  Click here to see the conversation that has been started about the character “Red Chief.”  As the teacher, it is important that I keep the conversation going, so I’ve prompted them with a question to help them continue the conversation the next time they are in class.  Today is the first time they have used this tool to collaborate, so I only expected 1 response from them so they can get used to this format.

What I like about Edmodo is that my students can talk to each other in a way that is familiar to them because it’s kind of like Facebook; but this is also a safe place for them because no one has our class code and can randomly insert themselves into the conversation or find my students.  This also is a good record of student progress and academic achievement.  My students all have learning disabilities, so I know it is tough for them to write, but just seeing that they’ve written semi-complete sentences and connected their comments to each other’s makes me feel like they are accomplishing some good work.  I was really proud of them today; they had good focus and they followed directions beautifully to get some real academic work done.

I also used the quiz feature in Edmodo today.  Teachers can create their own quizzes with multiple choice, short answer, true/false, or fill-in-the-blank questions.  They are easy to grade and the teacher can comment on each question while correcting the quizzes.  My 6th and 7th grade students particularly enjoyed the quiz–they ENJOYED it–a quiz!  Through Edmodo’s create a quiz feature, I was able to make a quick assessment to determine if they are ready to move on.  Even though I’ve been using Edmodo for a few years, this is the first time I’ve made and used a quiz.  I really like it, and I will continue to use it because it can make a great exit card and help me form the basis of my next lesson or to see what I need to review.  The quiz today was only 4 questions, but it was enough to inform my instruction for tomorrow’s class.

Using Nearpod For Safe Discussions

nearpod app for ipadUsing 1:1 iPads can be tricky with middle school students.  They want to access music and games, and otherwise multi-task while attempting to complete their class work.  In addition,  the type of students I work with will do everything in their power to avoid classwork; they also can be super anxious about talking out loud or contributing to a discussion.  We want to have classrooms be more real-life project-oriented to get students interested in learning, but the students I work with need intensive structure and support; they aren’t good at independent learning. I wanted to provide a fun way for students to interact and participate in a class discussion in a safe way.  Last school year I heard about an app called Nearpod, and I’ve found it to be really fun and engaging for my students.

Nearpod allows someone to create a “presentation,” and then allows others to see it on their own device and to interact.  Presentations can be created usingnearpod featuring creator's screen Nearpod or they can even be uploaded from Powerpoint or from your Google Drive.  I like building presentations in Keynote on my iPad and then uploading them to Nearpod to finish off because Nearpod doesn’t have as many building options as other presentation building tools.  Once the presentation is in Nearpod, the creator can add activities which include polls, open-ended questions, multiple choice questions, drawings, or quizzes.  The creator inserts opportunities for the users to answer questions and provide input.  It becomes an interactive presentation and discussion tool.  To set up, the creator logs into Nearpod and then shares a presentation; when that is done, the creator gets a code.  The code is what everyone else enters in order to access the presentation.  Each person creates a screen name to use when they log into the presentation.  The creator can see everyone’s names, and when activities are shared, the creator can see everyone’s responses.  The creator is the one who controls the presentation and shares it with the group.  My students are especially fond of “draw-it” scenarios because they love using the drawing or picture tools, and they love to see each other’s artwork when I share for the discussion.

So how can you use this tool?  This week I created a presentation on friendship since we’ve been discussing it in our social skills class.  What I did was create “tricky situations,” scenarios that we needed to discuss.  I would share a slide of a situation, then present an activity for student comment or response.  Once all responses were in, I would share them, and as I shared them across the ipad screens, we had our discussion.  Each student was actively engaged, and they felt safe to participate.  They created silly screen names and would laugh when I used those names instead of their real names:  “I like what Goldfish shared, he had a great suggestion for this situation.”  I like to use scenarios and have students respond to the scenario using Nearpod; they feel safer doing it this way rather than just speaking out in class.

Tips for Working with Tough Kids and Their Parents

As a teacher of students with significant emotional and behavioral challenges, I’ve found that it is imperative to form good working relationships with the parents of my students.  As part of our alternative school program, parents meet every two weeks with the special education “team.”  We call these meetings “home conferences;” it doesn’t mean that we meet with the parents at home–it just means that we have a home-school meeting with all the players on the student’s team.  

2The best thing you can do to work with parents of tough kids is to remember that they might not have the same values as you do.  Some of the parents I have worked with over the years are people who aren’t necessarily people I think are the best role models, but I look beyond that and understand that they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.  Listen to them; let them download their worries to you, and be someone they can lean on.  Don’t try to make them fit into a middle class mold.  Shake their hand when you meet them, smile at them warmly, and ask them about themselves.  Their child might be difficult in the classroom, and you need the parents on your side.  

Set up regular meetings that are based on all of the good things the student has accomplished.  These meetings might only be 10-15 minutes long, but you will quickly become well-liked when you are sharing positives about their child in person. Parents of your difficult students have often had difficulties back when they were in school, so school is a negative and scary place to be.  When you communicate positive accomplishments, the parents aren’t as afraid of school personnel.  You will need to have at least 40 positive communications “in the bank” with a tough kid before you have a negative communication with that child; otherwise it will be an uphill climb to build a relationship with that student and to have them trust you.  The same can be said for working with a parent of a tough kid; build up the positives so that when things get difficult and you have to give some negative feedback, the parent trusts you.

Relationship is key.  In order to work best with a tough kid, you have to build a solid relationship with them because you will be relying on that when their behavior gets difficult.  A tough kid is not going to follow your directions and listen to you because you are the “authority.”  You have to show that kid that you can be trusted.  You have to be a safe person for the tough kids.  In the classroom, tell the child, “thank you for (insert compliment),” or “I like how you (insert compliment).”  Be specific with your feedback, so that it shapes the positive behavior you want.  Try to ignore minor attention seeking behaviors.  

Likewise, if you are a principal who only sees your students occasionally or when they have been “bad,” then you aren’t going to garner respect from the tough students.  Stand in the hall in the morning and greet each student as he or she enters the building; go to student homerooms to say hello, or talk to them while they eat breakfast (or eat with them).  If you work in an alternative school, this is even more important.  Go into classrooms and compliment students who are on task and show interest in their work and accomplishments.  I don’t know how many times since we’ve gotten our new principal that the students will ask where she is, or they will comment on the fact that she only comes into a classroom when someone is in trouble.  Students notice, and teachers can’t hide it.  Further, if you are a principal of tough kids, go to the positive parent-teacher meetings and be a presence in the room when there is good news; if you only go to the meetings where there is “bad news,” again, you aren’t going to build any trust with the parents or the students.  A case in point:  our principal doesn’t go to many parent-teacher meetings; I’ve had parents in the spring of the school year who never remember meeting the principal; I’ve also had parents say to me that they don’t want her at a meeting because they don’t trust her.  Because she’s an authority figure in the school, they especially don’t trust her; they see her just like they’ve seen all authority figures in the past:  not on their side.

No matter what type of school you work in, and no matter what type of principal you have, you need to build the strongest relationships with your toughest students and their parents.  Those are the people who need to know that you are a safe person who is on their side so that when times get tough, they can trust that you have the best interest of their child at heart. 

Complex Trauma and Mental Health in Students

The students I work with have significant emotional and behavioral challenges.  At our school, the staff has been getting training in being a trauma-informed learning environment.  Our local mental health service providers have worked with us and been a good resource for us in this endeavor.  We also were given a good web resource with tons of information about how mental illness affects kids, and how it looks in the classroom.  Further, there is an entire resource on complex trauma; those are the kinds of kids that I work with daily.  Now that I can see behavior through a trauma “lens,” it helps me remember that behavior is a message, and I need to figure out what the behavior is telling me.  

Complex trauma is when children are exposed to a traumatic event multiple times; this is different than a one time traumatic event which may cause Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Complex trauma means that a child has been exposed repeatedly, over time, and some of these events include:  neglect, bullying, physical and sexual abuse, chronic mental or physical illness, chronic family fighting, an incarcerated parent, the effects of poverty, homelessness, and maternal stress during pregnancy.

The effects of complex trauma on the brain are staggering.  There can be attachment problems; that means that these children can have a hard time making and keeping friends, or they can have a hard time with social boundaries and cues.  There can be self-regulation problems; this means that they can have a hard time managing emotions, or they can have problems knowing when they are hungry or full, or they have difficulty self-soothing and controlling their impulsivity.  There also can be problems with their competency which means they may have difficulty planning and organizing; they can have a lack of an ability to problem-solve, difficulty processing language, or they may have low self-esteem.  

What we are coming to learn is that complex trauma affects the brain and its growth.  When children who are affected by complex trauma are “triggered,” their primitive brain is activated which puts them into “fight or flight” mode; the part of their brain that allows them to think and act is “turned off.”  It is nearly impossible for a child in this state to think rationally.  But you can help. There are many strategies that you can use in your classroom. The following excerpt comes from the Students First Project: “Helping children self-regulate is a primary goal for work with children impacted by complex trauma. A key strategy to support the skills necessary for self-regulation is adult attunement to the child’s emotional state. Attunement is the ability to accurately read and respond to the child’s emotions rather than behavior. Adults also need to mange their own feelings and responses to children’s behavior and model the affect we want the children to learn. Establishing a safe and supportive environment (home, school and community) is critical. Consistency, predictability, and establishment of routines will help develop this sense of safety. Also, it is difficult for children who have experienced complex trauma to generalize skills so repeating interventions and strategies is critical to success.”

The Students First Project has listed many of the most difficult behaviors that students exhibit, with links to information and strategies for your classroom.  Becoming “trauma-informed” has really helped my teaching practice because I’ve been more patient and understanding with students.  Even if you don’t work with students with complex trauma, you probably have students with ADHD, depression, anxiety, or one of the many other issues that affect children and make it difficult for them to achieve their best in the classroom.