This is my long overdue review of Kylene Beers’ When Kids Can’t Read What Teachers Can Do
The first thing to note is that even for an Edu tome, Beers’ 2009 book is pretty expensive. Adding in shipping from the US, I paid around £27.00 for it, this post outlines to what extent it was worth it.
Why this book?
This year my school have picked up teaching The Giver in Year 8 (my recent post about this is here), this text is popular in the US and many of the ideas for teaching it seemed to reference some reading strategies I had never heard of – “Think Aloud”, “Say Something”. I was curious.
With much focus on the new KS3 curriculum and the challenge of a new GCSE, perhaps a new set of strategies might be in order. I am horrifyingly aware that our students now need to confident and independent readers.
Was it worth it?
I am going to say upfront – that this book is without doubt the most challenging and inspiring I have read in the last six years. It is practical, academically rigorous and wholly focussed on students and their success.
Beers’ book does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a guide for teachers of secondary school age students, outlining the numerous problems with teenagers’ reading and how they can be tackled.
Her thinking seems to have stemmed from genuine experiences in her own practice and that of colleagues. Tackling students who were unable to read the words on the page, then unable to read with any fluency or comprehension and then tackling issues of vocabulary and spelling, before tackling helping students respond to texts.
Below is one example of her ability to articulate clearly the issues in her classroom.
There are many moments of dialogue in this book, dialogue recorded between herself and students or herself and other teachers. While they do ring somewhat of ‘the American self-help’ book genre, they also serve the purpose of practical analogies for me to frame reference my classroom experience.
I began to realise that the problems I experience stem from issues so different from one another, that a one-off lesson in comprehension just wouldn’t cut it.
Anyone who’s been around education for a while now knows the mantra “making the implicit explicit” *nod to @LearningSpy*. Beers’ worldview is no different. She just increases the number of things we need to make explicit. Her challenge is that so many of our behaviours as confident readers are subconscious, that we must as teachers explicitly and intentionally teach them and then model them constantly. I have written briefly about this before.
Not only does Beers’ tackle the decoding of words (including some very interesting discussion of the impact of Synthetic Phonics on students who were reaching Middle & High School at the time) and word recognition skills, she also has chapters on:
- Creating Independent Readers
- Assessing the needs of Dependent Readers – how to work out where to start
- Explicit instruction of comprehension
- Learning to make an inference
- Frontloading meaning – pre-reading strategies. This one caused me some problems – is it possible to develop pre-reading strategies for the new “unseen” elements of GCSE? I am beginning to see some light on this. More on it in a later blog.
- Constructing meaning – during reading strategies
- Extending meaning – after reading strategies
- Vocabulary – how to figure out what words mean (some fabulous stuff on prefix and suffixes here)
- Fluency and automaticity
- Word recognition
- Spelling – moving from word lists to how words work
- Building the confidence to respond (to texts, in class, in writing)
- Finding the right book
All of the above with practical lessons outlining each element of knowledge needed and how to teach, demonstrate and build confidence in each skill.
Beers’ literally (yes, literally) steps into the classroom with each new strategy and explores how lessons using it were or were not successful. Where learning needed to be paused and retaught or approached differently.
Each chapter ends with an imaginary Q&A session – Beers’ foreseeing my British scepticism anticipates our problems with turning her thinking into classroom practice.
The just under 100 pages of appendices include templates and lesson plans, spelling lists, book lists for a variety of levels. The book itself is 370 odd pages long – and textbook sized. This is no mean guide.
When Kids Can’t Read is definitely a practical guide (along the lines of How to be a brilliant English teacher) – it is jammed packed full of ideas and moments of realisation. But it is not vacuous in its academic rigour – Beers’ clearly knows her stuff. She references most of the major research into reading in the US during 90s and early 2000s, as mentioned above her knowledge of policy and policy making of reading in the US seems to go beyond that of someone mildly interested. She has a big picture view but never seems to take her eye off individual students.
Beers’, although she has left the classroom, no doubt left her heart there.
Should you buy it?
As I stated at the outset – I love this book. It is expensive but worth it. Cheeky aside – many of Beers’ strategies are so widely used in the US that they can be found online with a simple search. Don’t be fooled though. The strategies are fantastic, but it is Beers’ clear explanation of the issues behind the strategies that are revelatory. Without that exposition, you really aren’t doing anything more that making your powerpoint look different.
For English departments where students are entering Year 7 on a Level 5/6 but showing poor fluency, comprehension or understanding of written texts, then I think this book might be right up your street. For departments where you are now carrying the burden of teaching students to read, this is a mature guide to dealing with this issue and teenagers.
Our English departments tend to be littered with Literature graduates, we are confident readers. We are not always confident with grammar, spelling and vocabulary – this text can help. We are also not always confident with articulating a process that is so natural to us – this text can help.
It will explain to you what you do automatically and how you can help your students do that too.
By embedding some of these strategies into my teaching, I am already beginning to see students more confident in their own opinions and ideas.
They are no longer grappling with a text and then listening carefully for my ideas or the ideas of the 3 or 4 confident readers in the room.
They are beginning to form their own inferences, viewpoints and connections.
Below are some examples of how I am beginning to try out Beers’ vocabulary, spelling and comprehension strategies.
Thanks for reading.