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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 4, January/February 2005

New Westminster Secondary School students are SmartReaders

by Sarah Wethered

New Westminster Secondary School’s reluctant readers are coming to the library on their own to choose novels to read. Helping to bring that about is the SmartReading program, developed by Susan Close, assistant superintendent, and implemented by Judy Adamson, library department head, and Nadya Rickard and Robin Speed, English teachers and part-time learning facilitators for the district.

SmartReading grew out of the need for students to meet the literacy standards set by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), of which Canada is a member nation. The literacy standards require students to "consider, discuss, and talk about their understandings of text, and also about the various processes of reading" (Allington, 2001; OECD/PISA, 1999).

Close drew on the findings of the Learning for Success project she was leading as she developed SmartReading. With Learning for Success, 14 school districts worked together to develop strategies to improve thinking, reading, and writing. Close also drew on the research by Richard Allington and his six Ts of effective reading instruction:

  • Time—Teachers give to students at least 90 minutes a day of "eyes on" and "minds on" text.
  • Texts—Teachers provide a rich and extensive supply of texts.
  • Teaching—Teachers explicitly demonstrate cognitive strategies good readers use.
  • Talk—Teachers encourage teacher-to-student and student-to-student talk.
  • Tasks—Student work is substantive, is challenging, and requires self-regulation.

Aligning testing and teaching—Teachers use rubric- or performance-standards-based assessment and evaluation.

Allington advocates a three-pillared approach for reading instruction:

  • Word work, including phonemic awareness and symbol imagery.
  • Fluency, decoding test with a 95% accuracy.
  • Comprehension, using the eight strategies that powerful readers do.

Close structured the six Ts and three pillars into a nine-step SmartReading framework that pulled all the research together.

SmartReading with independent texts was introduced to NWSS students in the fall of 2003. Nadya Rickard and Robin Speed worked with Judy Adamson to implement the process. All three teachers (as well as many of the other NWSS staff members) attended training. Students were then brought to the library to apply SmartReading strategies through self-direction.

Adamson spent most of the summer of 2003 choosing novels for SmartReading students. Drawing on her 20 years of experience as a teacher-librarian, she began acquisitioning a new collection of high-interest books that would meet the criteria for fluency. Students need to be able to read at the speed of speech. Adamson wanted to find award winning and/or highly recommended books that students would love to read, not have to read. Out of Adamson’s initial selections grew the SmartReading collection, now more than 1,200 novels. SmartReading is housed in the fiction section at NWSS, but it is on a separate bank of shelves. Each book bears a "SmartReading" sticker, a smiley face. Students know that the smiley-face books are the newest, most interesting novels the library has.

When not leading classes in the library using SmartReading techniques, Adamson spends a lot of her time finding new books for the collection and creating book talks on the acquisitions. Students know that she is the fiction expert and that if she cannot find the perfect book at the moment, she will find it or create a list of books that are nearly perfect. Behind her is Marnie Chandler, library technician, and me, the second teacher-librarian, who process and catalogue the books for circulation and read many of the new novels so that we can also make recommendations to students.

Independent SmartReading was introduced at NWSS to help improve the reading and confidence of struggling students. Students who had never read independently were required to read one novel a week and be accountable for it through such activities as interviews with the teacher and class writes. Students rose to the challenge, and in two months, doubled the circulation of the previous year.

This year, independent SmartReading has spread to all levels of the English curriculum, from ESL to IB English. Classes are brought to the library for up to four days, and the classroom teacher and Adamson lead the class through a selection process. Students read in 10-minute chunks and practise SmartReading strategies. A different novel is used for each chunk. Students also engage in meaningful structured talk (A/B partners), discussing not the plot, but the big ideas. Originally, the books for students to choose from fit onto a few carts wheeled into the reference section. Now, the novels take up several banks of shelves in the fiction section, so tables are rearranged in the section to accommodate the class. It is a rare week that the tables are moved back to their original arrangement.

Many students move from never having read a novel in their entire life (not even the ones assigned in class) to reading 15 or more a semester. Students are excited to share their opinions about their recent reads with the library staff, their teachers, and, most important, their classmates. Students have learned that reading is fun and are not afraid to tell anyone who cares. As one student noted in her reflection, "SmartReading helps me [keep thinking all the time] and it let me feel like I am really using my brain."

As a result of SmartReading, fiction circulation has increased 650% since September 2002. The library staff are constantly checking in the returned items and reshelving them to keep up with the demand of the SmartReaders. Additional copies of extremely popular items have to be ordered. The novels fly out of the library. All libraries should have that problem. With the spread of SmartReading into other curriculum areas, who knows what will happen next year, but it will be an exciting adventure for the library staff, teachers, and students of New Westminster Secondary School.

For more information on SmartReading, visit www.smartreading.ca.

Sarah Wethered is a teacher-librarian, New Westminster Secondary School, New Westminster.

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