As I eagerly gathered up my ideas and insights for a follow-up article about last month’s “Mystery Reader” topic, I found myself trying to negotiate two seemingly incompatible schools of thought regarding effective literacy teaching and learning. I am a huge proponent of student choice and voice (instead of teacher- or curriculum-dictated text selections), teacher expertise (instead of reliance on scripted programs), and fostering a lifelong love and motivation for reading (instead of seeking the holy grail of high test scores). However, lately I find myself grappling with the ideal world of what literacy teaching and learning could and should look like and the reality of the world most teachers live in, one filled with constant pressure to meet the standards and produce readers who show what they know by passing high stakes tests. Searching my thesaurus for just the right words to describe this mixed feeling, I settled on “capitulate” and “conquer.” Allow me to elaborate.
Capitulate, in the strongest sense of the word is to say someone is caving in. A milder form of the word means to come to terms with something that is perceived as unsettling. It represents the negative side of the coin. Conquer, on the other hand, represents victory. It describes the ability to overcome or avoid defeat. Definitely the preferred side of the coin for most folks.
So what do these two opposing words have to do with promoting reflection and enhancing comprehension through analyzing miscues of students’ oral reading (the essence of Mystery Reader)? In sharing my enthusiasm for such a technical aspect to literacy instruction, I must confess that I expect some exceptional educators to dismiss it because it sounds too dry, too focused on judgment of a reader’s performance, with not nearly enough emphasis on igniting a passion or promoting reading joy. To those who might question the Mystery Reader approach, it just might feel a bit like capitulating, like accepting a practice that tries to quantify a process that shouldn’t be used for any kind of measurement, especially that of children.
But here’s the thing, with more than twenty-five years of experience as an educator, I can still vividly recall just about every single former student who needed more than his or her peers to discover what it means to be a reader and to find pleasure in that experience. For some kids, connecting them with the right book is paramount but equally important is providing effective instruction that builds necessary foundational skills and strategies. Skills and strategies that won’t materialize haphazardly. And that’s why I encourage you to consider sharing this activity with your students, enabling them to learn and understand the benefits of a powerful form of feedback. Flip the coin, choose to conquer the barriers that keep some kids from knowing what it feels like to get lost and found in a great story. And while it’s true that not all things that are measured really matter and not all things that matter are always measured, I am convinced that running records and miscue analysis deserve a place in our literacy teaching and learning.
As promised in the first installment of Mystery Reader, I have a few suggestions for collecting audio recordings of anonymous student readers to share with your miscue analyzers. The first is a free app I’ve used extensively, called VoiceRecordPro. With just a bit of exploring, I found the app to be user-friendly and perfect for collecting oral reading samples. Once recordings have been captured, it is easy to rename them, add notes and share them via dropbox, google drive, or email. These options make it possible to quickly swap recordings with colleagues in other grades and schools to ensure anonymity when sharing Mystery Readers with students. VoiceRecordPro can also be used for all sorts of multimedia projects. My students first utilized it when illustrating and performing the poem, “If You Give a Child a Book” by Dr. Pam Farris. Check out our YouTube video here.
Another option for collecting oral reading samples is using the “running record” assignment tool from Reading A-Z/Raz-Plus. Though I am not one to plug commercial, for-profit sites, I have to say I am a huge fan of this feature and how it lends itself to Mystery Reader. A free two-week trial is offered for the Reading A-Z/Raz-Plus site that may be best known for its vast collection of ebooks and printable blackline master books. The annual cost for an individual teacher is close to $200, which is pricey, though discounts are offered to schools or districts signing up for 10 or more subscriptions. The running record feature on the site allows teachers to access a powerful way to record and analyze running records as well as collect oral retellings. Student recordings can be saved and shared with parents to demonstrate student growth over the year or they can be used with students during reading conferences or intervention sessions.
I invite you to submit questions or contact me for more information about how to use either method, VoiceRecordPro and Reading A-Z/Raz-Plus to implement Mystery Reader.
A third column related to Mystery Reader will be shared in Teach it Forward next month, with a focus on expanding the activity to include reflections and conversations with students about reading conferences.