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If you’re asking kids to do Popcorn Reading, you’re doing it wrong. (Here’s what to do instead.)

Earlier this week, I flashed back to a semi-obscure movie called Conspiracy Theory. Two sentence summary? The main character is freaked out because she keeps seeing this guy, meeting him in elevators, or jumping into a cab before realizing that he’s the driver. She begins to believe that this guy is out to get her but he eventually ends up saving her life, because spoiler alert, there really is a conspiracy.

I don’t think my life is in any danger but my brain jumped back to that movie because over the weekend, my news feed kept sending me to multiple articles that featured headlines like “Teaching Practices to Leave Behind” or “4 Reading Strategies to Retire this Year” or “Stuff We Know Doesn’t Work” and “Why You Shouldn’t Use These Activities in Your Class Because They Will Ruin Your Students and They’ll End up in a Movie with Mel Gibson.”

A search engine conspiracy based on something I may have said out loud within earshot of Alexa? Oh, absolutely. But I took it as a sign and it got me thinking about strategies that I used to use in the classroom and about things I still see teachers doing. Strategies that research tells us really didn’t work.

And the list got pretty big. There are a lot of things we do as teachers that we do . . . well, just because. (And full disclosure? I used almost all of them at some point.) Not because they’re research based or because we have any evidence to suggest they work. We do them perhaps because we saw someone else use them or we experienced them ourselves as students.

And we should stop.

Curious what’s on the list?

Round Robin and Popcorn Reading
You might not be doing this. But a lot of people still are. Even though “. . . we know of no research evidence that supports the claim that Round Robin Reading actually contributes to students becoming better readers, either in terms of their fluency or comprehension.” (Hilden, Jones 2012) If fact, the research suggests just the opposite. After looking at dozens of research articles, Todd Finley, education professor at East Carolina University, concluded “that oral turn-taking reading practices like round robin stigmatize poor readers, weaken comprehension, and sabotage fluency and pronunciation.”

So why is it still being used? In their new ASCD book, Why Are We Still Doing That? Positive Alternatives to Problematic Teaching Practices, authors Pérsida and William Himmele give us one possibility:

“Most teachers spend about 13,000 hours in the classroom as students before they graduate high school. That’s a lot of hours soaking up habits that they will later consciously or unconsciously perpetuate, even after learning about best practices in college or university,”

Other things that we know don’t work:

  • Assigned reading without context or background.
  • A focus on “covering” lots and lots of content rather than digging deeply into a topic or theme.
  • Measuring learning with summative assessments only – while using only low level questions such as true / false and matching during the actual learning process.
  • Too. Much. Homework.
  • Using rigid pacing guides without any attempt to adapt them.
  • Ignoring cultural and individual differences in your students.
  • Using poor whole group questioning techniques and asking things like “Does everyone understand?”
  • Spending a majority of class time on direct instruction with little student interaction or input.
  • Using mostly textual and secondary documents such as textbooks rather than a mix of evidence, especially primary sources.
  • Failing to incorporate appropriate technology tools.

So what does work?

Teacher Think Alouds
A Think Aloud helps make visible the many invisible strategies that proficient readers use to monitor their comprehension as they engage with a text. During a think aloud, the teacher reads aloud a section of a text, pausing every now and again to reveal what they are thinking about and doing in order to understand what they are reading. 

Inquiry-based instruction focused on providing engaging compelling questions
Using the Inquiry Design Model can help students improve their Claim / Evidence / Reasoning skills.

A variety of primary sources
It can get easy to use just textual primary sources. We know how powerful visuals can be for making connections. Be sure to include maps, charts, cartoons, photos, paintings, and artifacts into your instructional designs.

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy
Culturally responsive teaching means using students’ customs, characteristics, experience, and perspectives as tools for better classroom instruction. Sounds like common sense. (Spoiler. It is.)

Gamification and game-based learning
Gimkit. Goose Chase. Be Washington. Gerrymandering. Prisoner in My Homeland. Library of Congress software. Learning from Video Games.

Thinking routines
A thinking routine is a set of questions or a brief sequence of steps used to scaffold and support student thinking. Project Zero has a ton of free ones. EduProtocols have some paid ones.

Problem-Based Learning
The idea is pretty basic. Give kids an authentic problem. Provide some evidence and resources. Get out of the way.

Cooperative learning
We all hate group work. But true cooperative learning involves more than just telling kids to get into group and have them work on some sort of “project.” It requires us to actually structure the learning in ways that build interdependence. One great example? Three words – Structured Academic Controversy.

Relevant content and a connection to contemporary issues
Because nobody cares about stuff that happened so. Long. Ago. Until kids see the connection, what’s the point? Voting rights? 1876. 1961. 2022. Done.

Use stories. Products tell. Emotional stories sell.
Yes . . . you are selling something. And using stories sells history.

Civic engagement with science. Integration of fiction with ELA

Lots of stuff out there to read. Try some of these:

Learning new stuff is hard. Let’s not make it harder by using things that don’t work.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    Great article! I remember when I was in school popcorn-reading was a major component of almost every class. I also remember not paying attention until I was called on to read, missing the entire lesson completely. The alternatives you presented seem like great ways to abandon this tired way of doing things and get our students more engaged using what works for them. Thank you for the ideas!

    June 2, 2022
    • glennw #

      Thanks for sharing! I also remember doing this as a student. Even worse, I remember doing sequential reading – we went in order. I would count the kids in front of me, count the number of paragraphs, find my paragraph, and blow the rest of it off.

      I hope you can use some of these ideas!


      June 2, 2022

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