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Focus of Interview:

  • What is a Fake Reader?
  • Instill Joy in Reading,
  • Models of Reading,
  • Reading Comprehension for Kids,
  • Interactive Games for Kids,
  • How to Improve Reading Skills

Transcript of the Interview

Mike McQueen:

I’m here today with author Cris Tovani. Cris, are you there?

Cris Tovani:

I am.

Mike McQueen:

Cris, thank you so much for taking time to interview with us today.

Cris Tovani:

Oh, it’s my pleasure thanks for having me.

Mike McQueen:

Cris Tovani has written two books that are really popular, Do I Really Have To Teach Reading and I Read It But I Don’t Get It. And before we start going to our interview I mean, let me give you a background about my experience with Cris.

I was at school, at elementary school a little back that was placed in a corrective action which meant that test scores are so low that the school is going to get converted into a charter school and all of the teachers are going to be separated, it was a big, uncomfortable sticky situation for a year or two there. The principal at that time was Judy Herm and she brought me in, the two of us came to the school together and we really tried to transform the staff and myself included, and to really like change styles and, Cris Tovani’s book “I Read It But I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers.

That book, I remember our staff, our staff did a lot of research with different authors and you know, you try to use researched-based techniques to change teaching styles and everything, and I just remember that Cris’ book played a role with how we change that environment around.

Ultimately, we changed that school around that it took a year or two but things turned around. And I remember the time where we used different professional resources and we all learned together all the different techniques with using well known authors. So Cris, I don’t know if you know much about that story but your book played a role in changing lives of a bunch of teachers and especially a bunch of kids.

Cris Tovani:

Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. Thank you.

Mike McQueen:

So today, with Cris we are just going to talk about, Cris Tovani I don’t know if you know much about Reading on the Run. But basically it’s a website for teachers and parents on how to help struggling readers. So we’re going to focus on readers, of all ages so, kids that you know are just learning how to read all the way up to teenagers, any kids that struggle with reading, which could also cover, just attitude or reading problems or anything, so I know that your specialty, at least I think I know your specialty is really with comprehension and how do we help kids understand what they read. Would that be pretty accurate?

Cris Tovani:

Right. That was something that I just noticed with my own teaching experience. Until such level probably at high school, that there were so many kids who could decode and read with fluency but just don’t have an idea what they were reading and I was a little bit like that myself as a reader and was so curious about how I could help kids kind of read and remember 3 min and reuse text that they were given and so I’m just so curious in figuring that out.

Mike McQueen:

Well, tell us a little bit more just briefly your professional background and to mention something a little bit more about your background to that maybe fits in, so tell us a little bit about, I mentioned (???) role but what about your teaching experience.

Cris Tovani:

Well, I am, taught elementary school for ten years, before becoming a high school teacher. The last grade I taught before I taught high school was first grade. And was just really curious about that whole comprehension piece. Did not intend to stay at the high school level for long as I have. I’m going to start my 16th year there this coming year. Wanted to just see if comprehension strategy instruction would make a difference for older readers, especially older readers who are struggling and discovered that this whole world out there that, it a whole world of kids who are fake readers.

They were kind of playing that game in school, and teachers were working harder and harder to try to get though all their curriculum and content. Kids were kind of playing this game and so I have worked for non profit in Denver called the Public Education in Business Coalition, and we were looking at a body of research called the Proficient Reader Research that mentioned seven strategies that good readers used.

And so I started to mess around with that and tried to figure out how kids could use comprehension strategies as a tool to access content to you know, be able to make sense of their chemistry book or to be able to read a novel and remember what was going on. Especially to those difficult or boring text.

So, it’s just kind of lead me down this path to kind of figure out how to balance all content curriculum the teachers are expected to cover but also teach kids tools on how to think while they are reading. Of course I was thinking but think about all the reading materials as they read. Not you know, their boyfriend, soccer game, or..

Mike McQueen:

Right. Well, I think that you mentioned about fake readers. And I think that a lot of parents and teachers worry about kids that are you know, can fake it. Can you elaborate a little bit more on what is a fake reader?

Cris Tovani:
Yeah well you know, I tried the 3/4 combos for years. And you know I just remember that there was this big job between the third grade and the fourth grade in the reading material. And I remember thinking, “Gosh, I wish, you know, the third grade has more time to just read, to practice, to build their fluency to build their vocabulary. But come fourth grade, they just got slammed with all this non-fiction reading, all this non-fiction text. That just to survive they had to start you know, employing strategies that kind of got them around the reading.

Everything from you know, cheating to, having their mom read to them 6 min to, just copying off their neighbor you know, teachers just explaining the content and there’s just seem to be this big leap between you know kids’ skill levels and then what they are expected to do in just really short amount of time.

And I was noticing, on your website I was noticing that the whole parent pieces is just so huge and you know it’s summer time and this idea of you know what can parents do to strengthen their kids’ reading. And there’s a ton of research of that just talks about the power of letting kids read for fun, read what they want to read, you know experience that joy in reading, and I think sometimes we inadvertently shoot ourselves on the foot by parents by making them laborious at home during the summer time as supposed to this kind of joyous experience of escaping for a while.

Mike McQueen:

I know that is a big thing. I think a lot of parents they, especially if we’re talking about comprehension, so many parents that’s where they worry so much. You know I want to make sure that my kid you know reads well and understands but then sometimes they forget we got to make sure that we instill that love and that joy with what kids do, and I know I think kids go through summer you know they leave school and just in a few months, for at least the school that do summer break. You know kids lose so much over that course of two months. I can’t remember what the statistics is but its’, I want to say it as half of the year or three fourths of the year, of what they you know where they were, they kind of drop that a little bit for the most part where they don’t read during the summer.

Cris Tovani:

Yeah, its disturbing. And there’s so many great places to go now online we get suggestions for books and but I understand. I am a parent myself and you know when your kid is a struggling reader or perceived as you know, “behind” to skill and drill. You know its takes some time to just sit down with your kid and read a great book together. Letting them read maybe below their grade level to build that fluency, read those series books that sometimes considered as you know scholarly as, you know. By practice, practice, practice.

It’s so much easier to practice when you know, you are doing something enjoyable.

Mike McQueen:

Right. Yes exactly.

Cris Tovani:

Letting kids to chose.

Mike McQueen:

One of my first questions, main question is about modeling and the importance of modeling reading and you know when I was talking about Judy Herm and the school that were we you know got of a corrective action, it reminded me of my current school. I’m on an alternative high school right now, and Debra Gard is my principal. She had the staff read, go through when we did a book club, “Do I Really Have To Teach Reading: Content Comprehension 9 min for Grade Six to Twelve”.

In that book that you wrote, you talked a little bit about modeling and I mean, it was easy because our school it reminds me from what school I was at, our teachers are you know excited about learning new techniques and trying different things and so in your one chapter, I can’t remember which one it is. But you talked about modeling, can you tell us, I mean not just for teachers but also for parents, tell us you know what is modeling and you know what are some tips or suggestions that you have about modeling.

Cris Tovani:

Sure. Well you know this is just in a broadest sense of trying to learn how to do something. We tend to go to people who have expertise on whatever it is that we are trying to learn. Whether it is working on our golf game, or playing team up garden, I think we learn best when we see models of what it should look like. And we then opportunity to kind of ask that expert on you know how do they do what they do.

I think today, kids are expected to read text that didn’t even exist five years ago. And so, what we have to try to do is to show them how to access that type of material. I’m right now trying to set up a website with the blog on it. And I don’t get all that stuff, like I’m trying to do Twitter, I’m trying to do Facebook and I’m going to my teenage daughter to find out like how do read this, how do you write this, how should I set this up. And she’s providing models for me.
Building Background Knowledge

In “Do I Really Have To Teach Reading”, I noticed that you know when I was still teaching middle and high school kids like how do you read a Math book?, and I, you know I was a terrible reader of Math. I didn’t know how to do that. So I had to go to Math teachers and have them kind of do you know think out loud. Like what do they read first. How do they know what to solve for. What do they do when they get stuck. Where do they go to find you know, formulas.

So like I had to find people who are experts in that area to be better readers of that text myself. Like parents, parents already know how to read. So that idea of you know how do you help your kid stick with something that maybe not as interesting as they would like it to be. Or how to help your kid ask questions or build background knowledge around, maybe a newspaper article.

I think sometimes, we think we have to be really fancy and formal when we’re modeling. But I think the more authentic you can be you know, even if its just opening up the newspaper and just showing your kid on how to decide which article are going to the read based on the heading that grabbed your attention. You know, how do you use your questions to build background knowledge.

I think we know, adults know so much more about reading that they want themselves credit for, they could just kind of watch 12 min what do they do as readers. That’s a pretty powerful inside scoop for younger readers.

Mike McQueen:

Yeah you know, I mean when you think about the idea of modeling and reading, you know reading is such an isolated activity where you just reading. Typically if you’re just reading by yourself you know, you’re not talking, you’re just looking at pages and how do we share that to kids. You’re right first of all, I think by just letting them see you reading that’s the obvious thing that people think about with modeling I think it’s just see you reading, but like you mentioned, talking to them and asking them questions and doing different techniques I think is really important, when you’re trying to model.

Cris Tovani:

Yeah. You know, I was working with my daughter she’s now, you know moving off campus and I was just trying to show her how to read a lease. Okay, you got to look at the fine print. And you’ve got to look to see how long the lease is. You got to live there during the summer, what happens if you want to get out of the lease and you know just things that she didn’t know to look for because it’s a text she never read before. And you know I haven’t read a lot of lease in my life.

But I remember back in the day when you know I was doing the same thing and I was just trying to kinda help her determine the importance based on sort of that text structure of the fine print and how sometimes landlords put some things in there that she gotta look for. And I think that is so crucial for, you know accomplished readers to share with, you know, newer readers.

Mike McQueen:

You know that concept of speaking aloud, you know I’ve heard that throughout my career as a big piece for modeling. You know that’s basically it. As adults we so much more background experience in things that come into our mind, so whatever stuff we are thinking about whether or not it’s reading or even problems, or questions, or ideas or any of that stuff, you know that yes, if you could share that to your child or student that to me is so important, think louder, for modeling.

Cris Tovani:

Yeah that is powerful because in comprehension, all those good stuff in invisible. And so anytime you kind of metaphorically unzipped your head and just say, okay here’s what I’m thinking about as I’m reading this, here’s what I’m wondering, here’s what I need to figure out, here’s what I think is important.

Because I think a lot of kids especially younger readers think that meanings just arrives, you think the words then you get it. And I think making them tp understand that many of this is constructive, is pretty powerful. That you got to work at it and the more sophisticated the text is, the more thinking have to bring to it. And in order to really be the one in charge 15 min of that comprehension.

Mike McQueen:

So help us now with struggling readers, you mentioned that it’s a kind of work and it takes efforts and for kids that are struggling which is probably three-four times as hard, what are some things that we can do to help them with comprehension.

Cris Tovani:

Well, I think a lot of struggling readers that I have worked with for the last 15 years have had tons and tons of phonics instructions and fluency work. And they have a lot of comprehension instruction so many of them feel that there’s just not good readers. You know, they’ve been in reading classes since the first grade, there are still in reading classes, they just can’t do it. And I think what’s happening is that we are giving them more of what they don’t need.

And of course there are kids out there who needs systematic reading instructions especially, new language speakers, you know kids who’ve never had it before. But the time they’re getting to high school most struggling readers have been thought decoding strategies but have not been taught what to do when reading words that don’t really produce meanings.

So they don’t know how to go back and change the way they’ve read. They don’t know how to re-read selectively with the purpose in mind. And I think probably my favorite class to teach is a class of struggling readers because they are so, just a little twinkle in their eye when they realize that they’re not dumb, that they can make a sense of text when they are given a few ways to go back and re-read differently. It’s just like, like you know it still tickles me. Like, Oh! You know so gratifying to see that help them build that efficacy that they can be better readers, that it’s not too late for them.

So that’s what I write about in those first two books. Just know how to help kids without being a reading specialist, be a better reader of your subject matter. And it goes right back to modeling whatever you do as an expert reader and giving them that confidence that, “Okay, here’s what you can do when you don’t get it. Go back and try this.” And something that you see a lot of really good athletic coaches are doing, you know they’ll go back and model for kids, “You know, try it again, try this way and see what happens.”

And I think sometimes we just expect kids to know that because they are now fifteen, they should know it, they should have learned how to do it. If you don’t know how to do it by now, too bad, I have all this content I have to cover so you know they are out of luck. And I think, we’ve got to rethink that because they’ve got to be able to read our curriculum if ever we’re going to hope to get through all of it.

Mike McQueen:

So besides modeling or doing think aloud, can you maybe suggest one other technique. You know I’m picturing right now parents who listen to this at home and they have a struggling kid maybe let’s fourth grader, fifth grader whose struggling they’re maybe having a hard time you know, with reading and comprehending and maybe their attitude is just starting to start to change a little bit more negative, 18 min what would you tell that parent. I mean, what would you, could you give them specific technique or..

Cris Tovani:

Well, it sounds so simple that you know it can’t possibly work but when I’m reading I would have to find a way to interact with that text so, just give it a little gimmicky, pad of sticky notes and just say to the kid, “Okay, we are going to write down three pieces of thinking on this news paper article or these books that we read.

Not making it as a chore but this could be three things that you maybe want to remember you could share to dad when he comes home, or a question that you have that we could get online and Google. Just some way to give your kind of brain a purpose for the reading, so there is some way to interact or talk back to that text. So you know, after question, or what does this remind you of, what is this something important that you want to share to somebody else. I think just that little bit of annotation is you know kind of a cool way to hold you’re thinking if you could go back and read it, somehow.
Remind Kids That Reading Can Inform & Entertain

Because you know, that’s why I read, I read to get smarter or to entertain, be entertained. Like kids should have that same luxury as well. We just don’t read to read, there’s a purpose behind our reading.

Mike McQueen:

Right. And I love that idea of writing something or drawing. You know a lot of kids that struggle in reading, many like to draw. Even if they can’t draw you know stick figures, smiley faces or something. And I’m the same way. I mean, if you look at all the books that I’ve read, particularly non fiction books, that’s my style of reading first of all. I prefer to read books for information and whatever topic I’m interested at the moment. When you look through all my professional books you know, about learning how to read and struggling reader and the, my notes on the side, I mean like all I ever do is to circle words or sections and put a little star.

I’m a big arrow guy. I love arrows and so, well circle something on the page, these are the books that I own, of course. And then what it does as soon as I do that, I don’t know what it is probably there are some brain stuff that are going on. It gives me such a concrete feeling that I did something and it helps me remember that little piece, so much more.

Cris Tovani:

Yeah, that sort of an interaction, you know Harvard has put out this three-paged handout that you could get online and librarians put it out on how to help incoming freshmen and one of the things that Harvard tells our kids is to interact with the text by talking back to it. You know, writing on the text. There’s just something about that movement I think that helps your mind not stray. And I think that’s the biggest complain I hear is you know, I read the words but I don’t have any idea what I’ve read.

You know tell that first book came from my students. They would say I’ve read that but I don’t get it. 21 min And it was that whole idea of reading the words and then start to think of an idea that is more interesting. As your eyes moved down the page, get that down and realize, “Oh my God, I just don’t have any idea of what I’ve just read.

Mike McQueen:

I love what you said about even sticky notes too because a lot of times we get books from the library and we can’t write in. So sticky notes can be a good way to still do that without making any permanent changes.

Cris Tovani:

Sure yeah. Cause a lot of things you know, as adults you cannot write on. But in some way to hold that thinking so that you don’t forget it. You can come back to it and read it later.

Mike McQueen:

Well, and another critical piece that you also addressed, too, is to make it fun and interesting and I think good hearted parents, teachers too that want to try different techniques they just drive right in, in doing the task they don’t kind of set it up in a way to make it interesting and fun and will defeat the purpose and it helped. And you mentioned, you know saying something about you know when dad comes home something you could point and you know that’s exactly what I think parents need to do at home is to try different techniques.

Actually, that’s one of my, well I don’t want to give away any of my secrets but one of my techniques in my little mini course that I have in Reading on the Run, one of my techniques is to try, I’m sorry one of my hooks on ways to hook a struggling reader, one of my hooks is to try different techniques. And yeah, you know if you could think of fun, creative ways to try things that makes it much more interesting and effective I think.

Cris Tovani:

Yeah and you know I think you’ve just kind of hit it on the head because Reading on the Run is, it’s got to be simple. It’s got to be manageable because if it takes so long to set up, and if it’s not something that you can do frequently then you just don’t do it. And so, you know finding quick ways to I guess create that novelty or something new while getting kids to read is pretty powerful.

Mike McQueen:

Thank you. Last question here. Let’s talk about parallel experiences, I know you mentioned that a little bit, tell us what are parallel experiences and what can we do with them?

Cris Tovani:

Well, you know I started to really discover this when I began teaching high school kids and teachers in my building would ask me to come in to their Science class or especially Math class and try help kids to be a better readers on that content. And I realized that I was a lot better reading teacher when I was reading outside of my comfort zone. Like, I could, my meaning would break down and because I was a good reader, I could sort of step back and apply strategies and ideas in another area. So like a parallel experience, I think a lot of times, teachers still do get to read the same subject matter all the time and like middle school science teacher always reads Science.

Read outside of your comfort zone and notice what you do when you pick up something that you don’t like.Like how do you construct meanings, do you have to annotate the text or when you read something that you do not have any background knowledge on. How do you build that background knowledge? So this idea of, think about what your kids are struggling with so if your kids say I don’t have any background knowledge about this, Okay. Then you as a teacher or a parent pick up something that you don’t have any background knowledge on. And watch what you do to build that background knowledge.

What I discovered about myself is that I tend to ask questions. So if I have to read something brand new that I don’t know anything about, I’m sort of annotating questions all the way down the margins. And then I go to somebody or someplace where I could build that background. A lot of times I just go online and I Google something in or I might go to you know somebody who is an expert reader of that material and I’ll ask them questions. That whole annotating thing, I figured out when I had to read chemistry books. I noticed if I had to read a little bit, and I stopped to check my comprehension I would read the whole page thinking about something else. And so I went back into those chemistry classes and modeled that pursuit. Okay, read a little bit and then check to see what you remember. If you don’t remember anything go back and give yourself a little job that you try to paraphrase one sentence or are you going to try to ask a question. That’s why I think parallel experiences sometimes as teachers we get so good at reading our own subject matter that we forget what it was like the first time we read. We forget what it was like to be a new reader of this. And so, if we read outside of our comfort level and we watch what we do, when we encounter struggles that our kids have, we have then some strategies to go back and support them.

Mike McQueen:

It’s kind of like empathy then to try to put yourself in their shoes to see what it’s like.

Cris Tovani:

Yeah. Absolutely, that’s a great way to put it. Yeah, like how can we remind ourselves and empathize with kids who read. You know, who are reading The Great Gatsby for the first time. You know, when we read it when we were 16, we didn’t get it either so now that we’ve taught it for 15 years, we forget. And so, like how do we remember that? And so like an English teacher might read a Russian novelist and see what that feels like or you know a Math teacher who is really good at Geometry might pick up a calculus book and read outside of his comfort zone that way. Or a foreign language teacher may you know who teaches Spanish may decide, “Okay, what do you expect me to read this in French? What strategies do I use?” And I think sometimes people think that they have to be this reading specialist. They have to be an elementary teacher who’s a reading specialist in order to help kids. And you don’t.

Like parents can help kids by just kind of watching what they do when they have to read something that they don’t want to read, how do they make sense of it. That’s pretty empowering cause I think when you really show kids how to construct meaning that is so much more than just decoding the fluency. 27 min

Mike McQueen:

Right. Well, I’m picturing a parent right now too with their child maybe is really interested in some topic of spiders or something and maybe the parent really hate spiders or doesn’t care about spiders. I mean could that parallel experience mean, are you suggesting that a parent maybe read, read that book about spiders and try to experience you know, what their child might?

Cris Tovani:

Sure. You know, just kind of go back to choice, of a parent you know the kid you know wants to read, you know wants to read about spiders. Choice drives engagement and then some parent goes back and thinks about what, you know he or she likes to read. Oftentimes it’s not something that somebody’s assigning you or saying you should read this. There’s that choice piece involved. And I think you know, as the parent really expecting the school to kind of be the heavies on this. And as a parent you get to be the one that says, “Sure. Let’s read this book,” because you want to read it. You know, I think that’s okay to do that. You don’t have to be the heavy and make them read things that they hate.

You know, choice drives engagement.

And not to say that the parents have to read spider books but the parents can say, “I have no interest in spiders at all, I really want to read about Hawaii because I want to go to vacation there sometimes. So you read your spider book, I’m going to read my Hawaii book and then we share something cool that we figured out about the topic. We’ll make each other smarter by what we read.

Mike McQueen:

That’s great!

Cris Tovani:

So at that sort, it’s sort of that authentic reading of you read something that you are excited about and then you share it with somebody else to help them gets smarter as well. That’s the power of being literate.

Mike McQueen:

And giving choices, it’s so important. It’s actually, I don’t want to give away any secrets but one of my 8 Ways to Hook Struggling Reader, talking about choices is critical I mean, it’s one of the most important factors I think that teachers and parents can try to instill in kids cause there are so many requirements you know, for a kid that’s struggling. The fewer the choices you have the worst it is, I think.

Cris Tovani:

Yeah. You’re right on them that choice drives engagement, it’s pure and simple. So how do we build that choice? Even if it’s choice in you have to read books on spiders, you get to choose what chapter are you going to read. You know, there’s this building in choice anyway you can. Choose what you want to read. Choose what time you read. You know, just I’m talking about parents you know, it doesn’t have to be always the same time, or the same place but building in choices is so huge.

Mike McQueen:

Alright, well, let’s wrap things up by you telling about your next book and you have a website or anything, anyway that our listeners can get in touch with you or learn more about you.

Cris Tovani:

Yeah. Oh thanks. I’ve got a new book coming out in July called “So What Do They Really Get” and it kind of digs in into helping teachers and parents figure out what do kids know when they read. For the school part it looks a little bit you know, how do grade fairly and equitably, how do you show growth and honor growth in students. 30 min So it will be out in July and I’m just putting up, working out on a new website called literacylabs.org and it talks a little bit about some of the work that I’m doing in school with my colleague, Sam Bennett and I’m experimenting with Twitter right now, so people can find me ctovani on Twitter. I’m not, I’ve got people following but I’m not going anywhere really. I’m trying to learn to use that literacy but I have a lot of smart people who are following me that often provides great link for other people. Be acceptable.

Mike McQueen:

Okay good. The title of the book is called..

Cris Tovani:

“So What Do They Really Know”.

Mike McQueen:

Okay, and your website..

Cris Tovani:

It’s literacylabs.org.

Mike McQueen:

And your twitter username..

Cris Tovani:

ctovani

Mike McQueen:

Alright. Cris, it is always fun to talk with you. I appreciate all your work and thank you again for taking time talking with us today.

Cris Tovani:

Oh, Mike. It’s been my pleasure and thank you for all the work that you do for our kids here and kids online. I really appreciated it as well.

Mike McQueen:

Alright, take care Cris.

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