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Why Students Forget and What We Can Do

As classroom teachers we worked hard and planned hard. We taught our students how to not just copy facts from books, how to read text features, how to compare and contrast information, how to figure our the meaning of unknown words and a whole lot more. Each year we saw students who could use the strategies or at least attempt them when we sat down next to them. When we stepped out of our own classrooms to become full time staff developers and coaches we had a huge awakening.

From working with students in kindergarten through grade eight across schools and districts we noticed a clear pattern. Students in our schools were being taught these same lessons year after year and most students acted as if they had never learned any of it before. Cue teacher showing what a caption is to fifth graders and them smiling and saying , "Oh, a caption. So that is what it is called." The thing is, we were there in the room the year before when they learned what captions were and how to use them. We know they were taught it. But somehow they either forgot or pretended it was brand new.

While there are likely many possible reasons why students forget, here are a few main ones.

  • We focused on teaching and not learning the year before, so while they were taught it, they didn't have enough practice.

  • We give them permission to forget because they have learned we will teach it again next year.

  • They were not ready for it when it was first taught.

  • We over-taught so much that it got muddled and mixed up in their brains and they are confused with so many strategies being thrown at them.

  • They are new to your school (okay that can't be the reason for every student forgetting).

Rather than spend our days annoyed at students for not remembering let's try to solve the problem. Here are a few ideas.

Teach less.

Yes, you read that correctly. In our efforts to cover every strategy we are losing our students. Pick a focus area and stick with it for a while. Go for depth instead of coverage. We recommend two main focus areas when teaching students to read fiction and two more for nonfiction. That means only four focus areas total.

When reading nonfiction teach students to synthesize information and understand perspectives. Every other reading skill will fit in some way with these two main areas. Spend weeks on them if needed. Let students practice in whole class read alouds, in small group texts, with coaching in independent reading books, in book clubs, in videos, with photos. Most student readers need to practice a lot and be taught less. Focus on the gradual release of responsibility model by doing less over time.

When reading fiction teach students to understand characters and interpret themes. What about setting? Connect setting to where the characters are or how it is symbolic of themes. What about conflict? There is only a conflict because of the characters and interpreting them leads us towards themes. See, it all connects back to these two main areas.

The Text Matters

When modeling your process use a really memorable text. They may not remember the term "infographic" but they will remember what it is if you use great books to model and show them what they are. We suggest a rating scale for examining teaching texts that allows you to choose the best books for your students. Ask yourself, what will they love but also really remember? We teach 100% of our reading lessons with books in our hands so we can show and not just tell. All instruction happens in the context of a good book.

Some of our criteria for choosing a great nonfiction teaching text includes:

  • appeal

  • organization

  • content

  • accessibility

We rate each nonfiction book in these categories before making the choice to use it. There are too many good books to spend time on boring ones.

Let Students Be Your Guide

Last, but not least at all, we don't teach something because it is in a manual or scope and sequence. We decide to teach it because our students are ready for it. We've seen what a waste of time it is to teach strategies to students who are just not ready for it or who already know it. Take the time to sit with students in small groups or one-on-one to be a miner and really get to know what they can do and what they are ready for. When students guide your instructional choices what you teach actually sticks. You don't need to reteach things over and over again because they were ready for it. That doesn't mean we don't go deeper and deeper in our lessons spending days or weeks on a focus area. It does mean we know where to start because our students' thinking leads the way.

Every instructional choice starts with us looking at students' notebook entries and listening to them talk about their thinking. They will show us what they need next if we take the time to look and listen.

We want students to be engaged readers who remember what was taught the year before because they actually learned it. When they leave your classroom and venture to the next class they will be well prepared if you taught less and students practiced more, if you chose texts that were memorable, and if you made decisions about what to teach based on YOUR students' next steps.

If any or all of this still seems daunting, check out our books, What Do I Teach Readers Tomorrow? Your Moment-To-Moment Decision-Making Guide for lots and lots of insider tips.

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