National Writing Project

Book Review: Teaching Reading in the Middle School, by Laura Robb

By: Suzanne Cherry
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3
Date: Summer 2001

Summary: Suzanne Cherry reviews Teaching Reading in Middle School: A Strategic Approach to Teaching Reading That Improves Comprehension and Thinking by Laura Robb.


Teaching Reading in Middle School: A Strategic Approach to Teaching Reading That Improves Comprehension and Thinking
By Laura Robb. Scholastic Professional Books, 2000. $19.16; 352 pages. ISBN: 0590685600.

I admit that I picked up Laura Robb's book, Teaching Reading in Middle School: A Strategic Approach to Teaching Reading That Improves Comprehension and Thinking, with some reluctance. I'm not a middle school teacher. But as my students are working in middle school classrooms and we seem to have a number of middle school teachers working with us at our writing project site, I thought it was time to delve, again, into the mysteries of middle school. And, with the statewide emphasis on reading, it was also time to renew the connection between reading and writing. I'd worked with reading before, but that was when I was in graduate school. As a writing teacher, I cannot escape reading; I study reading to find ways to enhance my students' writing.

So, I plunged into Robb's book and was immediately enchanted. Her introduction unabashedly argues that middle school is the perfect teaching level—"a time of significant academic, emotional, and social growth" (8). She argues that excellent middle school teaching requires actively involved students and topics relevant to the students' lives. Before I'd finished with the introduction, I was agreeing, adding a single caveat- that whether you're teaching at the elementary, middle school, or high school level, good teaching always involves students actively and is always relevant. Despite the caveat, because Robb began her book with what I believed, I immediately decided this book wasn't going to be as much of a chore as I'd anticipated.

The more I read of Teaching Reading in Middle School, the more I realized how much Robb's thinking meshes with National Writing Project (NWP) philosophies and approaches to teaching, with which I, as director of a writing project site, am very familiar. Robb believes a productive reading program "considers and makes use of research in these areas: 1) strategic reading; 2) motivation and involvement; 3) a workshop environment" (13). Strategic reading, I learned, requires discovering students' reading processes, modeling strategies, and helping students to internalize these strategies. Teachers teaching teachers, the tagline of NWP, is modeling. Our demonstration lessons are modeling activities. We use workshops all summer long, in continuity meetings, and in various activities not connected with the summer institute. And, beyond that, our teacher-consultants promote workshops—not because of any one theory, but because when they're done right, workshops help improve writing. As close as Robb's ideas are to NWP beliefs and activities, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to learn she is a teacher-consultant with a writing project. I hope she is.

Robb puts forth nine key reading strategies: activate prior knowledge; decide what's important in a text; synthesize information; draw inferences during and after reading; self-monitor comprehension; repair faulty comprehension; ask questions; build vocabulary; and develop fluency. With few adjustments, these could be nine key strategies for writers as well. Robb's book reminds me of the need for writing teachers to understand the strategies for helping students improve in reading. Reading and writing are inextricably intertwined.

Robb's eleven chapters help teachers with researching; organizing reading workshops; understanding strategic reading; discovering what students know about reading; preparing strategy lessons to help students learn to read; modeling; connecting books and students; organizing strategic reading groups; cross-grading projects; and assessing, interpreting, and evaluating. Each chapter includes solid research that's well documented and well explained. Call-out boxes highlight the applications of research in everyday classrooms. Chapters are peppered with samples from Robb's classroom, sample handouts, schedules, lesson plans, lists of ideas, lists of strategies, guidelines, and hints. At the end of each chapter, Robb challenges readers to pause and reflect about their own reading programs and the issues she's just raised.

Teaching Reading in Middle School is an easy-to-read, solidly grounded book, and—most importantly—it is practical for classroom teachers. All of Robb's handouts and materials are provided in five appendices for the classroom teacher to reproduce. It's a book I envision teachers pulling from the shelf and using over and over again. The downside, if there is one to this book, is that Robb doesn't give as much emphasis to writing as I'd like to see. Okay, I'm a writing project director, and I love writing as much as Robb loves reading; I'm prejudiced about it. Still, I'd like to see her put more emphasis on the writing component of her reading-writing workshop. To be fair, Robb does have students writing a good bit—they write "all about me" letters, fast writes, literature response journals, observation notes, story-specific questions, "what's hard?/what's easy?" reflections, debriefings, and even minilessons. It's clear to me that she integrates reading and writing. What isn't clear is how Robb would go about helping other teachers integrate the two subjects.

Robb's book is one I've ordered for our summer institute library; I'm going to encourage our middle school fellows to try it out, and I'm going to use pieces of it in various activities this summer. I'm also going to use it with my preservice teachers. They need to hear this voice of experience and practicality as they prepare to teach.

I strongly recommend this book because of its practical applications of theory but also because of the thoughts and questions it raises, not all of them new by any means. For example, if students aren't reading at grade level, they can't be writing at grade level. It seems to me that we have to adjust our teaching and our assessment of writers to account for their reading levels. I'm reminded, too, that writing across the curriculum must be accompanied by reading across the curriculum. This is as true for kindergarten as it is for the university. Finally, I'm left with a question I'd like to explore this summer—is it possible to make the reading-writing connection more explicit to students? To teachers? To parents?

So, put aside any reluctance you might have about plunging, once more, into reading or any hesitation you might have about middle school students and read Robb's book. You'll be refreshed, recharged, and ready to renew your own journey toward becoming an interactive teacher.

About the Author Suzanne Cherry is a professor of English/education at Francis Marion University and is also the director of the Swamp Fox Writing Project, both of which are located in Florence, South Carolina.

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