Sunday, September 21, 2014

Handwriting in the Time of Common Core

            My father, who had no more than an eighth grade education, wrote in a beautiful Palmer hand. His one-room schoolhouse education did not promise to take him far, but it did allow him to place words on paper in an elegant and readable manner. And, this skill had practical utility beyond its aesthetic beauty, since he worked for many years as a bookkeeper. 

            But the public value of handwriting has diminished during the ensuing century. In fact, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) don’t even mention handwriting, cursive, or manuscript printing.

            Nevertheless, It is evident that the standards writers expect kids to learn some form of these—since the standards explicitly call for students to engage in written composition; and this would be hard to do if one had no way of getting words on paper.

            Of course, part of the diminishment of handwriting is due to the fact that most of us type or keyboard rather than write. But CCSS doesn’t even mention keyboarding prior to third grade.

            This neglect of handwriting has occasioned some controversy. Some states, Alabama, for instance, have supplemented CCSS to require the teaching of these skills in addition to the shared standards.

            Recently, I received a request from a teacher concerning the “role of handwriting for beginning readers.”

            Many years ago, my response to her would have been that handwriting plays very little role in literacy development. Correlations between handwriting proficiency and early reading were never especially high and researchers made a point of the importance of composition and spelling over handwriting.

            That view began to change with the work of Ginger Berninger. She has been one of the leading researchers exploring how writing affects reading. Like the rest of us who have tilled those fields, Dr. Berninger has reported a close relationship between reading and writing. However, unlike the rest of us, she considered handwriting and found that it played an important role in this relationship.

            Many years ago, I concluded that writing could only have an impact on a child’s reading development if the child was writing—something that is omitted in far too many classrooms. Berninger takes that a step further, because she has found that the amount and quality of children’s writing is highly dependent on their handwriting skills.

            If a student has trouble getting words on paper, then the impact of writing on reading is reduced. Students simply write less and write less well (in terms of the quality of the composition) if they can’t easily get words on paper.

            Most children are able to write by hand more quickly and fluently than they can by keyboard. CCSS is correct to encourage the teaching of keyboarding, but handwriting can play an important role in children’s writing across the elementary years.

            There are now various theories about how handwriting may affect the brain—and there are reasons to believe that at least some disabled readers and writers benefit more from some kind of composition by hand than by keyboard (New York Times article). However, the argument for teaching handwriting is much simpler than those findings suggest:

Premise 1:  Writing has a positive impact on the development of children’s reading skills;

Premise 2:  To derive this benefit, children have to engage in writing;

Premise 3:  If they can write well (quickly, legibly), they will write more and better;

Premise 4:  If children write more and better that will have a more positive impact on reading.

Conclusion: Therefore, we need to teach young children to print and write--early on. 


            Kids may not need to develop a Palmer hand like my father’s, but they do need to know how to record their ideas on paper with ease and instruction can facilitate that.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Closer Look at Close Reading

While I understand the purpose of close-reading I don't understand why you should take the time to read deeper into a document. Some things were written simply and what we now interpret as a symbol, may not have been intended to be a symbol. How can we as readers determine what is meant to be read into and what is to be left alone?

Another thing that was mentioned in several of the comments was annotating being a strategy for close-reading. it is a great strategy I am not sure how to annotate, most of my annotations are personal reactions and summaries. How can I branch out and include more analysis annotations? I am never certain of what to read into and what to accept as it is. Another comment that was made was in regards to close-reading giving you the ability to question the text, but I am never sure what questions to ask and how to ask them. I had a lot of thoughts about this article, and while it was very insightful it left me with more questions about close-reading than I had in the beginning.

When you commented "these strategy's will engage them in thinking in particular ways" my only thought was "why put your mind in a box" by saying you can only think a 'particular' way you close yourself of from looking at things in a different light, an alternate angle.

The idea that readers should be able to understand not only what a text says, but what the subtext may be communicating seems self evident. With regard to literature, those abilities allow one to more fully appreciate the unity of the author’s work; how the word- and structure-choices the author makes amplify or reinforce his/her message is an important part of the aesthetic experience. Those same skills can help readers to decompose other kinds of texts to, in order to understand their rhetorical power and how they might be operating on us as readers.

You are absolutely correct that readers might interpret something symbolically that the author never intended. Historically, the close reading position on that is that you are reading the text and not the author. In fact, in some versions of close reading you are not even supposed to think about the author’s intentions. See E.D. Hirsch’s article (in the Atlantic) on the distinction between close reading and more author-centered reads.

If you didn’t have rules for interpretation, how would you know when you were done? You could try to engage students in uncovering historical information about every text they read, complete with biographical information about each author. That kind of reading is valuable, but frankly, I don’t do that every time I read. It can also be useful to shut out all the information that other readers can tell you (including the teacher), to focus entirely on the information the author has provided in the text itself (that’s the idea of close reading). In typical classroom reading lessons, one often walks away wondering if the kids could make sense of the text without all of the additional information provided by the teacher.

Finally, annotating a text can be a useful tool for close reading (and other kinds of reading), but it is not an approach that is central to close reading. In other words, you can engage in close reading without annotating at all.

As authors have tripped over themselves trying to convince readers that they have some inside notions of close reading or common core, they have been proposing more and more elaborate annotation schemes—proving that they know little about close reading or CCSS. The standards don’t require any kind annotation and such annotations are at best irrelevant to close reading. (In the worst cases, these schemes distract students from the texts, which is very un-close reading.)

Of course, if you are going to read a text multiple times, being able to find particular information quickly can be really helpful. Having students leaving some kind of bread crumbs along the way can speed the process up a bit. When I notate a text in that way, the big thing that I try to mark are word choices, patterns of information, or connections between ideas that I want to revisit to examine further. If you want to teach kids to do this, go with a very simple system (Doug Fisher’s (et als.) book on Reading Complex Text (International Reading Association) proposes a system that isn’t overly elaborate.  


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Independent Reading Levels are Problematic, Too

I am looking for research articles on how reading at your independent level helps increase your reading ability.  And I am looking for articles that talk about the volume of reading necessary to make gains in reading.  Do you know of a couple articles on these topics?

Also, which journals do you recommend:  Reading Teacher and Journal of Literacy Research?  I will be using these to do some research for my county. I am looking for articles that are teacher friendly and easier to read. 

There is a body of research that explores the impact of reading on various outcomes and there is a body of research that explores the impact of teaching students to read with texts of certain levels, but I know of NO research into the impact of students' reading experiences at an independent level.

There are several studies, however, that show students prefer NOT to read materials at their independent level (I know of only one exception to this). That is, even good readers tend to be interested in the subject matter and treatments of information that are harder than reading experts claim they should be reading. Thus, it is likely that the studies that have considered the impact of reading on various outcomes are not measuring the impact of the reading of independent level texts.

The most direct test of the effect of reading on learning was provided by a study by Carver and Liebert. They found no clear benefit resulting from 60 hours of additional reading for students even though the texts were presumed to be at the students’ levels. Given the failure of the approach, they hypothesized that more challenging texts may have been more effective. Unfortunately, no one has followed up on that.

There is a small body of research suggesting that having students read more at home or during the summer can improve reading achievement (a very small amount--less than 1 month on an elementary grade standardized test). I would suggest the research of Richard Allington & Ann McGill-Frantzen, or James Kim. But these studies do not measure the student-text match, so it would be impossible to conclude that students should practice at their independent level from that evidence.  

It seems clear that reading more is a good idea for most kids, and yet, we have no empirical data on which to base claims about how much reading or how challenging that reading should be.

Finally, the best research journals in reading (e.g., Scientific Studies of Reading, Reading Research Quarterly, Journal of Educational Psychology) are not easy for teachers to read. Journals like the Reading Teacher are more readable, but they usually do not publish research.  Teachers either need to learn actual research, or they must depend on second-hand sources that may or may not represent the original research accurately.

Monday, September 1, 2014

La Dolch List Vita: Achieving the Good Life with Words

I was looking through your site hoping you would have information on the purpose and use of the Dolch word lists. I often see teachers spending time assessing students on their ability to read the lists.  Often, this information is placed on the report card and does not drive teacher instruction. I'm really looking for guidance on the true purpose of the Dolch lists, and wondering if students need to be tested on these words each trimester. Reading Street is our core program and has the high-frequency words embedded into the direct instruction with opportunities to check for mastery and provide feedback. Basically, do we need to test students on the grade level Dolch word lists three times per year?

Edward Dolch was a professor at Illinois State University. He developed his eponymously named list in the 1930s (what do you think, he was going to name it after me?). It was a pretty clever idea. He went through the basal readers of the time (preprimers through third grade) and identified the words that were used over and over, excluding the nouns.

Some of the words that he listed were phonically irregular (or rare) such as the and of. Others were decodable (e.g., be, came, did). But all of them were frequently used words in the schoolbooks of eighty years ago.

One thing that readers need to be able to do is recognize high frequency words on sight (hence, “sight vocabulary”). That just means that when a student sees a word, he or she can name it so quickly it seems like there must have been no thought or analysis (like seeing your best friend’s face and instantly recalling his or her name).

Initially, because beginners don’t yet have a well-honed understanding of words, brute force memorization can be helpful. As they progress, it gets easier to remember words (actually kids are less “remembering” them than analyzing them faster and faster), so such memorization becomes less useful.

Is it really a good idea to memorize words like that? The quick answer is yes, indeed. Remember, these words are going to come up a lot and so recognizing them easily and analyzing them faster than other words would be useful. Of course, the exceptional words that don’t follow common decoding patterns are going to have to be learned somehow, so memorization makes particular sense for them. And, the words that do follow the patterns become part of the basis that children use to figure out new words.

Of course, reading instruction and basal readers (um, core reading programs) have changed a bit over the past 80 years. Most children are being taught to read earlier than before and the curriculum moves a faster, too, than it did then. Frankly, I think there are better word lists to work with these days. You could make up one based on the program that you are using, but there is so much overlap among most of the lists that it isn’t a big issue (including if you decide to stay with Dolch).

My favorite is the list that Ed Fry put together based on a review of a 5-million word sample of English text. This list overlaps a lot with Dolch, but there are some differences (we don’t shall so much any more). Fry List

I believe that most first-graders should be able to master the first 100 words (which is even easier if they know 10-25 of these from kindergarten), and that by the end of grade two, kids should know the first 300. (Knowing them means that I can flash a word to the child and he or she can read it within 2 seconds). In a program that is requiring kids to read daily within instruction and that is teaching phonics well, that is a surprisingly easy goal to accomplish with most kids. (Remember these aren’t the only words students should learn—a first-grader should be able to read 400-500 words, mostly through their decoding skills)

In one suburban school I know, the principal took this idea to heart and she encouraged both teachers and parents to help with the word work. When she started the average first grader in her school could read 17 of these words by Thanksgiving; the next year, the average had climbed to about 75.


That’s terrific, but it is only one of many things students must accomplish. This kind of direct word drill and memorization should probably take only about 5 minutes or so of class time each day (of the 120 minutes of reading instruction that I would recommend). I don't believe they need to be tested on them three times per year.

Monday, August 25, 2014

To Teach Comprehension Strategies or Not to Teach Them

I don’t hear anything about comprehension strategies anymore. Was that idea just another fad or are should we still teach those?

Your question raises an interesting point about American reading instruction. We tend to chase fads. Instead of building on past reforms and improvements we instead ride the pendulum back and forth.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was lots of interest in teaching students how to think effectively about the ideas in texts. There was lots of research on how to engage prior knowledge, summarize information, ask questions, monitor understanding, and so on—and lots of interest in bringing these strategies into classrooms.

Strategies engage readers in thinking intentionally—rather than just reading a text and hoping something sticks, the reader enters the enterprise aware the text is like a mountain to be scaled or a problem to be solved. In such situations, you take actions that help you to reach the goal.

Thus, readers may preview texts ahead of time to increase anticipation and to ensure that relevant prior knowledge will be at the ready. Readers may set purposes too—like turning headings into questions to be answered. As they read, they may stop occasionally and sum up the information provided to that point—rereading if there are apparent gaps.

In the strategy world, readers need to be “meta-cognitively” aware. That means, for instance, that they should notice when they are not understanding something and to do something about it (such as rereading the pages that you you phased out on, looking up a word in the dictionary, or asking someone for help).

The whole language movement has been pilloried for nudging phonics out of the primary classroom, but—something not often noted—it booted comprehension strategy teaching, too. Strategy teaching tends to be direct instruction—the teacher explains what the strategy is, how to use it, and why it’s important. Then the teacher may demonstrate the use of a strategy and engage kids in a heavily scaffolded version in which the teacher does much of the work (“This would be a good place to ask a question about what we have read. If you ask and answer questions you’ll remember more of the information later.”). Over time, the teacher would fade the support with kids doing it more and more on their own.

Strategies came back a bit during the 2000s, probably as a result of the National Reading Panel’s review of more than 200 studies showing that we could effectively teach students to comprehend better by teaching such strategies.

As your question reveals, now strategies are on the retreat, yet again. The reason this time is almost surely due to the fact that the Common Core State Standards don’t include any comprehension strategies. They don’t prohibit the teaching of comprehension strategies, but they don’t require them either.

I’ve long been a proponent of the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies, and yet, there is a part of me that says their omission is not that big a loss.

The reason for my skepticism about strategies? I’m well aware of the fact that many students—perhaps the vast majority of students—don't actually use these strategies when they read. They use them when teachers guide the process, but they don’t do so on their own. I don’t believe, for instance, that “good readers” make predictions before they read a text, even though I have no doubt that good readers could be induced to make such hypotheses under controlled conditions.

The problem is that comprehension strategies are only useful for helping readers to make sense of text that they can’t understand automatically. Many texts are easy for me to read; they are comfortably within my language and knowledge range. This morning I read USA Today and didn’t feel the need to look up a single word or to stop and summarize any of the information.

But if you asked me to read a chapter on theoretical physics—and you were going to evaluate my understanding somehow—that would be a different story altogether. Now I’d have to suit up for heavy combat, which would mean doing various things that I don’t do in my daily reading (like taking notes or turning headers into questions).

What I’m saying is that in the past we taught strategies—overtaught strategies???—but we then asked students to apply them to relatively easy texts (texts at the students' instructional levels). Now, the new standards are asking us to ignore strategies while assigning harder texts.

Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.


I would encourage you to continue to teach comprehension strategies as a scaffold for dealing with challenging text. The point would be to make it possible for kids to make sense of truly challenging texts; the use of strategies could be enough to allow some kids to scaffold their own reading successfully--meaning they might be able to read frustration level texts as if they were written at their instructional level.