Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Should We Stop Using Guided Reading Because of Common Core?

Teacher letter:
I am now a literacy specialist in a middle school and am hoping you can give me your opinion on the process of the guided reading method of reading instruction. I completely agree with you that the F&P levels are ludicrously low and it would be difficult to transition students to the end goal of CCSS using these levels. However, I’m curious what you think about the usefulness of listening to individuals read in a small group, using running records to track a struggling reader’s progress with CCSS grade-level text used in the classroom, and explicitly teaching strategies and vocabulary in a small group. Is there research that supports this idea? I am desperately trying to figure out how I can most effectively serve a large number of students grades 6-8, many of whom came from elementary schools that use F&P methods.

Shanahan response:

         Your letter points out an important fact about “guided reading.” It is a complex approach and cannot be summarized as simply teaching students with “instructional level texts”—though it is certainly that.

         Guided reading is a collection of approaches or techniques that have been assembled by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. Even the term “guided reading” was not original to them—it was a term used to characterize a basal reader’s lesson plan in the 1950s (one of its competitors marketed the alternative “directed reading activity”).

         F&P’s version of guided reading, the one that has been so influential during the past two decades, gained popularity, at least in part, due to reading policies and programs of the late 1980s. California only allowed state money to be spent on core reading programs that were made up of previously published literature, and publishing companies were banned from altering these selections in any way to make them more readable.

         What that meant was, for a brief period of time, core reading programs got harder to read—particularly in the early grades. As was documented at the time, teachers did not know how to teach beginning readers with materials that they couldn’t read. Often the teachers read the textbooks to the kids. It was part of the big blowup that became known as the “reading wars.”

         In that context, here comes F&P championing the long held belief that students need to be taught with relatively easy texts that would grow progressively more complex (during the 19th Century, one popular basal program was named the “Gradual Readers”). 

         Teachers grabbed for this as the best available alternative. A good choice given that the commercial reading programs were overshooting beginning readers' abilities and lacked any guidance for teaching kids how to read the harder books.

         Now that guided reading is so widely used we can see that its immediate benefits—beginning readers make a surer start—
are at least balanced by holding back older students from sufficient reading progress (can’t learn to read texts that no one will allow you to read).

         The current pushback against guided reading that has come about due to Common Core is focused specifically on its idea of matching kids to texts in ways aimed at preventing them from confronting sufficient challenge. I’ve written before about the dearth of evidence supporting this idea—and there are many empirical examples of harder placements leading to greater amounts of learning (at least beyond beginning reading levels).

         But your letter wisely points out that guided reading has other features, too. For example, many teachers have told me that they thought guided reading referred to small-group instruction. That certainly has been one of its hallmarks. Research has long supported the relative effectiveness of small-group teaching when compared with whole-class instruction (though this is complicated by the non-teaching time usually required by multiple small groups).

         In small groups, teachers are able to interact more with each child, kids have more opportunities to respond, and are more likely to be noticed if they are struggling with something.

         Thus, just because teaching kids at their supposed “instructional level” is nonsensical, devoting some instructional time to small group work—both under immediate and more distant teacher control--makes a lot of sense.

         Also, guided reading includes, well, guided reading. As I pointed out, originally the term guided reading referred to teachers guiding students through the reading of basal reader selections. The teacher would preteach new vocabulary from the selection, discuss relevant background information, set a reading purpose, and then have students reading portions of the selection orally and/or silently, followed by teacher questioning. The idea was to guide or direct students to read texts in a coherent and effective manner, with the idea that students would learn from the shared doing and would eventually apply these habits to their independent reading.

         Of course, there have been controversies over what kinds of questions to ask or how much background review is appropriate or whether kids should read the entire selection before going through this kind of guided sequence. But, basically, the idea of teachers and students reading texts together in various ways makes a lot of sense, and at least some particular approaches for guiding or directing student comprehension have strong research support.

         Finally, the F&P version of guided reading draws from Marie Clay’s “reading recovery,” a program aimed at beginning readers who are making a bad start. I don’t have much problem with the running records idea of observation with beginning readers, but I think that scheme of looking at how kids do with the "cueing systems" is not particularly apt for more advanced readers. By middle school, decoding schemes should be well integrated with meaning making, except for the most severely disabled readers.

         Small group instruction should afford teachers opportunities to observe student problems with reading and interpretation, and this insight should be used to shape instruction.

         So, while I would not limit students’ reading to instructional level texts—teach kids to read texts that match your state’s standards requirements—that would in no way prevent me from (1) working with small reading groups; (2) guiding students reading comprehension in a coherent manner; or, (3) observing students’ reading in ways appropriate to their grade level. Only part of guided reading is under challenge by Common Core, and it only that aspect of it that needs to change to meet your standards.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

How Much Teacher Guidance Versus How Much Independent Work?

I've been reading your blog articles very carefully, and in one entry you recommended having the kids read a lot during the literary block time (and all other subjects), suggesting possibly 50% of the time should be spent reading. My question is how much of that reading time should be teacher-led (for close reading and complex text), and how much should be just independent work?

          All of the school reading time—or almost all of it—should be teacher-led. Kids are sent to school to learn things. Teachers are paid to teach things. There is no question that kids can learn things on their own. However, then one wouldn’t need a school or a teacher for that.

            Kids don’t learn as much on their own as when provided with explicit teaching. Hence we pay you to teach the kids. If you send them off to learn on their own instead, you reduce the benefit kids get from schooling.

           The trick is to use the school day effectively to guide kids to learn as much as possible, and then to entice them to continue on their own when they don’t have a teacher available to guide them (after school, before school, weekends, summers, etc.). 

            How close this interaction or supervision needs to be is an open question. If a teacher scaffold’s kids half way through a story, and then has them finish reading the story on their own, perhaps followed by some kind of written response, is that teacher guided or independent, or both?

           My sense of that is that, even though the kids are sitting someplace separate from the teacher for the second part of that lesson, it would be a teacher-guided activity. It was the teacher who assigned the text, got kids engaged, focused their attention on key elements through questions and other directions, and then who, even though the kids were going off to work, had focused their attention on the writing outcome.

           That is very different from those situations in which kids pick reading materials themselves, go off and read on their own—with neither guidance nor supervision (e.g., observation, feedback)—and without outcomes to focus the activity (e.g., the discussion, the writing response).

           Or what about the teacher who has developed a sequence of instruction comparable to reciprocal teaching? The series of lessons might have started out with the teacher doing almost everything; perhaps demonstrating how one can interrogate a text. The ensuing lessons would likely be under teacher control, too; these are the “we do its.”

           But what about the “you do its” or the “you do it togethers.” At that point, the students have watched the teacher carry out the activity, and would have engaged in questioning too, though under the teacher’s supervision. Now what if she has 3 or 4 groups each trying to work there way through a text, asking and answering certain kinds of questions. Or maybe it is individual assignments and the kids are reading, coming up with questions for each section, and recording these questions and answers in their notebook?

           An observer who parachutes in for those last lessons might think them very independent and far outside of teacher control, but I would disagree. Because of the context that the teacher created, those kids would simply be mastering the skills the teacher was teaching. Looking at the entire sequence of lessons, it would be more obvious that the teacher was actually still guiding the process and enhancing the learning.

          Again, kids definitely can and do learn on their own. The purpose of teaching is to focus that learning on socially determined outcomes and to make learning more efficient and powerful.

          Good teaching activities are going to have kids very much under teacher leadership. Sometimes specific lessons might require students to work away from the teacher, in a manner that allows the teacher to observe and to provide feedback.

          Giving assignments alone is not teaching. But giving assignments—even those that require kids to work on their own—are a part of teaching, if there is scaffolding, explanation, direction, purpose setting, opportunity for feedback or adjustment, and the like. Don’t look for opportunities for kids to do independent work, but look instead, to figure out the combination of activities and guidance that will allow students to accomplish particular learning goals most effectively.

          The ultimate goal is for kids to be able to do, on their own, what they are being taught to do. Kids eventually have to be able to demonstrate that they can carry out whatever the task is or that they have acquired the requisite knowledge. What combination of activities will allow them to accomplish such outcomes with maximum efficiency? 

          With activities like reciprocal teaching, we often talk as if the progress from "I do it" to "we do it" to "you do it" is a linear path (and one that may suggest two-thirds of the time--the "I" and the "we"--should be directly and immediately under teacher control, with one-third for the somewhat more distant independent work). It doesn't really work that way. I might demonstrate the skill to the kids and then try to guide their efforts. Those efforts might be terrific in which case I have made a great choice, or they might be feeble in which case it would make more sense for me to demonstrate yet again. The same kind of thing happens when the teacher tries to have the kids do the task on their own: they might struggle and the teacher may find she needs to re-intervene. 

          The proper division of time between teacher-led and independent is unknowable, because it depends on the kids. Their performance will lead you to either conclude that they have mastered the skills/knowledge or that they haven't; and pulling back to teacher-led activities might be the right response if they haven't. Of course, if they have, you should be moving forward to teach something else.








Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Role of Early Oral Language in Reading Comprehension

           When I was 18-years-old I was a volunteer tutor in an inner-city school. I wasn’t an education major—that came later—but I was intent on saving the world. I was excited about the idea of going into the city and working with elementary school kids who were growing up in poverty.

            But I was also nervous about it. I didn’t know a damn thing about working with kids, the inner city, or reading. A trifecta of ignorance.

            I decided to school myself the evening before my first day of tutoring, so I went to the university library and looked for some books on the teaching of reading. I found two that seemed pertinent and I checked them out.

            One was Rudolph Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read and the other was Roach Van and Claryce Allen’s Language Experiences in Early Childhood. At the time I couldn’t have found two more separate takes on early reading: Flesch’s convincing polemic on the need for explicit phonics instruction and the Allen’s romantic homage to the role of early language development.

            It turns out I was also ignorant about philosophical differences. I was scrambling to figure out what to do and these books—as far apart as they may have been—were pointing me in practical, if seemingly incommensurate, directions.

            Now, 47 years later, with lots of knowledge and experience, I’m back to where I started. I no longer see them as incommensurate (again). Decoding and language, language and decoding… it’s like those television commercials: “tastes great, less filling” or “peanut butter, chocolate.” Sometimes the complementary just makes good sense.

            Recently, Chris Lonigan and I wrote a short article for Language Magazine. It’s focus is on “The Role of Early Oral Language in Literacy Development.” I think both Chris and I have bona fides in the “phonics/decoding/foundational skills” community and have the scars to show it. But we are both also advocates of the so-called “simple view” of reading—students need to know how to decode from print to language and they need to know how to understand language. This is a both, not an either/or.


            Here is a link to the article. Hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why An Overemphasis on Foundational Reading Skills Makes Kids Sick

Principal’s question:

District leadership has advised primary teachers to focus on the Foundational Skills Strand, and de-emphasize the other strands. The belief is that if students go into Grade 3 having mastered foundational skills, they will be prepared to master the rigor of the other strands.

As the principal, the message I'm considering sending is to teach all strands, closely monitoring foundational skills with DIBELS, immediately addressing gaps. Students who are meeting foundational skills standards may spend more time in other strands while those struggling get focused support in assessed areas of foundational skills difficulty. Does that sound reasonable?

I'm concerned that de-emphasizing the other strands will make it hard for students to catch up in third grade, and many students may lose interest if not exposed to a variety of thought-provoking work. On the other hand, I understand the immense importance of systematic, explicit instruction in the foundational skills- and know they must be a focus in early years.

All that said, can you give a guideline as to the percent of the E/LA time that should be spent on foundational skills for the "typical" primary student? Our district adopted Benchmark Advance, which looks to me as though it does NOT emphasize the foundational skills. I would like to give teachers a time guideline for initial whole-group instruction in foundational skills so we know how much we may need to supplement with other curriculum.

Shanahan’s response:

     Imagine if district leadership advised the cafeteria crew to focus on calcium only, and to de-emphasize the other nutrients? Their belief might be that if students reached the age of 8 without strong teeth and bones, they would not be prepared for the later rigors of eating grains, meats, and vegetables.

     You’d be writing to me to find out if it’s okay to serve cereals with the morning milk and green beans at lunch. And, let's face it, these kid's autopsies would likely reveal strong teeth and bones.

     Sadly, this analogy is apt.

     Of course, one can put all the primary grade focus on some skills to try to advance progress in those skills, just as one could put all the emphasis on some nutrients to promote some health needs over others. Doing so won't accomplish the real goal, but it might fool some observers into thinking it has been reached.

     Here are some facts worth knowing:

1.  In the 1960s, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) began a rigorous analysis of beginning reading in an effort to identify how effectively to avoid or to address learning problems. This coordinated effort is generally credited with much of the progress that has been made in understanding the role that skills like phonological awareness play in reading and the value of explicit phonics instruction. One important finding of that effort: addressing only students’ phonological/orthographic needs during the primary grade years leaves those students vulnerable to continued reading disability (due to a lack attention to their language development). There either are usually undiagnosed language deficits early on, that become more evident later, or the inattention to non-foundational skills limits their growth during these years. I don’t think anyone can read that body of research without concluding both that kids need substantial attention to foundational skills early on, AND that solely focusing on such skills would be harmful.

2.  The National Reading Panel was pressed into service to review research on what works in reading at the request of the U.S. Congress, under the auspices of NICHD and the U.S. Department of Education. Unlike many of the critics at the time, panel members, who were unpaid volunteers, were not allowed to have any potential conflicting commercial interests. That panel reviewed 51 studies of the teaching of phonemic awareness, 38 studies of phonics, and 32 studies of oral reading fluency. The panel concluded that students would benefit from explicit, systematic instruction in each of those foundational skills during the primary grades. However, it should be noted that in no case within those studies did anyone consider those skills as separable from the rest of reading. For example, when studying phonics, the students in the control groups and the phonics groups were receiving instruction in vocabulary, comprehension, writing and the like. The only difference was that the experimental group would be getting phonics or some more ambitious version of phonics. Thus, the panel’s conclusion that these skills need to be taught was determined in the context of these skills being taught along with other reading skills. Such a heavy focus on any of these skills to the omission of the others likely would have led to very different conclusions.

3.  Over my career, I have worked with some of the biggest proponents of foundational skills teaching: Patricia Cunninghma, Linnea Ehri, Jack Fletcher, Barbara Foorman, David Francis, Douglas Fuchs, Lynn Fuchs, Christopher Lonigan, Louisa Moats, Michael Pressley, Christopher Schatschneider, Sally Shaywitz, Steve Stahl, Keith Stanovich, Joseph Torgesen, Sharon Vaughn, etc. These brilliant men and women disagree—with me and with each other--on many issues, but they seem to all be in agreement that the foundational skills are NECESSARY for learning to read (so you'd better make sure kids are instructed in them), BUT THAT THEY ALONE ARE NOT SUFFICIENT for learning to read (so you'd better do more for kids' reading than teach them foundational skills).

      I have long been an advocate for providing children with 120-180 minutes per day of literacy instruction. I divide that time roughly in quarters: 25% devoted to words and word parts (e.g., letters, sounds, decoding, PA); 25% to oral reading fluency; 25% to reading comprehension; and 25% to writing. That means that primary grade kids would receive about 60 to 90 minutes per day of foundational skills instruction (combining the word work with the fluency work).

     There are variants on this scheme. For example, Joe Torgesen touched it up by advocating 2 hours of daily literacy instruction, with up to a third hour dedicated to remediation in those foundational skills. Thus, your idea of giving some kids more foundational work beyond the amount that everyone receives in class makes great sense and can easily be accommodated in this plan. However, ignoring essential skills that can't easily be tested to focus on ones that can be, won't help kids much.

      I sympathize with your administrators. They want a quick fix. Sadly, the positive third-grade reading data that they are imagining would at best be briefly hiding their failure. Sort of like painting over the rot in a wooden porch; the paint will make it look nice, but it won't keep the steps from soon collapsing. In addressing a problem, you must recognize what is necessary, as well as what is insufficient.


     Pass the green beans, please!