Monday, May 18, 2015

An Argument About Matching Texts to Students

A reader wrote:
My main response is toward your general notion of the research surrounding teaching kids "at their level."

First, I think the way you're describing instructional/skill levels obfuscates the issue a bit. Instructional level, by definition, means the level at which a child can benefit from instruction, including with scaffolding. Frustrational, by definition, means the instruction won't work. Those levels, like the terms "reinforcement & punishment" for example, are defined by their outcomes, not intentions. If a child learned from the instruction, the instruction was on the child's "instructional" level.

Where we may be getting confused is that I think you actually are referring to teaching reading comprehension using material that is in a child's instructional level with comprehension, but on a child's frustrational level with reading fluency. This is a much different statement than what I think most teachers are getting from your messages about text complexity, to the point that I think they're making mistakes in terms of text selection.

More generally, I'd argue that there is copious research supporting using "instructional material" to teach various reading skills. Take, for example, all of the research supporting repeated readings. That intervention, by definition, uses material that is on a child's "instructional" level with reading fluency, and there is great support that it works. So, the idea that somehow "teaching a child using material on his/her instructional level is not research supported" just doesn't make sense to me.

In terms of this specific post about how much one can scaffold, I think it largely depends on the child and specific content, as Lexiles and reading levels don't fully define a material's "instructional level" when it comes to comprehension. I know many 3rd graders, for example, that could be scaffolded with material written on an 8th grade level, but the content isn't very complex, so scaffolding is much easier.

The broad point here, Dr. Shanahan, is that we're over-simplifying, therefore confusing, the issue by trying to argue that kids should be taught with reading material on their frustrational level, or on grade level despite actual skill level. People are actually hearing you say that we should NOT attempt to match a child with a text - that skill level or lexile is completely irrelevant - when I believe you know you're saying that "instructional level" is just a bit more nuanced than providing all elements of reading instruction only on a child's oral reading fluency instructional range.

First, you are using the terms “instructional level” and “frustration level” in idiosyncratic ways. These terms are not used in the field of reading education as you claim, nor have they ever been. These levels are used as predictions, not as post-instruction evaluations. If they were used in the manner you suggest, then there would be little or no reason for informal reading inventories and running records. One would simply start teaching everyone with grade level materials, and if a student was found to make no progress, then we would simply lower the text difficulty over time.

My reply:
Of course, that is not what is done at all. Students are tested, instructional levels are determined, instructional groups are formed, and books assigned based on this information.

The claim has been that if you match students to text appropriately (the instructional level) that you will maximize the amount of student learning. This definition of instructional level does allow for scaffolding—in fact, that’s why students are discouraged from trying to read instructional level materials on their own, since there would be no scaffold available.

Fountas and Pinnell, for example, are quite explicit that even with sound book matching it is going to be important to preteach vocabulary, discuss prior knowledge, and engage children in picture walks so that they will be able to read the texts with little difficulty. And, programs like Accelerated Reading limit what books students are allowed to read.

You are also claiming that students have different instructional levels for fluency and comprehension. Informal reading inventories and running records measure both fluency AND reading comprehension. They measure them separately.  But there is no textbook or commercial IRI that suggests to teachers that they should be using different levels of texts to teach these different skills or contents. How accurately the students read the words and answer questions are combined to make an instructional text placement—not multiple text placements.

If we accept your claim that any text that leads to learning is at the “instructional level,” then pretty much any match will do. Students, no matter how they are taught, tend to make some learning gains in reading as annual Title I evaluations have shown again and again. These kids might have only gained .8 years in reading this year (the average is 1.0), but they were learning and by your lights that means we must have placed them appropriately.

Repeated reading has been found to raise reading achievement, as measured by standardized reading comprehension tests, but as Steve Stahl and Melanie Kuhn have shown, such fluency instruction works best—that is, leads to greater learning gains—when students work with books identified as being at their frustration levels rather than at their so-called instructional levels. That’s why in their large-scale interventions they teach students with grade level texts rather than trying to match students to texts based on an invalid construct (the instructional level).

You write: “People are actually hearing you say that we should NOT attempt to match a child with a text -- that skill level or Lexile is completely irrelevant - when I believe you know you're saying that "instructional level" is just a bit more nuanced than providing all elements of reading instruction only on a child's oral reading fluency instructional range.”

In fact, I am saying that beyond beginning reading, teachers should NOT attempt to match students with text. I am also saying that students should be reading multiple texts and that these should range from easy (for the child) to quite difficult. I am saying that the more difficult a text is, the more scaffolding and support the teacher needs to provide—and that such scaffolding should not include reading the text to the student or telling the student what the text says.


I am NOT saying that skill level or Lexile are irrelevant, or that “instructional level” is simply a bit more nuanced then people think. It is useful to test students and to know how hard the texts are for that student; that will allow you to be ready to provide sufficient amounts of scaffolding (and to know when you can demand greater effort and when just more effort will not pay off).

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

How Much Text Complexity Can Teachers Scaffold?

How much of a "gap" can be compensated through differentiation? If my readers are at a 400 Lexile level, is there an effective way to use a 820 level chapter book? 

            This is a great question. (Have you ever noticed that usually means the responder thinks he has an answer).

            For years, teachers were told that students had to be taught with books that matched their ability, or learning would be reduced. As a teacher I bought into those notions. I tested every one of my students with informal reading inventories, one-on-one, and then tried to orchestrate multiple groups with multiple book levels. This was prior to the availability of lots of short paperback books that had been computer scored for F & P levels or Lexiles, so I worked with various basal readers to make this work.

            However, a careful look at the research shows me that almost no studies have found any benefits from such matching. In fact, if one sets aside those studies that focused on children who were reading no higher than a Grade 1 level, then the only results supporting specific student-text matches are those arguing for placing students at what we would have traditionally called their frustration level.

            Given this research and that so many state standards now require teachers to enable students to read more challenging texts in grades 2-12, teachers are going to need to learn to guide student reading with higher level text than in the past.

            Theoretically, there is no limit to how much of a gap can be scaffolded. Many studies have shown that teachers can facilitate student success with texts that students can read with only 80% accuracy and 50% comprehension, and I have no doubt, that with even more scaffolding, students could probably bridge even bigger gaps.

            I vividly remember reading a case study of Grace Fernald when I was in graduate school. She wrote about teaching a 13-year-old, a total non-reader, to read with an encyclopedia volume. That sounds crazy, but with a motivated student, and a highly skilled teacher, and a lot of one-on-one instructional time, without too many interruptions… it can work.

            But what is theoretically sound or possible under particularly supportive circumstances does not necessarily work in most classrooms.

            I have no doubt teachers can scaffold a couple of grade levels without too much difficulty. That is, the fifth-grade teacher working with a fifth-grade book can successfully bring along a student who reads at a third-grade level in most classroom situations. But as you make the distance between student and book bigger than that, then I have to know a lot more about the teacher’s ability and resources to estimate whether it will work this time.

           Nevertheless, by preteaching vocabulary, providing fluency practice, offfering guidance in making sense of sentences and cohesion, requiring rereading, and so on, I have no doubt that teachers can successfully scaffold a student across a 300-400 Lexile gap--with solid learning. 

            But specifically, you ask about scaffolding a 400-Lexile reader to an 820-Lexile text. If you had asked about 500 to 920, I wouldn't hesitate: Yes, a teacher could successfully scaffold that gap. I’m more hesitant with the 400 level as the starting point. My reason for this is because 400 is a first-grade reading level. This would be a student who is still mastering basic decoding skills.

            I do not believe that shifting to more challenging text under those circumstances is such a good idea.

            To address this student’s needs, I would ramp up my phonics instruction, including dictation (I want my students to encode the alphabetic system as well as decode it). I might increase the amount of reading he or she is expected to do with texts that highlight rather than obscure how the spelling system works (e.g., decodable text, linguistic text). I would increase work on high frequency words, and I would increase the amount of oral reading fluency work, too. I’d do all of these things.

            But I would not shift him/her to a harder book because of what needs to be mastered at beginning reading levels. We’ll eventually need to do that, but not until the foundations of decoding were more firmly in place. 

           An important thing to remember: no state standards raises the text demands for students in Kindergarten or Grade 1. They do not do this because they are giving students the opportunity to firmly master their basic decoding skills. It isn't the distance between 400 and 820 that concerns me--that kind of a distance can be bridged; but a 400-Lexile represents a limited degree of decoding proficiency, and so I wouldn't want to shift attention from achieving proficiency in reading those basic words.  




Thursday, May 7, 2015

Should We Teach Spelling? II

            My last blog entry was written in response to a fifth-grade teacher who wanted to know about spelling instruction. Although teachers at her school thought that formal spelling instruction, like working with word lists, was a bad idea, it turns out that such teaching is beneficial to kids. The same can be said for studying word structure and its implications for spelling, pronunciation, and meaning.

            The best reviews of this research have consistently found that spelling instruction leads to spelling improvement, but it also leads to improvements in reading and writing, so it can be quite important.

            A part of the original letter that I did not include in last week’s entry:

I agree my students have poor spelling abilities but I try and address this issue incidentally through my Writer's Workshop.  I would be one to argue the time issue as I would see a separate spelling program as one more thing I must fit into my short 75- minute block. What are your thoughts on Spelling instruction at a 5th grade level?

            In other words, she might be open to dealing with spelling more directly (and research finds that explicit systematic spelling instruction outperforms this more incidental Writer’s Workshop kind of approach), but she—like many teachers—is struggling with how to get it all in; a 75-minute English language arts period is pretty small.

            In fact, it is so small, that I’m unsure that I could get spelling shoehorned into the mix of responsibilities, standards, and requirements. I start from the premise that students, to reach the levels of literacy that we want for them, are going to have to have about 120 minutes per day of reading and writing work, not 75 or 90.  (In the primary grades, or with older students with seriously impaired reading, I’ll go as high as 180 minutes per day).

            That doesn’t mean that the ELA period has to be more than 75 minutes, but it sure means that some of the essential work kids need to do with (1) words, (2) fluency, (3) comprehension/ learning from text, and (4) writing are going to have to take place beyond the ELA classroom. The idea that the math, social studies, and science teachers aren’t going to have to address any of these issues is a pipe dream.

            I devote a quarter of the time to each of these critical areas of concern. That would mean 30 minutes in this case would be devoted to word knowledge (notice I didn’t say “word study”—that is an activity, not an outcome). I’m saying that I would spend approximately 30 minutes per day, or 2.5 hours per week, working on increasing students ability to read words (decoding), to understand word meanings (vocabulary), and to spelling (which relates both to decoding and vocabulary).

            To accomplish that, in this case, would require expanding these students opportunities to learn to read and write throughout the school day. This is best achieved by having the teachers who share the kids come to some agreements about who will do what. If we are going to spend 2.5 hours per week on student writing, how much of that will take place during the social studies class? If we are going to spend 2.5 hours per week analyzing words and learning vocabulary, how much of that will come in science? And so on. (Past experience tells me it is best to make these commitments by the week rather than the day).

            Once that is determined, then it becomes possible to see who needs to do what. Perhaps, students will study vocabulary formally in some other classes, freeing you up to focus on the spelling issues.

            Additional instructional guidance:

1.     Always link spelling with either phonics or vocabulary meaning rather than as a stand-alone concern. Thus, if you’re a primary grade teacher and you’re teaching phonics, then make spelling, and not just reading, a targeted outcome. Have kids trying to write words, not just reading them. And, if you are teaching older students who have largely mastered their decoding skills, then focus the spelling work on word interpretation (structural analysis, Greek and Latin roots, affixes, and the like), and  having them writing the words based on their knowledge of spelling and not just reading them, makes sense.
2.     Never spend more than 15 minutes on spelling per day.
3.     Formal spelling instruction does not have to take place everyday; 2-3 times per week is probably sufficient at Grade 5.
4.     Don’t hesitate to include spelling work as part of homework (spelling assignments can be easily constructed—more easily than can be done with more complex work, and parents can help with spelling, even when they can’t help with other work).
5.     Memorization is important in spelling, and drill-and-practice can play a small but valuable role. But do NOT have the students writing the spelling words 10 times each as practice. That doesn’t help with memorization (as I can copy something by rote without learning it), and it seems more like a punishment than an assignment aimed at learning. Do have students trying to write a word from memory (take a picture of the word with your eyes, and then with the word removed try to write it--practice until you can).


            I would strongly recommend the purchase of a book like Words their Way of The Spelling Connection to guide your instruction in this area. Lots of good advice and guidance there.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Should We Teach Spelling?

I often hear concerns about our students' poor spelling abilities, and have been thinking about practical ways to address this issue.  Although we want to continue to steer away from memorized lists that are often not retained, I want to get your feedback about incorporating more word study in your ELA block.  I know what you are thinking~ there is no time!  I first want to hear your concerns about spelling, so we can determine a manageable way to address them. 

My word study involves challenging vocabulary from my student's self-selected books and Greek and Latin word study.  I agree my students have poor spelling abilities but I try and address this issue incidentally through my Writer's Workshop. What are your thoughts on Spelling instruction at a 5th grade level?

            This letter raises an interesting issue, and one I don’t hear much about anymore. At one time, spelling was a big focus in the English Language Arts, and reviews of the research on spelling go back to 1919 (Ernest Horn’s classic, that sketched out a vision of the study results that would be fresh even today).

            This letter does a good job of laying out the current beliefs of many (that formal spelling instruction doesn’t work), the concern (that students don’t spell well), a barrier to action (the amount of time available for instruction), and a stab at a solution (editing student writing during Writer’s Workshop).

            Last year, Steve Graham and Tanya Santangelo published an excellent meta-analysis of 53 studies conducted with more than 6000 kids, grades K-12. They found, much as Horn did 96 years ago, that explicit instruction improves spelling. Teachers have long had concerns about the impact of teaching kids words and spelling patterns and the like, but the research has been consistent and clear: such teaching helps students to read and write better, and the gains that they make in spelling from such instruction is maintained over time.

            The premise that this letter is written on—the idea that memorizing words is bad and that such spelling improvement is not maintained—is simply not true, at any grade. Although young children appear to be able to make some gains in spelling without formal instruction, this is not true with older students; they only tend to improve much as a result of teaching and formal study.

            Spelling instruction improves spelling, but it also improves reading ability (and my research from the early 1980s found a clear connection between spelling and word reading and writing for fifth-graders). The impact of instruction on spelling is moderate-to-large, and students who receive explicit spelling instruction not only out-spell those kids who don’t get such teaching, but they do better than those who deal with spelling incidentally through their writing activity in their classrooms.

            I would argue for the study of the spelling of words, including those not selected by the kids, but selected because of the challenge or the principles of spelling that they represent. So, spelling lists can have a place in your classroom. I would also argue for the kinds of word study activities and sorting procedures promoted by Don Bear and his colleagues.  We want kids to learn to spell particular words and we want them to understand how spelling works.

            Spelling is important for a lot of reasons:

  1.  It is included in your educational standards: your community wants kids to spell well.
  2. Spelling is related to reading. If your students can spell well, they will read better. Spelling involves both an understanding of how letters and sounds relate, but it also entails an understanding of the meaningful parts of words (think of the differences in pronunciation of the spelling of words like: democracy and Democrat; declaration and declare; or cats and dogs; our spelling system preserves the meaning not the sound-symbol relationship).
  3. Spelling is related to writing. Students, when they can spell well, are more willing to use a wide vocabulary (they aren’t constrained by fear of misspelling) and they can devote their cognitive resources to formulating and communicating their ideas, rather than worrying about how to construct words.
  4. Spelling problems may draw negative social judgments. Think of Dan Quayle and what people decided about him when he couldn’t spell potato. We also know that writing quality is more likely to be judged negatively by teachers and evaluators when the writing contains misspellings.
  5. Although spell check helps to even the playing field, it won’t solve the problem entirely. If your spelling skills aren’t advanced enough the computer won’t be able to figure out what it is that you are trying to write, and many times a computer mis-corrects such words.

            Yes, I would teach spelling and I would invest in professional development and instructional materials that would support my teachers teaching spelling.


            How do you make spelling fit the schedule? That’s a bit more complicated and I’ll deal with that in my next blog. But until then, indeed, spelling instruction should have a place in your classroom.