Sunday, June 26, 2016

Further Explanation of Teaching Students with Challenging Text

Last week I pointed out that from grades 2-12 it wasn’t necessary to match students to text for instruction to proceed effectively. Research has not been kind to the idea of mechanical “instructional level” criteria like 90-95% accuracy (e.g., Jorgenson, Klein, & Kumar, 1977;  Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, Morris, Morrow, et al., 2006; Morgan, Wilcox, & Eldredge, 2000; O’Connor, Swanson, & Geraghty, 2010;  Powell, & Dunkeld, 1971;  Stahl, & Heubach, 2005;  Stanley, 1986).

            Language learning doesn’t work that way.

            That got lots of response, online and off. Some of it quite angry, too. Although I answered many queries and shout outs, I thought a little more formal response this week might be in order. Here are some key ideas when thinking about teaching kids to read with more complex text than we might have dared to use in the past:
           
1. No, easier text is not more motivating.
            Several respondents thought it only common sense that students would be frustrated by harder texts and stimulated by easier ones. I know that feeling. I shared it much of my career until I analyzed the evidence.
            One thing researchers have found repeatedly is that student readers tend to select books at their frustration levels for independent reading (e.g., Donovan, Smolkin,  & Lomax, 2000). Of course, with really low readers, what else could they choose? But this appears to be the case for the better readers, too. I guess their curiosity about the content of the harder materials outweighs their fear of failure. Looking back, I did a lot of that kind of frustration level reading myself as a boy—not always fully understanding what I read, but learning much from the struggle.
            Researchers thought students would lose motivation when reading harder texts (Fulmer & Tulis, 2013). Reality has been more complicated than that. Readers’ motivation does vary across a text reading—but degree of difficulty doesn’t seem to be the source of that variation.
            And, the idea that we want students to be challenged, but not too much—they can miss some specific number of words, but only that number and no more—just hasn’t panned out. When learning and book placement have been studied there has usually been no connection at all or the harder placements have led to more learning (in other words, our relatively easy book matches may be holding kids back, preventing them from exposure to more challenging features of language and meaning).
            If we are going to make these decisions based on our imaginings of how children must feel, then not only should we think of how frustrating it might be to struggle with a text that contains many words you don’t know, but we should consider how boring it must be to always deal with content aimed at younger kids who already can read as well you can.

2. No, not all texts need to be at an instructional level.
            If one challenges the idea of placing kids in instructional level books to facilitate learning (e.g., guided reading, Accelerated Reader), why is the alternative to only place kids in frustration level texts? The idea that all reading should be at the instructional level is wrong in part because of the inherent notion that all reading experience should be at any particular level. Text difficulty should vary; kids should move across a range of texts from easy to difficult.
            In the teaching of most skilled activities (e.g., foreign language, dancing, bicycle racing), the idea is not to protect the learners from harder applications of those skills, but to vary the routines between relatively easy challenges and those that scare and potentially embarrass the learner. If you have any doubt, go learn to do something.

3. No, text level is not the only feature of the learning situation that can be varied.
            Not only should texts vary in difficulty, but the amount of help, guidance, explanation, and scaffolding ought to vary, too. When kids are placed in frustration level texts they need greater support than when they are reading instructional level or independent level texts—just the opposite of what many of our instructional routines provide.
            I should intentionally place kids in easier or harder text and should add or withdraw support based upon need. When kids are in easy texts, the training wheels can be taken off. When they are in harder texts, as a teacher I need to be prepared to offer greater guidance and support. That means easier texts when reading with 30 kids, and harder texts—certainly beyond the normally prescribed levels—when I’m sitting closely with 6-8 kids and can monitor more closely and intervene more easily.
            If your teaching skills are so limited that the only way to protect kids from failure is to keep them always in the shallow water, then so be it. But for most of us, there is a greater range of pedagogical response available that would allow kids to swim often in deeper water without drowning.

4. No, more challenging text will not disrupt kids’ development of decoding skills.
            I heard from some last week that if you placed kids in more challenging texts then they just guessed at words. That might be true if you were to do this with beginning readers, but grade 2 is not beginning reading. Kids should be placed in relatively easy texts initially (grades K-1), texts that have clearly decodable or consistent spelling patterns.
            Then when they start taking on a greater range of texts—when they can read a second grade text, you will usually not see that kind of guessing based only on context. In any event, whatever patterns of reading behavior are elicited by such challenging text matches at that point, they have not been found to slow kids’ reading development or to disrupt their growth in decoding ability from that point. In fact, O’Connor and her colleagues (2010) have not even found it to be an issue with our most struggling readers—those older learning-disabled students who might still be trying to master many of those beginning reading skills.
            I understand the concerns and discomfort in putting kids in frustration level materials given all the reading authorities that have told you not to do that. But a careful review of that advice reveals a shocking neglect of studies of doing just that. No one, however, is saying just throw kids into hard text and hope they make it. One wouldn’t do that with beginning readers, and when kids are ready for such immersion tactics teachers have to teach—it isn’t like those routines where you hope the text is easy enough for kids to learn with a minimum of teacher help. And, finally, much learning comes from practice under varied levels of complication and difficulty—just because traditionally you were told all reading instruction should be at the instructional level doesn’t mean that when teaching with more complex text that you should aspire to such uniformity.

References 
Donovan, C. A., Smolkin, L. B., & Lomax, R. G. (2000). Beyond the independent-level text: Considering the reader-text match in first graders’ self-selections during recreational reading. Reading Psychology, 21, 309-333.

Fulmer, S. M., & Tulis, M. (2013). Changes in interest and affect during a difficult reading task: Relationships with perceived difficulty and reading fluency. Learning and Instruction, 27, 11-20.

Jorgenson, G. W., Klein, N., & Kumar, V. K. (1977). Achievement and behavioral correlates of matched levels of student ability and materials difficulty. Journal of Educational Research, 71, 100-103.

Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., Morris, R. D., Morrow, L. M., Woo, D. G., Meisinger, E. B., Sevcik, R, A., Bradley, B. A., & Stahl, S. A. (2006). Teaching children to become fluent and automatic readers. Journal of Literacy Research, 38, 357-387.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., & Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113-119.

O’Connor, R. E., Swanson, L. H., & Geraghty, C. (2010). Improvement in reading rate under independent and difficult text levels: Influences on word and comprehension skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 1-19.

Powell, W.R., & Dunkeld, C.G. (1971). Validity of the IRI reading levels. Elementary English, 48, 637-642.

Stahl, S. A., & Heubach, K. M. (2005). Fluency-oriented reading instruction. Journal of Literacy Research, 37, 25-60.

Stanley, N.V. (1986). A concurrent validity study of the emergent reading level. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Florida.

Further Explanation of Teaching Students with Challenging Text

Last week I pointed out that from grades 2-12 it wasn’t necessary to match students to text for instruction to proceed effectively. Research has not been kind to the idea of mechanical “instructional level” criteria like 90-95% accuracy (e.g., Jorgenson, Klein, & Kumar, 1977;  Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, Morris, Morrow, et al., 2006; Morgan, Wilcox, & Eldredge, 2000; O’Connor, Swanson, & Geraghty, 2010;  Powell, & Dunkeld, 1971;  Stahl, & Heubach, 2005;  Stanley, 1986).

            Language learning doesn’t work that way.

            That got lots of response, online and off. Some of it quite angry, too. Although I answered many queries and shout outs, I thought a little more formal response this week might be in order. Here are some key ideas when thinking about teaching kids to read with more complex text than we might have dared to use in the past:
           
1. No, easier text is not more motivating.
            Several respondents thought it only common sense that students would be frustrated by harder texts and stimulated by easier ones. I know that feeling. I shared it much of my career until I analyzed the evidence.
            One thing researchers have found repeatedly is that student readers tend to select books at their frustration levels for independent reading (e.g., Donovan, Smolkin,  & Lomax, 2000). Of course, with really low readers, what else could they choose? But this appears to be the case for the better readers, too. I guess their curiosity about the content of the harder materials outweighs their fear of failure. Looking back, I did a lot of that kind of frustration level reading myself as a boy—not always fully understanding what I read, but learning much from the struggle.
            Researchers thought students would lose motivation when reading harder texts (Fulmer & Tulis, 2013). Reality has been more complicated than that. Readers’ motivation does vary across a text reading—but degree of difficulty doesn’t seem to be the source of that variation.
            And, the idea that we want students to be challenged, but not too much—they can miss some specific number of words, but only that number and no more—just hasn’t panned out. When learning and book placement have been studied there has usually been no connection at all or the harder placements have led to more learning (in other words, our relatively easy book matches may be holding kids back, preventing them from exposure to more challenging features of language and meaning).
            If we are going to make these decisions based on our imaginings of how children must feel, then not only should we think of how frustrating it might be to struggle with a text that contains many words you don’t know, but we should consider how boring it must be to always deal with content aimed at younger kids who already can read as well you can.

2. No, not all texts need to be at an instructional level.
            If one challenges the idea of placing kids in instructional level books to facilitate learning (e.g., guided reading, Accelerated Reader), why is the alternative to only place kids in frustration level texts? The idea that all reading should be at the instructional level is wrong in part because of the inherent notion that all reading experience should be at any particular level. Text difficulty should vary; kids should move across a range of texts from easy to difficult.
            In the teaching of most skilled activities (e.g., foreign language, dancing, bicycle racing), the idea is not to protect the learners from harder applications of those skills, but to vary the routines between relatively easy challenges and those that scare and potentially embarrass the learner. If you have any doubt, go learn to do something.

3. No, text level is not the only feature of the learning situation that can be varied.
            Not only should texts vary in difficulty, but the amount of help, guidance, explanation, and scaffolding ought to vary, too. When kids are placed in frustration level texts they need greater support than when they are reading instructional level or independent level texts—just the opposite of what many of our instructional routines provide.
            I should intentionally place kids in easier or harder text and should add or withdraw support based upon need. When kids are in easy texts, the training wheels can be taken off. When they are in harder texts, as a teacher I need to be prepared to offer greater guidance and support. That means easier texts when reading with 30 kids, and harder texts—certainly beyond the normally prescribed levels—when I’m sitting closely with 6-8 kids and can monitor more closely and intervene more easily.
            If your teaching skills are so limited that the only way to protect kids from failure is to keep them always in the shallow water, then so be it. But for most of us, there is a greater range of pedagogical response available that would allow kids to swim often in deeper water without drowning.

4. No, more challenging text will not disrupt kids’ development of decoding skills.
            I heard from some last week that if you placed kids in more challenging texts then they just guessed at words. That might be true if you were to do this with beginning readers, but grade 2 is not beginning reading. Kids should be placed in relatively easy texts initially (grades K-1), texts that have clearly decodable or consistent spelling patterns.
            Then when they start taking on a greater range of texts—when they can read a second grade text, you will usually not see that kind of guessing based only on context. In any event, whatever patterns of reading behavior are elicited by such challenging text matches at that point, they have not been found to slow kids’ reading development or to disrupt their growth in decoding ability from that point. In fact, O’Connor and her colleagues (2010) have not even found it to be an issue with our most struggling readers—those older learning-disabled students who might still be trying to master many of those beginning reading skills.
            I understand the concerns and discomfort in putting kids in frustration level materials given all the reading authorities that have told you not to do that. But a careful review of that advice reveals a shocking neglect of studies of doing just that. No one, however, is saying just throw kids into hard text and hope they make it. One wouldn’t do that with beginning readers, and when kids are ready for such immersion tactics teachers have to teach—it isn’t like those routines where you hope the text is easy enough for kids to learn with a minimum of teacher help. And, finally, much learning comes from practice under varied levels of complication and difficulty—just because traditionally you were told all reading instruction should be at the instructional level doesn’t mean that when teaching with more complex text that you should aspire to such uniformity.

References 
Donovan, C. A., Smolkin, L. B., & Lomax, R. G. (2000). Beyond the independent-level text: Considering the reader-text match in first graders’ self-selections during recreational reading. Reading Psychology, 21, 309-333.

Fulmer, S. M., & Tulis, M. (2013). Changes in interest and affect during a difficult reading task: Relationships with perceived difficulty and reading fluency. Learning and Instruction, 27, 11-20.

Jorgenson, G. W., Klein, N., & Kumar, V. K. (1977). Achievement and behavioral correlates of matched levels of student ability and materials difficulty. Journal of Educational Research, 71, 100-103.

Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., Morris, R. D., Morrow, L. M., Woo, D. G., Meisinger, E. B., Sevcik, R, A., Bradley, B. A., & Stahl, S. A. (2006). Teaching children to become fluent and automatic readers. Journal of Literacy Research, 38, 357-387.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., & Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113-119.

O’Connor, R. E., Swanson, L. H., & Geraghty, C. (2010). Improvement in reading rate under independent and difficult text levels: Influences on word and comprehension skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 1-19.

Powell, W.R., & Dunkeld, C.G. (1971). Validity of the IRI reading levels. Elementary English, 48, 637-642.

Stahl, S. A., & Heubach, K. M. (2005). Fluency-oriented reading instruction. Journal of Literacy Research, 37, 25-60.


Stanley, N.V. (1986). A concurrent validity study of the emergent reading level. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Florida.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Laying Waste to 5 Popular Myths about Reading Instruction

"Summertime and the living is easy, fish are jumping, and the cotton is high..." 

It is summer and not a good time for a long blog on literacy teaching. So, I took the time to write a short one. I didn't want to get worked up in the summer heat, so have provided a pithy critique of 5 popular myths about reading instruction. 

1.  No, the fact that you do not use a textbook to teach reading does not make you a good teacher. 
The idea that good teachers don’t follow a program and weak ones do has been around since well before I became a teacher. It is absolutely silly. The good teachers are the ones who manage to teach kids a lot and the poor ones accomplish less. That has nothing to do with whether a program is followed or not.
           
2.  No, the fact that you have regularly scheduled free reading time in your classroom does not mean the kids will improve in reading. 
Kids can learn something from reading on their own. But they tend to learn much more from reading instruction (reading a book along with other kids discussing it with a teacher, and writing about it). Free-choice reading time—SSR, DEAR, SQUIRT—ranges from having no affect on learning to having very tiny effects. Encourage free reading when teachers aren’t available to work   with kids and encourage teaching when they are.

3.  No, focusing only on reading—ignoring writing and content instruction—is not the best way to raise reading achievement for struggling readers.
The idea that kids who struggle with reading need more literacy instruction makes sense and is supported by research. But often this is offered at the cost of other kinds of instruction. Writing about text has been found to have bigger comprehension effects than reading alone, reading and rereading, and reading and discussing. Skipping writing instruction and activity for extra reading is obviously a bad idea. And, though it might be necessary to pull kids out of some content instruction to get the reading help they need, the bad effects of this should be reduced by making sure the texts used for this instruction is content rich.

4.  No, assigning students (in grades 2-12) to reading books at “their reading levels” does not facilitate learning to read.
I’m still finding teachers who are sure there must be research supporting the idea of teaching kids with texts of particular levels of difficulty (such as those they can read with 95-98% accuracy). There isn’t. Kids can learn from a wide range of text difficulties, and it makes sense to guide them, within instruction, to make sense of texts that they would struggle to read on their own.

5.  No, reading to kids does not teach them to read.
There are few activities that I enjoy as a parent, grandparent, or teacher than reading to children. And, yet, studies show that such activity has positive impacts on children’s vocabulary (kids who are read know the meanings of   new words). However, the idea that reading to kids teaches them to read is a bad idea—and one not demonstrated in the dozens of studies on reading to kids. I definitely would continue to read to children, but not instead of reading instruction. Reading picture books or chapter books to kids should not take the place of any part of the reading and writing instruction block.


Pennsylvania June 2016 Powerpoints

Laying Waste to 5 Popular Myths about Reading Instruction

"Summertime and the living is easy, fish are jumping, and the cotton is high..." 

It is summer and not a good time for a long blog on literacy teaching. So, I took the time to write a short one. I didn't want to get worked up in the summer heat, so have provided a pithy critique of 5 popular myths about reading instruction. 

1.  No, the fact that you do not use a textbook to teach reading does not make you a good teacher. 
The idea that good teachers don’t follow a program and weak ones do has been around since well before I became a teacher. It is absolutely silly. The good teachers are the ones who manage to teach kids a lot and the poor ones accomplish less. That has nothing to do with whether a program is followed or not.
           
2.  No, the fact that you have regularly scheduled free reading time in your classroom does not mean the kids will improve in reading. 
Kids can learn something from reading on their own. But they tend to learn much more from reading instruction (reading a book along with other kids discussing it with a teacher, and writing about it). Free-choice reading time—SSR, DEAR, SQUIRT—ranges from having no affect on learning to having very tiny effects. Encourage free reading when teachers aren’t available to work   with kids and encourage teaching when they are.

3.  No, focusing only on reading—ignoring writing and content instruction—is not the best way to raise reading achievement for struggling readers.
The idea that kids who struggle with reading need more literacy instruction makes sense and is supported by research. But often this is offered at the cost of other kinds of instruction. Writing about text has been found to have bigger comprehension effects than reading alone, reading and rereading, and reading and discussing. Skipping writing instruction and activity for extra reading is obviously a bad idea. And, though it might be necessary to pull kids out of some content instruction to get the reading help they need, the bad effects of this should be reduced by making sure the texts used for this instruction is content rich.

4.  No, assigning students (in grades 2-12) to reading books at “their reading levels” does not facilitate learning to read.
I’m still finding teachers who are sure there must be research supporting the idea of teaching kids with texts of particular levels of difficulty (such as those they can read with 95-98% accuracy). There isn’t. Kids can learn from a wide range of text difficulties, and it makes sense to guide them, within instruction, to make sense of texts that they would struggle to read on their own.

5.  No, reading to kids does not teach them to read.
There are few activities that I enjoy as a parent, grandparent, or teacher than reading to children. And, yet, studies show that such activity has positive impacts on children’s vocabulary (kids who are read know the meanings of   new words). However, the idea that reading to kids teaches them to read is a bad idea—and one not demonstrated in the dozens of studies on reading to kids. I definitely would continue to read to children, but not instead of reading instruction. Reading picture books or chapter books to kids should not take the place of any part of the reading and writing instruction block.


Pennsylvania June 2016 Powerpoints

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Think-Pair-Share in Reading Instruction: Is it Effective?

Teacher Question:
Our reading coach has encouraged all of our teachers to use a lot of the “think-pair-share” reading strategy. I’m an upper elementary grade teacher. Is “think-pair-share” research based?

Shanahan responds: 
            This seems like such a straightforward question, but it has been tying me in knots for days. It all depends on what you mean by “research based.”

            You might be asking me whether there is there any empirical evidence showing that if you use “think-pair-share” in your classroom your kids will end up with higher reading achievement by the end of the year. If that is the question, then my answer is a decided no. That has not even been studied as far as I can determine.

            However, if your question is, “Is there any evidence that think-pair-share will do what its proponents say it will—that is increase student interaction, increase the likelihood of right answers, encourage students to elaborate their oral responses—then I can say there is a small amount of research supporting the practice.

            When kids get the opportunity to discuss something with a partner before responding to a teacher question all of those positive outcomes have been seen in the primary grades in reading and in the upper grades with second-language learners.

            It is possible that the long-term benefit of such elaborated talk would be better reading comprehension eventually, but at this point there is no such evidence.

            A couple of years ago I was observing reading classes across a low-income suburban school district here locally. In this particular school I was sitting in on a couple of kindergarten classes right in a row. I don’t know if it was just luck of the draw or whether the principal had encouraged the teachers to deliver the same lesson, but I got to see two versions of the same listening comprehension session.

            In the first class, the teacher read a section of a book to the children gathered at her feet, and followed each segment with some questions that she aimed at particular kids. Pretty direct—but not very engaging. I was struggling to stay awake by the end.

            Then I was squired to the next classroom, and was distressed to see the same book, the same arrangement of kids on the carpet… “Yikes,” I thought, “staying awake for another half hour is going to be unbearable.”

            Again, the teacher read a segment, asked a question… but this teacher asked the kids to discuss it with their partners… They jabbered away for a moment or two and then were eager to respond to the teacher. And, boy, did they respond… with better answers, more text evidence, and even some questions of their own.

            The lesson proceeded that way for the rest of the period, and I thought it was delightful. The kids seemed to enjoy it far more than their peers down the hall, and the text discussion was both livelier and deeper in an informational sense.

            I’m not suggesting that your fourth-graders would respond to think-pair-share with the same enthusiasm shown by these young’uns, but just before the end of the school year, I was in Montana teaching some middle school classes. Admittedly, those 12- and 13-year-olds weren’t as exuberant as the 5-year-olds that I’d observed, but they still were more engaged—and seemed to draw more out of the texts—when they had those kinds of opportunities for interaction.


            I think there are other good ways to make that happen as well, but think-pair-share can provide some immediate payoffs without too much of a teacher investment. Perhaps someone out there will consider doing an experimental study of the impact of such discussions on long-term learning when compared to more usual teacher-student interaction patterns (like initiate-respond-feedback). At this point, I can’t tell you think-pair-share leads to higher reading scores--it is possible, but unproven, but there is good reason to believe that it can help you to run a classroom well enough that you can do the kinds of things that research has found to positively impact reading achievement.

           Please discuss with your partners.



Here are some recent powerpoints:  Nevada Presentations June 2016