Monday, February 8, 2016

Culturally Responsive Literacy Instruction

Teacher question:
I am a Reading Coach at a Title I middle school serving a student population of 95% African American. Less than 40% of our students read at/or above grade level.  My goal is to increase the amount of individual time that our students spend reading novels.  My suggestion has been to add more classroom novels that are about African Americans, and African American culture. I feel that if we adopt a culturally responsive approach to literature, then our students may become more motivated to read. I am convinced that if minority students continue to read and learn outside of their culture, they will never understand how reading and learning can improve their lives and sustain their community. My question to you is do you believe that it is important for African American children to read African American literature? And how do I convince my administrators?

Shanahan responds: 
         I do think it’s important for African Americans to read African American literature, but frankly I think that’s important for other Americans, too.

         This is not so much a reading instruction issue. What I mean by that is that there is no evidence that I am aware of that shows that reading such materials is especially powerful in making anyone a better reader, despite the compelling logic of the case.

         My position is based solely on the belief that some of our great books and poetry have been written by African Americans and I’m a big fan of reading such books in the Western Canon (that position can be fraught: some supporters of great books wouldn’t include Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, et al. in the Canon, and some big fans of those writers reject the idea of a Canon altogether; it can get lonely out here). I support having kids read African American writers mainly because of the value of that writing, rather than because I see special motivational qualities in such materials. (In other words, I don’t ask kids to read the Odyssey because the writer was Greek, but because the ideas raised in that book are worth reading.)  

         Many of my closest colleagues believe as you do, that such readings would be powerful inducements to literacy. I’m for it, but I’d sure like to see some research support for it. I feel the same way about all of the notions of “culturally responsive” teaching. The ideas sound good, but after all this time it seems reasonable that someone would test the efficacy of the approach.

         I was curious what a real expert on this issue would have to say, so I contacted Alfred Tatum, author of Engaging African American Males in Reading and Reading for their Life, to see what he thought. Here is his response:

         As we both know, the presence of African American literature alone is not sufficient to advance students’ literacy development or improve reading and writing achievement. It is the combination of powerful responsive instruction and powerful texts, including African American literature, that are needed to engage students and improve their reading achievement while making them smarter. It is more important that African American literature is included among a wide range of texts that honor students’ multiple identities – cultural, personal, community, economic, national/international – with the aim to help students define who they are and nurture their academic and personal resiliency inside and outside of schools.

            Including African American literature as a part of the curriculum is more difficult to do if it is not available. This may be the argument needed to convince administrators. However, it is more important to examine the curriculum overall to determine its utility for improving reading and writing achievement while simultaneously auditing instructional practices and school policies (e.g., quality of instruction, the amount of time students are actually reading and writing, adherence to school mandates that may be interrupting good reading and writing instruction). Both may yield information for providing or seeking professional development support, shaping instructional and assessment practices, allocating resources, or rethinking curricular practices for African American children.

            While the historical record about African American literature demonstrates that students receive cultural and personal benefits when they see images that reflect who they are and read fictional and nonfictional accounts about their history, the record is less clear if the presence of literature alone reverses underperformance in reading and writing The goals of the presence of the literature need to be clear. Otherwise, we will continue to miss the mark, both culturally and academically.

            While I strongly favor the presence of African American literature, I equally favor excellent teaching, strong instructional support and environmental contexts that make it difficult for African American students to fail in our presence.  The presence of African American literature alone cannot compensate for the absence of these other critical components. 






Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Are Oral Reading Norms Accurate with Complex Text?

Teacher Question:  
          A question has come up that I don't know how to address and I would love your input.  For years, we have used the Hasbrook/Tindal fluency norms as one of the ways we measure our student's reading progress.  For example, the 4th grade midyear 50th percentile is 112 CWPM.  The fourth grade team has chosen a mid-year running record passage and is finding that many of students have gone down instead of up in their CWPM.  One teacher said that is because the common-core aligned texts are more challenging and that the passage is really the equivalent of what used to be considered a 5th grade passage. She said that the norms were done using text that is easier than what the students are now expected to read. I know that the texts are more complex and challenging and therefore more difficult for the students to read, and that this particular text may not be a good choice to use for an assessment, But it does raise the larger question--are these fluency norms still applicable?

Shanahan response:
         This is a great question, and one that I must admit I hadn’t thought about before you raised it. If average fourth-graders read texts at about 112 words correct per minute by mid-fourth-grade, one would think that their accuracy and/or speed would be affected if they were then asked to read texts that in the past would have been in the fifth-grade curriculum.

         However, while that assumption seems to make sense, it would depend on how those norms were originally established. Were kids asked to read texts characteristic of their grade levels at particular times of the year or was the text agenda wider than that? If the latter, then the complex text changes we are going through would not necessarily matter very much.

         So what’s the answer to your question? I contacted Jan Hasbrouck, the grand lady herself, and put your question to her. Here is her response:

         I guess the most honest answer is "who knows?" I hope that we may actually have an answer to that question by this spring or summer because Jerry Tindal and I are in the process of collecting ORF data to create a new set of norms, which should reflect more current classroom  practice.

         My prediction is that the new ORF norms won't change much from our 2006 norms (or our 1992 norms). My prediction is based on the fact that ORF is, outside of expected measurement error (which Christ & Coolong-Chaffin, 2007 suggest is in the range of 5 wcpm for grades 1 and 2 and 9 wcpm in grades 3-8+), fairly stable. You can see evidence of this on our 2006 norms when looking at the spring 50th %iles for grades 6 (150), grade 7 (150), and grade 8 (151). When you think that these three scores represent approximately 30,000 students reading a variety of grade level passages that pretty darn stable. Other studies of older readers (high school; college) also find that 150 wcpm is a common "average.”

         Of course this stability assumes that the ORF scores were obtained correctly, using the required standardized procedures, which unfortunately is too often not the case. Standardized ORF procedures require that students read aloud for 60 seconds from unpracticed samples of grade level passages, and the performance is scored using the standardized procedures for counting errors. In my experience most educators are doing these required steps correctly. However, I see widespread errors being made in another step in the required ORF protocol: Students must try to do their best reading (NOT their fastest reading)!  In other words, in an ORF assessment the student should be attempting to read the text in a manner that mirrors normal, spoken speech (Stahl & Kuhn, 2002) and with attention to the meaning of the text. 

         What I witness in schools (and hear about from teachers, specialists, and administrators in the field) is that students are being allowed and even encouraged to read as fast as they can during ORF assessments, completely invalidating the assessment. The current (2006) Hasbrouck & Tindal norms were collected before the widespread and misguided push to ever faster reading.  It remains to be seen if students are in fact reading faster. Other data, including NAEP data, suggests that U.S. students are not reading "better."

         And yes, of course the number of words read correctly per minute (wcpm) would be affected if students were asked to read text that is very easy for them or very difficult, but again, ORF is a standardized measure that can serve as an indicator of reading proficiency. 

         Given Jan's response, I assume the norms won’t change much. The reason for this is that they don’t have tight control of the data collection—reading procedures and texts varying across sites (not surprising with data on 250,000 readers). That means that the current norms do not necessarily reflect the reading of a single level of difficulty, and I suspect that the future norms determinations won’t have such tight control either. 

         The norms are averages and they still will be; that suggests using them as rough estimates rather than exact statistics (a point worth remembering when trying to determine if students are sufficiently fluent readers). 

          Last point: your fourth-grade teachers are correct that the texts they are testing with may not be of equivalent difficulty, which makes it difficult to determine whether or not there are real gains (or losses) being made. We've known for a long time that text difficulty varies a great deal from passage to passage. Just because you take a selection from the middle of a fourth-grade textbook, doesn't mean that passage is a good representation of appropriate text difficulty. That is true even if you know the Lexile rating of the overall chapter or article that you have drawn from (since difficulty varies across text). The only ways to be sure would be to do what Hasbrouck and Tindal did--use a lot of texts and assume the average is correct; or measure the difficulty of each passage used for assessment. The use of longer texts (having kids read for 2-3 minutes instead of 1) can improve your accuracy, too.


How to Improve Reading Achievement Powerpoint
         






Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What Reading French Taught Me about Vocabulary

            Bonjour, cher lecteurs.

            Oops…. Hello, dear readers.

            Awhile back I set out to teach myself to read French, with neither teacher nor class. My goal was to be able to read the news from a different culture (or maybe I was trying to make up for being Mrs. Benstein’s worst French I student in high school).

            I started with old textbooks from a programmed reader series, and then with the help of dictionary and Google Translate, I set out on a journey through flash cards, children’s books, grown up magazines, and heavily abridged French books.   

            I managed to learn French well enough that I’m about to finish my first real book reading (an ambitious 600+ page Goncourt Prize winner—L’Art Francais de la Guerre—that I would highly recommend if it were in English).

            Yes, I learned French (oui, oui), but just as important I think learned a lot about learning (and teaching) to read. Occasionally, I want to share some of those insights with you. In this entry, I’ll focus on some of what I have learned about vocabulary and reading.

            For example, while reading French, I found myself thinking a lot about the best time to deal with unknown vocabulary. Although some texts that I read provided vocabulary previews –like the ones common in our instructional materials—I must admit that I rarely found such support to be particularly useful—either in supporting my immediate comprehension or in building my word knowledge. Studies show that preteaching vocabulary can have a significant impact on comprehension (National Reading Panel 2000), but those studies compared preteaching with doing nothing. That isn’t the pedagogical choice, however.

            Rather than previewing vocabulary, my French reading routines included either immediate word post-reading look-ups. Remember, I had no teacher, so the dictionary itself served as my tutor. When texts were especially challenging (meaning in part, that there were lots of unknown words), it really helped to be able to look up the words right away as I needed their meanings. That might seem cumbersome (but with computerized tools, it isn’t that bad), but it made a big difference in making sense of a text.

            I would love it if all school books had a dictionary feature (like Kindles and IPads), where kids could just touch an unknown word to arrive at a word meaning. However, that seems far away. Until then, I suggest that teachers or publishers make available to kids glossaries; a page of kid friendly definitions in alphabetical order that kids could use for immediate look-ups during reading.

            With easier texts, I’ve been finding it better to do my dictionary work after I’ve done my best to read the text. I underline the unknown words as I read, doing my best to interpret the author’s message… then, at some point, several paragraphs or even pages later, I go back to find out the meanings. Usually I find that those words don’t alter the overall meaning much, but they add nuance or description, which enriches the meaning, more than conveys it. I may have recognized that a character was afraid, but missed that he “trembled” (frissoné); or grasped that a character expressed something, but not understood that the statement was mumbled (bredouillé).

            Going back for a second look in this circumstance, both enriches reading comprehension, and for me, at least, appears to improve my retention of the words.

            I’ve worked a lot with flashcards, trying to build up my vocabulary that way. Scholars (e.g., Isabel Beck) have long touted the idea that an average of 16 repetitions are needed to hold onto a word. The flashcards worked great when I had a very limited French vocabulary, but now they don’t help much.

            However, repetition is important, but some repetitions seem more effective than others. For example,

L’horizon s’elevait comme un pliage de papier, des collines triangulaires montaient comme si on repliait le sol plat.

The horizon arose like a folded piece of paper, the triangular hills rising as if someone had folded again the flat ground.

          When I read that I got that the horizon was rising, and that it had something to do with paper, but I was lost by the “pliage” (folding)… I was fine with the rising hills, too, but the “repliait” tripped up.  Looking up the first unknown helped me with the comprehension, but it was the quick appearance of the second that closed the deal on word learning. I looked up repliait and when I found refolded, I went back and made the comparison, and that seemed to be enough for that one to stick in memory.

          Of course, I don’t always look up all the unknown words. A sentence like the one in the example is not particularly important in the plot; I might recognize that it is just description of a setting and so might choose not to focus on it. When you are struggling to understand a text, getting every bit of description and nuance is neither necessary nor practical.  That does not mean the information is unimportant and that kids don’t need to learn to use nuances of such vocabulary to engage in close reading. In this example, the setting is describing where a massacre is about to take place in Vietnam. The two main characters are a painter and a writer. Part of the beauty of this passage depends on this painterly/writerly description of a world on paper; the description reveals not just that it was hilly where they were, but that the character was leaving his world on paper or canvas to enter a very different and horrific three-dimensional world.

          Often when I look up a word and then confront it again soon after, the act of having to figure it out in context seems to promote longer memory for the word. Whereas looking up the word today, and then confronting it again tomorrow or even several pages later, tends to require that I look up such words again and again.… they just don’t stick until I can  actually use my knowledge of the word to figure out its meaning (“remembering” is not the right term for this since it seems to be more of an interaction of memory and context).

          This suggests the value of having students read longer texts, like books, since particular authors have a tendency to reuse particular words. Book reading –as opposed to short selections or excerpts  --probably increases the possibility of this kind of repetition. However, even when students are asked to read shorter texts that lack such re-using, it would be possible to come up with exercises that create this effect. Thus kids might read, then look up the unknown vocabulary, then engage in additional reading exercises that re-use those words in various contexts.

          This experience has suggested to me that we need to be more experimental in our approaches to dealing with vocabulary in reading. I think teachers should try out different routines, such as the ones suggested here, to see how they work. And, there are probably at least a couple of doctoral dissertations in these suggestions (the value of varying the timing of the look-ups seems especially obvious).


          Au revoir.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Teaching Reading Comprehension and Comprehension Strategies

Teacher question:  In terms of teaching comprehension to grade 3-5 students, what is the best way to help the readers transfer the strategies they are taught so they can be independent, self-regulated readers?

Shanahan's response:  If you want to teach reading comprehension strategies to on-grade level students between the ages of 8-10, we have a pretty good idea of how to do that successfully. The teaching of strategies is a good focus as well, given the large amount of research showing that strategy instruction can be beneficial.

However, before we get to strategies, I’d like to take a couple of (what I hope will be useful) detours. For example, lots of times kids in the upper elementary grades are struggling readers. Research suggests that the vast majority of those kids will require additional phonics. I might only be willing to invest a small amount of instructional time in phonics with on-level readers during these grade levels, but if I don’t with the strugglers, they’re screwed. For those kids, a focus on reading strategies is okay, too, but only in the context of those kids getting the instructional support they need (obviously if they can’t read the words easily, they won’t have the cognitive space to focus on text meaning.

What else do we need to worry about with kids in this age range? I would invest in fluency instruction—having kids reading and rereading relatively difficult texts aloud to make them sound like English. Many schemes for doing this have students answer some questions at the end of each reading, and I think that’s a reasonably good idea. Either way, that kind of fluency practice can have a big impact on reading comprehension.

I would also invest a lot of time in vocabulary learning. The research is pretty clear that we can teach high value words effectively enough to improve comprehension and the same can be said for teaching morphology (the meanings of the roots and combining forms, suffixes, and prefixes). Build up kids’ knowledge of word meanings and you’ll usually improve their comprehension.

The same can be said for some other aspects of language. Teaching kids how sentences work; activities like sentence combining and sentence reducing can help kids work out sentence meaning. And, teaching kids how to recognize and make use of cohesive links is powerful, too (like getting kids to figure out what the pronouns refer to).

Anything else? Indeed. I would make sure kids are doing a lot of reading in the classroom. That can be in the reading books, but it can also be in social studies and science materials as well. The point is kids need to read a lot and there should be more to this than just “dumb practice.” It matters if the texts focus on valuable information, and that we make sure kids learn that information. The more they know about their world, the better they are likely to do in reading.

Finally, I would make sure that kids were writing about what they read. In the grade levels that you asked about, research suggests that having the kids write various kinds of summaries is a pretty powerful way to build reading comprehension.

Those lengthy detours aside, in that context, I would definitely teach comprehension strategies. The way I think of strategies most basically is that give readers some tools they can use independently to make sense of what they read.

Several strategies confer an advantage: teaching kids to monitor their comprehension and if they are not understanding a text to take charge and try to fix it; teaching kids to read text and to stop occasionally to sum up for themselves what the text is telling them (and to go back if they aren’t getting it); teaching kids to ask themselves questions about what they are reading and to go back and reread if they can’t answer those questions (kind of a discussion in the head); teaching them to look for a text’s structure to figure out what the parts are and how they fit together (story mapping is the most common example of this support). There are some others but those are the ones with the most research support and the biggest payoff. (And, teaching kids more than one strategy makes a lot of sense too—apparently different strategies help students to solve different problems, so having multiple strategies is beneficial).

Research suggests that the best way to teach these strategies is through a gradual release of responsibility approach. That is, the teacher starts out explaining the strategy and what its purpose is, then demonstrating it or modeling it for the kids (show them how—explaining it as you go).

After a demo or two, then have the kids try to use the strategy under your supervision. For example, tell the kids that you want them to practice summarization. Ask the what kinds of things you did in the demo—when you stopped, what kind of information you tried to include, what you did when you couldn’t remember something important. Initially, the teacher does much of the work, with the kids mainly following teacher directions. “Read the first two pages. That’s a good place to stop because on page 3 there is another section.” Then when they get there, perhaps asking some questions: “What was this about?” What was the most important thing the author told you? What other information is important?”

Once kids can answer those questions, it is a good idea to start to withdraw support (this is the real “we do it”). “We’re going to read this chapter. What would be a good place to stop and sum up? Why that point? When we get to this point, what do I usually ask you?”

As kids take over more of the process, you might have them work in smaller groups, with the teacher sporadically moving around the groups to monitor their success and to remind them of the steps. Perhaps you could give kids different responsibilities (one child might lead the discussion of stopping points, another might be responsible for asking the group members to remember the most important point, etc.).

Finally, have the kids try this out individually. They can take notes on the process and then engage with the teacher in a discussion of how well the process worked. Of course, if kids struggle with any part of it, you can go back to earlier steps to make it successful. Some programs do this with multiple strategies, all at one time, and others teach the strategies one at a time, adding them together as you go (both approaches work—but I find the latter to be simpler and easier to teach). You can usually teach a strategy well in 3-4 weeks if you have students practicing with lots of different texts.


Throughout that entire process it is important to vary the texts. Summarizing a newspaper article is different than summarizing a story, and both are different than a science chapter. Make sure that the students are learning not only the strategy, but the content of the texts too. Finally, remind the kids from time to time to use their strategies or engage them in strategies discussions.