Sunday, April 24, 2016

Should I Set Reading Purposes for My Students?

            For nearly a century, leading educators and school textbooks have encouraged teachers to set a purpose for reading. Sometimes these purposes are called “motivation” or they might be stated as questions, “What is a population?” or “What is the major problem the main character faces?”

            It makes sense. We want our kids to be purposeful and such purpose-focused reading leads to higher comprehension, right?

            Not exactly. Researchers (e.g., Richard Mayer, John Guthrie) have shown that, indeed, if you set a specific purpose for reading, students will do a better job of accomplishing that purpose. So far so good.

            However, despite more kids getting correct answers, their overall reading comprehension tends to be depressed.

            How can that be? Well, when you focus so specifically on a particular idea you are likely to get it, but that leads you to ignore the rest of the text message—lowering overall comprehension. You learn what you focus your attention on, but focusing on only a part of the text distracts attention from the rest.

            I was reminded of all of this while doing a French lesson this week (I’m finally taking a class). The assignment required me to listen to a series of audiotaped messages and to pay special attention to the numbers in the various messages (e.g., prices, addresses).

            I’m struggling to understand French by ear, so what I found myself doing was focusing so heavily on recording the correct numbers, I wasn’t comprehending the messages at all. I’d know they were talking about 10 somethings, but I honestly had no idea what. Frankly, I didn’t need to know 10 whats, I just had to know 10, so I found myself losing track of everything else.

            I suspect that if this happened to me when I was in elementary school, I probably would have been fine with it. Ignoring the message is the fastest and most certain way to accomplish the assignment—though it isn’t great for learning language or reading.

            To truly be a successful comprehender, I needed a different mental set for this activity. I needed first to try to understand the messages, and then to try to remember or go back to figure out the numbers. When I took a breath, ignored the numbers for the moment, and just tried to understand what the French speakers were telling me, I did much better. (And, at my age, since I really do want to learn French, I did just that even though it took longer. I’ve learned a thing or two since I was 12).

            My successful, but foolish, initial approach to this comprehension assignment made me wonder how common such purpose setting is in reading lessons. I typed purpose setting and reading comprehension into Google. There were some irrelevant pieces that talked about different purposes for reading (entertainment, learning, etc.), but for the most part there was an extensive amount of guidance advising teachers of the importance of either setting specific purposes for reading or teaching kids to set their own specific purposes. Clearly, these experts haven’t read the research on this misguided instructional practice.

            If you want kids to skim a text to locate a particular answer and you don’t care whether they understand the story, article, or chapter, then, by all means, give them specific purposes for such searching. However, if you are giving a purpose to guide reading comprehension, then be as non-specific in your purpose setting as possible (e.g., read to find out what happens in this story, read to find out what this author has to say about global warming, read to see if you can retell this later).

            Yes, it is a big mistake to give a reading assignment that includes completing the comprehension questions at the end of the chapter—unless you don’t care whether the students read the chapter or not. Kids tend to aim at efficiency—getting the assignment done as quickly and with as little effort as possible—not learning. Don’t be surprised if they accomplish what appears to be the teacher’s purpose: coming up with answers to those questions rather than reading the text to try to understand the author’s message.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

What Do Primary Grade Children Need to Know about Informational Text?

         I am currently teaching workshops and courses on reading and the Common Core and have approached these with regard to disciplinary literacy.  So many of the teachers involved are seeing the value of creating discipline-specific reading experiences in their classrooms. This is especially true of secondary teachers but upper elementary as well. 

         Where we are having a question is how can this apply to kindergarten classrooms. We discussed using texts that focus on science and social studies topics, how the authors might get their information, and focusing on a text structure if one is available, but beyond that teachers want to know what else they can do? Would you have any additional suggestions or resources on how these teachers can introduce DL to younger students? 

Shanahan’s response:
            There have been periods during American history when reading instruction has focused heavily on literature and others when we have wanted to prepare students to face real life demands. There was a period in the 19th Century when the idea was to distance schools from society as much as possible—to protect kids from the real world. And, now, we are apparently coming out of similar period. What was eventually referred to as “whole language” not only emphasized discovery over explicit teaching and participation over learning, but also literature over any other text.

            Although scholars (e.g., Venezky, 1975) started criticizing this overwhelming emphasis on fiction-over-fact and story-over-exposition, it did not begin to retreat until the past decade or so. That surprises some Common Core State Standards (CCSS) fans who think that CCSS led this movement towards information, but anyone who has looked at commercial reading programs from 2000 to 2010 saw real shifts in this emphasis. Book rooms might not have changed much during that time, but core reading programs got the message that there needed to be more science and social studies in the reading curriculum.

            If you spend much time with children you will find that they love stories, but they also love information (I have a 4-year-old grandson who wants anything he can find on dinosaurs and pirates). As a former first-grade teacher, I remember my kids wanting books on things like ventriloquism and ice skating—not talking bears and flying carpets.

            Anyone who knows the high school curriculum is aware that kids take a literature-focused English class in ninth grade, so teaching kids to read literature will help to prepare them for that. But they also may take, Algebra, Biology, and World Culture; why not prepare them for those classes, too?

            Okay, so we’re going to introduce informational text in kindergarten and throughout the primary grades. But what are we supposed to teach?

            I'd argue kids should read lots of science and social studies in grades K-3, and that they should be taught to comprehend such texts. Yes, informational text can be part of the read-aloud agenda, too. My youngest daughter--the science nerd--begged me to read Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man to her when she was 8. 

           I also think there are some very basic ideas about informational text that we’d want to teach. I've organized those things into 5 overarching categories that can easily be remembered with the mnemonic:  Fabulous Libraries Can Give Satisfaction.  

1. Fact vs. Fiction (the differences between storybooks and informational texts,
     fact vs. fiction, value of informational texts, importance of accuracy, etc.)

2. Locating Information (both how to find informational text in libraries, etc., but how 
     to find information within such texts using tables of contents, etc.)

3. Comprehending/learning from Informational Text (how informational text is 
     organized, how to summarize info text, answering questions about information)

4. Use/Interpretation of Graphical Elements (how to read charts and graphs, 
     connections of prose information and the graphics) 

5. Synthesizing Information (comparing information across texts, producing one's 
     own simple informational texts)

          I think you'll find that everything that is in your educational standards concerning informational text falls comfortably into those five categories, but this perhaps gives that curriculum a greater coherence. Personally, I wouldn’t try to go much further than that in the primary grades, but compared to what we used to do, that is quite a distance. (In the upper grades, those categories still work, but one has to add a lot more detail to what needs to be accomplished).

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Why Letter of the Week May Not Be Such a Good Idea

Teacher question:
Our district is trying to determine the proper pacing for introducing letter names/sounds in kindergarten. One letter per week seems too slow; 2 seems a bit fast. Most teachers are frustrated by 2 per week.

We are thinking about going with 1 for the first 9 weeks, then doubling up. This would have all letter names/sounds introduce by February. Can you offer some advise? How much is too much?

Shanahan response:
            This seems like a reasonable straightforward, simple question. And, it is, if you are a teacher, principal, or curriculum designer trying to plan a year of instruction. However, it is not the type of question that research takes on, so I can give you an answer, but it has to be one constructed on my understanding of the teaching of reading (research-based, but not research proven).

            The problem is that I could give a very specific answer like, teach one letter per week during kindergarten (and let’s face it, “Letter of the Week” is very popular). However, if I answered it in that way, I’d be ignoring some really important issues, like whether we want that much focus on individual letters and what is it that we want kids to know about letters.

            So let’s start with a really basic question:  What should a kindergartner know about this aspect of literacy by the end of the year? 

           In my opinion, kindergartners should know the names of all 52 upper and lower case letters. That means they should be able to name the letters presented to them in random order. They should also be familiar with one of the sounds associated with each of those letters—and it would be great if they knew both the “long” and “short” vowel sounds (so if I named or showed them a letter they could produce its sound, and if I made the sound, they could tell me the letter). Kindergartners should be able to sound out some one-syllable words or nonsense words using the letters they have learned. They should be able to fully segment single syllable words easily, and perhaps even be able to manipulate some of these sounds (adding them, deleting them, reversing them). And they should be able to print each of these letters and their names without having a visual model in front of them (and print their names).

            That description would be really easy to accomplish in some communities, where kids come to school already knowing letter names and some of the sounds, and it will be tougher in others. However, it would send kids off to Grade 1 ready to really become readers (especially if other aspects of literacy and language are being taught too).

            In any event, to accomplish all of this I would devote 30-45 minutes per day to these decoding issues—including the teaching of the letters (that's for full-day kindergarten--I would cut this in half in half-day situations). However, that does not mean you should sit kids down for 30-minute letter learning lessons—you might work on letters 2 or 3 times per day, for anywhere from 5- to 20-minutes per sitting.

            I think a combination of 1-2 letters per week is reasonable, but I wouldn't teach new letters every week. Remember letter naming or even letter sounding isn’t all that we want them to learn.

            For example, let’s say that on Week 1 I teach the “m” and “t” (letter names and sounds, upper and lower case), on week 2, the “p” and “h,” and on a third week, I teach only the letter “o” and its short sound. Then, on Week 4, there would be no new letters introduced. We would focus on using the 5 letters already taught. That means all of my decoding minutes would be spent on phonological awareness exercises focused on those specific sounds, blending various combinations of those letters (op, ot, om, top, tot, Tom, pop, pot, pom, hot, hop, etc.) into syllables, decoding and trying to spell syllables/words on the basis of the sounds alone. 

            If you gave each vowel its own week, and taught many, but not all, of the consonants in pairs, you could easily introduce all the letters over a single semester of kindergarten—and the students would have had at least 45 hours of practice with those letters; meaning a reasonably high degree of mastery should be accomplished by most kids.

            That means that those “non-letter introduction weeks”—like week 4 above—would be available 18 times during the year--fully half the year. You’d be spending as many weeks introducing letters as not introducing them. Those weeks would allow substantial amounts of phonemic awareness practice with those sounds, decoding work with those letters and sounds, invented spelling work and word construction with those letters and sounds, and ongoing review of all of that to ensure that the learning is really mastered.

            I would not save up those combination weeks until the second semester. I would salt them throughout the year to make sure that the learning was substantial and deep (meaning that kids would not just “know” those letters, but would be able to do something with them). Again, staying with my example above… 3 weeks of letter introduction, and then a week of consolidation might be followed by another week or two of letter introduction, and then back to consolidation with all the letters taught to that time, and that kind of a scheme could go on most of the year. Of course, if you noticed that your kids weren't retaining some of that, there would even be times that you could add in extra days or weeks of consolidation work as needed.

            With a plan like that, by summer, your kids would know their letters. But more importantly, they’d be able to perceive the sounds within words, and to engage in simple decoding and spelling using those letters and sounds. Outcomes not common in "letter of the week" teaching environments.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

On Climbing the Mountain: Four Ways Not to Deal with Complex Text

            Anyone who has taught reading—or really any course that requires a textbook—knows about kids who struggle to make sense of the text. Often they don’t even try. The text just looks hard and they’re ready to run.

          We’ve been talking a lot about complex text since the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) burst on the scene. But most of that talk has focused on how to find texts that meet the complexity requirements of CCSS. Or how to ask questions that probe that complexity.

           I’d suggest thinking about complex text the same way that your students do. “It is just a big formidable SOB of a mountain and I might not be able to get to the top—so it isn’t even worth giving it a try. I didn’t want to learn about science anyway, or this darn story about talking animals. All that I know is that it makes no sense and I’m going to just look stupid if I try.”

           Of course, our own feelings as teachers complement the kids’ anxiety darn well. “I want this lesson to move along. I want to make sure that everyone understands what the Louisiana Purchase was, how Nick felt about Daisy, or how even Templeton contributed to what the animals were trying to do.”

            Accordingly, teachers, both good and bad, have come up with a set of routines for dealing with those challenging text situations. Routines well honed for disguising the fact that the kids can’t climb that mountain. It’s a vicious co-dependency. We don’t want the fluidity of the lesson to be interrupted, we want our kids to walk away with the required info, and we want to do it on a tight timeline. And no one should have to work too hard or be embarrassed by the failure; a tacit agreement not to teach as long as the kids don’t make us look bad. (And from their view: we agree not to make them look bad, by bothering them with our darn teaching).

            Not good for anyone.

            What routines have we developed that we need to avoid?

1.    If a text is challenging, find an easier one.

            I’ve written about this before, but it’s probably enough to say that, beyond beginning reading levels, there is no evidence that kids have to be taught with a particular level of text.

            Imagine trying to climb a mountain, and the teacher says, “That’s all well and good. I’ve got a hill over here for you to climb.” That doesn’t satisfy. In fact, it just makes sure that the kids don’t get to take on texts that are at their intellectual or developmental levels.

            What if we changed it up? If a mountain is high, we simply help them to climb. With appropriate supports and scaffolds, it can be done. The next time you think about moving kids to an easier text, think about what you could do to get them up the real mountain rather than the instead one.

2.    If a text is challenging, read it to them.

            I’m a big fan of reading to kids. I never taught a day of elementary school in which I didn’t read to them, and I read to my daughters until they were in 7th and 8th grades.

            However, there are books that are perfect for reading to kids, and there are books that they are supposed to read. If there is a social studies textbook, the kids are supposed to read that. If there is a core reading series, that’s on the kids too. Reading it to them, or doing the round robin thing—having other kids read it to them—will not get them up the mountain either.

           Oh, they’ll know more about the mountain if you read about it to them, but they won’t actually know because they won’t be able to get there.

            If you want to transfer information to the kids, then read it to them. If you want to teach them to get information independently, then teach them to read it.

3.    If a text is challenging, tell them what it says.

            This is very popular in the upper grade content classes. Teachers often tell me that they can explain the concepts more clearly than the textbook can. And, man are some of them good at ‘splainin’ and powerpointin’. But ultimately this suffers the same problem as reading the challenging texts to the kids. It just tells them what’s on the mountain without allowing them or enabling them to summit for themselves.

           Telling someone what a text says is just a good way to make the text not matter. Why read the text if you already know what it says? (Teachers who do this often tell me that the kids are “allowed” to read the texts. My response: “Good luck.”)

4.    If a text is challenging, ignore the problem.

           I see this one, too, though not as much as I used to: Teachers who assign a text and ask questions, calling on the hand-raisers, and moving on. They don’t usually manage to get anyone to the top of the mountain who wouldn’t have gotten there anyway and they leave a lot of kids at base camp—with neither any idea of how to rise or even sense that anyone cares that they get there.

           If you want kids to learn to read complex texts, you are going to have to let them try to read complex texts. Without reading those texts to them. Without telling them what they say. But, you do have to provide them with guidance, support, scaffolding, explanations, and any other help that will allow them purchase on the techniques that will allow them to make progress up the mountain.

           Let’s swear off our avoidance techniques. Let’s break the co-dependency. And let’s teach kids to read demanding text. It’s time.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

What Phonological Awareness Skill Should We Be Screening?

Teacher question:
I read a research study (Kilpatrick, 2014) that questions the value of segmentation tests for measuring phonemic awareness, because such tests did not correlate well with first- and second-grade reading achievement. At our school we have used DIBELS in Kindergarten and Grade 1 to identify children at risk for reading difficulties. Is this really useful or are we identifying kids as needing help when they do not? Should we be using measures of blending and manipulation instead?

Shanahan Response: 
            This question seems so straightforward, but it actually has a lot of moving parts. The two tests being compared, DIBELS and CTOPP, have different purposes, there are things you need to know about phonological awareness(PA)  development, and there are problems with the analysis in the study that you read.

            Let’s take one of these at a time.

Difference Between CTOPP and DIBELS

            Perhaps the easiest one to deal with has to do with the purposes of the two tests. CTOPP sets out to provide a thorough analysis of phonological awareness in a way appropriate to a wide range of ages, including low literacy adults. DIBELS, instead, is just a screening test; it doesn’t purport to provide a thorough inventory of skills, only a reasonable quick prediction of who may need more help.

            The CTOPP would certainly provide your district with a more detailed analysis; sort of a everything you ever wanted to know about your students sound perception skills. It not only will tell you who is having trouble, but it will provide specific diagnostic information about what exactly might need to be taught. And, for that, it will take you about 30 minutes of testing per child; a big investment that no one in his/her right mind would be willing to make several times a school year with classes of real kids.

            In contrast, the DIBELS assessment can be given in a couple of minutes, and all it will tell you is who has an adequate level of PA to be able to learn to read. As I say, they have different purposes. If you are just trying to figure out who may need some extra attention in PA, DIBELS is the way to go, while if you are trying to make a detailed instructional plan, like you might want to do in a Special Education program, then CTOPP is the way to go. It’s up to you to decide what you want.

Sequence of Development

            Your letter and the study that you cite seem to conceive of a collection of different phonological awareness skills. However, most experts on the matter seem to believe that phonological awareness is actually a single line of development, with particular issues or skills emerging at different points of development (Anthony & Francis, 2005; Anthony, Williams, Duran, Gillam & Liang, 2011).

            Analyses of many different test instruments, thousands of kids, and multiple analytical methods suggests that PA is a single continuum with the following three characteristics: (phonological sensitivity progresses from large language units to small language units; from syllables to onset-rimes to individual phonemes within words); detection ability precedes manipulation of sounds, and blending precedes segmentation development; and children do not move through this progression in distinct stages, but may be consolidating one level of learning while starting to progress in the next.

            The point of all that is that the highest level of development in phonological awareness is segmentation of words. Basically, kids have a lot to learn about phonology, but once they can easily fully segment words they have sufficient phonological awareness to learn to read. If they only can blend, then they are not likely to have sufficient sensitivity for the demands of learning to read.

            Given this, it should not be surprising that a predictive screener is going to evaluate whether kids can segment and other more complete measures might consider blending, onset-rime proficiency, and the ability to separate syllables. One progression of learning, but two different purposes for testing.

Problem with Study

            The Kilpatrick study that you cite is an interesting one, but it has some formidable problems. First, this it asks a normative question and yet focuses on a very small and narrow sample of students. The data could be absolutely correct for that sample, but tell us nothing about how this test works with a normal population of kids. One thing I noticed was that the standard deviation—that is the amount of variance—for segmenting was different than for the other measures, and that it also seemed to differ from that reported with other populations who have used that test.

            If there is not equivalent variation in one of the subtests, then a comparison of the subtests will not come out right. Why there was less variability in this measure with this small group of kids I can’t tell you, but it does suggest the possibility of a different result with a more representative sample. (Some explanations, this was a small group that would not be adequate to representing a population; the test administration could have been flawed; perhaps there was something about local teaching that was messing with the variability in particular skills; the children were tested over a long period of time—2 to 3 months, a significant amount of time in PA development—which could have influenced variability in odd ways).

            Given that segmentation is the highest level of phonemic awareness (and the one that experimental studies aim at accomplishing through their instructional interventions), usually I would expect that to have a better or equal correlation with reading, at least in Kindergarten and Grade 1 (with second graders, CTOPP should be reserved for struggling readers).


            If you are looking for a detailed plan of instruction for each kid tested, then use something like the CTOPP rather than DIBELS. If all that you are trying to do is identify early young kids who might struggle in learning to read, then use DIBELS along with a measure of alphabet knowledge and you should get a good picture of who might require some extra help. In such a case, the point is to determine if a student can fully segment with ease. If he/she can, then he will likely do well learning to decode; if he/she can’t appropriate PA instruction could focus on anything from syllable separations to onset-rimes to blending to segmentation.

Anthony, J.L, & Francis, D.J. (2005). Development of phonological awareness. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 255-259.

Kilpatrick, D.A. (2014). Phonological Segmentation Assessment Is Not Enough: A Comparison of Three Phonological Awareness Tests With First and Second Graders, Canadian Journal of School Psychology , 27(2) , 150–165.

Hintze, J., Ryan, A.L., & Stoner, G. (No date). Concurrent validity and diagnostic accuracy of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills and the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing. Hintze article