Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What is the Proper Sequence to Teach Reading Skills?

Years ago, when the National Reading Panel (NRP) report came out, Congress tried to impose a national literacy sequence on American schools. Their plan only allowed phonemic awareness instruction until kids could fully segment words. Then the law would let us teach phonics… but no fluency until the word sounding was completed. Eventually we’d even get to comprehension—at least for the most stalwart boys and girls who hung in there long enough.

A very ambitious plan; one that suggests a clear developmental sequence in how reading abilities unfold.

But much as Emperor Canute couldn’t order the tides to do his bidding, the U.S. Congress was powerless to determine the correct sequence of development for reading (these days it seems even more impotent than then).

Learning to read is a multidimensional pursuit. Lots of things have to happen simultaneously. That’s why in my scheme teachers are always teaching words (decoding and meaning), fluency, comprehension, and writing—not one after the other but simultaneously. Kids who are learning to decode should also be learning the cadences of text and how to think about what they read. All at the same time.

There have been claims about order of learning in reading, but they haven’t tended to pan out when studied. When I was became a teacher, one of the basals was setting its phonics sequence based on when the sounds appear in oral language.

Babies tend to “duh-duh-duh” before they “muh-muh-muh,” so it had us teaching the “d” sound before the “m.” (Irrelevant side note: I suspect “dad" is the invention of generous mom’s who told their mates that the baby's first word was referring to him - the Cro-Magnon Tim would have bought the story, too).

It might sound scientific to teach the “dees” before the “ems,” but it isn’t. No one has ever found that one order of phonics skills is more beneficial than another.
The NRP found that sequence mattered when it came to phonics teaching—and that may have tripped up our House and Senate (they confuse easily)—but NRP didn’t find that one sequence was any better than another.

Yes, teachers need a curriculum, and a curriculum will have to prescribe an orderly succession of letters and sounds. But that succession is an arbitrary one. Kids do better when teachers follow a systematic program of instruction for these foundational skills. They just don’t do any better with Program A’s sequence than they do with Program B’s.

That doesn’t mean anything goes in phonics. Studies do find that it helps not to pair up highly similar letters for instruction. Keep those b’s and d’s far apart; confusability matters in learning.

Usability matters, too. John Guthrie and Mary Seifert showed that whatever the order of phonics instruction, kids tend to learn the patterns that appear in the texts they read. You can teach long vowels before short vowels, but the young’uns will learn the short ones first, because the texts they read will usually be stuffed with CVCs—not CVVCs or CVCes.

And what is true for foundational skills is true for comprehension, too. Cyndie Shanahan and I have speculated that general reading comprehension strategies (e.g., summarization, questioning, monitoring, visualizing) will usually precede disciplinary strategies (e.g., sourcing in history, connecting the prose and graphics in science).

Some researchers (Fagella, et al., 2011) have even claimed that this order is necessary for struggling learners.


But we are beginning to see that even if low readers have not mastered the general strategies, they can still benefit from disciplinary ones. The order that these are currently learned is imposed by the curriculum—not by any natural learning sequence. Don’t be afraid to teach disciplinary literacy strategies to students who haven’t yet shown that they can apply the common ones.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Prior Knowledge Part 2

      Last week, I focused on a controversy over prior knowledge. Common core has discouraged enhancing reading comprehension through the introduction of information external to a text.

            That challenges the most popular ways of introducing texts in schools—such telling students information about the text topic or exploring student knowledge relevant to the topic. CCSS proponents bridle at such practices. They want students to become independent readers, which means they’d be able to read texts effectively without extra information—information not provided by the author.

            They also blanch at the idea of students constructing text meanings without sufficiently accounting for the author’s input; texts should mean something closer to what the author intended than what a reader might choose to make it mean.

            The problem with de-emphasizing existing knowledge is that reading comprehension depends on reader knowledge. We use what we know to draw inferences, clarify ambiguity, and store information in memory. Banning explicit attention to student knowledge can’t “level the playing field” between rich and poor because you simply can’t stop students from using what they know when they read.

            I promised to provide some instructional guidance for dealing with prior knowledge during reading comprehension lessons (and shared/guided/directed readings). I thought I could do this in two entries, but it will take three. Here are 10 guidelines for dealing with prior knowledge.

1.     Don’t overdo it. Research shows that providing readers with key information about a text can improve comprehension, as does reminding them of relevant information that they already know. But in the research studies these things were usually accomplished pretty economically; often the researcher did not more than tell students the topic. To stimulate students to use what they know while reading doesn’t take more than this: “We’re going to read a story about a family vacation.” It doesn’t require having each student in the group tell a story about his or her family vacation. Students can make sense of a text without a 15-minute discussion of what they already know about a topic. It’s simply not necessary.

2.     Respect the reader-text relationship. Whatever pre-reading information about at text that you provide should not be information that will be stated or implied by the selection.  It is usually enough to tell students the topic and/or the genre. “This is a history chapter about the American Revolution.” Or, “ this is a science fiction story.” Anything you reveal ahead of time is something students won’t have to figure out from reading (which means you are swiping their opportunity to learn).

3.     Don’t be afraid to fill students in on some “appropriate” background information. Remember, many texts used for teaching were not originally written for students—they may even be texts from another era—so the author may have assumed his or her readers would know certain things; certain things that your students might not know. It’s hard to imagine William Shakespeare didn’t presume his audience knew Julius Caesar was a Roman emperor. Telling kids that information won’t hurt a thing. What Shakespeare didn’t bank on was the cultural literacy of the average 21st century American ninth graders, who might not even know there was a Roman empire. Filling kids in on some of that assumed context won’t hurt anything.

4.     Excerpts are special. How often do you read chapter 5 of a novel? Obviously that’s something most of us don’t do. But students are often taught to read from anthologies aimed at providing them a breadth of experience with valuable literary artifacts. Nothing wrong with that. But excerpts create a special problem for readers—the author has made pertinent information available earlier in the text, but the reader in this case is cut off from that info. When guiding students to read excerpts, providing them with key information omitted during the excerpting process is appropriate.  


5.     Use multiple readings to solve the prior knowledge problems. If a text is only going to be read once, and students are to gain full understanding, then conducting a thorough review of existing prior knowledge might seem like a powerful introduction. But what if, “money read” would be the second one, and the first reading would be used to create prior knowledge (students would use the knowledge drawn from their first reading go through to buttress their second reading).

6.    Culturally different students may benefit from a different prior knowledge input. Not all ids know the same things. Not much we can do about that. However, you might have students from particular cultural groups who may lack key information because of their background. What is it that Guatemalan or Chinese immigrant children may not know about the culture shown in a particular text? Or if “mainstream” students are reading about their culture, what would they need to know to make sense of that material?

7.    Only deal with prior knowledge if it is likely to raise a comprehension problem. Years ago, Hansen and Pearson showed the value of focusing kids on topics relevant to the comprehension issues at hand rather than to the text topics themselves. Thus, if the point of the text is to explore the nature of friendship, inventorying what students know about Europe isn’t likely to help even if the friendship in the story takes place in Europe). Not all prior knowledge is equal when it comes to making sense of a text.

8.    Prior knowledge issues can be addressed during and after reading. I often read about topics I don’t know about and it isn’t much of a problem. What I don’t grasp right away, I can often figure out from the text itself. I rarely look up information prior to reading, but I might fill some gaps with Google along the way or I may do that after the reading. Avoid exploring what kids know ahead of time if it will spoil the reading (point 7 above suggests focusing on the key ideas, but if done before reading it may simply be revealing what the text is really about). During reading, I might ask students questions. If they are missing a key point and don’t seem able to grasp it, I can ask a question about their awareness of some outside information that may jump start their thinking (“Have you ever been called a name like that? How did it make you feel?”—that’s a sequence of questions that would stimulate the use of prior knowledge at a key point in the story without taking kids too far afield).

9.    Do not focus on prior knowledge for texts that present information that will challenge readers’ current concepts. Science texts often tell us things that run counter to our perceptions of the world. A famous example is the explanation of the path of a falling ball dropped by a runner; the actual path runs counter to most people’s expectations. Some teachers want to get kids to predict the paths—to apply their prior knowledge—to prepare for reading. But that’s a bad idea because it increases the chance students won’t grasp the explanation. Prior knowledge is a two-edged sword—it can increase learning and it can encourage readers to impose their own beliefs on a text.

10.   Analogies are a powerful way to bring prior knowledge to bear on a text. Just because I don’t know much about a topics doesn’t mean I don’t know anything that’s relevant. For example, I know next to nothing about cricket. But I do know some things about baseball that I might be able to use to try to understand a cricket article. If I wasn’t a long-suffering Cub fan? Then, I’d use what I know about games or sports competition to help me make sense of it. I might not know how one scores in cricket, but I suspect scoring is important—it is a game—so I’d use that insight to guide my attention towards how one scores. Prior knowledge does not have to be specific knowledge--another good reason not to send students off to inventory what they already know about a subject; that’s overkill.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Prior Knowledge: Can We Really Level the Playing Field?

            Spoiler alert: This blog entry is a two-parter. The first part (today’s entry) describes a problem to which the second entry will offer some nifty practical solutions (nope, no practical solutions today).

            An idea heavily promoted in Common Core (CCSS) discussions is the notion that we shouldn’t talk about students’ “prior knowledge,” and that avoiding such discussions somehow “levels the playing field” when it comes to learning to read. Researchers in the cognitive sciences rediscovered the importance of people’s knowledge in learning and comprehension back in the 1970s (revisiting ideas previously explored by Bartlett, Kant, Plato, etc.).

            Research findings were very clear: readers comprehend more when a text overlaps with their knowledge of the world and they comprehend less when there is less such information in their minds.
 
            Research also has shown benefits from increasing students’ prior knowledge (it is “prior” in the sense that reader’s knew it before the author told them). And even reminding students that they have relevant knowledge prior to reading can bear fruit.

            Why is prior knowledge so useful to readers? There are many reasons, but certainly a basic one is that the availability of such information reduces how painstaking reading may have to be. If you already know much of what the author is going to say, you can kind of go on autopilot just watching for the new stuff. Your less informed classmates are going to have to attend to the text more carefully, trying to build up all of this information in their heads, proposition by proposition.   

            Let’s face it, if you have to figure out and remember 100 facts from a text and I only need to learn 50 facts from it (since I already had the other 50), then I’m going to look like I comprehended more.

            Another reason prior knowledge helps is that no author ever fully explains anything. There are always inferences that need to be drawn and connections that have to be made. Sometimes readers have to sort out an ambiguity in the text’s wording, and so on. All of those challenges are easier to deal with from a basis of knowledge.

            And prior knowledge affects memory matters, too. If I already have a lot of information in my memory about the ideas presented in this text, then storing the new information within those already created structures gets easier, too. (There’s a reason that P. David Pearson has long defined reading comprehension as “connecting the new with the known.”)
            
          However, there are costs to prior knowledge as well. Research has shown that readers will sometimes allow their current beliefs to overwhelm the author’s message. Thus, readers thinking they understand how the physical world works (based on their perceptions of their experiences with processes like gravity), will disregard the author’s explanation of what scientists have figured out in favor of staying with their prior (though incorrect) “knowledge.”

            Of course, in most reading prior knowledge doesn’t make us miss the author’s message altogether, but it may lead us to read less carefully (since we assume that we already know it, we don’t need to put in the effort and, thus, miss the nuance). Reading less reflectively or thoughtfully, weighing the author’s words to a lesser degree, and so on, can’t be good.

            Based on such research findings, school reading programs have gone off the deep end with prior knowledge discussions (maybe you have seen the ads for “Basals Gone Wild” videos on late night cable). Such activities had already been long in evidence--at least since the birth of the “teacher’s guide” in basal readers--but since 1975 the “Background” activities seem to have exploded.

            That means if kids are to read a story about a family vacation, there will need to be an extended discussion of family vacations prior to any reading. Of course, everybody has to be able to tell about their vacations and, perhaps, for the kids who haven’t had one, the teacher can have them talk about where they would like to go (we could call that pretend prior knowledge, I guess).

            Apparently, there is no school text that wouldn’t benefit from a 15-minute discussion of prior knowledge before reading.

            Enter Common Core (the plot thickens). CCSS emphasizes “close reading” and a key idea of close reading is to interpret what is in the text rather than examining one’s presuppositions, the author’s biography, or other sources of information external to the text.

            Some CCSS proponents have gone so far as to claim that not discussing prior knowledge or asking questions about what children already know will somehow level the playing field when it comes to reading comprehension. Their hope is that the poor kids and the rich kids will then be held accountable for the same work—making sense of the information that they all had equal access to in the text itself.

            That sounds great (I’m for poor kids, too), but it ignores a basic fact about reading: Prior knowledge plays a role in text interpretation whether there is a background discussion or not.

            We can make it look like the playing field has been evened by not talking about prior knowledge, but the more advantaged kids will then just appear to be smarter and better when it comes to reading (since all or most of the advantages of having prior knowledge will still be there).

            Funny thing is that I agree with those critics who think we’ve gone off the deep end when it comes to prior knowledge in reading. The discussions go on too long. The questions about it aren’t thoughtful or strategic. Frankly, our instructional practices don’t seem especially consistent with the research studies. In other words, we have taken a valuable set of insights and turned them into a dogmatic and inflexible set of practices that accomplish very little.


            What role should prior knowledge play in classroom reading discussions and how should teachers handle prior knowledge in the classroom? For some brilliant (yeah, right) answers to these provocative questions, tune in next time.

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There have been requests for a couple of recent presentations that I have made: One was the talk I gave at the U.S. Consulate in Belfast, Northern Ireland concerning key issues in literacy learning and the other was a recent introduction (and history lesson) on the Common Core that I presented to my friends at the Ka Hui Heluhelu Reading Council in Honolulu, Hawaii. Here they are: