Sunday, August 21, 2016

How Much Teacher Guidance Versus How Much Independent Work?

I've been reading your blog articles very carefully, and in one entry you recommended having the kids read a lot during the literary block time (and all other subjects), suggesting possibly 50% of the time should be spent reading. My question is how much of that reading time should be teacher-led (for close reading and complex text), and how much should be just independent work?

          All of the school reading time—or almost all of it—should be teacher-led. Kids are sent to school to learn things. Teachers are paid to teach things. There is no question that kids can learn things on their own. However, then one wouldn’t need a school or a teacher for that.

            Kids don’t learn as much on their own as when provided with explicit teaching. Hence we pay you to teach the kids. If you send them off to learn on their own instead, you reduce the benefit kids get from schooling.

           The trick is to use the school day effectively to guide kids to learn as much as possible, and then to entice them to continue on their own when they don’t have a teacher available to guide them (after school, before school, weekends, summers, etc.). 

            How close this interaction or supervision needs to be is an open question. If a teacher scaffold’s kids half way through a story, and then has them finish reading the story on their own, perhaps followed by some kind of written response, is that teacher guided or independent, or both?

           My sense of that is that, even though the kids are sitting someplace separate from the teacher for the second part of that lesson, it would be a teacher-guided activity. It was the teacher who assigned the text, got kids engaged, focused their attention on key elements through questions and other directions, and then who, even though the kids were going off to work, had focused their attention on the writing outcome.

           That is very different from those situations in which kids pick reading materials themselves, go off and read on their own—with neither guidance nor supervision (e.g., observation, feedback)—and without outcomes to focus the activity (e.g., the discussion, the writing response).

           Or what about the teacher who has developed a sequence of instruction comparable to reciprocal teaching? The series of lessons might have started out with the teacher doing almost everything; perhaps demonstrating how one can interrogate a text. The ensuing lessons would likely be under teacher control, too; these are the “we do its.”

           But what about the “you do its” or the “you do it togethers.” At that point, the students have watched the teacher carry out the activity, and would have engaged in questioning too, though under the teacher’s supervision. Now what if she has 3 or 4 groups each trying to work there way through a text, asking and answering certain kinds of questions. Or maybe it is individual assignments and the kids are reading, coming up with questions for each section, and recording these questions and answers in their notebook?

           An observer who parachutes in for those last lessons might think them very independent and far outside of teacher control, but I would disagree. Because of the context that the teacher created, those kids would simply be mastering the skills the teacher was teaching. Looking at the entire sequence of lessons, it would be more obvious that the teacher was actually still guiding the process and enhancing the learning.

          Again, kids definitely can and do learn on their own. The purpose of teaching is to focus that learning on socially determined outcomes and to make learning more efficient and powerful.

          Good teaching activities are going to have kids very much under teacher leadership. Sometimes specific lessons might require students to work away from the teacher, in a manner that allows the teacher to observe and to provide feedback.

          Giving assignments alone is not teaching. But giving assignments—even those that require kids to work on their own—are a part of teaching, if there is scaffolding, explanation, direction, purpose setting, opportunity for feedback or adjustment, and the like. Don’t look for opportunities for kids to do independent work, but look instead, to figure out the combination of activities and guidance that will allow students to accomplish particular learning goals most effectively.

          The ultimate goal is for kids to be able to do, on their own, what they are being taught to do. Kids eventually have to be able to demonstrate that they can carry out whatever the task is or that they have acquired the requisite knowledge. What combination of activities will allow them to accomplish such outcomes with maximum efficiency? 

          With activities like reciprocal teaching, we often talk as if the progress from "I do it" to "we do it" to "you do it" is a linear path (and one that may suggest two-thirds of the time--the "I" and the "we"--should be directly and immediately under teacher control, with one-third for the somewhat more distant independent work). It doesn't really work that way. I might demonstrate the skill to the kids and then try to guide their efforts. Those efforts might be terrific in which case I have made a great choice, or they might be feeble in which case it would make more sense for me to demonstrate yet again. The same kind of thing happens when the teacher tries to have the kids do the task on their own: they might struggle and the teacher may find she needs to re-intervene. 

          The proper division of time between teacher-led and independent is unknowable, because it depends on the kids. Their performance will lead you to either conclude that they have mastered the skills/knowledge or that they haven't; and pulling back to teacher-led activities might be the right response if they haven't. Of course, if they have, you should be moving forward to teach something else.








Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Role of Early Oral Language in Reading Comprehension

           When I was 18-years-old I was a volunteer tutor in an inner-city school. I wasn’t an education major—that came later—but I was intent on saving the world. I was excited about the idea of going into the city and working with elementary school kids who were growing up in poverty.

            But I was also nervous about it. I didn’t know a damn thing about working with kids, the inner city, or reading. A trifecta of ignorance.

            I decided to school myself the evening before my first day of tutoring, so I went to the university library and looked for some books on the teaching of reading. I found two that seemed pertinent and I checked them out.

            One was Rudolph Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read and the other was Roach Van and Claryce Allen’s Language Experiences in Early Childhood. At the time I couldn’t have found two more separate takes on early reading: Flesch’s convincing polemic on the need for explicit phonics instruction and the Allen’s romantic homage to the role of early language development.

            It turns out I was also ignorant about philosophical differences. I was scrambling to figure out what to do and these books—as far apart as they may have been—were pointing me in practical, if seemingly incommensurate, directions.

            Now, 47 years later, with lots of knowledge and experience, I’m back to where I started. I no longer see them as incommensurate (again). Decoding and language, language and decoding… it’s like those television commercials: “tastes great, less filling” or “peanut butter, chocolate.” Sometimes the complementary just makes good sense.

            Recently, Chris Lonigan and I wrote a short article for Language Magazine. It’s focus is on “The Role of Early Oral Language in Literacy Development.” I think both Chris and I have bona fides in the “phonics/decoding/foundational skills” community and have the scars to show it. But we are both also advocates of the so-called “simple view” of reading—students need to know how to decode from print to language and they need to know how to understand language. This is a both, not an either/or.


            Here is a link to the article. Hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why An Overemphasis on Foundational Reading Skills Makes Kids Sick

Principal’s question:

District leadership has advised primary teachers to focus on the Foundational Skills Strand, and de-emphasize the other strands. The belief is that if students go into Grade 3 having mastered foundational skills, they will be prepared to master the rigor of the other strands.

As the principal, the message I'm considering sending is to teach all strands, closely monitoring foundational skills with DIBELS, immediately addressing gaps. Students who are meeting foundational skills standards may spend more time in other strands while those struggling get focused support in assessed areas of foundational skills difficulty. Does that sound reasonable?

I'm concerned that de-emphasizing the other strands will make it hard for students to catch up in third grade, and many students may lose interest if not exposed to a variety of thought-provoking work. On the other hand, I understand the immense importance of systematic, explicit instruction in the foundational skills- and know they must be a focus in early years.

All that said, can you give a guideline as to the percent of the E/LA time that should be spent on foundational skills for the "typical" primary student? Our district adopted Benchmark Advance, which looks to me as though it does NOT emphasize the foundational skills. I would like to give teachers a time guideline for initial whole-group instruction in foundational skills so we know how much we may need to supplement with other curriculum.

Shanahan’s response:

     Imagine if district leadership advised the cafeteria crew to focus on calcium only, and to de-emphasize the other nutrients? Their belief might be that if students reached the age of 8 without strong teeth and bones, they would not be prepared for the later rigors of eating grains, meats, and vegetables.

     You’d be writing to me to find out if it’s okay to serve cereals with the morning milk and green beans at lunch. And, let's face it, these kid's autopsies would likely reveal strong teeth and bones.

     Sadly, this analogy is apt.

     Of course, one can put all the primary grade focus on some skills to try to advance progress in those skills, just as one could put all the emphasis on some nutrients to promote some health needs over others. Doing so won't accomplish the real goal, but it might fool some observers into thinking it has been reached.

     Here are some facts worth knowing:

1.  In the 1960s, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) began a rigorous analysis of beginning reading in an effort to identify how effectively to avoid or to address learning problems. This coordinated effort is generally credited with much of the progress that has been made in understanding the role that skills like phonological awareness play in reading and the value of explicit phonics instruction. One important finding of that effort: addressing only students’ phonological/orthographic needs during the primary grade years leaves those students vulnerable to continued reading disability (due to a lack attention to their language development). There either are usually undiagnosed language deficits early on, that become more evident later, or the inattention to non-foundational skills limits their growth during these years. I don’t think anyone can read that body of research without concluding both that kids need substantial attention to foundational skills early on, AND that solely focusing on such skills would be harmful.

2.  The National Reading Panel was pressed into service to review research on what works in reading at the request of the U.S. Congress, under the auspices of NICHD and the U.S. Department of Education. Unlike many of the critics at the time, panel members, who were unpaid volunteers, were not allowed to have any potential conflicting commercial interests. That panel reviewed 51 studies of the teaching of phonemic awareness, 38 studies of phonics, and 32 studies of oral reading fluency. The panel concluded that students would benefit from explicit, systematic instruction in each of those foundational skills during the primary grades. However, it should be noted that in no case within those studies did anyone consider those skills as separable from the rest of reading. For example, when studying phonics, the students in the control groups and the phonics groups were receiving instruction in vocabulary, comprehension, writing and the like. The only difference was that the experimental group would be getting phonics or some more ambitious version of phonics. Thus, the panel’s conclusion that these skills need to be taught was determined in the context of these skills being taught along with other reading skills. Such a heavy focus on any of these skills to the omission of the others likely would have led to very different conclusions.

3.  Over my career, I have worked with some of the biggest proponents of foundational skills teaching: Patricia Cunninghma, Linnea Ehri, Jack Fletcher, Barbara Foorman, David Francis, Douglas Fuchs, Lynn Fuchs, Christopher Lonigan, Louisa Moats, Michael Pressley, Christopher Schatschneider, Sally Shaywitz, Steve Stahl, Keith Stanovich, Joseph Torgesen, Sharon Vaughn, etc. These brilliant men and women disagree—with me and with each other--on many issues, but they seem to all be in agreement that the foundational skills are NECESSARY for learning to read (so you'd better make sure kids are instructed in them), BUT THAT THEY ALONE ARE NOT SUFFICIENT for learning to read (so you'd better do more for kids' reading than teach them foundational skills).

      I have long been an advocate for providing children with 120-180 minutes per day of literacy instruction. I divide that time roughly in quarters: 25% devoted to words and word parts (e.g., letters, sounds, decoding, PA); 25% to oral reading fluency; 25% to reading comprehension; and 25% to writing. That means that primary grade kids would receive about 60 to 90 minutes per day of foundational skills instruction (combining the word work with the fluency work).

     There are variants on this scheme. For example, Joe Torgesen touched it up by advocating 2 hours of daily literacy instruction, with up to a third hour dedicated to remediation in those foundational skills. Thus, your idea of giving some kids more foundational work beyond the amount that everyone receives in class makes great sense and can easily be accommodated in this plan. However, ignoring essential skills that can't easily be tested to focus on ones that can be, won't help kids much.

      I sympathize with your administrators. They want a quick fix. Sadly, the positive third-grade reading data that they are imagining would at best be briefly hiding their failure. Sort of like painting over the rot in a wooden porch; the paint will make it look nice, but it won't keep the steps from soon collapsing. In addressing a problem, you must recognize what is necessary, as well as what is insufficient.


     Pass the green beans, please!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Fine Mess: Confusing Close Reading and Text Complexity

We just started close reading in our district last year. Our second graders were given text that was a grade level above their reading level. We were told to let them figure it out. They could not even read the first sentence it was too hard for their reading level. The reading coaches said they will learn to read it by letting them struggle with it. The kids would become so upset and began to hate reading because of they were so frustrated at how the district was making us implement close reading. For it to be of any value should the text not be on their instructional reading level?

            A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers, and says, “Five beers, please.”

            What do these two stories—the one about close reading and the one about Roman numerals—have in common? They turn on knowing what you’re talking about.

            If you don’t know that the Roman numeral for five is a V and that holding up two fingers looks like a V, you won’t get the joke. It won’t be funny.

            And, when district leadership doesn’t understand what close reading is or what it’s connection to complex text might be, the results aren’t funny either.

            One more story and I’ll provide some explanation that might help.

            A curriculum director invited me into her district. “I want you to make two presentations. One has to be on close reading, and do you have a suggestion for a second talk?”

            “Yes, I’d suggest that I talk about complex text.”

            “But that’s the same thing as close reading, isn’t it?”

            I’ve had that exchange several times over the past two years. I think for too many reading leaders, the two concepts—close reading and complex text—are confounded. I think it’s that confusion that’s leading to such bad decision-making.

            Let’s clarify both concepts… and see what that suggests for classroom practice.

            First, close reading. Close reading is an approach to literary interpretation—though it can be applied to at least some informational texts, too. It is an approach proposed for literary critics, and it is one widely taught in American universities. As such, it doesn’t focus on issues like word recognition or decoding, or even on basic reading comprehension, only on high-level interpretations or analyses of text.

            Originally, close reading was a push back against the idea that one had to study an author’s biography, or the historical period that a text came from, or even what the words meant at the time they were authored.

            To read a text closely one must only rely on the words in the text and their relationships to each other. They don’t turn to other sources. Close readers learn to notice metaphors or symbols, interesting juxtapositions of information, ambiguities, and the like (clues authors might have left behind to reveal the text meaning to those who read closely).

            The Common Core State Standards require that we teach students to be close readers—to not only grasp the literal and inferential meanings of a text, but to understand how an author’s word choices and structures convey higher-level meanings; how to figure out the subtler aspects of a text.

            As such, close reading only makes sense is if texts have deeper meanings. If there aren’t deeper meanings requiring such text analysis, then close reading would have no value. That means close reading requires certain kinds of text complexity.

            And what do the standards mean by text complexity? Like close reading, it isn’t explicitly defined in the standards, despite being central to them. A close reading of the standards and their appendices suggests at least two meanings of text complexity.

            One of those meanings is particularly relevant to close reading. We want our children to read high quality literary and informational texts. These texts should have depth. If we only read such texts carefully, but without conducting a close reading, we would likely end up with only a superficial understanding. Thus, in the past, if students read the “Three Bears,” we’d want them to be able to conduct a retelling of the story or to complete a story map with all the key plot details.

            A close reading of the Three Bears, however, might lead us to examine language that is used repeatedly (“someone’s been…), or why Papa and Mama Bears’ belongings are always inappropriate for Goldilocks, or the significance of the special relationship Goldilocks seems to have with Baby Bear’s possessions (she breaks his chair, eats his porridge, and falls asleep in his bed). The Three Bears would be appropriate for close reading because it includes words, structures, and literary devices that one can analyze to figure out what the story means and how it works.

            But I said there is a second definition of text complexity. That second definition has to do with language complexity—how well a reader could make sense of text features like vocabulary or grammar or how ideas are linked across the text. These features have more to do with how well an author’s language choices match up with the readers’ language proficiency. Thus, if the author uses words like ebony, porridge, clearing, latch, and peeped to tell the story, readers might get tripped up just following what was said if they don’t even know what those words mean.

            The first kind of complexity—the literary, symbolic or poetic complexity—is not measurable with Lexiles, Atos, or any of the other schemes for predicting how well readers will do with a text. The second kind, the linguistic complexity, can be measured or predicted by tools like Lexiles. We might say a text is fourth-grade level because texts with language like that are usually understood by fourth-graders; it is a kind of prediction. When you say the text was a grade level beyond your students, that’s what you are talking about.

            Now here is where people get tripped up. The standards require that we teach kids to read complex text closely—which means exposing them to texts that have symbolic or poetic complexity. Those texts could be easy to read (in terms of recognizing the words and knowing what they mean and being able to handle the sentences), but hard to interpret. The standards do encourage kids to struggle, but the struggle that is intended is a struggle to make sense of those more complex ideas and those more subtle aspects of how an author tells something.

            The standards also call for kids to learn to read text that has more sophisticated language. But that requires that we gradually ask kids to read a series of texts that stretches them while providing them with any necessary scaffolding that well help them to figure out what a text says. These supports may take the form of phonics guidance to help them decode particular words, the preteaching of vocabulary, or supports in making sense of the grammar of a sentence.

            Your coaches seem to be mixing these concepts up… So…

  1.       Make sure that close reading is focused on texts with the appropriate kinds of depth. These texts do not need to be “hard to read,” but, indeed, they might be confusing or frustrating to students. Don’t give into that frustration by just telling them your interpretation of the text but definitely engage them in a productive struggle with those big ideas.
  2.       Make sure that kids are getting opportunities to read texts that are at the specified reading levels set by your standards. These texts are likely to be somewhat hard to read—in terms of decoding, vocabulary meaning, grasping what the author is explicitly saying. As such, they might not be the best texts for close reading.
  3.       When you do ask kids to read texts that are hard to read, you need to be prepared to scaffold—to give students supports that will help them to make sense of the text; helping with decoding, preteaching vocabulary, breaking down sentences, connecting pronoun referents, making sense of organization, etc. A productive struggle here means helping kids with the difficult stuff so that they can learn to figure it out on their own.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

How to Screw Up Student Learning Under RtI

I am a classroom teacher (grade 3) and a follower of your blog.  I also have an M.A. in Reading. Last year our new principal told us that our RtI students do not need to be in the classroom during grade level instruction. I strongly disagree. I think that these students benefit from scaffolded grade level instruction and benefit from the kind of thinking and reading the class is being asked to do during this time.  

Am I wrong to insist my students be in the room during regular reading instruction? If so, please set me straight.  


Dear Perplexed:

The point of RtI is not to REPLACE classroom reading instruction, but to supplement it.

RtI is used to help determine if a student might be suffering from reading/learning disabilities. The reason that student would be referred for intervention support would be because of some concern about the student’s daily progress.

Consequently, we ADD a targeted intervention to the teaching the student is receiving in order to determine whether it promotes greater progress.

If you use the intervention to replace regular instruction then that student would not receive a more intensive and extensive learning experience than what was already provided. All you would be doing is just trading one treatment for another. Not the idea of RtI and not an approach that has been successful in raising reading achievement.

Using the brief intervention to interrupt or replace the longer classroom instruction means that you won’t find out if the student would respond to the extra tuition, because no extra teaching is offered.

Big mistake to pull kids out of their classroom instruction for an intervention unless it has already been determined that they child requires a special education placement (in other words, the student hadn’t responded to the regular teaching plus the intervention). However, even special education programs—depending on how serious the learning problem—may be used as additional teaching rather than replacement teaching.

I definitely side with you in this. I think your principal is making a big mistake—both undermining kids’ learning progress and making it impossible to determine whether the student has a learning problem.