Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sorting Out the Arguments Over "Independent" Reading

Teacher question:
I am confused. You claim that independent reading has almost no benefit, but another article I just read says, "In one of the most extensive studies of independent reading yet conducted, Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding (1988) investigated a broad array of activities and their relationship to reading achievement and growth in reading. They found that the amount of time students spent in independent reading was the best predictor of reading achievement and also the best predictor of the amount of gain in reading achievement made by students between second and fifth grade." Which is correct?

Shanahan's snappy response" 
Oh, that's an easy question. My ideas are correct, of course.

Let me explain. There are different kinds of research. Here the two pertinent kinds of investigation are correlational studies and experimental studies. In the former, the researcher tries to see if there is any relationship between two variables, in this case the relationship of interest is between amount of reading and amount of student literacy learning. In the experimental studies, on the other hand, someone tries to determine if one variable “causes” another or influences another.

Here’s how it plays out in this case. The Anderson, et al., study that you cited above is a correlational study. They tested students’ reading ability and they measured (using diaries) how much reading students did on their own. Despite the quote, they didn’t actually measure how much learning the students were doing (they estimated this based on the original reading scores). In any event, the correlation was quite high… which means the kids who were reading the most had the highest reading scores (and, perhaps, the biggest learning gains).

That may seem like convincing evidence, but one problem with correlations is that you can’t be certain of their direction. What I mean by that is that no matter how strong a relationship, the analysis can’t reveal whether it is higher reading practice that leads to higher reading achievement or whether it is just that the best readers read more than the other kids. 

But even if the direction of the relationship were clear, you wouldn’t be sure about what was causing it. Maybe the kids with the highest achievement also have the best-educated parents—parents who expect them to read at home. That would mean that parent’s level of education was the determining factor for both learning to read and choosing to read. (Thus, if you made everyone read a lot, it wouldn’t necessarily have the effect you were hoping for because you wouldn’t have those educated parents in all the homes.)

In contrast, experimental studies allow you to attribute causation to a particular variable. An experiment may randomly assign students to a treatment group that would get DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time during their school day, and to a control group that would not be required to do this extra reading. If the DEAR group learned more over the period of the study we would know that the gains were due to the extra reading time since the other variables would have been controlled or randomized.

There is a substantial body of correlational studies showing that better readers read more than other kids; just as that article that you quoted indicated. But the experimental studies of this problem reveal how hard it is to encourage students to read enough to raise their reading achievement (Kim, 2007; NICHD, 2000; Yoon & Won, 2001). In many studies encouraging kids to read more, through actions like independent reading time during the school day, have no impact at all, and the average impact across studies is tiny (so tiny it is of questionable value).

Why is this the case? We don’t really know, but here are some possible explanations. Perhaps the various interventions (DEAR time, SSR time, book floods, etc.) do not actually get kids to read more than they would without the interventions; a basic flaw in this research is that it rarely monitors how much of an increase in reading, if any, was instigated by the intervention. Or maybe these approaches get kids to read more, but not enough to make a difference in learning. Or maybe this kind of reading improves something else like oral vocabulary, world knowledge, or love of reading. Studies of reading to younger children show that those kids end up knowing more vocabulary, so that relationship seems possible, while studies of encouraging reading have usually not found any relationship to attitude. Still another possibility is that independent reading is terrific, but when compared with the reading that kids do under a teacher’s supervision during instruction, it doesn’t come out so well (put it up against skateboarding or playing video games and it would do much better).

Final word: I don’t actually say “independent reading has almost no benefit.” My point is that independent reading time during the school day has little or no impact on reading achievement, so I wouldn’t make setting aside such time a priority in my classroom. Nevertheless, I think independent reading is great and I encourage kids to be independent readers—which means reading on one’s own, not when required to by the teacher. Use your school day to teach kids to read, and then when teachers are not available to the kids let’s hope they will choose to read on their own, too (independently).







Sunday, August 16, 2015

Vocabulary Teaching

Teacher question: What do you recommend is the best way to teach vocabulary to struggling readers at the middle school level?  

My snappy reply:
          I know of no special ways of teaching vocabulary to that group of students. Vocabulary is one of the many areas of instruction that one doesn’t find much in the way of interactions. What I mean by that is that usually, when it comes to teaching, what works with some kids, works with all or most kids. Struggling readers tend to be a bit slower in picking things up and consequently they tend to benefit a bit more from explicit teaching and increased repetition—but the same patterns of success are to be expected from everyone.

          Vocabulary learning is incremental and there are more words that kids need to learn than we can teach. Kids need lots of opportunities to confront words in their reading and listening. Beyond that, teachers should focus attention on some of these words, by providing explanation of the words, or having the students explaining them from context themselves. Having kids read challenging materials—that is materials that use words they might not yet know, and then drawing their attention to these words through questioning, etc. is very important. That, in fact, should be a big part of the classroom context: understanding and communicating are important in this classroom and words are a big part of that. Students need to be encouraged to pay attention to words.

          You can also teach some particularly important or powerful words explicitly to help accelerate student progress in vocabulary. Here are some recommendations about how that teaching can be successful:

Word knowledge is multi-dimensional. Students learn words best when they have opportunities to think of words deeply—rather than just through definitions. Focus on the encyclopedia description more than the dictionary definition. Consequently, one of my favorite vocabulary activities is to have students writing multiple “definitions” for words, rather than single definitions.

           Say you wanted to teach the word rope. The dictionary definition is “a length of strong cord made by twisting together strands of natural fibers such as hemp or artificial fibers such as polypropylene.” But that’s not good enough. I would also want the students to come up with some synonyms for rope (e.g., cord, twine, string), and a real-example (like “my mom uses rope for a clothesline in our basement” or “we have a rope that the girls play jump rope with during recess”). What category does rope belong to? Tools or things we can tie, perhaps. And, it’s a noun (a thing, specifically). How about a comparison? Rope is like stringer, but thicker and stronger because it is made of several strands. Let’s also have kids act this one out. Perhaps they’d pretend to climb a rope or they’d have an imaginary “tug of war.” Drawing a picture of a rope would be another kind of definition or description, and providing a sentence that uses a word in a way that shows that you know what it means is a good idea, too (“I tied the boxes together with a piece of rope”). [This exercise can be elaborated on lots of ways: using the words in analogies such as “rope is to cord as a street is to a lane”; listing different forms of the word by using various prefixes and suffixes, trying to use forms of the word in different ways grammatically as nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives etc.—“The cowboy is roping a calf.” “Since I started riding a bicycle, my muscles have gotten ropey.”]

Word learning is social. Words are learned best when students have a lot of opportunity to interact and connect around words. For example, the multiple definition exercise described above is most effective when kids don’t do that by themselves. Have them work on that kind of assignment in teams. That requires that they talk to each other and help each other to figure out the word meanings and that they provide explanations of the words. Another possibility: instead of having everyone looking up 8-10 words in the dictionary, assign 2-4 words to each group (I usually overlap these, so that more than one group gets a particular word). Then have the groups take turn teaching each other the words.

Words need to be connected with other words. Words relate each other in lots of ways and understanding how they fit together can help. Many vocabulary programs group words together: words about using our legs (e.g., run, amble, leap, meander) words about talking (e.g., swore, vowed, yelled, recitation), health and medical words (e.g., exercise, diet, calories, cholesterol). That can be tough to replicate in a classroom setting, but this can be done effectively in retrospect, too. As students learn new words keep track of them (e.g., a word wall, a vocabulary bulletin board). Then have them trying to group words: which ones go together—building categories out of the relationships among the words that have been taught. Synonyms aren’t the only kinds of relationships either. Have students consider various relationships (for the rope example above, consider uses or functions (e.g., clothesline, rope climbing, rodeo—roping calves); parts (e.g., fibers, strands); who uses these (e.g., cowboys, gym teachers, campers, someone doing laundry).

Words need to be used in lots of ways. Organize your lessons so students have many opportunities to read the words of interest, to hear them orally, to use the words orally themselves, and to write the words in context (I’m not talking about just copying a word). Put vocabulary into the context of communication, learning, and language use—that means lots of speaking, listening, reading, and writing with the focus words.

Words need to be connected to kids’ lives. Beck and McKeown’s “Word Wizards” is great for this. Have kids watch for their words in use, and give them credit if they bring in evidence of having used or come across the words that they are learning. 


Words don’t stick easily. Include lots of opportunity for review. Words need to accumulate across the entire school year, and that means going back to them again and again. The re-categorizing that I described above is a great review activity. If you test kids vocabulary with a weekly quiz, make it cumulative—continually recycle some of the older words. Set aside weeks where you don’t focus on new words, but on a larger number of the previously studied ones. And, of course, give kids lots of opportunity to re-confront the words in text.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Why We Need to Teach Reading AND Writing

            Many educators trumpet the idea of reading-writing relationships, emphasizing how close reading and writing are. As a teacher I was a big believer in this—my kids wrote every day, despite the lack of a report card space for writing, a writing curriculum, writing standards, or even any professional development on the topic. I strongly believed that when you taught writing, you were teaching reading.

            Then I went to graduate school. My dissertation focused on the relationships between reading and writing. Boy was I surprised. Yes, indeed, reading and writing were related, but not to the degree I had assumed. The idea that teaching reading can have an impact on learning to write is correct; and so is the opposite.

            But the part that I hadn’t recognized was that reading and writing are really pretty different, too. There have been lots more studies of this since then—by researchers like Ginger Berninger, Steven Graham, Rob Tierney, Judy Langer, and so on—and with the same result. Reading and writing are related and they impact each other; and, yet, they are quite separate and different, too.

            In fact, that is why they can be such beneficial supports for each other. If writing was just another form of reading, it wouldn’t give readers any special insights that they wouldn’t develop some other way.

            When I first started publishing research articles on this topic, I received a lot of criticism. The critics were upset that I was finding reading and writing to have unique properties, not just overlapping ones. That upset them because they felt it would discourage teachers from incorporating writing into their reading curricula (and school writing was pretty non-existent at the time).

            However, as I worked with the problem more it became evident that the critics had it backwards. If reading and writing were so much the same, there was no real reason to teach them both if you could learn everything that you needed just from one or the other. In fact, that might be why so many schools taught reading and not writing; if you made students into competent readers, then they would be able to write, too. (Its sort of like ordering two desserts instead of a main course and a dessert; if the point is to satisfy all of your nutritional needs, then you need to eat different types of foods--and no, a slice of chocolate cake and a strawberry shortcake are not two different types of foods).

            The correlations among various reading and writing measures are high, but they are not a unity. The correlated and uncorrelated parts both matter. We need to teach both reading and writing because of the distances between them.

            In my classroom framework, I always encouraged substantial amounts of time for both reading and writing activity and instruction, and still do. Students need and benefit from explicit instruction in both, and they benefit from being taught how to integrate reading and writing; including how to read one’s writing with sufficient distance for revision, how to summarize the ideas from a text in your writing (or how to synthesize the ideas from multiple texts), and how to use texts as a model and source for one’s writing.


            When you are teaching reading, you definitely may be having an impact on student writing ability. But there is much to be learned about writing that can only come from writing instruction and writing practice. And the same can be said for writing’s impact on reading. 

            Make sure there is room on your daily table for all the necessary ingredients for a nutritional literacy diet, including writing. 

            Please pass the sticky toffee pudding.




Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Report Cards and Standards

Teacher Question:
I wanted to ask your opinion regarding the structure of report cards for parents of students in grades 3-5. Understanding that ELA CCSS intertwines the areas of reading, language, spelling, writing, and moving toward creating district standards based report cards in all K-5 grade levels, how do you think students' progress should be reported out to parents via report cards, as we transition? Would you recommend having an ELA grade on the report card or segregating particular areas as a stand alone grade?  

Shanahan Responds: 
This is less a research question than one requiring professional judgment. I suspect there are many good ways to do this, but I will weigh in with my own take on the problem per your request. My suggestions are based upon what I think teachers and parents can do and use, not on what studies suggest for the simple reason that I know of no such studies.

I definitely would provide students with more than a single English Language Arts grade. Lots of ways to do this, of course: One could provide an overall ELA grade with some subscores, or ELA might not appear at all and just specific scores in reading, writing and some other key areas could be included. I would personally go with the latter, just to keep it simpler.

What grades would I provide?  I definitely would offer a reading grade. In fact, I’d offer two of them. I’d give students a grade in reading foundations (which would be used to inform parents as to how their kids were doing with decoding and oral reading fluency), and a grade in reading (which would get at issues like reading comprehension, understanding of different genres, learning from reading, etc.). That's divided in the same way the reading standards are in CCSS.

I would also provide a grade for writing, and, again, it would be possible to divide this one in two—writing foundations and writing (which is not how the standards do it). The first writing grade would get at issues of spelling, cursive, keyboarding, hygiene (the old term for basically making a paper look good in terms of all of these physical qualities), and the second would get at writing quality (how well developed and organized and accurate and engaging the students’ writing is).

Finally, you might have a language grade aimed at what the standards address under speaking, listening, and language. This would include grammar, along with listening comprehension, ability to make formal presentations, to participate effectively in group discussions, and the like. While I would not disagree with those who would criticize lumping this all into one pot, I am doubtful of teachers’ ability to easily evaluate 30 students in any of these skills separately. (And, yes, you could slice this differently. For example, you could include grammar in what I labeled as writing foundations, and keep this language or oral language grade totally about oral language quality).

That might be it: under this plan, students would get 3-5 ELA grades (1 or 2 reading grades, 1 or 2 writing grades, and 1 language or oral language grade). If you break something out on a report card, you are making some assumptions: one assumption is that teachers can provide a sound and accurate evaluation of the abilities included in that category; a second assumption is independence, that it would be possible for a youngster to do well in one category and poorly in another; and a third is that it would be worth opening up a conversation with parents about the topic if Johnny didn’t do well in it (in other words, there would be clear remedial actions that a teacher and parents could take to help him to do better in that area). Gradability, independence, and teachability are the key factors.

Many districts try to align their report cards to their standards, but what this usually means is that the report card ends up with so many grades that teachers are uncertain of (e.g., “I have no idea whether kids have accomplished reading standard 4 for literary text”), and that parents have no idea what to do with all of this information. If the information won’t be accurate—and there is no way that teachers can adequately evaluate all of those individual standards—and won’t be useful for aiming teachers and parents at addressing student needs, then there is no reason to have it on the report card.


Given that, let me encourage you to consider adding one more grading category to ELA report card. One thing the standards emphasize a lot—not just in one category—but in multiple ones, is the ability to conduct research. That is students need to learn to track down information, to evaluate its accuracy and quality, to summarize information from particular sources, to synthesize information across sources, and to present that information accurately and engagingly. Different aspects of that process belong to reading (evaluating sources) or writing (summarizing or synthesizing) or oral language (presenting). However, if research were treated as its own category, it would encourage your school to make a big deal of it; to get students, parents, and teachers all engaged in ensuring that these diverse ELA skills come together into a powerful amalgam that would send kids off to middle school with a strong academic focus. That would only add one more grade to the pot, but it would be a heck of an addition, and it fits my criteria: it is gradable, independent, and well worth focusing on instructionally at school and home.