Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Is rhyming ability in important in reading?

Our district is wrestling with how much emphasis to give rhyming as an early literacy skill. We had previously downplayed rhyming as a necessary focus but the new CA ELA/ELD Framework and CCSS where rhyming is specifically called out has resurfaced old questions.  

Our struggle is this.... with our very high (87%) English Learner population, rhyming is one of the later skills acquired for these students in Preschool through grade 1.  Reading research seems to support the idea of rhyming as a pre-requisite to reading; exposure to this kind of play with words and "word families" gives children another pathway to reading. However, students who are not native to English miss this early exposure and much of their cognitive energy seems to be taken up with meaning-making. Often in our classrooms it seems we are successful at teaching the students to decode and then have to go back and teach them to identify and produce rhyming words.  Doesn't this defeat the purpose for using rhyming as a building block for reading?

This is not to say that our teachers aren't talking about rhyming words as they are encountered in text or pointing out word families but our question, as we decide where to put our educational dollar, is will an emphasis on rhyming give us a reading payout?

When I was a young reading specialist (a very long time ago), I wondered about this myself—though I certainly wasn’t aware of any research on it. I noticed that some of my low readers were surprisingly thick when it came to rhyme. Rhyme had always seemed automatic to me, and it made me wonder about its role in reading. As a result, I started to check out the rhyming ability of my students (grade 2-6). Just as I suspected, poor rhyming appeared to be an important marker of low reading ability.

What I had informally noticed as a teacher, the research community noticed as well. In the 1980s (and especially the 1990s--though it continues today), rhyming as a precursor to reading became a big issue. It made sense: many low readers struggled with rhyming, the research community was increasingly interested in how kids perceive language sounds, and phonological awareness (PA) became a big deal. It is rare that one sees a list of those early PA skills that doesn’t include rhyming.

There was so much research on this that the National Early Literacy Panel (2008) was able to meta-analyze it. Here is what we concluded:

1.     Rhyming ability is predictive of later reading achievement, but it had the weakest correlation of any of the phonemic awareness skills. Being able to segment words into single phonemes or to blend phonemes together into words, were significantly better predictors of decoding. (There were no significant differences in these predictors with regard to later reading comprehension growth).
2.     With regard to the teaching of PA, it was concluded that there were few instructional interventions that used rhyming activities as a primary teaching approach, but that the teaching of letters and sounds had a significant impact on student learning.

What do I conclude from this? First, rhyming ability is a predictor of later reading development, but it isn’t as accurate or sensitive as other skills (like letter naming or phonemic awareness—children’s ability to distinguish or segment single sounds in words). If I noticed a youngster was having trouble with rhymes, I would pay attention to it, but if I was setting up a screening program to identify potential problems, rhyming wouldn’t be the way that I would go.

Given that there are no studies showing that teaching rhyming improves reading achievement (or even makes kids more amenable to and successful with phonemic awareness instruction), I wouldn’t want to spend much time teaching it. There are some recent studies that suggest that as students learn to read, their ability to rhyme improves (McNorgan, Awati, Desroches, & Booth, 2014). Thus, instead of better rhyming leading to better reading, the knowledge of words and letters and sounds allows students to gain access to this somewhat separate skill. 

That may be why your second language students do better with rhyming once they can read; they would have greater knowledge of vocabulary and the language in general once they were reading--and these skills are evidently important in rhyming. That is also probably why rhyming has a more similar relationship to reading comprehension as the other phonological skills: These skills have little or no functional relationship in reading comprehension, but they do serve as markers of language proficiency or sophistication. The better one is with language, the better one will be with comprehension. But since rhyming plays little or no functional role in decoding, it is less predictive of decoding skills. 

There is no question that all of these various phonological awareness skills—awareness of the sound separation between words, the ability to separate syllables within words, the ability to segment onsets (first sounds) from rimes (b/ig), the ability to rhyme, the ability to segment or blend phonemes are all correlated with each other. But it is the segmenting and blending of phonemes that has functional value in reading.


I would not put a lot of emphasis on the teaching of rhyme. It sounds to me like your teachers are approaching this appropriately and the policy is, perhaps unintentionally, steering them in the wrong direction.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Early Childhood Literacy

The Connecticut Council for School Reform asked me to speak in Hartford, on April 9, 2015. My presentation reviewed and responded to some of the complaints or concerns about teaching young children to read, and considered several issues in expanding preschool literacy opportunities. My presentation was based largely on the Report of the National Early Literacy Panel and a handful of other individual studies that I wanted to highlight. Here is the powerpoint:

Powerpoint on Preschool Literacy Instruction

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Response to Complaint about What Works Clearinghouse

I have recently encountered some severe criticism leveled at reviews and reviewers from What Works Clearinghous  (see http://www.nifdi.org/research/reviews-of-di/what-works-clearinghouse). I am concerned about recommending this site to teachers as a resource for program evaluations. I'm wondering if you agree with the criticisms, and if yes, where you would recommend teachers go for evidence-based program reviews. I know that NELP and NRP reports are possibilities but are also static documents that do not get updated frequently with new findings, so some of the information really isn't current. Perhaps the Florida Center for Reading Research is an alternative? Do you have others than you would recommend?

I don’t agree with these criticisms and believe What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) has a valuable role to play in offering guidance to educators. I often recommend it to teachers and will continue to do so. It is the best source for this kind of information.

WWC is operated by the U.S. Department of Education. It reviews research claims about commercial programs and products in education. WWC serves as a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval. It is helpful because it takes conflict of interest out of the equation. WWC and its reviewers have no financial interest in whether a research claim is upheld or not.

I am an advisor to the WWC. Basically, that means I’m available, on a case-by-case basis, to help their review teams when questions come up about reading instruction or assessment. Such inquiries arise 2-3 times per year. I don’t think my modest involvement in WWC taints my opinion, but the whole point of WWC is to reduce the commercial influence on the interpretation of research findings, so it would be dishonorable for me not be open about my involvement.  

I wish the “studies” and “reports” you referred me to were as disinterested. 
The DI organization has long been chagrined that the WWC reviews of DI products and programs haven’t been more positive. That the authors of these reports have a rooting interest in the results should be noted.

Different from the disinterested reviews of the Clearinghouse which follow a consistent rule-based set of review procedures developed openly by a team of outstanding scientists, these reports are biased, probably because they are aimed at trying to poke a finger in the eye of the reviewers who were unwilling to endorse their programs. That’s why there is so much non-parallel analysis, questionable assumptions, biased language, etc.

For example, one of the reports indicates how many complaints have been sent to the WWC (62 over approximately 7 years of reviewing). This sounds like a lot, but what is the appropriate denominator… is it 62 complaints out of X reviews? Or 62 complaints about X decisions included in each of the X reviews? Baseball umpires make mistakes, too; but we evaluate them not on the number of mistakes, but the proportion of mistakes to decisions. (I recommend WWC reviews, in part, because they will re-review the studies and revise as necessary when there are complaints).

Or, another example: These reports include a table citing the “reasons for requesting a quality review of WWC findings,” which lists the numbers and percentage of times that complaints have focused on particular kinds of problems (e.g., misinterpretation of study findings, inclusion/exclusion of studies. But there is no comparable table showing the disposition of these complaints. I wonder why not? (Apparently, one learns in another portion of the report, that there were 146 specific complaints, 37 of which led to some kind of revision—often minor changes in a review for the sake of clarity; that doesn’t sound so terrible to me.)

The biggest complaint leveled here is that some studies should not have been included as evidence since they were studies of incomplete or poor implementations of a program.

The problem with that complaint is that issues of implementation quality only arise when a report doesn’t support a program’s effectiveness. There is no standard for determining how well or how completely a program is implemented, so for those with an axe to grind, any time their program works it had to be well implemented and when it doesn’t it wasn’t.

Schoolchildren need to be protected from such scary and self-interested logic.



Sunday, March 29, 2015

Middle School Interventions

We are a K-12 district and are revamping our grade 6 through grade 8 instructional supports, which include a 40 minute additional session of reading and/or math instruction  anywhere from 3 to 5 days a week. This extra instruction is provided to any student below the 50th percentile on the MAP assessments ---roughly 2/3 of our student population in our 5 middle schools.  

Where we are struggling is in determining whether this additional instructional time  (taught during later periods in the day  by different teachers from the core instruction) should be based on addressing gaps in foundational skills or supporting grade level curriculum.  

In the 4 years we have been using this system of support we have changed our position, from filling in holes to supporting core instruction and our results have been inconclusive on which method leads to the greatest growth. We are torn between raising the rigor of instruction to offer students more “time” grappling with the harder material and using a Leveled Literacy program that has delivered good results to us in the primary grades. Help.


What you are trying to do is terrific for the kids. You see some students who aren’t keeping up and you want to beef up the amount of reading support that they get. That makes great sense to me and seems to be very much in line with the research. Additional teaching is a great idea.

However, the 1-49%ile span for this group is simply too broad and too differentiated a swath of kids with whom to take a single approach. If I were calling the shots I’d treat those below the 30th or 35th %iles differently than those who are a little bit behind.

I suspect that as you move down the continuum of kids you’ll start to find those with substantial gaps in their foundational skills (decoding and fluency basically). That is much less likely to be true for those who are almost at the 50th%ile. In discussions of learning disability, various experts (e.g., Joe Torgesen, Jack Fletcher, Reid Lyon) treat the 35%ile as being a dividing point between kids who are garden variety stragglers and those who might have a real learning disability. This will likely vary a bit by grade level and test, so rather than giving you a hard-and-fast rule, I’m suggesting that the cut-point be somewhere around the 30-35th%ile.

Above that cutoff, and I would definitely just give these kids extra time with the demanding grade-level materials. Below that line, and I would want to provide at least some explicit instruction in foundational skills. (I don’t know what assessment information you have on these kids, but if such data reveals particular foundation gaps for students reading below the 35th%ile, I’d be even more certain that offering such teaching is a good idea.)

What should the instruction look like for these groups?

For those who are in that 35-49%ile span, that is kids who are at grade level to about 2-3 grade levels below level, I would have them doing more work with the grade level texts they are reading in class. This work should give kids opportunities to read the material again—but with greater or different scaffolding and support. Students might read this material before it is read in class (to give them a boost) or after, to ensure that they make as much progress with it as possible. I would consider activities like repeated reading (that is, oral fluency practice with repetition), rereading and writing about the ideas in the texts, going through the texts more thoroughly trying to interpret the most complex sentences or to follow the cohesive links among the ideas.

For the students below the 30-35th%ile—who are low in decoding (probably the majority of them), I’d provide a systematic program of instruction that offers at least some explicit phonics instruction. I very much like the idea of using a program that has been found to be effective by the What Works Clearinghouse (that won’t guarantee it will work for you, but that it has worked elsewhere tells you it is possible to make it work effectively).

As important as phonics instruction can be to someone who lacks basic decoding skills, I’d recommend against overdoing it. The National Reading Panel found that phonics instruction for poor readers beyond grade 2 tended to improve their decoding skills (which is good), but without commensurate impacts on spelling and reading comprehension (which is not so good). I think it is important to make such decoding instruction part of a larger effort that addresses reading comprehension, vocabulary, writing, and oral reading fluency.

How best to balance this effort will depend a lot on what else the kids are getting. For example, if the really low decoders are already being instructed in these skills in Special Education, then I wouldn’t double up here. That would just free time space for other kinds of reading help.

Another possibility may be to offer these students some of the same grade level instruction noted above, but in smaller groupings to enable the teachers to offer greater support to these kids who are further behind. Beyond beginning reading levels, there is no evidence students need to work with low-level texts—at least when there is sufficient scaffolding to guide them through such reading. Perhaps these students would work on decoding and fluency using a set program part of the time, and working with regular classroom materials with greater amounts of scaffolding than would be available to the other, better-performing students. 

(One last thought. It is terrific that the intervention program you have identified is working well with your primary kids. That's great, but it does not mean that I would necessarily adopt it for use in my middle school. I'd go with a program either aimed specifically at these older students or I'd try out the materials with them to see their reaction. Often, terrific decoding programs are too babyish to gain much buy in from the older kids. It would even be better if WWC indicated that the program had worked effectively with middle-schoolers.)





Sunday, March 22, 2015

Teaching Visual Literacy Makes a Big Difference

Would you add some thoughts about visual literacy, that is, questioning the artist/illustrator in the same way we are questioning the author/text…prior to analyzing the text.  
Thank you.

I’ve been carrying this question around for a while, trying to think up a good answer.

On the one hand, I’ve never been a big fan of “visual literacy.”  It’s not that I’m insensitive to the idea that pictures have value (I subscribed to Playboy for many years), but I’ve never been willing to put pictures on the same plane as the printed word.

I guess I’ve been afraid that teachers in the early grades would eschew the teaching of letters and sounds—the tools needed to decode print, in favor of pictures and rhymes and predictable forms (oh wait, that does happen).

But, as I said, pictures are important. They carry a lot of meaning. Think of the American flag raising at Iwo Jima, Lee Harvey Oswald’s last moment, the napalmed girl in Vietnam with her clothes burned away, the sailor kissing the nurse at the end of WWII, the first clear x-ray pictures of DNA—or the unforgettable illustrations of Tenniel, Sendak, Carle, or Potter. No, I accept that pictures definitely are worth attention.

And, I also concede that they require analysis. Graphics of various types raise issues of perspective, balance, texture, color, foregrounding, etc. Interpreting a graphic can be both intellectually challenging and, when well analyzed, intellectually rewarding, too.

So, while I accept the importance and value of illustrations, I fear what might happen if too much school time were devoted to interpreting them. (Ultimately, I’d rather read—and I’d rather that students read—E.B. White than examine the drawings of Garth Williams).

But what about disciplinary literacy, Mr. Smarty Pants College Professor? You say that print is most important, and, yet, in many disciplines the pictures are equal to the words. Right?

Actually, that is correct. In science the pictures and other graphic forms are considered every bit as important as the prose English. This is because language is insufficient to explain scientific phenomena, so the use of multiple representations increases the possibility of accuracy and wide understanding.

Graphics matter a lot in social studies, too. Think of maps, but also the fascinating analyses of the meanings of contemporaneous photographs and political cartoons.

In literature, graphic elements haven’t as clear a role, and yet pictures are extremely important in children’s literature, and the “graphic novel” illustrations carry a lot of meaning for all readers.

Recently, I was teaching science to a group of high school seniors and I had them comparing the illustrations and text statements from their anatomy textbook. It was a fascinating exercise. For me and the kids.

About half indicated that they normally just read the text and possibly glanced cursorily at the illustrations at the end. They were surprised by how much they were missing out on.

Three of the students said the words tended to confuse them, so they only looked at the pictures despite the reading assignments. Having to compare words and pictures made a big difference to them, too.

We all learned that day how critical it was to closely compare the illustrations and the text, and how rare such teaching is. The Common Core State Standards require such teaching, but it gets little attention. Let's face it, I'm not the only reading guy with a bias against the pictures, and our kids have suffered from it. We definitely need to teach kids to read both words and pictures--in close connection with each other.