Sunday, May 22, 2016

How Can Reading Coaches Raise Reading Achievement?

Teachers question:

I have just been hired as a reading coach in a school where I have been a third-grade teacher. My principal wants me to raise reading achievement and he says that he’ll follow my lead. I think I’m a good teacher, but what does it take to raise reading achievement in a whole school (K-5) with 24 teachers?

Shanahan's answer:

            It’s easy J. Just do the following 9 things:

1.    Improve leadership.
            Literacy leadership matters. You and your principal will need to be a team. The more the two of you know and agree upon the better. Over the next few years, your principal will be hiring and evaluating teachers, making placement and purchasing decisions, and communicating with the community. You need to be in on some of those things and you need to influence all of them. Your principal should tell the faculty that you speak for him on literacy matters and you both need to devote some time to increasing his literacy knowledge so he can understand and support your recommendations. I’d get on his calendar at least a couple of times per week to discuss strategy and debrief on what you are both doing, but also for professional development time for him.

2.    Increase the amount of literacy instruction.

            How much reading and writing instruction and practice kids get is critical.  Take a close look at how much of this kids are getting. Observe, talk to teachers, survey… find out how much teaching is being provided and how much reading the kids do within this teaching. Be on the look out for lost time. Mrs. Smith may schedule two hours of ELA, but she doesn’t start class until 9:12 most mornings due to late bus drop offs, milk money collection, Pledge of Allegiance, morning announcements and so on. And, her class takes a 7-minute bathroom break at about 10 each morning. She isn’t trying to teach for 2 hours, but only 1 hour 41 minutes (and the actual amount of instruction may be even less). That’s a whopping 60 hours less instruction per year than what she schedules! Try to get everyone up to 2-3 hours per day of reading and writing instruction, with a large percentage of that devoted to kids reading and writing within instruction (and, yes, a student reading aloud to the group, only counts as one student reading).

3.    Focus instruction on essential curriculum elements.

            ELA often is used for wonderful things that don’t make much difference in kids learning. I watched a “phonics lesson” recently in which most of the time was spent on cutting out pictures and pasting them to a page. The amount of sounding and matching letters to sounds could have been accomplished within about 30 seconds of this 20-minute diversion. You definitely can send kids off to read on their own, but not much learning is usually derived from this. Instead, make ia commitment to obtaining substantial instruction in each of the following research-proven components for every child.

(a) Teach students to read and understand the meanings of words and parts of words (decoding and word meaning): Dedicate time to teaching students phonological awareness (K-1, and strugglers low in those skills); phonics or decoding (K-2, or again the strugglers); sight vocabulary (high frequency words, K-2); spelling (usually linked to the decoding or word meanings); word meanings; and morphology (meaningful parts of words).   

(b) Teach students to read text aloud with fluency so that it sounds like language (accuracy—reading the author’s words as written; appropriate speed—about the speed one talks normally; and proper prosody or expression—pausing appropriately, etc.).

(c) Teach students to read with understanding and the ability to learn from text. With beginning readers this, like fluency practice, needs to be oral reading. However, by the end of Grade 1 and from then on, most reading for comprehension should be silent reading. Such instruction should teach students about text (like how it is organized, how author’s put themes in stories, or how history books differ from science books), about the kinds of information that is important (like main ideas or inferences), and ways to think about texts that will increase understanding (like summarizing along the way, or how to ask oneself questions about a text).

(d). Teach students to write effectively.  This would include training students in various means of getting their ideas onto paper—printing, handwriting, and keyboarding, but it also teaching them to write for various purposes (narration, exposition, argument), to negotiate the writing process effectively (planning, drafting, revising, editing), to write for a range of audiences, and to write powerful pieces (with interesting introductions, strong organizations, sufficient amounts of accurate information, etc.).

            All four of those are detailed in your state standards, no matter where you live, but make sure that kids get lots of teaching in each. (I’d strive for roughly 25% of the instructional time into each of those baskets—that comes out to approximately 90-135 hours per year of instruction in each of those 4 things).

4.    Provide focused professional development.

            I suspect this will be where much of your time is focused; making sure your teachers know how to teach those four essentials well. This might take the form of professional development workshops on particular topics, organizing teacher reading groups to pursue particular instructional issues, observing teachers and giving them feedback on their lessons, co-planning lessons with one or more teachers, providing demonstration lessons, and so on. You need to make sure that every one of your teachers knows what needs to be taught and how to teach it well.

5.    Make sure sound instructional programs are in place.

            It is possible to teach reading effectively without a commercial program, but there are serious drawbacks to that approach. First, there’s the fairness issue. Programs that are shared by school staff will not make all teachers equal in their ability to teach reading, but they sure can reduce the amount of difference that exists (especially when there is adequate supervision and professional development—see numbers 1 and 4 above). Second, programs can ensure that kids get instruction in key areas of reading, even when teachers aren’t comfortable providing such teaching. Basically, we want to ensure that every teacher has an adequate set of lessons for productive instruction in those four key components for sufficient amounts of time. If your teachers are skilled enough to improve upon the lessons in the shared core program, then by all means support these improvements and make sure they’re shared widely.

6.    Align assessments.

            It can be helpful to monitor kids learning, at least in basic skills areas that are amenable to easy assessment. It is reasonable, depending on the tests and the skills, to evaluate decoding skills or fluency ability formally 2-4 times per year. Of course, teachers can collect such information within instruction much more often than that. For instance, if a teacher is going to teach fluency for several minutes per day, why not take notes on how well individuals do with this practice and keep track of that over weeks. In any event, if we recognize that some students are not making adequate progress in these basic skills, then increasing the amount of teaching they get within class or beyond class can be sensible. The amount of testing needs to be kept to an absolute minimum, so this time can be used to improve reading.

7.    Target needs of special populations.

            Often there are particular groups of kids who struggle more than others within your ELA program. Two obvious groups are second-language learners (who may struggle with academics because they are still learning English) or kids with disabilities (who struggle to learn written language). Making sure that they get extra assistance within class when possible, and beyond class (through special classes, afterschool and summer programs, etc.) would make great sense. If you are making sure that everyone in the school benefits from 2 hours per day of real reading and writing instruction, then why not try to build programs that would ensure that these strugglers and stragglers get even more? I know one coach who runs an afterschool fluency program, for instance.

8.    Get parent support and help.

            Research says parents can help and that they often do. I suggest trying to enlist their help from the beginning. Many coaches do hold parent workshops about how to read to their kids, how to listen effectively to their children’s reading, how to help with homework, etc. Lots of times teachers tell me that those workshops are great, but that the parents they most wish would attend don’t show up. Don’t be discouraged. Sometimes those parents don’t get the notices (perhaps you could call them), or they work odd schedules (sometimes meetings during the school day are best for them—perhaps close to the time they have to pick their kids up from school), or they need babysitting support or translation (those one can be worked out, too).

9.    Motivate everybody.

            Just like leadership (#1 above) is necessary to get any of these points accomplished, so is motivation. You have to be the number one cheerleader for every teacher’s reading instruction, for every parent’s involvement, and for every student’s learning gains. Information about what your school is up to has to be communicated to the community so that everyone can take part. Some coaches hold reading parades in their neighborhoods, others have regular reading nights where kids in pajamas come to school with mom and dad to participate in reading activities, there are young author events, lunchtime book clubs, and million minute reading challenges, etc. You know, whatever takes to keep everyone’s head in the game. 

            Like I said, raising reading achievement is easy. You just have to know everything, get along with everybody, work like a horse, and keep smiling.  

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Can We Prevent the "Summer Slide" in Reading?

Is there any research on how to prevent the summer slide? 

I ask both as the parent of a 1st grader and as a teacher. I teach in a small, rural school with many struggling readers and English language learners, and every year we have kids who work their way up to grade level by the end of the school year but are behind grade level again when school starts the next fall. I volunteer with our public library's summer reading program, so I  have the opportunity to work with some of our kids who struggle. How much reading do they need to do over the summer? What else can I do to help them keep the skills they've worked so hard to gain? 

        There long has been evidence that the reading achievement of disadvantaged kids tend to retreat over summer. The same is not true for middle-class kids; they may even continue to improve in reading when schools are closed.

            It’s been assumed that this is due to differences in reading practice: Some kids read during the summer and they manage to hold service during those months when such reading is the only academic practice available. Other kids don’t crack a book from June to August and, thus, they start to forget.

            As a result considerable attention has been accorded to trying to get kids to read more during summer. These efforts have included book fairs, self- selection, library buses, postcards and phone calls to parents, and so on.

            Sadly, the results of these promising efforts have been mixed, and yet, at least some of the efforts, have been effective—though usually with rather modest results (as usual, the better the studies, the smaller the outcomes) (McGill-Franzen, Ward, & Cahill, 2016).

            James Kim, now at Harvard, has carried out such studies more carefully—and more persistently—than anyone else. He has sometimes found positive effects (that getting kids to read about 5 books over the summer can be enough to prevent summer slide). But often the results of these programs have been duds. Even when his programs have succeeded, the results have been puzzling, such as when the kids from the highest poverty schools improved, while those from schools with slightly less disadvantage did not. 

            My take on the whole thing is that providing books to kids along with various encouragements to read over the summer months are clearly not a panacea.

            But what’s the alternative? At least these efforts seem to work some of the time.

            Teachers in such circumstances have little choice but to take the best actions possible, no matter what the level of our certainty that those actions will work. I’ve often opposed free reading time during the school day, because the alternative—direct reading instruction from a teacher—is clearly the better choice for kids.

            But during the summer, the choice is not whether to teach or leave kids to their own devices. It is, instead, whether we should encourage kids to learn on their own or to just leave them to their fate? That summer reading encouragement programs work some of the time with some of the kids is sufficient to make it worth the attempt (at least until research comes up with more reliable ways).

            The answer should be somewhat different for the research community. Rather than haphazardly testing out more interventions, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more productive to rethink the problem. Evidence is convincing and consistent that there is a summer learning lag that has a negative impact on the achievement of disadvantaged kids. The link of that disadvantage to a dearth of summer reading is an inference, however (though it sure looks to be the link at least in those cases where encouraging reading has worked). Nevertheless, there is little high quality data demonstrating that it is the lack of reading alone that is the problem.

            Let’s say the reading achievement of more advantaged kids improves some number of weeks and that of disadvantaged kids retreat some number each summer. And, let’s, for the sake of argument, say that this combined average difference totals about 8 weeks.

            My question is, “How much of that 8-week difference in achievement is mediated by amount of reading?” The assumption seems to be that this effect is solely a reading effect, but there are other possibilities.

            For example, disadvantaged kids may spend considerably less time interacting with adults during the summer months when compared to their more advantaged peers. Furthermore, these interactions may tend to be more or less supportive of language development given differences in levels of parent education.

            Similarly, some kids may be involved in more organized activities through churches, synagogues, park districts, library programs, museums, zoos, and so on. Or, some kids have greater access to knowledge-stimulating activities such as family vacations as well as more sporadic day trips to cultural institutions and events. Past research has found connections between these kinds of experiences and learning (Griswold, 1986), too, so why not they monitor such effects in summer reading studies? (Other studies have been less sanguine about the effects of parent involvement and summer childhood activities on the summer slide, but that was because these were compared to formal summer school experience (Borman, Benson, & Overman, 2005), quite a different thing).

            And, it is not just those informal educational activities that I'm thinking about. Research also suggests substantial differences in parent efforts to more explicitly teach their kids, too (Clark, 1984; 
Sénéchal & Young, 2008; Tobin, 1981).

            I’m not trying to discourage you from attempting to motivate your students to read during the summer, but to suggest why the affects of such efforts may be so unreliable. If there are 8 weeks of differences between two groups, and 2 or 4 or 6 of those weeks of difference turn out to be due to non-reading experiences, then there would be very little variance that reading on one’s own would be able to influence. Our measures are not so fine-grained that they are likely to identify such tiny differences in learning. It could be that these programs are working, but working in this case may not mean fully addressing the problem; just the part that is due to lack of reading practice.

            Research needs to look at this problem more broadly to figure out the most effective response. Studies certainly show summer school to be highly effective in improving achievement, but summer school is expensive, and not everyone would take advantage of this opportunity if it were available.

            The McGill-Franzen paper suggests that for $150 per child per summer, it would be possible to provide 10-12 free self-selected books to first- and second-graders. That’s probably $15,000-$30,000 or so for many schools; not a large expenditure for a high poverty school, and something that could be beneficial.

           Encourage kids to read during the summer? Sure. Explain to parents how important it it for kids to read during that time? Of course. Buy books for kids or get local businesses and foundations to kick in? Couldn't hurt. Talk to your local library about some kind of summer reading events? Good idea.


Borman, G.D., Benson, J., & Overman, L.T. (2005). Families, schools, and summer learning. Elementary School Journal, 106, 131-150.

Griswold, P.A.  (1986).  Family outing activities and achievement among fourth graders in compensatory education funded schools.  Journal of Educational Research, 79, 261-266.

McGill-Franzen, A., Ward, N., & Cahill, M. (2016). Summers: Some are reading, some are not! It matters. The Reading Teacher, 69, 585-596.

Sénéchal, M., & Young, L. (2008). The effect of family literacy interventions on children's acquisition of reading from kindergarten to grade 3: A meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 78, 880-907.

Tobin, A.W. (1981). A multiple discriminant cross-validation of the factors associated with the development of precocious reading achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Delaware.            

Saturday, May 7, 2016

What doesn’t belong here? On Teaching Nonsense Words

            Obviously you shouldn’t wear an especially short skirt to work, though it might be fine for a night of bar hopping. It would just be out of place. Lil Wayne can do rap, but he’d definitely be out of place at Gospel a Convention, sort of like a love affair with a happy ending in a Taylor Swift lyric.

            So what’s out of place in reading education?

            My nominee is the act of teaching kids to read nonsense words. Don’t do it. It don’t belong (it may even be worse than orange and green).

            Why, you might ask, would anyone teach nonsense words? I attribute this all-too-common error to a serious misunderstanding of tests and testing.

            Many years ago researchers were interested in determining how well kids could decode. They decided upon lists of words that were graded in difficulty. The more words the students could read accurately, the better we assumed his/her decoding must be.

            But, then they started to think: It’s possible for kids to memorize a bunch of words. In fact, with certain high frequency words we tell kids to memorize them. If I flash the word “of” to a student and he/she reads it correctly, that might not be due to better phonics skills, but just because Johnny had that one drilled into long-term memory.

            That means with word tests we can never be sure of how well kids can decode.
            The solution: nonsense words tests. If we give kids lists of nonse words, that is combinations of letters that fit English spelling patterns, but that aren’t really words, then if students can read them they must have decoding skills, because no one in their right mind would teach these made up letter combinations to children.

            Enter tests like DIBELS decoding measure. Tests designed to help determine quickly who needs more help with decoding. These aren’t tests aimed at evaluating programs or teachers; they are diagnostic.

            These tests work pretty well, too. Studies show a high correlation between performance on nonsense words and real words, and some of the time the nonsense word scores are more closely related with reading achievement than the word test scores!

            But many schools are now using these to make judgments about teachers.

            And, the teachers’ reaction has been to teach nonsense words to the kids. Not just any nonsense words either; the specific nonsense words that show up on DIBELS. That means these teachers are making the test worthless. If kids are memorizing pronunciations for those nonsense words, then the tests no longer can tell how well the kids can decode.

            We can do better. Please do not use these kinds of tests to make judgments about teachers, it just encourages foolish responses on their parts. And, please do not teach these nonsense words to the kids. It is harmful to kids. It definitely doesn’t belong here.