Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Please Be Charitable for Literacy

As regular readers know, this is the time of the year that I identify charities that try to help improve children's literacy and language and to make books available to kids. Readers of my blog obviously care about whether kids can read and why not make that cause part of your charitable gifting as well.

Each year, I comb through Charity Navigator to identify appropriate literacy-focused charitable agencies. I look for national and internationals groups that are rated as 3- and 4-star charities (that means they are spending at least 80% of the contributions on services). 

Please consider any and all of these literacy-oriented charities. They all do terrific work and could use your help at this time of the year.

Books for Africa. Founded in 1988, Books for Africa (BFA) collects, sorts, ships, and distributes books to children in Africa. Its goal is to end the book famine in Africa. Books donated by publishers, schools, libraries, individuals, and organizations are sorted and packed by volunteers who carefully choose books that are age and subject appropriate. They send good books, enough books for a whole class to use. Since 1988, Books For Africa has shipped more than 27 million books to 48 African countries. These books are on once-empty library shelves, in classrooms in rural schools, and in the hands of children who have never before held a book. Each book will be read over and over again. When the books arrive, they go to those who need them most: children who are hungry to read, hungry to learn, hungry to explore the world in ways that only books make possible. Books for Africa

Children's Literacy Initiative (CLI), founded in 1988, works with teachers to transform instruction so that all children can become powerful readers and writers. CLI's goal is to close the gap in literacy achievement between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers. CLI offers professional development for pre-kindergarten through third grade teachers across the country. They provide coaching and seminars, lesson plans, a prekindergarten curriculum, and collections of high-quality children's literature. Their programs promote research-based methods for teaching reading and writing. CLI is involved in large projects in the public school systems of Philadelphia, Newark (NJ), Camden, Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago. Children's Literacy Initiative

First Book. First Book has distributed more than 100 million books and educational resources to programs and schools serving children from low-income families throughout the United States and Canada. By making new, high-quality books available on an ongoing basis, First Book is transforming the lives of children in need and the elevating the quality of education. First Book

Jumpstart. Jumpstart is a national early education organization working toward the day every child in America enters school prepared to succeed. Jumpstart delivers a research-based and cost-effective program by training college students and community volunteers to serve preschool-age children in low-income neighborhoods. Through a proven curriculum, these children develop the language and literacy skills they need to be ready for school, setting them on a path for lifelong success. Jumpstart is a proud member of the AmeriCorps national service network. Jumpstart

Reach Out and Read. Founded in 1989, Reach Out and Read prepares America's youngest children to succeed in school by partnering with doctors to prescribe books and encourage families to read together. Doctors, nurse practitioners, and other medical professionals incorporate Reach Out and Read's evidence-based model into regular pediatric checkups, by advising parents about the importance of reading aloud and giving developmentally-appropriate books to children. The program begins at the 6-month checkup and continues through age 5, with a special emphasis on children growing up in low-income communities. Families served by Reach Out and Read read together more often, and their children enter kindergarten with larger vocabularies and stronger language skills, better prepared to achieve their potential. Currently, more than 27,000 doctors and nurse practitioners at 4,600 hospitals, health centers, and clinics participate in Reach Out and Read, serving nearly 4 million children and families nationwide. Reach Out and Read

Room to Read believes that World Change Starts with Educated Children. They envision a world in which all children can pursue a quality education that enables them to reach their full potential and contribute to their community and the world. Room to Read seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in developing countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. Working in collaboration with local communities, partner organizations and governments, Room to Read develops literacy skills and a habit of reading among primary school children, and support girls to complete secondary school with the relevant life skills to succeed in school and beyond. Room to Read

United Through Reading (UTR). The mission of UBR is to unite military families facing physical separation by facilitating the bonding experience of reading aloud together. In 200 locations worldwide on land and at sea, UTR offers military service members the opportunity to be video-recorded reading books to their children at home. When faraway parents read stories to their children and send the video recordings home: children’s anxieties are eased; spouses at home are supported; parenting is shared; service members' morale is boosted; service members' are a part of daily life at home; homecomings are easier and more joyful; and children become readers. United Through Reading

Monday, November 9, 2015

RtI: When Things Don't Work as You Expected

          When I arose today I saw lots of Twitters and Facebook entries about a new U.S. Department of Education study. Then I started getting emails from folks in the schools and in the state departments of education. IES Study on RtI

          “What’s going on here?” was the common trope.

          Basically, the study looked at RtI programs in Grades 1 through 3. The reports say that RtI interventions were lowering reading achievement in Grade 1 and while the RtI interventions weren’t hurting the older kids, they weren’t helping them to read better.

          The idea of RtI is a good one, but the bureaucratization of it was predictable. You can go back and look at the Powerpoint on this topic that I posted years ago.

           I’m not claiming that I predicted the failure of RtI programs. Nevertheless, we should be surprised that research-based interventions aimed at struggling readers, with lots of assessment monitoring harmed rather than helped kids. But I’m not.

          In fairness, this kind of thing can go either way: on the one hand the idea of giving kids targeted instruction generally should improve achievement… and yet, on the other hand, this assumption is based on the idea that schools will accurately identify the kids and the reading problems, will provide additional instruction aimed at helping these kids to catch up, will offer quality teaching of the needed skills (meaning that usually such teaching will have positive learning outcomes), and that being identified to participate in such an effort won’t cause damage in and of itself (if kids feel marked as poor readers that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy with 6-year-olds just trying to figure things out). 

          When RtI was a hot topic I used to argue, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, for a 9-tier model; the point was that a more flexible and powerful system was going to be needed to make a real learning difference. If the identification of student learning needs is sloppy, or the “Tier 2” reading instruction just replaces an equivalent amount of “Tier 1” teaching, or the quality and intensity of instruction are not there… why would anyone expect RtI to be any better than what it replaced?

          Unfortunately, in a lot schools that I visit, RtI has just been a new bureaucratic system for getting kids into special education. Instead of giving kids a plethora of IQ and reading tests, seeking a discrepancy, now we find struggling readers, send them down the hall for part of their instructional day, and test the hell out of them with tests that can’t possibly identify whether growth/learning is taking place and moving them lockstep through “research-based” instructional programs.

          In other words, the programs emphasize compliance rather than encouraging teachers to solve a problem.

          First, there is too much testing in RtI programs. These tests are not fine-grained enough to allow growth to be measured effectively more than 2-4 times per year (in some places I’m seeing the tests administered weekly, biweekly, and monthly, a real time waster.

          Second, the tests are often not administered according to the standardized instructions (telling kids to read as fast as possible on a fluency test is stupid).

          Third, skills tests are very useful, but they can only reveal information about skills performance. Teaching only what can be tested easily is a foolish way to attack reading problems. Definitely use these tests to determine whether to offer extra teaching in phonological awareness, phonics, and oral reading fluency. But kids need work on reading comprehension and language as well, and those are not easily monitored. I would argue for a steady dose of teaching in the areas that we cannot test easily, and a variable amount of teaching of those skills that we can monitor.

          Fourth, the Tier 2 instruction should increase the amount of teaching that kids get. If a youngster is low in fluency or decoding, he should get additional fluency or decoding instruction. That means students should get the entire allotment of Tier 1 reading instruction, and then should get an additional dose of teaching on top of that.

          Fifth, it is a good idea to use programs that have worked elsewhere (“research based”). But that doesn’t mean the program will work for you. Teach that program like crazy with a lot of focus and intensity, just like in the schools/studies where it worked before—in fact, that’s likely why it worked elsewhere. Research-based doesn’t mean that it will work automatically; you have to make such programs work.

          Sixth, don’t put kids in an intervention and assume the problem is solved. The teacher should also beef up Tier 1 teaching, should steal extra instructional moments for these students in class, and should involve parents in their programs as well. What I’m suggesting is a full-court press aimed at making these struggling students successful—rather than a discrete, self-contained, narrow effort to improve things; Tier 2 interventions can be effective, but by themselves they can be a pretty thin strand for struggling readers to hang onto.

          I hope schools don’t drop RtI because of these research findings. But I also hope that they ramp up the quantity and quality of instruction to ensure that these efforts are successful.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Letter Teaching in Kindergarten

Teacher question:
     Our Kindergarten is using a reading program that has some wonderful lessons. However, we also feel that the pacing doesn't match current expectations for kindergarten students. For example, the program doesn't introduce high frequency words until December and it only teaches 25 words for the entire year. The first lesson for teaching letter names doesn't come until December. What does current research say about when letters, sounds, and sight words should be introduced in kindergarten?

Shanahan response:
     The National Early Literacy Panel examined a lot of research on the role of letter knowledge in learning to read by kindergartners and preschoolers. Those studies clearly showed the value of knowing letter names. There were 52 studies including 7,570 children in pre-K or K that explored the relationship of their knowledge of letters with later decoding, 17 such studies connecting letters to later reading comprehension (2028 kids), and 18 such studies connecting letters to spelling (2619 kids). The result showed a strong significant correlation among all of these skills. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the more letters (and sounds) that you know early on, the better your chances of developing strong literacy skills.

     Of course, letter knowledge is one of those “necessary but insufficient” skills. What I mean by that is that if all we did was taught kids about letters, few would become readers; there is more to it than that, so such teaching would be insufficient. However, that doesn’t take away the “necessary” part of the formulation. It would be awfully hard to learn to read without knowing the letters.

     The panel also examined about 75 instructional studies—all done with children in kindergarten and earlier—that focused on letter names, letter sounds, decoding, phonological awareness, and print awareness. These studies were resounding in their results, too. Such teaching not only improved performance on the skills in question (yes, teaching letter names leads to the learning of letter names), but to consequent improvements in decoding and reading comprehension.

     Given that the more letters young kids know, the better they do in literacy, I can think of no reason for delaying the teaching of letters. Some kids pick them up quickly and so waiting until mid-Kindergarten probably would not be harmful. They’ll still be likely to master the letters by the end of the year.

     But what about the strugglers; the kids who don’t pick that kind of information up so easily? (Think about kids who don’t get much academic support at home or who suffer from disabilities.) They would benefit from a longer regime of teaching. That increased opportunity could make a huge difference in their success with letters. The sooner they master that part of early reading, of course, the sooner they can focus their learning efforts on other literacy concepts and processes.

     With regard to teaching words in kindergarten, I think 25 is plenty. We don’t have research studies on this so I’m drawing mostly on personal experience (as a teacher and parent) and on the professional judgment of various educators (such as Catherine Snow at Harvard).

     There definitely are benefits to learning sight words, but sight word learning gets easier as students develop phonics skills. A heavy early emphasis on words puts a lot of strain on memory, unnecessarily. I have long argued for kids to learn 100 high frequency words by the end of grade 1, and 300 by the end of grade 2, and 25 by the end of K makes lots of sense. These would not be the only words that kids could read, but it would cover a lot of those not-so-regular, super-high frequency words like “of” and “the” which are so useful early on.

     I know some programs are going wild with having kindergartners memorize large numbers of words, but I don’t know of any empirical evidence supporting that practice.

     It sounds like your program should be more ambitious when it comes to teaching kids about letters, sounds, and decoding, but its word coverage sounds reasonable to me.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Fluency Instruction for Older Kids, Really?

School Administrator Question:  Dr. Shanahan...for grades 3-5 does it make sense to use classroom time to have students partner read? If our ultimate goal is improving silent reading comprehension, I wonder at this age level if we are not using time efficiently.

Shanahan's response.:
I get this question a lot. Since our kids are going to be tested on their silent reading comprehension, why should we bother to have them practice oral reading? The purpose quite simply is that oral reading practice has been found to have a positive impact on students’ silent reading comprehension. The National Reading Panel reviewed 16 experimental studies in which students practiced their oral reading with a partner (e.g., parents, teachers, other students, and in one case, a computer), with rereading (they should be reading texts that are relatively hard, not ones they can read fluently on a first attempt), and with feedback (someone who helps them when they make mistakes). In 15 or the 16 studies, the kids who were engaged in this kind of activity ended up outperforming the control students in silent reading comprehension. There have been many additional studies since that time—across a variety of ages, with similar results.

Although oral reading practice improves oral reading that isn’t the reason we do it. We want students to practice making the text sound meaningful—which means reading the authors’ words accurately, reading with sufficient speed (the speed of language—not hurrying or racing through a text), and with proper expression or prosody (putting the pauses in the right places, making the text understandable to English speakers). As they learn to do that with increasingly complex texts, their ability to do that with silent reading improves.

Teachers are often told to stop this in the primary grades, and the Common Core standards only include fluency teaching through grade 5, but by 8th grade, oral reading fluency differences still explain 25% of the variance in reading comprehension. In other words, if you could make all the 13-year-olds equal in fluency, you’d reduce the comprehension differences by 25%.

It’s not an either/or, of course, I prescribe both fluency instruction and comprehension instruction and the latter would definitely include silent reading of the texts. You could also argue for additional silent reading comprehension practice in social studies and science reading. However, if you only have kids practicing their silent reading, then you are slowing kids’ progress and sacrificing achievement points.

Do as you please, but as director of reading of the Chicago Public Schools, I mandated fluency instruction at those grade levels and would do so again if I still had that responsibility.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

To Lexile or Not to Lexile, That is the Question

Teacher question: Our school district is going wild over Lexiles because they are in the Common Core standards. I think they are overdoing it and don’t feel comfortable with some of the decisions that we are making. What are the weaknesses of Lexiles?

First, Lexiles is only one of several readability measures included in the CCSS. They started with that one, but as studies were completed they added ATOS, SourceRater, and several others.

Everyone has to remember that Lexiles (and any readability measure) is a prediction of difficulty, and there since it is a prediction there will be a certain amount of error in it. It will sometimes overestimate or underestimate the difficulty of a text. It does this because it predicts difficulty on the basis of only two variables (word difficulty and sentence difficulty).

Obviously there is more to text difficulty than that. Nevertheless, the predictions tend to be reasonably accurate. Why?  Mainly because of the consistency of authors. If an author uses simple words and sentences, he/she will probably organize their writing in straightforward ways, and the cohesive structure, tone, and so on will probably not be particularly nuanced or complex.

But that isn’t always the case. Hemingway tended to use an Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, and are there any shorter sentences in the English language?, but try to keep track of who is speaking across pages of dialogue or to grasp what the characters are feeling just on the basis of the words themselves… Good luck, 5th graders.

As I say, Lexiles can mispredict. 

The appendices to the Common Core recommend some good ways of looking at text to adjust their placements up or down a bit. Thus, Lexiles (and the other estimates) can get you close, but then you need to use some judgment. No matter what Lexiles predicts, what do you think about using this text with a bunch of kids? (And remember, readability is only one part of the text selection equation—having kids read about sex or violence or racism, etc. in school may be just as problematic if the texts are easy or difficult).

Another reason the predictions aren’t perfect has to do with the reader. The idea of Lexiles and the other formulas is that we are trying to predict readers’ comprehension, and there can be reasons from a reader’s side of the equation why a text may turn out to be easy or hard. Let’s face it, if the author and I share a lot of knowledge in common, I’ll be able to bridge the gaps that he/she leaves for me. However, If the reader has less of a grasp of the content than the author assumed, then the sledding will be a lot tougher. (Yes, it doesn’t matter if there isn’t much shared knowledge if the writer doesn’t presume such information in the writing.)  

That means when you are selecting materials you have to think about what the kids might know and whether this text addresses the topic appropriately or not. Again, separate from the complexity of language: does the text over-explain something kids will already know (boring) or under-explain new topics in clear language leaving the kids confused?

Another thing to understand is that a readability score for a text is just an average. The average will be more accurate the longer the text is (more data, greater reliability). However, many teachers and publishers will estimate the difficulty of a text, but then will have the kids read a particular chapter from that text. Different sections of a text may vary quite a bit (so the overall difficulty for a text may be 5th grade, but the chapter you are actually teaching is 3rd grade or 8th grade difficulty).

It might be a good idea to run Lexiles on the actual excerpts and not to trust that the excerpt is a good representation of the overall text.

Readability measures can be very useful predictors of difficulty, but they do not help one to write or rewrite texts for particular audiences. For example, someone might select a text that they want to use, then they find out that according to Lexiles, the text is too easy or hard for the intended purpose. What to do? It is not uncommon that teachers or publishers adjust the passage, perhaps by replacing some words or breaking up a few sentences, etc. That will change the score (making the text appear to be more suitable), but it rarely improves the situation. It should be easy to not do this one yourself, but keeping publishers from playing such games is a bigger challenge.

Like your district, I’m a Lexile fan, but that doesn’t mean that we should misuse or abuse Lexiles. It is just a tool, and one that can solve problems or create problems. Let's not create them.