Saturday, February 28, 2015

More on the Teaching with Books at the Students' Reading Levels

Please provide the research about how teaching students using instructional level texts does not yield results! I am a literacy coach with five years of successful guided reading with below-level ELL's, working with them at their instructional level for TWENTY MINUTES A DAY. The rest of our two-hour block is spent with students immersed in either an independent book of their choice (also about 20-25 minutes) or in grade level text (1+ hours). I feel confident that I am teaching CCSS Standard 10 because my students read complex text in whole group with my scaffolding. I understand you've probably posted it many times, but please post it again here so I can see the research about why these 20 minutes of my students' day, where I see them growing by leaps and bounds, is actually preventing them from achieving the Common Core standards!

I’ve never written that no learning results from being taught from texts at one’s instructional level. In fact, the majority U.S. kids are currently taught in that fashion—and most American kids are learning to read, albeit not as well as we want them to. I have no doubt that your students are learning something from the instructional level teaching that you are offering them.

But the real issue has to do with what’s best for kids, rather than what works. The men and women who manned the “iron lungs” of the 1950s did much for polio victims. No doubt about it. But they didn’t do as much as Sabin and Salk who took a different approach to the matter. Iron lungs worked. Polio vaccines worked better.

Teaching kids at their instructional level works. But you can often do better if you give kids the opportunity to learn more by placing them in more challenging texts.

You don’t indicate which grade level you teach, so it’s important to stress that instructional level appears to matter initially—that’s when kids are first learning to read—but it doesn’t seem to matter after that. Perhaps you are working with first-graders or kids who are reading at a first-grade level, in which case, I think you're going the right direction. (Of course, if you’re talking about kids who can read at a second- grade level and up, then I’d question why you are teaching everyone as if they were first-graders.)

Your instructional use of time seems peculiar to me. Two hours of reading class with no explicit instruction in decoding, fluency, vocabulary, or comprehension? I know there are fans of the idea that we just learn to read by reading, and I’ve certainly been critical about the lack of reading within instruction, but the research records on explicit teaching of the skills noted above--including to English learners--are just too good to ignore. Teaching any of the skills listed above has several times the impact on kids’ reading growth than having them off reading on their own. (I do encourage kids to read independently when I don’t have a highly skilled teacher available to work with them, but having them off reading separately from instruction when I do have such a teacher available seems wasteful.)

Unlike what has been traditionally proposed by guided reading advocates, I have supported the idea of teaching kids with texts at multiple levels. That is, not all of the required reading should be at a student’s instructional level. Learning and consolidation come from taking on different levels of challenge—varying the workload from easy to strenuous. I like that you are intentionally having students read texts at multiple levels of demand.

Nevertheless, I’m puzzled as to why you work so closely with children when you believe they will have little or no difficulty with a text (you indicate that you work in small groups with kids in books at their instructional level—in other words, texts—that if left to their own devices—they could read with 75% comprehension). But when students are required to read texts more likely to be at a frustration level, then you only provide scaffolding on a whole class basis (oh, how I wish you would have described that explicitly).

My approach to this is different: when children need a lot of help to carry out a task (such as when asked to read a text that they can’t manage on their own), I think it’s best to provide a lot of close support. And, when they can do reasonably well without me, I try to step back a bit and give them their head. You apparently believe the opposite—you are close by with few distractions to interfere when they don’t need you, and you are more distant and removed when real and immediate support would be beneficial. I find that puzzling.
  
Ultimately, the only thing that matters in this is how well your students can read. If they can successfully read the text levels set by your standards—on their own—then what you are doing sounds great to me. But if many of them can only do such reading successfully—with adequate word recognition and comprehension—when you’re scaffolding for them, then you might want to rethink some of your approaches. Your kids might be growing by “leaps and bounds” (I’d be happy to examine the evidence), but if they aren’t growing sufficiently to reach the standards, then I’d encourage you to be less dedicated to particular instructional approaches and more dedicated to helping your kids reach particular goals.

Finally, you requested some research sources. There are many bodies of research that nibble at the edges of this topic, including studies that have challenged the accuracy and reliability of the ways that we identify children’s instructional levels, examined correlationally the relationship between how well students are matched to books and student learning, relationships among text levels and student interest, and the effectiveness of the kind of group instruction that you describe including its impact on various demographic groups like high poverty populations or African American children. Those bodies of research aren’t particularly kind to the instructional level theory, but here I’ll only provide citations of studies that have directly compared the effectiveness of teaching students (second graders and up) with instructional level texts and with frustration level texts. I’d gladly include similar studies that have found instructional level teaching to be more effective; unfortunately, no such studies exist at this tim in the scientific literature.

Kuhn, M.R., Schwanenflugel, P.J., Morris, R.D., Morrow, L.M., Woo, D.G., Meisinger, E.B., Savrik, R.A., Bradley, B.A., & Stahl, S.A. (2006). Teaching children to become fluent and automatic readers. Journal of Literacy Research, 38, 357-387.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., & Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113–119.

O’Connor, R. E., Swanson, H. L., & Geraghty, C. (2010). Improvement in reading rate under independent and difficult text levels: Influences on word and comprehension skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 1–19.




Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why Standards-Based Teaching Has Failed to Raise Reading Achievement


            Standards-based educational reform goes back to the early 1990s. Since then, test scores have see-sawed a bit, but for the most part we are doing about as well as we’ve been doing since 1970 (when we first started collecting national reading data).

            That means standards-based reform has not led to higher achievement. Establishing educational goals and aligning teaching to those goals to ensure kids succeed has not happened.

            Diane Ravitch, and others who don’t spend much time in schools, claim to know why standards have failed. They believe that if teachers were just left to their own devices, American kids would excel in school.

            Unlike them, I’ve spent much time in classrooms and working with kids over the past four decades or so…as teacher, lunch room supervisor, park supervisor, student teacher, tutor, researcher, remediator, teacher educator, observer, evaluator, school administrator, textbook author, test designer, parent, grandparent, and uncle.

            My take on the problem is different, but I do agree that it is a problem.

            I have come to believe that standards-based reform will NEVER work unless educators come to understand the idea of standards-based teaching, something that has not happened during the past 25 years.

            To illustrate my point, I received the following two notes from teachers last week:

I teach 4th grade in a Daily 5/Cafe school. We have NO curriculum or requirements other than... 2 mini lessons, conferring individually and maintaining strategy groups with students. Do you have any advice or thoughts on the organizing and planning within these four areas? 

I am working on a district committee that is developing a universal literacy framework for our elementary schools. One of the recommended components is shared reading, which is not currently a formalized daily practice at our highest-achieving schools. Is there an argument, based on research, for this component to be mandated for all classrooms as part of an excellent literacy program? The research that I have found seems to mainly focus on pre-schoolers. 

            What sense do I make of these queries? They reveal that their schools are dedicated to promoting particular activities and practices—not to teaching children. There are particular activities these principals and teachers want to see in classrooms, and they are not particular focused on what they are supposed to be engaged in: teaching children to read.

            Instead of focusing like-a-laser on what they want kids to know, to be able to do, to be, they are promoting favorite classroom activities. Instead of thinking about how to get kids to a particular outcome, they are wondering if they can somehow align the required activities with useful outcomes. It would be like a surgeon deciding what kind of surgery he wanted to conduct and then hoping to stretch it to the patient’s needs (“Sorry Mr. Jones. I know you have prostate cancer, but I like to do hysterectomies.”)


            Until we actually focus on teaching the standards—that is, until we decide that our job is to ensure that kids learn what we have agreed to teach them—then it will continue to look like our kids are failing. (And, no, “test prep” is not teaching to our standards, it is just one more example of educators focusing on particular activities rather than on reaching particular outcomes).

Monday, February 16, 2015

Content-Focused Reading Interventions or How to Fit Into a Size 4 Dress

I would like your thoughts on some instructional practices that I am seeing an increase in amongst the schools that I work with What do you have to say about decreasing or eliminating science/social studies instruction for those students who have not met proficiency in reading (as determined by a screener or other assessment tool) to allow for RTI time?

Ah, the "how do I fit into a size 4 dress for my sister's wedding?" question. I say that because we all deal with problems of trying to fit too much into a small space, whether we're still in the condo with the second baby or sneaking our SUV into the compact car spaces at Whole Foods.

In this case, we want to give kids 8 hours of teaching in a 6 hour day. Of course, that rarely works (I can almost hear the stitches stretching). How can we provide students with the reading instruction that they need while ensuring that they learn lots of content, too? Kind of makes you want to drown your sorrows in a pint of Haagen Dazs--which could help with the reading problem, but I wouldn't advise it if you're still working on size 4. 

Generally, I’m not a big fan of the practice. Many years ago, Harry Singer and his colleagues found a close relationship between what students knew about social studies and science and how well they were learning to read. These were secondary school students, but you get the idea. If we reduce kids’ opportunity to develop content knowledge, then we undermine their futures as readers.

Of course, this question is not asking about older students. Research also shows that if students don’t master basic reading skills early on, then their later content learning will be seriously undermined. It is a disaster if kids leave the primary grades without strong reading skills, and undermining content knowledge to get there carries its own problems.

Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. What is a school supposed to do? If a child is struggling to develop phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency skills, then providing additional tuition in those subjects is a proven way to advance early literacy.

That’s where the conundrum is. If you don’t intervene well and early with sound reading instruction, then kids are likely to be dogged by low literacy in all their later subject matter courses. But if you do use science, social studies, art & music (etc.) time to fix the reading skills, then you reduce the knowledge that should play a big role in later reading.

I’ve always sided with the reading intervention idea, but mainly because the content coverage in so many primary grade classrooms is so thin. The negative impact of missing those subjects is likely to be less detrimental than continuing to be a laggard in reading, so reading it is.

Now I think we should be less accepting of that position, or at least we should try to make it a harder choice. Here are some practices and policies that can ensure  students gain both the reading skills and the subject matter content:

Preschool literacy
            One way to ensure that most kids can read well in the elementary school grades is to advance their language and literacy skills early on. Preschools should include literacy play (e.g., post office, library, restaurant, newspaper office, writing center), story time, lots of books, and explicit instruction in phonological awareness and letter names and sounds. Whatever they learn before kindergarten and first grade, they don’t need to learn in kindergarten and first grade.

Universal full day kindergarten
           This content/reading rivalry is a competition for time. You can split the difference or prioritize, but the best thing for kids would be to expand the resource. More instructional hours means more opportunities for reading AND content instruction.

Rigorous instruction in social studies, science, and the arts
           Many schools follow the tests. If there is a reading and math test, teachers and principals focus heavily on instruction in those subjects and everything else can go jump. Sadly, this means that kids get short changed. Let’s preserve dedicated time for teaching these things—increasing reading instruction without doing that is cheating.

Reading social studies and science texts
           Teach reading using social studies and science texts. This can mean both including informational texts in the “reading books” and teaching reading using the regular textbooks from the subjects. If kids are going to practice prediction or summarizing or any other reading skill, why can’t they do that within Chapter 4 of the classroom science text?

Longer academic days
            Again, we keep trying to squeeze an awful lot into too small a space. I’m a big fan of afterschool and summer programs for kids. Often these are offered by zoos, parks, museums, libraries, scouts, and other non-school institutions. If we want our kids to be really good readers and to know a lot about their world, we need to make sure that the opportunities to learn go well beyond the school day (that way, when a student needs to miss a class because of reading or math, he/she isn’t missing everything).

Commitment to success
            When a student enters any kind of remediation, there should be a clear and meaningful goal for such teaching. And, then we ought to be aggressive about making sure they reach these goals. I’d say the same thing about content instruction; we need to make sure this teaching has powerful and clear objectives that we make a serious effort to accomplish. Too often we are rigorous in determining schedules and which teachers are to work with a remedial student, but we aren’t as dedicated to accomplishing real outcomes.

Parent help
           Another way to expand learning time is to engage parent involvement. Not all parents can or are willing to help, but many are and we should take advantage of the resource. Parents can help with various aspects of reading instruction and activity, and the same is true for involving them in exposing their kids to rich content.

      Make sure there is a content plan
            Often IEPs and the like emphasize the reading skills that have to be learned, but they are silent about what content needs to be mastered. In that sense, they can operate like tests... steering teachers to overemphasize some things and to ignore others. Don’t just figure out how to deliver high quality reading instruction to such students, but also figure out how this will be done while preserving the content learning everyone else will get.


            All of these approaches can help to get more into a small space. They can increase learning opportunity, which could prevent or reduce the need to pull kids out of their content classes. I doubt we’ll ever be able to do away with pullout instruction (any more than we can get by without size 6 dresses). But I suspect we could reduce the ill effects of this approach while ensuring some real benefits. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Should We Read to High School Students?

Should high school English teachers read aloud to their students or play audio recordings to them?

Over the past several years, this practice has insinuated itself, Justin Bieber-like, into our consciousness. It seems to be showing up everywhere and it can be very annoying.

Reading aloud to older students definitely has a place, and yet it depends upon the purpose. I know many teachers use it like a crutch, reading to kids rather than requiring them to do their own reading. It is easier that way, of course, but it doesn’t accomplish some major instructional purposes.

Thus, if the purpose is to ensure that students know Poe’s story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” as a cultural touchstone (“ooh, that’s the one where the guy gets bricked up in the wall”), then reading it to the kids should accomplish that. Or, you could just show an old Vincent Price movie.

The problem, however, is that English teachers need to teach students to read that kind of text themselves, and make sense of it. The hope is that if students build the ability to read and interpret such texts that they will be able to do so later in college and in the workplace (though it would be a pretty strange workplace that wants you to interpret dramatic irony in an account of a homicide).

The problem is that students won’t build that ability from being read to. They need to engage the texts themselves.

But, just because I think the practice is misused by teachers, that doesn’t mean it should be banned. What are some good purposes for oral reading in secondary English?

Here are a few:
1.    Teacher reading (or the use of audio recordings) can provide a model of what a text should sound like. Thus, if my students were still building oral fluency, I might have them listen to a portion of the text, and then try to make it sound the same way themselves. Such modeling can play a useful role in fluency practice, even with older students.
2.    There are times when the point is simply to convey information. Oral sharing of a text can be a practical way to accomplish that.
3.    We are responsible for building students’ oral language as well as written. It can be very useful to listen to the sound of the language for a particular text. Eudora Welty wrote about how important reading aloud was for her in learning to write and in appreciating the texts of others. Occasionally demonstrating this power to kids can be a great idea (though she engaged in it herself—and your kids should, too).
4.    Sometimes we have to balance efficiency with our instructional purposes. Teachers sometimes use their oral reading to speed things along, to focus attention or motivation, and to make a lesson fit the schedule. For example, a teacher may have the students reading and discussing a text for the first 40 minutes of class, but is not getting as far as she hoped. Consequently, she reads the next section of the text to everyone to complete the chapter before the bell rings. Or, in another case, the teacher reads the first 2-3 pages of a story to the students to set the stage, and then turns the rest of the reading over to them.

     Nothing wrong with those practices if they don’t displace too much student reading. Unfortunately, in my experience, such reading tends to be used because the kids are finding the text to be difficult or don’t want to read it.

     Last week, I was teaching a high school English class myself. I had the students read an essay, and was questioning them—and not getting very far, I must admit. At some point, I asked one young man a question about what the author said, and he gave a dopey answer. It was evident he hadn’t actually done the reading. He either didn’t read it or he read it badly. It was tempting to just stop there and read the essay to them to move things along, but instead I said, “You guys didn’t get it. Read it again.” It was amazing how the tenor of the class changed at that point, and in retrospect I’m sure glad I didn’t read it to them.

      Oral sharing and video and audio presentations have their place in the high school English curriculum. But it is a small place, so teachers need to be honest with themselves as to why they are using it. I think one way to protect against the weak uses of it would be to simply set an arbitrary percentage of English class that will be devoted to student reading (perhaps 40% or 50%--the teacher might decide that if there are 250 minutes of class time per week, then students should spend 100 minutes per week reading—not discussing, not listening to others read, not writing, not waiting, just reading stories, poems, essays, literary nonfiction, etc.

Examples of Close Reading Questions

As a principal, I want my teachers to teach student how to read a text closely. After going through your Powerpoint, reading the questions you suggest and the responses, I think professional development in developing questions would be required to ensure they were actually asking the right kind of questions.

            One of the biggest implementation problems with Common Core that I see is that teachers (and curriculum designers) don’t understand close reading well enough to ask appropriate questions. The point of the questions is to guide students’ to think about the text in effective ways.

            To help this principal (and others) to provide the professional development noted above, I have provided what I hope will be a useful example. But let’s start off with a bit of explanation. 

            First, the questions should be about important issues raised by the text. Some people are taking close reading to mean “precise” reading or “thorough” reading. If you are asking about a story, you should ask about details that would be important in a summary of the story (e.g., character motivation, key plot details, theme). “Close” is not a synonym for “trivial.”

            Second, the questions should be text dependent. That just means that it shouldn’t be possible to answer the question without reading the text. The focus of close reading should be on what the author presents, and not on anything else. That’s the reason why it’s a good idea for students to explain or support their answers with text evidence (proof—from the text).

            Third, the questions should help the readers to accomplish three interpretive goals. Specifically, they should help the reader to think about what the text said (key ideas and details), how the text worked (craft and structure), and what it means (integration of knowledge and meaning). Unlike in other questioning schemes, these questions do not try to get kids to exercise particular thinking skills (e.g., inference, higher order reasoning, comparison); they focus on interpreting the text rather than on exercising particular cognitive muscles.

            I have attached an old basal reader story (from the 1955-1965 period), and below I have listed questions that I might ask a group of second- or third-graders about this story. I have separated my questions out into three sets—one set for each major interpretive goal, but they don’t have to be asked in that way; they can be interspersed with each other.

            I do think that it is a good idea to ask your questions in an order that helps students to follow through the text in an “orderly manner,” particularly with regard to a first read or the key ideas and details questions. It is not enough that kids get practice reading texts, but they should come away knowing more about their world. If the questions/discussion/task takes you through the content in a well-organized way, students will be more likely to come away with content knowledge. Thus, you could have the students read this story three times, and each time use a different set of questions; or you could simply intersperse the second two sets of questions into the first wherever you think they fit best. In each list here, I have gone through the story in the same order that the author presented the pertinent information.

            Of the three sets of questions, the “craft and structure” questions are the most characteristic of close reading (the other interpretive goals are important too, but they are not unique to close reading). That means that most of us need more practice with “craft and structure”—something largely or entirely neglected in the video that I recently critiqued in this space.

            You may notice that I did not go through and try to have a balance of “right there” and “think and search questions” or that I didn’t fool with Bloom’s taxonomy. The reason is quite simple: my focus is on—and should be on—the text during close reading. If a text is very explicit, then I’ll ask a lot more comprehension or “right there” questions. If the text is more oblique, then we’ll end up with more inferencing practice. The point isn’t the inferencing practice, however, it is to get students to think closely about the meaning of the particular text we are reading now (that's one of the reasons close reading questions are hard--because they follow each text, not some questioning scheme).

Questions about key ideas and details—What did the text say?
What was special about Tom?                                                        
What did Tom do when the men were loading the train?                      
Why did he pretend to sleep?                                            
What did Tom do that got his picture in the newspaper?                      
How did his life change after he got in the newspaper?             
What happened when the chipmunk showed up?                                  
Why did Tom follow the chipmunk?                                              
When he was in the railroad car what was Tom’s problem?      
When Tom got out of the car where was he?                               
Who found Tom?                                                                             
How did the engineer know that Tom wanted to go with him? 
Why did the engineer take him?                                                    
When the engineer and Tom left what was their problem?       
When Tom yowled, what did the engineer think he wanted?    
What changed the engineer’s mind?                                             
What did the fireman think Tom meant?                         
So what did the engineer do?                                                         
According to the engineer, why was it so important Tom yowled?
How did Tom know the bridge was out?                                       
What happened after Tom saved the train?                                

Questions about craft and structure—How did the text work?
What does the author mean when he writes that Tom “had never seen a kitchen nor climbed a back yard fence”?
What is a “conveyor belt”?                                                                                      
What’s “freight”?                                                                 
On page 1, the story says that Tom was a "hero." What does that mean? (What made him a hero?)
On page 2, the author puts some words in quotation marks (“Oh, boy!,” “Fish at last!” “thank you”). What is he trying to show by doing that? Can Tom talk?
What kind of story is this (fantasy or realistic fiction)?   
On page 4, it again calls Tom a “hero.” How is the meaning of “hero” different here than on page 1?
Why does the author tell us about the chipmunk again at the end?

Questions about integration of knowledge and meaning—What did the text mean?
The author used the word “hero” in two different ways. Which meaning is the right one?
What’s the difference between being a hero and being famous?
Is it better to be a hero or to be famous?

What was the point of the story? What did the author want you to learn from Tom?

Railroad Cat Story