Sunday, October 11, 2015

Response to the Joyful Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland

Reader Question:  The Atlantic Atlantic Article just published an article about the mistake American educators make by teaching reading in kindergarten. Shouldn’t we do what the Finns do: let kids learn to read when they want to and end up with high achievement?

Shanahan Response:
            This article is from the “Whistle a Happy Tune” School of Philosophy. It links one cultural input with one achievement output and assumes both a causal connection (not teaching reading in kindergarten will result in higher achievement) and that if this cultural input were adopted elsewhere, the same outcome would result there, too. It sure is fun to think about how easily we could remake our society. This is the third or fourth such article that I have read about Finland in Atlantic and the tone has been pretty consistent—it is a feel good fantasy, that might help us ward off the blues as the days grow shorter and the verdant earth seems to die yet again (may it keep us warm until "April, that cruelest month").

            The problem with this dream, however, is that cultural change doesn’t work that way.

            The U.S. is not a relatively simple society, small in geography and population, and low in diversity. All kinds of diversity. Few of the 5.5 million Finns (fewer than live in the Chicago area) differ in race, ethnicity, language, income, or religion. It is estimated that there are 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. (twice the total population in Finland) and those aspiring-Yanks tend to differ from the “average American profile” in many ways. Finland takes few immigrants and those they let in have to have to have a secure middle-class income (ours, of course, often have only what they carry).

            The comparison of Finland with the U.S. would be like comparing Scarsdale, Winnetka, Piedmont City, and University Park with the U.S. We’d all be amazed at how wonderful things are in those relatively wealthy communities and how little the schools there have to do to teach reading successfully to most kids.

            What are the most pertinent differences between the Finns' situation and that of the U.S.?

            First, they teach the Finnish language. Finnish is reputedly the easiest language to learn to read (something I was writing about in the 1970s). The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is highly consistent, making it especially easy and quick to learn to decode. Because the country is so small, there are not dialectical differences to complicate things. All things being equal, a Finnish child can learn to read Finnish much faster than an American child can learn to read English. (Funny that point wasn’t even mentioned in the article).

            Second, most Finnish parents have college degrees or advanced degrees. If we can generalize from U.S. research such children will have better health, nutrition, ability to concentrate, IQs, vocabulary, will have more adults available in the home to provide care, and will be more likely to be reading or to have learned a lot of prereading skills before they enter school. Given the religious beliefs of most Finns, it would be the rare child who enters school without a big head start on literacy achievement. Most homes subscribe to newspapers, have many books available, have a well-stocked public library close by, and bedtime stories are the norm.

            In fact, according to a study conducted by the Finnish government, more than one-third of children enter school already reading. That sure takes the pressure off those supposedly high-skilled Finnish teachers.  (Another point not mentioned in the Atlantic article).

            I’ve got to admit I would love to live in a community in which everyone was well educated and had a substantial income. No doubt about it, the children and grandchildren would thrive. However, I live in a community where the majority of adults have not completed high school, libraries may be across gang territory, and mom and dad may not know how to speak English yet. Even when they do, they may be speaking a dialect far removed from the one teachers are using. Under our circumstances, starting early to learn to read a challenging language is a really good idea. (If our population was particularly diabetic, I would support higher than usual insulin injections. But then, I'm just a wild and crazy guy.)

             Another problem with the Atlantic article is that it characterizes the typical U.S. kindergarten as teaching literacy with worksheets. I don't support such instruction, but it does happen--in some cases. The silly dichotomy between play and academic is something made up by U.S. psychologists in the 1890s and it hangs on with those who have never taught a child to read in their lives. Successful early literacy teaching is much more interactive and hands on (and, perhaps, even play-based) than the weird characterization in the Atlantic.

            The Atlantic article requoted one of my least favorite claims: "'But there isn’t any solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,' Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University, explained in a video published by the advocacy group Defending the Early Years."

            You can make that claim… as long as you don’t know the research. I chaired the National Early Literacy Panel. Unlike Dr. Carlsson-Paige, we had to look at the studies. We found long-term benefits from early learning. But that inconvenient fact screws up the narrative: Finland is great, we are idiots, and teaching your children to read will make a mess of their idyllic lives. Sure, and I have some swampland in Florida that I can let you have for cheap. Really.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Does Preschool Improve Later Literacy Achievement?

Here we go again.

Last week, Dale Farran and a team of researchers at Vanderbilt University concluded that preschool education gets kids off to a great academic start, but by the end of kindergarten the results start to wear off. And, by the end of second grade you can’t even tell that the kids had attended preschool or not.

That suggests that preschool education is a lousy investment—if the goal is to improve students’ later reading and math achievement.

The same kind of findings resulted a couple years ago in a similar study of Head Start. Good initial payoff, but no lasting value.

Over the past few days there have been lots of post-mortems of these findings. The press has interviewed various experts and many have focused on the same concern: the quality of this specific preschool program.

But as Dr. Farran points out, these preschool experiences must have been darn good. Remember, these children were initially doing better than the other kindergarten kids on lots of measures. 

I think the experts are looking in the wrong direction.

Our system of education, both formally and informally, aims at the bottom, with a clear goal of trying to raise the lowest kids up. Kindergartners and first-graders are tested to identify those who need extra help. Then Title I reading support kicks in; not for everybody, but for the strugglers.

If the children who experienced preschool are generally in the top half of the distribution when they enter kindergarten, schools are going to work hard at trying to close the gap. They’ll address it by giving the lower achieving kids  (the ones who didn't attend preschool) more instruction to try to close the gap. This isn't some weird response by individual teachers. It is public policy. The lower achieving kids--that would mean the ones without preschool will get Title I, RtI, Reading Recovery, after school interventions, and summer school. 

What will the higher achieving kids get while this is going on? Probably not very much. If they enter kindergarten already knowing their letter sounds or able to segment words phonemically, then they are likely to get more work with those same concepts. [I remember my oldest daughter, who could read when she entered school, being surprised that they were going to teach her the letter names—despite the fact that she had known them for years.]

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Dolores Durkin documented it back in the 1970s. She taught a bunch of preschoolers to read then followed them through second grade. Each year the schools retaught these kids skills they had mastered long ago, until eventually the other kids caught up.

Some people think that early teaching changes kids cognitively, making them smarter. If it worked that way, the early benefits wouldn’t wash out, even given these policies and programs.

But I think preschool helps because it gives kids extra time to learn specific knowledge and abilities, like numbers and addition or letter sounds and high frequency words. They don’t lose this knowledge once its gained, but if they have no opportunity to add to it, then the other kids simply catch up, making it look like the preschool time was wasted.

If we were really serious about early childhood education making a long-term difference in children’s literacy achievement, we would change primary grade reading curricula to allow these kids to keep progressing from where they are when they enter kindergarten—rather than reteaching the same skills again and again, as if they had not been in preschool, and giving all the extra tuition to the kids they accelerated ahead of.

If you want preschool to be effective, take a close look at what is going to happen to these children when they leave preschool. Given that their skill levels are generally so advanced, one would expect to find a more advanced curriculum aimed at these kids. But I bet you won't find one. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Of Carts and Horses: Where Fluency Teaching Fits in the Learning to Read

Our preK-5 school has a number of struggling readers, and we were told yesterday that we should focus only on fluency and accuracy, not comprehension or vocabulary. We were also told that we really shouldn't be using our grade level reading materials or complex texts in the classroom until students are fluent and accurate. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what we do when we have large numbers of struggling readers.

I get lots of questions about the sequence of instruction. In this case the issue is fluency versus comprehension; more often it is about phonics, both about the sequence of phonics elements, or like this question, whether decoding proficiency is prerequisite to any other literacy teaching?  

Let’s face it… in life there are times when sequence… definitely put your car in gear before you step on the gas, and my grandchildren love knowing that you have to put your socks on before your shoes if you want things to work out right.

But there are also lots of times when order doesn’t really matter (unless you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but that’s another topic altogether).

For example, when you’re eating your dinner, no one is likely to care much whether you take a bite of potatoes first or a bite of the green beans. It usually doesn’t matter whether you read the sports section first or the news. And, who cares whether you put on your right or left earring first? It makes no difference so such orderings are left to one’s discretion, comfort, or habit.

So what’s the right answer concerning whether teachers should focus only on “fluency and accuracy” before comprehension and vocabulary?

I think whoever is telling teachers that they need to accomplish oral reading fluency before comprehension is wrong. This notion shows a weak understanding of the oral reading fluency concept and what it contributes to literacy learning.

Fluency is not a single skill as much as an amalgamation of skills. It has three dimensions, not two (it is more than just accuracy and speed, but also includes making the oral reading sound meaningful—expression or prosody). Students both develop decoding and comprehension skills through fluency practice, but they also learn to incorporate those skills within their oral reading (how would one know what to do with the homographs—like minute, digest, resent if comprehension isn’t part of it?).

Of course, if contextual information isn’t entering the system, then students’ fluency development will lag. If it is lagging in the first place (which sounds like the case here), then extra fluency practice is sensible… but if decoding and comprehension instruction is being delayed until fluency is developed, then where do they get the skills and knowledge that is part of what makes fluency go?

If the question had been about whether one should wait to work on fluency and comprehension until decoding was accomplished up to some criterion, I would be giving a similar answer. Decoding is central to beginning reading instruction and I don’t believe that we should stint on it. However, that doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t, alongside, be emphasizing comprehension (initially listening, eventually reading), oral reading fluency, and vocabulary, too.

And, no, there is no particular sequence of phonics that needs to be taught—though a planful sequence is important (it just doesn’t matter whether you teach a “d” first or an “m”). Similarly, though the line of development in fluency tends to go from accuracy to speed to prosody, you still should emphasize all of them throughout (that, "read this as fast as you can" is foolishness).

I suspect some of the confusion over this comes from a misunderstanding of how the research is done on these literacy components. People get it in their heads that the phonics studies must have only taught phonics. That tends not to be the way these studies are done. In fact, the most typical experimental design has been that the experimental and control subjects both get a fairly comprehensive instructional program, but the experimental group gets an enhanced, special, super-duper version of whatever the component of interest may be (e.g., vocabulary, phonics, fluency, comprehension strategies). That often means that both groups receive some phonics or some fluency work depending on the individual teachers, but that the experimental ones would be more likely to teach these skills more thoroughly or extensively.

We may be thinking that this is the design:
      Experimental Group                                 Control Group                                                 
         Fluency Instruction                                     No Fluency Instruction

But it is more likely to like this:
 Experimental Group                                         Control Group
   Daily XYZ Reading Program Instruction          Daily XYZ Reading Program Instruction
         +Fluency Instruction                                       + Nothing

And what that means is that it wasn’t the additional fluency or phonics that was raising reading achievement, but that additional instruction was effective when added to an ongoing comprehensive program of teaching. 

One of the things that may be making fluency instruction work is that kids are daily learning about letters, sounds, and spelling patterns—and without that information, the fluency teaching on its own might not help as much. Similarly, the work being done to build students’ knowledge of language, content, and comprehension may also be contributing to children’s fluency growth.

As proposed here, cutting kids off from such simultaneous opportunities to learn may both slow their progress in developing fluency and may make fluency more of a parlor trick than a dynamic part of the reading process involving the coordination of high speed decoding with the context of language and ideas.                  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Does Formative Assessment Improve Reading Achievement?

                        Today I was talking to a group of educators from several states. The focus was on adolescent literacy. We were discussing the fact that various programs, initiatives, and documents—all supposedly research-based efforts—were promoting the idea that teachers should collect formative assessment data.

            I pointed out that there wasn’t any evidence that it actually works at improving reading achievement with older students.

            I see the benefit of such assessment or “pretesting” when dealing with the learning of a particular topic or curriculum content. Testing kids about what they know about a topic, may allow a teacher to skip some topics or to identify topics that may require more extensive classroom coverage than originally assumed.

            It even seems to make sense with certain beginning reading skills (e.g., letters names, phonological awareness, decoding, oral reading fluency). Various tests of these skills can help teachers to target instruction so no one slips by without mastering these essential skills. I can’t find any research studies showing that this actually works, but I myself have seen the success of such practices in many schools. (Sad to say, I’ve also seen teachers reduce the amount of teaching they provide in skills that aren’t so easily tested—like comprehension and writing—in lieu of these more easily assessed topics.)

            However, “reading” and “writing” are more than those specific skills—especially as students advance up the grades. Reading Next (2004), for example, encourages the idea of formative assessment with adolescents to promote higher literacy. I can’t find any studies that support (or refute) the idea of using formative assessment to advance literacy learning at these levels, and unlike with the specific skills, I’m skeptical about this recommendation.

            I’m not arguing against teachers paying attention… “I’m teaching a lesson and I notice that my many of my students are struggling to make sense of the Chemistry book, so I change my up my upcoming lessons, providing a greater amount of scaffolding to ensure that they are successful.” Or, even more likely… I’m delivering a lesson and can see that the kids aren’t getting it, so tomorrow we revisit the lesson.

            Those kinds of observations and on-the-fly adjustments may be what all that is implied by the idea of “formative assessment.” If so, it is obviously sensible, and it isn’t likely to garner much research evidence.

            However, I suspect the idea is meant to be more sophisticated and elaborate than that. If so, I wouldn’t encourage it. It is hard for me to imagine what kinds of assessment data would be collected about reading in these upper grades, and how content teachers would ever use that information productively in a 42-minute period with a daily case load of 150 students.

            A lot of what seems to be promoted these days as formative assessment is getting a snapshot or level of a school’s reading performance, so that teachers and principals can see how much gain the students make in the course of the school year (in fact, I heard several of these examples today). That isn’t really formative assessment by any definition that I’m aware of. That is just a kind of benchmarking to keep the teachers focused. Nothing wrong with that… but you certainly don’t need to test 800 kids to get such a number (a randomized sample would provide the same information a lot more efficiently).

            Of course, many of the computer instruction programs provide a formative assessment placement test that supposedly identifies the skills that students lack so they can be guided through the program lessons. Thus, a test might have students engaged in a timed task of filling out a cloze passage. Then the instruction has kids practicing this kind of task. Makes sense to align the assessment and the instruction, right? But cloze has a rather shaky relationship with general reading comprehension, so improving student performance on that kind of task doesn’t necessarily mean that these students are becoming more college and career ready. Few secondary teachers and principals are savvy about the nature of reading instruction, so they get mesmerized by the fact that “formative assessment”—a key feature of quality reading instruction—is being provided, and the “gains” that they may see are encouraging. That these gains may reflect nothing that matters would likely never occur to them; it looks like reading instruction, it must be reading instruction.

            One could determine the value of such lessons by using other outcome measures that are more in line with the kinds of literacy one sees in college, as well as in civic, familial, and economic lives of adults. And, one could determine the value of the formative assessments included in such programs if one were to have groups use the program, following the diagnostic guidance based on the testing, and having other groups just use the program by following a set grade level sequence of practice. I haven’t been able to find any such studies on reading so we have to take the value of this pretesting on the basis of faith I guess.

            Testing less—even for formative purposes—and teaching more seems to me to be the best way forward in most situations.