Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Does Homework Improve Reading Achievement?

Our school is in review which means that we have to improve reading test performance—or else. We are doing some crazy things with test preparation (that I know you disagree with), but we have also been ordered to put a big emphasis on reading homework. I’ve never been a big fan of homework because not all the kids do it and that doesn’t seem fair. What do you think about this strategy?

            Studies of homework have been thoroughly analyzed by Harris Cooper. This is an area where I can provide the researcher’s well-honed answer: Does homework improve achievement? That depends…

            I wish you had included your grade levels, because the effectiveness of homework in improving reading achievement depends a lot on that. For instance, generally studies have not been especially kind to homework in the primary grades. If the goal is better reading achievement, then a big emphasis on reading homework in K-2 might not be such a great choice (more on this later).

            That starts to change as one transitions into the upper grades, presumably because students are more able to apply their reading skills independently. In grades 3-8, homework has a fairly consistent impact on achievement—and the payoff tends to increase as students advance through the grades (but so does the amount of homework time needed—more on that later, too).

            In high school, the payoffs get even bigger, but not until students are doing more than an hour of homework per night; up to that amount, there seems to be little learning benefit.

            It is clear that homework for young children is unlikely to payoff in greater learning. However, many teachers that I work with argue for homework in the early grades as a way of socializing kids into schooling. Their idea is that the students should get used to homework since at some point it really does have learning value.

            Having watched my own kids with their early homework, I think this makes great sense. Young kids love homework—it seems so grown up to them. I like the idea of getting them into a routine of taking care of their homework when they get home. In other words, the idea with those assignments is to teach responsibility rather than reading. That might not show up on your school’s tests right away, but it may pay some real long-term benefits.

            Some of the biggest arguments over homework tend to be linked to how much homework is appropriate. Here I rely on Cooper as well. He has suggested that the old school saw that ten minutes of homework per grade level is sound is in good alignment with research. That means in grade 1, kids would do 10 minutes of homework per night, in second grade it would be 20, third grade 30 and so on. That sounds good to me, both pedagogically and from a busy parent’s point of view.

            When I entered teaching, the concern you expressed about kids who don’t do homework was widely held. (One of my colleagues, who had taken homework assignments to a truant child was ordered off the property at gunpoint: “He can do your school stuff at school and his home stuff at home.)

            Despite that, over time, I have changed my mind about homework. Homework is beneficial to kids, at least at some ages. Holding back something beneficial just because not everyone will or can take advantage of it seems wrongheaded to me now. (Grading homework is another issue. It would be unfair to grade kids based upon how well organized and supportive their homes are.)

            To increase your hit rate, keep parents and guardians informed about the importance of homework (and how much of it there will be and when it will come home). Telling the parents this directly can pay real dividends, as their children will not necessarily let them in on the secret.

            Level with parents. Let them know that you understand that there are nights that get out of hand and homework just can’t get done, and that you won’t punish their child for that. Tell them you’d appreciate a note from home when that happens. However, also stress the learning benefits to their kids.

            Having someone else do the homework also happens when a child can’t figure out how to do an assignment. Some kids are terrified in such situations. Encourage parents that instead of having someone else do the work, encourage their children to come to you at the very beginning of the school day—before you are even collecting homework—to show you what they had trouble with. Great teaching opportunities arise from less.

            Homework can becomes a terrible system of communication, sort of like an unreliable pony express for parents and teachers. The teacher sends homework. For some reason, the homework isn’t going to be done that night. Mom doesn’t want the teacher to think she doesn’t care, so she does it herself or has an older sister do it. Voila, homework completed! The teacher looks at the homework that obviously wasn’t done by her student and from this assumes mom doesn’t care. Yikes.

            Try to break out of that vicious circle with parents. If everyone is on the same page about what is going on, you’ll see more homework completion.

            What if mom and dad aren’t so great with English? That might mean they can’t get overly involved in homework assignments. If you can’t read the passages, you can’t tell if your child has answered the questions correctly. But they can tell if the homework has been completed and I would encourage parents in that situation to do what they can. Even that kind of involvement and support can make a difference in their kids’ enthusiasm and effort.

             I would also suggest trying to make sure homework assignments are worthwhile. That means keeping them clear and easy enough that they can be completed at home, and demanding enough that they can lead to learning.

            For instance, in the primary grades I don’t accept the research finding that homework doesn’t improve reading. That certainly is usually true, but there have been exceptions. For example, Keith Topping’s work on sending home reading books for nightly fluency practice with 7-year-olds suggests one possibility. Set it up so kids have someone at home to read aloud to nightly.

            Or, a suburban principal I know had the parents of first-graders focused on practicing sight vocabulary for about 10 minutes per night. Amazing how that sped up these young children’s reading development—freeing up teacher time to focus on more complex aspects of reading.

            As kids move up the grades, this gets easier, of course, because kids can read and write more independently. Increasing the amount of accountable reading students do—reading and answering questions, reading and preparing discussion notes, reading and writing—can really expand opportunity to learn.

            Final word: I was working with a middle school last year where the textbook-based math homework was often incomplete because neither students nor parents knew what to do! I’m not complaining about the lack of home math knowledge here, but about unclear assignments. That kind of confusion often happens in the primary grades with reading worksheets, too. I’ve seen mothers cry over that one—they just want to help their kids and they feel stupid and embarrassed when they can’t. The lack of written directions, since the little ones can’t read yet, can be a real problem with moms. Please look hard at your assignments and make sure someone who is not a teacher can figure out what is required. It matters.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Oral Reading Fluency is More than Speed

Letter I received:

I found these troubling quotes in the Report of the National Reading Panel:

"Fluency, the ability to read a text quickly, accurately, and with proper expression..."

"Fluent readers can read text with speed, accuracy, and proper expression..."

My dismay is due to (a) listing rate first in both statements, and (b) using "quickly" and "with speed" rather than "rate" (or "appropriate rate" as in the CCSS fluency standard). I wonder if this wording may have encouraged folks who now embrace the notion that "faster is better" (e.g. "better readers have higher DIBELS scores--wcpm")

In my own work I often refer to Stahl & Kuhn (2002) who stated that "fluent reading sounds like speech"-- smooth, effortless, but not "as fast as you can."

Who’s right?

Shanahan response:

            Well, first off, let me take full responsibility for the wordings that you found troubling. I took the lead in writing that portion of the report, and so I probably wrote it that way. Nevertheless, I doubt that my inapt wording was what triggered the all too prevalent emphasis on speed over everything else in fluency; that I’d pin on misinterpretations of DIBELS.

            I, too, have seen teachers guiding kids to read as fast as they can, trying to inflate DIBELS scores in meaningless ways. What a waste of time.

            But, that said, the importance of speed/quickness/rate in fluency cannot be overstated—though it obviously can be misunderstood.

            The fundamental idea that I was expressing in those quotes was that students must get to the point where they can recognize/decode words with enough facility that they will be able to read the author's words with something like the speed and prosody of language. 

            Old measures of fluency—like informal reading inventories--looked at accuracy alone, which is only adequate with beginning readers. The problem with accuracy measures is that they overrate the plodders who can slowly and laboriously get the words right (as if they were reading a meaningless list of random words). 

            DIBELS was an important advance over that because it included rate and accuracy--which is sufficient in the primary grades, but which overrates the hurried readers who can speed through texts without appropriate expression. Studies are showing that prosody is not particularly discriminating in the earlier grades, but as kids progress it gains in importance (probably because the syntax gets more complex and prosody or expression is an indicator of how well kids are sorting that out—rather than just decoding quickly enough to allow comprehension).

            Fluency instruction and monitoring are very important, and I agree with your complaint that it is often poorly taught and mis-assessed by teachers. I think there are a couple of reasons for that.

            First, I think many teachers don’t have a clear fluency concept—and stating its components—accuracy, rate, and prosody—in their order of development won’t fix that. Fluency is not a distinct skill as much as it is an amalgam of skills. It is part decoding, part comprehension.

            Kids cannot read if they can’t decode and recognize words; translating from print to pronunciation. That’s why we teach things like sight words, phonological awareness, and phonics.

            However, recognizing words in a list is a very different task than reading them horizontally, organized into sentences, with all the distraction that implies. Speed (or rate or quickness) don’t really matter when reading a list of words. But when reading sentences, it is critical that you move it along. Slow word reading indicates that a student is devoting a lot of cognitive resources to figuring out the words, and that means cognitive resources will not be available to thinking about the ideas. That’s why speed of word reading is so important; it is an indicator of how much a reader will be able to focus on a text’s meaning.

            But fluency is not just fast word reading. It includes some aspects of reading comprehension, too. For instance, fluent readers tend to pronounce homographs (heteronyms)—desert, affect, intimate—correctly without needing to slow down or try alternatives. Fluent readers may have no advantage in thinking deeply about the ideas in a text, but they do when it comes to this kind of immediate interpretation while reading.

            Another aspect of comprehension that is part of fluency is the ability to parse sentences so that they sound like sentences. Someone listening to your oral reading should be able to understand the message, because you would have grouped the words appropriately into phrases and clauses. To read in that way, you, again, have to be quickly interpreting the sentences—using punctuation and meaning as you go.  

            Teachers who think that fluency is just reading the right words, or just reading the right words really fast, is missing the point. Stahl and Kuhn are right: fluency has to go, not necessarily fast, but the speed of normal language.

             Second, I think many teachers don’t understand assessment. Reading assessments of all kinds try to estimate student performance based on small samples of behavior. Accordingly, the assessment tasks usually differ from the overall behavior in important ways. With fluency that means measuring some aspects of the concept—speed and accuracy—while not measuring others—prosody.

            Given the imperfect nature of these predictor tasks, it is foolish, and even damaging, to teach the tasks rather than the ability we are trying to estimate. It is like teaching kids to answer multiple-choice questions rather than teaching them to think about the ideas in text.

            As long as teachers try to teach facets of tests rather than reading we're going to see this kind of problem. The following guidance might help.

1.    Tell students to read the text aloud as well as they can—not as fast as they can.
2.    Tell them that they will be expected to answer questions about the text when they finish—so they will read while trying to understand the text.
3.    Pay attention not just to the wcpm (words correct per minute), but to whether the reading sounds like language.

November Powerpoints


Monday, October 10, 2016

An Argument about Independent Reading Time During the School Day

Last week I answered a teacher’s question about free reading time during the school day and its relationship to reading motivation (e.g., making kids like reading). I pointed out that such reading time has a rather weak relationship with learning (various kinds of instruction exert about an 800% greater influence on learning than on having kids reading on their own during the school day) and that the connection with motivation appears to be even more tenuous. I then compared the DEAR/SSR practice unfavorably with theories and research on what motivates human beings.
Not surprisingly that generated much comment. Although the following was not sent to me, it was so addressed and posted at the blog site of Gwen Flaskamp, a practicing teacher. She is evidently passionate about this practice, and I think her posting deserves a response. I have quoted liberally from her posting below in italics—and have interspersed my responses throughout. To read her complete statement in its entirety, please follow this link Blog Post on Independent Reading Time

Flaskamp blog:

“My Letter to Tim Shanahan: In Defense of Independent Reading

“Recently, I read the latest blog post by Tim Shanahan where he provides his strong opinions how giving students time to independently read in class is wasteful. Although I usually value his opinions and have referenced him several times on my blog, I had a strong, visceral response to his latest piece…. I felt compelled to stand up for the inclusion of independent reading time during the school day. Thus, I crafted this letter. I'm hoping he reads it.  

“But, more importantly, I'm hoping that teachers who wish to instill lifelong reading habits in their students do not stop with Mr. Shanahan's advice and consider my perspective and the perspective of others on this important topic.

“Dear Mr. Shanahan,

“I think you sound like an impolite blogger, and perhaps a misinformed one. You've neglected to consider the following important points in your discussion of the value of independent reading.

“You claim that time spent independent reading is wasted due to the fact that "even when they have been done well, the "learning payoffs" have been small. By "learning payoffs," I am assuming that you mean students' progress on standardized exams (typically the way reading growth is measured in research studies) does not increase with the inclusion of independent reading time in schools. 

“Some major problems exist with this claim.

“Increased reading does lead to increased achievement.

Research does support the idea that students who typically achieve higher on reading tests are also those who read more voraciously. Those who score at the lower end usually read less.”

Shanahan response:

Dear Ms. Flaskamp.,
Thanks for writing. There are several problems with your claims up to this point.
That good readers read more than poor readers is true, but has no bearing on my response to that teacher’s question. Correlation doesn’t prove causation. That good readers read more does not mean that it was reading more that made them good readers. Maybe good readers choose to read more because they can do it well. You are making a good argument for teaching everyone to read well, not for sending kids off to read on their own during the school day.
You are citing very selectively here. You refer to the correlational studies that can’t answer the question, while ignoring the experimental ones that have directly tested your theory. Studies in which DEAR time is provided to some kids but not to others have not found much payoff—even when the non-readers were doing no more than random worksheets!
You seem to be claiming that since reading on one’s own leads to improved achievement--then any and all approaches to encouraging reading must be effective. Following that logic, then telling kids to read on their own, buying books for them, rewarding them with pizzas, or employing electric cattle prods… all must work, too. Remember I wasn’t saying kids shouldn’t read, only that requiring “independent reading” during the school day has not been effective. Only one study bothered to check its impact on amount of reading, and it found that middle school kids read less as a result of the practice—since it reduced the amount of reading they did on their own.
As a parent and grandparent, I’d rather that teachers reacted intellectually rather than “viscerally” to questions about instructional practices. Similarly, I hope my physician will be visceral about my health and well-being, but not about his pills and scalpels.

Flaskamp blog:

“Since research also shows that the amount of time middle school students typically spend reading outside of class declines as they grow older, finding time for students to practice reading independently in schools is crucial.  If we do not attempt to foster a love of reading inside the classroom, how will we help students who have not yet discovered the joy of reading on their own increase their reading minutes?”   

Shanahan response:

Indeed, that is a great question. Given that we know this method hasn’t improved achievement or made kids like reading, then why cling so tightly to it? Or, given that DEAR time has been so ubiquitous in elementary classrooms for the past generation, how is it possible that middle school students are reading so little? If this practice so powerfully fosters “a love of reading” among kids that lasts a lifetime, then why aren’t years of it lasting even until kids are 12?

 Flaskamp blog:
“I'm sure you are aware that much research exists linking student engagement (i.e. motivation) to increases in learning. Thus, spending time on increasing student motivation should, in fact, lead to increases in achievement.”

Shanahan response: 

That makes sense to me, and yet studies show that this particular approach accomplishes neither. That might mean that what you are so certain must be motivational for all kids, maybe isn’t.      


Flaskamp blog:  

“You advise teachers that " If you don’t want kids to love reading, then sacrifice their instructional time to focus on motivation rather than learning." This argument, although cleverly disguised, is a type we would use with students when poking holes in an argument and is a type of logical fallacy. Your argument seems to suggest that teachers can focus either on motivation or on learning. Can we not focus on both?...” 

 Shanahan response: 

Your analysis of my argument is flawed. We are in agreement that we can focus on motivation and learning simultaneously. Where we disagree is whether you can do that with a procedure that has failed to successfully foster either motivation or learning.


Flaskamp blog: 

“Have we forgotten that we are teaching students and not robots?”

Shanahan response:  

Yikes. There are many statements here evidently aimed at conveying the idea that I’m rude, that I don’t care about kids, and that I pay attention to numbers rather than stories. If that is a model of what is now being taught students about productive argument, then it might be better that kids go read during such lessons. (Sometimes disagreements arise from different analyses or  different evidence—not necessarily because the one you are arguing with is bad.)

Richardson TX Powerpoint on Writing October 17, 2016