Friday, September 23, 2016

Doug Lemov Interviews Tim Shanahan

          Usually these blog entries are replies to educators questions. Recently Doug Lemov interviewed me about reading instruction and posted it on his blog. We got into issues like reading strategy instruction, vocabulary assessment, close reading, and guided reading. Many of you know Doug's books, Teach Like a Champion and Reading Revisited. I was honored to talk to him and this will serve as a good introduction to Doug and his site as well as to useful info about these hot literacy topics.

Teach Like A Champion/

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Why How Many Minutes of Teaching Something Isn't the First Thing to Ask of Research

I am now director of literacy in my district. I am advocating for interactive read alouds, shared reading, guided reading, and similar activities in our primary grades (K-3). Is there a research base that would allow me to determine how many minutes of these activities I should prescribe? Could you provide me with a copy of that research?

Shanahan response:
Yikes, Madam, I suspect that your cart has gotten before your horse.

If research says a particular activity provides kids with a clear learning benefit, then wondering how much of a good thing is appropriate is a smart question, and one not asked often enough. But before you get there, you should first ask: Does the research show that these activities are beneficial at all?

I assume by “interactive read alouds” and “shared reading” that you want your primary grade teachers reading texts aloud to kids in a dialogic manner… that is interspersing and following up these read alouds with questions and discussion.

I am a big fan of reading to kids (did so every day I taught school and read a huge amount to my own kids). But I’m also a big fan of teaching kids to read, and while these two propositions are not contradictory, they are not the same either.

Research on reading aloud to preschoolers and kindergartners is quite supportive (Bus, & van IJzendoorn, 1995; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; Scarborough, & Dobrich, 1994), though none of those studies show any impact on reading achievement. In fact, it is rare that shared reading studies even attempt to measure reading. That should not be surprising given the children’s ages, but it should give pause to those who want to prescribe shared reading in grades 1-3, at least if improved reading achievement is the purpose.

The NELP meta-analyses, the most rigorous and recent of the three, should provide a clear picture of what is known. It found that across 16 studies, reading aloud to young kids led to clear improvements in oral language (mainly better receptive vocabulary—a measure not closely aligned to reading achievement during the primary grade years), and across 4 studies, it led to improvements in print awareness (like recognizing proper directionality). That’s it.

Studies of shared reading with kids in Grades 1 to 3 have been rare, but what is there is not particularly promising. Studies generally report no benefits with regard to reading achievement (e.g., Baker, Mackler, Sonneschein, & Serpell, 2001; Senechal, & Young, 2008). Replacing reading instruction with teacher read alouds is simply not a good idea in the primary grades.

(Note: I mentioned that I have always read a lot to kids, and I’d continue to do so if in the classroom today. But not because I purport that it improves reading. It is a way of building relationships between the reader and listener, for setting a tone in a classroom environment, and for exposing students to aesthetically pleasing and intellectually stimulating language and ideas.)

The same could be said about “guided reading,” but here it depends greatly upon what one means by the term. It was originally coined by basal reader publishers to describe their lesson plans; I think Dick and Jane got there first, but by the 1950s several programs had “guided reading” lessons or “directed reading” lessons. However, these days due to the popularity of Fountas & Pinnell’s practical advice many think of guided reading as small group instruction or teaching students to read with texts at “their levels.” I would give different amounts for these two very different practices.

Essentially, guided reading has long meant that kids were going to read a story, chapter, or article under teacher supervision. For instance, the teacher might preteach some of the vocabulary to ease the children’s way. Reading purposes might be set (“read to find out what this family did on their vacation”), and questions might be asked at key points.

I cannot imagine teaching reading without some kind of guided reading practice, but we don’t have studies of the general practice.

Of course, some guided reading features have been studied. We know something about the kinds of questions that are most productive, and preteaching of vocabulary gets good marks.

However, for those to whom guided reading refers to grouping kids by reading levels, I would suggest reading up on the impact of such practices. Teaching kids grouped by reading level has been ineffective in improving reading achievement and damaging in terms of equity (Gamoran, 1992).

So, if you are asking how many minutes teachers should guide kids in the reading of stories or social studies chapters, I don’t have a research-based answer. It seems clear that such practices can be beneficial, but any guidance on amount would have to be practical rather than empirical.

But if you are asking about how much of this kind of reading should be done in reading level groups, then the answer would be as little as possible given the lack of benefit and potential damage of the practice.

Your question about how many minutes is a good one. Educators too rarely interrogate the research to find out how much of something is worth doing.

But, before you can get to that question, you need to ask whether a practice is really a good one in the first place. This is especially important if you prefer a practice, since such affection can elbow aside evidence. ‘

If you are truly dedicated to following evidence, rather than using it as a cudgel to get teachers to adopt your preferred practices, then you should be wary of mandating these specific approaches.


Baker, L., Mackler, K., Sonneschein, S., & Serpell, R. (2001). Parents’ interactions with their first-grade children during storybook reading and relations with subsequent home reading activity and reading achievement. Journal of School Psychology, 39, 415-438.

Bus, A.G., & van IJzendoorn, M.H. (1995). Joint book reading makes for success in learning to read: A meta-analysis on intergenerational transmission of literacy. Review of Educational Research, 65, 1-21.

Gamoran, A. (1992). Untracking for equity. Educational Leadership, 50, 11-17.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Developing early literacy. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Scarborough, H.S., & Dobrich, W. (1994). On the efficacy of reading to preschoolers. Developmental Review, 14, 145-302.

Senechal, M., & Young, L. (2008). The Effect of Family Literacy Interventions on Children’s Acquisition of Reading From Kindergarten to Grade 3: A Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 78, 880-907.


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Eight Ways to Help Kids to Read Complex Text

Teacher Question:
My district is currently "grappling" with the idea of asking students to read complex text if they are significantly below the grade level. As an example, within one fourth grade class, a teacher identified that more than half her class is 1-2 grade levels below the expectation for reading (using multiple measures). Her response is to change the level of the text, and try to move the students forward. The common theme in our schools is that growth is what matters, not proficiency.

However, our new reading series expects students to perform in more complex texts. Even the "approaching" level books are above what we typically would ask struggling students to read. Could you give some specific examples of how to scaffold, when students are unable to read half the words on a page?  

Shanahan Response:
            First, if students are reading like first-graders—that is, they are struggling with decoding (and the statement that kids can’t read 50% of the words in their book sounds like kids who are more than 1-2 years below level)—then you definitely should be trying to teach them out of easier books, not grade level ones. Indeed, the complex text prescription is not for them. However, if they are that low, you should be doing more than placing them in low demand reading books. You also should be providing them with substantial amounts of phonics and fluency training in class as well (like 30 minutes per day of each), and, perhaps providing them additional training in those outside of class. 

            However, if your fourth-graders really are reading like second- or third graders then teaching them with grade level materials makes sense. It not only means that you would be teaching your students what your state has committed you to teach them, but you would be exposing them to content or ideas more appropriate to their intellectual functioning and interests.

            Second, vary the reading demands on these students who will be working with, what for them, will be challenging text. They should be doing what athletes do, which is varying the degree of difficulty when they train. Some texts should be easier, some harder—with less scaffolding and support with the easier ones, and more with the harder ones. Traditionally, experts have argued that all instructional reading should be at the instructional level; I’m suggesting that it should vary, both up and down for maximum impact. Harder texts give students opportunities to negotiate the features of text that can be barriers to comprehension, while easier texts give them the opportunity to consolidate that learning.

            Third, let the kids in on the secret. Tell them what you are doing. Make sure they know that instead of teaching them out of second grade books or other baby stuff you will be teaching them to read out of a fourth grade book; it will be harder, but also more interesting and more respectful. In my experience, which matches a lot of research on motivation, kids like challenge, especially if you’ll help them to succeed with it. The point isn’t to scare the students, but to let them know what’s going on, why you are doing it, and assuring them that you intend to make them successful. 

            Fourth, if students are far behind, reverse the order that you normally use with guided reading and fluency practice. Most teachers will have kids read a selection for comprehension in the reading group and then have them practice reading that text aloud afterwards. That way, kids can quickly accomplish fluency with a text, since they have already read it once or twice and discussed it with the teacher. However, with kids two or more grade levels behind, it makes sense to reverse things. Give those kids a chance to read the text aloud once or twice before doing the comprehension reading in the group. (This can be done lots of ways: tape recorders, parent volunteers, paired reading, echo reading with the teacher… whatever).  If kids have tried to read through the text once or twice before hand they will be in much better shape for trying to make sense of the harder text. Even though the emphasis of the fluency work would not be on comprehension, they’ll figure out more of the ideas than you might presume and, most importantly in this context, they will have figured out enough of the decoding to have “raised their level” with that text by at least a grade level.

            Fifth, preteach vocabulary that the author does not explain or define. If a word is explained in the text or you think kids can figure it out from context, do not take time to preteach it. But words that you don’t think students will know, tell them ahead of time. With fourth graders it is usually enough to give them a glossary for those words.

            Sixth, when reading the text for comprehension, chunk it into small sections (a paragraph, a page)… Asking questions at the end of each and guiding rereading when kids can’t answer the questions. As they get better with this, stretch them out, by giving them larger chunks.

            Seventh, go through the text and identify particularly complicated sentences (e.g., long sentences, sentences in passive voice, sentences with multiple clauses). During discussion time, ask a question about the ideas expressed in those sentences. If students can’t answer them, then take them back to the sentence in the text and show them how to break it down to make sense of it. It’s amazing that teachers, who are often willing to guide kids in breaking down multi-syllable words, don’t provide similar support with complicated sentences.

            Eighth, pay special attention to cohesion… kids get lost in synonyms, pronouns, etc. Get students to be explicit about who “he” is, or what animal was being referred to as “the mammal.” There are exercises that can be done to strengthen these skills, like drawing connecting lines between those words, but it can be enough to question kids closely about those relations.

            Even more can be done, but those supports are substantial and effective. There is an extensive body of research supporting their effectiveness, both in improving student reading achievement and in transforming frustration level text into instructional text.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Should We Stop Using Guided Reading Because of Common Core?

Teacher letter:
I am now a literacy specialist in a middle school and am hoping you can give me your opinion on the process of the guided reading method of reading instruction. I completely agree with you that the F&P levels are ludicrously low and it would be difficult to transition students to the end goal of CCSS using these levels. However, I’m curious what you think about the usefulness of listening to individuals read in a small group, using running records to track a struggling reader’s progress with CCSS grade-level text used in the classroom, and explicitly teaching strategies and vocabulary in a small group. Is there research that supports this idea? I am desperately trying to figure out how I can most effectively serve a large number of students grades 6-8, many of whom came from elementary schools that use F&P methods.

Shanahan response:

         Your letter points out an important fact about “guided reading.” It is a complex approach and cannot be summarized as simply teaching students with “instructional level texts”—though it is certainly that.

         Guided reading is a collection of approaches or techniques that have been assembled by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. Even the term “guided reading” was not original to them—it was a term used to characterize a basal reader’s lesson plan in the 1950s (one of its competitors marketed the alternative “directed reading activity”).

         F&P’s version of guided reading, the one that has been so influential during the past two decades, gained popularity, at least in part, due to reading policies and programs of the late 1980s. California only allowed state money to be spent on core reading programs that were made up of previously published literature, and publishing companies were banned from altering these selections in any way to make them more readable.

         What that meant was, for a brief period of time, core reading programs got harder to read—particularly in the early grades. As was documented at the time, teachers did not know how to teach beginning readers with materials that they couldn’t read. Often the teachers read the textbooks to the kids. It was part of the big blowup that became known as the “reading wars.”

         In that context, here comes F&P championing the long held belief that students need to be taught with relatively easy texts that would grow progressively more complex (during the 19th Century, one popular basal program was named the “Gradual Readers”). 

         Teachers grabbed for this as the best available alternative. A good choice given that the commercial reading programs were overshooting beginning readers' abilities and lacked any guidance for teaching kids how to read the harder books.

         Now that guided reading is so widely used we can see that its immediate benefits—beginning readers make a surer start—
are at least balanced by holding back older students from sufficient reading progress (can’t learn to read texts that no one will allow you to read).

         The current pushback against guided reading that has come about due to Common Core is focused specifically on its idea of matching kids to texts in ways aimed at preventing them from confronting sufficient challenge. I’ve written before about the dearth of evidence supporting this idea—and there are many empirical examples of harder placements leading to greater amounts of learning (at least beyond beginning reading levels).

         But your letter wisely points out that guided reading has other features, too. For example, many teachers have told me that they thought guided reading referred to small-group instruction. That certainly has been one of its hallmarks. Research has long supported the relative effectiveness of small-group teaching when compared with whole-class instruction (though this is complicated by the non-teaching time usually required by multiple small groups).

         In small groups, teachers are able to interact more with each child, kids have more opportunities to respond, and are more likely to be noticed if they are struggling with something.

         Thus, just because teaching kids at their supposed “instructional level” is nonsensical, devoting some instructional time to small group work—both under immediate and more distant teacher control--makes a lot of sense.

         Also, guided reading includes, well, guided reading. As I pointed out, originally the term guided reading referred to teachers guiding students through the reading of basal reader selections. The teacher would preteach new vocabulary from the selection, discuss relevant background information, set a reading purpose, and then have students reading portions of the selection orally and/or silently, followed by teacher questioning. The idea was to guide or direct students to read texts in a coherent and effective manner, with the idea that students would learn from the shared doing and would eventually apply these habits to their independent reading.

         Of course, there have been controversies over what kinds of questions to ask or how much background review is appropriate or whether kids should read the entire selection before going through this kind of guided sequence. But, basically, the idea of teachers and students reading texts together in various ways makes a lot of sense, and at least some particular approaches for guiding or directing student comprehension have strong research support.

         Finally, the F&P version of guided reading draws from Marie Clay’s “reading recovery,” a program aimed at beginning readers who are making a bad start. I don’t have much problem with the running records idea of observation with beginning readers, but I think that scheme of looking at how kids do with the "cueing systems" is not particularly apt for more advanced readers. By middle school, decoding schemes should be well integrated with meaning making, except for the most severely disabled readers.

         Small group instruction should afford teachers opportunities to observe student problems with reading and interpretation, and this insight should be used to shape instruction.

         So, while I would not limit students’ reading to instructional level texts—teach kids to read texts that match your state’s standards requirements—that would in no way prevent me from (1) working with small reading groups; (2) guiding students reading comprehension in a coherent manner; or, (3) observing students’ reading in ways appropriate to their grade level. Only part of guided reading is under challenge by Common Core, and it only that aspect of it that needs to change to meet your standards.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

How Much Teacher Guidance Versus How Much Independent Work?

I've been reading your blog articles very carefully, and in one entry you recommended having the kids read a lot during the literary block time (and all other subjects), suggesting possibly 50% of the time should be spent reading. My question is how much of that reading time should be teacher-led (for close reading and complex text), and how much should be just independent work?

          All of the school reading time—or almost all of it—should be teacher-led. Kids are sent to school to learn things. Teachers are paid to teach things. There is no question that kids can learn things on their own. However, then one wouldn’t need a school or a teacher for that.

            Kids don’t learn as much on their own as when provided with explicit teaching. Hence we pay you to teach the kids. If you send them off to learn on their own instead, you reduce the benefit kids get from schooling.

           The trick is to use the school day effectively to guide kids to learn as much as possible, and then to entice them to continue on their own when they don’t have a teacher available to guide them (after school, before school, weekends, summers, etc.). 

            How close this interaction or supervision needs to be is an open question. If a teacher scaffold’s kids half way through a story, and then has them finish reading the story on their own, perhaps followed by some kind of written response, is that teacher guided or independent, or both?

           My sense of that is that, even though the kids are sitting someplace separate from the teacher for the second part of that lesson, it would be a teacher-guided activity. It was the teacher who assigned the text, got kids engaged, focused their attention on key elements through questions and other directions, and then who, even though the kids were going off to work, had focused their attention on the writing outcome.

           That is very different from those situations in which kids pick reading materials themselves, go off and read on their own—with neither guidance nor supervision (e.g., observation, feedback)—and without outcomes to focus the activity (e.g., the discussion, the writing response).

           Or what about the teacher who has developed a sequence of instruction comparable to reciprocal teaching? The series of lessons might have started out with the teacher doing almost everything; perhaps demonstrating how one can interrogate a text. The ensuing lessons would likely be under teacher control, too; these are the “we do its.”

           But what about the “you do its” or the “you do it togethers.” At that point, the students have watched the teacher carry out the activity, and would have engaged in questioning too, though under the teacher’s supervision. Now what if she has 3 or 4 groups each trying to work there way through a text, asking and answering certain kinds of questions. Or maybe it is individual assignments and the kids are reading, coming up with questions for each section, and recording these questions and answers in their notebook?

           An observer who parachutes in for those last lessons might think them very independent and far outside of teacher control, but I would disagree. Because of the context that the teacher created, those kids would simply be mastering the skills the teacher was teaching. Looking at the entire sequence of lessons, it would be more obvious that the teacher was actually still guiding the process and enhancing the learning.

          Again, kids definitely can and do learn on their own. The purpose of teaching is to focus that learning on socially determined outcomes and to make learning more efficient and powerful.

          Good teaching activities are going to have kids very much under teacher leadership. Sometimes specific lessons might require students to work away from the teacher, in a manner that allows the teacher to observe and to provide feedback.

          Giving assignments alone is not teaching. But giving assignments—even those that require kids to work on their own—are a part of teaching, if there is scaffolding, explanation, direction, purpose setting, opportunity for feedback or adjustment, and the like. Don’t look for opportunities for kids to do independent work, but look instead, to figure out the combination of activities and guidance that will allow students to accomplish particular learning goals most effectively.

          The ultimate goal is for kids to be able to do, on their own, what they are being taught to do. Kids eventually have to be able to demonstrate that they can carry out whatever the task is or that they have acquired the requisite knowledge. What combination of activities will allow them to accomplish such outcomes with maximum efficiency? 

          With activities like reciprocal teaching, we often talk as if the progress from "I do it" to "we do it" to "you do it" is a linear path (and one that may suggest two-thirds of the time--the "I" and the "we"--should be directly and immediately under teacher control, with one-third for the somewhat more distant independent work). It doesn't really work that way. I might demonstrate the skill to the kids and then try to guide their efforts. Those efforts might be terrific in which case I have made a great choice, or they might be feeble in which case it would make more sense for me to demonstrate yet again. The same kind of thing happens when the teacher tries to have the kids do the task on their own: they might struggle and the teacher may find she needs to re-intervene. 

          The proper division of time between teacher-led and independent is unknowable, because it depends on the kids. Their performance will lead you to either conclude that they have mastered the skills/knowledge or that they haven't; and pulling back to teacher-led activities might be the right response if they haven't. Of course, if they have, you should be moving forward to teach something else.