Sunday, March 22, 2015

Teaching Visual Literacy Makes a Big Difference

Would you add some thoughts about visual literacy, that is, questioning the artist/illustrator in the same way we are questioning the author/text…prior to analyzing the text.  
Thank you.

I’ve been carrying this question around for a while, trying to think up a good answer.

On the one hand, I’ve never been a big fan of “visual literacy.”  It’s not that I’m insensitive to the idea that pictures have value (I subscribed to Playboy for many years), but I’ve never been willing to put pictures on the same plane as the printed word.

I guess I’ve been afraid that teachers in the early grades would eschew the teaching of letters and sounds—the tools needed to decode print, in favor of pictures and rhymes and predictable forms (oh wait, that does happen).

But, as I said, pictures are important. They carry a lot of meaning. Think of the American flag raising at Iwo Jima, Lee Harvey Oswald’s last moment, the napalmed girl in Vietnam with her clothes burned away, the sailor kissing the nurse at the end of WWII, the first clear x-ray pictures of DNA—or the unforgettable illustrations of Tenniel, Sendak, Carle, or Potter. No, I accept that pictures definitely are worth attention.

And, I also concede that they require analysis. Graphics of various types raise issues of perspective, balance, texture, color, foregrounding, etc. Interpreting a graphic can be both intellectually challenging and, when well analyzed, intellectually rewarding, too.

So, while I accept the importance and value of illustrations, I fear what might happen if too much school time were devoted to interpreting them. (Ultimately, I’d rather read—and I’d rather that students read—E.B. White than examine the drawings of Garth Williams).

But what about disciplinary literacy, Mr. Smarty Pants College Professor? You say that print is most important, and, yet, in many disciplines the pictures are equal to the words. Right?

Actually, that is correct. In science the pictures and other graphic forms are considered every bit as important as the prose English. This is because language is insufficient to explain scientific phenomena, so the use of multiple representations increases the possibility of accuracy and wide understanding.

Graphics matter a lot in social studies, too. Think of maps, but also the fascinating analyses of the meanings of contemporaneous photographs and political cartoons.

In literature, graphic elements haven’t as clear a role, and yet pictures are extremely important in children’s literature, and the “graphic novel” illustrations carry a lot of meaning for all readers.

Recently, I was teaching science to a group of high school seniors and I had them comparing the illustrations and text statements from their anatomy textbook. It was a fascinating exercise. For me and the kids.

About half indicated that they normally just read the text and possibly glanced cursorily at the illustrations at the end. They were surprised by how much they were missing out on.

Three of the students said the words tended to confuse them, so they only looked at the pictures despite the reading assignments. Having to compare words and pictures made a big difference to them, too.

We all learned that day how critical it was to closely compare the illustrations and the text, and how rare such teaching is. The Common Core State Standards require such teaching, but it gets little attention. Let's face it, I'm not the only reading guy with a bias against the pictures, and our kids have suffered from it. We definitely need to teach kids to read both words and pictures--in close connection with each other.    


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Informational Text and Young Children

So the woman who runs my local children’s book store told me that more and more parents of young children are asking for “non-fiction beginning readers” because “that’s what Common Core wants.” Really? In kindergarten and first grade? Aren’t beginning readers supposed to develop their decoding and word recognition by reading simple stories (the ones populated by talking pigs). 

I’ve seen “easy” nonfiction books that are full of difficult multisyllable words and proper names.  The publishers have made the books (supposedly) appropriate for beginning readers by reducing the number of words in the sentences (until the point they are almost incomprehensible), putting fewer words on a page and enlarging the font.  The result is a dumbing-down of the content.

I agree that teachers should be reading more nonfiction to young children but is the interpretation that Common Core wants young readers to be reading more nonfiction on their own correct?

The short answer is that Common Core says nothing about kids’ personal choices and how they spend their out-of-school time. The standards do set educational goals—that is, they establish what it is that schools need to ensure students know and can do. These standards require that kids have the skills to read informational text effectively (which are somewhat different than the skills needed to read literary text).

I assume the anecdote reveals a parent who wants to help her child do well at school. What a great parent. She might not understand, very clearly, what the standards require—the standards also require that students learn how to read literature effectively, too—but she recognizes that schools need help and isn’t going to leave her kid’s success to chance. Good for her.

I have no doubt that the practice will help. But, let’s remember there are more reasons for reading than just to do better in school. I’m pleased about this parent, but I might be even more excited if she had said, “I want some non-fiction texts for my child because he’s interested in spiders.”

Your letter expresses concern that Common Core is transforming home reading practices. There are other observers who fear that it is imposing reading experiences that are not “developmentally appropriate” for young children (your letter might have been prompted by that, too).

Those claims are Loony-tunes (with apologies to Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck). It's great that the standards are encouraging young readers to take on informational texts. Nell Duke reported that first graders had the opportunity to read such texts at school only about 3.6 minutes per day (and she even included the bulletin boards)—that’s less than 11 hours per year!

This gap is even more important given the large percentage of youngsters (Correls, 2011), who are dying to read about snakes, horses, dinosaurs, rocket ships, skeletons, submarines, pirates, etc. (I get to see that these days with my grandkids and nephews, and I used to see it with the first-graders that I taught in my own classrooms).

What you say about beginning level texts is often true, sad to say. Too often the content is dumbed down… but that is no less true for stories. Let’s be honest, beginning reading texts have rarely merited praise for their literary quality (Dr. Seuss being one of the rare exceptions that proves the rule). The limits on children’s decoding skills definitely limits what can be put into the texts for young readers, but this is true for all texts, not just informational ones. Teachers rarely read non-fiction texts to kids, and they rarely make such texts available to children to read on their own.

However, these practices seem to be changing. Even the National Association of Educators of Young Children—a group focused heavily on the learning of preschool children (ages/grades not covered by CCSS) are encouraging the promotion of informational text even with younger kids. 
http://www.naeyc.org/books/so_much_more_than_the_abcs/excerpt

Kids definitely can learn from talking pigs, but they can learn from pigs (and dinosaurs) that don't talk. In fact, many of them prefer it that way.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

10 Arguments Against Common Core that Presidential Hopefuls Should Avoid

      An Open Letter to the Candidates

                Ladies and Gentlemen. We're quickly sinking into the quicksands of yet another presidential campaign. I'm writing to help with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) issue. I don't want any of you tripped up by a feeble or foolish argument, and there are lots of ways of doing that. I'm sure you all know not to rely on your 13-year-old kids for policy advice, and not to sigh audibly and roll your eyes since it will look like you sent your 13-year-old to debate in your place. If you can't stare down a callow opponent successfully, how will you ever convince voters that you can handle Putin or ISIS?

               I won't be so bold as to suggest what your position should be on Common Core, but I do have advice as to which arguments to avoid.   

1.  Previous educational standards were better.
            Don't make this claim. It can only embarrass you (as bad as not being able to spell "potato"). Past standards were so low that they were the educational equivalent of everyone getting a T-ball trophy. Many U.S. students met those standards and still needed basic reading, writing, and math instruction in the workplace or university—expensive places to obtain an elementary or secondary education. Anyone who argues against the CCSS should be able to explain why they want lower educational standards or should embrace a viable alternative. (Note campaign managers: Parents who are paying for remedial college classes or employers who are struggling to hire high school graduates with basic skills may become particularly testy over this argument).  

 2. Teachers didn’t write them.
            Ho-hum. Yeah, and I’ve long been opposed to the Declaration of Independence because it was written by a slaveholder and the Gettysburg Address is kind of dicey given that its author was in the pocket of big business before assuming the presidency. This argument elevates the ad hominem over the ad verbum. All that should matter is whether the standards are sound; if they are, a House Committee could have written them and they’d be a good idea. And, if they are not sound, how many years of teaching experience would the authors require for you to campaign on them? Many teachers worked on these standards, but who cares? The standards could still be useful even if that weren’t the case.

3. They promote the theories of evolution and global warming.
            Yikes. This is an interesting argument because everyone hates being tricked into supporting what they morally oppose. Unfortunately, it doesn't hold any water since the Common Core only deals with reading, writing, and math—and not with science, history, or any other school content or social issue. You may get away with this one, but there is always the risk that someone in the audience has actually read the standards. 

4. The Common Core isn’t research based.
            That sounds like a good argument, too. Pin the standards on the science deniers. But what if someone wonders what a research-based goal would look like? I know I want my marriage to be happy, my kids to be productive, and my country to be secure. I don’t know why I’d need a study to tell me that I wanted those things. In medicine, they use research to figure out the best treatments—not whether we want everyone to be healthy. Standards aren't teaching methods; they aren’t approaches to instruction. When the critics say some states should have tried these out first to find out if they're any good, it would be like having some states aiming for 4% unemployment and others for 8%—so that we'd know whether we wanted people to find jobs. 

5. They require too much testing.
            Common Core requires no more (or less) testing than any other educational standards. Since the early 1990s, federal law has required states to adopt their own educational goals and evaluate student progress against them. However, there’s nothing special about Common Core in that regard. If CCSS disappeared, states would still have standards and they’d still have to monitor student progress. Just as they have for the past 25 years. If you do choose to make this argument despite the facts, be careful in Alaska, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. None of them have Common Core, but they all have educational standards and they are all testing their students against those standards.

6. They are the reason for all of the test prep.
            This is a great argument, and yet, I doubt whether many of you have the thespian skills to pull it off. Test prep, though unsavory, has nothing to do with Common Core. Educators have long devoted unconscionable amounts of time and resources to test prep, with barely a peep from any of you. Now, getting all worked up about kids being engaged in test prep instead of education will require all the faux sincerity of Captain Renault (“Casablanca gambling? I’m shocked.”). What would happen to test prep if there was no Common Core? Look to Texas or Virginia for your answer, rather than to the airy pronouncements of your supposedly shocked and offended advisors.

7.     Publishers are making money from them.
            Publishers do make money from these standards. And, if history is a guide, when we move on to the next big thing in education, they’ll make money off that, too. Government policies do help companies make money. But if that's an issue, then we ought to shut down the Defense Department, Medicare, Social Security, the oil depletion allowance, and pretty much everything else that government does—since all those nasty programs encourage the buying of goods and services from American companies. (Note to Jeb Bush: Perhaps your opponents' arguments against Common Core are really just a ruse to get schools to change their curricula more quickly to make even more money for the publishers.)

8.  The U.S. Constitution bans national curriculum.

            This one is a particularly tempting argument, especially if you are a lawyer. The Constitution does relegate authority for education to the states after all. The problem is that the federal government has always incented states in the area of education. Even a conservative Supreme Court has recently indicated that it will not even hear cases aimed at determining whether states must comply with federal law when they accept federal funding; they see it as settled law. Going before this Supreme Court to argue that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay knew nothing about the Constitution would likely be a tough slog (Justices Roberts and Alito can be sticklers about that kind of thing). The federal government has the right to require funded states to have standard--whatever standards they may choose to adopt--and there is nothing in Common Core that curtails that right in any way. You'll end up in the weeds. Avoid this one.

9. Common Core violates states’ rights.
            This would be kind of a funny argument coming from people who are running, not for governor, but for president. "If elected, I’ll not allow states to adopt Common Core." That sounds like under your presidency educational goals would be under your authority. That won't be palatable even from such staunch conservatives as a President Cruz or a President Paul. The states, being sovereign entities, have the authority to coordinate with each other as much as they choose. This is true in transportation, criminal justice, economics, natural resources, etc. From the beginning, states have had the authority to enter into such cooperative agreements, like the one that led to the creation of Common Core. This argument snatches that authority from the states, and doing so in the name of states’ rights would be too tricky a game by half. Where is George Orwell when we need him?

10. These are President Obama’s standards.
            Let's face it. It's always a good idea to run against an incumbent whose popularity is on the decline. And, getting voters to believe that these are Obamacore should be easy. When they were being written, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, promised funding to develop new tests for the new standards (a “shovel-ready project,” in the parlance of the times), and when running for President, Senator Obama campaigned on the idea that we needed higher standards and a lot more testing. Making voters believe that the Common Core belongs to the administration should be easy; voters might never figure out that these standards were written with no federal funding and no federal involvement if you can create enough of a haze of suspicion. Of course, this will be an easier argument for some than for others. (Note to Bobby Jindal: You seem sincere in making this argument, but you'll probably need to explain why President Obama was able to operate you like a hand puppet on this issue for three years without you ever being aware of where his hand was. I would avoid using the term “brainwashing”-- see George Romney, 1968. Perhaps you could get away with claiming that President Obama just gave yours a light rinse. 

             Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish you all luck, and hope this advice is useful to each of you.  


And here is a recent Powerpoint presentation on Teaching With Complex Text

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.