Sunday, August 2, 2015

Why We Need to Teach Reading AND Writing

            Many educators trumpet the idea of reading-writing relationships, emphasizing how close reading and writing are. As a teacher I was a big believer in this—my kids wrote every day, despite the lack of a report card space for writing, a writing curriculum, writing standards, or even any professional development on the topic. I strongly believed that when you taught writing, you were teaching reading.

            Then I went to graduate school. My dissertation focused on the relationships between reading and writing. Boy was I surprised. Yes, indeed, reading and writing were related, but not to the degree I had assumed. The idea that teaching reading can have an impact on learning to write is correct; and so is the opposite.

            But the part that I hadn’t recognized was that reading and writing are really pretty different, too. There have been lots more studies of this since then—by researchers like Ginger Berninger, Steven Graham, Rob Tierney, Judy Langer, and so on—and with the same result. Reading and writing are related and they impact each other; and, yet, they are quite separate and different, too.

            In fact, that is why they can be such beneficial supports for each other. If writing was just another form of reading, it wouldn’t give readers any special insights that they wouldn’t develop some other way.

            When I first started publishing research articles on this topic, I received a lot of criticism. The critics were upset that I was finding reading and writing to have unique properties, not just overlapping ones. That upset them because they felt it would discourage teachers from incorporating writing into their reading curricula (and school writing was pretty non-existent at the time).

            However, as I worked with the problem more it became evident that the critics had it backwards. If reading and writing were so much the same, there was no real reason to teach them both if you could learn everything that you needed just from one or the other. In fact, that might be why so many schools taught reading and not writing; if you made students into competent readers, then they would be able to write, too. (Its sort of like ordering two desserts instead of a main course and a dessert; if the point is to satisfy all of your nutritional needs, then you need to eat different types of foods--and no, a slice of chocolate cake and a strawberry shortcake are not two different types of foods).

            The correlations among various reading and writing measures are high, but they are not a unity. The correlated and uncorrelated parts both matter. We need to teach both reading and writing because of the distances between them.

            In my classroom framework, I always encouraged substantial amounts of time for both reading and writing activity and instruction, and still do. Students need and benefit from explicit instruction in both, and they benefit from being taught how to integrate reading and writing; including how to read one’s writing with sufficient distance for revision, how to summarize the ideas from a text in your writing (or how to synthesize the ideas from multiple texts), and how to use texts as a model and source for one’s writing.

            When you are teaching reading, you definitely may be having an impact on student writing ability. But there is much to be learned about writing that can only come from writing instruction and writing practice. And the same can be said for writing’s impact on reading. 

            Make sure there is room on your daily table for all the necessary ingredients for a nutritional literacy diet, including writing. 

            Please pass the sticky toffee pudding.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Report Cards and Standards

Teacher Question:
I wanted to ask your opinion regarding the structure of report cards for parents of students in grades 3-5. Understanding that ELA CCSS intertwines the areas of reading, language, spelling, writing, and moving toward creating district standards based report cards in all K-5 grade levels, how do you think students' progress should be reported out to parents via report cards, as we transition? Would you recommend having an ELA grade on the report card or segregating particular areas as a stand alone grade?  

Shanahan Responds: 
This is less a research question than one requiring professional judgment. I suspect there are many good ways to do this, but I will weigh in with my own take on the problem per your request. My suggestions are based upon what I think teachers and parents can do and use, not on what studies suggest for the simple reason that I know of no such studies.

I definitely would provide students with more than a single English Language Arts grade. Lots of ways to do this, of course: One could provide an overall ELA grade with some subscores, or ELA might not appear at all and just specific scores in reading, writing and some other key areas could be included. I would personally go with the latter, just to keep it simpler.

What grades would I provide?  I definitely would offer a reading grade. In fact, I’d offer two of them. I’d give students a grade in reading foundations (which would be used to inform parents as to how their kids were doing with decoding and oral reading fluency), and a grade in reading (which would get at issues like reading comprehension, understanding of different genres, learning from reading, etc.). That's divided in the same way the reading standards are in CCSS.

I would also provide a grade for writing, and, again, it would be possible to divide this one in two—writing foundations and writing (which is not how the standards do it). The first writing grade would get at issues of spelling, cursive, keyboarding, hygiene (the old term for basically making a paper look good in terms of all of these physical qualities), and the second would get at writing quality (how well developed and organized and accurate and engaging the students’ writing is).

Finally, you might have a language grade aimed at what the standards address under speaking, listening, and language. This would include grammar, along with listening comprehension, ability to make formal presentations, to participate effectively in group discussions, and the like. While I would not disagree with those who would criticize lumping this all into one pot, I am doubtful of teachers’ ability to easily evaluate 30 students in any of these skills separately. (And, yes, you could slice this differently. For example, you could include grammar in what I labeled as writing foundations, and keep this language or oral language grade totally about oral language quality).

That might be it: under this plan, students would get 3-5 ELA grades (1 or 2 reading grades, 1 or 2 writing grades, and 1 language or oral language grade). If you break something out on a report card, you are making some assumptions: one assumption is that teachers can provide a sound and accurate evaluation of the abilities included in that category; a second assumption is independence, that it would be possible for a youngster to do well in one category and poorly in another; and a third is that it would be worth opening up a conversation with parents about the topic if Johnny didn’t do well in it (in other words, there would be clear remedial actions that a teacher and parents could take to help him to do better in that area). Gradability, independence, and teachability are the key factors.

Many districts try to align their report cards to their standards, but what this usually means is that the report card ends up with so many grades that teachers are uncertain of (e.g., “I have no idea whether kids have accomplished reading standard 4 for literary text”), and that parents have no idea what to do with all of this information. If the information won’t be accurate—and there is no way that teachers can adequately evaluate all of those individual standards—and won’t be useful for aiming teachers and parents at addressing student needs, then there is no reason to have it on the report card.

Given that, let me encourage you to consider adding one more grading category to ELA report card. One thing the standards emphasize a lot—not just in one category—but in multiple ones, is the ability to conduct research. That is students need to learn to track down information, to evaluate its accuracy and quality, to summarize information from particular sources, to synthesize information across sources, and to present that information accurately and engagingly. Different aspects of that process belong to reading (evaluating sources) or writing (summarizing or synthesizing) or oral language (presenting). However, if research were treated as its own category, it would encourage your school to make a big deal of it; to get students, parents, and teachers all engaged in ensuring that these diverse ELA skills come together into a powerful amalgam that would send kids off to middle school with a strong academic focus. That would only add one more grade to the pot, but it would be a heck of an addition, and it fits my criteria: it is gradable, independent, and well worth focusing on instructionally at school and home. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What Can Librarians Do to Support Student Literacy?

Any thoughts on top 2 or 3 literacy concepts on which you would focus librarians? Grades 4-8?

My response:
Let me say how happy I am that you are available to students and teachers. As I make my way across the country I find fewer and fewer school-based librarians. Unfortunately, you appear to be part of a disappearing breed. Here are a few ideas.


Basically, I think one of the biggest things school librarians can do for teachers is help them and their students to find resources. As teachers are trying to emphasize content and informational text to a greater extent, helping them to identify relevant and appropriate books and articles on that content can be of great value. When I taught third grade, I could inform my school librarian what my subject matter would be for the month--in social studies and science--and she would provide me with a box of materials from her shelves that I could use to extend and improve what was available in my classroom. These days that could also include providing links to certain kinds of online materials, too.

Part of this help may include letting the teachers know the levels of the available books. More and more publishers and knowledge bases are providing Lexile levels and librarians can be a valuable conduit to that info. That way, if a teacher wants students to read several texts on a topic, they can array them so that the easier texts serve as a scaffold for taking on the more challenging ones.

Librarians can be the first line of instruction on how to conduct library research and how to use various reference works. Most teachers don't do much with this; nor do literacy programs, though research is stressed in all state standards. However, knowing how to use dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, yearbooks, including online resources like Google or Yahoo is hugely important, and yet few teachers have much expertise in those areas. Instead of just having kids come in to get books (which is more than a mere "just," I know), librarians should have an actual curriculum to deliver that supports the accomplishment of their state's research standards.

With younger students, those resources are probably not that different from what I taught as a third-grade teacher. However, as students move up through the grades it is important that students that they learn to use more specialized resources. For example, for a 9-year-old, teaching the dictionary--print and/or electronic--is a great idea, but by eighth grade, kids should be learning how to use scientific and historical dictionaries so that their research is appropriate to the disciplines that they are studying. Similarly, many states provide EBSCO subscriptions or subscriptions to other knowledge bases; students--and their teachers--should be learning how to use those and let's face it, that kind of expertise is usually right on the mark for a good librarian.

Encouraging Reading
Finally, providing a positive, encouraging environment in which students can find books that they want to read or where teachers can find books that they can share with students is hugely important. Many teachers are concerned about whether their students are going to love reading, but they rarely have time to work this into their curriculum. Creating a positive environment with lots of encouragement and support for students' extra-curricular reading can be a big contribution.  I know some school librarians who set up reading clubs and who host various displays and activities aimed at getting kids involved with books.

And, on another matter. For those who have asked, here are the powerpoints for my recent presentations at the annual International Literacy Association meeting that just took place in St. Louis.

ILA 2015 Talks

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Spirit is Willingham, but the Flesch is Weak

Teacher’s Question:
I have read a few articles and books by Daniel Willingham in the past, and I wonder if you are familiar with his work. I recently read an article (attached) about reading comprehension strategies and am curious to know what you think of his ideas. He says that focusing heavily on reading strategies isn’t really necessary.

(I often question the need for so many reading strategies, particularly when they take away from reading being a pleasurable activity. I can understand the importance of visualizing, using prior knowledge, and maintaining focus, but teaching the other “strategies”, in my opinion, is confusing the issue. I realize there are many studies to say otherwise, but, I just can’t be convinced.)

Anyway, again, just wondering what you think of Willingham’s paper.

Shanahan's Response 
Thanks. This is the second time in two weeks I’ve been asked about Daniel Willingham’s writing on comprehension strategies. I don’t know Dr. Willingham, but I’ve read his vita.

Daniel Willingham is a cognitive psychologist with a good research record—on topics other than reading education. Although I know of his book, it is written for lay audiences—and the short excerpts or off-shoots that have come to my attention, suggest to me that he hasn’t actually read much of the research that you are asking about. But he has read some appropriate summary pieces about the subject and/or talked to some respected experts).

In my opinion, he is kind of right. 

What is the good Doctor W right about? He is right that comprehension strategies (e.g., summarization, questioning, monitoring) are effective. There are a number of research reviews of this work, both focused on individual strategies and strategy teaching overall, and they are consistently positive. Teaching comprehension strategies appears to improve students’ reading comprehension, and it doesn’t matter if the review is somewhat comprehensive (NICHD, 2000) or highly selective, only including in the highest quality studies (Shanahan, et al., 2010); the answer is the same.

And, he is especially right to raise the issue of, “How much of this kind of teaching is needed?”

But that’s where my answer would deviate from his, and where reading the actual studies instead of the reviews can make a big difference. He claims students learn everything they need after 2 weeks of strategy instruction, and that we should limit such teaching to that extremely limited duration.

I think that claim is on very thin ice and it ignores a lot of issues and a lot of studies (remember the National Reading Panel reviewed more than 200 studies on the topic).

I say three cheers for Dan Willingham for questioning the amount of strategy instruction and I give him the raspberries for then answering his question that two weeks of strategy teaching is appropriate.

One thing that originally shocked me in reading the studies in that research literature was how brief the interventions were. Most studies focused on 6 weeks of instruction or less (though there were a few longer studies). That such brief interventions are potent enough to impact standardized reading tests is good. That we have no idea whether stronger doses have any added benefit is a serious problem. That’s why I agree with the notion that we are probably overdoing the strategy teaching. The only evidence we have on amount of strategy teaching is correlational and it is weak at best.

My conclusions:
(1)  Strategy instruction is effective when the instruction is concentrated. In all of the studies, students were given daily ongoing instruction of and practice with strategies. Programs that give occasional doses of instruction in various strategies may be effective, but there are no studies of that kind of practice.
(2)  Strategy instruction can be effective at improving reading comprehension scores at a variety of grade levels, including the primary grades. This surprised me, too. I was pretty sure that comprehension strategies made sense with older students, but not so much with younger ones. That’s not what the research has found, however.
(3)  Strategies are not all equal. There is a greater payoff to some strategies than to others, so I would definitely put my instructional nickel on the ones with the big learning outcomes. The most powerful strategies by far are summarization (stopping throughout a text to sum up) and questioning (asking and answering your own questions about the text). The weakest: teaching students to think about how to respond to different question types (effect sizes so small that I wouldn’t waste my time).
(4)  Strategy instruction can be effective with about 6 weeks of teaching and practice. Here I’m going with the modal length of strategy studies. Perhaps the effects would have been apparent with fewer weeks of instruction, per Willingham’s contention, and, yet, this hasn’t been studied. Weaker dosages may work, too, but with so little evidence I’d avoid such strong claims. 
(5)  Even more strategy instruction than this may be effective, but, again, with so little research no one knows. We do have studies showing that 3 years of phonics instruction are more effective than 2 years of phonics instruction, but we don’t have such studies of reading comprehension teaching, so let’s not pretend. 
(6)  You raise a question about the value of different strategies, Willingham does not. The research reviews show that the teaching of multiple strategies, either singly in sequence or altogether, is beneficial—with stronger results than from single strategies. Multiple strategy teaching may be better because of the possibility that different strategies provide students with different supports (one strategy might help readers to think about one aspect of the text, another might foster some additional insights or analysis). Teach multiple strategies.
(7)  The Willingham claims fails to consider the outcome measures. Strategies are good or bad, but he doesn’t focus on what they may be good at. His focus is on motivating readers, but the studies of strategy teaching do not focus on this outcome. I think we overdo the strategy thing, and yet, I’d be surprised if an overemphasis on strategies is why kids don’t like reading. The whole point of strategy teaching is to make students purposeful and powerful, focused on figuring out what a text says. Those kinds of inputs usually have positive motivational outcomes.
(8)  It is great that comprehension strategies improve performance on standardized reading tests, but their bigger impact has usually been on specially designed instruments made for the research. Thus, summarizing usually helps students to summarize a text more than it builds general reading comprehension. I think the best test of strategies would be to give two groups a really hard text—like a science textbook—and have them read it and see who would do the best with it (passing tests, writing papers, etc.). I suspect strategies would have a bigger impact on that kind of outcome than passing a test with fairly short easy passages, multiple-choice questions, in a brief amount of time. If I'm correct about that, then strategies would worth a more extensive emphasis. Willingham apparently hasn't read the studies so he is considering only what they have found, not what they haven't considered.
(9)  Most students don’t use strategies. Though we know strategies improve comprehension, they are not used much by students. I suspect the reason for this is our fixation on relatively easy texts in schools. The only reason to use a strategy is to get better purchase on a text than one would accomplish from just reading it. If texts are easy enough to allow 75-89% comprehension (the supposed instructional level that so many teachers aim at), there is simply no reason to use the strategies being taught. Teachers may be teaching kids to use strategies, but their text choices are telling the kids that the strategies have no value.
(10)   Willingham is trying to reduce the amount of comprehension strategy instruction so that kids will like school better. I doubt that he spends much time in schools. He hasn’t been a teacher of principal or even a teacher educator and his own research hasn’t focused on practical educational applications. I’ve been conducting an observational study of nearly 1000 classrooms for the past few years, and we aren’t seeing much strategy instruction at all. There definitely can be too much strategy teaching, but in most places any dosage, not overdosage, is the problem.