Sunday, July 10, 2016

Teaching Kids to Interpret Theme: The Limits of Practice

            Many years ago my daughter, Meagan, had a homework assignment. Her literature teacher assigned a short story to read and Meagan was to figure out the theme.

            The theme she came up with: “People do a lot of different things.”

            Needless to say, it doesn’t matter what the story was, that wasn’t the theme. (Though she was a little surprised that I could know that without even reading it.)

            “Meagan how do your teachers teach you to figure out theme?”

            “That’s just it, Dad. They don’t. They tell you what a theme is and I know what  a theme is,  and then when you get the theme wrong they tell you the theme and that is supposed to help you next time. But it doesn’t because that story has a different theme.”

            My goodness...the same method my teachers had used with me!

            Practice alone is not likely to teach kids to identify theme. The same could be said for other comprehension “skills.” No matter how often you are asked to do them, you still won’t be able to without some instruction.

            That’s a problem in lots of schools. Reading comprehension instruction has to give kids opportunities to read and to use the information: to answer questions, to discuss, to source one's writing. But there has to be more to it than that. Instruction should help kids to think about that information more effectively; to remember more if it; to analyze it more deeply.

            Reading practice is important. But practicing what you don’t know how to do is nonsense.

            What got me thinking about that was a review of the Common Core standards for reading. Look what kids are supposed to do with theme by high school graduation: “Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.”

            Man, if we aren’t going to teach kids how to figure out one theme, how will they ever know how to identify multiple themes?

            I did a quick review of books for teachers on how to teach reading comprehension. It is interesting because, if they mention theme at all, they usually only define it and give some examples. In other words, the same instructional method Meagan described.

            In good literature, the characters change across the text; the so-called “arc of development.” Wilbur is a different pig by the end of Charlotte’s Web; and the Elizabeth Bennett at the denouement of Pride and Prejudice is not the same acerbic Lizzy that we start with.

            Kids who can’t tell you a theme, can usually track the changes the characters go through. And, they can tell you whether those changes are good or bad.

            Theme is wrapped up in those changes—and because the best literature tends to have multiple multi-dimensional characters—characters who grow and learn—a story might have multiple themes. That's what Joanne Golden and John Guthrie reported in 1986 (Reading Research Quarterly). When kids empathize or identify with one literary character, the teacher may feel the same about the other. And, then, when the kids identify a story theme, they get graded down for not getting the right one. 

            We need to teach kids to track character changes across a story, to evaluate the value of those changes, and then to construct a potential lesson or theme based on that information.


            Once kids know how to do that, practice is a really good idea. Before they know how to do that, practice can’t help much.


My ILA 2016 PowerPoint: Reading Sometimes Surprises You

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Slow Path Forward: We Can--And Do--Learn from Reading Research

We in education tend to have very strong beliefs. And, those beliefs can overwhelm our knowledge—or even our willingness to gain knowledge.

Last week’s entry here focused on teaching kids with more challenging texts than we’ve been told to use in the past. The reason for the change wasn’t some brilliant insight on my part, but a gradual accumulation of direct research evidence. Evidence that shows beyond beginning reading there is no benefit to controlling the difficulty of texts in the way that we have done—matching kids to books with various accuracy criteria.

I certainly understand the suspicions of those who have long been told that kids can’t progress unless taught at their “instructional levels.” What I don’t get is the unwillingness of some to even consider such an idea given the evidence.

I got a kick out of one reader who led with her wonder rather than her disbelief. She did something crazy: she tried my advice. She placed students in harder texts and provided them the support and motivation to succeed and the kids did well. So far so good. Over time, if she continues to try it, I think she’ll find that she can get her students to higher levels of achievement than in the past.

Her note came in right at the time I was reading a newspaper article on reading, one printed in 1951—the same year I was born. It even quoted Helen Robinson, whose research I have long admired. However, it contained so much baloney that it gave me hope—we are learning, we are making progress. The only way to do that, of course, is to reduce the strength of our beliefs, and to increase our reliance on data. Here is what we were telling people in 1951. I follow it with my own comments.  
__________________________________________________
Let Teacher Help Child's Reading
by Marcia Winn 
Sept 11, 1951

Home Interference May Handicap
A NUMBER of years ago when this writer was 10, a neighbor accosted her. Billy, who was 7 and halfway thru the second grade still couldn't read. Would she, the learned one of 10, take over Billy for the summer and see if she could improve his reading.
Billy's mother thought it would be nice if he could learn to spell at the same time.
The offer, made terribly tempting by a remuneration of 50 cents a week [an hour a day of dear little Billy], was snatched up. So all thru the hot summer Billy and his tutor read and spelled. He had a nice time, and she was 50 cents a week richer, and he ended up reading and spelling with great facility. Don't ask us why. Maybe he merely wanted to get back to the empty lot next door and play ball.
Were Billy 7 and half way thru the second grade today, the reading experts would protest such high-handed treatment. In the first place, if Billy is half way thru the second grade and can’t read, he is no problem. He simply isn't "ready" for reading. He's not a problem, remedially speaking, until he is in the third grade. Then he needs help only because in the fourth grade he’ll need his reading for what is described as " a wide variety of content subjects," whatever that means. One assumes he’ll need his reading to read.
Secondly, the reading experts of today say Billy's reading should be a hands-off subject at home. Let teacher do it, not mummy.
If you worry because your child seems slow in grasping reading, talk to his teacher, not to him, Mrs. Helen Robinson, director of the reading clinics at the University of Chicago, advises. If you attempt to take matters into your own hands by reading with him, all you’ll do is upset him. Naturally you’ll read better he. You’ve been at it for years.
"Often this business of reading with the child threatens his security," Mrs. Robinson says. "The parent identifies himself with the child. The popular opinion is that the child who doesn't learn to read easily is of low mentality. The parent suspects this. I've seen a mother burst into tears when assured that her child’s I.Q. really was quite normal."
Many parents try to help by spelling out the letters of the word [c-a-t, cat]. You may have learned to read this way, but Mrs. Robinson says that such home teaching is one of the major handicaps the remedial teachers have to overcome. Spelling does not precede reading she emphasizes; it follows it.
Instead, Mrs. Robinson suggests, see what your child’s teacher wants you to do. [There's no point in getting your convictions gummed up with the whole school system; Billy is not going to learn the way you learned, and that’s that. He may emerge a better reader than you, or a poorer one, but whichever way, it’s today’s soup, and you can’t change it.] The teacher may want you to read aloud to him, not with him. She may say he is lacking in his background of experience and language. She may advise excursions on which you name every object.
Reading, Mrs. Robinson says, is a language skill that depends upon vocabulary. A barren language does nothing. A child gradually develops reading ability as he develops a sight vocabulary and recognizes meaningful words. His growth in this is as gradual as is in any other part of his makeup. You wouldn't ask your child to scale a ladder before his legs, muscles, and sense of balance were ready.
Some children shinny up ladders at 2; some not until 6. It is the same with reading. It may interest you, however, to know that reading growth continues for many years, usually thru high school, and even college.
_____________________________________________________________
There is some pretty shady advice in this column.
      1.     The major point, based on the expert advice, is that if your child is having trouble learning to read, stay out of it. We now have substantial research showing that parents can help their kids’ early literacy growth—a lot. Often parents are still put off by teachers with the, “just read to them,” advice offered in this article… but parent involvement these days tends to be much more specific than that. 

      Many more kids come to school reading than in the past I suspect (though without statistics for that claim), and there is clear evidence of more kids entering school knowing letter names and letter sounds. Parents can and should be involved in the teaching of their children. Obviously the reporter was put off by this strange advice—advice more based upon ideology than empirical evidence. The author had, at the age of 10, taught a struggling 7-year-old reader so she knew it could be done without harm; that’s the kind of skepticism we should all engage in.
      
     
      2.   The notion that parent help was a major impediment for struggling readers was not something that Dr. Robinson found in her landmark dissertation. She identified many precursors to reading difficulties, but too much help and attention at home did not make her list. (And, no, if parents don’t use the school district’s approach, the works will not get gummed up.)

   
      3.   Younger readers might be shocked by the idea that it’s okay for kids to lag in the primary grades. The advice often was stronger than that. When I was reading specialist I was called before the school board to explain why I was teaching a struggling first-grader. The notion that kids would mature into reading is certainly not a research-based idea. Kids who struggle early tend to continue to struggle and we need to intervene early to interrupt that cycle.

  
      4.   Still another odd notion here is that kids need to memorize a lot of sight words to learn to read. We know a better than that now. Helen Robinson was a student of William S. Gray, the senior author of the Dick and Jane Readers. Those books did not include phonics or spelling or much emphasis on sounds and letters at any point in the process, and Dr. Robinson was clearly echoing her mentor’s unproven beliefs. These days we know much more about the central role that decoding plays in early reading development.

      5.  The idea that a good approach to teaching vocabulary is to go on a naming excursion is pretty shallow, and not likely to result in kids learning the words that they need for most reading.

Despite these questionable professional insights, there were also signs of scientific thought. The journalism seems a bit confused, but it looks to me like Helen Robinson was trying to explain that IQ was NOT the major determinant of beginning reading and that kids who struggled with reading early on were not necessarily dumb. That was a widely held belief at the time, despite the fact that research was showing that low intelligence was not the root of most poor reading. (IQ becomes more important in reading as students get older, because the importance of vocabulary, reasoning, and memory increase as one takes on more challenging texts).

My take away from this analysis: We are making progress. There are obviously many beliefs that were common in reading education that we have managed to grow beyond through empirical study. However, given that we continue to treat our unstudied opinions as if they were scientific findings, I suspect our future progress will be as hard won as in the past. Even with that, looking at the changes in our understanding of reading during my lifetime, it is clear that more progress is possible.







The Slow Path Forward: We Can--And Do--Learn from Reading Research

We in education tend to have very strong beliefs. And, those beliefs can overwhelm our knowledge—or even our willingness to gain knowledge.

Last week’s entry here focused on teaching kids with more challenging texts than we’ve been told to use in the past. The reason for the change wasn’t some brilliant insight on my part, but a gradual accumulation of direct research evidence. Evidence that shows beyond beginning reading there is no benefit to controlling the difficulty of texts in the way that we have done—matching kids to books with various accuracy criteria.

I certainly understand the suspicions of those who have long been told that kids can’t progress unless taught at their “instructional levels.” What I don’t get is the unwillingness of some to even consider such an idea given the evidence.

I got a kick out of one reader who led with her wonder rather than her disbelief. She did something crazy: she tried my advice. She placed students in harder texts and provided them the support and motivation to succeed and the kids did well. So far so good. Over time, if she continues to try it, I think she’ll find that she can get her students to higher levels of achievement than in the past.

Her note came in right at the time I was reading a newspaper article on reading, one printed in 1951—the same year I was born. It even quoted Helen Robinson, whose research I have long admired. However, it contained so much baloney that it gave me hope—we are learning, we are making progress. The only way to do that, of course, is to reduce the strength of our beliefs, and to increase our reliance on data. Here is what we were telling people in 1951. I follow it with my own comments.  
_______________________________________________________________________________
Let Teacher Help Child's Reading
by Marcia Winn 
Sept 11, 1951

Home Interference May Handicap
A NUMBER of years ago when this writer was 10, a neighbor accosted her. Billy, who was 7 and halfway thru the second grade still couldn't read. Would she, the learned one of 10, take over Billy for the summer and see if she could improve his reading.
Billy's mother thought it would be nice if he could learn to spell at the same time.
The offer, made terribly tempting by a remuneration of 50 cents a week [an hour a day of dear little Billy], was snatched up. So all thru the hot summer Billy and his tutor read and spelled. He had a nice time, and she was 50 cents a week richer, and he ended up reading and spelling with great facility. Don't ask us why. Maybe he merely wanted to get back to the empty lot next door and play ball.
Were Billy 7 and half way thru the second grade today, the reading experts would protest such high-handed treatment. In the first place, if Billy is half way thru the second grade and can’t read, he is no problem. He simply isn't "ready" for reading. He's not a problem, remedially speaking, until he is in the third grade. Then he needs help only because in the fourth grade he’ll need his reading for what is described as " a wide variety of content subjects," whatever that means. One assumes he’ll need his reading to read.
Secondly, the reading experts of today say Billy's reading should be a hands-off subject at home. Let teacher do it, not mummy.
If you worry because your child seems slow in grasping reading, talk to his teacher, not to him, Mrs. Helen Robinson, director of the reading clinics at the University of Chicago, advises. If you attempt to take matters into your own hands by reading with him, all you’ll do is upset him. Naturally you’ll read better he. You’ve been at it for years.
"Often this business of reading with the child threatens his security," Mrs. Robinson says. "The parent identifies himself with the child. The popular opinion is that the child who doesn't learn to read easily is of low mentality. The parent suspects this. I've seen a mother burst into tears when assured that her child’s I.Q. really was quite normal."
Many parents try to help by spelling out the letters of the word [c-a-t, cat]. You may have learned to read this way, but Mrs. Robinson says that such home teaching is one of the major handicaps the remedial teachers have to overcome. Spelling does not precede reading she emphasizes; it follows it.
Instead, Mrs. Robinson suggests, see what your child’s teacher wants you to do. [There's no point in getting your convictions gummed up with the whole school system; Billy is not going to learn the way you learned, and that’s that. He may emerge a better reader than you, or a poorer one, but whichever way, it’s today’s soup, and you can’t change it.] The teacher may want you to read aloud to him, not with him. She may say he is lacking in his background of experience and language. She may advise excursions on which you name every object.
Reading, Mrs. Robinson says, is a language skill that depends upon vocabulary. A barren language does nothing. A child gradually develops reading ability as he develops a sight vocabulary and recognizes meaningful words. His growth in this is as gradual as is in any other part of his makeup. You wouldn't ask your child to scale a ladder before his legs, muscles, and sense of balance were ready.
Some children shinny up ladders at 2; some not until 6. It is the same with reading. It may interest you, however, to know that reading growth continues for many years, usually thru high school, and even college.
________________________________________________________________________________
There is some pretty shady advice in this column.
1.     The major point, based on the expert advice, is that if your child is having trouble learning to read, stay out of it. We now have substantial research showing that parents can help their kids’ early literacy growth—a lot. Often parents are still put off by teachers with the, “just read to them,” advice offered in this article… but parent involvement these days tends to be much more specific than that. 

      Many more kids come to school reading than in the past I suspect (though without statistics for that claim), and there is clear evidence of more kids entering school knowing letter names and letter sounds. Parents can and should be involved in the teaching of their children. Obviously the reporter was put off by this strange advice—advice more based upon ideology than empirical evidence. The author had, at the age of 10, taught a struggling 7-year-old reader so she knew it could be done without harm; that’s the kind of skepticism we should all engage in.
2.     
      The notion that parent help was a major impediment for struggling readers was not something that Dr. Robinson found in her landmark dissertation. She identified many precursors to reading difficulties, but too much help and attention at home did not make her list. (And, no, if parents don’t use the school district’s approach, the works will not get gummed up.)
3.     
      Younger readers might be shocked by the idea that it’s okay for kids to lag in the primary grades. The advice often was stronger than that. When I was reading specialist I was called before the school board to explain why I was teaching a struggling first-grader. The notion that kids would mature into reading is certainly not a research-based idea. Kids who struggle early tend to continue to struggle and we need to intervene early to interrupt that cycle.
4.     
      Still another odd notion here is that kids need to memorize a lot of sight words to learn to read. We know a better than that now. Helen Robinson was a student of William S. Gray, the senior author of the Dick and Jane Readers. Those books did not include phonics or spelling or much emphasis on sounds and letters at any point in the process, and Dr. Robinson was clearly echoing her mentor’s unproven beliefs. These days we know much more about the central role that decoding plays in early reading development.
5.     
      The idea that a good approach to teaching vocabulary is to go on a naming excursion is pretty shallow, and not likely to result in kids learning the words that they need for most reading.

Despite these questionable professional insights, there were also signs of scientific thought. The journalism seems a bit confused, but it looks to me like Helen Robinson was trying to explain that IQ was NOT the major determinant of beginning reading and that kids who struggled with reading early on were not necessarily dumb. That was a widely held belief at the time, despite the fact that research was showing that low intelligence was not the root of most poor reading. (IQ becomes more important in reading as students get older, because the importance of vocabulary, reasoning, and memory increase as one takes on more challenging texts).

My take away from this analysis: We are making progress. There are obviously many beliefs that were common in reading education that we have managed to grow beyond through empirical study. However, given that we continue to treat our unstudied opinions as if they were scientific findings, I suspect our future progress will be as hard won as in the past. Even with that, looking at the changes in our understanding of reading during my lifetime, it is clear that more progress is possible.







Sunday, June 26, 2016

Further Explanation of Teaching Students with Challenging Text

Last week I pointed out that from grades 2-12 it wasn’t necessary to match students to text for instruction to proceed effectively. Research has not been kind to the idea of mechanical “instructional level” criteria like 90-95% accuracy (e.g., Jorgenson, Klein, & Kumar, 1977;  Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, Morris, Morrow, et al., 2006; Morgan, Wilcox, & Eldredge, 2000; O’Connor, Swanson, & Geraghty, 2010;  Powell, & Dunkeld, 1971;  Stahl, & Heubach, 2005;  Stanley, 1986).

            Language learning doesn’t work that way.

            That got lots of response, online and off. Some of it quite angry, too. Although I answered many queries and shout outs, I thought a little more formal response this week might be in order. Here are some key ideas when thinking about teaching kids to read with more complex text than we might have dared to use in the past:
           
1. No, easier text is not more motivating.
            Several respondents thought it only common sense that students would be frustrated by harder texts and stimulated by easier ones. I know that feeling. I shared it much of my career until I analyzed the evidence.
            One thing researchers have found repeatedly is that student readers tend to select books at their frustration levels for independent reading (e.g., Donovan, Smolkin,  & Lomax, 2000). Of course, with really low readers, what else could they choose? But this appears to be the case for the better readers, too. I guess their curiosity about the content of the harder materials outweighs their fear of failure. Looking back, I did a lot of that kind of frustration level reading myself as a boy—not always fully understanding what I read, but learning much from the struggle.
            Researchers thought students would lose motivation when reading harder texts (Fulmer & Tulis, 2013). Reality has been more complicated than that. Readers’ motivation does vary across a text reading—but degree of difficulty doesn’t seem to be the source of that variation.
            And, the idea that we want students to be challenged, but not too much—they can miss some specific number of words, but only that number and no more—just hasn’t panned out. When learning and book placement have been studied there has usually been no connection at all or the harder placements have led to more learning (in other words, our relatively easy book matches may be holding kids back, preventing them from exposure to more challenging features of language and meaning).
            If we are going to make these decisions based on our imaginings of how children must feel, then not only should we think of how frustrating it might be to struggle with a text that contains many words you don’t know, but we should consider how boring it must be to always deal with content aimed at younger kids who already can read as well you can.

2. No, not all texts need to be at an instructional level.
            If one challenges the idea of placing kids in instructional level books to facilitate learning (e.g., guided reading, Accelerated Reader), why is the alternative to only place kids in frustration level texts? The idea that all reading should be at the instructional level is wrong in part because of the inherent notion that all reading experience should be at any particular level. Text difficulty should vary; kids should move across a range of texts from easy to difficult.
            In the teaching of most skilled activities (e.g., foreign language, dancing, bicycle racing), the idea is not to protect the learners from harder applications of those skills, but to vary the routines between relatively easy challenges and those that scare and potentially embarrass the learner. If you have any doubt, go learn to do something.

3. No, text level is not the only feature of the learning situation that can be varied.
            Not only should texts vary in difficulty, but the amount of help, guidance, explanation, and scaffolding ought to vary, too. When kids are placed in frustration level texts they need greater support than when they are reading instructional level or independent level texts—just the opposite of what many of our instructional routines provide.
            I should intentionally place kids in easier or harder text and should add or withdraw support based upon need. When kids are in easy texts, the training wheels can be taken off. When they are in harder texts, as a teacher I need to be prepared to offer greater guidance and support. That means easier texts when reading with 30 kids, and harder texts—certainly beyond the normally prescribed levels—when I’m sitting closely with 6-8 kids and can monitor more closely and intervene more easily.
            If your teaching skills are so limited that the only way to protect kids from failure is to keep them always in the shallow water, then so be it. But for most of us, there is a greater range of pedagogical response available that would allow kids to swim often in deeper water without drowning.

4. No, more challenging text will not disrupt kids’ development of decoding skills.
            I heard from some last week that if you placed kids in more challenging texts then they just guessed at words. That might be true if you were to do this with beginning readers, but grade 2 is not beginning reading. Kids should be placed in relatively easy texts initially (grades K-1), texts that have clearly decodable or consistent spelling patterns.
            Then when they start taking on a greater range of texts—when they can read a second grade text, you will usually not see that kind of guessing based only on context. In any event, whatever patterns of reading behavior are elicited by such challenging text matches at that point, they have not been found to slow kids’ reading development or to disrupt their growth in decoding ability from that point. In fact, O’Connor and her colleagues (2010) have not even found it to be an issue with our most struggling readers—those older learning-disabled students who might still be trying to master many of those beginning reading skills.
            I understand the concerns and discomfort in putting kids in frustration level materials given all the reading authorities that have told you not to do that. But a careful review of that advice reveals a shocking neglect of studies of doing just that. No one, however, is saying just throw kids into hard text and hope they make it. One wouldn’t do that with beginning readers, and when kids are ready for such immersion tactics teachers have to teach—it isn’t like those routines where you hope the text is easy enough for kids to learn with a minimum of teacher help. And, finally, much learning comes from practice under varied levels of complication and difficulty—just because traditionally you were told all reading instruction should be at the instructional level doesn’t mean that when teaching with more complex text that you should aspire to such uniformity.

References 
Donovan, C. A., Smolkin, L. B., & Lomax, R. G. (2000). Beyond the independent-level text: Considering the reader-text match in first graders’ self-selections during recreational reading. Reading Psychology, 21, 309-333.

Fulmer, S. M., & Tulis, M. (2013). Changes in interest and affect during a difficult reading task: Relationships with perceived difficulty and reading fluency. Learning and Instruction, 27, 11-20.

Jorgenson, G. W., Klein, N., & Kumar, V. K. (1977). Achievement and behavioral correlates of matched levels of student ability and materials difficulty. Journal of Educational Research, 71, 100-103.

Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., Morris, R. D., Morrow, L. M., Woo, D. G., Meisinger, E. B., Sevcik, 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, L. H., & 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.

Powell, W.R., & Dunkeld, C.G. (1971). Validity of the IRI reading levels. Elementary English, 48, 637-642.

Stahl, S. A., & Heubach, K. M. (2005). Fluency-oriented reading instruction. Journal of Literacy Research, 37, 25-60.

Stanley, N.V. (1986). A concurrent validity study of the emergent reading level. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Florida.