Monday, August 25, 2014

To Teach Comprehension Strategies or Not to Teach Them

I don’t hear anything about comprehension strategies anymore. Was that idea just another fad or are should we still teach those?

Your question raises an interesting point about American reading instruction. We tend to chase fads. Instead of building on past reforms and improvements we instead ride the pendulum back and forth.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was lots of interest in teaching students how to think effectively about the ideas in texts. There was lots of research on how to engage prior knowledge, summarize information, ask questions, monitor understanding, and so on—and lots of interest in bringing these strategies into classrooms.

Strategies engage readers in thinking intentionally—rather than just reading a text and hoping something sticks, the reader enters the enterprise aware the text is like a mountain to be scaled or a problem to be solved. In such situations, you take actions that help you to reach the goal.

Thus, readers may preview texts ahead of time to increase anticipation and to ensure that relevant prior knowledge will be at the ready. Readers may set purposes too—like turning headings into questions to be answered. As they read, they may stop occasionally and sum up the information provided to that point—rereading if there are apparent gaps.

In the strategy world, readers need to be “meta-cognitively” aware. That means, for instance, that they should notice when they are not understanding something and to do something about it (such as rereading the pages that you you phased out on, looking up a word in the dictionary, or asking someone for help).

The whole language movement has been pilloried for nudging phonics out of the primary classroom, but—something not often noted—it booted comprehension strategy teaching, too. Strategy teaching tends to be direct instruction—the teacher explains what the strategy is, how to use it, and why it’s important. Then the teacher may demonstrate the use of a strategy and engage kids in a heavily scaffolded version in which the teacher does much of the work (“This would be a good place to ask a question about what we have read. If you ask and answer questions you’ll remember more of the information later.”). Over time, the teacher would fade the support with kids doing it more and more on their own.

Strategies came back a bit during the 2000s, probably as a result of the National Reading Panel’s review of more than 200 studies showing that we could effectively teach students to comprehend better by teaching such strategies.

As your question reveals, now strategies are on the retreat, yet again. The reason this time is almost surely due to the fact that the Common Core State Standards don’t include any comprehension strategies. They don’t prohibit the teaching of comprehension strategies, but they don’t require them either.

I’ve long been a proponent of the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies, and yet, there is a part of me that says their omission is not that big a loss.

The reason for my skepticism about strategies? I’m well aware of the fact that many students—perhaps the vast majority of students—don't actually use these strategies when they read. They use them when teachers guide the process, but they don’t do so on their own. I don’t believe, for instance, that “good readers” make predictions before they read a text, even though I have no doubt that good readers could be induced to make such hypotheses under controlled conditions.

The problem is that comprehension strategies are only useful for helping readers to make sense of text that they can’t understand automatically. Many texts are easy for me to read; they are comfortably within my language and knowledge range. This morning I read USA Today and didn’t feel the need to look up a single word or to stop and summarize any of the information.

But if you asked me to read a chapter on theoretical physics—and you were going to evaluate my understanding somehow—that would be a different story altogether. Now I’d have to suit up for heavy combat, which would mean doing various things that I don’t do in my daily reading (like taking notes or turning headers into questions).

What I’m saying is that in the past we taught strategies—overtaught strategies???—but we then asked students to apply them to relatively easy texts (texts at the students' instructional levels). Now, the new standards are asking us to ignore strategies while assigning harder texts.

Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.


I would encourage you to continue to teach comprehension strategies as a scaffold for dealing with challenging text. The point would be to make it possible for kids to make sense of truly challenging texts; the use of strategies could be enough to allow some kids to scaffold their own reading successfully--meaning they might be able to read frustration level texts as if they were written at their instructional level.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Distinguishing Exposition and Argument in Children's Writing

I am a literacy coordinator. I was wondering how you would respond to a question I was asked recently by a second grade teacher.  "If an opinion is stated in a research [informative/explanatory] paper, does it change the purpose of the paper?" Thanks in advance for your time and your thoughts.

Thanks (a lot). That’s the kind of question that they teach you about in speaker’s school. You are to describe it as an “interesting question”—while you stall hoping that a snappy answer will come to you.

I must admit I was tempted to duck this one. Not because it isn’t a good question, but it reveals the complexity of genre and text organization—and the inadequacy of the clear boundaries we educators tend to claim for them.

Traditionally, we have spoken of narrative, expository/explanatory, and argumentative writing as being distinct. And sometimes they are.

But as this teacher points out, kids (or other writers) don’t always color within the lines. There are definitely hybrids.

For example, Aristotle’s rhetorical distinctions aside, The Illiad is one of the oldest narratives in the history of human culture. It tells a riveting story with plenty of juicy sex, violence, and betrayal (but no car chases). It also has a whole section (the “parade of ships”) that is defiantly expository, rather than narrative. It is a long list, somewhat categorized—elaborating on no plot, whatsoever.

Does the inclusion of this list shift Homer’s epic from the story drawer to that of exposition? I don’t think so, but it would be unproductive not to notice that it doesn’t exactly match well with our story maps.

Similarly, I sometimes read books like Turing’s Cathedral or The Idea Factory. The first tells the “story” about the invention of the computer and the latter of Bell Labs and its inventions. These works are narrative in the main, but both contain long sections describing how transistors work or how electrons behave. There is so much of that kind of science embedded in the stories that I think it’s a closer call. I could almost flip a coin as to which category those books belong to--though I have no problem telling whether a particular paragraph falls on one side of the fence or the other.

Abraham Lincoln often embedded humorous narratives within his legal and political arguments. He was arguing and the judges and opposing counsels understood that he was--but he definitely rooted stories within his arguments and they illustrated his points and drove his arguments home.

What I’m saying is that a text may be a mix of fish and fowl, but its purpose still must be clear. And if it isn’t, that’s a problem. It is fine to combine forms, but good writing must have a discernible point and the seemingly out of place content ought to amplify the point rather than muffling it.  

Is it okay to insert an opinion or position into an expository piece? Yes, if the opinion doesn’t keep it from being an effective expository piece.

For example, let’s say I’m writing a scientific essay aimed at explaining the genetic differences between female chimpanzees and female homo sapiens. There would be nothing wrong with me including an aside stating that despite the seemingly trivial genetic differences I still find Marilyn Monroe much more attractive than Koko the Chimp (a la Lewis Thomas, and other great essayists).

That kind of aside might serve to soften the presentation by relieving the tedium of the technical comparisons, while helping readers to better grasp the idea that even tiny genetic differences can matter. It would still be an expository piece—since it was that in the main, since it had an explanatory purpose, and since my aside didn’t distract from its aim.

But what if I, as a writer and a sexist pig, allowed my opinion to run wild. What if I wrote about Marilyn’s beautiful eyes and skin and hair and shape… uh hum, well, you get the idea. Then, it might read more like my opinion of MM rather than an explanation of the genetic distinctions among species. If so, it just became an opinion piece.


The real question to ask isn’t whether the aberrant information fits the category, but whether it help the writing to accomplish its purpose? If the opinion made the explanation less clear, then it is a problem (not because it crossed the border, but because it did so ineffectively).

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Loose Ends in the Waning Days of Summer

It's the time of year, when parents and kids are stocking up on school supplies and teachers are decorating bulletin boards and scrambling through professional development days while poring over their new class lists. For me, it is a good time to say a last word on some disparate issues.

Teach Your Baby to Read
Awhile back, an entry here focused on the “Teach Your Baby to Read” program (Teach Your Baby to Read Blog Entry). I criticized those programs for fostering a mis-definition of reading as word memorization and said it was not likely to be effective. I pointed out the need for research. That turned out to be a controversial blog and it generated lots of response. Most critics were parents, two of whom even offered to bring their toddlers to me to see that they were reading.

It is hard to invest in something that doesn’t work; it creates “cognitive dissonance.” That’s just a fancy way of saying that people look hard for reasons to like those things that they have already bought into. Buy a new car and you start reading more car ads than before because you look for evidence that confirms your good judgment.

This week, Susan Neuman and her colleagues published, in the Journal of Educational Psychology, a randomized control trial of studies on baby literacy programs. Their conclusion: “Our results indicated that babies did not learn to read.” The programs had no impact on measures of early literacy and language. Nevertheless, the parents who delivered the programs were sure they were working. Cognitive dissonance strikes again.

Teaching Vocabulary to English Learners
My recent blogs on academic vocabulary elicited this request: “I love that you are addressing this topic! Any advice for those of us working with large populations of ELL students?”

It's a good question. Research suggests vocabulary learning supports reading comprehension, and this impact is greater with ELLs than native speakers. ELL students are less likely to know English words, so teaching words would have a particularly powerful impact for them. 

One thing that is different for ELL kids is that it is not just academic vocabulary that they lack. If we only teach book language or the words that aren’t usually heard in oral discourse, then ELL kids may be left out. It is essential that ELLs be assessed to determine their language status. If their language development is similar to that of their English classmates, then emphasizing academic vocabulary with them makes great sense.

More likely, however, their language will lag behind. In such cases, providing them with additional instruction in vocabulary would make sense. But this instruction should focus on oral language—not written. Claude Goldenberg has promoted the idea of having a daily period devoted to English language instruction for ELLs and that makes great sense to me. Give these kids a chance to close the gap with their English-speaking peers.

I would also argue that it is important to do more than teach word meanings. That has value, of course, but so do listening comprehension and grammar lessons. Language includes more than words.

My Daughters 
There have been many responses to my blogs about teaching my daughters to read. The most chastening was from my eldest who claims I attributed the anecdotes to the wrong daughters. That may be the case, as since they were little, I often would call them by the wrong names. I always told them they were lucky that we didn’t have a dog (who knows they might have come to think Fido was their name).

I also heard from someone who wanted to know the impact of teaching the girls on their later school performance. E., the oldest, who entered school reading at a third-grade level, was chagrined to find that the kindergarten teacher would spend the year teaching letter names and sounds (she enjoyed the inflatable letter people). They let her attend first-grade part-time that year which didn’t help much since those kids could read either. She loved the freedom of being able to leave kindergarten for first-grade and, to her thinking, it was a good year. She later skipped a grade to try to get a closer match (I wish we hadn’t done that, but it was the only choice given the teaching available to her at the time—not the case in all schools).


M., the youngest who was slow at language learning, entered kindergarten with more modest accomplishments (she was reading at about a grade 1 level). Her advantages were less obvious, but I suspect more valuable. There was a very real chance that M. would have struggled with reading when she entered school. Instead, her biggest weakness was a modest strength. I have long believed that if I hadn’t taught E. to read, she would have learned at school quickly and easily anyway. M., on the other hand, may have languished with the wrong teacher or program, and she may have played catch up in language from then on. Her reading levels might have been less remarkable initially, but her reading success was guaranteed.

Both girls did well in school, and one has a degree in law and the other in engineering. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Academic Vocabulary -- Part II

My last entry focused on disagreements over the nature of academic literacy.

One notion of academic language was that it was any text language (formal book language versus informal oral language). A second conception also separates oral language and text language, but it also sets aside the specialized terminology that belongs to particular disciplines. In that view, words like rhombus and mytosis would be too specialized to deserve much instructional attention. A third conception is that academic vocabulary are the words used to teach and assess, and a fourth is the language that labels the essential content of the various disciplines.

Obviously these varied conceptions of academic vocabulary are not total distinct—there are overlaps and some are subsets of the others. And, while the differences among them have to do with which words should be emphasized rather than about how to teach them, that doesn’t mean there aren’t implications for teaching.

It also is evident that some of these have greater research support than others. Research shows that students who know the meaning of more words comprehend better, so having students read a lot and learn the meanings of a lot of words makes sense. Studies also show that teaching vocabulary explicitly can have a positive outcome on reading comprehension, particularly if the words taught show up in the texts that students read.

However, there is no evidence that teaching the words used for teaching and assessing make any difference in learning. It seems likely that students will pick many/most of these up just by being students, so it doesn’t make sense to spend that kind of time on them. These often are not the words that make someone college and career ready.

The idea of teaching the cultural literacy terms—that is the names, places, dates, and so on, that represent the knowledge of educated people—might make sense. Though it might make sense to identify frequently used vocabulary terms and to then teach these, that approach makes little sense for this cultural literacy terminology. Develop knowledge of those literary, historical, and scientific concepts through a strong content focus, not through studying the items themselves (though I had a friend who used to study the Trivial Pursuit cards like this--it didn't make her a better reader, but she was tough to beat in Trivial Pursuit).

To teach the first of these conceptions--book language--it makes sense to encourage students to read a lot at and outside of school, and to teach the fourth one (content knowledge and cultural literacy) the emphasis should be more on the content—with the words becoming familiar from the wider study. That doesn't mean that students wouldn't study the vocabulary of such content, only that they would do so while learning that content. And, the third conception, the language of lessons and tests, should not be the focus of instruction at all.

The only one of these that makes sense as a focus of formal and even decontextualized language instruction are those non-content words that are not common to oral language. Words like: hierarchy, emotion, criteria, process, generation, symbol, visible, conduct, etc.

What isn’t clear is who should be teaching these. While there is no doubt that science teachers should teach the content words of the concepts that they teach (e.g., photosynthesis, atom, molecule), should that they also be responsible for teaching the meanings of non-science words like contrast, distinct, arranged, etc. that often are used to explain science content?

The answer to this is not clear. This year, one of my doctoral students, Elizabeth Birmingham, carried out a study on this. She didn’t find that studying those kinds of words gave students a measurable benefit—though the problem is a complex one and we all learned a lot from her study design. She had students in one group studying the content words and in another they focused on the enabling words. The content word group did best, but mainly because they learned the content words better (and that was one of the outcomes of concern). We have a long way to go to understand how this works best, however. 


In the meantime, engaging students in lots of reading and providing them with many opportunities for content learning—supplemented by a narrower focus on explicit vocabulary teaching. That teaching definitely should not be as narrow as those conceptions of academic literacy that focus on “instructional” language, but exactly how it is best arranged is not yet clear. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Are You Lactating? And other notes on Academic Language

Late last year, it was big news when a translator for the deaf and hard of hearing at Nelson Mandela’s funeral didn’t know sign language. The fella was very entertaining (his “signs” displayed exuberance, but not meaning).

It reminded me of when the Dairy Council tried to translate their, “Got Milk” advertising campaign into Spanish—their translator lacked sufficient knowledge of the languages and the slogan came out, “Are you lactating?” Probably not the best way to sell milk!

Language is essential to learning and communication, so it should not be a surprise that “academic language” or “academic vocabulary” is a big deal. References to these concepts are growing in the professional literature, there are increasing numbers of commercial programs aimed at nurturing these skills, and state educational standards (including CCSS) have embraced the idea.

That all makes sense, and yet there is some irony in it, too.

The irony? There seems to be little agreement as to the meaning of "academic vocabulary."

I’m aware of at least four overlapping definitions of the concept—and they differ in ways that matter in instruction.

One definition of academic language is that it is text language. The language of text is the language of the Academy; as such there isn’t a specific word list to be mastered, but students have to become adept at reading the kinds of texts that educated people read. Advocates of this notion separate oral from written language, and they tend to do this quantitatively.

Thus, knowing the 10,000 most frequent words in the language (words common in oral language) doesn’t count for much, but knowing the next 20,000-40,000 most frequent words is what distinguishes the educated from the uneducated.

A second concept is the one espoused, perhaps most prominently, by Beck and McKeown. Their scheme partitions vocabulary seating into three sections. In the orchestra section (tier 1) are the oral language words—nothing especially academic there. In the balcony (tier 3), are the words that are specialized to the various disciplines (e.g., simile, gerund, minuend, rational number, isotope), They don’t focus on these seats either.

The academic words are all sitting in the mezzanine—Tier 2. A good example of academic words would be Coxhead’s Academic Vocabulary list. These words are widely used in academia, and because they are words that are used in multiple disciplines, they should be taught.

Although this idea of academic vocabulary is not as amorphous or wide-ranging as the first, it is not particularly narrow either. Beck and McKeown have emphasized words like “reluctant” and Coxhead includes words like, “apparent,” “appreciate,” and “culture.” These are words not owned by any particular discipline, but they are not necessarily general to all disciplines either.

A third notion is even narrower. This is one of the more common schemes for describing academic vocabulary. A good example would be the Tennessee vocabulary list that Bob Marzano put together. Essentially, they went through textbooks and tests and drew out the vocabulary that is used to teach or evaluate. Thus, academic vocabulary includes terms like “alphabet,” “predictable book”, and “supporting ideas.” These aren’t the words of “well educated people,” they are a crib sheet for completing workbook pages and standardized tests.

A fourth conception of academic vocabulary is the one promoted by E.D. Hirsch (Cultural Literacy) and Chamot & O’Malley (CALLA model for teaching second language learners). These approaches aren’t as narrow—with regards to learning content. While the other schemes might advantage words like “principle” and “protean,” these approaches recognize the importance of content knowledge, with vocabulary as an index of that. Thus, terms like Adriatic Sea, relativity, or George Washington, are exemplars of what needs to be mastered. In other words, academic language needs to include the concepts, facts, and skills underlying science, mathematics, literature, and social studies.

Which of these concepts make the greatest sense and what difference might it make instructionally? See you next time for some answers.


Milk anyone?