Showing posts with label Adolescent Literacy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Adolescent Literacy. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Text Difficulty and Adolescents

I recently received the following letter and thought you might be interested in my responses:

"I found your August 21, 2011 blog post on "Rejecting Instructional Level Theory" eye-opening and helpful.  I'm a high school English teacher and instructional coach specializing in adolescent literacy remediation, so I've worked with leveled text a lot.  If you have a moment, I'd love to hear your thoughts on a couple of follow-up questions:"

  1. Are the implications of your findings different for adolescents needing remediation?
It depends on how low the students are and how much scaffolding is available. If you stick a 9th grader who reads at a second-grade level in a freshmen biology class and assume learning is going to happen because the book is hard, then kids are going to fail. On the other hand, same student, same book, but put that student in with a teacher who spend a lot of time guiding, supporting, encouraging, teaching to help the youngster close the gap… then you’d be surprised at how much learning can happen. The trick is to balance the difficulty (for the student) of the text and the amount of support the teacher can provide (I don’t believe she can provide much if there are 25 other kids there who are reading at 5th-10th grade level in a 40 minute class).

  1. Is "accessible text" still important for fluency-building?
Same issue. Kids don’t seem to develop fluency skills from reading easy texts (no data showing this, but lots of claims about it, of course), but they do develop fluency skills from reading harder texts (look at Steve Stahl's data on this, for instance). It is when students struggle with a book and reread it, etc. that fluency develops. The idea that lots of easy reading builds fluency is an unproven concept.

  1. What about sheer volume? Isn't one of the benefits of selecting texts that students can read without significant teacher support that allows them to read many more words per day (week, month, year) because they can read faster and can read at home?  This was what initially drove me away from the model of spending three months spoon-feeding Macbeth to my low-skilled 11th graders and toward the use of literature circles, independent reading, and shared reading of more accessible, contemporary classics--although I knew I was giving something up in that switch and tried to make space for both.
That makes so much sense, and yet, surveys tell us (as do teachers) that even with the easier materials, adolescents aren’t reading much. The idea that kids will do more of something if it is easy is also an unproven concept. When a teacher is working with kids, hard (text) is a good idea, but varied might be even better (some hard, some relatively easy, but a real agenda of trying to ramp up what the student can handle). When kids are reading on their own, then their interests are going to dictate what is hard (in fact, we have known for a long time that if kids are really interested in a topic they usually know something about it and can handle harder texts than might normally be expected). I'm all for kids reading a lot, including in class, but time with a teacher, like an athlete's time with a coach, has to be spent building strength, endurance, and stamina--which requires the reading of a mix of challenging and somewhat easier materials. As ACT found, a steady diet of easy reading in school is not doing adolescents any favors. 

Thursday, January 7, 2010

More on High School Phonics--From Marilyn Jager Adams

Usually, posts to this site just sit at the bottom of my blog entries. If you click on the title of one of my entries you can see what someone might have said about my thoughts.

However, today, I was pleased to accept the entry of someone who I deeply admire, so I wanted to highlight it a bit. Marilyn Jager Adams weighed in on my high school phonics blog and argues for why technology might get us out of the unfortunate quandry that I described. As I say, normally, I do not tout the responses and that is especially true if I feel like the responder has something to sell. I usually don't push such products here (even the ones that I have developed--and I have received some complaints about that, believe it or not), but I think Marilyn raises an important point and one I want to highlight.

I really doubt that our system has the resolve to invest very heavily in the education of kids who are 7-8 years behind, so technology could be a real hope. But, my experience is that most people don't have the resolve to hang in there with a computer. They love the privacy, they love the individualization, but they get lonely. Products like the one Marilyn describes need to be studied, but even if they work, what does it take to make them work well enough?

My first introduction to Read 180 wasn't a good one. It involved a dispute between parents and school district. The district had taken a learning disabled child and stuck him into Read 180 for two years. At the end of that time, he had regressed. The school didn't feel obligated to invest as heavily as they probably needed to in that student's learning, so technology was a good out. The boy actually liked Read 180, but only for the first few months, and then he felt detached, alone, rejected. That isn't the fault of technology (I don't think, in that case, a better program would have made a difference, though if the Read 180 curriculum had been followed-- not just the tech part, it might have gone better for everyone.

So by all means, Marilyn, continue to try to improve such programs over time, that will likely help. But for teachers and parents, as good a piece of software may be, remember that learning is social. Sometimes we want to be protected from others and sometime we want to be connected with them (counter or drive thru window today?). Good software can both teach and protect the fragile ego of a neglected learner who is so far behind it is embarrassing. Good software usually does not make a student feel more connected and accepted by others (and being low in literacy can be an isolating event).

If you want to read Marilyn's fine input, please click on the title of my High School Phonics blog and it will be there. Happy reading, and thanks for the contribution Marilyn. I was proud to accept it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Odds and Ends

This has been a very busy week or two, and here it is Friday and I find that I have left some promises (to keep).

Last week I spoke to English language educators in Oregon about vocabulary. English learners benefit more from vocabulary instruction more than do native speakers (and it helps us too), and given the role vocabulary plays in reading comprehension, it would be wise if our schools got intensive about teaching vocabulary to such kids. Unfortunately, there aren't many studies to go on, so I rely heavily on the native speakers studies and color my efforts with the bit of information from the English learner vocab investigations. The major differences in vocabulary learning across these groups: (1) the words may differ (English learners are likely to need all of the words that native speakers do, but also some language that we learn just from experience with English; (2) the instruction may have to be more explicit about the grammatical function of the new words (it really does make sense to show them the word in different forms and tenses, and not just assume they will make the generalization); and (3) the use of more pictures and motions (and even the home language) to help explain the words meanings. Below you can find my presentation on vocabulary.

I also met with two groups of teachers in Minnesota who are in the process of identifying schoolbooks that will support their efforts to improve achievement. I shared with them my take on the research and my experiences in raising achievement in Chicago. That presentation is below.

Finally, I met with a bunch of teachers, coaches, and other educators in Long Island, NY (congratulations Yankee fans) to talk about adolescent literacy. They want me to come back and talk to their principals and superintendents and school board members (which I am happy to do--we really have to get moving on the adolescent literacy problem).

Oh, one more thing: yesterday, a teacher contacted me wondering what she could do for a severely dyslexic fourth-grader. She wanted me to weigh in, and told me which programs he had failed with and what he couldn't do. What she did not reveal is what he could do. I wrote back and told her that I could provide no help without an honest appraisal of what this young man could actually do with decoding, sight vocabulary, phonological awareness, fluency, listening comprehension, writing, vocabulary, etc. Teaching is different than doctoring... you rely even more heavily on what kids can do than on what they can't (we don't look for symptoms as much as strengths).

Have a good weekend.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Useful Information on Adolescent Literacy

Hi everyone,

I just got back from the big Reading Summit in Indiana. The governor and state schools superintendent, Tony Bennett (no, not that Tony Bennett) have noticed that the nation has been improving in literacy, but Indiana has not (fourth graders in Indiana are reading no better than they were in the early 1990s, while American fourth graders have been on the improve; older US kids haven’t done any better, so the lack of progress among the Hoosiers is more understandable, though certainly not acceptable).

The Indiana Department of Education brought in a group of speakers to help kick off their efforts, and I was proud to be there. I spoke about adolescent reading and the talk was well received. As promised to the audience, I have attached a copy of the Power point slides here. Reid Lyon gave a rousing opening, and before I headed back home I got to hear Mel Riddle, an amazing principal who has successfully led efforts to improve reading in an urban high school. He sure knows how to get the job done. Mel also serves on the Carnegie Adolescent Literacy Commission and is one of the authors of their new report, Time to Act, which is a fine piece of work and one that I think you might find useful.

After my talk, during a Q & A session I was stumped; I couldn’t remember the name of a silent reading fluency test for older kids, so I promised to place that info here: the Test of Silent Contextual Reading Fluency (Pro-Ed). I’m not a big fan of group fluency tests, but sometimes it is the only way to go. I would say, however, that even in middle and high school, teachers can evaluate fluency while teaching fluency. If that is done regularly, the fluency level estimates can be every bit as good as what any standard test might provide.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Adolescent Literacy: The Youth Culture Myth

Why aren’t we doing more for adolescent literacy?

The federal government invests a whole lot more in “kid literacy” than in teen literacy (we invest nearly $20 billion per year on Head Start, Reading First, and Title I reading programs, and about $30 million on Striving Readers). The same pattern is true in the states as well, and if you look at school standards, accountability monitoring, and the professional development of teachers, you see a definite tilt towards younger kids when it comes to reading.

It’s not just the inputs that differ either. National Assessment data show that kids are improving more in reading early on than the upper grades. The pattern is slow growth versus early on followed by stagnation. Our young kids do well in international comparisons, while our older kids get creamed.

Part of the problem is that the idea that learning to read is something accomplished by the time kids are in third grade. That reading development can extend through a lifetime is not widely recognized. Older kids could do better, if we are willing to teach them longer than we have traditionally. We need more explicit learning standards for older students, better preparation for their teachers, curricula, instructional materials, and programs for those who fall behind if we are going to get kids to higher levels of achievement.

The problem isn’t entirely due to official neglect and lack of funding. Another problem is that the field has been distracted; those who should be figuring out how to most effectively extend instruction up the grades have been exploring youth culture instead.

The theory is that youth now confronts many literacies in their daily lives, that these literacies are cognitively demanding, and multimodal (including reading film, television, Gangsta Rap, web pages, and other non-reading literacy). It is often claimed that these literacies are cognitively more demanding than the ones taught in school. So if kids are learning and using these challenging literacies on their own, why so much trouble advancing academically in school? This problem is attributed to the cultural mismatch between school literacy and the literacy of youth culture that has alienated kids from the mainstream. In other words, kids come to value the literacy they have learned on their own because it buys them entrée into the real world, and so they reject and refuse to learn the literacy of school. Some scholars want to celebrate these new literacies (go video games), while others hope to turn these insights into teaching nostrums: such as the idea that we should teach popular culture; the more we focus on Hip Hop the better the kids will recognized the relevance of school literacy.

There are some problems with these theories, though I certainly think it is a good idea to monitor the use of literacy in society, including within youth culture. One basic flaw is the claim that the skills students use when playing video grams are commensurate with those evident in reading. We don’t have good measures of cognitive equivalence across tasks, so there just isn’t convincing support for the idea that understanding the conflict in a video war is equal to understanding the conflicts in novel like, The Scarlet Letter.

Even more flawed is the idea of the prevalence of these new literacy practices among youth. The researchers seem to be trying to “prove” that such literacy practices are widespread through case study examples. But looks at normative practices of IM-ing and the like do not reveal that all youth are so engaged. In fact, such practices tend to be highly skewed towards particular economic levels (at which school literacy attainment tends to be high anyway). Hollywood loves to feature teen whiz kids who sneak into the Pentagon computers and access the missile launch codes, or straighten out the credit crisis for our banks. The image is cute, but not very accurate.

The reason that a lot of kids can use literacy in these new ways is most likely because they are appropriating the literacy taught them at school for their own purposes (as has been done by literacy users since scribes began incising characters on clay tablets). A nationwide study of literacy practices among teens and young adults would be informative, and I suspect they would show that the kids who were doing well with traditional literacy were the ones most likely to explore new literacies.

Ultimately, these ideas founder on the premise that we should teach popular culture and the literacy practices of youth in school. If you want to kill youth culture, then try to appropriate it. Instead of romanticizing the use of these non-school literacies, we need to recognize their limitations. As Don Leu and his colleagues at the University of Connecticut have been showing, teens may be using the Internet, but they are not sophisticated users by any means. School needs to stay to the business of teaching kids to read demanding and difficult text and to be thoughtful and critical in those readings. My observations tell me that the reading of youth culture tends to be relatively simple, derivative of school practices, and not very deep or critical. Sometimes it is best to tend to your own knitting, and I suspect that is the case here. We need a lot more attention on school literacy all the way up through Grade 12; let’s trust that kids will figure out Hip Hop and Xbox for themselves.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Heterogeneous or Homogeneous for Middle School Disabled Readers?

Dr. Shanahan,

I am a mother of a child with a reading disability (as well as processing and short term memory) who will be entering middle school in the fall. Our middle school is planning on heterogeneously grouping the students in reading/language arts classes. As I'm sure you know this would be the lowest level readers blended with college level readers. Also, reading interventions will be cut from every day to every other day. I am a little concerned about the implications this may have on the students. Do you happen to know what research says about this concept? What are your feelings?Any assistance will be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for your help! :)

Dear Concerned Parent,

Thanks for your letter. Generally research has not been positive about homogeneous group or tracking by class when it comes to reading instruction (though most of this research has been done with younger kids or older kids in subjects other than reading). Overall the findings are that homogeneous grouping provides a slight academic benefit to the highest kids and no measurable benefit to the others, but of course those are averages and kid’s experiences are individual.

One concern about trying to group all kids by level is that it segregates them which can be socially disruptive and cuts kids off from models of proficiency. Your child benefits from interacting regularly and meaningfully with kids who might not be challenged in the same ways and who might find it easier to see themselves as upwardly mobile when it comes to academics.

One reason there is so little benefit to grouping kids by ability is that most kids are at or near the middle where not much benefit would be expected (think of it this way: if a 7th grade teacher teaches from a 7th grade book in an average school, nearly 70% of the kids are likely to be reading between a 6th and 8th grade level; there would be very little benefit from such a small adjustment for these kids). That leaves 30% of kids who are far enough off the mark who might benefit from an alteration of level, but even a two-year reading difference at this grade level is not that big, especially on the high end, so that means about 85-90% of the kids will likely do fine when they are taught “on grade level” rather than reading level (some teachers might even make some within classroom adjustments reducing the homogeneous advantage even more).

My claim isn’t that there could be no benefit to the vast majority of kids under any conditions, but just changing the book level and placing kids only with those who perform like themselves will not, by itself, change things enough to matter to most kids. For example, one of the big gains that could come from homogeneous grouping would be that the teachers could move along more quickly and cover more instructional ground… Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a school put in place a more ambitious curriculum as a result of such grouping (yeah, the kids often get exactly the same instruction they would have with or without the grouping).

Okay, so homogeneous grouping for reading/language arts could be beneficial 10-20% of kids in the middle and high school grades. About half of those kids are reading above grade level. Perhaps they'd make faster progress in a homogenous setting, but schools are notorious for not actually raising the level with such gifted kids anyway, and school districts tend not to worry about the gifted much in these days of AYP and moribund reading scores.

That means that homogeneous grouping for reading in middle school will probably be of greatest value to the 5-10% of kids at the bottom; the ones reading more than two years below grade level. The ones the teacher really can’t “pull along” to adequate progress with the other kids. The ones who either suck up way too much teacher time in a heterogeneous classroom or who simply fade into the wallpaper and don’t make much progress at all. Schools definitely could (and often do) create an alternative reading class for such kids (or in some cases, it is an additional class—the strugglers take both the regular language arts class AND the special reading class).

Sadly, even when schools create such possibilities they often fail to provide the resources needed to make them work. Remember how far these kids are behind? Just adjusting the instructional level of the materials will probably not alone be sufficient to meet their needs. Struggling readers have to make gains that will help close the learning gap with their peers (that means they need more than a year learning for a year of teaching).

One thing I found when I was doing the research to create my adolescent literacy program (for kids reading 2nd to 5th grade levels) was the great need for intensive instruction with these kids. It isn’t enough to alter the reading level of the materials, but skills and strategies need to be taught with a heightened thoroughness and consistency. Programs for average kids tend to flit from one strategy to another rarely spending even a couple of days on the same thing (I guess in fear of boring this generation); but the effective approaches demonstrated in research studies had a very different design: they stayed with something for days and even weeks, trying the new strategy out in lots of different texts and under varied circumstances and with lots of review. That kind of teaching is especially necessary for kids like yours.

If your child is more than two years below grade level in reading performance, I would push for the school to do some special programming for such kids. The ideal would be to provide them with a special reading class (don’t segregate them, keep them together with everyone else for the rest of their day), and that class should be daily--time matters. I would assign fewer kids to such classes so the instruction could be as individualized as possible. I would push for the use of a reading or special education teacher who knows a lot about this kind of teaching. I would push for the use of the kinds of materials reviewed above. I would even consider pushing for an afterschool program to get my child even more of this kind of teaching than can be afforded in a school day. (Of course, if that isn’t possible or the school isn’t responsive then you need to try to create such a situation for your child away from school. Unfortunately, I don’t know what resources of this type might be available in your community).

I don’t know where you are located, but if you want to see the kind of teaching that really can make a difference with learning-disabled children, I would suggest that you try to visit the Benchmark School in the Philadelphia area. Their teaching is remarkably good and would provide you with a vision for your schools to work towards.

Good luck.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Disciplinary Literacy

There is growing interest and concern in the reading of older students (grades 4-12). There are many reasons for this, but ultimately it comes down to the fact that most thoughtful observers are convinced that most students leave high school with insufficient reading and writing skills--insufficient for college success or economic participation.

Over the past few years, we have seen growth in the numbers of reading programs aimed at student in the upper grades (including my own AMP program. I believe that, once we get through the presidential election, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will be reauthorized, for the first time including literacy help for older school age students. This week we saw the Department of Education put out requirements that will make it more difficult for states and local districts to continue to hide or disguise horrendous high school drop out levels.

My wife, Cyndie, and I have been involved in some important work with support of the Carnegie Corporation. We have been studying what is increasingly referred to as disciplinary literacy. By disciplinary literacy we mean the specialized skills and codes that someone must master to be able to read and write in the various disciplines (science, math, literature, history) and technical fields. Basic reading skills tend to be highly generalizable, but various scholars have shown that increasingly, with development, literacy involves language skills and cognitive processes (and even values) that are specialized. That means that our students, by the time they reach high school, need to start learning those more unique aspects of literacy.

We have an article about this in the Harvard Education Review that is getting a lot of play. Recently, the editors of that issue invited me to Harvard University to speak to their community about this topic, and also to speak at the American Educational Research Association meeting in New York.