Showing posts with label Beginning Reading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Beginning Reading. Show all posts

Monday, November 2, 2015

Letter Teaching in Kindergarten

Teacher question:
     Our Kindergarten is using a reading program that has some wonderful lessons. However, we also feel that the pacing doesn't match current expectations for kindergarten students. For example, the program doesn't introduce high frequency words until December and it only teaches 25 words for the entire year. The first lesson for teaching letter names doesn't come until December. What does current research say about when letters, sounds, and sight words should be introduced in kindergarten?

Shanahan response:
     The National Early Literacy Panel examined a lot of research on the role of letter knowledge in learning to read by kindergartners and preschoolers. Those studies clearly showed the value of knowing letter names. There were 52 studies including 7,570 children in pre-K or K that explored the relationship of their knowledge of letters with later decoding, 17 such studies connecting letters to later reading comprehension (2028 kids), and 18 such studies connecting letters to spelling (2619 kids). The result showed a strong significant correlation among all of these skills. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the more letters (and sounds) that you know early on, the better your chances of developing strong literacy skills.

     Of course, letter knowledge is one of those “necessary but insufficient” skills. What I mean by that is that if all we did was taught kids about letters, few would become readers; there is more to it than that, so such teaching would be insufficient. However, that doesn’t take away the “necessary” part of the formulation. It would be awfully hard to learn to read without knowing the letters.

     The panel also examined about 75 instructional studies—all done with children in kindergarten and earlier—that focused on letter names, letter sounds, decoding, phonological awareness, and print awareness. These studies were resounding in their results, too. Such teaching not only improved performance on the skills in question (yes, teaching letter names leads to the learning of letter names), but to consequent improvements in decoding and reading comprehension.

     Given that the more letters young kids know, the better they do in literacy, I can think of no reason for delaying the teaching of letters. Some kids pick them up quickly and so waiting until mid-Kindergarten probably would not be harmful. They’ll still be likely to master the letters by the end of the year.

     But what about the strugglers; the kids who don’t pick that kind of information up so easily? (Think about kids who don’t get much academic support at home or who suffer from disabilities.) They would benefit from a longer regime of teaching. That increased opportunity could make a huge difference in their success with letters. The sooner they master that part of early reading, of course, the sooner they can focus their learning efforts on other literacy concepts and processes.

     With regard to teaching words in kindergarten, I think 25 is plenty. We don’t have research studies on this so I’m drawing mostly on personal experience (as a teacher and parent) and on the professional judgment of various educators (such as Catherine Snow at Harvard).

     There definitely are benefits to learning sight words, but sight word learning gets easier as students develop phonics skills. A heavy early emphasis on words puts a lot of strain on memory, unnecessarily. I have long argued for kids to learn 100 high frequency words by the end of grade 1, and 300 by the end of grade 2, and 25 by the end of K makes lots of sense. These would not be the only words that kids could read, but it would cover a lot of those not-so-regular, super-high frequency words like “of” and “the” which are so useful early on.

     I know some programs are going wild with having kindergartners memorize large numbers of words, but I don’t know of any empirical evidence supporting that practice.

     It sounds like your program should be more ambitious when it comes to teaching kids about letters, sounds, and decoding, but its word coverage sounds reasonable to me.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Does Preschool Improve Later Literacy Achievement?

Here we go again.

Last week, Dale Farran and a team of researchers at Vanderbilt University concluded that preschool education gets kids off to a great academic start, but by the end of kindergarten the results start to wear off. And, by the end of second grade you can’t even tell that the kids had attended preschool or not.

That suggests that preschool education is a lousy investment—if the goal is to improve students’ later reading and math achievement.

The same kind of findings resulted a couple years ago in a similar study of Head Start. Good initial payoff, but no lasting value.

Over the past few days there have been lots of post-mortems of these findings. The press has interviewed various experts and many have focused on the same concern: the quality of this specific preschool program.

But as Dr. Farran points out, these preschool experiences must have been darn good. Remember, these children were initially doing better than the other kindergarten kids on lots of measures. 

I think the experts are looking in the wrong direction.

Our system of education, both formally and informally, aims at the bottom, with a clear goal of trying to raise the lowest kids up. Kindergartners and first-graders are tested to identify those who need extra help. Then Title I reading support kicks in; not for everybody, but for the strugglers.

If the children who experienced preschool are generally in the top half of the distribution when they enter kindergarten, schools are going to work hard at trying to close the gap. They’ll address it by giving the lower achieving kids  (the ones who didn't attend preschool) more instruction to try to close the gap. This isn't some weird response by individual teachers. It is public policy. The lower achieving kids--that would mean the ones without preschool will get Title I, RtI, Reading Recovery, after school interventions, and summer school. 

What will the higher achieving kids get while this is going on? Probably not very much. If they enter kindergarten already knowing their letter sounds or able to segment words phonemically, then they are likely to get more work with those same concepts. [I remember my oldest daughter, who could read when she entered school, being surprised that they were going to teach her the letter names—despite the fact that she had known them for years.]

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Dolores Durkin documented it back in the 1970s. She taught a bunch of preschoolers to read then followed them through second grade. Each year the schools retaught these kids skills they had mastered long ago, until eventually the other kids caught up.

Some people think that early teaching changes kids cognitively, making them smarter. If it worked that way, the early benefits wouldn’t wash out, even given these policies and programs.

But I think preschool helps because it gives kids extra time to learn specific knowledge and abilities, like numbers and addition or letter sounds and high frequency words. They don’t lose this knowledge once its gained, but if they have no opportunity to add to it, then the other kids simply catch up, making it look like the preschool time was wasted.

If we were really serious about early childhood education making a long-term difference in children’s literacy achievement, we would change primary grade reading curricula to allow these kids to keep progressing from where they are when they enter kindergarten—rather than reteaching the same skills again and again, as if they had not been in preschool, and giving all the extra tuition to the kids they accelerated ahead of.

If you want preschool to be effective, take a close look at what is going to happen to these children when they leave preschool. Given that their skill levels are generally so advanced, one would expect to find a more advanced curriculum aimed at these kids. But I bet you won't find one. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Is rhyming ability in important in reading?

Our district is wrestling with how much emphasis to give rhyming as an early literacy skill. We had previously downplayed rhyming as a necessary focus but the new CA ELA/ELD Framework and CCSS where rhyming is specifically called out has resurfaced old questions.  

Our struggle is this.... with our very high (87%) English Learner population, rhyming is one of the later skills acquired for these students in Preschool through grade 1.  Reading research seems to support the idea of rhyming as a pre-requisite to reading; exposure to this kind of play with words and "word families" gives children another pathway to reading. However, students who are not native to English miss this early exposure and much of their cognitive energy seems to be taken up with meaning-making. Often in our classrooms it seems we are successful at teaching the students to decode and then have to go back and teach them to identify and produce rhyming words.  Doesn't this defeat the purpose for using rhyming as a building block for reading?

This is not to say that our teachers aren't talking about rhyming words as they are encountered in text or pointing out word families but our question, as we decide where to put our educational dollar, is will an emphasis on rhyming give us a reading payout?

When I was a young reading specialist (a very long time ago), I wondered about this myself—though I certainly wasn’t aware of any research on it. I noticed that some of my low readers were surprisingly thick when it came to rhyme. Rhyme had always seemed automatic to me, and it made me wonder about its role in reading. As a result, I started to check out the rhyming ability of my students (grade 2-6). Just as I suspected, poor rhyming appeared to be an important marker of low reading ability.

What I had informally noticed as a teacher, the research community noticed as well. In the 1980s (and especially the 1990s--though it continues today), rhyming as a precursor to reading became a big issue. It made sense: many low readers struggled with rhyming, the research community was increasingly interested in how kids perceive language sounds, and phonological awareness (PA) became a big deal. It is rare that one sees a list of those early PA skills that doesn’t include rhyming.

There was so much research on this that the National Early Literacy Panel (2008) was able to meta-analyze it. Here is what we concluded:

1.     Rhyming ability is predictive of later reading achievement, but it had the weakest correlation of any of the phonemic awareness skills. Being able to segment words into single phonemes or to blend phonemes together into words, were significantly better predictors of decoding. (There were no significant differences in these predictors with regard to later reading comprehension growth).
2.     With regard to the teaching of PA, it was concluded that there were few instructional interventions that used rhyming activities as a primary teaching approach, but that the teaching of letters and sounds had a significant impact on student learning.

What do I conclude from this? First, rhyming ability is a predictor of later reading development, but it isn’t as accurate or sensitive as other skills (like letter naming or phonemic awareness—children’s ability to distinguish or segment single sounds in words). If I noticed a youngster was having trouble with rhymes, I would pay attention to it, but if I was setting up a screening program to identify potential problems, rhyming wouldn’t be the way that I would go.

Given that there are no studies showing that teaching rhyming improves reading achievement (or even makes kids more amenable to and successful with phonemic awareness instruction), I wouldn’t want to spend much time teaching it. There are some recent studies that suggest that as students learn to read, their ability to rhyme improves (McNorgan, Awati, Desroches, & Booth, 2014). Thus, instead of better rhyming leading to better reading, the knowledge of words and letters and sounds allows students to gain access to this somewhat separate skill. 

That may be why your second language students do better with rhyming once they can read; they would have greater knowledge of vocabulary and the language in general once they were reading--and these skills are evidently important in rhyming. That is also probably why rhyming has a more similar relationship to reading comprehension as the other phonological skills: These skills have little or no functional relationship in reading comprehension, but they do serve as markers of language proficiency or sophistication. The better one is with language, the better one will be with comprehension. But since rhyming plays little or no functional role in decoding, it is less predictive of decoding skills. 

There is no question that all of these various phonological awareness skills—awareness of the sound separation between words, the ability to separate syllables within words, the ability to segment onsets (first sounds) from rimes (b/ig), the ability to rhyme, the ability to segment or blend phonemes are all correlated with each other. But it is the segmenting and blending of phonemes that has functional value in reading.

I would not put a lot of emphasis on the teaching of rhyme. It sounds to me like your teachers are approaching this appropriately and the policy is, perhaps unintentionally, steering them in the wrong direction.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Informational Text and Young Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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