Monday, February 16, 2015
I would like your thoughts on some instructional practices that I am seeing an increase in amongst the schools that I work with What do you have to say about decreasing or eliminating science/social studies instruction for those students who have not met proficiency in reading (as determined by a screener or other assessment tool) to allow for RTI time?
Ah, the "how do I fit into a size 4 dress for my sister's wedding?" question. I say that because we all deal with problems of trying to fit too much into a small space, whether we're still in the condo with the second baby or sneaking our SUV into the compact car spaces at Whole Foods.
In this case, we want to give kids 8 hours of teaching in a 6 hour day. Of course, that rarely works (I can almost hear the stitches stretching). How can we provide students with the reading instruction that they need while ensuring that they learn lots of content, too? Kind of makes you want to drown your sorrows in a pint of Haagen Dazs--which could help with the reading problem, but I wouldn't advise it if you're still working on size 4.
Generally, I’m not a big fan of the practice. Many years ago, Harry Singer and his colleagues found a close relationship between what students knew about social studies and science and how well they were learning to read. These were secondary school students, but you get the idea. If we reduce kids’ opportunity to develop content knowledge, then we undermine their futures as readers.
Of course, this question is not asking about older students. Research also shows that if students don’t master basic reading skills early on, then their later content learning will be seriously undermined. It is a disaster if kids leave the primary grades without strong reading skills, and undermining content knowledge to get there carries its own problems.
Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. What is a school supposed to do? If a child is struggling to develop phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency skills, then providing additional tuition in those subjects is a proven way to advance early literacy.
That’s where the conundrum is. If you don’t intervene well and early with sound reading instruction, then kids are likely to be dogged by low literacy in all their later subject matter courses. But if you do use science, social studies, art & music (etc.) time to fix the reading skills, then you reduce the knowledge that should play a big role in later reading.
I’ve always sided with the reading intervention idea, but mainly because the content coverage in so many primary grade classrooms is so thin. The negative impact of missing those subjects is likely to be less detrimental than continuing to be a laggard in reading, so reading it is.
Now I think we should be less accepting of that position, or at least we should try to make it a harder choice. Here are some practices and policies that can ensure students gain both the reading skills and the subject matter content:
One way to ensure that most kids can read well in the elementary school grades is to advance their language and literacy skills early on. Preschools should include literacy play (e.g., post office, library, restaurant, newspaper office, writing center), story time, lots of books, and explicit instruction in phonological awareness and letter names and sounds. Whatever they learn before kindergarten and first grade, they don’t need to learn in kindergarten and first grade.
Universal full day kindergarten
This content/reading rivalry is a competition for time. You can split the difference or prioritize, but the best thing for kids would be to expand the resource. More instructional hours means more opportunities for reading AND content instruction.
Rigorous instruction in social studies, science, and the arts
Many schools follow the tests. If there is a reading and math test, teachers and principals focus heavily on instruction in those subjects and everything else can go jump. Sadly, this means that kids get short changed. Let’s preserve dedicated time for teaching these things—increasing reading instruction without doing that is cheating.
Reading social studies and science texts
Teach reading using social studies and science texts. This can mean both including informational texts in the “reading books” and teaching reading using the regular textbooks from the subjects. If kids are going to practice prediction or summarizing or any other reading skill, why can’t they do that within Chapter 4 of the classroom science text?
Longer academic days
Again, we keep trying to squeeze an awful lot into too small a space. I’m a big fan of afterschool and summer programs for kids. Often these are offered by zoos, parks, museums, libraries, scouts, and other non-school institutions. If we want our kids to be really good readers and to know a lot about their world, we need to make sure that the opportunities to learn go well beyond the school day (that way, when a student needs to miss a class because of reading or math, he/she isn’t missing everything).
Commitment to success
When a student enters any kind of remediation, there should be a clear and meaningful goal for such teaching. And, then we ought to be aggressive about making sure they reach these goals. I’d say the same thing about content instruction; we need to make sure this teaching has powerful and clear objectives that we make a serious effort to accomplish. Too often we are rigorous in determining schedules and which teachers are to work with a remedial student, but we aren’t as dedicated to accomplishing real outcomes.
Another way to expand learning time is to engage parent involvement. Not all parents can or are willing to help, but many are and we should take advantage of the resource. Parents can help with various aspects of reading instruction and activity, and the same is true for involving them in exposing their kids to rich content.
Make sure there is a content plan
Often IEPs and the like emphasize the reading skills that have to be learned, but they are silent about what content needs to be mastered. In that sense, they can operate like tests... steering teachers to overemphasize some things and to ignore others. Don’t just figure out how to deliver high quality reading instruction to such students, but also figure out how this will be done while preserving the content learning everyone else will get.
All of these approaches can help to get more into a small space. They can increase learning opportunity, which could prevent or reduce the need to pull kids out of their content classes. I doubt we’ll ever be able to do away with pullout instruction (any more than we can get by without size 6 dresses). But I suspect we could reduce the ill effects of this approach while ensuring some real benefits.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Over the past few weeks I have been explaining an organizational plan that is a better alternative than Daily 5. Although I appreciate an approach (like Daily 5) that structures time for teachers, I believe it is better to do that around the outcomes rather than the teaching activities. Teachers need activities, of course, but they need to keep focused on what they are using those activities towards. A complaint of most of the big names in education is that teachers get too bogged down in methods, activities, approaches and the like, and lose sight of the purpose of those actions.
Here I will provide responses to many of the questions that have come up.
Won’t it get tedious if I structure the day in the same way everyday?
Perhaps, but that isn’t what I have recommended. You definitely could use my scheme in a repetitive manner and there are both benefits and drawbacks to that (as the question implies). However, the issue is whether you are spending enough time focused on the right goals, and how you organize that in a day is up to you as a professional. Thus, if you plan on spending 45 minutes on words in your first-grade, that does not mean that you have to teach words from 9:00AM-9:45AM every morning. You definitely could vary this day to day. However, you also could break up this time into smaller chunks.
Shouldn’t I integrate instruction?
Again, perhaps, but because the boundaries are not firm across these categories, it is possible to be very flexible. A fifth-grade teacher might decide that she needs more than 30 minutes to teach a good comprehension lesson—since the texts that students are reading are more extended than that. She could teach reading comprehension every other day, instead of every day, which would allow an hour for such a lesson (writing would usually get swapped with reading comprehension in such a structure). Or, what if the teacher was teaching comprehension, but found out—right in the middle of the lesson—that more vocabulary work was needed. The teacher could provide that instruction and even out later, by providing more or less instruction in one of the other categories.
My school requires that we all teach reading at the same time (in a 90 minute block at the beginning of the day), so I can’t do this.
You could use the required block and add additional time later in your school day. However, I’m not a big fan of your school’s approach. It makes it more difficult to provide intervention services to the struggling readers (if everyone teaches reading at the same time, then if a student is pulled out during that time he/she gets less reading instruction).
I’m a secondary teacher and we don’t have a reading class. I don’t see how this can work?
Many secondary schools have taken this plan on successfully. It requires cooperation among the various departments, however. Typically, we work on a weekly basis. That would mean that we need to provide 10 hours per week of literacy work (2.5 hours of vocabulary, 2.5 hours of reading comprehension, 2.5 hours of writing, and up to 2.5 hours of oral reading fluency—depending on the students’ fluency levels). Each department agrees to provide some portion of this weekly experience and then some horse-trading is done to ensure that there is sufficient time for everything.
We are required to implement our core program with fidelity. I don’t see how I can do that if I follow this scheme.
I very much like the idea of following core programs with some kind of fidelity, but this isn’t always possible because of time considerations. Typically, core programs offer more instructional activity than fits in a 90 minute block or (even in a 2 hour space). Teachers, in such cases, may follow with fidelity the parts of the program that they teach, but what about the parts they have to omit? This plan helps teachers to make the decisions of what to keep and what to drop. If there is too little instruction, of course, then the teacher could follow that with fidelity, but then would need to supplement.
I find myself agreeing with your approach, but I still love the activities that my students have been doing through Daily 5. Isn’t there a way to compromise?
Like you, there are particular activities that I want to have in my classroom. For example, as a primary grade teacher, I read to my students every day. I did this, not to teach them to read, but as a tone setter for my classroom and as a way of exposing students to particular cultural artifacts (I loved reading Charlotte’s Web to them, for instance). If I were teaching in the primary grades today, I would still read to my students, I just wouldn’t count it as reading instruction and wouldn’t let it take the place of instruction in decoding, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, or writing. Isabel Beck and Moddy McKeown have certainly shown how I could translate that kind of teacher read aloud into an effective vocabulary lesson for the younger kids, so I could perhaps count it that way, but I might not make that choice either. That’s the real benefit of this approach—it keeps you focused on learning outcomes and it keeps you in control of the choices.
What about Common Core?
Common Core sets the learning goals; the goals that your instruction should focus on. All that I have done is to categorize these goals, and matched them with time expenditures. For example, many primary grade teachers look at the CCSS and conclude that they are suppose to teach more comprehension than decoding. My plan allows the teacher to protect sufficient amounts of time to make it possible for students to learn to decode. Review the CCSS standards (including the detailed items including in the appendices) and distribute them across the categories that I have emphasized.
I’m a pull-out reading teacher. Should I use this plan in my teaching?
I expect interventions to either be especially targeted (like a pull out fluency program only for students lagging in fluency) or individualized. My scheme requires the teacher to balance literacy instruction in his/her classroom, but an intervention teacher should be aimed at balancing the child. If Hector is strong in decoding and fluency, then the intervention teacher should aim at comprehension. If Sylvia is weak at decoding, then the intervention should be aimed at strengthening this weakness. This plan makes sense if a student is low in everything, but if there are stronger and weaker patterns of skills, try to even the child out by building the weak spots up (that isn’t a good way to go in a classroom, because the teacher simply has too many kids with different needs—thus, addressing all of the needs equally is the surest way to higher achievement).
Sunday, June 1, 2014
Man, I hate to see so many frustrated teachers.
For the past couple weeks, I’ve been hearing from teachers who use Daily 5. They’re mad because I criticized the idea of organizing their day around activities instead of outcomes. Many have been surprised that I said there isn’t any research on Daily 5 or the activities it promotes. Some complain that I just haven’t seen it well implemented. But that really isn’t the problem.
The fact is teachers find it difficult to stay focused on learning. They become consumed by classroom activities and daily routines. And because of that, any scheme that encourages them focus on activities over outcome is a really bad idea.
The point of Daily 5 is a good one: teachers should routinize the use of classroom time. Reducing the sheer number of daily scheduling decisions for teachers is smart.
But routinizing a day is not the same thing as ensuring learning. Especially when the activities you are including aren’t certain to instill learning. There has to be a better way.
Let’s take it a step at a time.
First, decide how much time will be devoted to literacy. In many schools, 90 minutes is the standard, but I’d argue for 2-3 hours per day. Provide more literacy work when kids are especially challenged, and less otherwise.
Second, decide which learning categories require attention? Put the time into aspects of literacy prove to help kids become better readers and writers. There is substantial research showing that if you teach young children to hear the sounds within words (phonemic awareness), then they end up doing better with decoding and comprehension. I would definitely teach that. There is similar evidence concerning the systematic teaching of letters and sounds, so phonics is in, too. And, there is a substantial body of work indicating the value of teaching word meaning (vocabulary), oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing. They all deserve some time within your schedule.
You can be a bit arbitrary in dividing the time across these categories. For instance, I group all the word skills—phonics, phonological awareness, sight vocabulary, meaning vocabulary—into a single set, and they share 25% of my ELA teaching time. That means kids would get a lot of decoding instruction early on, and less vocabulary support; but as they went through the grades they would get less and less phonics, and more and more focus on word meaning. Fluency, comprehension, and writing, would get the other portions of time.
Third, these categorical divisions then need to be expressed in terms of specific learning goals. Let’s say 15 minutes per day of the word time in my kindergarten this semester is focused on letter names and phonological awareness. My goal for the kids is to make sure they can recognize all the alphabet letters and can fully segment words (that is divide spoken words into all of their separate phonemes). Or, perhaps, the fluency goal this report-card-marking in second grade is to make sure students can read texts at 75 words correct per minute, with pausing that reflects the punctuation and meaning.
In reading comprehension my goal may be for students to be able to read and summarize 3 text pages without teacher input or support. Or perhaps I’d want them to be able to read a social studies chapter and explain the connections among the subsections.
Such goals do not have to be singular or simple. Either or both of these comprehension goals could be a point of focus of my lessons, or the teacher could emphasize additional—and very different—goals, like wanting students to develop a rich knowledge of their literary heritage. That means I could teach the above goals, and simultaneously expect kids to gain an understanding of the significance of a particular cast of characters or plot elements from fairy tales or Shakespeare.
None of these are activities. They are all measurable learning outcomes and my days should be organized around these kinds of goals.
Fourth, once I know what I am trying to accomplish, then I must select activities and texts consistent with those learning goals. Sometimes these choices will be highly constrained by the goal itself: if you want students to know the characters and plot of Romeo and Juliet, it is probably wise to focus heavily on that play. If you want kids to distinguish Little Red Riding Hood from the Wicked Stepmother, and the Wolf in the Three Little Pigs from the one who devours Grandma, then this probably dictates a Fairy Tales Unit.
In other cases, there are choices. Should the student read the selection in parts or all the way through? Will the teacher ask questions or will the students take over this role as in Book Club? Will the analysis be through discussion or writing? Will the phonics practice be synthetic (focusing on the individual sounds within words) or analytic (using known words as analogies)? Will students reread a fluency text a set number of times or until a particular performance criterion is met?
Such decisions should be shaped by research considerations and learning considerations—not routine. Research is pretty clear that students do better in decoding when taught systematically from a sequential program than when teachers try to be diagnostic and individualized. That likely means the phonics portion of primary grade reading instruction is best spent delivering lessons from a high quality phonics program. Or, studies show that oral reading fluency practice leads to the most learning when the texts are at students’ frustration levels. That means that having students read texts aloud to each other (partner reading) might be a good choice (though so is echo reading), but teachers should assign frustration level texts to either of these activities.
Last point: the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) require the teaching of all of the topics that I have mentioned in this entry. But CCSS does not specify how to organize time around that instruction. The plan put forth here should help teachers to consider the whole set of standards, not just particular activities (e.g., close reading).
Similarly, core reading programs (e.g., basal readers, literature anthologies), provide teachers with lots of texts and activities; usually more than can be delivered in a typical school schedule. This plan can help teachers to decide what to include and what to delete. Many teachers that I know routinely omit the writing activities. If writing outcomes were their focus 25% of the time, many of them would not make this bad decision. Or, teachers often complain that there are just too many decoding lessons. That may or may not be true, but if I had decided to devote 30 minutes a day to phonics teaching, I could determine pretty quickly what to omit and what to teach.
Next time I’ll explore issues of flexibility and the applicability of this scheme in upper grade levels, including high school.
Saturday, May 24, 2014
Last week I explained that it makes sense to organize instruction in ways that allots time to learning goals—rather than to instructional activities. It is not that teachers don’t need activities, just that activities don’t have a one-to-one relationship with instructional outcomes. That's why approaches like Daily 5 and CAFE are simplistic and don't have an especially powerful relationship with learning. Those approaches get teachers aimed at particular classroom activities, without sufficient attention to the outcomes.
How should teachers determine which activities to use towards these essential ends? Research.
For example, imagine you required 30 minutes per day for paired reading (an activity). Research indicates that paired reading can be an effective way of teaching fluency so that sounds pretty good. But it is not the only way to teach it: radio reading, echo reading, reading while listening, and repeated reading are all good, too. As are related activities that can help with some aspects of fluency such as sight vocabulary review or reading parsed text (helps with prosody). Wouldn’t it be better to devote the time to developing oral reading fluency and leave the activity choices to the teacher?
I indicated that I would devote slices of time to word learning (not word study—that’s an activity), oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing. Why those? Because for every one of those there is research showing that such instruction can improve overall reading achievement. There is also research showing that at least some struggling readers may have a specific learning problem in one of those areas (but not the others). Later, I'll be more specific about these categories as goals, but for now the categories are enough.
Increasingly, research is suggesting that oral language development is implicated in reading development. Not yet any studies showing that oral language instruction improves overall reading achievement—but getting closer. Some educators might want to divide classroom literacy instruction by 5, to accommodate that additional goal.
Another possibility: many of my colleagues believe it is essential for teachers to motivate; to teach kids to love reading. Again, no research showing much of an impact on overall reading achievement but if you are committed to that outcome, building it into the time structure would be appropriate.
I wouldn’t add either of those goals at this time, as I’d wait for the research to make the case. However, whether I stayed to the goals already mentioned or added these, I would still structure the time around the goals and not the activities. It doesn’t make sense to set a self-selected reading time, because this alone is not a very robust response to the motivation goal.
I would also stress that this approach calls for set amounts of time devoted to particular goals—not set periods of time. What I mean by that is that it would be okay for a teacher to spend 30 minutes per day teaching vocabulary, but that it wouldn’t have to be done from 9:00-9:30. The point isn’t to fit instruction into boxes, but to ensure students get sufficient amounts of teaching. Thus, a teacher might include a 5-minute vocabulary review at the beginning of the day, a 10-minute vocabulary discussion focusing on connotation during close reading, and a 15-minute direct instruction period with new words in the afternoon. Not as simplistic as CAFÉ or the Daily 5, but sensible in terms of what it takes to successfully teach students to read.
My next entry will explain how this time-based approach can work with a core reading program or with Common Core. Until then, keep your eyes on the prize; emphasize learning goals, not instructional activities, and use research to set those goals and to identify activities worth spending time on (in other words activities found to accomplish particular goals).