Sunday, July 20, 2014
Sunday, April 10, 2011
While in graduate school, I worked with Jack Pikulski and became interested in the theory of instructional level. That’s the idea that text has a particular level of difficulty and that students learn best when they are matched with text in a particular way. If text is too hard, they won’t learn to read and if text is too easy they won’t make any progress. The difficulty levels in between those extremes (and there are usually levels and not a single level), are thought to be the levels at which instructional progress would be optimum.
It makes logical sense. If text is too easy, there is nothing to be learned from it, and if it is too hard, it would be like trying to catch knives.
And yet, I was surprised to find that text difficulty is hard to measure exactly (our measures have improved a bit since I was in grad school), and that readers’ levels of proficiency were pretty approximate too (this hasn’t improved much). The biggest surprise was the lack of clear research evidence showing the benefits of matching texts to kids (Jack tried such a study when I was there, but it fell apart over reliability issues and never was published).
As a young professor, I wrote about how instructional level theory had entered the field seemingly through research (at least that was the claim), but I revealed that research base to be a chimera.
In the 1980s, whole language influenced school books emerged. The state of California required the use of previously published literature as the basis of reading instruction (no research supporting that idea either) and banned any adaptation of such literature. So, publishers couldn’t adjust the readabilities of reading books, like they had with high school text books, and text levels got hard for a while. So hard in fact, that kids had trouble learning to read; especially first-graders. Teachers met the challenge by reading the books to the kids rather than having them do the reading themselves. Parents and grandparents rebelled. Their older children could read books that hadn’t already been read to them already, why couldn’t this younger group?
One offshoot of this debacle was the growth of “guided reading” as an approach to teaching. Teachers certainly have preferred it to throwing kids in the deep end while fervently hoping mom and dad had already taught them to swim (a pretty good summary of the whole language ideology of that time). Fountas and Pinnell came up with a weakly validated measure of text difficulty and claimed that kids had to be matched to it to succeed. They counseled the minimization of explicit teaching and encouraged teachers to simply have children read texts at the correct level and that learning would simply happen for most as they read those matched books (to their credit they did support providing explicit help when progress did not ensue automatically).
Given how widely used guided reading is, and how much sense it makes, particularly for beginning readers, one would think we have many studies showing the benefits of such an approach. In fact, the data are murkier than when I was in graduate school. It is not that various studies (such as those by Alissa Morgan, Renata O’Connor, and William Powell) haven’t pointed to optimum book-student matches, but that they have all pointed in different directions.
Now, the common core standards are insisting that text difficulties be stiffened and that teachers not just move kids to easier books when the going gets tough. My fear, of course, is that such a fiat could simply lead us back to the 1980s, with teachers reading hard books to kids (guided reading is obviously preferable to that).
First, the common core is probably setting levels that are too hard for beginners. There is a lot to be figured out by those kids with regard to decoding, and overwhelming them with really hard books is not going to facilitate their phonics progress. I hope we can persuade publishers and school districts to allow the path to be smoothed a bit for the little ones (I think they’ll progress faster under those circumstances). Second, for older students, the common core highlights some pretty important ideas: (1) that there is no particular level of text difficulty that has been consistently identified by research as being optimum; (2) that always having students reading text on their so-called reading level is like relegating them to training wheels forever; and (3) that most teachers don’t have a clue as to how to scaffold children’s learning from hard books. Mandate whatever you want, it won’t make teachers know how to implement any better.
Later entries to this blog will pursue this idea, as teachers are going to have to grow new wings if they are going to make this flight successfully.
Saturday, August 23, 2008
As a young teacher I was aware that reading professors in colleges of education tended to be anti-textbook. They imagined a world in which all teachers would construct their own individual reading lessons every day, rather than following what they saw as the dismal guidance of the basal reader. Such views reigned during the “whole language era” (1980s and early 1990s) when textbooks were replaced by trade books, decoding instruction received less emphasis, and the idea that kids should just read and write rather than receiving explicit teaching (except for the occasional mini-lesson) became predominant. That was also the period when reading achievement declined in U.S. schools, and the racial achievement gap widened, according to NAEP.
During the past decade, the anti-textbook sentiment has receded quite a bit. Districts have been ditching the “book room” for the “program,” but there are still those who are aghast that I think textbooks are a good idea. I have said that if I could have, I would have adopted a reading program in Chicago, and I am now a core program author myself. There were times in my career (like when I was a beginning teacher), that I was anti-textbook, and over time I have increasingly come to believe that textbook programs are necessary (not a necessary evil, but necessary).
1. Quality textbooks tend to offer more thorough and explicit instruction than many teachers can provide on their own.
I recognize that textbooks vary in quality and some are better than others. But, generally, a well-designed textbook program tends to support a greater amount of well organized, systematic, explicit instruction than teachers do on their own. For example, studies suggest that texts encourage higher level questioning than teachers ask, and my own observations suggest that textbooks offer more thorough coverage (such as explicit repetition) than teachers provide.
Research says that explicit instruction is good for kids. Teachers can certainly provide such teaching without textbooks, but they are more likely to do so when they have supporting materials. Look across all areas of language arts instruction: oral language, phonological awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension including critical reading (of narrative and expository text), writing, etc., and I think you’ll see more explicit systematic lessons than the average teacher offers on his or her own.
2. Greater continuity of content coverage from class to class and grade to grade.
Bob Marzano documented how disorganized the curriculum is when teachers make it up themselves, often even having kids reading the same books year after year. A textbook program is organized across several years, so there is a clear effort to make sure that the learning experiences build one on another, to help kids to develop greater levels of sophistication. Even in something as straightforward as vocabulary or spelling teaching, textbooks make sure that kids are getting a progression of instruction.
Also, kids move around a lot, especially in low income areas. The average mobility rate is about 35% in high poverty schools, and I have worked with some schools with greater than 100% mobility. The idea that every teacher has an individual curriculum is a disaster for such kids, because they are certain to move (often to a different school in the same district) and with each move they truly have to start over. There is a real benefit to having content coverage that is consistent across classrooms and even schools, and that builds over time into something greater than what an individual teacher can do on his or her own.
3. Reduces amount of planning/searching time for teachers making it possible for them to put more attention on the kids.
Maybe those who argue for teachers to make up their own lessons, identify and select their own literary selections, and so on just don’t understand how time consuming such work is. Teachers have complex lives: they go through marriages and divorces, child birth and child raising, and the need to care for elderly parents—all while trying to take care of their homes, finances, and other aspects of their lives.
Teacher work time is better spent focusing on the needs of kids rather than trying to hunt up a story that they can use in a lesson. It would be foolish to have surgeons grinding their own scalpels rather than operating on patients in need, and it is foolish to have teachers trying to do all of this kind of work themselves, when their attention is needed on the students.
4. Standardization of practice in a school or district increases the possibility of powerful professional development opportunities.
One thing I learned in the Chicago Public Schools, is that having 26,000 teachers working with so many programs and combinations of programs, makes it hard to create any kind of systematic change. If everyone had been working with a single program (or even if there were a few programs of choice), we could have better used our professional development opportunities to focus on improving common areas of weakness, than is possible with such a hodge-podge of supports and weaknesses.
5. Allows for greater inclusion of content area specialization on a school staff.
As a reading guy I guess I should support the idea of all teachers should be specialists in reading. Of course, that means that we won’t have too many who have a depth of expertise in science, social studies, math, the arts, or other subjects. Textbooks allow even those without a great depth of expertise to do a pretty good job. We can hire more diverse staffs and expose kids to people with a wider range of expertise if we use textbooks.
6. Reduces the temptation to illegally photocopy.
In many schools that eschewed textbooks, it was common to accomplish this by having teachers violate the fair use laws, photocopying other people’s intellectual property. That’s a bad example for our kids.
7. Increases the chance for equal opportunity.
I have often heard the claim that it is the poor, inner city kids who get stuck with textbooks, while their more advantaged suburban counterparts get to do fun stuff in children's books. Yeah, right! (Reading Jeanne Oakes analysis of data on this issue and I think you'll see that poor kids have less textbook access.)
Our nation is still struggling to offer kids equal opportunity to learn, and textbooks are part of the solution. The standardization that textbooks provide give us the chance to equalize opportunity across a broad range of barriers. Individual--idiosyncratic--teaching, ulitmately, is inherently unequal.
Textbooks can't guarantee that all kids learn—only good teachers can do that. Textbooks do, however, support teachers in accomplishing that goal. Tht's why I think they are a good idea; they increase the chances that our kids will succeed.