Showing posts with label Core programs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Core programs. Show all posts

Saturday, June 4, 2016

How can you support basal readers when we know it's teachers that matter?

Why do you support the use of basal readers for teaching reading? Isn’t it the teachers that make the difference, not the textbooks?

            What an peculiar—but all-too-common—question.

            What has led to this weird belief that schools can have either textbooks or good teachers? That investments in teacher development and textbook adoption are opposites? Or, that the good teachers will run screaming from the room upon textbook purchases?

            The real issue isn’t whether teachers or programs matter, but whether students are best served by a corps of good teachers using a shared program of instruction.

            There is no research showing that textbooks automatically lead to higher reading achievement. But, the reverse is true too… there is no research showing that teachers without programs are in any way advantaged by their omission.

            Over the years, I have known many schools without reading programs. As director of reading in the Chicago schools, there were principals who refused to buy reading programs. Like you, they believed that teachers and kids would do better without them. Achievement levels in those schools were in the bottom 20 percent nationally. I remember proudly telling those teachers I wouldn’t “impose” a reading program on them; their cries of anguish and dismay still haunt me. I’m not blaming their low achievement on the lack of textbooks necessarily, since there were other equally low achieving schools in Chicago that did have them.

            Of course, I also know high achieving schools without textbooks. I’d not credit their high attainment to the dearth of textbooks, but their lack was conferring no obvious disadvantage either. (The schools have particularly well to do clienteles, so I suspect that if you did away with classrooms and teachers, too, they would still be in pretty good shape).

            Anyone honest on this issue knows that it isn’t “scripted boring basal readers” versus “brilliant committed talented teachers” any more than it is “research-based high quality engaging textbooks” versus “lazy underprepared washout teachers.” If it were, it would be an easy choice. Textbooks and teachers are both mixed bags—when looked at collectively.

            To my knowledge only in teaching would anyone make such bizarre decisions… imagine if hospitals agonized over whether to hire highly qualified physicians or to stock the pharmacy!

            Some reasons to have a program, and not just each teacher constructing her own:

1.    Teaching is a team sport, not an individual event.
If teaching were akin to a track event, like a marathon, I’d gladly defer to individual talent. Just hire a good teacher (or runner) and let her do her thing to the best of her ability. The more those individuals hone their idiosyncratic skills the better they’ll be, and their individual styles and choices won’t matter.

But teaching is a collective activity, more like running a relay than a 50-yard dash. Make the separate machinery mesh, you win. In team sports, it’s rare that the best players all end up on one team. Instead, they figure out how to combine all the varied parts into a transcendent whole.

Your metaphor for teaching might be “To Sir With Love” or “The Dead Poet’s Society”—films in which hero teachers, without support of colleagues or administration and certainly with neither textbook nor curriculum, save the world. My metaphor of choice will be the Chicago Bulls—back when Michael Jordan stopped trying to be the hero and learned to pass the ball to his less talented teammates; and when the whole team agreed to the discipline of a structured offense, rather than everyone playing up to their individual ability. A coherent PreK-5 program makes more sense for teaching students to read than 6-7 teachers each doing their own thing, even if they are really nice people and are trying hard.

2.  Teachers have lives, too.
       Another reason I don’t think elementary teachers should be expected to spend their nights designing all the lessons from scratch is because so many teachers do crazy things like get married, have babies, get divorces, take grad classes, take care of ill parents, get ill themselves, and, well, you get the idea. Teaching, when you do it right, is exhausting. Add to that grading papers, IEP meetings, parent phone calls, finding a way to get Bobby home since he missed his bus, and then the less arduous lesson planning (like figuring out the best way to deliver the lesson in the textbook).

      In most situations, teachers simply don’t have the time on their own to put together great lessons everyday. Alternatively, textbook companies hire people who do little besides designing such lessons; they can put all of their energy and resources into that portion of the job. If teacher plans are so sacrosanct, then why do so many teachers without textbooks scan the internet in search of workable lessons other teachers have posted or illegally photocopying texts and materials from elsewhere? The issue isn’t whether teachers can formulate lessons as good as those in the textbooks. On average, they definitely can. The real questions are whether most teachers can do so over long periods of time, or whether their time might be better devoted to studying the kids and fitting textbook to those diverse needs.

3.  Programs sometimes are better.
      One of the things the National Reading Panel looked at was whether teachers should teach “responsive phonics,” that is teaching phonics skills as students need them rather than following a predetermined curriculum. It certainly makes sense that kids would benefit from such personally tailored teaching; very personal, very individualized… and relatively ineffective, when compared to the use of a systematic program. Having tried to teach responsive phonics to first-graders myself, I’m not surprised that following a well-designed phonics curriculum would guarantee high levels of decoding performance to more kids than the jerry-rigged approach.

4.  Systematic improvement.
      If all teachers in a school or district employ the same fourth-grade program, then it is easier to deal with a problem like low fourth-grade vocabulary. Addressing, or even noticing, such patterns is less likely when everyone is does their own thing. If vocabulary were low then apparently everyone needs to change—both those who teach vocabulary poorly and those who teach it well. Sorting out which teachers are struggling gets really touchy, so it usually isn’t addressed at all. In schools in which all teachers are highly effective experts, laissez-faire is usually the school improvement policy of choice.

It is time that we start trying to build quality on quality in education. By all means hire the best teachers you can find, and then invest heavily in their professional development (you’ll find few people who've spent more on teacher’s professional development than me). But then give those teachers the best instructional tools available for supporting their work so that they can, in concert, teach their students to high levels of achievement. (And, don't leave principals, parents, specialists, assessments, etc. out of the equation either).

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Teaching My Daughters to Read -- Part IV, Success

Previously, I described how I taught my daughters about print, sight vocabulary, phonological awareness, phonics, and early writing skills, while fostering their interest in being literate—all essential to learning to read.

But they still could not read.

While I was doing this at home, I was teaching undergrad teacher candidates at the university. My nascent teachers were puzzled: E. could read 25 words, knew her letter sounds, and could print using invented spelling (her best friend was named “KD”, for instance). Why couldn’t she read?

They assumed that knowing the letter sounds meant someone could read. They assumed that knowing some words made you a reader. Those skills are valuable, but there is no set amount of them that transform you into a reader.

Reading requires that you be able to make sense of the words and ideas of messages you’ve never seen before. If reading were only about word memorization, then we could only read texts of words already studied. If reading were mainly about “sounding out” words, then we’d all read much slower than we do.

One more element had to be added to this mix, an ingredient akin to the push that mama birds give to their babies when they want them to try to fly.

We got ahold of some old preprimers—these are the first books in the old basal readers. In most programs, there were three preprimers and they had rigorously controlled vocabularies. That just means that the texts used very few different words and they repeated them again and again.

We got our children reading these little books, telling them words that they didn’t know or getting them to sound out words that they could. In other words, we got them to try to read.

Surprisingly, this went more smoothly with our second daughter, M., the one who struggled with language and who was less interested in reading and books. I was puzzled by E.’s slow start, and in frustration asked, “Why can’t you read?”

Her answer surprised me. She said that if she could read, then I wouldn’t read to her anymore. She expressed what so many children (adults) feel about learning: learning can set you free, and they don‘t always seek such independence; it’s scary.

I explained that even if she could read, I would still read to her—and, by the next day, she could read. M. wasn’t as anxious about independence at this point, so she didn’t balk at all—though she had to work harder at this than her sister.

I used an approach that Pat Cunningham touted at the time and that still makes sense to me. Most schools took kids through these books over a semester. Pat argued that students should read two or even three sets of these little books in the same time period.

I obtained preprimers from three different companies, and my girls read all 9 of those books over a three-month period. By the end of that time, they could read. E. could read about a third-grade level when she entered Kindergarten, and M. read like a first grader.

How did we teach our girls to read? By reading to them. By teaching them letter sounds with curricula purchased at the local grocery store. By encouraging them to write. By having them dictate stories that we could write down for them. By having them read simple controlled vocabulary readers. By working with flash cards.

Many years ago, Dolores Durkin studied precocious readers; children who entered school already reading. Parents told her that they had not taught their kids to read. This finding was replicated repeatedly and teachers were told about these amazing children who taught themselves to read.

Eventually, the late Aileen Tobin asked the right questions. Instead of just asking parents whether they taught their children to read, she asked if they taught their kids the letters and letter sounds, how to print their names, words with flashcards, etc. She found that no one taught their children to read, but the parents of precocious readers were doing all of these things.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What is the Biggest Literacy Teaching Myth in 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

Why Use a Textbook to Teach Reading

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).

Here’s why:

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.