Showing posts with label Guided reading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Guided reading. Show all posts

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A George By Any Other Name: Guided Reading and the Common Core

Once when visiting the Big Easy, a young woman who had clearly been over-served, stopped me and said, “You’re that guy.”

I smiled, bemused, unsure what to say. Now her friends had fanned out around me.

“You’re that guy. You’re that guy on TV.”

My grin grew downright idiotic. At first I tried to explain that I wasn’t “that guy,” but that just seemed to convince them even more that I must be. They insisted.

I never figured out who she thought I was, but I copped to it, and thanked her for her support and asked her to keep watching. I’m pretty sure she had me confused with George Clooney (Cyndie tells me it was more likely Bozo the Clown). 

I’m still pretty sure it was Clooney, though my hair hasn’t really turned as much as his.

That got me thinking… think how disappointed that young lady might have been, when she sobered up, had I pressed my advantage. 

No, that wasn’t what I was thinking. I was thinking that it really matters that we know of what we are speaking. I know many of you are thinking: Tim Shanahan, George Clooney, what's the difference? But--believe it or not--there is a difference and it could matter to somebody.

That’s true of lots of things. Like guided reading, for instance.

The term “guided reading” is causing a lot of confusion. Most of us now use it as shorthand to refer to those instructional procedures recommended by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell in their book, Guided Reading (1996) – much as many of you might use George as shorthand for Tim Shanahan.

The problem with that conception of the term “guided reading” is that it actually conglomerates three separate aspects of instruction into one idea.

And, that’s where the problem is. When I say that the Common Core contradicts the fundamentals of guided reading—I mean George Clooney, and you’re thinking Tim Shanahan.

From the emails I receive and the audience comments at my presentations, it is evident to me that many of you—probably most of you—think of guided reading as instruction with leveled books; that is, with books matched to the students' instructional levels. Because of that, I often use “guided reading” as a shortcut key when I am criticizing the idea of leveling kids’ reading in those ways.

And that works great with some of my audience. They get what I’m saying. They definitely are not confusing me with either Mr. Clooney or Mr. Bozo.

But the Fountas and Pinnell version of guided reading--because of its complexity--means different things to different people. A significant part of my audience believes that guided reading is about small group teaching, and studies are pretty clear that small group teaching is advantageous. Those individuals hear me challenge guided reading and they start seeing images of a clown with really big feet.

The term, “guided reading,” was not created by F&P. It was a term used by one of the basal reader companies during the 1950s to describe their lesson plan in which teachers guided students to read a text by preteaching vocabulary, setting a purpose for reading, having kids read part of the text, and then discussing that portion in pursuit of a series of teacher questions. (A competing program at the time marketed a very similar routine called “directed reading”).

Again, when I talk about the contradiction between “guided reading” and Common Core, some individuals are taking it that I’m criticizing the idea of reading a text en masse under the supervision of a teacher. And, again, to these folks, they are definitely seeing grease paint and big shoes rather than a hunk.

Please understand: Research findings and Common Core standards do stand in stark contradiction to the idea of teaching everybody (beyond beginners) at their so-called instructional level. The standards say nothing about small group instruction or communal readings in which teachers scaffold kids’ interactions with text. The criticisms are of the first, not of the second two.

I hope that helps. 

By the way, I have made headway in convincing Cyndie that people really do confuse me with George Clooney. She is even warming to the idea. Of course, she has been dropping hints about a 7-carat diamond, but I’m sure we’ll work that problem out over time.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Common Core or Guided Reading

Recently, I've been fielding questions about guided reading (à la Fountas and Pinnell) and the common core; mainly about the differences in how they place students in texts. Before going there, let me point out that there is a lot of common ground between guided reading and common core, including high quality text, the connections between reading and writing, the emphasis on high level questions and discussion, the idea that students learn from reading, and so on. Nary a hint of conflict between the two approaches on any of those issues.

Not so with student-book placements; on that there is a substantial divide. Guided reading says go easy, and common core says challenge them. Easy, according to F&P, means placing kids in books that they can read with better than 90% accuracy and with high reading comprehension (and they make no distinction between beginners and more adept readers in this regard). For common core, making it challenging means placing students, second grade up, in books that would be frustration range according to F&P; books that students would read with markedly lower fluency and comprehension on a first read.

How can these schemes be so different?

Fountas and Pinnell advocate for a system of text placement that has been widely and long accepted in the field of reading (I've previously written about the sources of those ideas). F&P add to that a philosophical position that maintains students learn best from figuring things out themselves from reading, rather than from the explicit instruction a teacher might provide. In their plan, much of the teacher’s work is devoted to accomplishing an appropriate placement of students in texts, and they strive to minimize the distance between what a text demands and what students can now do current so that students can scale these small challenges with minimum teacher input.

Any student/text differences can be reduced even more, in the F&P scheme, by providing background information about the text through picture walks and the like. Over time, by reading texts that gradually get harder, students learn to read by reading books that they understand and enjoy. F&P are candid that book placement does not always work out and that, under such circumstances, teachers may have to provide mini-lessons or other supports. Nevertheless, they stress the importance of minimizing the need for such supports. As good a job as they do in demonstrating how to get students to the correctly leveled texts, they provide surprisingly little info about how and when to advance students to higher levels; students may languish at a level since there is no well-worked out plan for ensuring progress.  

By contrast, the common core intentionally would have teachers place students in texts that are more challenging. The CCSS levels, if accomplished, should allow students to read well enough by high school graduation to be college and career ready. Traditional placement schemes lead to students completing high school approximately 2-3 reading levels below what is actually needed—that’s why so many students require remediation in college.

The more challenging text placements presume that teachers will provide extensive scaffolding, explanation, support, and teaching to enable success. Since the common core is not, by and large, invested in any particular instructional methods (close reading push is a notable exception), it can set text levels based on learning goals and the very real need to get students to particular levels before they graduate, rather than trimming the text levels to fit pedagogical philosophy.  

I think most common core advocates would say, “The issue is not how much teaching teachers have to do, but how much students can learn in the time we are working with them. If teaching students with more challenging texts leads to greater amounts of learning, then we accept the burden of having to teach more.” Fountas and Pinnell, too, want kids to learn, but their philosophy is that this learning works best when kids negotiate the reading system on their own, and that justifies the idea of not demanding too much in terms of text difficulty. For F&P how you learn is as important as what you learn.  

F&P’s version of guided reading has been around for almost 20 years, but there are other versions of the idea that go back much further. There must be a lot more research evidence supporting their approach than the one now being espoused by the common core. Unfortunately, that is not the case. We do not have studies showing the effectiveness of guided reading over other approaches.

Many teachers might respond: “Studies or no studies, I know guided reading works because I have taught with it and my students make good progress.”

There is absolutely no question that students can learn with guided reading (that they have learned with it, and that they will continue to learn with it). Guided reading is widely used in U.S. schools. But there is an issue of opportunity costs here; would students learn more if they were placed in more challenging texts? We, of course, can never gauge the success of the alternatives that were not tried.

Studies, quoted in previous blogs, show that students can make real learning progress while matched to a variety of text levels, though they tend to do best when matched with more challenging texts than guided reading advocates recommend. Thus, placing students in easy text CAN lead to learning, but placing students in more challenging texts and then making sure they can successfully negotiate them (through rereading, analysis of information, etc.) may lead to even greater success.

At the end of the day, the disagreement is philosophical rather than empirical—it is about the desirability of teaching. If you think it is better for kids to figure things out with minimal scaffolding, then it makes sense to control the degree of challenge; too much difficulty would only lead to failure and frustration. However, if, on the other hand, you think it is okay to provide students with as much support as they might need to engage successfully in a particular task, then limiting difficulty too much would reduce the opportunity to learn.

In general, I think the common core approach is the right one – it puts greater emphasis on teaching and long range learning goals than on text placement. And, yet, we are depending on educators –including me – who were prepared more to place students in books than to teach them. The success of the common core depends not just on the use of more challenging texts (that’s the easy part), but on whether teachers will have the patience and foresight to provide sufficient and appropriate scaffolding that will help the students to figure out the meaning of a challenging text without being told what it says.

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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Problem with Guided Reading

The main point of “guided reading” is to make sure kids are being taught from books that are not too far beyond their skills. If a book seems like hieroglyphics to a kid, then not much learning could be expected. (Likewise books can be too easy… presenting neither challenge, nor much to learn). Trying to get kids into the “just right” reading level has been an issue of long interest in the field of reading.

The independent/instructional/frustration level scheme has now been around for about 60 years (since Emmett Betts described these levels in his landmark textbook). Frustration level is the point at which books are too hard to learn from, independent level is the level when books are too easy to be used as instructional texts, and instructional level is in the space in between.

So, in guided reading, teachers place children into books that are arrayed across difficulty levels. This is a really terrific plan when kids start out because beginning readers are a bit fragile (they get overwhelmed by too much new stuff). It is also a reasonable idea overall, even with much older readers—as no matter how well you read, it would be possible to come up with a text that would simply be too darn hard.

The theory may be good, but it’s execution in guided reading leaves much to be desired. First, the book leveling schemes that are being used are pretty dubious. I’m not talking about Lexiles or other well-validated readability schemes, but the book-leveling schemes for guided reading are pretty shaky.

However, that isn’t really the big problem… the real problem is the theory itself, since the notion that kids have to be matched to the right book for them to learn is not consistent with actual data (at least once you get beyond the very early levels of reading achievement). The basic problem is that there are too many levels and that there is apparently too much overlap in the levels. Teachers sacrifice way too much instructional time trying to provide kids teaching at their exact level. So, you’ll see teachers spending 15-20 minutes each with groups at level “L” and “M” that frankly aren’t different. In such cases the teacher would be better off spending 30-40 minutes with the two combined groups.

Research shows that matching kids to books does not guarantee big learning gains. In fact, in the two best and most recent studies on the topic, one study found minor benefits of a good book match on one measure only, and the other study actually found that kids made better progress in the frustration level books! My point isn’t that we shouldn’t group kids by book levels; but that when we do this there is a tendency to overdo it (to make these levels a kind of fetish). I certainly don’t want to see a fifth-grader who reads at a second-grade level trying to negotiate the fifth-grade reading textbook on his own, but I likewise don’t like seeing children getting much less interaction time with a teacher simply because they know a few more or less words than the other kids (it just doesn’t make that much difference).

Certainly, I would place kids in different levels of books when it is inexpensive of teacher time (such as paired reading or independent reading). And I would place kids in different books when their reading levels lag far behind (in grades 2-3, I’d strive for placements within a half-grade level of the child’s reading level, in grades 4-5, within a year, and above that I’d aim for within two years). And, finally, make sure you don’t fractionate your class with so many different levels of placement that you can’t provide much instruction. Groups are necessary perhaps, but the fewer groups the better.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., & Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade
delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113-119.

O’Connor, R.E., Bell, K.M., Harty, K.R., Larkin, L.K., Sackor, S.M., & Zigmond, N. (2002).
Teaching reading to poor readers in the intermediate grades: A comparison of text difficulty.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 474-485.