We also published a brief related article on oral language and early childhood literacy in Language Magazine. Here is that link:
Information for teachers and parents on teaching and assessing reading, writing, and literacy, and information on Timothy Shanahan's upcoming professional appearances and publications.
Last week I did a webinar in which I shared the results of the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP), which reviewed research on literacy development and instruction with preschoolers and kindergarten (there is a link to the report in the right hand margin of my site).
I was asked if I would answer questions mailed in by the audience. I agreed, and below have included my answers. Thought they might be interesting to a larger audience, so here they are:
1. In our preschool classrooms, what are the top 5 techniques we should being using?
Staying very close to the findings I would say: (a) definitely teach the alphabetic code; that means working with phonological awareness, letter names, and letter sounds (such teaching was found to be beneficial with kids in this age group and the teaching seemed to have long-lasting value); (b) also, it is a good idea to read books to children daily and to talk to them about what you are reading (ask them questions about it, explain the vocabulary, listen to their ideas, make connections to what they know)--reading to children in this way helps build their language; (c) involve children in writing (pretend writing, writing their names, dictating words/stories/ideas to you); (d) build the children’s language (use interesting and complex language yourself, engage children in activities that raise ideas and that give the opportunity for using language (e.g., cooking, measuring, science activities, arts and crafts), don’t accept vague or weak language from the children, but elaborate on it and get them to speak in complete thoughts, using the right words; and (e) get moms and dads helping in the process, they can help with many of the items above.
2. Is there a literacy readiness test that is highly correlated with actual readiness that you can recommend?
Get Ready to Read! which is made available by the National Center for Learning Disabilities is a good predictor and its design is consistent with the research findings on early literacy.
3. Did the survey find any longitudinal studies of very early decoding? What I have in mind is children who learn to decode at age two, say--how do they do later on?
No, and there are very few studies of younger children (none of 2 year olds, and only a handful with 3 year olds). Generally, we found that the children younger than 5 (meaning the 3s and 4s) who did well with decoding, also did well with later reading (both decoding and comprehension). It is clearly valuable to get them started early, but no info on the 2s.
4. Does RAN (rapid naming) correlate to the use of flash cards? Are you recommending flash cards, and if so, at what age levels? What is your opinion about using flash cards with very young children?
I know of no studies connecting RAN to flash card use, and I do not believe that the evidence in any way suggests that you should even try to teach RAN. (Flash cards with words or pictures or letters are okay to use with young children at any age, BUT if you spend a couple of hours a day engaged in the types of activities noted in item 1 above, proportionally it would make sense to work with flashcards only for a few minutes of that time (in other words, it wouldn’t even get 5% of your literacy time). Flashcards can be a useful tool for memorization (I use them myself when I am trying to learn this kind of information), but their use has to be lively, quick, and brief to have much value.
5. What are the most important early childhood teaching implications for this research?
That you can provide young children with supports for their literacy learning from the very beginning. I vividly remember when “experts” (without data) were claiming that either young children would not be ready to benefit from such teaching or that such teaching would do harm. What the research overwhelmingly shows is that young children clearly benefit from such teaching and the benefits can be long lasting (if the schools build on these children’s early learning). A second important idea is that there is not one thing that has to be done (different activities had different outcomes and young readers need support in various literacy-related outcomes to be successful).
6. What are the teaching implications for older students who may not have these pre-requisite skills to be able to use reading for learning? grades 4-8?
There were no implications for those kids at all from this analysis. However, the National Reading Panel (NRP) looked at such issues (there is a link to that report on the right as well) and they found that teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, and oral reading fluency to struggling readers in those age ranges resulted in improvement. However, in all cases, the NRP concluded that such learning was slower and more difficult (so definitely try to accomplish it early) and some of this teaching (such as phonics) didn’t have the same impact on other aspects of reading that it did when children were younger (again, it is critical that these skills get accomplished as early as possible, but when that has not happened it is important to try to build that foundation later on--though that effort will likely be difficult).
The winter issue of The California Reader includes a spirited response by Glenn DeVoogd to an article that I published in that outlet this fall. Nothing wrong with differences of opinion, so I’ll not use this space to try to argue that I’m wrong and he’s right on those issues. However, I will address some egregious errors in his claims.
1. Glenn says the National Reading Panel (NRP) promoted “a more skills-based approach to reading rather than a meaning-based approach focusing on comprehension” (p. 5). In fact, NRP looked at 205 studies on the teaching of reading comprehension, all with reading comprehension as the outcome. NRP considered 45 studies on vocabulary teaching and 16 on oral reading fluency, all with comprehension outcomes. Even 18 of the 52 phonemic awareness studies and 35 of the 38 phonics studies focused on reading comprehension. Maybe the complaint isn’t that NRP failed to focus on comprehension outcomes, but that we dared to consider a broader set of outcomes (like spelling, fluency, and word recognition).
2. He also claims NRP “missed some well-designed studies supporting the use of” sustained silent reading (SSR), the Book Flood studies of Warwick Elley. NRP did not ignore those studies. It searched for them systematically as described in the report, examined them, and set them aside because they only included second-language learners (beyond NRP’s scope). We were concerned about differences between first- and second-language learners, and, we were not willing to generalize from one group to the other given that their learning situations are so different.
Later the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth (NLP), a panel devoted to synthesizing research on second-language learners, examined the Elley studies. Glenn claims the Elley studies were well-designed, but the NLP scientists were troubled by lack of either random assignment or any kind of pretesting. The supposed “gains” from Book Flood may have been pre-existing differences. One book flood study had a sounder design and a positive result, and it was included in NLP. A provocative pattern emerged from that analysis. Three studies, including book flood, showed positive benefits for encouraging reading and three did not. The three that did had second-language learners reading independently in English, and the three negatives had the kids reading in their home languages. The English learners in the positive studies were very isolated from English and had little opportunity to hear it, see it, or use it beyond their school lessons, and this might have been why this treatment was successful. It’s funny that having kids read in their home language had no impact on their reading skills, sort of like the SSR studies with native English speakers.
3. Glenn repeats the incorrect claim that the NRP set aside studies of SSR that did not include oral reading fluency outcomes. That is not the case. That was claimed many years ago by Jim Cunningham whose critique was rife with that kind of misinformation. Glenn apparently believed the critic, but failed to check this out himself. Nope, NRP did not miss some big group of SSR studies that focused on comprehension. Didn’t happen. Those studies were ALL included.
4. Glenn confuses the effects of independent reading with the effectiveness of the methods used to get kids to read more. That is a huge interpretive problem. That reading CAN have positive effects is not proof that particular ways of encouraging kids to read more will be effective (maybe not all approaches for encouraging kids to read work). I remember when Newt Gingrich set up a program to pay kids to read during the summer. Lots of school people set up a howl that claimed paying kids to read would be ineffective. The assumption behind such complaints is that the Gingrich approach is a bad one, not that reading is bad for kids. The fact that SSR has almost no impact on kids learning (average effect sizes are a negligible .05 to .10) should bother people who want to encourage kids to read, since if it doesn’t work, something else should be tried. (Since NRP various researchers, such as James Kim, have been conducting studies where they try to get a learning effect from encouraging reading. They are having a heck of a time of it, because it turns out it is not that easy to get kids to increase their reading enough to make a difference, but we are certainly learning important things from their efforts—more than we are from the folks who are clinging to the failed SSR methodology).
5. Glenn attributed causality to studies that show a correlation between amount of reading and reading quality. Doing that opens the door to lots of quack remedies to reading problems like eye movement training, learning styles, balance beam exercises, etc.—all of which claim effectiveness on the basis of such correlations. A bigger problem with correlations is the fact that the relationship between two variables can be due to their relationship with an intervening variable. I’m surprised those who push these correlations as evidence don’t bother to control for the effects of parent’s socioeconomic status. When you do that, the correlation between amount of reading and reading ability drops dramatically. Kids whose parents have high incomes and high education read more than kids who don’t. (Shhh! Don’t tell the teachers: they might not use SSR if they knew that was the evidence on which it was based).
Glenn expresses concern that teachers have stopped using SSR because of the NRP finding that it had insufficient evidence showing it works. He apparently thinks it is bad that teachers have dropped this ineffective approach. Interestingly, Glenn suggests some ways to improve SSR—and all of his recommendations make it more like instruction, very different from the SSR designs recommended in textbooks or evaluated by research or that one commonly sees practiced in actual classrooms (but more like the reading comprehension interventions that have been found to be so effective). That’s good advice in my opinion, but it makes me wonder why such a smart man is insistent that teachers continue to use such problematic approaches instead of pushing hard for alternative procedures like the ones he notes.
6. Another area I talked of in my article was the findings being reported for studies of reading to children. It turns out that almost none of those studies have reading outcomes, and that the oral language measure used to evaluate the effectiveness of these procedures (simple receptive vocabulary) has a very low relationship with later reading achievement. Glenn’s response is that reading to children has been shown to have a close connection to pre-reading skills… in other words, he takes a “skills-based approach to reading rather than a meaning-based approach focused on comprehension.” Wow that is a very different standard than the one he had a page or two earlier for the NRP. It is those inconsistencies that undermine his arguments: he wants to be able to cherry-pick the evidence that supports his case, no matter what measures were used or how badly the studies were executed, and he wants to be able to ignore the evidence that doesn’t fit with what he wants teachers to do.
Ultimately, that’s why these large public syntheses of research studies by scientists are so important. They are an antidote to the priesthood of professors who claim to be the ones who know best what needs to be done in schools, even as they obscure their claims in mysterious evidentiary standards and inconsistent logic.
Today at the National Press Club, the National Early Literacy Panel Report was released. All of us on the panel were relieved to have this work completed and that it is now available to everybody. If you would like a copy, click here:
This report focuses on what works in improving the literacy skills of preschoolers and kindergarten children. It got a lot of attention from the press and various policy people (including someone from the Obama Transition Team). This is important work and it is sure to be a widely cited and used work in early literacy. More details on this later, but for now, read the report!
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