Showing posts with label Phonics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Phonics. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Of Carts and Horses: Where Fluency Teaching Fits in the Learning to Read

Our preK-5 school has a number of struggling readers, and we were told yesterday that we should focus only on fluency and accuracy, not comprehension or vocabulary. We were also told that we really shouldn't be using our grade level reading materials or complex texts in the classroom until students are fluent and accurate. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what we do when we have large numbers of struggling readers.

I get lots of questions about the sequence of instruction. In this case the issue is fluency versus comprehension; more often it is about phonics, both about the sequence of phonics elements, or like this question, whether decoding proficiency is prerequisite to any other literacy teaching?  

Let’s face it… in life there are times when sequence… definitely put your car in gear before you step on the gas, and my grandchildren love knowing that you have to put your socks on before your shoes if you want things to work out right.

But there are also lots of times when order doesn’t really matter (unless you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but that’s another topic altogether).

For example, when you’re eating your dinner, no one is likely to care much whether you take a bite of potatoes first or a bite of the green beans. It usually doesn’t matter whether you read the sports section first or the news. And, who cares whether you put on your right or left earring first? It makes no difference so such orderings are left to one’s discretion, comfort, or habit.

So what’s the right answer concerning whether teachers should focus only on “fluency and accuracy” before comprehension and vocabulary?

I think whoever is telling teachers that they need to accomplish oral reading fluency before comprehension is wrong. This notion shows a weak understanding of the oral reading fluency concept and what it contributes to literacy learning.

Fluency is not a single skill as much as an amalgamation of skills. It has three dimensions, not two (it is more than just accuracy and speed, but also includes making the oral reading sound meaningful—expression or prosody). Students both develop decoding and comprehension skills through fluency practice, but they also learn to incorporate those skills within their oral reading (how would one know what to do with the homographs—like minute, digest, resent if comprehension isn’t part of it?).

Of course, if contextual information isn’t entering the system, then students’ fluency development will lag. If it is lagging in the first place (which sounds like the case here), then extra fluency practice is sensible… but if decoding and comprehension instruction is being delayed until fluency is developed, then where do they get the skills and knowledge that is part of what makes fluency go?

If the question had been about whether one should wait to work on fluency and comprehension until decoding was accomplished up to some criterion, I would be giving a similar answer. Decoding is central to beginning reading instruction and I don’t believe that we should stint on it. However, that doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t, alongside, be emphasizing comprehension (initially listening, eventually reading), oral reading fluency, and vocabulary, too.

And, no, there is no particular sequence of phonics that needs to be taught—though a planful sequence is important (it just doesn’t matter whether you teach a “d” first or an “m”). Similarly, though the line of development in fluency tends to go from accuracy to speed to prosody, you still should emphasize all of them throughout (that, "read this as fast as you can" is foolishness).

I suspect some of the confusion over this comes from a misunderstanding of how the research is done on these literacy components. People get it in their heads that the phonics studies must have only taught phonics. That tends not to be the way these studies are done. In fact, the most typical experimental design has been that the experimental and control subjects both get a fairly comprehensive instructional program, but the experimental group gets an enhanced, special, super-duper version of whatever the component of interest may be (e.g., vocabulary, phonics, fluency, comprehension strategies). That often means that both groups receive some phonics or some fluency work depending on the individual teachers, but that the experimental ones would be more likely to teach these skills more thoroughly or extensively.

We may be thinking that this is the design:
      Experimental Group                                 Control Group                                                 
         Fluency Instruction                                     No Fluency Instruction

But it is more likely to like this:
 Experimental Group                                         Control Group
   Daily XYZ Reading Program Instruction          Daily XYZ Reading Program Instruction
         +Fluency Instruction                                       + Nothing

And what that means is that it wasn’t the additional fluency or phonics that was raising reading achievement, but that additional instruction was effective when added to an ongoing comprehensive program of teaching. 

One of the things that may be making fluency instruction work is that kids are daily learning about letters, sounds, and spelling patterns—and without that information, the fluency teaching on its own might not help as much. Similarly, the work being done to build students’ knowledge of language, content, and comprehension may also be contributing to children’s fluency growth.

As proposed here, cutting kids off from such simultaneous opportunities to learn may both slow their progress in developing fluency and may make fluency more of a parlor trick than a dynamic part of the reading process involving the coordination of high speed decoding with the context of language and ideas.                  

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What is the Proper Sequence to Teach Reading Skills?

Years ago, when the National Reading Panel (NRP) report came out, Congress tried to impose a national literacy sequence on American schools. Their plan only allowed phonemic awareness instruction until kids could fully segment words. Then the law would let us teach phonics… but no fluency until the word sounding was completed. Eventually we’d even get to comprehension—at least for the most stalwart boys and girls who hung in there long enough.

A very ambitious plan; one that suggests a clear developmental sequence in how reading abilities unfold.

But much as Emperor Canute couldn’t order the tides to do his bidding, the U.S. Congress was powerless to determine the correct sequence of development for reading (these days it seems even more impotent than then).

Learning to read is a multidimensional pursuit. Lots of things have to happen simultaneously. That’s why in my scheme teachers are always teaching words (decoding and meaning), fluency, comprehension, and writing—not one after the other but simultaneously. Kids who are learning to decode should also be learning the cadences of text and how to think about what they read. All at the same time.

There have been claims about order of learning in reading, but they haven’t tended to pan out when studied. When I was became a teacher, one of the basals was setting its phonics sequence based on when the sounds appear in oral language.

Babies tend to “duh-duh-duh” before they “muh-muh-muh,” so it had us teaching the “d” sound before the “m.” (Irrelevant side note: I suspect “dad" is the invention of generous mom’s who told their mates that the baby's first word was referring to him - the Cro-Magnon Tim would have bought the story, too).

It might sound scientific to teach the “dees” before the “ems,” but it isn’t. No one has ever found that one order of phonics skills is more beneficial than another.
The NRP found that sequence mattered when it came to phonics teaching—and that may have tripped up our House and Senate (they confuse easily)—but NRP didn’t find that one sequence was any better than another.

Yes, teachers need a curriculum, and a curriculum will have to prescribe an orderly succession of letters and sounds. But that succession is an arbitrary one. Kids do better when teachers follow a systematic program of instruction for these foundational skills. They just don’t do any better with Program A’s sequence than they do with Program B’s.

That doesn’t mean anything goes in phonics. Studies do find that it helps not to pair up highly similar letters for instruction. Keep those b’s and d’s far apart; confusability matters in learning.

Usability matters, too. John Guthrie and Mary Seifert showed that whatever the order of phonics instruction, kids tend to learn the patterns that appear in the texts they read. You can teach long vowels before short vowels, but the young’uns will learn the short ones first, because the texts they read will usually be stuffed with CVCs—not CVVCs or CVCes.

And what is true for foundational skills is true for comprehension, too. Cyndie Shanahan and I have speculated that general reading comprehension strategies (e.g., summarization, questioning, monitoring, visualizing) will usually precede disciplinary strategies (e.g., sourcing in history, connecting the prose and graphics in science).

Some researchers (Fagella, et al., 2011) have even claimed that this order is necessary for struggling learners.

But we are beginning to see that even if low readers have not mastered the general strategies, they can still benefit from disciplinary ones. The order that these are currently learned is imposed by the curriculum—not by any natural learning sequence. Don’t be afraid to teach disciplinary literacy strategies to students who haven’t yet shown that they can apply the common ones.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The New Bane of Beginning Reading Instruction: Phony Rigor

I’m pro rigor. And I believe my bona fides are in order on that one. I’ve argued for teaching children to read very early for more than 40 years; even teaching my own kids to read before they entered school (and, yes, I’m working on the grandchildren already; their ages range from 5 months to 3-years-old). The time to teach young kids to read is when you become responsible for the child and not a moment earlier.

I’m not a big fan of some of programs like “Teach Your Baby to Read,” but only because I don’t think their designs match what we know about teaching young’uns. I admire their enthusiasm, however.
I’ve also have long argued for reading challenging books to little kids. Like everybody, I love picture books, too, yet I ‘m a bigger fan of sharing chapter books with preschoolers. The day my youngest came home from the hospital, I began reading “Through the Looking Glass” to her. By the time, my daughters entered kindergarten they new books like “The Odyssey,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Yearling,” and Jane Goodall’s “In the Shadow of Man” (my daughter who is now an engineer picked that one out herself).

As should be clear to any reader of these pages, I also support Common Core, specifically because those standards are higher than past standards. They are ramping up the rigor for kids and I’m on board. (I even believe in Algebra for most 8th graders though I know nothing about the teaching of math). 

Given all of that, I find myself in an uncomfortable position: I think beginning reading instruction (Grades K-1) is going off the rails, specifically because of attempts to impose rigor on those grades that goes beyond anything that makes sense.

This phony rigor—phony because it appears to be demanding, though it would be unlikely to actually elevate children’s learning in any productive way.

Some examples may help.

One example of this kind of phony rigor is the first-grade teachers who have told me that they are going to teach with complex text. They have looked at the second-grade Lexile demands of Common Core and they want to ensure that the kids will be able to handle those text demands when they get there.

That enthusiasm is admirable, but it would be wrong headed for most kids. Instead of helping them to progress faster, it would make text less transparent (harder to figure out the spelling patterns and sound-symbol relationships). That’s why CCSS didn’t raise text levels for beginners; the standards recognize that would appear to be more demanding, but it would be phony because it would just make us adults look tougher when we were actually slowing down the kids’ learning progress (in the end lower achievement, but we rigor-demanding adults could feel better about ourselves).

Another example is how fast some people are trying to teach phonics. It’s apparently clear to them that if they teach enough phonic elements to 5-year-olds, they’ll be seen as rigorous. But displays of rigor aren’t what we are looking for. “What’s more important, teaching lots of phonic elements in a brief time or ensuring kids become effective decoders?”

Part of the problem with introducing phonic elements that quickly initially is that you reduce their decoding progress. Studies, for example, have shown the foolishness of teaching complex patterns (like long vowel spelling patterns) before kids have effectively digested short vowels. It is not just that they don’t learn the long vowel patterns very well, but those patterns can mislead kids into thinking that reading is about reading the letter names—it is not; it is about matching sounds and letters, quite a different (and more abstract) idea.

Or, what about the crazy number of sight words some programs are striving for? I’m a big sight word and flash card guy (that was certainly part of my teaching approach in Grade 1, in various reading clinics, and with my own kids), but is the point to memorize a long list of words or to become readers as early as possible?

I remember vividly teaching my oldest daughter to read. I was teaching a group of pre-service teacher candidates at the same time and I’d tell them about her progress. At that point, my four-year-old daughter knew her consonant sounds and had managed to memorize about 25 sight words… but she still couldn’t read (by reading I mean being able to make sense of a written message from nothing but the words on the page).

My students asked a really good question: How many words does it take to make someone a reader?

The answer, of course, is that knowing lots of words will eventually be helpful, but there is no particular number of words that have to be known before a child crosses the line to being a reader. The smartest people in the field, after carefully and thoroughly reviewing the research literature on this issue decided that kindergartners should probably master a small number of sight words—certainly much less than the dozens being espoused by some programs. 
One gets the sense they want to pile up big numbers only to impress their rigor-seeking customers, but these schemes aren’t based on research, the demands of the new standards, or even the experience of those who have most successfully taught young children to read. 

The reason for the high numbers: It's a kind of selfie. Teachers and administrators stung by the charges that they have been too soft and sloppy in the past want to look rigorous. They sincerely hope to do good, but have nary a clue about what good might be. If someone tells you 5-year-olds need to master 92 sight words to become readers, grab your wallet and run. 

Pointless learning goals won’t help kids more if they appear to be rigorous and demanding. They're still pointless. Remember, the real goal is to teach kids to be wise readers--not to see how fast we can introduce particular lists of skills. Such lists, no matter how quickly, introduced don't make kids readers. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Free Phonics Stuff (Phree Fonics Stuph?)

A mother is doing her marketing with her 5-year-old in tow. She stops by the magazine rack and sees some children's workbooks aimed at teaching phonics. She pages through one of them and drops it into the grocery cart.

This kind of scene plays out daily across America. Mothers want their kids to do well in school, and in grade 1 being able to read is "doing well." (It is no accident that so many grocery stores, drug stores, etc. sell such workbooks.)

Such materials help kids to see the match between letters and sounds and a lot of kids like "playing school." I'd be hard pressed to say that those workbooks teach reading, but they do help give kids some purchase on letters and sounds.

And then there are ABC refrigerator magnets, letter blocks, posters, Sesame Street, and these days, various electronic games and activities -- the best equipped preschoolers wouldn't be caught dead without their PDA, Blackberry, or I-Phone these days.

Some of my colleagues discourage parents from buying such materials. I don't. Kids often find them to be kind of fun, and I don't think they do any harm. In fact, I think they help kids to learn some things that need to learn if they are going to be readers and the more opportunities kids get to learn these things the better.

Which brings me to some new digital materials that parents can use in helping their children to learn to decode--that is to sound out words. The site is called Reading Bear and it is free to anyone who wants to use it.

It has some pretty good features. Probably the best is that it sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a workbook). There are lots of electronic flashcards, activities, and quizzes, and the particular exercises change items a lot which can help keep kids interested.

While I don't think this program will teach your child to read, I think it could help.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Teaching Phonics to English Learners

Back in the 1990s, there were lots of arguments in reading education between those who believed that explicit phonics was helpful in teaching reading and those who advocated whole language (whose views ranged from no phonics to occasional mini-lesson phonics as needed.

These days, those arguments don’t happen quite as often. The National Reading Panel reviewed data on phonics studies; the National Early Literacy Panel reviewed data on phonics; and phonics studies continue to accumulate. It seems pretty clear that phonics instruction is helpful in getting reading started quickly and appropriately and so most teachers in the primary grades usually try to deliver such teaching.

But there still are arguments about that from the second-language community. The thought among some experts on English language learning is that such teaching may help native speakers, but it isn’t beneficial to those who don’t already know English.

Are they crazy? No, they are not crazy, but it appears that they are wrong; or at least partially wrong. Their fear is that teaching students to focus on sounds instead of meaning will derail things for kids who need to be intensely focused on meaning. They also, again quite rightly, point out that those phonics studies reviewed by the various panels did not include English learners; therefore, we can’t use that evidence to determine what is best for such kids (seems like a fair argument to me).

However, phonics research on English learners has been accumulating for the past decade (I’m in the middle of meta-analyzing that), and it seems evident now that such teaching is beneficial to those kids, too. Phonics not only appears to improve their decoding, but this decoding advantage carries over to comprehension as well.

But I said that those English Language Learner experts weren’t entirely wrong. How does that work given those findings? One of the main reasons that those experts bridle at phonics for second language learners is because schools often only have one plan for helping students who are low readers. That means the English learners are always stuck into the phonics group, no matter what assessments would show about them.

I just read some terrific studies by Sharon Vaughn and her colleagues. They came up with an intervention that explicitly taught phonics, but also explicitly worked on English learners’ vocabularies and comprehension. And that makes sense. Even if these kids struggle with decoding, they still will need help with oral language and comprehension. None of the studies that have shown the benefits of phonics to English learners has done this in a vacuum; these kids were getting language and comprehension support too.

By all means, teach phonics to English learners who are beginning readers or who are struggling with decoding, but teach that phonics along with substantial high quality instruction in meaning as well.