Usually, posts to this site just sit at the bottom of my blog entries. If you click on the title of one of my entries you can see what someone might have said about my thoughts.
However, today, I was pleased to accept the entry of someone who I deeply admire, so I wanted to highlight it a bit. Marilyn Jager Adams weighed in on my high school phonics blog and argues for why technology might get us out of the unfortunate quandry that I described. As I say, normally, I do not tout the responses and that is especially true if I feel like the responder has something to sell. I usually don't push such products here (even the ones that I have developed--and I have received some complaints about that, believe it or not), but I think Marilyn raises an important point and one I want to highlight.
I really doubt that our system has the resolve to invest very heavily in the education of kids who are 7-8 years behind, so technology could be a real hope. But, my experience is that most people don't have the resolve to hang in there with a computer. They love the privacy, they love the individualization, but they get lonely. Products like the one Marilyn describes need to be studied, but even if they work, what does it take to make them work well enough?
My first introduction to Read 180 wasn't a good one. It involved a dispute between parents and school district. The district had taken a learning disabled child and stuck him into Read 180 for two years. At the end of that time, he had regressed. The school didn't feel obligated to invest as heavily as they probably needed to in that student's learning, so technology was a good out. The boy actually liked Read 180, but only for the first few months, and then he felt detached, alone, rejected. That isn't the fault of technology (I don't think, in that case, a better program would have made a difference, though if the Read 180 curriculum had been followed-- not just the tech part, it might have gone better for everyone.
So by all means, Marilyn, continue to try to improve such programs over time, that will likely help. But for teachers and parents, as good a piece of software may be, remember that learning is social. Sometimes we want to be protected from others and sometime we want to be connected with them (counter or drive thru window today?). Good software can both teach and protect the fragile ego of a neglected learner who is so far behind it is embarrassing. Good software usually does not make a student feel more connected and accepted by others (and being low in literacy can be an isolating event).
If you want to read Marilyn's fine input, please click on the title of my High School Phonics blog and it will be there. Happy reading, and thanks for the contribution Marilyn. I was proud to accept it.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Usually, posts to this site just sit at the bottom of my blog entries. If you click on the title of one of my entries you can see what someone might have said about my thoughts.
Sunday, January 3, 2010
Recently, I received a query from some high school teachers at a charter school. They had been using Read 180 with their "remedial readers" and were generally happy with it, except for the really low kids--high school students reading below the third grade level and they wanted to know if there were better choices for those kids.
I don't have a lot of experience with high school phonics, but what do you do if a student is 7-9 years behind in their reading skills. Ignoring the decoding problems does not make much sense, but what works?
So, when confronted with a question that I know not the answer of, I went to some one with greater expertise on that issue, in this case, Don Deshler of the University of Kansas. To my surprise, he punted, too.
But soon he got back with an answer from the members of his team who deal the most with those kinds of readers. Their response was that overall, the best choice for that situation is Wilson Reading or something like it (they've had "outstanding results with the kinds of kids you are describing").
However, Don pointed out that to be successful it has to be taught 1 on 1 or in very small groups, for about two years.
They also indicated good results with Corrective Reading (SRA), which can be delivered to larger groups, and which is easier to learn and faster to implement than Wilson.
My question is, how many high schools are willing to provide multiple years of remedial instruction, even to moderate sized groups? And how much progress are these kids likely to make? I could imagine a wildly successful program moving kids two years for 1 year instruction, and if you maintained that over a two-year period you would have moved these students to a... fifth grade reading level... Ethically, that is exactly what we should be doing, but tactically, it is a losing proposition for the school (too few kids getting too many resources to make gains that aren't sufficient for needs).
The point of this blog entry is two fold: first, there are some high schoolers who are going to need very basic, phonics oriented interventions and there are programs like Wilson and Corrective Reading that make sense for such populations; second, the odds against that delivering the outcomes we need are virtually insurmountable--we simply cannot allow kids to reach high school that far behind. Much more needs to be done in upper elementary schools and middle schools.
Some other important points: Don stressed the importance of keeping this kind of instruction upbeat and fast-paced (which makes great sense). He also stressed the inadequacy of computer-based approaches with this kind of instruction (which also registers with me). And, I would add, that while the decoding problems are being addressed, a lot of listening comprehension and vocabulary work needs to be done (so these students don't stagnate intellectually).
Sunday, November 29, 2009
This weekend I received an interesting question from a third grade teacher in Frankfort, KY. She writes, “In my district we do not have a specific scope and sequence for teaching vocabulary, nor phonics. I have tried to find something that I feel is research-based and comprehensive. I want to help my strugglers and my above-level students. Can you help?”
Those are two pretty important questions: What should the sequence of instruction be in phonics and vocabulary? And do you need a prescribed sequence to be successful?
Let me answer the easier of the two questions, first. Yes, I think it is important to have a clearly established sequence of instruction in both phonics and vocabulary. In phonics, the question has been tested directly in several research studies, and always with the same result: teachers who were teaching a pre-established regimen of phonics were more successful than those who were winging it. I know of no direct tests of the question in the vocabulary literature, but all of the studies where success was accomplished in improving reading comprehension had a clear plan for the teacher.
So, what is the research-based comprehensive curriculum that teachers need to follow? Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t know. When I look at phonics and vocabulary studies, it is clear that pretty much all sequences work. For example, the National Reading Panel looked at 38 studies on the teaching of phonics, and though those differed greatly in the inclusion and ordering of skills, all the approaches seemed to confer an advantage. The same is true for vocabulary.
That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. Perhaps direct tests of different sequences could sort out some learning differences. What I think it really means is that most of the schemes tested in research are pretty reasonable. Most try to teach the most important or largest skills first, or have some kind of logic to their plan. Most don’t emphasize minor or later developing skills. But all provide sufficient coverage and structure to make sure the kids have a chance of succeeding.
Yes, indeed, your school or district should have a systematic plan for what is to be taught in each grade level so that teachers will have a clear idea of what to do. Without such a plan, important words or spelling patterns may not be taught, and some things may be covered over and over. The most successful kids may be able to make progress anyway, but it is a disaster for the strugglers.
That there isn’t a single research-proven sequence gives your district some latitude. They could buy one of the many commercial programs out there aimed at supporting systematic instruction, or they could convene a group of teachers from the district to make some local decisions. Apparently, within reason, it doesn’t matter that much what the exact plan is, just that there be one and that teachers follow it. When such a plan exists, you usually see more teaching happen than when it is left up to each teacher to work out; and that is a big benefit for kids. Of course, if there is a plan, a teacher can tell how a child is doing—the instructional sequence becomes a point of comparison for determining who is not doing well.
Friday, March 13, 2009
I was speaking with a teacher who was not a big fan of phonics instruction. It was not that she was totally against it, in fact her concerns had arisen from observing the children who she was teaching phonics to. She was concerned because, often, when she introduced new skills, the kids seemed more awkward and more confused than when she started.
Of course, it could be that she was just a bad teacher and was just doing a bad job of explaining and modeling the decoding skills. Bad teaching can certainly confuse more than it clarifies. However, she didn’t seem like a bad teacher—too smart, too serious, too caring for that to be likely.
Maybe she was just a poor observer… but I doubt that was the case, as research has often found that new instruction can hurt performance—at least in the short run, and my own recent experiences with trying to learn ballroom dancing has been consistent with this, too.
I've worked hard to learn to dance and have been a real challenge to my teacher (she is often even more frustrated than me). She teaches some new step or styling and I struggle to get it. I go home and my wife helps me practice and we spend long hours mastering the new step. I eventually get it, and am thrilled when I go back to show Jelena, my teacher, what I’ve accomplished.
Her response is always the same: “Great. Now let’s try something new.” In other words, my reward for learning was to be taught something else. If I know how to do a basic step, she would add a turn… and I would struggle again… not just with the turn, but with the basic step that I already could do. The problem is that the new turn would overload my circuits. I could do the basic step, but not while I was anticipating the turn. Of course, as we would practice together initially, it tended to get worse—my brain would get more and more confused.
The introduction of a new skill can pull down the performance on other skills—temporarily. New information changes the context, and it can be hard to apply any new skill in a new context. To reduce this impact, try teaching skills more thoroughly (with applications in a lot of different contexts—including some in which cognitive overload or distraction will occur). Also, don’t let the seeming temporary reduction success throw you or throw your students: stay with it, and provide a lot of encouragement. Teaching can lower skills, but it gets better over time.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
It is important that principals know what to watch for in a reading lesson. What makes it effective? It is important for coaches to, if they are to give teachers any kind of supportive guidance. And, let's face it, good teachers are likely to do much more self evaluation than being observed by others.
One thing that complicates reading instruction is there are lots of different kinds of lessons, and each of these lesson types has its own requirements. Basically, reading is both a skilled activity that requires a lot of precision performance without much conscious awareness (like recognizing high frequency words or common spelling patterns). But, it also requires actions that are synonymous with thinking and these require a lot of reflection and depth of thought. That means that a comprehension lesson ought to look pretty different from a phonics lesson; not just in content, but in the kinds of cognitive action the lesson leads kids to engage.
So, if you need to do observations -- including self observations -- you might find the following document to be useful. It tells the kinds of things I would watch for in various reading lessons.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Is there really such a thing as an effective program? Your question would be like asking a plumber, “How do I select an effective wrench?” It’s not the wrench that’s effective, it’s the plumber with a wrench, and it is the same idea with teachers and instructional programs.
However, I get your point. You aren’t looking for an “effective program,” as much as for a program that has the potential of being effective if used properly by a teacher who knows her stuff. The National Reading Panel (NRP) reviewed 52 studies that showed that explicit teaching of phonemic awareness to kindergartners and first-graders helped them in learning to read. The idea is that if young children can hear the separable sounds within words, they will make a faster start in learning to decode. Phonemic awareness instruction should teach kids to hear the sounds, and phonics instruction then builds on that knowledge. These days most core programs try to include phonemic awareness teaching.
The purpose of teaching phonemic awareness is to ensure children can hear all separable sounds within words, and that they be able to hold these sounds in memory and do things with them (like separate them or delete them). If a student can fully segment words with proficiency (that is, he or she can break words into all of their separate sounds with ease), then everything that need be accomplished with a phonemic awareness program has been accomplished and you can move on. The issue in evaluating and selecting a program is will it provide enough quality support that students should be able to master that set of skills.
Towards that end, one thing I would look for in a phonemic awareness program would be the inclusion of phonological awareness instruction. Phonemic awareness is part of a larger collection of auditory skills dealing with language sounds (phonological awareness). Phonemic awareness, the awareness of the individual phonemes or the smallest meaningful sounds in the language, is the most sophisticated of these skills. Before children develop these sophisticated phonemic skills, they go through a continuum of skills development that allows them to first to isolate or separate words, syllables, rhymes and simple beginning sounds (onsets). Some young children struggle to learn to hear individual sounds; a program that includes instruction in these precursor skills, can allow these kids to make faster progress (and teachers can skip this part of the program for kids who have already learned these earlier developing skills). The inclusion of lessons aimed at these grosser and earlier-developing skills is a good fall-back position.
Furthermore, I would look for a program that provides about 18 hours of explicit, systematic teaching of phonemic awareness (approximately 64 15-minute lessons, for example—but this can be organized lots of different ways). Programs may provide more than this amount of teaching, but not less. The reason I say this is because the NRP review found that about 14-18 hours of instruction led to optimum amounts of learning; some kids needed more than this, of course, and some needed less. It is essential to have a program that will provide at least enough support that the average student will be able to accomplish the instructional goals by going through all of the activities (and you might need additional support for students who make slowere progress).
The sequence of instruction of an effective program should be (1) separation of words and syllables, (2) rhyming, (3) separation of onsets and rimes (e.g., b-ig, c-an); (4) the segmentation and blending of the individual sounds. Letter names should be taught throughout this sequence, and it is reasonable to mix phonemic awareness with phonics by teaching students the sounds associated with the various letters.
A sound program will offer both whole class lessons and small group instruction (groups of three work very well for this). This small group instruction is for the kids who don’t make sufficient progress in the large group and it should increase these children’s interaction with the teacher (making it easier to see the teacher’s mouth and to hear the sounds and to respond more frequently). Of course, if teachers are going to adjust instruction successfully, by giving some kids extra help in small group, then it is important that the program provide a sound assessment, so teachers can gauge the children’s progress.
Remember, this teaching is for 5- and 6-year-olds and it is important that it be appropriate to young children. This means simple language in the explanations, attractive illustrations, varied activities, and brief, but frequent, lessons tailored to the short attention spans of youngsters in this age group. Programs should only try to teach one or two skills at a time (don’t overwhelm the children). These lessons should be fun, and can incorporate singing, clapping, stomping, and other movements. It is important to have children use concrete representations of the letter sounds (i.e., clapping, markers, letter cards). Take a hard look at a program to determine if teachers could use it easily and if children would understand both what they are supposed to do in the various activities and what they are supposed to learn from them.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Recently, I received a note from someone who was agitated about their state school board. It seems the board wanted to reject the purchase of an instructional program because it didn’t teach phonemic awareness separately from phonics. The committee of teachers that were recommending the program were upset, the vendor was upset, and because of my work on the National Reading Panel I was being asked to weigh in.
Of course, I wanted to know what led the state board to think that phonics and phonemic awareness had to be taught separately. The answer was that these skills were laid out separately in the state standards.
This reminds me of the Congressional aide who very patiently explained to me that, “Of course, the National Reading Panel was saying that you had to teach phonemic awareness before you could teach phonics, and you had to teach phonics before you could teach fluency, and you had to teach fluency before you could get to reading comprehension.” I wondered where this insight into our work came from and he showed me… the topics were handled in separate chapters in that order so he “naturally” inferred that’s what we meant. Wow!
With regard to the phonics-phonemic awareness question:
The National Reading Panel reviewed research on the teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics for the U.S. government. To ensure that both of these skills areas required instructional attention, we reviewed studies where only phonemic awareness or phonics was being taught. In other words, if a study was testing the combined effects of phonemic awareness and phonics, we didn’t include it in our review.
In both instances, we found that instruction in that specific skill area provided kids with some learning benefit. In other words, phonemic awareness instruction was beneficial and phonics instruction was beneficial. Given the nature of the studies that we examined, we didn’t draw what I would consider to the erroneous inference that these skills need to be taught separately. In fact, to the contrary, we noted that phonemic awareness programs that included letters (the connection of sounds and letters being the beginnings of phonics) did better than those programs that did not include letters, and concluded that phonemic awareness and phonics both needed to be taught and that they could and should clearly be connected.
Later, when the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth did its review, there were so few studies of the teaching of these skills to English learners that we examined all of such studies (even if phonemic awareness and phonics were combined). Whether the study focused on combinations of these skills or these skills separately, the results were the same: young English learners benefited from this kind of teaching.
A new report to be released soon from the National Early Literacy Panel that has examined the research on teaching literacy to preschoolers and kindergartners, also found phonological awareness and phonics to be good things to teach, but they made no claims for the need to separate these.
State or district standards tend to specify skills without regard to how they are to be taught in the classroom. There certainly is nothing in the California state learning standards or the research that would argue for separating phonemic awareness from phonics, as long as both skills are clearly, explicitly, and thoroughly addressed. A program that claims to combine such skills, but really just elides over one of them, doesn’t fit that bill. But a program that tries to teach both of these together could do a very good job of supporting effective teaching.
Awhile back I heard about a similar concern from another email. This one was concerned that a combined phonemic awareness/phonics program was not doing it right. What they meant was that their conception of how to combine this instruction was that a teacher would spend several weeks teaching young kids to hear the separable sounds and then once that was accomplished, they would turn their attention to teaching sound symbol relationships. There is nothing wrong with that conception, and I would not be averse to such a plan as either a teacher or a researcher.
What was throwing this person was that the program she was reviewing didn’t teach it in this way. That is, they worked on phonemic awareness for particular letters and letter combinations, and when kids could hear these particular sounds, the program immediately linked these to letters. This is a very different conception of the relationship of PA to phonics, and it recognizes that kids become sensitive to some sounds earlier and easier than others, and therefore instead of trying to teach PA in its entirety it is connected to the letters as the kids develop.
Although this is a very different approach, it, too, is sensible and, again, as a researcher or a teacher, I would have no trouble with this plan either.
I believe that the federal research reviews and state learning standards have been valuable, but I’m concerned about the inferences some readers draw from these, that may be more linked to their own beliefs than to anything in the documents. Good readers not only draw inferences, they are aware of their inferences and the sources for them.
Friday, May 9, 2008
At Lesley Morrow's preconvention institute on Sunday, I spoke about teaching fluency to young children (preschoolers and primary grade kids).
On Tuesday, I gave two addresses on Disciplinary Literacy based on work that Cyndie Shanahan and I have been doing. One of these talks was for the Reading Hall of Fame (this was my induction talk) and the other was for a symposium that Carnegie Corporation sponsored (they funded our work on this).
On Wednesday, I gave a talk reporting some of the results of the Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. I was pleased to do this because Patricia Edwards had invited me to present on behalf of the National Reading Conference.
Finally, on Wednesday I gave a booth talk for Pearson Publishing, the publishers of my program AMP, on motivating middle school students to read.
All of those talks can be found with the following link:
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
In 2005, Learning Point (the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory) asked me to write an interpretation of the National Reading Panel Report; something that teachers could read and understand easily. I wrote the piece and they published it as a 43-page book, which they sold for next to nothing in today's expensive-publication world ($5.00, I think).
I just noticed that Learning Point now has it up on their website where anyone can download this booklet for free, so I am providing a link to that file right here. I think you might find my practical advice about phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension to be useful if you are a parent or a teacher.
Monday, November 12, 2007
For several years, I have used a basic framework for guiding my action in the public schools. I have used this framework as a consultant when I was guiding others to improve achievement, and I have used it myself as director of reading of the Chicago Public Schools. The description below lays out some of the basics. This is a piece that I wrote for my teachers and principals in Chicago awhile back, to give them a sense of the essential direction that instruction needs to take. I've even included a link to a powerpoint presentation on the framework. p://www.lexile.com/conference2005/presentations/Shanahan.pdf
Chicago Reading Framework
The Chicago Reading Framework starts from the premise that effective school reading instruction can teach most children to read. This premise is not just a wishful hope—principals and teachers, including some in Chicago, already have used this model to improve reading at their schools. And we are not just talking about improving reading test scores, at least not directly. Our goal should not be to have higher test scores, but to teach children to read so well that their test scores reflect the improvement. That kind of improvement is best accomplished through an emphasis on reading instruction rather than on better test preparation and the like. That is why the Chicago Reading Initiative is investing so much in the continued professional development of our teachers.
The Chicago Reading Framework is based upon syntheses of large amounts of educational research. Research can tell us whether particular approaches are likely to be successful based on how well they have succeeded in the past, and it can give us sound guidance with regard to how to implement programs more successfully. This framework is consistent with several syntheses of reading research such as the National Reading Panel Report (2000), the Prevention of Reading Difficulties (1998), and Becoming a Nation of Readers (1984), as well as local school evaluation studies such as those conducted by the Chicago School Research Consortium.
This document, and the videotape and slides distributed in August, are meant to provide an introduction to the Framework. More information will be forthcoming as the school year proceeds—including a wide array of professional development opportunities, resources, and guidelines.
A natural tendency of teachers and principals is to delay implementation until they feel that they completely understand the framework. In this case, that would be a big mistake. Chicago Public School teachers know a lot. Let’s start using that knowledge immediately to help Chicago children become better readers. We’ll refine the quality of what we do as we proceed, but for now it is time to get started.
Amount of InstructionIt is essential that schools offer substantial amounts of reading and writing instruction. Surveys show that the average elementary teacher provides only about 55 minutes per day of direct reading and language arts instruction using activities that research indicates have much possibility of improving reading achievement (Baumann & Hoffman, 1999). Studies clearly show that increases in academic learning time can improve reading achievement (Rosenshine & Stevens, 1984); however, with the exception of Cunningham’s (1991) Four-Block Plan (which addresses the needs of beginning readers), teacher education materials have been virtually silent on the use of time in reading instruction. Methods texts and other ancillary publications cite its importance, but say almost nothing about how to use or manage instructional time in reading. Consequently, teachers are left to figure out on their own how much time to spend on reading instruction or how to apportion instructional time among the various components of reading. Time allotment decisions are especially difficult for upper grade teachers because of departmentalization.
The Chicago Reading Framework establishes a 2–3 hour per day minimum time standard for reading and writing instruction and encourages schools to explore additional ways (i.e., before-school, after-school, summer programs, parent involvement, homework) for expanding instructional opportunity beyond the regular school day. Teachers and principals are cautioned against expending daily instructional time on activities that research has shown to be ineffective for literacy improvement (though they can still use such activities as long as they do not reduce the amount of reading and writing instruction), but teachers are free to experiment with activities that have not yet been researched. The idea is to provide all students with the maximum opportunity to learn to read and write while maintaining adequate amounts of time to teach math, science, history/social studies, and other school subjects. The time allotments for reading and writing are great, but so is the need.
Teachers can organize this 2–3 hour time allotment in many ways. In other words, this is not a 2–3 hour time block, though schools can do this. Teachers, for instance, are not expected to provide all of their reading instruction between 9:00AM and 11:00AM each morning. Classroom schedules are complex and reading instruction can be provided throughout the day. This means that the Framework will fit a wide range of classroom schedules, and that teachers should be able to improvise plans that meet their student needs and the actual instructional circumstances of a particular school. Instruction in reading within social studies, science, and mathematics can count, too.
To be included as an instructional component, five criteria had to be met, criteria established on the basis of a thorough review of existing empirical research and clinical reports. (a) It was essential that there exist experimental or quasi-experimental studies that evaluated the teachability of each category. So, for example, studies had to show that vocabulary instruction (a part of word knowledge) led to better vocabulary growth or that fluency instruction led to more fluent reading. (b) It was required that studies show the generalizability of each component by demonstrating that improvements in each component led to improved overall reading achievement, at least for some populations. Thus, studies had to show that writing instruction not only led to better writing, but to better reading achievement as well. (c) It was required that studies demonstrate the combinability of the four components by showing that various measurements of each component correlated positively and significantly with the other components and with overall reading achievement. (d) It was required that there be evidence demonstrating the independence, or separability, of each category. Such evidence includes case studies of precocious, learning disabled, or brain-injured subjects who were able to make gains in one component without commensurate or similar development in the others, or who made gains in three of the components without equivalent progress in the remaining one. (e) Finally, it was required that developmental studies reveal different growth curves for each category. These criteria, applied together, suggested Word Knowledge, Fluency, Comprehension, and Writing as four related, yet separable components of literacy growth that are amenable to teaching, and that when taught, are likely to lead to higher reading achievement.
Recently, the National Reading Panel was appointed to inform the U.S. Congress about the implications of reading research for the teaching of reading. The panel in their report (NRP, 2000) found that instruction in three of the framework categories—word knowledge (including phonics, phonemic awareness, and word meaning), fluency, comprehension—made a clear difference in reading achievement for elementary and secondary level students, and the fourth category of the framework—writing—has been shown to be effective as well in previous research syntheses (Tierney & Shanahan, 1991).
The first category, Word Knowledge, includes instruction in sight vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, and word meanings. The second category, Fluency, emphasizes speed, accuracy, and expression in the reading of connected text. Comprehension is the third category, and it includes both understanding text and learning from text, emphasizing literary and content (sciences, history, etc.) reading. Writing is the final component, consisting of students’ learning to compose their own texts effectively for a variety of purposes. These four categories are all equally important across the various grade levels, but the emphasis within categories shifts somewhat over time. For example, early word instruction centers on phonemic awareness, phonics, and sight vocabulary, but as children accomplish these, the emphasis switches to the study of word meanings throughout the higher grades. In another example, initial instruction might place greater emphasis on literary (narrative) reading or writing as part of instruction in comprehension or composing, but this emphasis shifts to a greater focus on studying and composing expository or explanatory content texts as students get older.
During these early years, there also should be emphasis on teaching children sight vocabulary—that is, words that they can recognize immediately without sounding or any other obvious mediation. High frequency words like the, of, was, can, saw, there, to, for, and so on need to be learned to a high level of proficiency. Teachers can use many word lists to guide their focus here including the Dolch list, Fry list, or Cunningham’s word list. The key is teaching children to recognize such word quickly and accurately.
After about three years of phonics instruction and sight vocabulary instruction, most word teaching should shift to an emphasis on vocabulary or word meaning. As with phonics and phonemic awareness instruction, a wide range of vocabulary methods or materials can work successfully. The best instructional efforts require students to use the vocabulary in a wide variety of ways (speaking, listening, reading, writing), and they require students to analyze and explore rich definitions of the words and their relationships with other words. Effective vocabulary instruction also builds in a substantial amount of review.
Spelling instruction is an important part of word teaching, too. It should help students to spell in a conventional way, and it can provide them with an opportunity to think systematically about how words are structured. Spelling instruction needs to be kept brief, and it is probably best taught in conjunction with the phonics and word meaning teaching that should have the major emphasis.
Fluency. Fluency refers to the ability to read a text with sufficient speed, accuracy, and expression. Although fluency refers to both silent and oral reading, the research suggests that oral reading instruction is most effective for developing this ability in students. Activities like paired or assisted reading, in which students take turns reading portions of a text aloud to each other, giving each other feedback, and rereading the text multiple times until it can be done well have been found to be effective from the primary grades through high school.
If a student is fluent with a particular text, the teacher has two choices. First, if the teacher believes that the student is placed in an appropriate text for reading, then he or she only has to continue to monitor the child’s reading (by listening) and the amount of fluency instruction for this student can be reduced (fluency is the only component of the framework that can be reduced in terms of time coverage—and it can only be done so if the students are already fluent at an appropriate level). Second, if the teacher thinks the student should be working in more difficult materials, then he or she can have the child practice fluency in more difficult texts, including in social studies or science books.
Students who are fluent can usually read a text with only about one mistake per hundred words, and they can read the text smoothly and quickly. Young children (through second grade) should strive to read a text about 60–80 words per minute), while for older children reading should proceed at 100+ words per minute. Students need to punctuation and pause appropriately so that the text sounds like language.
Reading Comprehension. Students need to be taught to understand text independently. Comprehension instruction includes three components. First, we teach children to seek particular types of information. Second, we teach children how text is organized or structured and how to use these organizational plans to remember information from text more effectively. Third, we teach children a variety of strategies or actions that they can take before, during, and after reading to improve their understanding and recall.
For young children, learning what information to pay attention to when they read might be tied to general ideas such as knowing that good readers focus on both literal information that the author explicitly tells you, inferential information that you have to interpret based upon information that the author has provided, and prior knowledge or the information that you bring to a text. As children get older, and the reading demands get more challenging and more disciplinary, instruction needs to show them what kinds of information to seek when they are reading history or science or mathematics or literature.
Text organizations vary greatly across narrative and expository text. Students need experience and instruction in dealing with both of these. For reading narratives, children need to learn about plot structure (including characters, problems, solutions, outcomes, etc.). Knowing the organizational structures of a story help children to identify key information and to remember the story later. Similarly, students need to know about various ways that expository texts are organized (such as problem-solution, cause-effect, comparison-contrast), including knowing that particular types of information will be provided in particular texts. For example, social studies books will usually provide information on geography, economics, culture, and history. Students can use this information to think more effectively about how the author is presenting a particular culture or era.
There are also a plethora of techniques that can be used by kids to think about text more effectively. Teaching students to monitor their reading (to make sure that they are understanding and to ask for help when they are not), to ask their own questions, to summarize, and to translate text into graphic form are just a few of the techniques that can be taught.
Finally, it is essential that all of us remember that students benefit from comprehension instruction—not just practice. Many teachers give students reading assignments that require the answering of questions, but such practice is insufficient. Children need to be taught how to comprehend effectively.
Writing. Children need to be able to write their own texts as well as being able to read what others have written. Reading and writing depend on much of the same information (including knowledge of spelling patterns, text organization, vocabulary, etc.), and learning to read and write simultaneously can give children an advantage. Writing should teach children to write for a variety of purposes and audiences, using strategies and actions that will allow them to solve various problems of writing. The compositions that children develop should be meaningful and effective.
Children need to know how to retell events (narrative writing), explain and analyze information (exposition), and argue a position (persuasion), and our instruction should show them how to do these effectively. Children need to know how to alter their voice and message to meet the needs of an audience, and they need instruction in how to write text for themselves, for others who share much information with them, and for those audiences at a greater distance of time and space and shared knowledge (such as writing for publication). Students need to know how to write compositions that are appropriately elaborated, focused on a single topic, organized clearly, and that reflect proper mechanics, usage, grammar, and spelling. And students need to have a variety of techniques that they can use effectively to prepare for writing and to revise and edit what they have drafted.
The Chicago Reading Initiative will provide professional development in all four areas for teachers and principals. However, such efforts will take time. Teachers can begin teaching in all four areas using their current knowledge and expertise, and they can improve upon those efforts through their own professional development efforts as well as through those opportunities provided by the Chicago Public Schools.
Sometimes I am asked why a particular item is not included in this system: formal grammar instruction, language transition work for second language students, free reading time, teacher reading, and so on. The reason is that none of these has been shown by research to improve achievement for children across the grades. However, these kinds of activities can still be used in CPS classrooms. They just cannot be counted towards the two hours of required instruction.
ContinuityPowerful reading instruction is longitudinal. It builds quality upon quality, across classes, grade levels, and schools—and it does so across the complexity of program offerings that most schools provide (Title programs, special education, preschool, after school, etc.). The Chicago Reading Framework should help to establish continuity, or connectedness, across teachers at all grade levels, and from all aspects of a school or district instructional program. Entire school faculties, not just reading teachers, need to teach using the Framework. Any professional in the Chicago Public Schools whose teaching requires the use of written materials or texts are expected to be part of the effort.
It has been traditional to focus reading efforts at particular levels such as first grade, primary grades, or grade levels in which retention decisions have to be made. The piling up of resources at these points is likely not the best way to build effective programs for children. We need to maximize our efforts across the entire system since reading development is essential for student success in academic areas such as science, history, and mathematics, as well as for their future participation in society. The Framework treats all levels of instruction as being important to students’ development.
There are many ways that schools can ensure continuity. For example, it is possible to purchase some commercial programs that will provide some consistency of content coverage. However, commercial programs are just one alternative for accomplishing such continuity. Continuity can be accomplished through teachers arriving at a set of social agreements or shared, specific curricular goals including a clear specification of which grade levels will take responsibility for teaching particular content. We encourage principals and faculties to engage in planning and decision-making that will ensure greater continuity across the grade levels. Over time, we will provide greater guidance in this area, but we will do so—at least in part—based on the local efforts in our most successful schools. In other words, we will strive for greater continuity and consistency in the future, but we will not do this through arbitrary mandates from the top.
Another way to ensure that we have an effective reading program is to provide appropriate assessment. I am not speaking about formal achievement tests like the ITBS or ISAT here. Those tests have their place, but it is not in improving daily instruction. Teachers and principals must be aware of how well their children are learning their lessons so that they can make the appropriate and necessary adjustments along the way.
If a teacher is teaching sight vocabulary, she needs to know whether children are learning the words that are being taught. Such knowledge will allow the teacher to slow down or speed up or to intensify the effort. Similarly, a teacher needs ways of monitoring whether children are making progress in fluency or with comprehension strategies or that their students’ writing is improving. Many teachers already collect such information on their children and are able to provide feedback to parents and improvements to daily instruction. Principals need to be able to access this type of information as well so that they better support their teachers’ efforts.
The Chicago Reading Initiative will eventually provide schools with improved support for ongoing assessment in the four instructional areas to help teachers to improve their teaching, as well as to improve our own monitoring of your success. That way we can get the resources where they are needed and we will increase our effectiveness with all children.
Children who struggle tend to receive less instruction than their more successful peers. They are, likewise, less likely to receive well balanced instruction that addresses all of these key areas of concern, and there are likely to be fewer supports for continuity and ongoing assessment. It is also often in these schools that there is the greatest desire by policymakers to impose a “magic bullet” solution upon the teachers. However, research is clear that there is no magic bullet. What is needed is sound teaching, sound supervision, and lots of it. We need to ensure that these necessary conditions exist in all Chicago Public Schools. Energetic, intelligent, high quality teaching remains the best solution to our reading problems, and the Chicago Reading Framework should help marshal such teaching towards our children’s needs. In the coming days, months, and years, we will be providing resources to help you to use the Framework most effectively. However, until such support is available, there is no reason not to provide children with sufficient amounts of instruction devoted to these key areas of development. We know what to do. The time is now.
Baumann, J., & Hoffman, J. (1999.) The first r revisited: A national survey of educational practices. Reading Research Quarterly.