Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Monday, February 11, 2013
If she is a fluent reader, but not understanding the text anyway, then try something I call intensive questioning. Have her read the first sentence of a text… and before allowing her to read any more, ask her a ton of questions;
Sentence 1: “We got back from the grocery store and found the house a mess.”
1. Where were they?
2. What do you think they were doing?
3. Then what happened?
4. What did they find?
5. Do you think they were surprised? Why?
6. Where were they first? And, then where were they?
Then she reads a second sentence.
Sentence 2: “I had neglected to close the bathroom door again, and our Saint Bernard, Bernie, had left chewed toilet paper all over the house.”
1. Who had caused the mess?
2. What allowed him to cause the mess?
3. What did he make the mess with?
4. How did he get the paper?
5. What kind of paper was it?
6. What was the Saint Bernard’s name?
7. What kind of a dog was Bernie?
8. What did Bernie do to the toilet paper?
9. What was the person who is telling this doing while Bernie was making the mess?
Etc. As she gets better with that, start stretching her out to read longer segments, but still with this thoroughness of attention to meaning. (You can also turn this around getting her to generate the questions about the sentences—then trying to answer her own questions). The idea is to keep her so focused on the meaning that you break the habit of simply calling the words.
Friday, February 1, 2013
Friday, June 22, 2012
Monday, June 18, 2012
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Recently, I commented on the pre-reading advice of David Coleman and Sue Pimentel, indicating that I would soon follow with practical advice. In this entry, I fulfill that promise. Thank you to David and Sue for instigating these ideas, and for reacting to them along the way. I take full responsibility for the ideas expressed here (especially for any bad ones), but I appreciate the encouragement and debate that they provided (I'm sure it sharpened up the good ideas).
Currently, I am a principal investigator on the National Title I Evaluation. In that role, I have had to watch lots of classroom video over the past couple of months. These lessons are for preschool through Grade 3. Sadly, the previews to text are so thorough – painstaking and painful – that the only possible thing that students could be learning from them is that reading is unnecessary. I have watched 20-minute set ups for 5-minute reads. The blood is so sucked by these Dracula-like pre-reading sessions that the texts become lifeless. Why read if you already know everything that the text can possibly say?
Such lessons do not make me a big fan of pre-reading, so I have increasingly been won over by those who want to throw kids into the pool and get on with it. However, the common core will require that we use challenging texts and many students will struggle. Various supports, scaffolds, and motivation will be needed to allow students to read hard texts successfully. Furthermore, we need to remember that these are teaching sessions; it does not make sense to treat every text in the same way. There are times when teachers will want to focus student attention on certain aspects of a text, to try to strengthen particular reading muscles; revealing some text information ahead of time may guide that kind of heightened focus.
What counts as pre-reading? Let’s limit the discussion of pre-reading to explorations of relevant “prior knowledge,” purpose setting, contextualizing the text, previews of the information in the text, and any advice for the reader (“pay special attention to” or “ignore”). I would not include in pre-reading supports aimed at building decoding skills, fluency, grammar, or vocabulary. Such supports are beneficial and will be especially needed with common core, but preparation in these skills rarely ruins a book for the readers. Guidelines will be needed for those, too, but I will post such advice separately in a future blog entry.
There is a wealth of research showing the benefits of pre-reading. For example, providing students with information relevant to a text or making students aware of already-known relevant information improves their comprehension. The idea of providing students with or reminding them of relevant knowledge is not a bad approach, but it has run amok in America’s classrooms. I think in far too many cases, the “background” or “prior knowledge” step has become just a preview of what’s in the text—so the kids are seeing this information the second time on their first reading, or (just as bad) this information is only tangentially related to the text and therefore is useless in helping students meet the challenge of the text.
The lessons in which the teacher just tells her students the information from the text as a prior knowledge review are readily observable. Those previews that emphasize information that is irrelevant to figuring out the text may require some examples. I would include the previews that I’ve seen for The Old Man and the Sea. Kids struggle to appreciate that book, but I promise you no matter how much pre-reading information is offered about deep sea fishing or Joe DiMaggio, students will continue to struggle since that pre-reading information fails to address what is actually hard about that Hemingway classic.
Some texts may require no review of background knowledge, since the texts are reasonably complete, self-contained, and accessible. We might appreciate a particular aspect of such a text more with certain information provided, but, even without such information, we could still understand it quite well. Some texts are hard because they presuppose that a reader will have access to certain information or experiences, which is why I wonder about The Old Man and the Sea—few kids have the emotional experience to appreciate the old man’s regrets and resignation—which is why they can often retell the book, and still shrug, “so what?” I wonder if there would ever be enough time in middle school to sufficiently fulfill Hemingway’s very adult presuppositions; so, perhaps, that lovely book is a poor choice form middle school despite the tantalizingly-easy Lexile ratings. But, if it were to be used, then the type of background information to provide/elicit should be much more emotional, psychological, and inside-the-head.
So what guidelines make sense for pre-reading? Let’s try these:
1. The candle has to be worth the game. The amount of pre-reading should be brief and brevity should be determined in proportion to the amount and duration of the reading. If the text is a major undertaking (perhaps the students are reading a novella over the next 4-weeks), then devoting a half hour or more to pre-reading may not be overdoing it depending on the text. However, most texts are briefer than that and they are unlikely to require more than 1 week of lessons… in such cases, 5-6 minutes may be a lot. Definitely the amount of pre-reading time should be, proportionately, small when compared to the actual amount of reading. (In these examples, pre-reading sucks up less than 3% of the reading time—a tiny expenditure, if well done).
2. Let the author do the talking. There are exceptions to this guideline (see below), but basically teachers should try not to reveal information that students could gain simply by reading the text. Repetition may help learning, but if the text is just a repetition of what the teacher has already said, then students are missing out on the basic learning experience that reading provides. Repetition through discussion after the reading is a different breed of animal, that doesn’t spoil the quest that reading represents.
3. Pre-reading should provide a sufficient amount of information to give students reason to read, perhaps arousing their curiosity or sense of suspense. Look at these brief previews from a recent New Yorker magazine (the New Yorker usually provides the title of the article, a one sentence tease, and a one sentence caption of a photograph or drawing—thus, two sentences are the entire preview):
Profile: You Belong With Me by Lizzie Widdicombe
"Taylor Swift’s teen angst-empire."
"Swift hooked a previously unrecognized audience: teen-age girls who listen to country music."
The Obama Memos by Ryan Lizza
"The making of a post-post-partisan Presidency."
"Hundreds of pages of internal White House memos show Obama grappling with the unpleasant choices of government."
The Secret Sharer by Jane Mayer
"Is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state?"
"Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency, faces some of the gravest charges that can be brought against an American citizen."
These masterful introductory blurbs tell essential facts about the articles, they provide a reason to read, arouse interest—and do so very economically. Each one of these previews is helpful in that it reveals the topic (though more a topic sentence than a topic), it would allow one to determine whether or not to read the text, and it would give the reader an anticipation set to start making sense of the text immediately. Imagine coming across great works of literature by accident and knowing none of the background; I wonder how many of us would have kept going with Moby Dick beyond chapter 2 or Ulysses beyond the first few sentences?
4. When you do reveal text information, be strategic. There are times when I may want to reveal something about a text ahead of time—not to ruin the reading experience, but to allow for greater focus on some aspect of reading that my students need to develop. For the same reason, there will be times, albeit more rarely, when I may want to hold back information commonly available to a reader prior to reading.
An example of this strategic reveal can be taken right from television… Colombo. Here is a traditional murder mystery, except it isn’t traditional at all. The show revealed who the murderer was in the first minutes of the show. Even the densest viewer would know who did it, who they did it to, when they did it, where they did it, how they did it, and why they did it. Crazy kind of mystery, except that strategic reveal shifts the viewer/reader’s attention away from trying to solve the crime to trying to anticipate how Columbo will solve it. Having this information so early, focuses your attention on the clues differently and, consequently, you end up with a different relationship with the protagonist—you’re no longer competing against him, but are collaborating with him instead—neat trick.
If I take David Coleman’s now-famous Birmingham Jail lesson and I want the major emphasis of the reading to focus on King’s authorial choices, I might give the students background information about how King provoked his own arrest in this case and in many others, explaining his provocation strategy and the kind of response it was intended to provoke in his opponents and his audience. I might have the students read the letter not to figure out what it says, but to find examples of statements aimed at two audiences (to provoke unreasonable anger from one audience, while eliciting empathy from everyone else).
You could say that I am short-circuiting the reading experience by jumping right to that issue, but I cannot teach every text the same way and I have to recognize that sometimes a text will only be used to get at some particular aspects of learning. David is correct that if a teacher is going to devote 8 days to this text in an English class, reading it multiple times with minimal outside information is a brilliant choice as it would focus student attention on how to scale such a challenging and worthwhile text. On the other hand, if this is one of six items in my social studies text set on civil rights, students will not only read it fewer times, but the lesson may require that they read both King’s letter and the letter that elicited it, and maybe even viewing the video of Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses. In the English class this might seem like a cheat—I’ve given the students background that they may be able to infer, while in the history class the idea might be to better understand King the tactician, so weighing his response choices may be the better way to go.
Obviously, my point is that there is not a single pre-reading approach that is appropriate. There could be many such approaches, each of which could be intellectually sound and pedagogically valuable. An evaluation of the quality of such pre-reading approaches would require knowledge of the text, a grasp of the purpose of the lesson, and an understanding of what students can already do.
David Coleman, and his colleague, Sue Pimentel, fear that such strategic focus can take over the whole reading experience for students (with the teacher or textbook always pre-ordaining some narrow or partial approach to reading). They rightfully are concerned that if every, or even most, readings are carried out in such a focused manner that students will never gain the power to scale, under their own power, the intellectual peaks of a text; that the student will always be dependent upon a Sherpa (the teacher) and special climbing equipment (the textbook apparatus) that will no longer be available when the school day ends. If you always conduct pre-reading in the same way, you are probably weakening rather than strengthening the reader.
5. Pre-reading can conceal rather than reveal. I have an activity I call, “Inventing the Author.” Students read a text with all authorship information stripped away. Their job in this lesson is to read the text, and only using information provided by the text to construct a biography of the author: Is it a man or a woman? Black or white? Young or old? Democrat or Republican? Somebody with whom you’d like to have dinner? How would this author feel about the Afghan war or global warming?
Again, each “fact” that is created has to have text evidence behind it. I’ve used this with kids as young as 7. We rarely read text without some information about the author, but if you want to get at issues of persona, voice, tone, or authority, giving students less information can be provocative and useful in forcing attention to these features.
David cautions that such a lesson may point students too far out of a text, because they obviously must rely on their understanding of people and not just on the text information. I look to the research on critical reading and see that it develops in response to children’s growing awareness of human intentions and their understanding of how people behave towards each other. Good reading requires an awareness that texts are created by intentional human beings and I find that such lessons help kids to bring their knowledge of the world to the text, in very appropriate ways.
6. Not all pre-reading has to take place before reading. Okay, obviously I’m cheating a bit here. I’m playing with the fact that we can read text in parts. Let’s say we have a 10-page story, and we read each page separately, stopping along the way to discuss the journey up to that point. Those pauses might look back (summarizing, talking about what the author has revealed so far), or they might look forward (hypothesizing, predicting, girding for the next part of the reading). Thus, “pre-reading” could take place after a considerable amount of reading has already been accomplished.
Why is that important? That a lesson might include several small pre-reads rather than a single big one allows the teacher to be wisely responsive in pre-reading choices. Back to Birmingham Jail: David Coleman distributes the text to students and has them read the first two paragraphs without discussion or teacher presentation (in other words, with no pre-reading). After a few minutes, he asks who King was writing to and why he is writing this letter. The students struggle to answer those questions and rather than just telling them, David might have them re-read; but for this second reading there was a bit of pre-reading preparation—that is, the students now have a specific purpose for reading. The answers are better on the second attempt, but their vagueness may reveal that the students don’t know much about King or what he did. At that point, David might choose to provide a few biographical facts that are not in the text, as that might help the readers appreciate the value of taking on King’s arguments.
You might cluck, “I would have done that from the beginning—I know my students.” And, you might have done so wisely. Perhaps. But the point is that having the students doing the reading without training wheels, so to speak, was not only respectful, but it gave them a chance to flex their reading muscles. In this example, it didn’t work out, but worse things can happen than falling off your bike when you are learning to ride.
The example should make it clear that no matter how smart we may be, we will not always anticipate correctly, but that such errors are correctible. Anticipation is only one arrow in the teacher’s quiver; responsiveness is another. I surmise that the teacher who always anticipates that students will require lots of pre-reading background preparation is a teacher who is likely to be weak in responsiveness. Pre-reading for the first segment has to be anticipatory, but the pre-reading provided as the reading proceeds has to be responsive to the changing landscape. (Thus — a point made forcefully to me by David Coleman — forging connections of text with background knowledge is essential, and yet, these connections do not always have to be made in advance of the reading).
As with the other guidelines offered here, this one has some cautions too. You might like the idea of no pre-reading preparation to start, only offering needed information along the way. And, why not? The image of a teacher so thoughtfully guiding students, never giving away too much, always being there in the nick of time with just the right amount of info is a heroic image. But if you always were to rely on this approach, you may be less likely to stretch students out, that is increasing the amount of text between the aid stations (and, if you don’t anticipate any gaps and simply turn the students loose on a long piece without any pre-reading supports, then the time cost of frustration and re-reading go up).
7. Teachers have to read the text first. To make any of these choices, the teacher has to know the text. This might seem obvious, but way too often teachers forego reading the text ahead of time, relying on a teacher’s guide to carry them along. (This approach is one of the reasons some of our colleagues oppose core program materials; they think it fosters this kind of laziness). In fact, even with a really good textbook, the teacher has to (a) read the selection, (b) decide what the purpose of the reading lesson is, (c) think about what the students bring to the text, and (d) decide what pre-reading information to provide and when to provide it to accomplish the purpose. This process might be made easier by a good core program, but adjustments, choices, and responsiveness are always necessary. (This planning process would be even better if undertaken by a group of teachers rather than each one in solitary.)
So, briefer, more strategic and more responsive pre-reads should be the hallmarks of common core reading lessons.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Recently, there has been hubbub over whether we should spend time on pre-reading activities. Pre-reading refers to the stage setting that typically precedes shared and guided reading in elementary and secondary classrooms. David Coleman and Sue Pimentel who ably spearheaded the English language arts common core have been telling teachers not to engage in pre-reading activities and as a result some districts and states have already started banning the practice.
Why is this such a big deal? The background reviews and purpose setting of pre-reading are truly mainstays of American reading education, and many teachers wonder whether kids are going to be able to make sense of text without these supports. It’s times like these when many teachers start grousing about whether these experts have ever taught school (they have).
I disagree with the idea of banning pre-reading preparation, and I’ll continue to tell my students and my publishers to stay with the practice, but I fully appreciate why David and Sue would want to eradicate it. (I myself have occasionally thought about punching out a teacher during picture walk.) Prereading is often so badly implemented that it could not possibly have any good result. However, rather than ban a beneficial practice badly used, I will argue for a sound implementation. (In fact, I received emails from David and Sue just last week admitting that they have been, perhaps, too vociferous in their opposition to what could be a good approach, and we will continue a conversation towards giving my supportive counsel to teachers on this point in the future).
The idea of pre-reading has a long history in American education. In the first third of the Twentieth Century, the reading of literature in the academy was rife with author study; the idea being that one couldn’t read and appreciate fine works without a rich awareness of the author’s biography. This approach dominated high school and college classrooms and the publishing industry itself (the inclusion of extensive forewords, introductory chapters, and other similar apparatus were the norm). The New Critics bridled at this “read everything but the text itself” approach (which eventually imposed its own over-bearing rules for reading—like the requirement of avoiding the “intentional fallacy,” as if author’s don’t have intentions that can be considered interpretively by readers).
In elementary classrooms, pre-reading became a touchstone upon the publication of the teacher’s guide in basal readers. Previous to the 1930s, teachers were pretty much on their own when it came to lesson support, but the basal reader teacher’s edition changed all that. The directed reading activity (DRA), typically introduced the child to some background information, pre-taught the hard vocabulary, and provided a specific reason for reading the first page(s) of the selection. Of course, this scheme that started with basal readers in the 1930s, is now the normative practice recommended in pretty much all textbooks for teaching anything at any grade level. (In many programs, the pre-reading steps were referred to as background and motivation).
In the 1960s, winds of change (sort of) began to blow with Russell Stauffer’s ideas on prediction and anticipation as the basis of pre-reading. His directed reading-thinking approach (DRTA) didn’t so much overturn the DRA as redirecting. Instead of the teacher providing relevant background information and a reason to read, she would now guide the students to preview the material and make predictions (the predictions being the new purposes or motivation—read to find out if you were right).
The by then shop-worn practice gained an important boost in the 1970s and 80s with the research on schema theory which showed how important “prior knowledge” (that is the information that someone has prior to reading). The idea was that the more relevant knowledge you had, the better you would understand and remember the new information (P. David Pearson’s “building bridges between the new and the known”). Schema theory and prior knowledge research provided intellectual support for pre-reading instruction; research showed that previews could improve recall, inferencing, disambiguation, and put readers in a better position to recognize problems in a text.
The practice gained even more adherents with the advent of “guided reading” (this is where the “picture walk” comes in). Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell have pushed hard for strong pre-reading preparation for young children.
So, with such a venerable history, why would Coleman and Pimentel (and Shanahan) be so disgusted with the practice? Let me suggest five reasons.
1. Pre-reading takes too much time away from reading.
I recently watched a primary grade pre-reading that took 20 minutes—the reading itself only took 5. I wish I could say that kind of thing was the exception, but I see many instances of bloated, overly extended pre-reading sessions in classrooms at all grade levels (pre through high).
Much of the pre-reading set up that I see is deadly boring. The kids would get a good laugh if they knew that these activities were meant to be “motivation.”
3. Pre-reading commonly focuses on the wrong information.
There is no question that some texts pre-suppose particular knowledge on the behalf of the reader. A good preview or background session can make sure that kids have such knowledge available so they can engage in a reasonably strong first reading of a text. Unfortunately, teachers and publishers often provide background review focused on information that doesn’t actually need to be reviewed. (My favorite example is having middle school students read “The Old Man and the Sea.” That book is tough for 12-year-olds as they lack the emotional experience of the old man. You can review deep sea fishing, the Florida Keys, and Joe DiMaggio until the cow comes home and it won’t improve their understanding of the old man and his human plight).
4. Previews can ruin the reading experience.
A good background review can be motivational, creating a useful anticipatory set. Too often, unfortunately, the background reviews that are provided just tell the student what the text says (and sometimes even what it means). For too many kids, the challenge of a reading lesson is trying to remember what the teacher told you the text said/meant all the way to the end of the reading so they can tell the teacher back what she told them in the first place. If the information is in the text, then let the kids read it in the text. Telling them the information ahead does not increase motivation, but instead removes any legitimate reason for reading the text at all.
5. Previews are rarely purposesful.
What you know before you read a text can have an important shaping influence on where you put your mental attention. A good introduction can give kid valuable support for engaging in a particular kind of reading (and remember we are trying to teach kids how to read effectively, we are not just reading). Too often, the pre-reading activities are generic, repetitive, and fail to provide students with any guidance that would increase their power with text. Somebody has to read the text ahead of time and make a determination of what is hard about it and why it needs to be read. That information should guide the shape and focus of the pre-reading (should we tell students anything about the author or should that be an outcome of the reading? Is it better to know the genre or to try to describe the genre based on this specific instance? etc.).
Now that you see the problem, in my next blog entry I’ll try to give some positive guidance for pre-reading lessons that I would encourage (and that I think David Coleman and Sue Pimentel could support). No reason, in my opinion, to ban this venerable practice, but there is much reason to try to sharpen and focus it to the benefit of students.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Friday, February 11, 2011
Friday, February 4, 2011
Are American kids such poor readers that they'll believe anything they read? I don't think so, but a recent news report based on the work of Donald Leu at the University of Connecticut is suggesting just that.
Don studies the so called "new literacies," like reading through technology. He conducted an interesting investigation in which he turned kids loose on an Internet website that had information about the tree octopus--yes, an octopus that lives in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, complete with pictures of the 8-legged rascal in a pine tree.
Kids were overwhelmingly fooled by the site and afterwards even argued when told the animal was a hoax. Is this a reading comprehension problem and would better literacy instruction help? Or is the problem of another species altogether (neither literacy nor tree octopus)?
I actually think the kids could have bought into the idea of a tree climbing octopus without being poor comprehenders, dumb, or even too gullible. It was a pretty convincing hoax (I've included a link to the website at the end of this blog). In fact, I'd be more surprised if kids had not been tripped up by this.
This year, in fact, a new species of octopus was discovered in that part of the world (this one a purple octopus--the pictures of which are no less implausible than the ones on Don's website).
Gullibility is an issue of age and experience, and so kids are usually a pretty gullible audience (that's probably why they find it so easy to suspend disbelief for cartoons, puppet shows, and the like).
However, it is also an issue of relevance/importance. I hear news reports all the time about new species being found (or other species disappearing) and I don't question those reports very much--there is just no reason for me to bother (the cost of believing them seems pretty low). Kids might feel the same way. If the info was connected to a request to donate money or to vote for a candidate, it might be worth my time to consider it more critically. Maybe some naturalist or environmentalist wants to manipulate opinion with such information, but that seems pretty unlikely and the cost of believing is so low, why bother trying to challenge it?
This is further complicated by the underlying source of the information: if your teacher or some university professor tells you to go to this website, that alone may be enough to lower your "crap detectors." That's why many scientists do not want science instruction time wasted on teaching kids to think critically about the textbook (because those books should be close enough to authoritative that kids should be able to trust them--so such teaching would be out of place).
So, I don't think the kids' lack of critical response to this material in this situation is any big deal. But that doesn't mean that it has no implications for reading instruction.
It does highlight the value of teaching kids to consider sources of information when evaluating a text (or a website). The pictures of the purple octopus were on the National Geographic website, Don's amazing creature was documented on a site that I'd never heard of and couldn't find any info on. However, what if Don had used his university website to house the errant info? That would have made me more susceptible to the hoax. (Of course, if I were going to school and someone put me onto a website, I might assume it to be authoritative simply because of the underlying source--the school or the teacher. You have to trust someone, ultimately.
Corroboration matters in this kind of analysis as well, and there were other scientific notes to be found on the purple octopus (though admittedly I had to dig on this one, because being a new research finding, there wasn't much out there yet--so limited info could just be due to the recentness of the discovery, not because it is a hoax). Perhaps Don could have set up multiple sites so that I would have been tripped up here as well.
In any event, kids will develop a more suspicious nature as they get older (and as the stakes get higher). Sourcing and corroboration would be good tools for them to have so that they could exercise their suspicions.
But maturity, wisdom, and even a well developed critical sense will not make them impervious to hoaxes and misinformation. Remember when Pierre Salinger was tripped up, a man who had been an award-winning investigative reporter, press secretary to two presidents, a U.S. Senator, and at the time he fell prey to an Internet hoax, a major world correspondent for ABC News. His failure to figure out the misinformation ended his long career on an embarrassing note.
I don't see the kids' gullibility as a big reading comprehension problem, but I do think that we should teach kids some critical reading tools for interpreting such info (to be used when they believe that it matters).
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
More and more, middle school teachers are figuring out that they need help with reading comprehension. I just wrote a chapter about that (more on that later), but today I did a workshop for a group of middle school teachers on reading comprehension in Blue Island, IL. These teachers get it that they have a responsibility to address students' reading and they even seem to be buying the idea that they need to spend several hours each week on these issues. If we can get middle school teachers everyplace to take that on, we are likely to see real reading improvement--even more than we have seen from primary grade initiatives.
Here is my presentation from today.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Today, the What Works Clearinghouse released a practice guide devoted to making sense of the research on reading comprehension instruction K-3. I'm very proud of this piece of work and think that you will find it very useful for guiding practice at those grade levels. Feel free to download it and share it with your friends. They, I suspect will be pleased, as will the students they teach.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
This year's IRA conference is over and it was a good one. Here are a couple more of my presentations.
The first one is about Response to Intervention. Russell Gerstein and some of his colleagues were presenting the What Works Clearinghouse practice guide on RtI. They asked me to join in and provide a comparison of the guide with the IRA RtI guidelines. I did so and found some interesting differences. The IRA guide says more about Tier I interventions than did the practice guide, but it did more with Tier 2 and Tier 3. Bob Schwartz, from Oakland University, was in the audience and he asked why Reading Recovery evidence had not been included as part of the justification for some of the RtI practices championed in the guide. The answer was not a substantial one (the reason, it appears, was the fear of the Department of Education to look like they were favoring a particular program, as opposed to a practice; that was in the wake of the scandals around Reading First). I agree with the idea of avoiding conflicts of interest, but the point of using such evidence would be to show that a practice works, not that Reading Recovery is the only way to go.
I also talked to a few hundred of my closest friends about reading comprehension. I have posted this before, but here it is again. After this presentation an audience member (from Weekly Reader) was puzzled about my point on our inability to teach question types. He was worried that I was saying that it wasn't important to ask kids different kinds of questions. It is very reasonable to ask students a wide variety of questions as long as they make sense for the passages read. Just don't think that asking a particular kind of question raises that kind of comprehension. The key is the texts themselves, and then using questions to get the students to think effectively about what they have read (rather than trying to teach them to answer a particular type of question).
Here are those presentations:
Saturday, January 23, 2010
For many years, reading comprehension wasn't taught at all. American students read text aloud for much of the 19th century without a lot of discussion. Early in the 20th century, Thorndike found that if readers were asked questions about what they had read, they understood and remembered more. Soon after, publishers created teacher’s guides (an innovation of the ‘20s and ‘30s), and they all included questions for teachers to ask to facilitate comprehension.
Things began to change again in the 1960s: the idea that we could guide students to think about text more effectively, not just by rehearsing after reading (e.g., answering questions), but by predicting or asking your own questions. Literally hundreds of studies showed that we could teach readers to do these kinds of things in ways that would improve reading comprehension.
Obviously many kids in the 1800s understood what they read, without much, if any, teacher guidance. And it is just as obvious that plenty of kids learned to comprehend when their teachers were doing nothing more than asking questions.
Recently, Moddie McKeown and Isabel Beck published a study that examined the effectiveness of a kind of enhanced discussion plan and the preliminary results showed improved children’s understanding of what they were reading (sort of like Thorndike’s original results on asking questions). They stripped the typical core program guided reading lesson down to its essentials: (1) they had the students doing the reading of the story or article; (2) they had the students stop at predetermined points that they thought to be potentially confusing or particularly challenging; (4) they limited the questioning and discussion to make sure the kids were understanding the text (no side talk about word recognition, vocabulary meaning, etc.). The idea of this approach is to help students to develop clearer, more coherent mental representations of the text.
It is clear that this approach does a better job of helping kids understand the story they are reading, but its long term benefits, if any, are yet to be determined. We do know that strategy teaching has good long term benefits because studies show that kids taught in this way do a better job of reading other texts. However, as useful as strategies are, teachers do not spend every guided reading lesson teaching them, and so it seems pretty clear that the McKeown/Beck style lesson makes a great deal of sense. When we guide students to read a story or chapter, we should help them to develop a clear and coherent and complete understanding of the text.
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Mrs. Jones knows the National Reading Panel (NRP) found that teaching comprehension strategies gives kids a benefit, so she wants to teach reading comprehension strategies.
However, Mrs. Jones also knows that the NRP was controversial and, and not being a researcher herself, she isn’t entirely sure that she should follow it. She has professional doubts.
And, yet, Mrs. Jones goes to a lot of conferences. She knows who is respectable in the field of reading, and few gurus impress her more than P. David Pearson, Nell Duke, and the late Michael Pressley. None of these experts were on NRP, and all support comprehension strategies.
But she also respects another expert, Isabel Beck, who decries the teaching of comprehension strategies. Beck thinks strategies are beside the point. She and her colleagues stress the teaching of the texts themselves. So maybe Mrs. Jones won’t teach strategies after all.
But the district that Mrs. Jones teaches in bought the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill program (the one Tim Shanahan is an author of), and it stresses the teaching of strategies.
Have you ever wanted to just cry in such a situation? You want to get it right, but it is so hard with so many different experts and so many different opinions. What’s the right answer?
I’ve been trying to teach kids to read for 40 years, and I have read much of the reading comprehension literature, and have done some research myself. I have worked with and talked with all of the gurus noted above and scores of others. I have designed and redesigned programs of instruction and oversaw reading instruction in a major school district. And I can tell you that the biggest problem in reading comprehension instruction is a lack of depth.
Children and teens often come away from a text not getting what it was about, or only understanding the texts at a very superficial level. The whole idea of teaching strategies is to give kids ways of thinking that will help them to independently think about a text. Unfortunately, when some teachers teach strategies they make it all about the strategies and not the text.
Kids come away knowing what summarization is or how to visualize, but they learn nothing about the story or article they were reading. Instead of questioning becoming a tool that helps them to get at the meat of the chapter, it is something that they do instead of making sense of a text. Kids are perfectly willing to read a story without understanding it.
The same thing can happen no matter how you teach reading (I’ve watched Russ Stauffer, Taffy Raphael, Isabel Beck and several others come up with surefire ways to ensure that kids get the meaning, but these surefire methods have all become clunkers in classrooms where the teachers think these methods are the point).
Ultimately, kids have to get used to thinking about the ideas in texts, no matter how comprehension is taught. If they get used to making sense of ideas, they will become good comprehenders.
So, make the following New Year’s reading comprehension resolution. Pledge to do the following when you have students read (or when you read to them or even when you have them watch a video).
1. I will read the selections before the students do, and will think about what the texts mean (what they say, but also the underlying ideas the author hopes I’ll get). I will note what is hard about these texts so I can help students confront those barriers.
2. Prior to reading, I will help students to think about ideas that are relevant to what is important or challenging in a text. (For example, if we are reading Moby Dick, the preparation activities will not emphasize whales, but obsession. Prior knowledge matters, but it has to be knowledge that is relevant to what is important, rather than background information that is only superficially connected to the ideas).
3. During reading I will focus attention on the ideas in text. If some words are difficult—to decode or to know the meanings of—I’ll just tell them to students so we can stay focused on the ideas. I’ll minimize “strategy teaching” distractions by introducing new strategies with particularly easy or known texts (and applying them to harder texts when the students know how to use them).
4. I will try not to tell the students what a text says. After reading, I’ll engage them in retelling, summarization, or paraphrasing, and I will, with my questions, lead them to think deeply about what an author had to say and how he or she said it.
5. I will get students to continue to think about previously read texts, by rereading and by going back to earlier ideas as we read new texts. Considering how a character differs from an earlier one, or how an historic event is the same as one already read about are good approaches to this.
Keeping this resolution will bear dividends in children’s lives; a truly happy new year for all.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
If you type “reading comprehension observation” into Google, you get 462,000 hits. Not all of those pages will be instruments for observing how teachers and classrooms support reading comprehension development. But a lot of them are.
Some of these instruments are famous, like the CIERA one that Barbara Taylor and P. David Pearson made up awhile back. Others are the brainchildren of small companies or school districts. And t0hey all are supposed to be useful checklists for determining whether a classroom has what it takes.
Studies on such instruments suggests that they work—too some extent. What I mean is that many of the checklists are workable; a coach or other observer can see whether particular actions are taking place, and it may have reliability. So far, so good.
Some of these forms even have a correlation with kids’ learning. But having a relationship and having a strong relationship is the difference between talking to the counter man at the local 7-11 and talking to my wife. The correlations that have emanated from these observation forms tend to be tiny, and experts like Steve Roudenbush now believe there is simply too much variation in the day-to-day activities of classes to allow such observations to reveal much that is worthwhile with regard to the relationship of teaching and learning.
Reliability problems aside, most of the questions in these instruments get at the wrong things. They are simply too superficial to allow anything important to be determined.
A simple example: many forms ask the observer to determine if there is vocabulary instruction. That’s easy enough to figure out, and observers should be able to check the right boxes. However, what do those observations tell us? Well, that almost all teachers deliver some vocabulary instruction, so we’ll check yes to such observation items, but this variable, even when added together with, doesn’t tell us what we want to know.
I guess what I’m saying is that good teachers and poor teachers aren’t that different. In fact, it might be fair to say that many bad teachers look exactly like good teachers, but that the resemblance is superficial. You and I both might get checked off that we are teaching vocabulary, but which of us has selected words worth learning? Which is providing clear explanations of the word meanings? And which is being thorough enough and interactive enough and focused on meaning enough, to help the students to learn the words.
Checklists for observing reading lessons, for the most part, do not require qualitative judgments of how well teachers are keeping kids focused on meaning or how coherent or intellectually demanding the atmosphere is. Two teachers may be asking questions, reading stories, and teaching strategies, but they are probably not doing those things in equally powerful ways. Unfortunately, our observation instruments rarely get at these quality issues (though when they do, it is those items that seem to work best).
That means that most reading coaches are probably looking at the wrong things when they observe, and quite often the prescriptions they develop on the basis of their observations are more aimed at changing the instructional activities, rather than trying to make the current activities more substantial in getting kids to zero in on meaning.