Showing posts with label Reading comprehension. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reading comprehension. Show all posts

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Fluency Instruction for Older Kids, Really?

School Administrator Question:  Dr. Shanahan...for grades 3-5 does it make sense to use classroom time to have students partner read? If our ultimate goal is improving silent reading comprehension, I wonder at this age level if we are not using time efficiently.

Shanahan's response.:
I get this question a lot. Since our kids are going to be tested on their silent reading comprehension, why should we bother to have them practice oral reading? The purpose quite simply is that oral reading practice has been found to have a positive impact on students’ silent reading comprehension. The National Reading Panel reviewed 16 experimental studies in which students practiced their oral reading with a partner (e.g., parents, teachers, other students, and in one case, a computer), with rereading (they should be reading texts that are relatively hard, not ones they can read fluently on a first attempt), and with feedback (someone who helps them when they make mistakes). In 15 or the 16 studies, the kids who were engaged in this kind of activity ended up outperforming the control students in silent reading comprehension. There have been many additional studies since that time—across a variety of ages, with similar results.

Although oral reading practice improves oral reading that isn’t the reason we do it. We want students to practice making the text sound meaningful—which means reading the authors’ words accurately, reading with sufficient speed (the speed of language—not hurrying or racing through a text), and with proper expression or prosody (putting the pauses in the right places, making the text understandable to English speakers). As they learn to do that with increasingly complex texts, their ability to do that with silent reading improves.

Teachers are often told to stop this in the primary grades, and the Common Core standards only include fluency teaching through grade 5, but by 8th grade, oral reading fluency differences still explain 25% of the variance in reading comprehension. In other words, if you could make all the 13-year-olds equal in fluency, you’d reduce the comprehension differences by 25%.

It’s not an either/or, of course, I prescribe both fluency instruction and comprehension instruction and the latter would definitely include silent reading of the texts. You could also argue for additional silent reading comprehension practice in social studies and science reading. However, if you only have kids practicing their silent reading, then you are slowing kids’ progress and sacrificing achievement points.

Do as you please, but as director of reading of the Chicago Public Schools, I mandated fluency instruction at those grade levels and would do so again if I still had that responsibility.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Spirit is Willingham, but the Flesch is Weak

Teacher’s Question:
I have read a few articles and books by Daniel Willingham in the past, and I wonder if you are familiar with his work. I recently read an article (attached) about reading comprehension strategies and am curious to know what you think of his ideas. He says that focusing heavily on reading strategies isn’t really necessary.

(I often question the need for so many reading strategies, particularly when they take away from reading being a pleasurable activity. I can understand the importance of visualizing, using prior knowledge, and maintaining focus, but teaching the other “strategies”, in my opinion, is confusing the issue. I realize there are many studies to say otherwise, but, I just can’t be convinced.)

Anyway, again, just wondering what you think of Willingham’s paper.

Shanahan's Response 
Thanks. This is the second time in two weeks I’ve been asked about Daniel Willingham’s writing on comprehension strategies. I don’t know Dr. Willingham, but I’ve read his vita.

Daniel Willingham is a cognitive psychologist with a good research record—on topics other than reading education. Although I know of his book, it is written for lay audiences—and the short excerpts or off-shoots that have come to my attention, suggest to me that he hasn’t actually read much of the research that you are asking about. But he has read some appropriate summary pieces about the subject and/or talked to some respected experts).

In my opinion, he is kind of right. 

What is the good Doctor W right about? He is right that comprehension strategies (e.g., summarization, questioning, monitoring) are effective. There are a number of research reviews of this work, both focused on individual strategies and strategy teaching overall, and they are consistently positive. Teaching comprehension strategies appears to improve students’ reading comprehension, and it doesn’t matter if the review is somewhat comprehensive (NICHD, 2000) or highly selective, only including in the highest quality studies (Shanahan, et al., 2010); the answer is the same.

And, he is especially right to raise the issue of, “How much of this kind of teaching is needed?”

But that’s where my answer would deviate from his, and where reading the actual studies instead of the reviews can make a big difference. He claims students learn everything they need after 2 weeks of strategy instruction, and that we should limit such teaching to that extremely limited duration.

I think that claim is on very thin ice and it ignores a lot of issues and a lot of studies (remember the National Reading Panel reviewed more than 200 studies on the topic).

I say three cheers for Dan Willingham for questioning the amount of strategy instruction and I give him the raspberries for then answering his question that two weeks of strategy teaching is appropriate.

One thing that originally shocked me in reading the studies in that research literature was how brief the interventions were. Most studies focused on 6 weeks of instruction or less (though there were a few longer studies). That such brief interventions are potent enough to impact standardized reading tests is good. That we have no idea whether stronger doses have any added benefit is a serious problem. That’s why I agree with the notion that we are probably overdoing the strategy teaching. The only evidence we have on amount of strategy teaching is correlational and it is weak at best.

My conclusions:
(1)  Strategy instruction is effective when the instruction is concentrated. In all of the studies, students were given daily ongoing instruction of and practice with strategies. Programs that give occasional doses of instruction in various strategies may be effective, but there are no studies of that kind of practice.
(2)  Strategy instruction can be effective at improving reading comprehension scores at a variety of grade levels, including the primary grades. This surprised me, too. I was pretty sure that comprehension strategies made sense with older students, but not so much with younger ones. That’s not what the research has found, however.
(3)  Strategies are not all equal. There is a greater payoff to some strategies than to others, so I would definitely put my instructional nickel on the ones with the big learning outcomes. The most powerful strategies by far are summarization (stopping throughout a text to sum up) and questioning (asking and answering your own questions about the text). The weakest: teaching students to think about how to respond to different question types (effect sizes so small that I wouldn’t waste my time).
(4)  Strategy instruction can be effective with about 6 weeks of teaching and practice. Here I’m going with the modal length of strategy studies. Perhaps the effects would have been apparent with fewer weeks of instruction, per Willingham’s contention, and, yet, this hasn’t been studied. Weaker dosages may work, too, but with so little evidence I’d avoid such strong claims. 
(5)  Even more strategy instruction than this may be effective, but, again, with so little research no one knows. We do have studies showing that 3 years of phonics instruction are more effective than 2 years of phonics instruction, but we don’t have such studies of reading comprehension teaching, so let’s not pretend. 
(6)  You raise a question about the value of different strategies, Willingham does not. The research reviews show that the teaching of multiple strategies, either singly in sequence or altogether, is beneficial—with stronger results than from single strategies. Multiple strategy teaching may be better because of the possibility that different strategies provide students with different supports (one strategy might help readers to think about one aspect of the text, another might foster some additional insights or analysis). Teach multiple strategies.
(7)  The Willingham claims fails to consider the outcome measures. Strategies are good or bad, but he doesn’t focus on what they may be good at. His focus is on motivating readers, but the studies of strategy teaching do not focus on this outcome. I think we overdo the strategy thing, and yet, I’d be surprised if an overemphasis on strategies is why kids don’t like reading. The whole point of strategy teaching is to make students purposeful and powerful, focused on figuring out what a text says. Those kinds of inputs usually have positive motivational outcomes.
(8)  It is great that comprehension strategies improve performance on standardized reading tests, but their bigger impact has usually been on specially designed instruments made for the research. Thus, summarizing usually helps students to summarize a text more than it builds general reading comprehension. I think the best test of strategies would be to give two groups a really hard text—like a science textbook—and have them read it and see who would do the best with it (passing tests, writing papers, etc.). I suspect strategies would have a bigger impact on that kind of outcome than passing a test with fairly short easy passages, multiple-choice questions, in a brief amount of time. If I'm correct about that, then strategies would worth a more extensive emphasis. Willingham apparently hasn't read the studies so he is considering only what they have found, not what they haven't considered.
(9)  Most students don’t use strategies. Though we know strategies improve comprehension, they are not used much by students. I suspect the reason for this is our fixation on relatively easy texts in schools. The only reason to use a strategy is to get better purchase on a text than one would accomplish from just reading it. If texts are easy enough to allow 75-89% comprehension (the supposed instructional level that so many teachers aim at), there is simply no reason to use the strategies being taught. Teachers may be teaching kids to use strategies, but their text choices are telling the kids that the strategies have no value.
(10)   Willingham is trying to reduce the amount of comprehension strategy instruction so that kids will like school better. I doubt that he spends much time in schools. He hasn’t been a teacher of principal or even a teacher educator and his own research hasn’t focused on practical educational applications. I’ve been conducting an observational study of nearly 1000 classrooms for the past few years, and we aren’t seeing much strategy instruction at all. There definitely can be too much strategy teaching, but in most places any dosage, not overdosage, is the problem.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Examples of Close Reading Questions

As a principal, I want my teachers to teach student how to read a text closely. After going through your Powerpoint, reading the questions you suggest and the responses, I think professional development in developing questions would be required to ensure they were actually asking the right kind of questions.

            One of the biggest implementation problems with Common Core that I see is that teachers (and curriculum designers) don’t understand close reading well enough to ask appropriate questions. The point of the questions is to guide students’ to think about the text in effective ways.

            To help this principal (and others) to provide the professional development noted above, I have provided what I hope will be a useful example. But let’s start off with a bit of explanation. 

            First, the questions should be about important issues raised by the text. Some people are taking close reading to mean “precise” reading or “thorough” reading. If you are asking about a story, you should ask about details that would be important in a summary of the story (e.g., character motivation, key plot details, theme). “Close” is not a synonym for “trivial.”

            Second, the questions should be text dependent. That just means that it shouldn’t be possible to answer the question without reading the text. The focus of close reading should be on what the author presents, and not on anything else. That’s the reason why it’s a good idea for students to explain or support their answers with text evidence (proof—from the text).

            Third, the questions should help the readers to accomplish three interpretive goals. Specifically, they should help the reader to think about what the text said (key ideas and details), how the text worked (craft and structure), and what it means (integration of knowledge and meaning). Unlike in other questioning schemes, these questions do not try to get kids to exercise particular thinking skills (e.g., inference, higher order reasoning, comparison); they focus on interpreting the text rather than on exercising particular cognitive muscles.

            I have attached an old basal reader story (from the 1955-1965 period), and below I have listed questions that I might ask a group of second- or third-graders about this story. I have separated my questions out into three sets—one set for each major interpretive goal, but they don’t have to be asked in that way; they can be interspersed with each other.

            I do think that it is a good idea to ask your questions in an order that helps students to follow through the text in an “orderly manner,” particularly with regard to a first read or the key ideas and details questions. It is not enough that kids get practice reading texts, but they should come away knowing more about their world. If the questions/discussion/task takes you through the content in a well-organized way, students will be more likely to come away with content knowledge. Thus, you could have the students read this story three times, and each time use a different set of questions; or you could simply intersperse the second two sets of questions into the first wherever you think they fit best. In each list here, I have gone through the story in the same order that the author presented the pertinent information.

            Of the three sets of questions, the “craft and structure” questions are the most characteristic of close reading (the other interpretive goals are important too, but they are not unique to close reading). That means that most of us need more practice with “craft and structure”—something largely or entirely neglected in the video that I recently critiqued in this space.

            You may notice that I did not go through and try to have a balance of “right there” and “think and search questions” or that I didn’t fool with Bloom’s taxonomy. The reason is quite simple: my focus is on—and should be on—the text during close reading. If a text is very explicit, then I’ll ask a lot more comprehension or “right there” questions. If the text is more oblique, then we’ll end up with more inferencing practice. The point isn’t the inferencing practice, however, it is to get students to think closely about the meaning of the particular text we are reading now (that's one of the reasons close reading questions are hard--because they follow each text, not some questioning scheme).

Questions about key ideas and details—What did the text say?
What was special about Tom?                                                        
What did Tom do when the men were loading the train?                      
Why did he pretend to sleep?                                            
What did Tom do that got his picture in the newspaper?                      
How did his life change after he got in the newspaper?             
What happened when the chipmunk showed up?                                  
Why did Tom follow the chipmunk?                                              
When he was in the railroad car what was Tom’s problem?      
When Tom got out of the car where was he?                               
Who found Tom?                                                                             
How did the engineer know that Tom wanted to go with him? 
Why did the engineer take him?                                                    
When the engineer and Tom left what was their problem?       
When Tom yowled, what did the engineer think he wanted?    
What changed the engineer’s mind?                                             
What did the fireman think Tom meant?                         
So what did the engineer do?                                                         
According to the engineer, why was it so important Tom yowled?
How did Tom know the bridge was out?                                       
What happened after Tom saved the train?                                

Questions about craft and structure—How did the text work?
What does the author mean when he writes that Tom “had never seen a kitchen nor climbed a back yard fence”?
What is a “conveyor belt”?                                                                                      
What’s “freight”?                                                                 
On page 1, the story says that Tom was a "hero." What does that mean? (What made him a hero?)
On page 2, the author puts some words in quotation marks (“Oh, boy!,” “Fish at last!” “thank you”). What is he trying to show by doing that? Can Tom talk?
What kind of story is this (fantasy or realistic fiction)?   
On page 4, it again calls Tom a “hero.” How is the meaning of “hero” different here than on page 1?
Why does the author tell us about the chipmunk again at the end?

Questions about integration of knowledge and meaning—What did the text mean?
The author used the word “hero” in two different ways. Which meaning is the right one?
What’s the difference between being a hero and being famous?
Is it better to be a hero or to be famous?

What was the point of the story? What did the author want you to learn from Tom?

Railroad Cat Story

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Close Reading: A Video Replay

Last week, I provided a link to a video that a reader sent me Close Reading Video . The link purported to present a model “close reading” lesson.

Although, there was much to like about the lesson, I complained that it wasn't close reading. Close reading is not a synonym for reading comprehension (or even "really good reading comprehension"). 

This is happening a lot. A company says their anthologies include “complex text,” but it isn’t clear what teachers are supposed to do with it, or why it's there at all since the instructional procedures still seem to favor the idea of protecting kids from complex text.

Last week I dinged that video for claiming that close reading is a teaching technique (it's an approach to reading). I was critical of the idea that close reading helps students “conquer complex text,” if that includes language complexity as measured by Lexiles. I didn’t like the idea of reading the book to the kids; I’m a fan of reading texts to kids (see recent NewYork Times article on this), but not the texts the kids are supposed to be reading. Finally, I didn’t like how rereading was being approached. 

Here is the rest of my thinking about this lesson. Hope it’s useful to you.

1.   Confusion of story and exposition.
A big issue with the standards is the shift to informational text. Unfortunately, teachers lack experience teaching informational text, and they haven’t developed a language for it yet. In the video the teacher repeatedly refers to the “story” that the students are reading. Better choices: “informational text,” “book,” “article,” “science selection,” and so on. 

Our language cues kids as to which strategies to use and what text features to rely on. Stories have different characteristics than science articles do. They are organized differently and use language in different ways.

1    2.     The terrific teaching strategies are irrelevant to close reading.
Many teachers who watch the video are going to be impressed with the clever way the teacher had kids sharing information (the back-to-back arrangement, the whip around). Those are clever techniques and I’m all for them. They're the kind of thing that allows effective teachers to reap the benefits of small group instruction even when teaching a whole class. As a teacher educator, I’d be very pleased if my students walked away from this viewing with those techniques.

However, those techniques have nothing to do with close reading. A lesson will involve students in close reading whether or not those techniques are used. (That's why this can be a "good lesson"--because of the high engagement level of the students--but a poor lesson, if the goal was to engage them in close reading.  

2    3.     Close reading focuses on the text, not the reading strategies.
A major purpose of close reading was to shift readers' attention from authors’ biographies, the historical period from which the text emerged, or from past critical response. It aimed to shift this attention to the text itself.  
One of the biggest problems with the presentation is its heavy emphasis on main idea and key detail detection, annotation techniques, rereading procedures. What the author had to say and how the author said it is getting lost here. That’s why I see this lesson as no different from what was common in schools in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and the Oughts. This isn’t an advance; it is just a new set of labels for what we were doing before.

I do believe that, as teachers, we need to teach the reading process to kids, and having some lessons that focus on how to summarize or question a text makes great sense. Similarly, I’m all for explicitly teaching kids some of the common ways that texts are organized and to have them practice reading texts to use those strategies or to figure out a text’s structure. But, as useful as such lessons can be, they are different than the lessons in which the emphasis should be entirely upon the content and approach of a particular text.

One can’t really tell from the video when certain things happened (is this what the teacher started with or did she tell the kids this after they had read the text once or twice?). One example is purpose. She stresses that the purpose is to get the main idea and details and then tells students to look for the main ideas (she even helps this along by asking them what they know about adaptation). The problem is that her purposes are more about the reading process than the text. 
A model lesson on close reading should stress the text, not the reading strategies. And, it should focus attention on not just what the text said, but how the author expressed, reinforced, or extended the meaning through his/her choices of language and structure. This lesson ignored tone, the role of illustrations, why the author chose particular words, or why information was sequenced in particular ways. Kids will likely come away with some of the facts (and that is good), but there is more to it.