Showing posts with label Sequence of instruction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sequence of instruction. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What is the Proper Sequence to Teach Reading Skills?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

On Sequences of Instuction

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.