Showing posts with label Strategies and skills. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Strategies and skills. Show all posts

Monday, May 2, 2016

Where Does Content Fit In Literacy Learning? Learning to Dance and Talk at the Same Time

            Years ago I took ballroom dance. I used to write about those experiences in this space. It was a great opportunity for me as teacher, since with dance I struggled greatly (something there is about having your legs bound for the first year of life that makes graceful movement a challenge).

            This week I was reminded of those lessons; one in particular.

            Usually, Cyndie and I took dance classes together (imagine Ginger Rogers and not Fred Astaire… but Don Knotts). However, one night she had to work and I had our young teacher all to myself. Since I was on my own that night, the teacher decided to break the regular routine. “Why don’t we just dance?”

            That was scary enough. I was used to dancing with Cyndie only, and this drop-dead gorgeous young lady, truth be told, made me very nervous.

            Even worse, she wanted me to talk with her while we danced. Which was the real point of the lesson, to get me to move my feet and maintain my form while paying no attention to either. Usually, Cyndie recognizing my silent struggle would try to help, reminding me what came next, helping me to find the beat, telling me which dance steps matched which melodies, and such. But the teacher wanted to hear about my job and family and insisted that I really lead.

            Of course, I tried all kinds of stratagems to solve my problem. Repeating a particular set of steps while frantically rifling through my dance memories for what might come next was a particular favorite of mine. My attractive young partner immediately recognizing this shopworn trick would reprimand me, “This is getting boring.” One of the longer hours of my adult life.

            Language learning is hard too, and kids in a reading class may get as anxious as me doing the rhumba.

            One of the hardest things about language learning is to engage in language activities while being distracted. Let’s face it we often can figure out what to do during a skill lesson if we concentrate hard enough. In other words, a perfect box step or distinguishing a /p/ from a /b/ are rendered easier by the fact that we are only doing a box step or only distinguishing those phonemes. In real life, it ain’t so simple, of course.

            Recently, I was Twittered an old study about learning French (Lafayette & Buscaglia, 1985). Not a great study, but one that likely got the right answer. The researchers examined two groups of advanced French learners (Level 4); one studied the language and one took a social studies course delivered in French. The results were mixed, but with some clear benefits for the non-direct approach. The students who were being taught about civilization in French, got better in the speaking and listening department, while the ones who worked on language skills outperformed with writing. This doesn’t surprise me much given my own experiences in learning French—as well as my knowledge of reading and writing research. (Students with three years of French likely knew a whole lot about reading it, but writing was still likely to benefit from such direct attention).

            Earlier, Louise Bohr and her colleagues reported that with underprepared college students, bigger reading gains resulted from enrollment in content classes that demanded a lot of reading and writing, than in the developmental reading classes that were supposed to catch them up. One suspects that such students likely “knew” a good deal of what would be taught in remedial reading, but they didn’t necessarily know how to use it. It is also likely that the remedial classes aimed at easier texts. Instead of trying to help the students to do harder things, these efforts tend to provide practice at levels the students are relatively good at.

            Direct focus on language learning is useful, especially at particular time points. For example, when beginning to learn a language, it is really smart to focus on phonology. With young kids learning to read and write, this has a lot to do with learning to hear the sounds in the words, and then figuring out how to match those sounds with spelling patterns and so on (with a foreign language, it means relearning the same kinds of things). You could try to put such decoding practice into a meaningful context, but initially at least, distracting kids from learning to make those associations would be a big mistake.

            Later, however, once kids “know” those skills, it is important that they get practice using them—practice that distracts them from paying attention to the skills themselves. That’s why I’m not a fan of those so-called “decodable texts” or “linguistic readers” that engage kids in pretend practice: “The fat cat sat on the mat.” Kids definitely need to see words with the /at/ pattern, but they need to handle them in a context where they are trying to talk to the girl and not just dance with her.

            E.D. Hirsch and others have long complained that reading lessons don’t do enough with science, social studies, or the literary canon. Reading authorities have somewhat defensively tried to protect language lessons of various stripes. I feel their pain.

            There are times when it is essential to focus on the mastery of skills, strategies, and insights about how language works and we need to get good at teaching those directly and well. But we also need to give our students adequate practice in using those skills in situations that will distract them from focusing solely on the skills themselves.

            When it comes to reading, content learning is the great distractor. Students trying to figure out the scientific difference between fruits and vegetables, have to decode the long vowels, but they have to do so while thinking about everything else. Of course, trying to read such texts without an adequate understanding of spelling patterns would be equally problematic.

            Sound reading instruction definitely needs to include lots of explicit skills teaching—and not just phonics skills, these have just been easy examples to use here—but it also has to include a good deal of distracted application. Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that a really good reading program will have more than a list of reading skills as its objectives, but will also reveal what literary tropes, social studies facts, and scientific information will result from working through the lessons. That would be a very different kind of scope and sequence chart, but that kind of split focus may make it easier for teachers to get students to dance and talk at the same time.
           
Bohr L.A. (1994). Toward a model of freshman literacy. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at Chicago.


Lafayette, R.C., & Buscaglia, M. (1985). Students learn language via a civilization course—A comparison of second language classroom environments. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7, 323-342.

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.


Monday, December 29, 2014

Why Reading Strategies Usually Don't Help the Better Readers

Last week, I explained why disciplinary reading strategies are superior to the more general strategies taught in schools. That generated a lot of surprised responses.

Some readers thought I’d mis-worded my message. Let me reiterate it here: strategies like summarization, questioning (the readers asking questions), monitoring, and visualizing don’t help average or better readers. They do help poor readers and younger readers.

I didn’t explain better readers don’t benefit, so let me do that here.

Readers read strategically only when they have difficulty making sense of a text.
Recently, I was took a second shot at reading the novel, Gilead. I tried to read it a few months ago, but couldn’t follow the plot. I often read just before sleep and especially subtle or deep texts are not usually best read a few pages at a time like that.

In the meantime, Cyndie read it with great enjoyment, so now my self-image as a sophisticated reader was on the line. For my second reading, I carved out bigger chunks of time, and marked the text up quite a bit (even writing a summaries of the first several chapters). This time, I read with great understanding. Whew!

If the book had been easy for me, I never would have gone to that kind of trouble.

Let’s face it: school texts are not particularly hard for average readers and above. We teach strategies to them, but they don’t really need them—at least not with the texts we use to teach reading.

It may not even matter much if a student understands a text. Students can often hide out, letting the others answer the hard questions, and gaining sufficient info from the discussions and illustrations. No need for strategies under such circumstances.

The new emphasis on teaching students with more challenging texts—texts not as likely to be understood from reading alone—should increase the value of general reading strategies.

Of course, even good readers sometimes confront challenging texts at school (like ninth grade biology textbooks). Unfortunately, they often don’t use reading strategies even with such texts.

My guess as to what is going on is two-fold: students who usually get by on the basis of language proficiency alone, have no idea what to do when confronted with such demands. They go into default mode, not using the strategies at all—even though in this context such strategies would probably be helpful.

But let’s face it. Too often, meaning just doesn’t matter at school. Students can often get by with a superficial purchase on the content. I once got half credit on an astronomy exam question that asked how to measure the distance to the Northern Lights (my answer: use the same method that you’d use to measure the distance to the moon—a correct answer, and yet one that doesn’t require any grasp of the content).

Superficial understanding is often enough in school. Low readers may not be able to gain this successfully by applying their language skills alone, so strategies increase their chances. Good readers can, but when the stakes are raised they don’t necessarily adjust and start using the general reading strategies. But no matter how challenging the texts are, if “acceptable levels” of performance are low enough, strategies again won’t be necessary.

Yes, we should teach reading comprehension strategies, even to good readers. But we should do so in an environment that emphasizes the value of knowledge and understanding, and that requires students to confront genuine intellectual challenges. Those disciplinary literacy strategies touted in my last entry seem to have motivation built in: trying to connect the graphics and the prose in science to figure out how a process works; or judging the veracity of multiple documents in history; or determining which protagonist an author is most sympathetic to in literature tend to be more purposeful and intellectually engaging than turning headers into questions or summarizing the author’s message. 





Monday, August 25, 2014

To Teach Comprehension Strategies or Not to Teach Them

I don’t hear anything about comprehension strategies anymore. Was that idea just another fad or are should we still teach those?

Your question raises an interesting point about American reading instruction. We tend to chase fads. Instead of building on past reforms and improvements we instead ride the pendulum back and forth.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was lots of interest in teaching students how to think effectively about the ideas in texts. There was lots of research on how to engage prior knowledge, summarize information, ask questions, monitor understanding, and so on—and lots of interest in bringing these strategies into classrooms.

Strategies engage readers in thinking intentionally—rather than just reading a text and hoping something sticks, the reader enters the enterprise aware the text is like a mountain to be scaled or a problem to be solved. In such situations, you take actions that help you to reach the goal.

Thus, readers may preview texts ahead of time to increase anticipation and to ensure that relevant prior knowledge will be at the ready. Readers may set purposes too—like turning headings into questions to be answered. As they read, they may stop occasionally and sum up the information provided to that point—rereading if there are apparent gaps.

In the strategy world, readers need to be “meta-cognitively” aware. That means, for instance, that they should notice when they are not understanding something and to do something about it (such as rereading the pages that you you phased out on, looking up a word in the dictionary, or asking someone for help).

The whole language movement has been pilloried for nudging phonics out of the primary classroom, but—something not often noted—it booted comprehension strategy teaching, too. Strategy teaching tends to be direct instruction—the teacher explains what the strategy is, how to use it, and why it’s important. Then the teacher may demonstrate the use of a strategy and engage kids in a heavily scaffolded version in which the teacher does much of the work (“This would be a good place to ask a question about what we have read. If you ask and answer questions you’ll remember more of the information later.”). Over time, the teacher would fade the support with kids doing it more and more on their own.

Strategies came back a bit during the 2000s, probably as a result of the National Reading Panel’s review of more than 200 studies showing that we could effectively teach students to comprehend better by teaching such strategies.

As your question reveals, now strategies are on the retreat, yet again. The reason this time is almost surely due to the fact that the Common Core State Standards don’t include any comprehension strategies. They don’t prohibit the teaching of comprehension strategies, but they don’t require them either.

I’ve long been a proponent of the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies, and yet, there is a part of me that says their omission is not that big a loss.

The reason for my skepticism about strategies? I’m well aware of the fact that many students—perhaps the vast majority of students—don't actually use these strategies when they read. They use them when teachers guide the process, but they don’t do so on their own. I don’t believe, for instance, that “good readers” make predictions before they read a text, even though I have no doubt that good readers could be induced to make such hypotheses under controlled conditions.

The problem is that comprehension strategies are only useful for helping readers to make sense of text that they can’t understand automatically. Many texts are easy for me to read; they are comfortably within my language and knowledge range. This morning I read USA Today and didn’t feel the need to look up a single word or to stop and summarize any of the information.

But if you asked me to read a chapter on theoretical physics—and you were going to evaluate my understanding somehow—that would be a different story altogether. Now I’d have to suit up for heavy combat, which would mean doing various things that I don’t do in my daily reading (like taking notes or turning headers into questions).

What I’m saying is that in the past we taught strategies—overtaught strategies???—but we then asked students to apply them to relatively easy texts (texts at the students' instructional levels). Now, the new standards are asking us to ignore strategies while assigning harder texts.

Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.


I would encourage you to continue to teach comprehension strategies as a scaffold for dealing with challenging text. The point would be to make it possible for kids to make sense of truly challenging texts; the use of strategies could be enough to allow some kids to scaffold their own reading successfully--meaning they might be able to read frustration level texts as if they were written at their instructional level.