Showing posts with label Textbooks. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Textbooks. Show all posts

Friday, December 27, 2013

How Publishers Can Screw Up the Common Core

Lexiles and other readability measures are criticized these days about as much as Congress. But unlike Congress they don’t deserve it.

Everyone knows Grapes of Wrath is harder to read than predicted. But for every book with a hinky readability score many others are placed just right.

These formulas certainly are not perfect, but they are easy to use and they make more accurate guesses than we can without them.

So what’s the problem?

Readability measures do a great job of predicting reading comprehension, but they provide lousy writing guidance.

Let’s say that you have a text that comes out harder than you’d hoped. You wanted it for fourth-grade, but the Lexiles say it’s better for grade 5.

Easy to fix, right? Just divide a few sentences in two to reduce average sentence length, and swap out a few of the harder words for easier synonyms, and voila, the Lexiles will be just what you’d hoped for.

But research shows this kind of mechanical “adjusting” doesn’t actually change the difficulty of the text (though it does mess up the accuracy of the readability rating). This kind of “fix” won’t make the text easier for your fourth-graders, but the grade that you put on the book will be just right. Would you rather feel good or look good?

With all of the new emphasis on readability levels in Common Core, I fear that test and textbook publishers are going to make sure that their measurements are terrific, even if their texts are not.

What should happen when a text turns out to be harder or easier than intended, is that the material should be assigned to another grade level or it should really be revised. Real revisions make more than make mechanical adjustments. Such rewrites engage in the author in trying to improve the text’s clarity.

Such fixes aren’t likely to happen much with reading textbooks, because they tend to be anthologies of texts already published elsewhere. E.B. White and Roald Dahl won’t be approving revisions of their stuff anytime soon, nor will many of the living and breathing authors whose books are anthologized.

But instructional materials and assessment passages that are written—not selected—specifically to teach or test literacy skills are another thing altogether. Don’t be surprised if many of those kinds of materials turn out to be harder or easier than you thought they’d be.

There is no sure way to protect against fitting texts to readability formulas. Sometimes mechanical revisions are pretty choppy, and you might catch that. But generally you can’t tell if a text has been manipulated to come out right. The publishers themselves may not know, since such texts are often written to spec by independent contractors.

Readability formulas are a valuable tool in text selection texts, but they only index text difficulty, they don’t actually measure it (that is, they do not reveal why a text may be hard to understand). Qualitative review of texts and continuous monitoring how well students do with texts in the classroom are important tools for keeping the publishing companies honest on this one. Buyer beware.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Informational Text: Or How Thin Can You Slice the Salami

As most of you know, the common core state standards (CCSS) make a big deal about informational text. Unlike typical state standards, CCSS treats the reading of informational text as being as important as reading literary text. That is a wonderful shift and one that could bear real benefits for children.

Of course, this is not a new issue. When I was in graduate school (a long time ago), one of my advisors, Richard Venezky, published a wonderful article entitled, Crossing a Chasm in Two Leaps. In it, he detailed how children were confronted by the problem of literacy. They first had to learn how to decode and read literature and then if they accomplished that successfully, they then had to master informational text. His not-too-subtle point was that when jumping over chasms one should try to get all the way across on the first jump: students needed to have more experience with informational text from the get go.

Importance of Informational Text 
Why is informational text so important? First, is its role in learning. Look at a typical high school curriculum. Students take an English class where they read literature, but they also take a World Culture class, a biology class, an Algebra class, etc. In other words, most academic learning opportunities involve the reading of text that is not literary. Of course, it is even clearer in the workplace. When was the last time your boss asked you to read a novel, short story, or poem? From the most basic health and safety forms, to the detailed reports and specs of various jobs, one finds nary a poem.

Another reason is that many kids prefer informational text to stories. That one upsets many reading teachers and English teachers because we so resonate with a good story. It is hard to accept that many kids prefer to curl up with a good book about computers or dinosaurs. It takes all kinds.

Needless to say, I’m happy the CCSS emphasize info text (and the new assessments are going to treat informational and literary texts as co-equals, too).

However, I’m getting queries from educators about the right mix of texts. David Coleman and his crew put out specifications telling what percentage of daily reading needs to be informational, and all of a sudden I’m hearing that reading textbooks have to be 50-50 or 60-40 in their mix of literature and information. (The Chicago Tribune even did a front-page story on this because it is such a big deal in the schools).

What does the research say is the best mix of text to foster optimum student learning?

Research on the Mix of Literary and Informational Text 
The research is silent on the issue. No one has any evidence that one mix or another is best or worst. It is certainly clear that our predominant emphasis on literary texts in elementary schools and English classes makes no sense, given that our kids do worse with informational text than literary text (according to PISA, the international comparisons). Earlier in the decade analyses indicated that elementary reading textbooks were about 80-20 in their emphasis on literature, and in schools where textbooks weren’t used, the imbalance was often even worse.

When someone tells you 60-40 or 50-50 or anything that specific you can be absolutely certain that they made it up. Ignore made up statistics or at least ask for a source of evidence. Given the certainty in these prescriptions I’m surprised we haven’t been told that the right mix is 53.65%-46.35% (with rounding of course).

Let’s get down to basics. The whole idea is to provide kids with a really good mix of literary and informational reading experiences so that they have sufficient opportunity to gain both sets of skills.

Coleman and company called for a 50-50 split between literary and informational text in the elementary school. But that doesn’t mean a core program has to include a 50-50 split of materials, since Coleman’s estimate has to do with all classroom reading, including reading subject matter materials in science and social studies.  

Text Throughout the Curriculum 
In other words, you can’t just look at the books themselves. How much reading are students actually doing throughout their school day? This is often quite limited–even just a few minutes a day according to some studies (teacher’s often don’t use textbooks in those other subjects—some districts have even stopped providing such texts; and even when they do the teacher may be doing the reading—which doesn’t count).

It is a rare school district that has any idea how much reading its children are engaged in throughout the day in the various subjects—and it varies quite a bit by classroom. To ensure a 50-50 split in student experience would require knowing those statistics (in fact, studying the classrooms would be every bit as important as studying the textbooks themselves).

In a classroom with lots of other reading, it would be okay to have a reading program that had a larger proportion of literary text than informational, while in a classroom with little such reading, something more in the range of 50-50 would be essential to give kids anything like the envisioned experience.

What is Informational Text and How to Count It
Another complication is that not all non-fiction selections are informational text. Informational text is text that provides information about the social or natural world, and deals with classes of objects and experiences rather than individual instances. Thus, an article about spelunking would be informational, but a narrative that tells the story of someone’s actual spelunking adventure would not be. Or, an article on porpoises and how they communicate would be informational, but Flipper’s life story falls into the literary pot (even though it might be a true story). In many cases, people are counting up all their non-fiction and claiming it as informational. Frankly, the skills needed to read a fictional story and a true life story are not so different; making sure that kids get a lot of non-fiction reading experience won’t suffice. Of course, if educators and publishers don’t know the difference between non-fiction and informational text, any text counts they provide will be misleading.  

Another counting complication has to do with whether you count words, pages, or selections. Two programs may have a 50-50 mix of literary and informational text when counted by selection, but even with that students could end up spending too much time on literary text because the literary selections average 20 pages each and the informational ones only 5. If the short reads are informational and the extended ones literary (including biographies, autobiographies, true narratives), then your program is not balanced.  

I think the notion that there is a specific mix of texts that has to be included in a program is just too simplistic and it trivializes what the common core is getting at (remember there is no research on what the mix should be in terms of kids learning). Coleman put out those 50-50 estimates to emphasize the equal value of these texts in student learning, and that reading/literature programs could not continue to be as imbalanced as they have been.

The Real Point
The real point is that students must be engaged in a substantial amount of reading experience with both literary and informational text. If a program obviously provides that it would be foolish spending a lot of time trying to make sure that they are balanced in any particular way. It is essential that we beef up informational text learning, and kids have been getting too little experience with such texts (perhaps some imbalance will be needed for a while to allow kids to catch up with informational text). But the common core does not require any particular mix of texts in a reading program or a literature program, nor should it.

That the elementary reading experiences should be substantial and roughly balanced in its attention to informational and literary text is fair guidance. As is the idea, that secondary reading experiences should be even more substantial, and should accord even more attention to informational text (perhaps two-thirds to 80%).

If you are an elementary teacher or principal and you are trying to select a textbook or to assemble your own units, you need to ask yourself:  Given the amount of reading that our students are engaged in throughout our curriculum, will this new material be sufficient to ensure that students will learn to deal with both literary and informational texts. No one can tell you the exact mix that should be there and counting all of this is complex, but I would say anything in the 60-40—40-60 range is likely to be appropriate depending on how much reading students are engaged in all of their subjects. Trying to come up with something more exact than that is like slicing the salami so thin that it can’t be tasted.

In terms of high school literature anthologies, again, attention must be given to how much students are reading in their subject area classes. If they are reading very much there, then a literary anthology would only address perhaps 20-40% of the students’ school reading. If I do the math right, then by the guidelines being bandied about, an anthology could include zero to 25% informational text. But that would be problematic, too, since 0% might mean that students would get no experience in analyzing the rhetoric of speeches, and the reading of essays, journalistic writing, and literary non-fiction. That obviously is too little even though it falls within those general guidelines. But 25% seems too high to me; in such a school that needed to devote a quarter of English instruction to those types of text, I would work harder to get the rest of the faculty to beef up their text use rather than reducing the reading of stories, plays, and poems.

Please pass the bologna. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Recently, the American Educator republished a chapter of Marilyn Adams. I have featured Marilyn’s input here before (thank you, thank you), but this recent pub is a must read as far as I’m concerned (and so I have included a link to it at the end of this blog).

The good Dr. Adams documents how American textbooks have grown simpler over time. I’ve long believed that the measurement of text difficulty was a great scientific advance, but as useful as that tool can be, it has been a weapon of mass destruction when it comes to supporting students’ reading achievement. You see, teachers and publishers have been hyper-aware there always seems to be someone who will have difficulty with some text or other, and so they have striven to provide easier texts (texts that will leave no one behind). Their solution means that kids get a steady stream of texts with easier words and less complex sentences and text structure.

I have no doubt that the textbooks for older kids have gotten easier and easier, but there is more to it than that. While the books themselves have been providing less mental exercise, I believe (and this is not well documented) that many middle school and secondary teachers are less likely to have students reading those texts than was true a generation ago (or if they are read, it is done using round robin or some variant which usually means that most of the kids do little reading or thinking).

Awhile back, Achieve asked me to help draft a statement that they were using with various state standards. The statement often served as a preamble to grade level standards, and it indicated that text difficulty was important. (For example, students might be able to draw great inferences with a third grade text, but not with a fifth grade one. Just working on inferencing makes no sense unless the text is hard enough).

As terrific as I thought that preamble was, it was generally ignored by teachers and testers. The reason? It wasn’t one of the standards. (People love those numbered lists).
As a result of such experiences, the common core standards includes both a huge appendix about text difficulty, and a numbered item about text difficulty in every set of reading standards. People might ignore the appendix, but they can’t miss that text difficulty item. That means that textbooks are likely to start getting harder again.

However, just throwing kids into harder text won’t solve the problem, especially if teachers simply skip those books when they are difficult.

When I was in Ireland last fall, I was working with a group of teachers and elementary students. When I finished up the lesson and the children were trooped out, one of the teachers pointed out that I handled the hard text issue differently than they did. “When we find that the children struggle with a text, we put them in something easier [a la guided reading]. But you taught the students how to handle the harder material.”

This idea of using challenging (not impossible texts) is important. Students do need texts that they can read, but they also need to stretch. Towards that end, I suggest the following:

1. Students should get daily experience in school in reading something hard and something relatively easy. The hard material really should be a challenge—even a year or two beyond their reading level! The easy stuff needs to be something that is intellectually challenging, but with easy enough language that they are not struggling with the words much (in fact, it can even be something that they are rereading).

2. The difficult reading materials should be heavily scaffolded. That means the teacher must provide lots of instructional support to help the kids succeed with the material that is supposedly “too hard” for them.

3. In full agreement, with Marilyn A., one of those scaffolds should be direct instruction in vocabulary. That can mean substantial lessons in particular word meanings and it might mean that the teacher just tells the students meanings as needed as well.

4. Another scaffold should be oral reading fluency work. It is easier to untangle complex sentences when you are working on the prosody of such sentences. That means students should be spending some time reading these texts aloud with feedback (supervised paired reading). This work could also include listening to the teacher (or an audio recording) and then trying it themselves.

5. A third scaffold should be some kind of productive work with the text. This might include participating in a discussion or writing about the text or trying to develop a chart or some other visual representation of the ideas. The key point is to get the meaning.

6. Yet another way to explore a hard text is to build up to it, by reading more than one text on the same subject (maybe an easier, less detailed or thorough version can help kids to bootstrap to the more difficult one). In any event, these kinds of easier “mentor texts” should not replace the reading of the challenging text.

7. And, finally, as this hard text becomes easier for the students –and with such scaffolding, such texts do become easier -- this text can be used as an easier text that might be worth rereading again later.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Should We Use Textbooks or Not?

I just read some emails on a literacy listserv that I subscribe to. They were arguing about whether to use textbooks in science. Some of my reading colleagues who are pro reading, and who are even pro reading in science, expressed animosity towards science textbooks. There were all kinds of reasons for this, some stated, some not. For one thing, they were sympathetic with science educators who want hands-on-scienc, and let's face it, hands on experiments can be cool (let me tell you sometime about burning up my classroom trash pail with a volcano).

The most basic reason these educators oppose science textbooks is their philosophical opposition to textbooks and commercial instructional programs. But that position makes no sense in a science class.

A big part of science instruction is to get kids on board with normal science—to bring them to terms with what is already known. Thomas Kuhn once wrote that science textbooks were not a good resource for learning science history, but that they played an important role in normalizing science (in unifying the conceptions drawn from research).

This is so important that when we interview scientists they indicate that we should not be stressing critical reading much in science books. Instead, they tell us that it is important that kids approach science books as truthful, if not always accurate, descriptions of the natural world as conceptualized by science. So, science being science, textbooks play a critical role in the teaching of science.

This is very different from the situations in history and literature. In history, it is evident from talking to historians that history books are the enemy. Historians see history books as anti-history as they suggest that these books convey the idea of a single correct story—rather than of an argument based on perspective. They would be willing to accept multiple textbooks (with varied positions), but not single text perspectives; that's just the opposite of history.

And, what of literature? For the most part literature textbooks are irrelevant as long as they are faithful anthologies. You could teach literature with tradebooks or with those same tradebooks combined in a literature anthology. Textbooks are neither integral to nor antithetical to the teaching of literature.

We shouldn’t be allowing educator’s philosophies and biases to determine whether students are taught from textbooks. That should be determined by the nature of what is being taught. Science must have textbooks, history needs multiple books, and with literature you can do it either way without fault. Disciplinary literacy, indeed.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Why Use a Textbook to Teach Reading

As a young teacher I was aware that reading professors in colleges of education tended to be anti-textbook. They imagined a world in which all teachers would construct their own individual reading lessons every day, rather than following what they saw as the dismal guidance of the basal reader. Such views reigned during the “whole language era” (1980s and early 1990s) when textbooks were replaced by trade books, decoding instruction received less emphasis, and the idea that kids should just read and write rather than receiving explicit teaching (except for the occasional mini-lesson) became predominant. That was also the period when reading achievement declined in U.S. schools, and the racial achievement gap widened, according to NAEP.

During the past decade, the anti-textbook sentiment has receded quite a bit. Districts have been ditching the “book room” for the “program,” but there are still those who are aghast that I think textbooks are a good idea. I have said that if I could have, I would have adopted a reading program in Chicago, and I am now a core program author myself. There were times in my career (like when I was a beginning teacher), that I was anti-textbook, and over time I have increasingly come to believe that textbook programs are necessary (not a necessary evil, but necessary).

Here’s why:

1. Quality textbooks tend to offer more thorough and explicit instruction than many teachers can provide on their own.

I recognize that textbooks vary in quality and some are better than others. But, generally, a well-designed textbook program tends to support a greater amount of well organized, systematic, explicit instruction than teachers do on their own. For example, studies suggest that texts encourage higher level questioning than teachers ask, and my own observations suggest that textbooks offer more thorough coverage (such as explicit repetition) than teachers provide.

Research says that explicit instruction is good for kids. Teachers can certainly provide such teaching without textbooks, but they are more likely to do so when they have supporting materials. Look across all areas of language arts instruction: oral language, phonological awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension including critical reading (of narrative and expository text), writing, etc., and I think you’ll see more explicit systematic lessons than the average teacher offers on his or her own.

2. Greater continuity of content coverage from class to class and grade to grade.

Bob Marzano documented how disorganized the curriculum is when teachers make it up themselves, often even having kids reading the same books year after year. A textbook program is organized across several years, so there is a clear effort to make sure that the learning experiences build one on another, to help kids to develop greater levels of sophistication. Even in something as straightforward as vocabulary or spelling teaching, textbooks make sure that kids are getting a progression of instruction.

Also, kids move around a lot, especially in low income areas. The average mobility rate is about 35% in high poverty schools, and I have worked with some schools with greater than 100% mobility. The idea that every teacher has an individual curriculum is a disaster for such kids, because they are certain to move (often to a different school in the same district) and with each move they truly have to start over. There is a real benefit to having content coverage that is consistent across classrooms and even schools, and that builds over time into something greater than what an individual teacher can do on his or her own.

3. Reduces amount of planning/searching time for teachers making it possible for them to put more attention on the kids.

Maybe those who argue for teachers to make up their own lessons, identify and select their own literary selections, and so on just don’t understand how time consuming such work is. Teachers have complex lives: they go through marriages and divorces, child birth and child raising, and the need to care for elderly parents—all while trying to take care of their homes, finances, and other aspects of their lives.

Teacher work time is better spent focusing on the needs of kids rather than trying to hunt up a story that they can use in a lesson. It would be foolish to have surgeons grinding their own scalpels rather than operating on patients in need, and it is foolish to have teachers trying to do all of this kind of work themselves, when their attention is needed on the students.

4. Standardization of practice in a school or district increases the possibility of powerful professional development opportunities.

One thing I learned in the Chicago Public Schools, is that having 26,000 teachers working with so many programs and combinations of programs, makes it hard to create any kind of systematic change. If everyone had been working with a single program (or even if there were a few programs of choice), we could have better used our professional development opportunities to focus on improving common areas of weakness, than is possible with such a hodge-podge of supports and weaknesses.

5. Allows for greater inclusion of content area specialization on a school staff.

As a reading guy I guess I should support the idea of all teachers should be specialists in reading. Of course, that means that we won’t have too many who have a depth of expertise in science, social studies, math, the arts, or other subjects. Textbooks allow even those without a great depth of expertise to do a pretty good job. We can hire more diverse staffs and expose kids to people with a wider range of expertise if we use textbooks.

6. Reduces the temptation to illegally photocopy.

In many schools that eschewed textbooks, it was common to accomplish this by having teachers violate the fair use laws, photocopying other people’s intellectual property. That’s a bad example for our kids.

7. Increases the chance for equal opportunity.

I have often heard the claim that it is the poor, inner city kids who get stuck with textbooks, while their more advantaged suburban counterparts get to do fun stuff in children's books. Yeah, right! (Reading Jeanne Oakes analysis of data on this issue and I think you'll see that poor kids have less textbook access.)

Our nation is still struggling to offer kids equal opportunity to learn, and textbooks are part of the solution. The standardization that textbooks provide give us the chance to equalize opportunity across a broad range of barriers. Individual--idiosyncratic--teaching, ulitmately, is inherently unequal.

Textbooks can't guarantee that all kids learn—only good teachers can do that. Textbooks do, however, support teachers in accomplishing that goal. Tht's why I think they are a good idea; they increase the chances that our kids will succeed.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Heterogeneous or Homogeneous for Middle School Disabled Readers?

Dr. Shanahan,

I am a mother of a child with a reading disability (as well as processing and short term memory) who will be entering middle school in the fall. Our middle school is planning on heterogeneously grouping the students in reading/language arts classes. As I'm sure you know this would be the lowest level readers blended with college level readers. Also, reading interventions will be cut from every day to every other day. I am a little concerned about the implications this may have on the students. Do you happen to know what research says about this concept? What are your feelings?Any assistance will be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for your help! :)

Dear Concerned Parent,

Thanks for your letter. Generally research has not been positive about homogeneous group or tracking by class when it comes to reading instruction (though most of this research has been done with younger kids or older kids in subjects other than reading). Overall the findings are that homogeneous grouping provides a slight academic benefit to the highest kids and no measurable benefit to the others, but of course those are averages and kid’s experiences are individual.

One concern about trying to group all kids by level is that it segregates them which can be socially disruptive and cuts kids off from models of proficiency. Your child benefits from interacting regularly and meaningfully with kids who might not be challenged in the same ways and who might find it easier to see themselves as upwardly mobile when it comes to academics.

One reason there is so little benefit to grouping kids by ability is that most kids are at or near the middle where not much benefit would be expected (think of it this way: if a 7th grade teacher teaches from a 7th grade book in an average school, nearly 70% of the kids are likely to be reading between a 6th and 8th grade level; there would be very little benefit from such a small adjustment for these kids). That leaves 30% of kids who are far enough off the mark who might benefit from an alteration of level, but even a two-year reading difference at this grade level is not that big, especially on the high end, so that means about 85-90% of the kids will likely do fine when they are taught “on grade level” rather than reading level (some teachers might even make some within classroom adjustments reducing the homogeneous advantage even more).

My claim isn’t that there could be no benefit to the vast majority of kids under any conditions, but just changing the book level and placing kids only with those who perform like themselves will not, by itself, change things enough to matter to most kids. For example, one of the big gains that could come from homogeneous grouping would be that the teachers could move along more quickly and cover more instructional ground… Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a school put in place a more ambitious curriculum as a result of such grouping (yeah, the kids often get exactly the same instruction they would have with or without the grouping).

Okay, so homogeneous grouping for reading/language arts could be beneficial 10-20% of kids in the middle and high school grades. About half of those kids are reading above grade level. Perhaps they'd make faster progress in a homogenous setting, but schools are notorious for not actually raising the level with such gifted kids anyway, and school districts tend not to worry about the gifted much in these days of AYP and moribund reading scores.

That means that homogeneous grouping for reading in middle school will probably be of greatest value to the 5-10% of kids at the bottom; the ones reading more than two years below grade level. The ones the teacher really can’t “pull along” to adequate progress with the other kids. The ones who either suck up way too much teacher time in a heterogeneous classroom or who simply fade into the wallpaper and don’t make much progress at all. Schools definitely could (and often do) create an alternative reading class for such kids (or in some cases, it is an additional class—the strugglers take both the regular language arts class AND the special reading class).

Sadly, even when schools create such possibilities they often fail to provide the resources needed to make them work. Remember how far these kids are behind? Just adjusting the instructional level of the materials will probably not alone be sufficient to meet their needs. Struggling readers have to make gains that will help close the learning gap with their peers (that means they need more than a year learning for a year of teaching).

Thank goodness publishers are starting to provide instructional materials for students like your child (not many years ago, schools used out-of-grade-level elementary school materials with these kids if they did anything at all). I have even authored such a program (, and there is now a wonderful resource evaluating such programs, so you can check on what else is available: Deshler, D.D., Palincsar, A.S., Biancarosa, G., & Nair, M. (2007). Informed choices for struggling adolescent readers: A research-based guide to instructional programs and practices. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

One thing I found when I was doing the research to create my adolescent literacy program (for kids reading 2nd to 5th grade levels) was the great need for intensive instruction with these kids. It isn’t enough to alter the reading level of the materials, but skills and strategies need to be taught with a heightened thoroughness and consistency. Programs for average kids tend to flit from one strategy to another rarely spending even a couple of days on the same thing (I guess in fear of boring this generation); but the effective approaches demonstrated in research studies had a very different design: they stayed with something for days and even weeks, trying the new strategy out in lots of different texts and under varied circumstances and with lots of review. That kind of teaching is especially necessary for kids like yours.

If your child is more than two years below grade level in reading performance, I would push for the school to do some special programming for such kids. The ideal would be to provide them with a special reading class (don’t segregate them, keep them together with everyone else for the rest of their day), and that class should be daily--time matters. I would assign fewer kids to such classes so the instruction could be as individualized as possible. I would push for the use of a reading or special education teacher who knows a lot about this kind of teaching. I would push for the use of the kinds of materials reviewed above. I would even consider pushing for an afterschool program to get my child even more of this kind of teaching than can be afforded in a school day. (Of course, if that isn’t possible or the school isn’t responsive then you need to try to create such a situation for your child away from school. Unfortunately, I don’t know what resources of this type might be available in your community).

I don’t know where you are located, but if you want to see the kind of teaching that really can make a difference with learning-disabled children, I would suggest that you try to visit the Benchmark School in the Philadelphia area. Their teaching is remarkably good and would provide you with a vision for your schools to work towards.

Good luck.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Can Scripted Lessons Really Improve Reading? Why I Support the Use of Textbooks

January 19, 2008

In the December 10 issue of the New Yorker magazine
Atul Gawande published a fascinating article about the improvement of medical practice. Although he is a physician writing about medical care, I found his insights to be surprisingly relevant to instructional issues in the field of reading.

In this article, “The Checklist,” Dr. Gawande describes the incredible complexity of Intensive Care Medicine, and the brilliance and courage of the doctors who practice it. But this was not a piece about heroic doctors, but instead explained the need to standardize and regiment such practice in order to maintain quality.

I know…. I know…. the sentences in the previous paragraph don’t seem to go together. If practice in intensive care units (ICU) is so complicated and important, and physicians are so brilliant and committed, then why would anyone want to regiment that practice? You may want to invest in more professional development or reduce case loads, but adding more rules, regulations, and checklists seemingly would undermine rather than support the delivery of high quality care. As a physician who Gawande quotes puts it: “‘Forget the paperwork. Take care of the patient.”

Gawande describes how “No Child Left Behind”-style efforts are now being used to script medical practice, and how resistant physicians are to these intrusions. The basal reader-like regimentation of medical practice “pushes against the traditional culture of medicine, with its central belief that in situations of high risk and complexity what you want is a kind of expert audacity.”

The field of reading shares that devotion to the idea of “expert audacity” in teaching. Think of every movie or television show that you have ever seen on teaching (The Great Debaters, Dead Poets Society, Blackboard Jungle, To Sir With Love, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and on and on and on). In all of those kinds of stories there is a teacher who against all odds takes on the system with no curriculum, no textbooks, nor colleague support, and makes a difference in the lives of students.

Good teaching these days is not that individual. Every teacher matters, but no teacher alone really makes the difference—especially in something complex like learning to read. We need teachers who will do a great job and raise literacy achievement and who will then turn these kids over to another teacher, who will also raise literacy achievement. That is more likely to be accomplished when everyone is doing the right thing.

The right thing in this case is complex, because there are many things that need to be learned about reading and these components all must be orchestrated into a powerful whole. Not teaching essential skills and strategies thoroughly enough that students can master them will do harm. Because of this, we need textbooks and systematically-organized curriculum to better support teacher efforts.

As Dr. Gawande writes: “It is ludicrous, though, not to suppose that checklists are going to do away with the need for courage, wits, and improvisation. The body is too intricate and individual for that: good medicine will not be able to dispense with expert audacity. Yet it should also be ready to accept the virtues of regimentation.” He concludes that because requiring doctors to carry out checklists of required procedures is being shown to make a big difference in patient's well being.

That makes sense to me. Teachers who work closely with their colleagues by adhering to the discipline of a shared systematic curriculum are not surrendering their professionalism. They are just better focusing their courage and intelligence on those aspects of practice where those qualities will help rather than hinder children. If lists and prescribed practices can improve medical care with all of its complexity, I certainly expect that it can do the same for reading teachers. Using a good textbook is not an act of surrender or submission.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

In Defense of Textbooks, Core Programs, Basal Readers

January 8. 2008

I am often asked why I support the use of textbooks for teaching reading. It has been common in my field for those at the university to denounce the use of textbooks, and I have resisted that urge. The basic assumption seems to be that good teachers don't need textbooks, and that if you use a textbook (or core program or basal reader) you must not be a good teacher or even a very nice person.

Of course, some observers try to split the difference: "new teachers need textbooks, but experienced ones do not" is often their claim.

I think overall we are probably better served by teachers following textbooks, though they are certainly far from perfect. When I was director of reading of the Chicago Public Schools I wish we would have relied upon one or two basic reading programs, because it would have made it much easier to target high quality professional development in ways that would more certainly benefit children.

The choice isn't between good teachers and bad textbooks. In fact, it shouldn't be a choice at all. We want committed well prepared teachers AND we want them to have high quality tools to support their efforts. A teacher who does not have to spend a bunch of time chasing down materials, constructing lessons, and the like has more time to focus on children's needs.

The following is from a column that I wrote when I was president of IRA. I based it on a wonderful article by Atul Gawande. He was writing about medicine where the same argument rages: are doctors experts or do they need tools and regimentation? Gawande has a new article in a recent issue of the New Yorker that I will write about in this space in the near future:

If a field is to advance, it has to at least consider whether deeply cherished ideas are correct or not. It might be upsetting to find out that we don’t know how to encourage kids to read successfully or that good teachers often rely on programs, but it would be even worse to proceed with the misconception that the conventional wisdom on such subjects is based on anything more than gut feeling. If we want to succeed in improving children’s reading, we can’t continue to accept “truthiness” over truth.

Teaching expertise may be overrated
Here’s some conventional wisdom that most of us, me included, have accepted as genuine fact: teaching expertise is the key to learning. There is certainly some evidence on this one, though I suspect it wouldn’t be very convincing if we didn’t already believe in it. Maybe we’ve made teaching expertise a fetish and it’s holding us back!

What made me wonder about this was a New Yorker article on obstetrics (“The Score,” October 9, 2006, pp. 59-67). I know, I know. That is not a blue-ribbon panel report or a scholarly article from a refereed journal. But Atul Gawande’s article caught my eye because it claimed that to improve effectiveness it may be necessary to rein in or limit expert practice.

I know that sounds nuts, but Gawande makes a pretty good case that the transformation of obstetrics from a field that stressed skilled craftmanship to one based more on an industrial factory model has led to better outcomes for patients.

It’s easy to reject medical analogies since they so often depend on biological processes which are so different from what we face in teaching. But let’s not reject this one too quickly since delivering babies is more like teaching than most medical specialties. A successful delivery requires extended involvement and engagement, and depends on the physician’s ability to carry out complex behavioral procedures, often under challenging circumstances.

According to Gawande, “If medicine is a craft, then you focus on teaching obstetricians to acquire a set of artisanal skills… You do research to find new techniques. You accept that things will not always work out in everyone’s hands.”

“But if medicine is an industry, responsible for the safest possible delivery of millions of babies each year, then the focus shifts. You seek reliability. You begin to wonder whether forty-two thousand obstetricians in the U.S. really could master all these techniques.”

Gawande goes on to describe the ingenuity of the various delivery procedures (such as the use of forceps) that were invented along the way, and how medical schools emphasized these procedures for difficult births. These approaches were hard to master and few obstetricians ever really learned to use them well (which didn’t stop them—when the use of complex procedures becomes a hallmark of professionalism, then all professionals want to use those procedures no matter what the outcome).

But things changed. Obstetricians adopted rules more like those of the factory floor than of a learned profession or a skilled craft. To discourage the use of complex procedures by the inexpert, even the skilled physicians who could use them well set them aside. The result of the standardized use of “good enough” practices has led to big improvements in the health and safety of babies.

I wonder if we define teachers too much by the procedures they use. I wonder if, due to our zeal to protect educator autonomy, we have championed complex and subtle practice at the expense of overall success. Can 3.8 million teachers really do what many professional development programs push?

The old system of obstetrics created pockets of excellence; some pretty amazing doctors at times pulled off some pretty amazing deliveries. The cost of that, of course, was high: lots of botched deliveries by doctors unable to manage the challenging procedures. Obstetrics eventually surrendered this “heroic physician” model to stress standardization—and the result has been more live births and fewer damaged children. I wonder if we are clinging too tightly to our own traditional “heroic teacher” model and our excellent, but perhaps too ambitious, instructional schemes. We, too, can point to our pockets of excellence, but then think about the very real cost this might represent to the great numbers of children for whom we are responsible.

Two More Provocative Ideas
Two more provocative reading-relevant ideas that might disturb us came up in the same article: Gawande writes that “evidence-based medicine,” the use of randomized experiments to figure out what works (sound familiar?) has played a very limited role in obstetrics! Unlike other medical specialties, there are few of these kinds of studies in obstetrics and those that have been carried out are often ignored in practice. Obstetrics comes in last in the use of hard evidence among medical specialties, and yet it has done more to extend life than any of the others.
There are, to be sure, differences between medicine and education, but it’s interesting to see this successful use of a very different model of research than the one that I use and that is fast becoming the new conventional wisdom of much of our field.

How do obstetricians improve practice without experimental study? That question gives rise to one more compelling idea: it may be due mainly to something else that should sound familiar. Gawande attributes the improvements to the use of informal-but-objective assessment results that are reviewed by both the doctor and principal (okay, chief of obstetrics).

The Apgar score allows doctors and nurses to quickly and objectively evaluate a baby’s condition at 1 minute and 5 minutes after birth. That simple assessment has led obstetricians to try things out—not waiting for research—to see if they can improve their scores. Because they always know the baby’s score, the doctors can easily see the relationship between their actions and the outcomes.

It is hard not to think about DIBELS (or PALS, TPRI, ISEL, and so on). These tests all provide quick information so that adjustments to practice can be made. But the analogy breaks down, too, since those tests give multiple scores, and don’t involve much in the way of professional judgment. In other words, DIBLERS may be onto something that could allow for more successful practice, but maybe it’s not quite the right something, since trying to keep track of 2 to 4 scores for each of 30 kids simultaneously is overwhelming and would not foster the kind of intense focus that the Apgar score seems to provide.

Oh well. Questioning conventional wisdom is not for the feint of heart. Deflating overblown claims risks the anger of one’s friends, but it also threatens the comfort of one’s own beliefs. However, that’s the way it should be in a field that is seriously trying to improve measurable outcomes for students.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Reading Programs by Tim Shanahan

November 18, 2008

I am often asked which programs and commercial materials I endorse. I do not endorse such materials, per se, though I have occasionally designed or helped design programs that I am very proud of. If you are looking for something consistent with my approaches, the following items might be helpful.

AMP -- An intervention program for middle school/high school students who are reading at 3rd to 5th grade levels

Treasures -- A core reading program for K-6

Elements of Reading: Fluency Grades 1-3

Let me know if you have any questions about these.