Showing posts with label Vocabulary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vocabulary. Show all posts

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.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Great New Resource for Little Ones

How can parents and teachers increase their young children's knowledge of the world, as such knowledge propels reading comprehension? Certainly, it is a good idea to talk to your child a lot, pointing things out, defining them, and explaining them.

It is a terrific idea to read to your children, too. That is a great way to get them beyond their experience and to help them develop language for what they are learning. Similarly, watching (some) television shows together and talking about it as you would personal experience can increase what children know.

Now there is a new resource that my friends at the National Center for Family Literacy have been engaged in. It is a website called Wonderopolis, and every day there is a new short video aimed at preschoolers and early schoolers that exposes them to information about the world in cute and engaging ways. If you've every had to explain to a 4-year-old why jello wiggles or why grandpa has old hair, you'll appreciate these child-friendly explorations and explanations. Check it out at:

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.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Odds and Ends

This has been a very busy week or two, and here it is Friday and I find that I have left some promises (to keep).

Last week I spoke to English language educators in Oregon about vocabulary. English learners benefit more from vocabulary instruction more than do native speakers (and it helps us too), and given the role vocabulary plays in reading comprehension, it would be wise if our schools got intensive about teaching vocabulary to such kids. Unfortunately, there aren't many studies to go on, so I rely heavily on the native speakers studies and color my efforts with the bit of information from the English learner vocab investigations. The major differences in vocabulary learning across these groups: (1) the words may differ (English learners are likely to need all of the words that native speakers do, but also some language that we learn just from experience with English; (2) the instruction may have to be more explicit about the grammatical function of the new words (it really does make sense to show them the word in different forms and tenses, and not just assume they will make the generalization); and (3) the use of more pictures and motions (and even the home language) to help explain the words meanings. Below you can find my presentation on vocabulary.

I also met with two groups of teachers in Minnesota who are in the process of identifying schoolbooks that will support their efforts to improve achievement. I shared with them my take on the research and my experiences in raising achievement in Chicago. That presentation is below.

Finally, I met with a bunch of teachers, coaches, and other educators in Long Island, NY (congratulations Yankee fans) to talk about adolescent literacy. They want me to come back and talk to their principals and superintendents and school board members (which I am happy to do--we really have to get moving on the adolescent literacy problem).

Oh, one more thing: yesterday, a teacher contacted me wondering what she could do for a severely dyslexic fourth-grader. She wanted me to weigh in, and told me which programs he had failed with and what he couldn't do. What she did not reveal is what he could do. I wrote back and told her that I could provide no help without an honest appraisal of what this young man could actually do with decoding, sight vocabulary, phonological awareness, fluency, listening comprehension, writing, vocabulary, etc. Teaching is different than doctoring... you rely even more heavily on what kids can do than on what they can't (we don't look for symptoms as much as strengths).

Have a good weekend.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Irish Literacy and Some New Audio Resources

What a great week... I just got back from a very pleasing visit to Dublin, Ireland. My Irish friends invited me over to see if I could provide any help to their wonderful "youngballymun" project. Ballymun is an area of Dublin that is economically challenged. Ireland has one of the world's best education systems and among the highest literacy levels, but everything isn't what it should be in Ballymun.

As in major cities all over the U.S., the kids who live in economically-challenged neighborhoods (with the worst housing, the most serious health problems including drug abuse, etc.) do worst in school. Some Irish areas manage remarkably to avoid this unfortunate pattern, but not Ballymun.

Consequently, Atlantic Philanthropies has teamed up with the Irish government to provide support to make things go better in such neighborhoods. The team in Ballymun is working closely with the schools to get improvements there, but they are also expanding preschool, afterschool, and health care opportunities, and doing everything they can to try to make it possible for more kids to do well in this changing neighborhood.

The current environment there reminds me of Chicago when they were tearing down the Robert Taylor homes--the high rise public housing projects that didn't work well for the residents in Chicago. Right now in Ballymun the ever-changing landscape is punctuated by abandoned high rises, piles of rubble from the demolition, and hopeful new housing. But while changing the physical environment is a good idea, that alone will not likely lead to improved achievement without real changes in these children's educational lives.

That was why they brought me over. I visited all the schools, attended a plethora of meetings, shared my framework with everybody who would listen, and kept up the mantra that it is the children's experience that matters: amount of teaching, curriculum focus, and quality of delivery are what improve literacy--everything else is just commentary. I look forward to continuing to work with this vibrant and commited group, and will keep you posted on their progress. For more on the youngballymun project go to

Also, while I was away Just Read, Florida has posted some professional development materials that you might be interested in. They conducted an interview with me about oral language development, decoding and fluency, explicit comprehension instruction, vocabulary development for older students, writing, and ELL. You can listen to the interview or download the transcript at:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

How To Observe Reading Instruction

It is important that principals know what to watch for in a reading lesson. What makes it effective? It is important for coaches to, if they are to give teachers any kind of supportive guidance. And, let's face it, good teachers are likely to do much more self evaluation than being observed by others.

One thing that complicates reading instruction is there are lots of different kinds of lessons, and each of these lesson types has its own requirements. Basically, reading is both a skilled activity that requires a lot of precision performance without much conscious awareness (like recognizing high frequency words or common spelling patterns). But, it also requires actions that are synonymous with thinking and these require a lot of reflection and depth of thought. That means that a comprehension lesson ought to look pretty different from a phonics lesson; not just in content, but in the kinds of cognitive action the lesson leads kids to engage.

So, if you need to do observations -- including self observations -- you might find the following document to be useful. It tells the kinds of things I would watch for in various reading lessons.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Improving Adolescent Reading

From time to time, I'm aksed to give talks about improving adolescent literacy. Recently, Pearson Publishing asked me to do so (I have developed an instructional program for teaching reading to adolescents who read between the 3rd-5th grade levels: AMP Reading Systems).

I gave the speech to a group of teachers in Minnesota, and yesterday the publisher gifted me with the following video clips of parts of my talk. I've posted the powerpoint slides of this talk previously, but now you can actually hear what I say about the various slides. Hope you find these useful. I've listed the topics of each clip below in the order that they are listed.

Key 1: The Need for Learning Standards
Key 2: Require Reading
Key 3: Increase Reading Instructional Time
Key 4: More Time for Low Readers
Key 5: Teach Vocabulary
Key 6: Oral Reading Fluency
Key 7: Reading Comprehension
Key 8: Writing
Key 9: Professional Development
Key 10: Motivation

Monday, July 21, 2008

Vocabulary Learning: Words, Words, Words

Okay, the National Reading Panel found that vocabulary instruction improved reading achievement, especially for older readers. And, research has been showing a clear, substantial empirical link—especially for older kids—between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension (both within reading and readability research) for almost a century. The National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth found an even bigger impact for vocabulary teaching with children who were learning English as a second language, and the about-to-be-released National Early Literacy Panel report indicates that vocabulary seems to be a proxy for even more sophisticated oral language skills in reading development. Whew, that’s a lot of research support (especially when one considers that those syntheses for the most part were looking at different studies).

For years, I was strictly a contextual reader. I never looked words up in dictionaries, except to do the silly assignments my teachers gave me. Consequently, I read a lot, but didn’t understand a sufficient amount. Finally, when I decided to go to graduate school and had to prepare for the entry tests I started teaching myself word meanings (literally teaching myself the meanings of hundreds of words). Every time I came to an unknown word, I would write it on a card, look up the word in the dictionary so I could record the meaning on the back of the cards, and then I practiced… while driving, while supervising recess at school, etc. As my vocabulary improved, so did my understanding (in other words, I believe the research on this one, in part because of my personal learning experience—though with this much research, there is no real reason to depend on experience).

Like most educators, I think teaching students word meanings is a great idea, and I’m finding the Internet to be an incredible resource for teaching activities. I know there are lots of sites out there, but here are three of my very favorite ones. I think these are must haves for teachers, as they include some pretty cool stuff.

One Look
This is the online dictionary that I have programmed into all my computers. It is in the favorites list of every one. And for good reason. One Look includes 109 different dictionaries and word lists. You can look words up in English or in other languages. You can see alternative definitions across dictionaries, there is a reverse dictionary, and it pronounces the words. When you are searching for child-friendly definitions, having so many choices can really help. This is the source that Cyndie and I use to settle our semantic arguments at dinner! This not only has lots of information it is easy to use. (There are some things the Oxford English Dictionary can do better than this one, etymology for example, but OED is proprietary. I can get it through my university, but it isn’t available on the net without cost. One Look will likely be sufficient for most purposes, and it is free.)

Visual Thesaurus
Okay, this one isn;t exactly free. You can run some free trials, but then you have to buy a site license (which isn’t very expensive—about $20 per year). If I had an alternative to this wonderful site, I would not be encouraging it. Yes, I know there are perfectly good thesauri available online, but this one is exciting because it provides semantic maps for the words. What a great teaching aid. Take this weeks vocabulary words and you can see in an instant what other words they are linked to. This is almost a toy it can be so much fun to play with, and it has lots of information about words, but the real stuff here is the visual thesaurus, that reveals and explains the various links among words.

World Wide Words
This site is not one that I would turn over to the kids. I like this one because it provides lots of explanations of idioms and peculiar words. My friend, Don Bear, of Words Their Way fame, is always pushing for teachers to show kids an active curiosity about words and language (and spelling), and this is one great site for exploring that kind of stuff. Lots of morphological expeditions here—I always come away knowing more about the language as a result of spending time at this great site.

Hope these help parents and teachers to support their kids’ vocabulary development! I think they will.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Raising Achievement in Urban Schools

This week, I had the opportunity of working with a terrific group of teachers and administrators in Syracuse, NY (the Emerald City). This is one of those school districts that did a great job with Reading First. They were only funded to put the program in some of their schools, but they recognized its importance and adopted it district-wide anyway. And it has made a real difference there. Kids are reading better than in the past (though like a lot of urban districts the problem is so big that they still have a long way to go to get literacy levels to where they need to be).

I was there to provide workshops for upper grade teachers in reading comprehension, oral reading fluency, and vocabulary instruction. Reading First stops at third grade, and reading issues in Syracuse go all the way through high school. It is pleasing to work with a district that used the Reading First money properly (not buying furniture, etc.), and that ended up with much better reading achievement than before. While I was there, I watched one of their teachers presenting a workshop on vocabulary. I can see why they succeeded!

If you are interested in the powerpoints that I used in Syracuse, here they are:

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The National Reading Panel Report: Practical Advice for Teachers

January 29, 2008

In 2005, Learning Point (the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory) asked me to write an interpretation of the National Reading Panel Report; something that teachers could read and understand easily. I wrote the piece and they published it as a 43-page book, which they sold for next to nothing in today's expensive-publication world ($5.00, I think).

I just noticed that Learning Point now has it up on their website where anyone can download this booklet for free, so I am providing a link to that file right here. I think you might find my practical advice about phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension to be useful if you are a parent or a teacher.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Chicago Reading Framework

November 12, 2007

For several years, I have used a basic framework for guiding my action in the public schools. I have used this framework as a consultant when I was guiding others to improve achievement, and I have used it myself as director of reading of the Chicago Public Schools. The description below lays out some of the basics. This is a piece that I wrote for my teachers and principals in Chicago awhile back, to give them a sense of the essential direction that instruction needs to take. I've even included a link to a powerpoint presentation on the framework. p://

The Chicago Reading Framework emerged from work that I have done in schools during the past eight years. The project started in one low income, inner city school and has now grown to more than 200 schools throughout Illinois and around the United States. The reason why this project has been so successful, and why the Chicago Public Schools now has adopted it system wide, is two-fold. First, it has been successful in helping many schools improve reading achievement. Chicago children need to do better in reading and the past successes of this framework—and the success of similar efforts elsewhere—holds great promise for our children. Second, this approach tries to build upon and take advantage of our current professional knowledge and strengths. Although this framework does offer some new direction and guidance, it does not try to replace all of what we are already doing. Chicago schools have many successes and this framework should support continuation of those things that are already working well in the teaching of reading.

Chicago Reading Framework
The Chicago Reading Framework starts from the premise that effective school reading instruction can teach most children to read. This premise is not just a wishful hope—principals and teachers, including some in Chicago, already have used this model to improve reading at their schools. And we are not just talking about improving reading test scores, at least not directly. Our goal should not be to have higher test scores, but to teach children to read so well that their test scores reflect the improvement. That kind of improvement is best accomplished through an emphasis on reading instruction rather than on better test preparation and the like. That is why the Chicago Reading Initiative is investing so much in the continued professional development of our teachers.

The Chicago Reading Framework is based upon syntheses of large amounts of educational research. Research can tell us whether particular approaches are likely to be successful based on how well they have succeeded in the past, and it can give us sound guidance with regard to how to implement programs more successfully. This framework is consistent with several syntheses of reading research such as the National Reading Panel Report (2000), the Prevention of Reading Difficulties (1998), and Becoming a Nation of Readers (1984), as well as local school evaluation studies such as those conducted by the Chicago School Research Consortium.
Before presenting what the Framework is and what it should provide, let’s consider what it is not. First, the Framework is not a program, per se. It has no specific instructional materials tied to it. It does not require the use of specific instructional methods or activities. The research is clear: Many programs and materials work and there is not one way to successfully teach reading. Of course, some approaches are likely to be more successful than others. Teachers should rely on what they already know to begin addressing children’s reading needs, and over time—if appropriate—they will be guided to improve upon their current efforts. In the meantime, the Framework will focus attention on what needs to be taught and on ensuring that children receive sufficient amounts of teaching in each area.

This document, and the videotape and slides distributed in August, are meant to provide an introduction to the Framework. More information will be forthcoming as the school year proceeds—including a wide array of professional development opportunities, resources, and guidelines.

A natural tendency of teachers and principals is to delay implementation until they feel that they completely understand the framework. In this case, that would be a big mistake. Chicago Public School teachers know a lot. Let’s start using that knowledge immediately to help Chicago children become better readers. We’ll refine the quality of what we do as we proceed, but for now it is time to get started.

Amount of InstructionIt is essential that schools offer substantial amounts of reading and writing instruction. Surveys show that the average elementary teacher provides only about 55 minutes per day of direct reading and language arts instruction using activities that research indicates have much possibility of improving reading achievement (Baumann & Hoffman, 1999). Studies clearly show that increases in academic learning time can improve reading achievement (Rosenshine & Stevens, 1984); however, with the exception of Cunningham’s (1991) Four-Block Plan (which addresses the needs of beginning readers), teacher education materials have been virtually silent on the use of time in reading instruction. Methods texts and other ancillary publications cite its importance, but say almost nothing about how to use or manage instructional time in reading. Consequently, teachers are left to figure out on their own how much time to spend on reading instruction or how to apportion instructional time among the various components of reading. Time allotment decisions are especially difficult for upper grade teachers because of departmentalization.

The Chicago Reading Framework establishes a 2–3 hour per day minimum time standard for reading and writing instruction and encourages schools to explore additional ways (i.e., before-school, after-school, summer programs, parent involvement, homework) for expanding instructional opportunity beyond the regular school day. Teachers and principals are cautioned against expending daily instructional time on activities that research has shown to be ineffective for literacy improvement (though they can still use such activities as long as they do not reduce the amount of reading and writing instruction), but teachers are free to experiment with activities that have not yet been researched. The idea is to provide all students with the maximum opportunity to learn to read and write while maintaining adequate amounts of time to teach math, science, history/social studies, and other school subjects. The time allotments for reading and writing are great, but so is the need.

Teachers can organize this 2–3 hour time allotment in many ways. In other words, this is not a 2–3 hour time block, though schools can do this. Teachers, for instance, are not expected to provide all of their reading instruction between 9:00AM and 11:00AM each morning. Classroom schedules are complex and reading instruction can be provided throughout the day. This means that the Framework will fit a wide range of classroom schedules, and that teachers should be able to improvise plans that meet their student needs and the actual instructional circumstances of a particular school. Instruction in reading within social studies, science, and mathematics can count, too.
Focus on Essential ContentReading instruction should emphasize those skills or abilities that research has shown to be essential to reading development. Accordingly, the Chicago Reading Framework includes four basic categories, or components, of instruction—word knowledge, fluency, comprehension, and writing. The Framework requires that classroom teachers emphasize equally each of these four aspects in their reading instruction. That means that teachers should devote approximately one-quarter of the instructional time to each of these areas of development. This time equivalence is to be accomplished over a period of time (1–2 weeks) rather than on a daily basis. This ensures that students will receive instruction in all of the essential parts of reading, but that teachers will not be unduly constrained by a lockstep format that restricts creativity and engagement and that does not permit the flexibility necessary to accommodate to the demands of real classroom settings.

To be included as an instructional component, five criteria had to be met, criteria established on the basis of a thorough review of existing empirical research and clinical reports. (a) It was essential that there exist experimental or quasi-experimental studies that evaluated the teachability of each category. So, for example, studies had to show that vocabulary instruction (a part of word knowledge) led to better vocabulary growth or that fluency instruction led to more fluent reading. (b) It was required that studies show the generalizability of each component by demonstrating that improvements in each component led to improved overall reading achievement, at least for some populations. Thus, studies had to show that writing instruction not only led to better writing, but to better reading achievement as well. (c) It was required that studies demonstrate the combinability of the four components by showing that various measurements of each component correlated positively and significantly with the other components and with overall reading achievement. (d) It was required that there be evidence demonstrating the independence, or separability, of each category. Such evidence includes case studies of precocious, learning disabled, or brain-injured subjects who were able to make gains in one component without commensurate or similar development in the others, or who made gains in three of the components without equivalent progress in the remaining one. (e) Finally, it was required that developmental studies reveal different growth curves for each category. These criteria, applied together, suggested Word Knowledge, Fluency, Comprehension, and Writing as four related, yet separable components of literacy growth that are amenable to teaching, and that when taught, are likely to lead to higher reading achievement.

Recently, the National Reading Panel was appointed to inform the U.S. Congress about the implications of reading research for the teaching of reading. The panel in their report (NRP, 2000) found that instruction in three of the framework categories—word knowledge (including phonics, phonemic awareness, and word meaning), fluency, comprehension—made a clear difference in reading achievement for elementary and secondary level students, and the fourth category of the framework—writing—has been shown to be effective as well in previous research syntheses (Tierney & Shanahan, 1991).

The first category, Word Knowledge, includes instruction in sight vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, and word meanings. The second category, Fluency, emphasizes speed, accuracy, and expression in the reading of connected text. Comprehension is the third category, and it includes both understanding text and learning from text, emphasizing literary and content (sciences, history, etc.) reading. Writing is the final component, consisting of students’ learning to compose their own texts effectively for a variety of purposes. These four categories are all equally important across the various grade levels, but the emphasis within categories shifts somewhat over time. For example, early word instruction centers on phonemic awareness, phonics, and sight vocabulary, but as children accomplish these, the emphasis switches to the study of word meanings throughout the higher grades. In another example, initial instruction might place greater emphasis on literary (narrative) reading or writing as part of instruction in comprehension or composing, but this emphasis shifts to a greater focus on studying and composing expository or explanatory content texts as students get older.
Word knowledge. Word knowledge includes both word recognition and word meaning instruction. In Kindergarten through third grade, it is imperative that teachers provide children with substantial amounts of word recognition instruction. Phonemic awareness instruction (teaching children to hear and manipulate the separable sounds in words) should be part of the focus of reading instruction in the preschool and kindergarten years. Most children will benefit from approximately 20 hours of phonemic awareness instruction (about 15 minutes per day for a semester), but such instruction should continue until students are able to fully segment simple words (such as dividing the word cat into its separate sounds: /k/ /a/ /t/).
Beginning in Kindergarten and continuing for about three years, children should receive daily phonics instruction. Phonics instruction should provide children with three kinds of knowledge: they should learn the letter names and sounds; they should learn how to read many of the common spelling patterns in the language (i.e., eat, ane, tion, ing); and, they should learn to use this information to decode new words and to spell words (that means reading practice should be part of the phonics instruction).

During these early years, there also should be emphasis on teaching children sight vocabulary—that is, words that they can recognize immediately without sounding or any other obvious mediation. High frequency words like the, of, was, can, saw, there, to, for, and so on need to be learned to a high level of proficiency. Teachers can use many word lists to guide their focus here including the Dolch list, Fry list, or Cunningham’s word list. The key is teaching children to recognize such word quickly and accurately.

After about three years of phonics instruction and sight vocabulary instruction, most word teaching should shift to an emphasis on vocabulary or word meaning. As with phonics and phonemic awareness instruction, a wide range of vocabulary methods or materials can work successfully. The best instructional efforts require students to use the vocabulary in a wide variety of ways (speaking, listening, reading, writing), and they require students to analyze and explore rich definitions of the words and their relationships with other words. Effective vocabulary instruction also builds in a substantial amount of review.
Spelling instruction is an important part of word teaching, too. It should help students to spell in a conventional way, and it can provide them with an opportunity to think systematically about how words are structured. Spelling instruction needs to be kept brief, and it is probably best taught in conjunction with the phonics and word meaning teaching that should have the major emphasis.

Fluency. Fluency refers to the ability to read a text with sufficient speed, accuracy, and expression. Although fluency refers to both silent and oral reading, the research suggests that oral reading instruction is most effective for developing this ability in students. Activities like paired or assisted reading, in which students take turns reading portions of a text aloud to each other, giving each other feedback, and rereading the text multiple times until it can be done well have been found to be effective from the primary grades through high school.

If a student is fluent with a particular text, the teacher has two choices. First, if the teacher believes that the student is placed in an appropriate text for reading, then he or she only has to continue to monitor the child’s reading (by listening) and the amount of fluency instruction for this student can be reduced (fluency is the only component of the framework that can be reduced in terms of time coverage—and it can only be done so if the students are already fluent at an appropriate level). Second, if the teacher thinks the student should be working in more difficult materials, then he or she can have the child practice fluency in more difficult texts, including in social studies or science books.

Students who are fluent can usually read a text with only about one mistake per hundred words, and they can read the text smoothly and quickly. Young children (through second grade) should strive to read a text about 60–80 words per minute), while for older children reading should proceed at 100+ words per minute. Students need to punctuation and pause appropriately so that the text sounds like language.

Reading Comprehension. Students need to be taught to understand text independently. Comprehension instruction includes three components. First, we teach children to seek particular types of information. Second, we teach children how text is organized or structured and how to use these organizational plans to remember information from text more effectively. Third, we teach children a variety of strategies or actions that they can take before, during, and after reading to improve their understanding and recall.

For young children, learning what information to pay attention to when they read might be tied to general ideas such as knowing that good readers focus on both literal information that the author explicitly tells you, inferential information that you have to interpret based upon information that the author has provided, and prior knowledge or the information that you bring to a text. As children get older, and the reading demands get more challenging and more disciplinary, instruction needs to show them what kinds of information to seek when they are reading history or science or mathematics or literature.

Text organizations vary greatly across narrative and expository text. Students need experience and instruction in dealing with both of these. For reading narratives, children need to learn about plot structure (including characters, problems, solutions, outcomes, etc.). Knowing the organizational structures of a story help children to identify key information and to remember the story later. Similarly, students need to know about various ways that expository texts are organized (such as problem-solution, cause-effect, comparison-contrast), including knowing that particular types of information will be provided in particular texts. For example, social studies books will usually provide information on geography, economics, culture, and history. Students can use this information to think more effectively about how the author is presenting a particular culture or era.

There are also a plethora of techniques that can be used by kids to think about text more effectively. Teaching students to monitor their reading (to make sure that they are understanding and to ask for help when they are not), to ask their own questions, to summarize, and to translate text into graphic form are just a few of the techniques that can be taught.
Finally, it is essential that all of us remember that students benefit from comprehension instruction—not just practice. Many teachers give students reading assignments that require the answering of questions, but such practice is insufficient. Children need to be taught how to comprehend effectively.

Writing. Children need to be able to write their own texts as well as being able to read what others have written. Reading and writing depend on much of the same information (including knowledge of spelling patterns, text organization, vocabulary, etc.), and learning to read and write simultaneously can give children an advantage. Writing should teach children to write for a variety of purposes and audiences, using strategies and actions that will allow them to solve various problems of writing. The compositions that children develop should be meaningful and effective.

Children need to know how to retell events (narrative writing), explain and analyze information (exposition), and argue a position (persuasion), and our instruction should show them how to do these effectively. Children need to know how to alter their voice and message to meet the needs of an audience, and they need instruction in how to write text for themselves, for others who share much information with them, and for those audiences at a greater distance of time and space and shared knowledge (such as writing for publication). Students need to know how to write compositions that are appropriately elaborated, focused on a single topic, organized clearly, and that reflect proper mechanics, usage, grammar, and spelling. And students need to have a variety of techniques that they can use effectively to prepare for writing and to revise and edit what they have drafted.

The Chicago Reading Initiative will provide professional development in all four areas for teachers and principals. However, such efforts will take time. Teachers can begin teaching in all four areas using their current knowledge and expertise, and they can improve upon those efforts through their own professional development efforts as well as through those opportunities provided by the Chicago Public Schools.

Sometimes I am asked why a particular item is not included in this system: formal grammar instruction, language transition work for second language students, free reading time, teacher reading, and so on. The reason is that none of these has been shown by research to improve achievement for children across the grades. However, these kinds of activities can still be used in CPS classrooms. They just cannot be counted towards the two hours of required instruction.

ContinuityPowerful reading instruction is longitudinal. It builds quality upon quality, across classes, grade levels, and schools—and it does so across the complexity of program offerings that most schools provide (Title programs, special education, preschool, after school, etc.). The Chicago Reading Framework should help to establish continuity, or connectedness, across teachers at all grade levels, and from all aspects of a school or district instructional program. Entire school faculties, not just reading teachers, need to teach using the Framework. Any professional in the Chicago Public Schools whose teaching requires the use of written materials or texts are expected to be part of the effort.

It has been traditional to focus reading efforts at particular levels such as first grade, primary grades, or grade levels in which retention decisions have to be made. The piling up of resources at these points is likely not the best way to build effective programs for children. We need to maximize our efforts across the entire system since reading development is essential for student success in academic areas such as science, history, and mathematics, as well as for their future participation in society. The Framework treats all levels of instruction as being important to students’ development.

There are many ways that schools can ensure continuity. For example, it is possible to purchase some commercial programs that will provide some consistency of content coverage. However, commercial programs are just one alternative for accomplishing such continuity. Continuity can be accomplished through teachers arriving at a set of social agreements or shared, specific curricular goals including a clear specification of which grade levels will take responsibility for teaching particular content. We encourage principals and faculties to engage in planning and decision-making that will ensure greater continuity across the grade levels. Over time, we will provide greater guidance in this area, but we will do so—at least in part—based on the local efforts in our most successful schools. In other words, we will strive for greater continuity and consistency in the future, but we will not do this through arbitrary mandates from the top.
Assessment and Evaluation
Another way to ensure that we have an effective reading program is to provide appropriate assessment. I am not speaking about formal achievement tests like the ITBS or ISAT here. Those tests have their place, but it is not in improving daily instruction. Teachers and principals must be aware of how well their children are learning their lessons so that they can make the appropriate and necessary adjustments along the way.

If a teacher is teaching sight vocabulary, she needs to know whether children are learning the words that are being taught. Such knowledge will allow the teacher to slow down or speed up or to intensify the effort. Similarly, a teacher needs ways of monitoring whether children are making progress in fluency or with comprehension strategies or that their students’ writing is improving. Many teachers already collect such information on their children and are able to provide feedback to parents and improvements to daily instruction. Principals need to be able to access this type of information as well so that they better support their teachers’ efforts.
The Chicago Reading Initiative will eventually provide schools with improved support for ongoing assessment in the four instructional areas to help teachers to improve their teaching, as well as to improve our own monitoring of your success. That way we can get the resources where they are needed and we will increase our effectiveness with all children.
ConclusionsEducational research has accumulated over the past 30 years and it has overwhelmingly argued for greater time, greater focus on the essentials of learning, greater continuity, and greater awareness of children’s progress. The Chicago Reading Framework attempts to address each of these concerns—and over time, we will try to provide assistance to all teachers to help them to do so. Though research supports focusing instruction on the four key elements—words, fluency, comprehension, and writing—each could be argued for on the basis of commonsense alone. And yet, in too many schools and classrooms, these basics are sometimes ignored.

Children who struggle tend to receive less instruction than their more successful peers. They are, likewise, less likely to receive well balanced instruction that addresses all of these key areas of concern, and there are likely to be fewer supports for continuity and ongoing assessment. It is also often in these schools that there is the greatest desire by policymakers to impose a “magic bullet” solution upon the teachers. However, research is clear that there is no magic bullet. What is needed is sound teaching, sound supervision, and lots of it. We need to ensure that these necessary conditions exist in all Chicago Public Schools. Energetic, intelligent, high quality teaching remains the best solution to our reading problems, and the Chicago Reading Framework should help marshal such teaching towards our children’s needs. In the coming days, months, and years, we will be providing resources to help you to use the Framework most effectively. However, until such support is available, there is no reason not to provide children with sufficient amounts of instruction devoted to these key areas of development. We know what to do. The time is now.
Here is a powerpoint presentation on the framework that might be useful:


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