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Sunday, February 6, 2011
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
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
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
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
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 http://www.youngballymun.org/
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: http://forpd.ucf.edu/resources/timothy-shanahan-interview.html
Saturday, December 20, 2008
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
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
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.
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.)
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
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
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.