Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts

Monday, October 10, 2016

An Argument about Independent Reading Time During the School Day

Last week I answered a teacher’s question about free reading time during the school day and its relationship to reading motivation (e.g., making kids like reading). I pointed out that such reading time has a rather weak relationship with learning (various kinds of instruction exert about an 800% greater influence on learning than on having kids reading on their own during the school day) and that the connection with motivation appears to be even more tenuous. I then compared the DEAR/SSR practice unfavorably with theories and research on what motivates human beings.
Not surprisingly that generated much comment. Although the following was not sent to me, it was so addressed and posted at the blog site of Gwen Flaskamp, a practicing teacher. She is evidently passionate about this practice, and I think her posting deserves a response. I have quoted liberally from her posting below in italics—and have interspersed my responses throughout. To read her complete statement in its entirety, please follow this link Blog Post on Independent Reading Time

Flaskamp blog:

“My Letter to Tim Shanahan: In Defense of Independent Reading

“Recently, I read the latest blog post by Tim Shanahan where he provides his strong opinions how giving students time to independently read in class is wasteful. Although I usually value his opinions and have referenced him several times on my blog, I had a strong, visceral response to his latest piece…. I felt compelled to stand up for the inclusion of independent reading time during the school day. Thus, I crafted this letter. I'm hoping he reads it.  

“But, more importantly, I'm hoping that teachers who wish to instill lifelong reading habits in their students do not stop with Mr. Shanahan's advice and consider my perspective and the perspective of others on this important topic.

“Dear Mr. Shanahan,

“I think you sound like an impolite blogger, and perhaps a misinformed one. You've neglected to consider the following important points in your discussion of the value of independent reading.

“You claim that time spent independent reading is wasted due to the fact that "even when they have been done well, the "learning payoffs" have been small. By "learning payoffs," I am assuming that you mean students' progress on standardized exams (typically the way reading growth is measured in research studies) does not increase with the inclusion of independent reading time in schools. 

“Some major problems exist with this claim.

“Increased reading does lead to increased achievement.

Research does support the idea that students who typically achieve higher on reading tests are also those who read more voraciously. Those who score at the lower end usually read less.”

Shanahan response:

Dear Ms. Flaskamp.,
Thanks for writing. There are several problems with your claims up to this point.
That good readers read more than poor readers is true, but has no bearing on my response to that teacher’s question. Correlation doesn’t prove causation. That good readers read more does not mean that it was reading more that made them good readers. Maybe good readers choose to read more because they can do it well. You are making a good argument for teaching everyone to read well, not for sending kids off to read on their own during the school day.
You are citing very selectively here. You refer to the correlational studies that can’t answer the question, while ignoring the experimental ones that have directly tested your theory. Studies in which DEAR time is provided to some kids but not to others have not found much payoff—even when the non-readers were doing no more than random worksheets!
You seem to be claiming that since reading on one’s own leads to improved achievement--then any and all approaches to encouraging reading must be effective. Following that logic, then telling kids to read on their own, buying books for them, rewarding them with pizzas, or employing electric cattle prods… all must work, too. Remember I wasn’t saying kids shouldn’t read, only that requiring “independent reading” during the school day has not been effective. Only one study bothered to check its impact on amount of reading, and it found that middle school kids read less as a result of the practice—since it reduced the amount of reading they did on their own.
As a parent and grandparent, I’d rather that teachers reacted intellectually rather than “viscerally” to questions about instructional practices. Similarly, I hope my physician will be visceral about my health and well-being, but not about his pills and scalpels.

Flaskamp blog:

“Since research also shows that the amount of time middle school students typically spend reading outside of class declines as they grow older, finding time for students to practice reading independently in schools is crucial.  If we do not attempt to foster a love of reading inside the classroom, how will we help students who have not yet discovered the joy of reading on their own increase their reading minutes?”   

Shanahan response:

Indeed, that is a great question. Given that we know this method hasn’t improved achievement or made kids like reading, then why cling so tightly to it? Or, given that DEAR time has been so ubiquitous in elementary classrooms for the past generation, how is it possible that middle school students are reading so little? If this practice so powerfully fosters “a love of reading” among kids that lasts a lifetime, then why aren’t years of it lasting even until kids are 12?

 Flaskamp blog:
“I'm sure you are aware that much research exists linking student engagement (i.e. motivation) to increases in learning. Thus, spending time on increasing student motivation should, in fact, lead to increases in achievement.”

Shanahan response: 

That makes sense to me, and yet studies show that this particular approach accomplishes neither. That might mean that what you are so certain must be motivational for all kids, maybe isn’t.      


Flaskamp blog:  

“You advise teachers that " If you don’t want kids to love reading, then sacrifice their instructional time to focus on motivation rather than learning." This argument, although cleverly disguised, is a type we would use with students when poking holes in an argument and is a type of logical fallacy. Your argument seems to suggest that teachers can focus either on motivation or on learning. Can we not focus on both?...” 

 Shanahan response: 

Your analysis of my argument is flawed. We are in agreement that we can focus on motivation and learning simultaneously. Where we disagree is whether you can do that with a procedure that has failed to successfully foster either motivation or learning.


Flaskamp blog: 

“Have we forgotten that we are teaching students and not robots?”

Shanahan response:  

Yikes. There are many statements here evidently aimed at conveying the idea that I’m rude, that I don’t care about kids, and that I pay attention to numbers rather than stories. If that is a model of what is now being taught students about productive argument, then it might be better that kids go read during such lessons. (Sometimes disagreements arise from different analyses or  different evidence—not necessarily because the one you are arguing with is bad.)

Richardson TX Powerpoint on Writing October 17, 2016

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Distinguishing Exposition and Argument in Children's Writing

I am a literacy coordinator. I was wondering how you would respond to a question I was asked recently by a second grade teacher.  "If an opinion is stated in a research [informative/explanatory] paper, does it change the purpose of the paper?" Thanks in advance for your time and your thoughts.

Thanks (a lot). That’s the kind of question that they teach you about in speaker’s school. You are to describe it as an “interesting question”—while you stall hoping that a snappy answer will come to you.

I must admit I was tempted to duck this one. Not because it isn’t a good question, but it reveals the complexity of genre and text organization—and the inadequacy of the clear boundaries we educators tend to claim for them.

Traditionally, we have spoken of narrative, expository/explanatory, and argumentative writing as being distinct. And sometimes they are.

But as this teacher points out, kids (or other writers) don’t always color within the lines. There are definitely hybrids.

For example, Aristotle’s rhetorical distinctions aside, The Illiad is one of the oldest narratives in the history of human culture. It tells a riveting story with plenty of juicy sex, violence, and betrayal (but no car chases). It also has a whole section (the “parade of ships”) that is defiantly expository, rather than narrative. It is a long list, somewhat categorized—elaborating on no plot, whatsoever.

Does the inclusion of this list shift Homer’s epic from the story drawer to that of exposition? I don’t think so, but it would be unproductive not to notice that it doesn’t exactly match well with our story maps.

Similarly, I sometimes read books like Turing’s Cathedral or The Idea Factory. The first tells the “story” about the invention of the computer and the latter of Bell Labs and its inventions. These works are narrative in the main, but both contain long sections describing how transistors work or how electrons behave. There is so much of that kind of science embedded in the stories that I think it’s a closer call. I could almost flip a coin as to which category those books belong to--though I have no problem telling whether a particular paragraph falls on one side of the fence or the other.

Abraham Lincoln often embedded humorous narratives within his legal and political arguments. He was arguing and the judges and opposing counsels understood that he was--but he definitely rooted stories within his arguments and they illustrated his points and drove his arguments home.

What I’m saying is that a text may be a mix of fish and fowl, but its purpose still must be clear. And if it isn’t, that’s a problem. It is fine to combine forms, but good writing must have a discernible point and the seemingly out of place content ought to amplify the point rather than muffling it.  

Is it okay to insert an opinion or position into an expository piece? Yes, if the opinion doesn’t keep it from being an effective expository piece.

For example, let’s say I’m writing a scientific essay aimed at explaining the genetic differences between female chimpanzees and female homo sapiens. There would be nothing wrong with me including an aside stating that despite the seemingly trivial genetic differences I still find Marilyn Monroe much more attractive than Koko the Chimp (a la Lewis Thomas, and other great essayists).

That kind of aside might serve to soften the presentation by relieving the tedium of the technical comparisons, while helping readers to better grasp the idea that even tiny genetic differences can matter. It would still be an expository piece—since it was that in the main, since it had an explanatory purpose, and since my aside didn’t distract from its aim.

But what if I, as a writer and a sexist pig, allowed my opinion to run wild. What if I wrote about Marilyn’s beautiful eyes and skin and hair and shape… uh hum, well, you get the idea. Then, it might read more like my opinion of MM rather than an explanation of the genetic distinctions among species. If so, it just became an opinion piece.

The real question to ask isn’t whether the aberrant information fits the category, but whether it help the writing to accomplish its purpose? If the opinion made the explanation less clear, then it is a problem (not because it crossed the border, but because it did so ineffectively).

Friday, May 31, 2013

Disciplinary Writing

Dear Dr. Shanahan
I am writing to you for some suggestions and recommendations concerning working with science and social studies teachers in light of the writing standards in the common core.  I am a former English teacher with 35 years of experience and have, for the past seven years, worked to develop and present workshops and classes for content area teachers in reading – focusing on both disciplinary and content literacy.  

I have been asked by a school district to provide professional development for secondary science and social studies teachers in implementing the writing standards in the common core.  Their suggestion was to start with a grammar workshop – which I think would be the best way to drive the teachers in the opposite direction as well as provide the wrong focus.  However, I have not found any resources to guide in the best way to involve these teachers in their ability to incorporate these standards in their classes. 

As a proponent of disciplinary literacy, I believe that the writing should be approached from the perspective of the disciplines and not from the perspective of an English teacher.  One idea that I had was to start with sample papers to evaluate and introduce them to the standards through a rubric and the actual evaluation of the papers.  Specific concerns about grammar, diction, sentence structure… then could be addressed through mini-lessons as needed.

I just cannot seem to find any literature to give some guidance. 
Dear Disciplinary Literacy Proponent:
I agree with you on this one. Starting with basic skills is not going to pull in the teachers, and, if it did, it would not pull in the students. You really have two choices: (1) disciplinary writing which means inducting kids into the actual writing of the discipline—focusing on having students write up experiments so exactly that they can be replicated, summarizing observations with all of the hedges and temporizing of science (what were the limitations of the observations?), synthesizing information from multiple conflicting texts in history, writing stories with themes in English, etc.; OR (2) writing to learn by which I mean focusing on getting kids to summarize, analyze, and synthesize information they are studying using writing to help them to remember the information or to understand it better. Either or both of those in some kind of combination will give you a good basis for developing writers (and they will entail some attention to grammar, but not in the way being recommended to you). 

There is very little written on this that I am aware of. I would strongly recommend that you seek out an old book (really booklet) by the late James Howard—Writing to Learn. It makes some really valuable contributions in this area and it will make a lot of sense to the content teachers. Howard, like you wanted to start with disciplinary writing and quality rubrics that the content teachers could easily use. I’ve never found anything better in that category. The guidance he provided was great and the examples of writing assignments, evaluations, and kids’ work are very informative. I know that is no longer for sale (the Council for Basic Education that released it is defunct). However, I think some library collections still have it and these days you might even be able to find it online (it is short enough to download or to photocopy if you locate a copy). I have done some preliminary looking to see if I could locate a copy for you, but with no luck so far.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Thank Goodness the Writing Scores are Going to Drop

Okay, so you’re thinking: “This guy is even more nuts than I thought. How can he root for kids to write poorly?"

I hope I’m not nuts, but one of the major new tests to be used to monitor student performance against the common core state standards is well designed (truth in advertising: I serve on the English Language Arts Technical Work Groups for that test). However, those new designs are almost certain to lower student writing scores, which I hope will be good for kids—at least in the long run.

PARCC is a 23 state consortium that is designing new English language arts assessments (mostly for states east of the Mississippi River). Earlier this week, PARCC released item and task prototypes and I hope that you’ll take a careful look at them—even if you are not in a PARCC state:

How can I be so sure writing scores are going to drop with PARCC? I’ve been studying this topic for more than three decades and one thing that I’ve learned is that reading and writing are not perfectly related or aligned. The correlations of reading and writing are lower than one would expect—which angered many people when I first started reporting that in the early 1980s.

That means that while there are a lot of students who read and write poorly or who read and write well, there are also surprising numbers who read well and write poorly and vice versa.

Traditional state writing assessments were designed so that students did not have to read to do the writing. Students who wrote well, but read poorly, did well on past tests.

PARCC is going to have students read texts, answer reading comprehension questions, and then write about those texts (summarizing or synthesizing, according to the prototypes). Students who manage to express themselves well, but who struggle with reading, will be at a marked disadvantage on the writing assessment. Such students will fail to write well not because of weaknesses in composition, but in comprehension.

That’s why the scores are going to drop. But why would I cheer for this?

Two reasons really. Research shows that literacy is improved when students write about what they read. Recently, there has been little emphasis on correlating reading and writing instruction and PARCC’s test design will push many teachers to combine reading and writing. That’s a real plus for kids.

Also, past measures provided a purer assessment of “writing,” but it wasn’t the writing that allows individuals to succeed academically and economically. Writing about reading is not as pure a measure of writing, but it is a much better measure of writing about reading, which has greater value to our children.

So, the writing scores are going to drop, but that means students are more likely to end up with higher real proficiency, especially with the skills that we most want them to have. That is going to look bad, but it is a real benefit for the kids. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Irish Literacy

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ten Things Good Writers Do

I was asked to write the following for a local high school that wanted to provide some writing guidelines for its students. This might be of use to you, too. I hope so.

Ten things good writers do…

1. Good writers make a good first impression. They put extra effort into their introductions and first paragraphs because they want readers to read on. Consider this wonderful opener from E. B. White:”When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son was born, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse.” That simple sentence took a lot of work, but it sure makes you want to find out about Mrs. Little’s mouse-sized son.

2. Good writers make their endings strong, too. No one wants to read a piece that doesn’t leave them feeling fulfilled and satisfied at the end, and good writers usually pull everything together with a rewarding climax or a thoughtful summary.

3. Good writers organize their articles and stories so that readers can follow along without getting lost or confused. That might mean that a good writer writes stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends, or that they use an understandable logical plan in their science essays. For some kinds of writing it is a good idea to tell the reader right up front what is going to follow.

4. Good writers rewrite. In fact, someone once even said that good writing is bad writing that has been rewritten. It is very difficult to write something that another person can understand and enjoy, so good writers make a real effort to polish their work. Once they have a draft of what they want to say, they go back several times to add, delete, or change it so that it will be just right. Rarely are good writers happy with the first words they come up with, so good writing is rewriting.

5. Good writers don’t just tell something, they show it. A good writer doesn’t just state an opinion without real examples that reveal why he or she holds that opinion. Similarly, a good story writer doesn’t tell you that a character is unhappy, he/she shows it (maybe the character punches a pillow or kicks over a garbage can – anything that reveals the feeling without the writer just telling it).

6. Good writers use sentences that are varied and interesting. No one wants to read a paper that says, “A nanotube is very small. A nanotube can be used to make a little radio. A nanotube uses carbon. A nanotube….” Boring! Repetition can be effective in some instances, but in this case it doesn’t work. This is better: “Nanotubes are so tiny they can’t be seen by the naked eye. And, yet, it is possible to make a radio from one. Imagine listening to hip-hop on a radio that no one can see!”

7. Good writers write for the ear, not the eye. That is, a good writer tries to make sure the text would sound good if someone were to read it aloud (in fact, good writers often read their stuff aloud when they are revising just to make sure it sounds like it should).

8. Good writers elaborate; they try to share a lot of information and detail. It helps to be analytical, to be able to break a topic into its parts and then to tell about the parts. In a science class that might mean writing about a structure of an organism and then connecting the structure to the processes that the organism is involved in. Or, in a social studies class it might mean describing an involved chain of events that led to a particular historical outcome.

9. Good writers get their facts right, even when they are writing fiction. It isn’t enough to sound right, it has to be right. In a report, that means checking that your facts are correct (and, if facts are in dispute, that fact should end up in the report, too). Truth in fiction is a little trickier, but it matters as well; even in far out science-fiction writing the imaginary worlds have to make sense (if an imaginary universe has no gravity, it can’t just magically have gravity later in the story—maybe something changed it so that it did, but the change has to be plausible).

10. Good writers should know when to quit. When you’ve said what you wanted to say it’s time to stop. And, since I set out to tell 10 things that good writers do, I think this would be a good place to end!

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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What About Writing?

Over the years, one question has come to me more than any other about the work of the National Reading Panel: "Why didn't you look at writing?"

Some of you might know that I have spent much of my career studying the reading-writing relationship, and I think it is fair to say that have been a major proponent of putting writing into the reading curriculum. So, the omission of writing surprised a lot of people.

NRP considered looking at writing, but the votes just weren't there. It will strongly be recommended to the new Commission on Reading by me and others once they begin their work. I hope they will do so.

Until then, I think the research review done recently by Graham and Perin is excellent and the attached presentation is based to a great extent on their fine work.