Showing posts with label ability grouping. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ability grouping. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Too Much of a Good Thing?


Dr. Shanahan,
      As supervisor of reading and language arts K-5, I've stressed the importance of small group instruction during the literacy block as a means to differentiate and to work explicitly with all students. Teachers recognize the importance of flexible grouping but many attempt have divided their class into 5-6 groups and as a result, meet very infrequently with the groups or for only 10-12 minutes at a time. The instructional block for grades 3-5 tends toward whole group instruction with little time for small group. I've suggested that teachers attempt no more than 3 groups so that students receive the appropriate amount of instruction and at the same time, teachers obtain a better understanding of student progress etc... We've also been transitioning away from rigid instructional levels and moving toward scaffolded instructional support using grade level text.
      Am I being unreasonable? Some teachers insist that we "show them the research." Could you point me toward specific research on small group instruction as well as time spent 'face to face' with the teacher?


This is a great question. I’ve observed this problem myself over the years: too many groups and too little teaching.

Let’s be extreme about it: We could maximize the amount of teacher time with kids and the amount of explicit instruction that everyone got by doing all school work in a whole group approach. The model classroom would be students at their desks facing the teacher who would stand at the front of the room. In fact, we could probably knock some walls down and have much larger classrooms… or maybe we could get one lesson delivered via television or the Internet to all third graders. We’d certainly get the maximum explicit instruction that way…

Or we could be extreme in the other direction. Grouping is a great idea, it will give kids more chance to respond and the teacher will get a closer look at the students without the distractions of whole class teaching; the kids will even get a chance to do some work on their own (when the teacher is working with other groups). If that is what is important in education, then let’s make every child his or her own small group (no competition for responding in that situation). If there are 30 students in class for 5 hours per day, then each child should get his or her 10 minutes of tutoring. It will be tight working in reading, math, science, social studies, and the arts into those 10 minutes, but when you can work closely with children you can get a lot done, and the assignments will be terrific.  

Teaching is really a balancing act.

Too much whole class instruction and you don’t get a chance to focus on the kids’ learning needs and they don’t get much of a chance to participate. Too much grouping and you reduce the amount of instructional time with a teacher which cuts their learning, too.

The research show us two things: the amount of explicit instruction is very important in student learning and that instruction requires lots of interaction between teachers and students. I want us much explicit instruction as I can get (including teacher explanation, modeling, questioning, guided practice, feedback)… but it is critical that students have opportunities to interact with the teacher and with each other, too (to use their language, to try to answer questions or respond when the teacher will actually be able to pay attention, etc.).

Kulik and Kulik (1992) have shown that within-class grouping can be beneficial, thought the benefits are small and uneven (with a bigger payoff for the better students—presumably because they get more out of working on their own, and with smaller payoffs for smaller classrooms; small groups tend to do better than more individualized plans, including with computer work). Similarly, we have lots of studies showing the importance of amounts of instruction, time on task, and the value of explicit or direct teaching (see Hattie, 2009 for partial summaries of this work). However, this is a very complicated issue and one that you can’t just point to particular research studies. For example, small group work can be beneficial… and yet, it usually requires students to engage in lots of independent seatwork, which is related to lower achievement, especially for the lower students. 

There is no study that coordinates all of these features and factors in one big study to provide us with any kind of picture of what may be optimum in terms of balancing size and number of groups.

When I see whole class instruction, I’m always asking myself, how could the teacher make this more interactive or involving? How could she monitor student success better? Things like think-pair-share and multiple-response cards can help a lot. Moving around the classroom, watching students carefully helps, too; as does getting a lot of written response.

But when I see a bunch of small groups, I ask:  Are these groups really that different? Could this teacher get away with fewer groups?  Often I find that the reading-level differences that teachers are grouping for are just too small and unreliable to make any learning difference at all. Too often I see several repetitive lessons with slightly different text levels… no one learns much in those kinds of classrooms, since there isn’t much productive work for the students. You’d be better off collapsing to fewer groups with the teacher providing more teaching.  

Of course, the worst situation is lots of small groups, small amounts of teaching, and minimum interaction, responsiveness, and participation… the worst of both worlds. That’s why small group work tends to be more effective when the teacher uses cooperative learning practices, or includes lots of explicit instruction.
I don’t have a hard and fast rule about numbers of groups, but like you, when the number creeps up over 3, I start to get suspicious. Of course, in a very large classroom with a very heterogeneous population, you might need more small groups. This is especially true if the classes are skewed towards having lots of very low achieving students. In such cases, the reason for more groups isn’t in response to more levels, but it is an effort to ensure that the low kids get sufficient teacher attention. If the classes are smaller (say 25 or less) and they are average in their distributions or are skewed towards higher achievement, then you can usually get away with fewer groups.

Finally, make sure the scheme being used to determine group assignment is a sound one. The teachers asked for research on fewer small groups, What evidence do that have that the way they are grouping provides a learning advantage? (With common core raising levels in grades 2-12, teachers are going to need to rethink how they are matching students to books anyway.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What is the Biggest Literacy Teaching Myth in 2011?

While in graduate school, I worked with Jack Pikulski and became interested in the theory of instructional level. That’s the idea that text has a particular level of difficulty and that students learn best when they are matched with text in a particular way. If text is too hard, they won’t learn to read and if text is too easy they won’t make any progress. The difficulty levels in between those extremes (and there are usually levels and not a single level), are thought to be the levels at which instructional progress would be optimum.

It makes logical sense. If text is too easy, there is nothing to be learned from it, and if it is too hard, it would be like trying to catch knives.

And yet, I was surprised to find that text difficulty is hard to measure exactly (our measures have improved a bit since I was in grad school), and that readers’ levels of proficiency were pretty approximate too (this hasn’t improved much). The biggest surprise was the lack of clear research evidence showing the benefits of matching texts to kids (Jack tried such a study when I was there, but it fell apart over reliability issues and never was published).

As a young professor, I wrote about how instructional level theory had entered the field seemingly through research (at least that was the claim), but I revealed that research base to be a chimera.

In the 1980s, whole language influenced school books emerged. The state of California required the use of previously published literature as the basis of reading instruction (no research supporting that idea either) and banned any adaptation of such literature. So, publishers couldn’t adjust the readabilities of reading books, like they had with high school text books, and text levels got hard for a while. So hard in fact, that kids had trouble learning to read; especially first-graders. Teachers met the challenge by reading the books to the kids rather than having them do the reading themselves. Parents and grandparents rebelled. Their older children could read books that hadn’t already been read to them already, why couldn’t this younger group?

One offshoot of this debacle was the growth of “guided reading” as an approach to teaching. Teachers certainly have preferred it to throwing kids in the deep end while fervently hoping mom and dad had already taught them to swim (a pretty good summary of the whole language ideology of that time). Fountas and Pinnell came up with a weakly validated measure of text difficulty and claimed that kids had to be matched to it to succeed. They counseled the minimization of explicit teaching and encouraged teachers to simply have children read texts at the correct level and that learning would simply happen for most as they read those matched books (to their credit they did support providing explicit help when progress did not ensue automatically).
Given how widely used guided reading is, and how much sense it makes, particularly for beginning readers, one would think we have many studies showing the benefits of such an approach. In fact, the data are murkier than when I was in graduate school. It is not that various studies (such as those by Alissa Morgan, Renata O’Connor, and William Powell) haven’t pointed to optimum book-student matches, but that they have all pointed in different directions.

Now, the common core standards are insisting that text difficulties be stiffened and that teachers not just move kids to easier books when the going gets tough. My fear, of course, is that such a fiat could simply lead us back to the 1980s, with teachers reading hard books to kids (guided reading is obviously preferable to that).

First, the common core is probably setting levels that are too hard for beginners. There is a lot to be figured out by those kids with regard to decoding, and overwhelming them with really hard books is not going to facilitate their phonics progress. I hope we can persuade publishers and school districts to allow the path to be smoothed a bit for the little ones (I think they’ll progress faster under those circumstances). Second, for older students, the common core highlights some pretty important ideas: (1) that there is no particular level of text difficulty that has been consistently identified by research as being optimum; (2) that always having students reading text on their so-called reading level is like relegating them to training wheels forever; and (3) that most teachers don’t have a clue as to how to scaffold children’s learning from hard books. Mandate whatever you want, it won’t make teachers know how to implement any better.

Later entries to this blog will pursue this idea, as teachers are going to have to grow new wings if they are going to make this flight successfully.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What about cross-grade or cross-class grouping?

One of the most difficult challenges facing teacher is the issue of differentiation. Matching the reading difficulty of texts and curriculum coverage with student proficiency and knowledge is complicated and its benefits can be subtle (that is, it can be difficult to attribute learning gains to such adjustments). When I look at studies of differentiation and grouping, it is evident that such arrangements can facilitate greater interaction and can allow instruction to proceed more efficiently (since students tend to make faster gains when they are working at levels that don’t differ by too much from their own proficiency levels). But these arrangements pose some real problems for teachers, too, so grouping isn’t the answer to everything. Frankly, I see schools that don’t adjust enough to meet student needs, and others that adjust too much to do a good job.

Cross-grade and cross-age grouping has a mixed history. The so-called “Joplin plan” generated positive research results in the 1970s. The idea of the Joplin plan is to have multiple teachers sharing their children for grouping purposes. And, more recently, programs like Success for All have used this approach with success (albeit with a tweak or two), and there are school districts, like Montgomery Co., MD, that have their own version of this kind of arrangement (with all of the adults in the school helping to teach kids).

The basic idea is this: It is difficult to meet students’ needs given the great diversity of proficiency evident in a single classroom, so grouping students for reading ACROSS classes increases the possibility of teaching students at their level. Thus, if the three third-grade teachers each have two or three students reading at Grade 1 level, those can be grouped together across the classes, and then only one teacher has to focus on finding appropriate materials for such low readers. On the face of it, that’s a great idea.

But as I told you, there can be drawbacks to these schemes, too. For instance, many teachers don’t make levels adjustments once this kind of arrangement is in place, which can be problematic both because it reduces the amount of interaction, and because there are still likely to be substantial learning and proficiency differences in these re-arranged groups. In my previous example, I suggested that a teacher might get 9 students at a grade 1 level, but what if the three teachers are sharing 90 children? That 9 group will likely be supplemented by others (perhaps the low second-grade readers). That teacher still needs to group within class, though the differences won’t be as big as they would be if these three teachers were not working together.

I never liked to share my students for reading, as I was never as connected to those children as I was to the ones whom I taught. Teachers often follow up with their kids on reading throughout the day, but this is hard to do if the students are taught reading by someone else. This means that teachers have to work much more closely together to ensure that teachers are able to dynamically respond to student needs.

Cross-class grouping makes more sense in schools where it is easy and quick to swap kids. The more stairs there are to climb and the farther apart the similar classrooms, the more instructional time that will be wasted.

So, by all means group students across classrooms if the amount of within classroom diversity is too great for one teacher to address. But, understand that such schemes rarely do away with the need for within class grouping (either to adjust student-text matches further or to increase interaction of teacher and students), and they require greater connection among teachers and management capable of moving students with a minimum of kerfluffle.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Problem with Guided Reading

The main point of “guided reading” is to make sure kids are being taught from books that are not too far beyond their skills. If a book seems like hieroglyphics to a kid, then not much learning could be expected. (Likewise books can be too easy… presenting neither challenge, nor much to learn). Trying to get kids into the “just right” reading level has been an issue of long interest in the field of reading.

The independent/instructional/frustration level scheme has now been around for about 60 years (since Emmett Betts described these levels in his landmark textbook). Frustration level is the point at which books are too hard to learn from, independent level is the level when books are too easy to be used as instructional texts, and instructional level is in the space in between.

So, in guided reading, teachers place children into books that are arrayed across difficulty levels. This is a really terrific plan when kids start out because beginning readers are a bit fragile (they get overwhelmed by too much new stuff). It is also a reasonable idea overall, even with much older readers—as no matter how well you read, it would be possible to come up with a text that would simply be too darn hard.

The theory may be good, but it’s execution in guided reading leaves much to be desired. First, the book leveling schemes that are being used are pretty dubious. I’m not talking about Lexiles or other well-validated readability schemes, but the book-leveling schemes for guided reading are pretty shaky.

However, that isn’t really the big problem… the real problem is the theory itself, since the notion that kids have to be matched to the right book for them to learn is not consistent with actual data (at least once you get beyond the very early levels of reading achievement). The basic problem is that there are too many levels and that there is apparently too much overlap in the levels. Teachers sacrifice way too much instructional time trying to provide kids teaching at their exact level. So, you’ll see teachers spending 15-20 minutes each with groups at level “L” and “M” that frankly aren’t different. In such cases the teacher would be better off spending 30-40 minutes with the two combined groups.

Research shows that matching kids to books does not guarantee big learning gains. In fact, in the two best and most recent studies on the topic, one study found minor benefits of a good book match on one measure only, and the other study actually found that kids made better progress in the frustration level books! My point isn’t that we shouldn’t group kids by book levels; but that when we do this there is a tendency to overdo it (to make these levels a kind of fetish). I certainly don’t want to see a fifth-grader who reads at a second-grade level trying to negotiate the fifth-grade reading textbook on his own, but I likewise don’t like seeing children getting much less interaction time with a teacher simply because they know a few more or less words than the other kids (it just doesn’t make that much difference).

Certainly, I would place kids in different levels of books when it is inexpensive of teacher time (such as paired reading or independent reading). And I would place kids in different books when their reading levels lag far behind (in grades 2-3, I’d strive for placements within a half-grade level of the child’s reading level, in grades 4-5, within a year, and above that I’d aim for within two years). And, finally, make sure you don’t fractionate your class with so many different levels of placement that you can’t provide much instruction. Groups are necessary perhaps, but the fewer groups the better.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., & Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade
delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113-119.

O’Connor, R.E., Bell, K.M., Harty, K.R., Larkin, L.K., Sackor, S.M., & Zigmond, N. (2002).
Teaching reading to poor readers in the intermediate grades: A comparison of text difficulty.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 474-485.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Does Assigning Kids to Classes on the Basis of Ability Help to Improve Literacy?

I received a letter this week from a teacher wanting to know about ability grouping. Her principal wants to reduce the heterogeneity in reading achievement, so teachers will not have to make adjustments. She wanted to know what I thought of this arrangement.

I see a lot of these schemes these days in urban schools. Often the school will have three second-grade classrooms or three third-grade classrooms, and all the low kids end up in one room, and all the high ones in another room. The research says that these arrangements slightly advantage the top kids, but that they suppress the achievement gains of the rest of the kids (much more downside than upside).

Within class adjustments, the teacher having different kids spending part of their day working in different materials is not as problematic. Such arrangements can have a downside, but the improved appropriateness of instruction tends to be a bigger advantage.

I think part of the problem with tracking kids into different classrooms is that it just gets a lot harder to teach a class with all of the problem learners (these kids aren’t just lower, learning for them is more difficult, so concentrating those difficulties can overwhelm the teacher). Also, kids learn a lot from models. They see what other, more able, kids do and mimic it; in segregated classrooms such models aren’t available so learning slows down. Also, this kind of placement often fools teachers (no matter what level of kids that they have) into thinking that they don’t need to adjust difficulty levels. They figure everyone must be at the right level, so teaching devolves to whole class teaching with little adjustment or opportunity to read things closer to one’s reading level. Finally, in mixed race/ethnicity schools, guess which kids get dumped in the low class?

The research is clear: heterogeneous assignment to classrooms is the best way to go during the elementary grades.