Showing posts with label challenging text. Show all posts
Showing posts with label challenging text. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Instructional Level Concept Revisited: Teaching with Complex Text

            Boy, oh, boy! The past couple weeks have brought unseasonably warm temperatures to the Midwest, and unusual flurries of questions concerning teaching children at their, so-called, “instructional levels.” Must be salesman season, or something.

            One of the questions asked specifically about my colleague Dick Allington, since he has published articles and chapters saying that teaching kids with challenging text is a dumb idea. And, a couple of others queries referred to the advertising copy from Teachers College Press (TCP) about their programs. Both Dick and TCP threw the R-word (research) around quite a bit, but neither actually managed to marshal research support for their claims, which means that the instructional level, after 71 years, still remains unsubstantiated.

            What I’m referring to is the long-held belief that kids learn more when they are matched to texts in particular ways. Texts can be neither too hard, nor too easy, or learning is kaput. At least that has been the claim. It sounded good to me as a teacher, and I spent a lot of time testing kids to find out which books they could learn from, and trying to prevent their contact with others.

            According to proponents of the instructional level, if a text is too easy, there will be nothing to learn. Let’s face it, if a reader already knows all the words in a text, and can answer all of the questions already with no teacher support, it wouldn’t seem to provide much learning opportunity. Surprisingly, however, early investigations found just the opposite—the less there was to learn from a book, the greater progress the students seem to make. This was so obviously wrong, that the researchers just made up the criteria separating the independent and instructional levels.

            Likewise, the theory holds out the possibility that some texts can be too hard. In other words, the more there would be to learn in a text, the less the students would be able to learn from it.

            But what is too easy and what is too hard?

            Back in the 1940s, Emmett Betts, reading authority extraordinaire, reported on a research study completed by one of his students. He claimed that the study showed that if you matched kids to text using the criteria he proposed (95-98% word reading accuracy and 75-89% reading comprehension), kids learned more.

            Unfortunately, no such a study was done. Betts sort of just made up the numbers and teachers and professors have rapturously clung to them ever since. Generation after generation of teachers has been told teaching kids at these levels improves learning.  (Though, due to Common Core, at least some programs have been advancing—arbitrarily—new criteria, perhaps in hopes of matching more students to books at the required levels.)

            Over the past decade or so, several researchers have realized that this widely recommended practice is the educational equivalent of fake news, and have started reporting studies on its effectiveness. And, the instructional level has not done well; it either has made no difference—that is the kids taught from grade level materials do as well as those at an instructional level—or the instructional level placements have led to less learning. Instructional level placements have the tendency to limit kids’ exposure to the linguistic and textual features that they don’t yet know how to negotiate; the practice reduces their opportunity to learn. The kids not so protected, often do better.

            It still makes sense to start kids out with relatively easy texts when they are in K-1, since they have to learn to decode. Beginning reading texts should have enough repetition and should provide kids lots of exposure to the most frequent and straightforward spelling patterns in our language. But, once that hurdle is overcome, it makes no sense to teach everybody as if they were 5-years-old. The studies are pretty clear that from a second-grade reading level on, kids can learn plenty when taught with more challenging texts.

            Here are some related questions that have been asked of me over the past 2-3 weeks:

But my kids are learning to read and they have for years. Why change now?
            Because of the opportunity cost; your students could do even better. Students often tell me that they hate reading specifically because they always get placed in what they call the “stupid kid books.” If kids can learn as much or more from the grade level texts—and they can—we should be giving them opportunities to read the texts that are more at their intellectual levels and that match their age-level interests.

Isn’t it true that the studies in which the kids did better varied not just the book levels, but how the students were taught?
            Yes, that is true, and instructional level proponents have raised that as a complaint about these studies. However, no one is claiming that students will just learn more from harder books. As students, confront greater amounts of challenge the teaching demands go up. One suspects that part of the popularity of the instructional level idea is that the teacher doesn't have to do as much (since the kids start out knowing almost all the words and can read the texts with high comprehension with no teacher support).

What about older kids who are still “beginning readers?”
            Anyone—at whatever age level—who is just starting to learn to read, is still going to need to master decoding. Teaching such older students with more demanding texts will just make it harder to master the relations between spelling and pronunciation. Definitely stay with relatively easy books with older readers who are reading at a kindergarten or first-grade level.

Are you saying no more small group teaching?
            No, small group teaching is fine, unless the purpose of that grouping is to teach students with different levels of books. In fact, I think providing small group teaching to students when they are in the harder materials makes greater sense than how we tend to do it now (which is to put kids in easier materials when they work closely with the teacher—I’d do the opposite).

So you don’t believe in differentiation?
            I believe in differentiation, but I don’t believe that means placing kids in different levels of books. There is a large and growing body of research that suggests that we could more profitably vary the amount and type of scaffolding for the needs of different students.  

Dick Allington has admitted that some studies do show that kids can learn more from more challenging texts, but that the scaffolding in these studies is simply too demanding for the average teacher. What do you think?
            Dick was referring to studies done by Alyssa Morgan and Melanie Kuhn (and their colleagues). In both, the frustration level placements led to more learning than the instructional level ones. In the Morgan study, she used paired reading, and the scaffolding was provided by untrained 7-year-olds (though they were the relatively better readers). I suspect most teachers can scaffold as well as a second-grader, and don’t find paired reading interventions to be beyond most teachers’ skills levels. I asked Melanie Kuhn directly about this criticism. She was surprised. Teachers in the original study had so easily used their teaching routines that Kuhn and company decided to collect data for an additional year. I reject the idea that only the most elite teachers can provide this kind of teaching.

So you totally reject the instructional level idea for anyone but beginners?
            No, I’ve come to believe that the instructional level would be a great goal to aim at for at the completion of a lesson. If, when you are finishing up with a text, the kids know 75% or more of the ideas and can read 95% or more of the words, then you have done a terrific job. One of Linnea Ehri’s studies found that the kids who did best ended up with 98% accuracy, for instance. Of course, if you keep starting with texts at those levels, then you would have little to teach. Start kids out with complex texts that they cannot read successfully; then teach them to read those texts well.

Should all the texts that we teach from be at the levels that Common Core set?

            No, I would argue (based on very little direct evidence—so I’m stretching a bit here) that students should read several texts across their school days and school years. This reading should vary greatly in difficulty, from relatively easy texts that would afford students extensive reads with little teacher support, to very demanding texts that could only be accomplished successfully with a great deal of rereading and teacher scaffolding. I believe that much is learned from that kind of varied practice.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Should We Stop Using Guided Reading Because of Common Core?

Teacher letter:
I am now a literacy specialist in a middle school and am hoping you can give me your opinion on the process of the guided reading method of reading instruction. I completely agree with you that the F&P levels are ludicrously low and it would be difficult to transition students to the end goal of CCSS using these levels. However, I’m curious what you think about the usefulness of listening to individuals read in a small group, using running records to track a struggling reader’s progress with CCSS grade-level text used in the classroom, and explicitly teaching strategies and vocabulary in a small group. Is there research that supports this idea? I am desperately trying to figure out how I can most effectively serve a large number of students grades 6-8, many of whom came from elementary schools that use F&P methods.

Shanahan response:

         Your letter points out an important fact about “guided reading.” It is a complex approach and cannot be summarized as simply teaching students with “instructional level texts”—though it is certainly that.

         Guided reading is a collection of approaches or techniques that have been assembled by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. Even the term “guided reading” was not original to them—it was a term used to characterize a basal reader’s lesson plan in the 1950s (one of its competitors marketed the alternative “directed reading activity”).

         F&P’s version of guided reading, the one that has been so influential during the past two decades, gained popularity, at least in part, due to reading policies and programs of the late 1980s. California only allowed state money to be spent on core reading programs that were made up of previously published literature, and publishing companies were banned from altering these selections in any way to make them more readable.

         What that meant was, for a brief period of time, core reading programs got harder to read—particularly in the early grades. As was documented at the time, teachers did not know how to teach beginning readers with materials that they couldn’t read. Often the teachers read the textbooks to the kids. It was part of the big blowup that became known as the “reading wars.”

         In that context, here comes F&P championing the long held belief that students need to be taught with relatively easy texts that would grow progressively more complex (during the 19th Century, one popular basal program was named the “Gradual Readers”). 

         Teachers grabbed for this as the best available alternative. A good choice given that the commercial reading programs were overshooting beginning readers' abilities and lacked any guidance for teaching kids how to read the harder books.

         Now that guided reading is so widely used we can see that its immediate benefits—beginning readers make a surer start—
are at least balanced by holding back older students from sufficient reading progress (can’t learn to read texts that no one will allow you to read).

         The current pushback against guided reading that has come about due to Common Core is focused specifically on its idea of matching kids to texts in ways aimed at preventing them from confronting sufficient challenge. I’ve written before about the dearth of evidence supporting this idea—and there are many empirical examples of harder placements leading to greater amounts of learning (at least beyond beginning reading levels).

         But your letter wisely points out that guided reading has other features, too. For example, many teachers have told me that they thought guided reading referred to small-group instruction. That certainly has been one of its hallmarks. Research has long supported the relative effectiveness of small-group teaching when compared with whole-class instruction (though this is complicated by the non-teaching time usually required by multiple small groups).

         In small groups, teachers are able to interact more with each child, kids have more opportunities to respond, and are more likely to be noticed if they are struggling with something.

         Thus, just because teaching kids at their supposed “instructional level” is nonsensical, devoting some instructional time to small group work—both under immediate and more distant teacher control--makes a lot of sense.

         Also, guided reading includes, well, guided reading. As I pointed out, originally the term guided reading referred to teachers guiding students through the reading of basal reader selections. The teacher would preteach new vocabulary from the selection, discuss relevant background information, set a reading purpose, and then have students reading portions of the selection orally and/or silently, followed by teacher questioning. The idea was to guide or direct students to read texts in a coherent and effective manner, with the idea that students would learn from the shared doing and would eventually apply these habits to their independent reading.

         Of course, there have been controversies over what kinds of questions to ask or how much background review is appropriate or whether kids should read the entire selection before going through this kind of guided sequence. But, basically, the idea of teachers and students reading texts together in various ways makes a lot of sense, and at least some particular approaches for guiding or directing student comprehension have strong research support.

         Finally, the F&P version of guided reading draws from Marie Clay’s “reading recovery,” a program aimed at beginning readers who are making a bad start. I don’t have much problem with the running records idea of observation with beginning readers, but I think that scheme of looking at how kids do with the "cueing systems" is not particularly apt for more advanced readers. By middle school, decoding schemes should be well integrated with meaning making, except for the most severely disabled readers.

         Small group instruction should afford teachers opportunities to observe student problems with reading and interpretation, and this insight should be used to shape instruction.

         So, while I would not limit students’ reading to instructional level texts—teach kids to read texts that match your state’s standards requirements—that would in no way prevent me from (1) working with small reading groups; (2) guiding students reading comprehension in a coherent manner; or, (3) observing students’ reading in ways appropriate to their grade level. Only part of guided reading is under challenge by Common Core, and it only that aspect of it that needs to change to meet your standards.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What Texts to Use to Teach Fluency?

What are the most appropriate types of texts to use for fluency practice both for young new readers and even older, struggling readers?

With beginning readers what we strive for in “fluency” is different than what we usually think about when speak about fluency (e.g., accuracy, speed, prosody). For beginning readers we are interested in accuracy, but speed is not a goal at all, and if anything we aim at “anti-prosodic reading”. In other words, we want to hear choppy reading.

At first, students are just trying to figure out how reading works… how the words they speak match up with the words that are printed on the page, how the spaces between words work, the differences between syllables and words, etc.

Because of that we initially want to stress things like “finger point reading” in which children try to figure out which words to point to during reading— engaging in choral reading, memorizing texts and trying to “read” them aloud, etc.
At this point, pretty much all texts will be beyond the youngsters’ reading levels, since basically these children aren’t actually reading yet in any conventional sense. It really doesn’t matter which texts are used for this in terms of the language level, readability, or spelling patterns, though it is obviously helpful to have sufficiently large print, decent amounts of spacing between words, sentences, lines, and a scheme that presents entire sentences on single lines initially, but eventually breaks sentences across lines.

Most important at this stage is to have texts that are easy to remember or follow. Texts that are predictable (Brown Bear, Brown Bear), or easy to memorize (Happy Birthday) are particularly useful, because they allow kids to figure out how reading works.

What you are really trying to accomplish with these kinds of text is a kind of choppy reading, in which students “read” each word, word-by-word. 

But once kids can consistently point to the correct words in the manner described above, then fluency morphs into the concept we usually think about, and text choices become even more important. (Some children accomplish this choppy in kindergarten, but it is probably more characteristic of early first-grade year.)

Joe Torgesen has shown that struggling readers (and probably beginning readers at this choppy reading point) tend to learn words from fluency practice. His research finding matches well with the National Reading Panel findings that fluency practice has a big impact on word reading/decoding outcomes. Thus, it would make sense to focus on texts that contain words that are a bit beyond the students’ reading levels, that include both high frequency words that we hope the students will master and spelling patterns that we are trying to teach. 

Since primary grade readers are likely to learn words from fluency practice, then make sure the texts include words that you want students to learn. And, it can be beneficial for those words to be repeated throughout the texts.

Similarly, since these beginners are likely to pick up decoding insights from this oral reading practice, it makes sense to make sure that the spelling patterns and sound-symbol relationships that we want to teach are apparent in these words (being used repeatedly throughout the texts).

Generally, the texts used for fluency should be at levels that we would traditionally label as frustration level. The students will figure out these texts from the feedback and repetition (such repetition isn’t worth the time if the texts are too easy for the students).

I know it is popular to use poetry for fluency practice and that can be fun. However, the point of fluency training is to help students to read the kinds of materials that they will usually be trying to read. Given that, I would occasionally use poetry and songs for fluency work, but more typically I would use prose texts, consistent with what I want them to learn to comprehend.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

More on the Instructional Level and Challenging Text

Teacher question:
I’ve read your posts on the instructional level and complex texts and I don’t think you understand guided reading. The point of guided reading placements is to teach students with challenging text. That’s why it is so important to avoid texts that students can read at their independent level; to make sure they are challenged. The Common Core requires teaching students with challenging texts—not frustration level texts.

Shanahan response: 
I’m having déjà vu all over again. I feel like I’ve covered this ground before, but perhaps not quite in the way that this question poses the issue.

Yes, indeed, the idea of teaching students at their instructional level is that some texts could be too easy or too hard to facilitate learning. By placing students in between these extremes, it has been believed that more learning would take place. In texts that students find easy (your independent level), there would be little for students to learn—since they could likely recognize all or most of the words and could understand the text fully without any teacher help. Similarly, texts that pose too much challenge might overwhelm or frustrate students so they could not learn. Thus, placing them in instructional level materials would be challenging (there would be something to learn), but not so challenging as to be discouraging.

Or, at least that’s the theory.

So, I do get that the way you seem to be placing kids in books is meant to be challenging. But please don’t confuse this level of challenge with what your state standards are requiring. Those standards are asking that you teach students to read texts of specified levels of difficulty—levels of difficulty that for most kids will exceed what you think of as challenging.

This means that everyone wants kids to be challenged. The argument is about how much challenge. You may think that a student will do best if the texts used for teaching is only so challenging that he/she’d make no more than 5 errors per 100 words of reading, and your state may think the appropriate challenge level is grade level texts that represent a progression that would allow the students to graduate from high school with a particular level of achievement. That means in many circumstances the state would say kids need to read book X, and you’d say, “no way, my kids make too many errors with book X to allow me to teach it successfully.”

The Lexile levels usually associated with particular grade levels are not the ones that the standards have assigned to the grades. The Lexile grade-designations from the past were an estimate of the level of text that the average students could read with 75-89% comprehension. Those levels weren’t claiming that all kids in a particular grade could read such texts successfully, but that the average ones could. Thus, you’d test the individual kids and place them in books with higher or lower Lexiles to try to get them to that magical instructional level.

The new standards, however, have assigned higher Lexile bands to each grade level. That means that even the average kids will not be able to read those texts at an instructional level; some kids might be able to at those grade levels, but not the majority. That means teachers would need to teach students to read books more challenging than what have typically been at their instructional levels. In other words, plenty of kids will need to be taught at their frustration level to meet the standards.

I do get the idea that instructional level is meant to be challenging. But for the majority of kids, teaching kids at their instructional level will not meet the standards. That degree of challenge undershoots the level of challenge established by your state (and that they will test your students at). Perhaps you can take solace in the fact that research has not been able to validate the idea that there is an instructional level; that is, kids can be taught to read successfully with texts more challenging than you’ve apparently used in the past.