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

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.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Making Whole Class Work More Effective

          Recently, I wrote about the quandary of grouping. Small group instruction supports greater student engagement, higher amounts of interaction, greater opportunity for teacher observation, and more student learning. However, the benefits of small group are balanced by the relative ineffectiveness of most seatwork activities. Subtracting the downside of working on one's own away from the teacher from the clear benefits of small group teaching, one ends up with little advantage to all of the effort of orchestrating the small-group oriented classroom.
          Despite this, the benefits of small group teaching is so obvious, it is not uncommon for coaches and supervisors to promote a lot of small group work in spite of its ultimate lack of benefit.

          While arguing to keep the small group-teaching arrow in my quiver, I suggested that one of the best things we could do as teachers was to work on our large-group teaching skills. The focus of this has to be, not on organizing our classes in particular ways, but in ensuring that all of our students learn as much as possible. 

So what kinds of things can one do to make large group or whole class teaching more effective? In other words, how can you maintain the efficiency of whole-class teaching, while grabbing the same benefits one gets from small-group work?

1.     Get close to the kids
            In small-group work, teachers command greater attention and involvement partly by being so close. Small groups are often arrayed around the teacher or pulled together at a single table. But with whole-class work, the teacher may as well be on the Moon. Perching yourself at the desk or whiteboard puts you in a different orbit than the kids. No eye contact with the individual students, or no chance that you’ll reach out and touch them; no wonder we lose attention. Set up your classroom so that you can move easily among the students and can reach them without a lot of rigmarole. Place students where you want them to be to support high attention (no Billy cannot sit where he wants).

2.     Ask questions first and assign them to students later
          One way of maximizing attention is to ask your questions first, and then call on the student who is to answer. Even put a bit of pause in between the question and the assignment. The point of the question is rarely to get one student thinking, but to get the whole class to reflect on the problem. When a teacher says, “Johnny, why was Baby Bear so upset with Goldilocks?,” Johnny will think about it, but most of the other kids will take a pass. When she says, “Why was Baby Bear so upset with Goldilocks?.... Johnny?” everybody has to think about it because they can’t be sure who'll get called. 

3.     Focus on teaching, not putting on a show
          Many of us grew up watching Phil Donahue and Oprah. We know how to run a Q&A discussion with a studio audience because we have seen it so often. The tempo moves along, there aren’t long pauses or digressions, and at the end the pertinent info has been covered. But what’s good TV would be lousy teaching. The idea that you’re the emcee presenting information—even with some audience participation, is the wrong mindset. You may be teaching a group of 30 students in a whole class setting, but you have to think of them as 30 individuals, not one group. Your job is to maximize participation for the students while increasing your opportunity to monitor individual progress.

4    Maximize student response.
                 Too often in whole-class work the teacher asks a question, then calls on a child to answer. There are many better schemes for this that allow more student thinking and response, such as “think-pair-share.” Here the teacher asks a question, but has the kids talking it over with each other before answering (the smallest configuration for this can be pairs, but the pairs can then talk to other pairs, and other schemes make sense as well). This increases the degree to which everyone thinks about the question and tries to figure out an answer.

               Another popular approach is the multiple-response card. With simple yes-no tasks, thumbs up-thumbs down may be sufficient. Thus, if the teacher is doing a phonological awareness activity, she may have the students respond with thumbs up if a pair of words start or end with the same sound, and a thumbs down otherwise. For more complex responses, cards may be better. For example, the students might have a card for each character in a story, and the teacher can then ask questions like, Who packed the picnic basket? Who was supposed to take the basket to grandmother? Who was lurking in the woods? And, all the students then hold up the cards that reveal the answer.

                A third way, not used enough in my opinion, is the written answer. Teachers can ask any kind of question, and have everyone write an answer to the question. The oral responses that follow tend to be longer and more involved than what kids come up with orally. The written record is useful here because it allows teachers to check to see who answered the question well, the quality of the reasoning, and can take them back into the text to figure out the discrepancies.

5    Teach groups in whole class—teaching in a fishbowl
            Sometimes you can increase the involvement of particular students even though you are working in whole class. Let’s say everyone has been asked to read Chapter 6 of the social studies book, and now the class is going to discuss. The teacher might select 5-8 students who she wants to be the primary discussants this time. These students may sit in a circle in the middle of the classroom and everyone else will be arrayed around them. The teacher leads the discussion with her questions and challenges, and the students in the inner circle answer and talk about the ideas. The students on the outside observe, participate in the discussion if the inner group is stuck, and perhaps write answers to the same questions. Through careful selection, the teacher is able to maximize the amount of participation of quiet students or those who usually get shut out of the discussions by being too slow.

6    Be strategic in calling on students 
          It can be difficult to manage the calling on students. Certain students always seem to have an answer, and are quick to respond. This shuts out others who need to explore their thinking and who would benefit from teacher follow up. Teachers can do what football coaches do, which is plan their plays ahead of time, changing up the routine only if the situation changes. Thus, a teacher might, during planning, decide not just what to ask, but who she wants to hear from. That means if certain students are struggling to give longer answers or sufficient explanation, the teacher can be ready to initiate and guide them through some scaffolded work within the context of the whole class lesson. In other cases, more randomized calling (in which everyone has an equal chance) might make sense; this is easily accomplished with the tongue-depressor routine, in which all the student names are on tongue depressors and the teacher just pulls sticks out of the can as she needs a response or explanation.

7    Whole class can be more than lecture or Q&A
          Instead of using worksheets as “shut up sheets” (thanks, Vicki Gibson), use these tasks to engage everyone within the class in an interactive activity. For example, let’s say the task is finding text evidence. The worksheet includes assertions based on the text, and the students have to locate information from the text that supports the assertion. Kids could go off and do that on their own or they could do it in separate small group activities with teacher scaffolding, but that kind of task could be done most efficiently with teacher participation in the whole class. The teacher needs to observe how the students go about the task—maybe even taking notes on who just started reading and who went to particular parts of the text, who's copying, who's paraphrasing, and so on. At any point, the teacher might stop the class and ask about the strategies being used and might provide some guidance for proceeding more effectively.

            Remember, even in whole class teaching, you want students to pay attention; you want to get as many students to respond and participate as possible (without losing everyone else’s attention); you want maximum possibility of identifying when problems and misunderstandings occur so that you can scaffold, explain, and guide students to solve the problem. Structure whole group lessons in those ways, and then follow up in smaller groups (and even individually) to ensure success with what is being taught.

My recent presentation on improving test performance:

My recent presentation on teaching with challenging text:

Monday, May 18, 2015

An Argument About Matching Texts to Students

A reader wrote:
My main response is toward your general notion of the research surrounding teaching kids "at their level."

First, I think the way you're describing instructional/skill levels obfuscates the issue a bit. Instructional level, by definition, means the level at which a child can benefit from instruction, including with scaffolding. Frustrational, by definition, means the instruction won't work. Those levels, like the terms "reinforcement & punishment" for example, are defined by their outcomes, not intentions. If a child learned from the instruction, the instruction was on the child's "instructional" level.

Where we may be getting confused is that I think you actually are referring to teaching reading comprehension using material that is in a child's instructional level with comprehension, but on a child's frustrational level with reading fluency. This is a much different statement than what I think most teachers are getting from your messages about text complexity, to the point that I think they're making mistakes in terms of text selection.

More generally, I'd argue that there is copious research supporting using "instructional material" to teach various reading skills. Take, for example, all of the research supporting repeated readings. That intervention, by definition, uses material that is on a child's "instructional" level with reading fluency, and there is great support that it works. So, the idea that somehow "teaching a child using material on his/her instructional level is not research supported" just doesn't make sense to me.

In terms of this specific post about how much one can scaffold, I think it largely depends on the child and specific content, as Lexiles and reading levels don't fully define a material's "instructional level" when it comes to comprehension. I know many 3rd graders, for example, that could be scaffolded with material written on an 8th grade level, but the content isn't very complex, so scaffolding is much easier.

The broad point here, Dr. Shanahan, is that we're over-simplifying, therefore confusing, the issue by trying to argue that kids should be taught with reading material on their frustrational level, or on grade level despite actual skill level. People are actually hearing you say that we should NOT attempt to match a child with a text - that skill level or lexile is completely irrelevant - when I believe you know you're saying that "instructional level" is just a bit more nuanced than providing all elements of reading instruction only on a child's oral reading fluency instructional range.

First, you are using the terms “instructional level” and “frustration level” in idiosyncratic ways. These terms are not used in the field of reading education as you claim, nor have they ever been. These levels are used as predictions, not as post-instruction evaluations. If they were used in the manner you suggest, then there would be little or no reason for informal reading inventories and running records. One would simply start teaching everyone with grade level materials, and if a student was found to make no progress, then we would simply lower the text difficulty over time.

My reply:
Of course, that is not what is done at all. Students are tested, instructional levels are determined, instructional groups are formed, and books assigned based on this information.

The claim has been that if you match students to text appropriately (the instructional level) that you will maximize the amount of student learning. This definition of instructional level does allow for scaffolding—in fact, that’s why students are discouraged from trying to read instructional level materials on their own, since there would be no scaffold available.

Fountas and Pinnell, for example, are quite explicit that even with sound book matching it is going to be important to preteach vocabulary, discuss prior knowledge, and engage children in picture walks so that they will be able to read the texts with little difficulty. And, programs like Accelerated Reading limit what books students are allowed to read.

You are also claiming that students have different instructional levels for fluency and comprehension. Informal reading inventories and running records measure both fluency AND reading comprehension. They measure them separately.  But there is no textbook or commercial IRI that suggests to teachers that they should be using different levels of texts to teach these different skills or contents. How accurately the students read the words and answer questions are combined to make an instructional text placement—not multiple text placements.

If we accept your claim that any text that leads to learning is at the “instructional level,” then pretty much any match will do. Students, no matter how they are taught, tend to make some learning gains in reading as annual Title I evaluations have shown again and again. These kids might have only gained .8 years in reading this year (the average is 1.0), but they were learning and by your lights that means we must have placed them appropriately.

Repeated reading has been found to raise reading achievement, as measured by standardized reading comprehension tests, but as Steve Stahl and Melanie Kuhn have shown, such fluency instruction works best—that is, leads to greater learning gains—when students work with books identified as being at their frustration levels rather than at their so-called instructional levels. That’s why in their large-scale interventions they teach students with grade level texts rather than trying to match students to texts based on an invalid construct (the instructional level).

You write: “People are actually hearing you say that we should NOT attempt to match a child with a text -- that skill level or Lexile is completely irrelevant - when I believe you know you're saying that "instructional level" is just a bit more nuanced than providing all elements of reading instruction only on a child's oral reading fluency instructional range.”

In fact, I am saying that beyond beginning reading, teachers should NOT attempt to match students with text. I am also saying that students should be reading multiple texts and that these should range from easy (for the child) to quite difficult. I am saying that the more difficult a text is, the more scaffolding and support the teacher needs to provide—and that such scaffolding should not include reading the text to the student or telling the student what the text says.

I am NOT saying that skill level or Lexile are irrelevant, or that “instructional level” is simply a bit more nuanced then people think. It is useful to test students and to know how hard the texts are for that student; that will allow you to be ready to provide sufficient amounts of scaffolding (and to know when you can demand greater effort and when just more effort will not pay off).