Showing posts with label common core state standards. Show all posts
Showing posts with label common core state standards. Show all posts

Monday, November 10, 2014

Prior Knowledge: Can We Really Level the Playing Field?

            Spoiler alert: This blog entry is a two-parter. The first part (today’s entry) describes a problem to which the second entry will offer some nifty practical solutions (nope, no practical solutions today).

            An idea heavily promoted in Common Core (CCSS) discussions is the notion that we shouldn’t talk about students’ “prior knowledge,” and that avoiding such discussions somehow “levels the playing field” when it comes to learning to read. Researchers in the cognitive sciences rediscovered the importance of people’s knowledge in learning and comprehension back in the 1970s (revisiting ideas previously explored by Bartlett, Kant, Plato, etc.).

            Research findings were very clear: readers comprehend more when a text overlaps with their knowledge of the world and they comprehend less when there is less such information in their minds.
            Research also has shown benefits from increasing students’ prior knowledge (it is “prior” in the sense that reader’s knew it before the author told them). And even reminding students that they have relevant knowledge prior to reading can bear fruit.

            Why is prior knowledge so useful to readers? There are many reasons, but certainly a basic one is that the availability of such information reduces how painstaking reading may have to be. If you already know much of what the author is going to say, you can kind of go on autopilot just watching for the new stuff. Your less informed classmates are going to have to attend to the text more carefully, trying to build up all of this information in their heads, proposition by proposition.   

            Let’s face it, if you have to figure out and remember 100 facts from a text and I only need to learn 50 facts from it (since I already had the other 50), then I’m going to look like I comprehended more.

            Another reason prior knowledge helps is that no author ever fully explains anything. There are always inferences that need to be drawn and connections that have to be made. Sometimes readers have to sort out an ambiguity in the text’s wording, and so on. All of those challenges are easier to deal with from a basis of knowledge.

            And prior knowledge affects memory matters, too. If I already have a lot of information in my memory about the ideas presented in this text, then storing the new information within those already created structures gets easier, too. (There’s a reason that P. David Pearson has long defined reading comprehension as “connecting the new with the known.”)
          However, there are costs to prior knowledge as well. Research has shown that readers will sometimes allow their current beliefs to overwhelm the author’s message. Thus, readers thinking they understand how the physical world works (based on their perceptions of their experiences with processes like gravity), will disregard the author’s explanation of what scientists have figured out in favor of staying with their prior (though incorrect) “knowledge.”

            Of course, in most reading prior knowledge doesn’t make us miss the author’s message altogether, but it may lead us to read less carefully (since we assume that we already know it, we don’t need to put in the effort and, thus, miss the nuance). Reading less reflectively or thoughtfully, weighing the author’s words to a lesser degree, and so on, can’t be good.

            Based on such research findings, school reading programs have gone off the deep end with prior knowledge discussions (maybe you have seen the ads for “Basals Gone Wild” videos on late night cable). Such activities had already been long in evidence--at least since the birth of the “teacher’s guide” in basal readers--but since 1975 the “Background” activities seem to have exploded.

            That means if kids are to read a story about a family vacation, there will need to be an extended discussion of family vacations prior to any reading. Of course, everybody has to be able to tell about their vacations and, perhaps, for the kids who haven’t had one, the teacher can have them talk about where they would like to go (we could call that pretend prior knowledge, I guess).

            Apparently, there is no school text that wouldn’t benefit from a 15-minute discussion of prior knowledge before reading.

            Enter Common Core (the plot thickens). CCSS emphasizes “close reading” and a key idea of close reading is to interpret what is in the text rather than examining one’s presuppositions, the author’s biography, or other sources of information external to the text.

            Some CCSS proponents have gone so far as to claim that not discussing prior knowledge or asking questions about what children already know will somehow level the playing field when it comes to reading comprehension. Their hope is that the poor kids and the rich kids will then be held accountable for the same work—making sense of the information that they all had equal access to in the text itself.

            That sounds great (I’m for poor kids, too), but it ignores a basic fact about reading: Prior knowledge plays a role in text interpretation whether there is a background discussion or not.

            We can make it look like the playing field has been evened by not talking about prior knowledge, but the more advantaged kids will then just appear to be smarter and better when it comes to reading (since all or most of the advantages of having prior knowledge will still be there).

            Funny thing is that I agree with those critics who think we’ve gone off the deep end when it comes to prior knowledge in reading. The discussions go on too long. The questions about it aren’t thoughtful or strategic. Frankly, our instructional practices don’t seem especially consistent with the research studies. In other words, we have taken a valuable set of insights and turned them into a dogmatic and inflexible set of practices that accomplish very little.

            What role should prior knowledge play in classroom reading discussions and how should teachers handle prior knowledge in the classroom? For some brilliant (yeah, right) answers to these provocative questions, tune in next time.


There have been requests for a couple of recent presentations that I have made: One was the talk I gave at the U.S. Consulate in Belfast, Northern Ireland concerning key issues in literacy learning and the other was a recent introduction (and history lesson) on the Common Core that I presented to my friends at the Ka Hui Heluhelu Reading Council in Honolulu, Hawaii. Here they are:

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How to Organize Daily Instruction, Part IV

Over the past few weeks I have been explaining an organizational plan that is a better alternative than Daily 5. Although I appreciate an approach (like Daily 5) that structures time for teachers, I believe it is better to do that around the outcomes rather than the teaching activities. Teachers need activities, of course, but they need to keep focused on what they are using those activities towards. A complaint of most of the big names in education is that teachers get too bogged down in methods, activities, approaches and the like, and lose sight of the purpose of those actions.

Here I will provide responses to many of the questions that have come up.

Won’t it get tedious if I structure the day in the same way everyday?
Perhaps, but that isn’t what I have recommended.  You definitely could use my scheme in a repetitive manner and there are both benefits and drawbacks to that (as the question implies). However, the issue is whether you are spending enough time focused on the right goals, and how you organize that in a day is up to you as a professional. Thus, if you plan on spending 45 minutes on words in your first-grade, that does not mean that you have to teach words from 9:00AM-9:45AM every morning. You definitely could vary this day to day. However, you also could break up this time into smaller chunks.

Shouldn’t I integrate instruction?
Again, perhaps, but because the boundaries are not firm across these categories, it is possible to be very flexible. A fifth-grade teacher might decide that she needs more than 30 minutes to teach a good comprehension lesson—since the texts that students are reading are more extended than that. She could teach reading comprehension every other day, instead of every day, which would allow an hour for such a lesson (writing would usually get swapped with reading comprehension in such a structure). Or, what if the teacher was teaching comprehension, but found out—right in the middle of the lesson—that more vocabulary work was needed. The teacher could provide that instruction and even out later, by providing more or less instruction in one of the other categories.

My school requires that we all teach reading at the same time (in a 90 minute block at the beginning of the day), so I can’t do this.
You could use the required block and add additional time later in your school day. However, I’m not a big fan of your school’s approach.  It makes it more difficult to provide intervention services to the struggling readers (if everyone teaches reading at the same time, then if a student is pulled out during that time he/she gets less reading instruction).

I’m a secondary teacher and we don’t have a reading class. I don’t see how this can work?
Many secondary schools have taken this plan on successfully. It requires cooperation among the various departments, however. Typically, we work on a weekly basis. That would mean that we need to provide 10 hours per week of literacy work (2.5 hours of vocabulary, 2.5 hours of reading comprehension, 2.5 hours of writing, and up to 2.5 hours of oral reading fluency—depending on the students’ fluency levels). Each department agrees to provide some portion of this weekly experience and then some horse-trading is done to ensure that there is sufficient time for everything.

We are required to implement our core program with fidelity. I don’t see how I can do that if I follow this scheme.
I very much like the idea of following core programs with some kind of fidelity, but this isn’t always possible because of time considerations. Typically, core programs offer more instructional activity than fits in a 90 minute block or (even in a 2 hour space). Teachers, in such cases, may follow with fidelity the parts of the program that they teach, but what about the parts they have to omit? This plan helps teachers to make the decisions of what to keep and what to drop. If there is too little instruction, of course, then the teacher could follow that with fidelity, but then would need to supplement.

I find myself agreeing with your approach, but I still love the activities that my students have been doing through Daily 5. Isn’t there a way to compromise?
Like you, there are particular activities that I want to have in my classroom. For example, as a primary grade teacher, I read to my students every day. I did this, not to teach them to read, but as a tone setter for my classroom and as a way of exposing students to particular cultural artifacts (I loved reading Charlotte’s Web to them, for instance). If I were teaching in the primary grades today, I would still read to my students, I just wouldn’t count it as reading instruction and wouldn’t let it take the place of instruction in decoding, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, or writing. Isabel Beck and Moddy McKeown have certainly shown how I could translate that kind of teacher read aloud into an effective vocabulary lesson for the younger kids, so I could perhaps count it that way, but I might not make that choice either. That’s the real benefit of this approach—it keeps you focused on learning outcomes and it keeps you in control of the choices.

What about Common Core?
Common Core sets the learning goals; the goals that your instruction should focus on. All that I have done is to categorize these goals, and matched them with time expenditures. For example, many primary grade teachers look at the CCSS and conclude that they are suppose to teach more comprehension than decoding. My plan allows the teacher to protect sufficient amounts of time to make it possible for students to learn to decode. Review the CCSS standards (including the detailed items including in the appendices) and distribute them across the categories that I have emphasized.

I’m a pull-out reading teacher. Should I use this plan in my teaching?
I expect interventions to either be especially targeted (like a pull out fluency program only for students lagging in fluency) or individualized. My scheme requires the teacher to balance literacy instruction in his/her classroom, but an intervention teacher should be aimed at balancing the child. If Hector is strong in decoding and fluency, then the intervention teacher should aim at comprehension. If Sylvia is weak at decoding, then the intervention should be aimed at strengthening this weakness. This plan makes sense if a student is low in everything, but if there are stronger and weaker patterns of skills, try to even the child out by building the weak spots up (that isn’t a good way to go in a classroom, because the teacher simply has too many kids with different needs—thus, addressing all of the needs equally is the surest way to higher achievement).

Sunday, May 18, 2014

How to Organize Daily Literacy Instruction -- Part I

Twice this week—from a NY teacher and an Illinois school administrator—I’ve been asked how to organize instructional time for literacy with Common Core. One was an email inquiry, the other face-to-face, but both noted my earlier concerns about Daily 5 and CAFE.

In both cases, they were right that I am not a big fan of those approaches.

My reason in both cases (and also with any similar, but less popular schemes): they distract teachers from an intense focus on what they are trying to teach students. Teachers have to be focused on learning—not activities.

Of course, many teachers would point out, the idea is for kids to learn, but teachers do that through their activities. I don’t disagree about the need for instructional activities as the means for increasing student knowledge and skills, but that doesn’t mean we should idolize the activities.

There are many activities that can be used to accomplish particular learning or teaching goals and teachers need to select among these and to move among these as they help students to gain the outcome. Locking into a particular activity on a daily basis is foolish.

Research has shown that teachers struggle to keep focused on kids’ learning; that they get so wrapped up in the activities that they often lose sight of their purpose. What do they say about alligators and swamp draining?

That’s why so many teachers and principals come to measure success in terms of how smoothly the activity went rather than on what it enabled kids to do.

Any scheme that focuses teachers on activities rather than outcomes is a non-starter for me.

However, I do appreciate that teachers embrace such schemes because of their manageability. The biggest decisions teachers have to make have to do with how to parcel out their valuable instructional time, and any plan that helps teachers to do this has some value.

The framework that I have long used is both similar to—and wildly different from—these schemes that I’m criticizing. My framework also gives teachers guidance with time use, but its emphasis is on the outcomes rather than the methods.

I start from the premise that students are going to need to spend a lot of time with literacy to become literate. Given that, I think kids should spend at least 2-3 hours per day dealing with literacy.

A second premise is that we have multiple goals in literacy and that they all compete for instructional time. I believe that it makes sense to divide the available instructional time among these different goals.

What are these goals? My reading of the research says that students need to learn words and word parts (to read them, to interpret them), they need to be able to read text fluently (with sufficient accuracy, speed, and prosody), they need to be able to understand and interpret the ideas in text, and they need to convey their own ideas through text (writing). These are all critically important goals, and each of them has many sub goals.

I would argue teachers should provide students with explicit instruction and lots of practice time in each of these four learning areas on a daily basis. Rather than focusing on four or five activities that kids should be engaged in everyday, I’d rather have teachers thinking about what activities they should encourage based on the learning goals in each of these areas. Thus, it would be very reasonable to spend 30 minutes on words, 30 minutes on fluency, 30 minutes on reading comprehension, and 30 minutes on writing everyday (on average)—even though the actual activities would vary.

A daily organizing plan that is focused on these outcomes makes greater sense than one based on activities such as read to self or read to someone.

And such a plan makes sense even when using “core reading programs” or “basal readers” because they help teachers to choose among the many options such programs provide.  

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Some Updates

This has been a busy time. But here are some links, suggestions, and updates:

Pat Wingert has an article on Common Core in Atlantic this month that I figure in:
Atlantic Magazine: When English Proficiency Isn't Enough

Here are my recent powerpoints as promised: Recent Powerpoints

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Razing Standards?

I've been working (visiting research professor at Queens University, Belfast), and vacationing in Ireland for the past few weeks. From the Emerald Isle I've been keeping tabs on the ongoing embarrassing political mischief aimed at keeping America firmly entrenched in the middle educational ranks ("We're 25th, we're 25th!").

I certainly understand those who oppose the CCSS standards because of fears that they might cost some money to accomplish or that they might require us -- us the students, teachers, parents, political leaders -- to work harder, the way they have worked harder in all those countries that have sped past us on the education interstate during the past decade or two. I mean who wants to invest when you can spend, and who wants to work at making things better when you can sit on your duff and collect government paychecks. Let's face it, there are no prizes for being the hardest working governor. Keep standards low and your state will be sure to reach them... hell, you've probably reached them already.

That's why Indiana is regaining jobs so fast after the 2008 downturn. Not. If your kids can't read or do math as well as the kids in China, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Finland, Massachusetts, etc. you can't expect employers to flock to your state to set up businesses. But who'd want businesses in places like Indiana?

No, I don't have any problems understanding that kind of opposition because it is self-interested. Immediate self interest, no matter how callow, is always understandable.

I have more trouble with the looney tunes who have decided that no matter how bad the educational status quo is that they are for it. Conservatives who have screamed for years about the need for privatization because government schools aren't getting the job done are now pontificating on the importance of maintaining our current low educational standards in government-supported schools (I mean, you either think government programs--like public education--are a boondoggle, or you don't). I almost suffer from whiplash when I hear political conservatives shouting about the need to maintain the status quo when it comes to public education.

I'm just as amazed about the cartoon figures on the left as well. You know the ones I mean (the ones who are arguing that unemployment is a problem, but the 1 million unfilled jobs in America is not). They want equality for all sexual persuasions, races, ethnicities, languages, and legal statuses--until someone tries to do anything to shrink the educational differences among those groups. According to these geniuses, if you set high educational standards, you are doing it to emphasize existing differences.
The best thing I've read about CCSS since coming here is David Brooks' recent column in the NY Times. It is a must read. Mr. Brooks rightly blames kooks on both the left and right for these harmful political shenanigans. Here's the link:
When the Circus Descends by David Brooks

Brooks' notion that the circus has come to town is a good one. In fact, I've carried a similar image for the past few months. Imagine a brightly-colored Volkswagen. A clown emerges who looks remarkably like Glenn Beck, and then various grease-painted governors and leaders of special interest groups follow in their turn.

Of course, the question you find yourself asking is, "How many anti-CCSS clowns can you get into a Volkswagen?"

But the real question should be, "Why? Why would so many clowns fight so hard to maintain the status quo of low educational standards?"  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Grading Reading Performance Under Common Core

I have a question that many teachers have asked and would like your help when thinking through the grading process for common core. How might the children receive grades for the many standards without giving a test? The teachers are doing a lot of processing text together as a class or in partners so they are wondering about the accountability for the students and how to get a grade to measure their knowledge. 

Good question.

Remember there are lots of parts of Common Core, so if you are an elementary teacher and you are teaching foundational skills (e.g., phonological awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency), then using one of the many test instruments (e.g., PALS, DIBELS, AIMS-WEB) still might be a useful way to go to get a sense of where your kids stand.

However, we don’t have good tests of reading comprehension that can be given quickly and that provide that kind of information, so teacher judgment will certainly be necessary. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use the unit tests in your core program, those might help inform your decisions, but ultimately you are going to have to depend on your evaluation of student performance when they are writing about or discussing text.

I would strongly urge you to NOT try to give students scores in each of the standards. That wouldn’t make much sense and I don’t believe that you could do that reliably (nor can any existing tests). I would suggest that you pay attention to how well students do with texts of varying difficulty (so keep track of the Lexile levels, etc.). You might recognize patterns such as: “Johnny reads well when he is trying to understand texts at 400Lexile, but he struggles when they get to 500Lexile.” You could track this kind of thing yourself based on the texts that you teach or you could test the kids more formally with an informal reading inventory or something like Amplify.

You also might consider tracking how kids do with different part of the standards. Again, an example, might be that throughout a grading period you ask students questions that get at Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. I wouldn’t expect big performance differences between these tasks but there might be some patterns there, and you could report on them (and make grading decisions accordingly).

To do any of this you will need a system of observation. Maybe something like this: For each group that you do guided reading with, keep a list of students. Then record the date and Lexile level of the text being read for each student. Keep track of how many questions you ask them and whether they did well. You could break these down by category or just keep track overall. Another possibility would be a multi-point rubric that describes how accurate, thorough, and incisive the students’ answers were.

Of course, CCSS stresses the idea of students writing about texts. You could have students writing about the texts that they read several times during a report card marking and use an average of your ratings of these responses to determine how well the student was doing. Again, I don’t think you will be able to come up with anything highly specific (“Johnny is doing well with standard 3, but he struggles on standard 5” so I’m giving him a B-), but you should be able to say that, “Students by this point of the year should be able to read a text at 450Lexile with at least 75% understanding and he can only do this texts at 350Lexile.”