Tuesday, August 30, 2016
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.
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.
Saturday, March 7, 2015
An Open Letter to the Candidates
Ladies and Gentlemen. We're quickly sinking into the quicksands of yet another presidential campaign. I'm writing to help with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) issue. I don't want any of you tripped up by a feeble or foolish argument, and there are lots of ways of doing that. I'm sure you all know not to rely on your 13-year-old kids for policy advice, and not to sigh audibly and roll your eyes since it will look like you sent your 13-year-old to debate in your place. If you can't stare down a callow opponent successfully, how will you ever convince voters that you can handle Putin or ISIS?
I won't be so bold as to suggest what your position should be on Common Core, but I do have advice as to which arguments to avoid.
1. Previous educational standards were better.
Don't make this claim. It can only embarrass you (as bad as not being able to spell "potato"). Past standards were so low that they were the educational equivalent of everyone getting a T-ball trophy. Many U.S. students met those standards and still needed basic reading, writing, and math instruction in the workplace or university—expensive places to obtain an elementary or secondary education. Anyone who argues against the CCSS should be able to explain why they want lower educational standards or should embrace a viable alternative. (Note campaign managers: Parents who are paying for remedial college classes or employers who are struggling to hire high school graduates with basic skills may become particularly testy over this argument).
2.Teachers didn’t write them.
Ho-hum. Yeah, and I’ve long been opposed to the Declaration of Independence because it was written by a slaveholder and the Gettysburg Address is kind of dicey given that its author was in the pocket of big business before assuming the presidency. This argument elevates the ad hominem over the ad verbum. All that should matter is whether the standards are sound; if they are, a House Committee could have written them and they’d be a good idea. And, if they are not sound, how many years of teaching experience would the authors require for you to campaign on them? Many teachers worked on these standards, but who cares? The standards could still be useful even if that weren’t the case.
3. They promote the theories of evolution and global warming.
Yikes. This is an interesting argument because everyone hates being tricked into supporting what they morally oppose. Unfortunately, it doesn't hold any water since the Common Core only deals with reading, writing, and math—and not with science, history, or any other school content or social issue. You may get away with this one, but there is always the risk that someone in the audience has actually read the standards.
4. The Common Core isn’t research based.
That sounds like a good argument, too. Pin the standards on the science deniers. But what if someone wonders what a research-based goal would look like? I know I want my marriage to be happy, my kids to be productive, and my country to be secure. I don’t know why I’d need a study to tell me that I wanted those things. In medicine, they use research to figure out the best treatments—not whether we want everyone to be healthy. Standards aren't teaching methods; they aren’t approaches to instruction. When the critics say some states should have tried these out first to find out if they're any good, it would be like having some states aiming for 4% unemployment and others for 8%—so that we'd know whether we wanted people to find jobs.
5. They require too much testing.
Common Core requires no more (or less) testing than any other educational standards. Since the early 1990s, federal law has required states to adopt their own educational goals and evaluate student progress against them. However, there’s nothing special about Common Core in that regard. If CCSS disappeared, states would still have standards and they’d still have to monitor student progress. Just as they have for the past 25 years. If you do choose to make this argument despite the facts, be careful in Alaska, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. None of them have Common Core, but they all have educational standards and they are all testing their students against those standards.
6. They are the reason for all of the test prep.
This is a great argument, and yet, I doubt whether many of you have the thespian skills to pull it off. Test prep, though unsavory, has nothing to do with Common Core. Educators have long devoted unconscionable amounts of time and resources to test prep, with barely a peep from any of you. Now, getting all worked up about kids being engaged in test prep instead of education will require all the faux sincerity of Captain Renault (“Casablanca gambling? I’m shocked.”). What would happen to test prep if there was no Common Core? Look to Texas or Virginia for your answer, rather than to the airy pronouncements of your supposedly shocked and offended advisors.
7. Publishers are making money from them.
Publishers do make money from these standards. And, if history is a guide, when we move on to the next big thing in education, they’ll make money off that, too. Government policies do help companies make money. But if that's an issue, then we ought to shut down the Defense Department, Medicare, Social Security, the oil depletion allowance, and pretty much everything else that government does—since all those nasty programs encourage the buying of goods and services from American companies. (Note to Jeb Bush: Perhaps your opponents' arguments against Common Core are really just a ruse to get schools to change their curricula more quickly to make even more money for the publishers.)
8. The U.S. Constitution bans national curriculum.
This one is a particularly tempting argument, especially if you are a lawyer. The Constitution does relegate authority for education to the states after all. The problem is that the federal government has always incented states in the area of education. Even a conservative Supreme Court has recently indicated that it will not even hear cases aimed at determining whether states must comply with federal law when they accept federal funding; they see it as settled law. Going before this Supreme Court to argue that Hamilton, Madison, and Jay knew nothing about the Constitution would likely be a tough slog (Justices Roberts and Alito can be sticklers about that kind of thing). The federal government has the right to require funded states to have standard--whatever standards they may choose to adopt--and there is nothing in Common Core that curtails that right in any way. You'll end up in the weeds. Avoid this one.
9. Common Core violates states’ rights.
This would be kind of a funny argument coming from people who are running, not for governor, but for president. "If elected, I’ll not allow states to adopt Common Core." That sounds like under your presidency educational goals would be under your authority. That won't be palatable even from such staunch conservatives as a President Cruz or a President Paul. The states, being sovereign entities, have the authority to coordinate with each other as much as they choose. This is true in transportation, criminal justice, economics, natural resources, etc. From the beginning, states have had the authority to enter into such cooperative agreements, like the one that led to the creation of Common Core. This argument snatches that authority from the states, and doing so in the name of states’ rights would be too tricky a game by half. Where is George Orwell when we need him?
10. These are President Obama’s standards.
Let's face it. It's always a good idea to run against an incumbent whose popularity is on the decline. And, getting voters to believe that these are Obamacore should be easy. When they were being written, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, promised funding to develop new tests for the new standards (a “shovel-ready project,” in the parlance of the times), and when running for President, Senator Obama campaigned on the idea that we needed higher standards and a lot more testing. Making voters believe that the Common Core belongs to the administration should be easy; voters might never figure out that these standards were written with no federal funding and no federal involvement if you can create enough of a haze of suspicion. Of course, this will be an easier argument for some than for others. (Note to Bobby Jindal: You seem sincere in making this argument, but you'll probably need to explain why President Obama was able to operate you like a hand puppet on this issue for three years without you ever being aware of where his hand was. I would avoid using the term “brainwashing”-- see George Romney, 1968. Perhaps you could get away with claiming that President Obama just gave yours a light rinse.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish you all luck, and hope this advice is useful to each of you.
And here is a recent Powerpoint presentation on Teaching With Complex Text
Sunday, January 4, 2015
My daughters are Erin and Meagan. When they were little, Meagan would get upset because we always “run Erins,” but we never “run Meagans.”
That’s cute when a little one doesn’t know the meaning of a word. But such miscommunication can be a real problem in Common Core State Standards implementation.
It’s getting so that I hate to hear the term “close reading” because it is misused so often these days.
A comment from a reader of last week’s blog entry challenged me to evaluate an online video of a close reading lesson. I gave it a quick review and replied.
It’s been bugging me ever since, and I decided to give this 8-minute video a close read of my own. I’m going to be pretty critical, but please don’t take that as an attack on this teacher (these video minutes are all I know or her). She looks to be pretty good teacher. But the close reading espoused here is not especially well connected to the concepts of close reading or Common Core.
Because of length of my critique, I'll spread the analysis over two blog entries. Here's the first:
The video says close reading is an “instructional strategy. It is not. More properly, it is a way of reading text. Viewers should not watch this with the idea that this is how you teach close reading. There are some great teaching techniques here, but a teacher who followed these steps scrupulously would not be teaching kids to be close readers.
The video indicates close reading helps students "conquer complex text."That’s sort of true, but not as demonstrated in this video. Texts are complex in multiple ways, and all approaches to reading can be expected to address some of that complexity. For example, I don’t know of any reading approach that doesn’t require readers to come away with a text’s main points and key details. All past reading standards in the U.S. trumpeted those particular skills already, so a shift to close reading would change nothing in that regard. No wonder some teachers tell me that they have always taught “close reading.”
The teacher in the video is correct that close reading is useful for dealing with texts that have "layers of meaning." But she doesn't demonstrate that in any way in the video (main ideas and key details are not layers of meaning). In this kind of text, “layers of meaning” might require a consideration of the effects of how the text conveyed the information (how the telling extended or reinforced those main ideas and key details). For example, in his explanation of natural selection, Darwin writes: “The tail of the giraffe looks like a fly-trapper; and it seems at first incredible that this could have been adapted by successive modifications for so trifling an object as to drive away flies.” A close reader should wonder why Darwin focuses on such a “trifling object” in this magnificent argument.
But that, of course, was Darwin’s point. He wanted to show that even the tiniest organs of little apparent importance were affected by natural selection in ways that we could only guess at. Asking students what the giraffe does with its tail or toward what end the adaptation of the tail progressed are fair questions, but they aren’t close reading questions, per se because they don’t include an analysis of those rhetorical considerations.
The teacher reads the text to the students.
Close reading has nothing to do with whether a text is read aloud to students or whether they read it themselves. Doing the reading for kids will not make them stronger readers. The point of having kids read texts with higher Lexiles estimates is not so teachers can practice their reading skills, it is so kids can do so. I think this teacher makes a big mistake reading the text to the kids instead of giving them a chance to make sense of what it says.
This is not an issue of close reading, but of complex text. Those are two separate, but overlapping, issues in Common Core. Students need to learn to deal with text complexity, including learning to read complex language and dealing with the complex ideas. The teacher here seems to recognize that close reading won’t help the kids to read the challenging language of this text, so she does that part of the work for them (she takes challenging language out of the equation by making sure that no one actually has to deal with it).
Close reading requires multiple readings of a text.
This idea is correct. Going through a complex text more than once is often necessary to figure out what the text says and how it works, or to develop a deeper understanding of it. But, again, there are two ideas operating here. One of them is that reading and rereading is a kind of “try and try again” or “practice makes perfect” idea; if you didn’t get it the first time, maybe you will on a second read. Repeated reading in fluency is kind of like that: a student reads a text aloud making fewer miscues on each rereading.
That’s not a bad thing, and I have no doubt these third-graders will benefit from this kind of thorough attention to the content of this book. This teacher definitely is not just rushing through the text to get it done; it looks to me like these students will come away knowing something about adaptation and that’s a real plus.
However, the rereading that is inherent in close reading requires a bit more than that. It isn’t about doing a better job each time. It’s about doing a different one. Yes, it might take 8-year-olds two or three readings just to come to terms with what a text has to say. But that isn’t the rereading that is central to close reading.
In close reading, now that you understand what a text has to say, you can reread it to determine how it works. For example, how did the illustrations help you to understand what the author meant by adaptation? Or, why do scientists use the term “adaptation” instead of “change”?
The video shows kids rereading to figure out what the main idea and key details of the text were. That’s terrific and this teacher did that well. But that isn’t what we mean by close reading alone isn’t what is meant by close reading, and kids who can only do that with a text will not accomplish the standards.
Disclaimer: Publicly critiquing a video lesson is inherently risky. It's possible that the instructional segment is just part of a lesson, and that had the viewer seen the whole thing, the analysis would be quite different. Or, perhaps it is one lesson in a developmental sequence, and in future lessons the teacher would move the reading over to the kids, and would have them dealing with the more analytical and evaluative aspects of close reading as they read additional texts. The point of this critique is not that this is a bad teacher, or even that this is a bad lesson (neither of those conclusions are mine), but that this is not a particularly apt illustration of close reading or close reading preparation.
Monday, November 10, 2014
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: