Showing posts with label complex text. Show all posts
Showing posts with label complex 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, September 6, 2016

Eight Ways to Help Kids to Read Complex Text

Teacher Question:
My district is currently "grappling" with the idea of asking students to read complex text if they are significantly below the grade level. As an example, within one fourth grade class, a teacher identified that more than half her class is 1-2 grade levels below the expectation for reading (using multiple measures). Her response is to change the level of the text, and try to move the students forward. The common theme in our schools is that growth is what matters, not proficiency.

However, our new reading series expects students to perform in more complex texts. Even the "approaching" level books are above what we typically would ask struggling students to read. Could you give some specific examples of how to scaffold, when students are unable to read half the words on a page?  

Shanahan Response:
            First, if students are reading like first-graders—that is, they are struggling with decoding (and the statement that kids can’t read 50% of the words in their book sounds like kids who are more than 1-2 years below level)—then you definitely should be trying to teach them out of easier books, not grade level ones. Indeed, the complex text prescription is not for them. However, if they are that low, you should be doing more than placing them in low demand reading books. You also should be providing them with substantial amounts of phonics and fluency training in class as well (like 30 minutes per day of each), and, perhaps providing them additional training in those outside of class. 

            However, if your fourth-graders really are reading like second- or third graders then teaching them with grade level materials makes sense. It not only means that you would be teaching your students what your state has committed you to teach them, but you would be exposing them to content or ideas more appropriate to their intellectual functioning and interests.

            Second, vary the reading demands on these students who will be working with, what for them, will be challenging text. They should be doing what athletes do, which is varying the degree of difficulty when they train. Some texts should be easier, some harder—with less scaffolding and support with the easier ones, and more with the harder ones. Traditionally, experts have argued that all instructional reading should be at the instructional level; I’m suggesting that it should vary, both up and down for maximum impact. Harder texts give students opportunities to negotiate the features of text that can be barriers to comprehension, while easier texts give them the opportunity to consolidate that learning.

            Third, let the kids in on the secret. Tell them what you are doing. Make sure they know that instead of teaching them out of second grade books or other baby stuff you will be teaching them to read out of a fourth grade book; it will be harder, but also more interesting and more respectful. In my experience, which matches a lot of research on motivation, kids like challenge, especially if you’ll help them to succeed with it. The point isn’t to scare the students, but to let them know what’s going on, why you are doing it, and assuring them that you intend to make them successful. 

            Fourth, if students are far behind, reverse the order that you normally use with guided reading and fluency practice. Most teachers will have kids read a selection for comprehension in the reading group and then have them practice reading that text aloud afterwards. That way, kids can quickly accomplish fluency with a text, since they have already read it once or twice and discussed it with the teacher. However, with kids two or more grade levels behind, it makes sense to reverse things. Give those kids a chance to read the text aloud once or twice before doing the comprehension reading in the group. (This can be done lots of ways: tape recorders, parent volunteers, paired reading, echo reading with the teacher… whatever).  If kids have tried to read through the text once or twice before hand they will be in much better shape for trying to make sense of the harder text. Even though the emphasis of the fluency work would not be on comprehension, they’ll figure out more of the ideas than you might presume and, most importantly in this context, they will have figured out enough of the decoding to have “raised their level” with that text by at least a grade level.

            Fifth, preteach vocabulary that the author does not explain or define. If a word is explained in the text or you think kids can figure it out from context, do not take time to preteach it. But words that you don’t think students will know, tell them ahead of time. With fourth graders it is usually enough to give them a glossary for those words.

            Sixth, when reading the text for comprehension, chunk it into small sections (a paragraph, a page)… Asking questions at the end of each and guiding rereading when kids can’t answer the questions. As they get better with this, stretch them out, by giving them larger chunks.

            Seventh, go through the text and identify particularly complicated sentences (e.g., long sentences, sentences in passive voice, sentences with multiple clauses). During discussion time, ask a question about the ideas expressed in those sentences. If students can’t answer them, then take them back to the sentence in the text and show them how to break it down to make sense of it. It’s amazing that teachers, who are often willing to guide kids in breaking down multi-syllable words, don’t provide similar support with complicated sentences.

            Eighth, pay special attention to cohesion… kids get lost in synonyms, pronouns, etc. Get students to be explicit about who “he” is, or what animal was being referred to as “the mammal.” There are exercises that can be done to strengthen these skills, like drawing connecting lines between those words, but it can be enough to question kids closely about those relations.


            Even more can be done, but those supports are substantial and effective. There is an extensive body of research supporting their effectiveness, both in improving student reading achievement and in transforming frustration level text into instructional text.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Fine Mess: Confusing Close Reading and Text Complexity

We just started close reading in our district last year. Our second graders were given text that was a grade level above their reading level. We were told to let them figure it out. They could not even read the first sentence it was too hard for their reading level. The reading coaches said they will learn to read it by letting them struggle with it. The kids would become so upset and began to hate reading because of they were so frustrated at how the district was making us implement close reading. For it to be of any value should the text not be on their instructional reading level?

            A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers, and says, “Five beers, please.”

            What do these two stories—the one about close reading and the one about Roman numerals—have in common? They turn on knowing what you’re talking about.

            If you don’t know that the Roman numeral for five is a V and that holding up two fingers looks like a V, you won’t get the joke. It won’t be funny.

            And, when district leadership doesn’t understand what close reading is or what it’s connection to complex text might be, the results aren’t funny either.

            One more story and I’ll provide some explanation that might help.

            A curriculum director invited me into her district. “I want you to make two presentations. One has to be on close reading, and do you have a suggestion for a second talk?”

            “Yes, I’d suggest that I talk about complex text.”

            “But that’s the same thing as close reading, isn’t it?”

            I’ve had that exchange several times over the past two years. I think for too many reading leaders, the two concepts—close reading and complex text—are confounded. I think it’s that confusion that’s leading to such bad decision-making.

            Let’s clarify both concepts… and see what that suggests for classroom practice.

            First, close reading. Close reading is an approach to literary interpretation—though it can be applied to at least some informational texts, too. It is an approach proposed for literary critics, and it is one widely taught in American universities. As such, it doesn’t focus on issues like word recognition or decoding, or even on basic reading comprehension, only on high-level interpretations or analyses of text.

            Originally, close reading was a push back against the idea that one had to study an author’s biography, or the historical period that a text came from, or even what the words meant at the time they were authored.

            To read a text closely one must only rely on the words in the text and their relationships to each other. They don’t turn to other sources. Close readers learn to notice metaphors or symbols, interesting juxtapositions of information, ambiguities, and the like (clues authors might have left behind to reveal the text meaning to those who read closely).

            The Common Core State Standards require that we teach students to be close readers—to not only grasp the literal and inferential meanings of a text, but to understand how an author’s word choices and structures convey higher-level meanings; how to figure out the subtler aspects of a text.

            As such, close reading only makes sense is if texts have deeper meanings. If there aren’t deeper meanings requiring such text analysis, then close reading would have no value. That means close reading requires certain kinds of text complexity.

            And what do the standards mean by text complexity? Like close reading, it isn’t explicitly defined in the standards, despite being central to them. A close reading of the standards and their appendices suggests at least two meanings of text complexity.

            One of those meanings is particularly relevant to close reading. We want our children to read high quality literary and informational texts. These texts should have depth. If we only read such texts carefully, but without conducting a close reading, we would likely end up with only a superficial understanding. Thus, in the past, if students read the “Three Bears,” we’d want them to be able to conduct a retelling of the story or to complete a story map with all the key plot details.

            A close reading of the Three Bears, however, might lead us to examine language that is used repeatedly (“someone’s been…), or why Papa and Mama Bears’ belongings are always inappropriate for Goldilocks, or the significance of the special relationship Goldilocks seems to have with Baby Bear’s possessions (she breaks his chair, eats his porridge, and falls asleep in his bed). The Three Bears would be appropriate for close reading because it includes words, structures, and literary devices that one can analyze to figure out what the story means and how it works.

            But I said there is a second definition of text complexity. That second definition has to do with language complexity—how well a reader could make sense of text features like vocabulary or grammar or how ideas are linked across the text. These features have more to do with how well an author’s language choices match up with the readers’ language proficiency. Thus, if the author uses words like ebony, porridge, clearing, latch, and peeped to tell the story, readers might get tripped up just following what was said if they don’t even know what those words mean.

            The first kind of complexity—the literary, symbolic or poetic complexity—is not measurable with Lexiles, Atos, or any of the other schemes for predicting how well readers will do with a text. The second kind, the linguistic complexity, can be measured or predicted by tools like Lexiles. We might say a text is fourth-grade level because texts with language like that are usually understood by fourth-graders; it is a kind of prediction. When you say the text was a grade level beyond your students, that’s what you are talking about.

            Now here is where people get tripped up. The standards require that we teach kids to read complex text closely—which means exposing them to texts that have symbolic or poetic complexity. Those texts could be easy to read (in terms of recognizing the words and knowing what they mean and being able to handle the sentences), but hard to interpret. The standards do encourage kids to struggle, but the struggle that is intended is a struggle to make sense of those more complex ideas and those more subtle aspects of how an author tells something.

            The standards also call for kids to learn to read text that has more sophisticated language. But that requires that we gradually ask kids to read a series of texts that stretches them while providing them with any necessary scaffolding that well help them to figure out what a text says. These supports may take the form of phonics guidance to help them decode particular words, the preteaching of vocabulary, or supports in making sense of the grammar of a sentence.

            Your coaches seem to be mixing these concepts up… So…

  1.       Make sure that close reading is focused on texts with the appropriate kinds of depth. These texts do not need to be “hard to read,” but, indeed, they might be confusing or frustrating to students. Don’t give into that frustration by just telling them your interpretation of the text but definitely engage them in a productive struggle with those big ideas.
  2.       Make sure that kids are getting opportunities to read texts that are at the specified reading levels set by your standards. These texts are likely to be somewhat hard to read—in terms of decoding, vocabulary meaning, grasping what the author is explicitly saying. As such, they might not be the best texts for close reading.
  3.       When you do ask kids to read texts that are hard to read, you need to be prepared to scaffold—to give students supports that will help them to make sense of the text; helping with decoding, preteaching vocabulary, breaking down sentences, connecting pronoun referents, making sense of organization, etc. A productive struggle here means helping kids with the difficult stuff so that they can learn to figure it out on their own.

Close Reading Presentation

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Further Explanation of Teaching Students with Challenging Text

Last week I pointed out that from grades 2-12 it wasn’t necessary to match students to text for instruction to proceed effectively. Research has not been kind to the idea of mechanical “instructional level” criteria like 90-95% accuracy (e.g., Jorgenson, Klein, & Kumar, 1977;  Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, Morris, Morrow, et al., 2006; Morgan, Wilcox, & Eldredge, 2000; O’Connor, Swanson, & Geraghty, 2010;  Powell, & Dunkeld, 1971;  Stahl, & Heubach, 2005;  Stanley, 1986).

            Language learning doesn’t work that way.

            That got lots of response, online and off. Some of it quite angry, too. Although I answered many queries and shout outs, I thought a little more formal response this week might be in order. Here are some key ideas when thinking about teaching kids to read with more complex text than we might have dared to use in the past:
           
1. No, easier text is not more motivating.
            Several respondents thought it only common sense that students would be frustrated by harder texts and stimulated by easier ones. I know that feeling. I shared it much of my career until I analyzed the evidence.
            One thing researchers have found repeatedly is that student readers tend to select books at their frustration levels for independent reading (e.g., Donovan, Smolkin,  & Lomax, 2000). Of course, with really low readers, what else could they choose? But this appears to be the case for the better readers, too. I guess their curiosity about the content of the harder materials outweighs their fear of failure. Looking back, I did a lot of that kind of frustration level reading myself as a boy—not always fully understanding what I read, but learning much from the struggle.
            Researchers thought students would lose motivation when reading harder texts (Fulmer & Tulis, 2013). Reality has been more complicated than that. Readers’ motivation does vary across a text reading—but degree of difficulty doesn’t seem to be the source of that variation.
            And, the idea that we want students to be challenged, but not too much—they can miss some specific number of words, but only that number and no more—just hasn’t panned out. When learning and book placement have been studied there has usually been no connection at all or the harder placements have led to more learning (in other words, our relatively easy book matches may be holding kids back, preventing them from exposure to more challenging features of language and meaning).
            If we are going to make these decisions based on our imaginings of how children must feel, then not only should we think of how frustrating it might be to struggle with a text that contains many words you don’t know, but we should consider how boring it must be to always deal with content aimed at younger kids who already can read as well you can.

2. No, not all texts need to be at an instructional level.
            If one challenges the idea of placing kids in instructional level books to facilitate learning (e.g., guided reading, Accelerated Reader), why is the alternative to only place kids in frustration level texts? The idea that all reading should be at the instructional level is wrong in part because of the inherent notion that all reading experience should be at any particular level. Text difficulty should vary; kids should move across a range of texts from easy to difficult.
            In the teaching of most skilled activities (e.g., foreign language, dancing, bicycle racing), the idea is not to protect the learners from harder applications of those skills, but to vary the routines between relatively easy challenges and those that scare and potentially embarrass the learner. If you have any doubt, go learn to do something.

3. No, text level is not the only feature of the learning situation that can be varied.
            Not only should texts vary in difficulty, but the amount of help, guidance, explanation, and scaffolding ought to vary, too. When kids are placed in frustration level texts they need greater support than when they are reading instructional level or independent level texts—just the opposite of what many of our instructional routines provide.
            I should intentionally place kids in easier or harder text and should add or withdraw support based upon need. When kids are in easy texts, the training wheels can be taken off. When they are in harder texts, as a teacher I need to be prepared to offer greater guidance and support. That means easier texts when reading with 30 kids, and harder texts—certainly beyond the normally prescribed levels—when I’m sitting closely with 6-8 kids and can monitor more closely and intervene more easily.
            If your teaching skills are so limited that the only way to protect kids from failure is to keep them always in the shallow water, then so be it. But for most of us, there is a greater range of pedagogical response available that would allow kids to swim often in deeper water without drowning.

4. No, more challenging text will not disrupt kids’ development of decoding skills.
            I heard from some last week that if you placed kids in more challenging texts then they just guessed at words. That might be true if you were to do this with beginning readers, but grade 2 is not beginning reading. Kids should be placed in relatively easy texts initially (grades K-1), texts that have clearly decodable or consistent spelling patterns.
            Then when they start taking on a greater range of texts—when they can read a second grade text, you will usually not see that kind of guessing based only on context. In any event, whatever patterns of reading behavior are elicited by such challenging text matches at that point, they have not been found to slow kids’ reading development or to disrupt their growth in decoding ability from that point. In fact, O’Connor and her colleagues (2010) have not even found it to be an issue with our most struggling readers—those older learning-disabled students who might still be trying to master many of those beginning reading skills.
            I understand the concerns and discomfort in putting kids in frustration level materials given all the reading authorities that have told you not to do that. But a careful review of that advice reveals a shocking neglect of studies of doing just that. No one, however, is saying just throw kids into hard text and hope they make it. One wouldn’t do that with beginning readers, and when kids are ready for such immersion tactics teachers have to teach—it isn’t like those routines where you hope the text is easy enough for kids to learn with a minimum of teacher help. And, finally, much learning comes from practice under varied levels of complication and difficulty—just because traditionally you were told all reading instruction should be at the instructional level doesn’t mean that when teaching with more complex text that you should aspire to such uniformity.

References 
Donovan, C. A., Smolkin, L. B., & Lomax, R. G. (2000). Beyond the independent-level text: Considering the reader-text match in first graders’ self-selections during recreational reading. Reading Psychology, 21, 309-333.

Fulmer, S. M., & Tulis, M. (2013). Changes in interest and affect during a difficult reading task: Relationships with perceived difficulty and reading fluency. Learning and Instruction, 27, 11-20.

Jorgenson, G. W., Klein, N., & Kumar, V. K. (1977). Achievement and behavioral correlates of matched levels of student ability and materials difficulty. Journal of Educational Research, 71, 100-103.

Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., Morris, R. D., Morrow, L. M., Woo, D. G., Meisinger, E. B., Sevcik, R, A., Bradley, B. A., & Stahl, S. A. (2006). Teaching children to become fluent and automatic readers. Journal of Literacy Research, 38, 357-387.

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

O’Connor, R. E., Swanson, L. H., & Geraghty, C. (2010). Improvement in reading rate under independent and difficult text levels: Influences on word and comprehension skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 1-19.

Powell, W.R., & Dunkeld, C.G. (1971). Validity of the IRI reading levels. Elementary English, 48, 637-642.

Stahl, S. A., & Heubach, K. M. (2005). Fluency-oriented reading instruction. Journal of Literacy Research, 37, 25-60.

Stanley, N.V. (1986). A concurrent validity study of the emergent reading level. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Florida.