Anyone who has taught reading—or really any course that requires a textbook—knows about kids who struggle to make sense of the text. Often they don’t even try. The text just looks hard and they’re ready to run.
Sunday, April 3, 2016
We’ve been talking a lot about complex text since the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) burst on the scene. But most of that talk has focused on how to find texts that meet the complexity requirements of CCSS. Or how to ask questions that probe that complexity.
I’d suggest thinking about complex text the same way that your students do. “It is just a big formidable SOB of a mountain and I might not be able to get to the top—so it isn’t even worth giving it a try. I didn’t want to learn about science anyway, or this darn story about talking animals. All that I know is that it makes no sense and I’m going to just look stupid if I try.”
Of course, our own feelings as teachers complement the kids’ anxiety darn well. “I want this lesson to move along. I want to make sure that everyone understands what the Louisiana Purchase was, how Nick felt about Daisy, or how even Templeton contributed to what the animals were trying to do.”
Accordingly, teachers, both good and bad, have come up with a set of routines for dealing with those challenging text situations. Routines well honed for disguising the fact that the kids can’t climb that mountain. It’s a vicious co-dependency. We don’t want the fluidity of the lesson to be interrupted, we want our kids to walk away with the required info, and we want to do it on a tight timeline. And no one should have to work too hard or be embarrassed by the failure; a tacit agreement not to teach as long as the kids don’t make us look bad. (And from their view: we agree not to make them look bad, by bothering them with our darn teaching).
Not good for anyone.
What routines have we developed that we need to avoid?
1. If a text is challenging, find an easier one.
I’ve written about this before, but it’s probably enough to say that, beyond beginning reading levels, there is no evidence that kids have to be taught with a particular level of text.
Imagine trying to climb a mountain, and the teacher says, “That’s all well and good. I’ve got a hill over here for you to climb.” That doesn’t satisfy. In fact, it just makes sure that the kids don’t get to take on texts that are at their intellectual or developmental levels.
What if we changed it up? If a mountain is high, we simply help them to climb. With appropriate supports and scaffolds, it can be done. The next time you think about moving kids to an easier text, think about what you could do to get them up the real mountain rather than the instead one.
2. If a text is challenging, read it to them.
I’m a big fan of reading to kids. I never taught a day of elementary school in which I didn’t read to them, and I read to my daughters until they were in 7th and 8th grades.
However, there are books that are perfect for reading to kids, and there are books that they are supposed to read. If there is a social studies textbook, the kids are supposed to read that. If there is a core reading series, that’s on the kids too. Reading it to them, or doing the round robin thing—having other kids read it to them—will not get them up the mountain either.
Oh, they’ll know more about the mountain if you read about it to them, but they won’t actually know because they won’t be able to get there.
If you want to transfer information to the kids, then read it to them. If you want to teach them to get information independently, then teach them to read it.
3. If a text is challenging, tell them what it says.
This is very popular in the upper grade content classes. Teachers often tell me that they can explain the concepts more clearly than the textbook can. And, man are some of them good at ‘splainin’ and powerpointin’. But ultimately this suffers the same problem as reading the challenging texts to the kids. It just tells them what’s on the mountain without allowing them or enabling them to summit for themselves.
Telling someone what a text says is just a good way to make the text not matter. Why read the text if you already know what it says? (Teachers who do this often tell me that the kids are “allowed” to read the texts. My response: “Good luck.”)
4. If a text is challenging, ignore the problem.
I see this one, too, though not as much as I used to: Teachers who assign a text and ask questions, calling on the hand-raisers, and moving on. They don’t usually manage to get anyone to the top of the mountain who wouldn’t have gotten there anyway and they leave a lot of kids at base camp—with neither any idea of how to rise or even sense that anyone cares that they get there.
If you want kids to learn to read complex texts, you are going to have to let them try to read complex texts. Without reading those texts to them. Without telling them what they say. But, you do have to provide them with guidance, support, scaffolding, explanations, and any other help that will allow them purchase on the techniques that will allow them to make progress up the mountain.
Let’s swear off our avoidance techniques. Let’s break the co-dependency. And let’s teach kids to read demanding text. It’s time.
Labels: complex text
Sunday, March 20, 2016
I’m confused. Our standards say that we have to teach kids to read at 820 Lexiles, but my third-graders aren’t even close to that. They are instructional at Level N on the Fountas & Pinnell gradient that my school uses. This makes no sense. How can I get my kids to such a high level in the time that we have?
I receive few letters on this, but when visiting schools this confusion is often apparent. Teachers either ignore the level specifications of the standards or assume that teaching kids at "level N", as they have been doing, must be the best way to reach the standards levels. As one young teacher said to me, “The standards can’t mean that we are supposed to teach with harder books. These are hard enough.”
But the standards actually do mean that teachers need to teach students to read harder texts than in the past. Just teaching level N books well won’t be sufficient. Kids’ reading is now being tested on texts at those higher levels--that’s part of the reason why reading scores dropped so much this year. If kids spend all their time reading easy texts, don’t be surprised if they struggle when immersed in more complicated language and ideas.
Reading harder texts is a boon for kids who in the past would have been limited to Level N. Most 8-year-olds who are not permitted to venture beyond Level N are missing out on age-appropriate content and intellectual demands. However, it is not enough to just throw kids in harder text. The theory of instructional level teaching is that kids will largely figure out how to read better on their own, simply by practicing reading with texts that are pretty easy for them (think about it: instructional level means kids could read such a text once--without any teacher assistance--and comprehend it with 75-89% comprehension). The theory of teaching with harder texts, on the other hand, depends more on teaching; kids will need support to learn from more complex texts.
1. Have kids read a lot within instruction. Students should be reading and writing during reading lessons—and during social studies, science, math, and health lessons, too. Too often the reading lesson time is just talked away, but kids need to read when there is a teacher there to monitor and support their reading. Perhaps set an arbitrary target: kids will read 50% of the time during reading lessons; or they will read at least 4 pages of mathematics or 8 pages of science per week. Lots of reading of lots of texts; every day; every week; every year.
2. There is no instructional level. Despite claims by authorities in reading and special education, no procedure for matching texts to kids has been found to reliably provide any learning advantage. Kids can learn from harder books than we have taught with in the past—but that means more scaffolding. Don’t limit kids’ reading to texts at their “instructional levels” (~95-98% accuracy in fluency; 75-89% comprehension), or to any of the new levels now being advanced (90-95% accuracy).
3. Vary the difficulty levels. Past claims about the instructional level made it sound like you would harm kids if you taught them in books that were “too easy” or “too hard” and so the notion was that all the productive reading work would be done at the instructional level. I suspect that learning to negotiate the complexities of text is probably more like learning to run faster or to swim farther. Athletes don’t do all of their training at one level of difficulty or intensity. They vary routines to build strength and stamina, and I think we should do the same with reading. The texts we use to teach reading should vary in difficulty and length—with kids reading some hard texts, followed by easier ones, followed by even more difficult ones. Text difficulty levels should go up and down, but the average difficulty over time should climb. And don’t be afraid to go beyond the level that your grade level is supposed to reach: if third-graders are supposed to learn to read 820 Lexiles, 820 is not the highest level text we should introduce.
4. Be prepared to give more help when more help is needed. I’ve criticized our programs before for providing the greatest help when kids are asked to read easy texts and the least support when they take on the hardest ones. If I’m weightlifting with light weights, I don’t worry much about having a spotter. But if I ‘m trying to push myself to the limit with heavier weights or a greater number of reps than I’m used to, I want assistance. So why do kids work in small groups with a teacher when reading relatively easy texts and we save our harder texts (like the science book) for whole class instruction?
5. Try to anticipate why a text will trip kids up and then question them watchfully. What do I mean by watchfully? Question them in ways that will reveal whether they figured out what you thought was complex. I know you already ask questions about the overall meaning of the story or article, but I’m suggesting even closer questioning than that. For instance, if you think a sentence is complicated, ask a question that depends on making sense of that sentence. If you are concerned that kids will miss a confusing cohesive link or an implied causal connection or a subtle sarcastic tone, then probe those things. If they are tripped up, then take them back to the text to figure out how it works.
6. Require rereading. The more challenging a text is, the more it has to be reread. Reading it once (or twice) to figure it out, and then reading it again without so much support can really improve one’s reading ability. Yes, it takes extra time, but time that pays learning dividends. Such rereading does not need to be done immediately. It is okay to go back to a selection that one read last week or last month (though the longer the interval, the greater amount of teacher support that will likely be required on a reread).
You are, indeed, supposed to teach kids in harder texts than you have been teaching them. Keep these six guidelines in mind and you'll do a better job of that.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
A question has come up that I don't know how to address and I would love your input. For years, we have used the Hasbrook/Tindal fluency norms as one of the ways we measure our student's reading progress. For example, the 4th grade midyear 50th percentile is 112 CWPM. The fourth grade team has chosen a mid-year running record passage and is finding that many of students have gone down instead of up in their CWPM. One teacher said that is because the common-core aligned texts are more challenging and that the passage is really the equivalent of what used to be considered a 5th grade passage. She said that the norms were done using text that is easier than what the students are now expected to read. I know that the texts are more complex and challenging and therefore more difficult for the students to read, and that this particular text may not be a good choice to use for an assessment, But it does raise the larger question--are these fluency norms still applicable?
This is a great question, and one that I must admit I hadn’t thought about before you raised it. If average fourth-graders read texts at about 112 words correct per minute by mid-fourth-grade, one would think that their accuracy and/or speed would be affected if they were then asked to read texts that in the past would have been in the fifth-grade curriculum.
However, while that assumption seems to make sense, it would depend on how those norms were originally established. Were kids asked to read texts characteristic of their grade levels at particular times of the year or was the text agenda wider than that? If the latter, then the complex text changes we are going through would not necessarily matter very much.
So what’s the answer to your question? I contacted Jan Hasbrouck, the grand lady herself, and put your question to her. Here is her response:
I guess the most honest answer is "who knows?" I hope that we may actually have an answer to that question by this spring or summer because Jerry Tindal and I are in the process of collecting ORF data to create a new set of norms, which should reflect more current classroom practice.
My prediction is that the new ORF norms won't change much from our 2006 norms (or our 1992 norms). My prediction is based on the fact that ORF is, outside of expected measurement error (which Christ & Coolong-Chaffin, 2007 suggest is in the range of 5 wcpm for grades 1 and 2 and 9 wcpm in grades 3-8+), fairly stable. You can see evidence of this on our 2006 norms when looking at the spring 50th %iles for grades 6 (150), grade 7 (150), and grade 8 (151). When you think that these three scores represent approximately 30,000 students reading a variety of grade level passages that pretty darn stable. Other studies of older readers (high school; college) also find that 150 wcpm is a common "average.”
Of course this stability assumes that the ORF scores were obtained correctly, using the required standardized procedures, which unfortunately is too often not the case. Standardized ORF procedures require that students read aloud for 60 seconds from unpracticed samples of grade level passages, and the performance is scored using the standardized procedures for counting errors. In my experience most educators are doing these required steps correctly. However, I see widespread errors being made in another step in the required ORF protocol: Students must try to do their best reading (NOT their fastest reading)! In other words, in an ORF assessment the student should be attempting to read the text in a manner that mirrors normal, spoken speech (Stahl & Kuhn, 2002) and with attention to the meaning of the text.
What I witness in schools (and hear about from teachers, specialists, and administrators in the field) is that students are being allowed and even encouraged to read as fast as they can during ORF assessments, completely invalidating the assessment. The current (2006) Hasbrouck & Tindal norms were collected before the widespread and misguided push to ever faster reading. It remains to be seen if students are in fact reading faster. Other data, including NAEP data, suggests that U.S. students are not reading "better."
And yes, of course the number of words read correctly per minute (wcpm) would be affected if students were asked to read text that is very easy for them or very difficult, but again, ORF is a standardized measure that can serve as an indicator of reading proficiency.
Given Jan's response, I assume the norms won’t change much. The reason for this is that they don’t have tight control of the data collection—reading procedures and texts varying across sites (not surprising with data on 250,000 readers). That means that the current norms do not necessarily reflect the reading of a single level of difficulty, and I suspect that the future norms determinations won’t have such tight control either.
The norms are averages and they still will be; that suggests using them as rough estimates rather than exact statistics (a point worth remembering when trying to determine if students are sufficiently fluent readers).
Last point: your fourth-grade teachers are correct that the texts they are testing with may not be of equivalent difficulty, which makes it difficult to determine whether or not there are real gains (or losses) being made. We've known for a long time that text difficulty varies a great deal from passage to passage. Just because you take a selection from the middle of a fourth-grade textbook, doesn't mean that passage is a good representation of appropriate text difficulty. That is true even if you know the Lexile rating of the overall chapter or article that you have drawn from (since difficulty varies across text). The only ways to be sure would be to do what Hasbrouck and Tindal did--use a lot of texts and assume the average is correct; or measure the difficulty of each passage used for assessment. The use of longer texts (having kids read for 2-3 minutes instead of 1) can improve your accuracy, too.
How to Improve Reading Achievement Powerpoint
How to Improve Reading Achievement Powerpoint
Sunday, January 10, 2016
Recently, I was asked to make some presentations. I suggested a session on close reading and another on teaching with complex text. The person who invited me said, “But that’s just one subject… the close reading of complex text. What else will you talk about?”
Her response puzzled me, but since then I’ve been noting that many people are confounding those two subjects. They really are two separate and separable constructs. That means that many efforts to implement the so-called Common Core standards may be missing an important beat.
Close reading refers to an approach to text interpretation that focuses heavily not just on what a text says, but on how it communicates that message. The sophisticated close reader carefully sifts what an author explicitly expresses and implies, but he/she also digs below the surface, considering rhetorical features, literary devices, layers of meaning, graphic elements, symbolism, structural elements, cultural references, and allusions to grasp the meaning of a text. Close readers take text as a unity—reflecting on how these elements magnify or extend the meaning.
Complex text includes those “rhetorical features, literary devices, layers of meaning, graphic elements, symbolism, structural elements, cultural references, and allusions.” (Text that is particularly literal or straightforward is usually not a great candidate for close reading). But there is more to text complexity than that—especially for developing readers.
Text complexity also includes all the other linguistic elements that might make one text more difficult than another. That includes the sophistication of the author’s diction (vocabulary), sentence complexity (syntax or grammar), cohesion, text organization, and tone.
A close reader might be interested in the implications of an author’s grammar choices. For example, interpretations of Faulkner often suggest that his use of extended sentences with lots of explicit subordination and interconnection reveals a world that is nearly full determined… in other words the characters (like the readers) do not necessarily get to make free choices.
And, while that might be an interesting interpretation of how an author’s style helps convey his meaning (prime close reading territory), there is another more basic issue inherent in Faulkner’s sentence construction. The issue of reading comprehension. Readers have to determine what in the heck Faulkner is saying or implying in his sentences. Grasping the meaning of a sentence that goes on for more than a page requires a feat of linguistic analysis and memory that has nothing to do with close reading. It is a text complexity issue. Of course, if you are a fourth-grader, you don’t need a page-long sentence to feel challenged by an author’s grammar.
Text complexity refers to both the sophisticated content and the linguistic complexity of texts. A book like, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a good example of sophisticated content, but with little linguistic complexity. It is a good candidate for a close reading lesson, but it won’t serve to extend most kids’ language. While a book like “Turn of the Screw” could be a good candidate for close reading, but only if a teacher is willing to teach students to negotiate its linguistic challenges.