Sunday, May 22, 2016
I have just been hired as a reading coach in a school where I have been a third-grade teacher. My principal wants me to raise reading achievement and he says that he’ll follow my lead. I think I’m a good teacher, but what does it take to raise reading achievement in a whole school (K-5) with 24 teachers?
It’s easy J. Just do the following 9 things:
1. Improve leadership.
Literacy leadership matters. You and your principal will need to be a team. The more the two of you know and agree upon the better. Over the next few years, your principal will be hiring and evaluating teachers, making placement and purchasing decisions, and communicating with the community. You need to be in on some of those things and you need to influence all of them. Your principal should tell the faculty that you speak for him on literacy matters and you both need to devote some time to increasing his literacy knowledge so he can understand and support your recommendations. I’d get on his calendar at least a couple of times per week to discuss strategy and debrief on what you are both doing, but also for professional development time for him.
2. Increase the amount of literacy instruction.
How much reading and writing instruction and practice kids get is critical. Take a close look at how much of this kids are getting. Observe, talk to teachers, survey… find out how much teaching is being provided and how much reading the kids do within this teaching. Be on the look out for lost time. Mrs. Smith may schedule two hours of ELA, but she doesn’t start class until 9:12 most mornings due to late bus drop offs, milk money collection, Pledge of Allegiance, morning announcements and so on. And, her class takes a 7-minute bathroom break at about 10 each morning. She isn’t trying to teach for 2 hours, but only 1 hour 41 minutes (and the actual amount of instruction may be even less). That’s a whopping 60 hours less instruction per year than what she schedules! Try to get everyone up to 2-3 hours per day of reading and writing instruction, with a large percentage of that devoted to kids reading and writing within instruction (and, yes, a student reading aloud to the group, only counts as one student reading).
3. Focus instruction on essential curriculum elements.
ELA often is used for wonderful things that don’t make much difference in kids learning. I watched a “phonics lesson” recently in which most of the time was spent on cutting out pictures and pasting them to a page. The amount of sounding and matching letters to sounds could have been accomplished within about 30 seconds of this 20-minute diversion. You definitely can send kids off to read on their own, but not much learning is usually derived from this. Instead, make ia commitment to obtaining substantial instruction in each of the following research-proven components for every child.
(a) Teach students to read and understand the meanings of words and parts of words (decoding and word meaning): Dedicate time to teaching students phonological awareness (K-1, and strugglers low in those skills); phonics or decoding (K-2, or again the strugglers); sight vocabulary (high frequency words, K-2); spelling (usually linked to the decoding or word meanings); word meanings; and morphology (meaningful parts of words).
(b) Teach students to read text aloud with fluency so that it sounds like language (accuracy—reading the author’s words as written; appropriate speed—about the speed one talks normally; and proper prosody or expression—pausing appropriately, etc.).
(c) Teach students to read with understanding and the ability to learn from text. With beginning readers this, like fluency practice, needs to be oral reading. However, by the end of Grade 1 and from then on, most reading for comprehension should be silent reading. Such instruction should teach students about text (like how it is organized, how author’s put themes in stories, or how history books differ from science books), about the kinds of information that is important (like main ideas or inferences), and ways to think about texts that will increase understanding (like summarizing along the way, or how to ask oneself questions about a text).
(d). Teach students to write effectively. This would include training students in various means of getting their ideas onto paper—printing, handwriting, and keyboarding, but it also teaching them to write for various purposes (narration, exposition, argument), to negotiate the writing process effectively (planning, drafting, revising, editing), to write for a range of audiences, and to write powerful pieces (with interesting introductions, strong organizations, sufficient amounts of accurate information, etc.).
All four of those are detailed in your state standards, no matter where you live, but make sure that kids get lots of teaching in each. (I’d strive for roughly 25% of the instructional time into each of those baskets—that comes out to approximately 90-135 hours per year of instruction in each of those 4 things).
4. Provide focused professional development.
I suspect this will be where much of your time is focused; making sure your teachers know how to teach those four essentials well. This might take the form of professional development workshops on particular topics, organizing teacher reading groups to pursue particular instructional issues, observing teachers and giving them feedback on their lessons, co-planning lessons with one or more teachers, providing demonstration lessons, and so on. You need to make sure that every one of your teachers knows what needs to be taught and how to teach it well.
5. Make sure sound instructional programs are in place.
It is possible to teach reading effectively without a commercial program, but there are serious drawbacks to that approach. First, there’s the fairness issue. Programs that are shared by school staff will not make all teachers equal in their ability to teach reading, but they sure can reduce the amount of difference that exists (especially when there is adequate supervision and professional development—see numbers 1 and 4 above). Second, programs can ensure that kids get instruction in key areas of reading, even when teachers aren’t comfortable providing such teaching. Basically, we want to ensure that every teacher has an adequate set of lessons for productive instruction in those four key components for sufficient amounts of time. If your teachers are skilled enough to improve upon the lessons in the shared core program, then by all means support these improvements and make sure they’re shared widely.
6. Align assessments.
It can be helpful to monitor kids learning, at least in basic skills areas that are amenable to easy assessment. It is reasonable, depending on the tests and the skills, to evaluate decoding skills or fluency ability formally 2-4 times per year. Of course, teachers can collect such information within instruction much more often than that. For instance, if a teacher is going to teach fluency for several minutes per day, why not take notes on how well individuals do with this practice and keep track of that over weeks. In any event, if we recognize that some students are not making adequate progress in these basic skills, then increasing the amount of teaching they get within class or beyond class can be sensible. The amount of testing needs to be kept to an absolute minimum, so this time can be used to improve reading.
7. Target needs of special populations.
Often there are particular groups of kids who struggle more than others within your ELA program. Two obvious groups are second-language learners (who may struggle with academics because they are still learning English) or kids with disabilities (who struggle to learn written language). Making sure that they get extra assistance within class when possible, and beyond class (through special classes, afterschool and summer programs, etc.) would make great sense. If you are making sure that everyone in the school benefits from 2 hours per day of real reading and writing instruction, then why not try to build programs that would ensure that these strugglers and stragglers get even more? I know one coach who runs an afterschool fluency program, for instance.
8. Get parent support and help.
Research says parents can help and that they often do. I suggest trying to enlist their help from the beginning. Many coaches do hold parent workshops about how to read to their kids, how to listen effectively to their children’s reading, how to help with homework, etc. Lots of times teachers tell me that those workshops are great, but that the parents they most wish would attend don’t show up. Don’t be discouraged. Sometimes those parents don’t get the notices (perhaps you could call them), or they work odd schedules (sometimes meetings during the school day are best for them—perhaps close to the time they have to pick their kids up from school), or they need babysitting support or translation (those one can be worked out, too).
9. Motivate everybody.
Just like leadership (#1 above) is necessary to get any of these points accomplished, so is motivation. You have to be the number one cheerleader for every teacher’s reading instruction, for every parent’s involvement, and for every student’s learning gains. Information about what your school is up to has to be communicated to the community so that everyone can take part. Some coaches hold reading parades in their neighborhoods, others have regular reading nights where kids in pajamas come to school with mom and dad to participate in reading activities, there are young author events, lunchtime book clubs, and million minute reading challenges, etc. You know, whatever takes to keep everyone’s head in the game.
Like I said, raising reading achievement is easy. You just have to know everything, get along with everybody, work like a horse, and keep smiling.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
What is the biggest educational change promoted by the Common Core?
There are so many choices: kids will be reading more challenging texts; close reading will revolutionize the reading lessons; high school English, science, and social studies teachers will teach disciplinary literacy; there will be greater attention to argument, multiple text, informational text, and writing from sources, and so on?
So which is the biggest change? Perhaps one that you haven’t even thought of…
Past standards were long lists of skills, knowledge, and strategies; lists so endless that they were less standards than curriculum guides. Until CCSS, the typical standards looked like a scope and sequence chart rather than a list of outcomes.
In fact, the lists were so long that most of the young people who have become teachers since 1991 have no idea what the difference is between standards and curricula. When you have such complete lists of outcomes, you end up with an extensive list of lessons rather than learning goals.
Standards are goals; they are the outcomes that we want our children to accomplish. Standards tell you what the point is, but they really don’t tell you what needs to be taught.
Example: the standards require that students be able to write/compose high quality narratives, expositions, and arguments. However, the standards do not expressly require schools to teach students to use manuscript hand, cursive writing, or keyboarding.
That has some critics in a tizzy, but it is as it should be. The standard tells you the outcome that must be accomplished, but not everything that a student may need to learn to reach the goal is specified. That's where the teacher comes in… what do we need to teach to accomplish these standards? That is up to us.
Just try to teach kids to compose without making it possible for them to express their ideas in printed, written, or typed words… that wouldn’t make any sense, and I assume most schools and publishers will eventually figure out the reason for this "omission" and kids will still be taught to put their words on paper (even though CCSS doesn’t even mention it).
The same can be said about teaching students to comprehend text. The standards don't require you to teach comprehension strategies, but research suggests that if you do you will be more likely to get the students to the standard.
The standards say teach students to summarize… but they don’t specify all of the possible subskills, pre-skills, or types of texts that students should be able to summarize. Try teaching summarization by just having students practice summarizing and you won’t be likely succeed.
So the big change? The CCSS takes us back to a time when the educational goals were separated from the curriculum, which puts teachers back in charge of the curriculum.
Now if we could just get teachers to see tests as something separate from goals and curriculum.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
My district has decided not to purchase a core reading program since we are now teaching Common Core. Does CCSS really prohibit the use of commercial instructional materials?
No, CCSS neither requires the use of commercial programs nor does it prohibit such use. That is strictly a local decision.
So should we use a program?
I’ve long argued that teachers need programs. The development of extensive lesson plans and tracking down appropriate materials each day is overwhelming for most teachers, and it introduces great variability into classroom instruction. One of the things I learned as director of reading in Chicago was that having everybody teaching something different makes it well nigh impossible for any kind of systemic improvement. I don’t believe that programs are necessarily better than the lessons good teachers create, but I do believe that all instruction is limited and it is essential for school systems to improve widely rather than a teacher at a time
But if it is okay for us to develop our lessons then why shouldn’t we?
Again, research certainly does not show that commercial programs generally do any better than teacher made lessons. Nor does it reveal such programs to be inferior to teacher lessons. I would rather have teachers adjusting shared lessons and then using the saved time to focus on the learning needs of the children. No one can teach all day, design lessons as extensive as those in typical commercial programs, and focus on children’s needs and problems. Of course, programs can have problems, but in a good system these problems will be identified over time and the schools can respond system wide rather than individually.
Our district is making model lessons and we are supposed to then come up with our own lessons based on the models?
Many states, school systems, unions, and publishers are designing such lessons. This approach suggests that it is possible to formulate worthwhile lessons that can be used on scale. In other words, these groups are using their money and teacher sweat equity to create lessons to be used by others. That’s the same thing that publishers do.
You seem to think developing such lessons is a waste of time?
I generally do think such efforts tend to be expensive and expect too much of teachers. And, yet, I have worked on many of these CCSS lesson design efforts around the country, and engaging students in such lesson development can be great professional development. (And research bears this out; designing and redesigning lessons with feedback—that’s usually my role—can teach a teacher a lot). It is once those very expensive prototypes have been developed and the process is turned over to teachers to do that day in and day out on their own that I get skeptical. That’s the benefit of commercial programs; they give teachers a base to work from and it locates the materials for the lessons, etc.
What is the biggest problem that you are seeing in these kinds of lessons?
One of the big problems that I have seen is the designs that try to break the standards down into parts. Thus, if a standard asks for kids to do two or three things in combination, they reduce this to doing each of those things separately—which is not the same thing. Teachers tell me that it is easier to understand and teach the parts, which I don’t doubt at all; but doing it that way tends to miss out on what the standard actually means. It is harder to carry out three actions in concert while reading a challenging text; that’s the point. You can simplify it, of course, but then you aren’t actually teaching the same standard.
My state has done that for us.
It doesn’t really matter who makes the mistake, it is still a mistake if your goal was higher achievement.
You said you have seen lots of groups developing units and lesson prototypes. Are any of them better than the others?
Not in terms of who is developing these. I see both good and bad examples across the board.
It sounds like you believe teachers should be using commercial programs. But we are seeing lots of materials with Common Core stickers that don’t look very Common Core.
Me, too. This is a case of “buyer beware.” It is more efficient to use commercial programs and it is fairer for kids since it equalizes the playing field a bit (“my teacher couldn’t/didn’t find as good a story as the teacher next door”). But just because it is commercial it will not necessarily be any good. It is clearly up to the teachers to determine quality of the overall program and then to monitor the program for weak spots during use (which is easier than everyone spending hours designing all lessons themselves). Take a good careful look at the materials that foks are trying to sell you and be critical; if you think they have just relabeled their old lessons to make them look Common Core-ish, then ask them to show you both the program they are selling you and the previous edition of the program. That will uncover some of the chicanery that sometimes takes place.
Aren’t textbooks for lazy teachers?
No, they are not, and I think that can even be a dangerous claim. I’ve seen teachers over the years (including myself early on) defining quality in terms of whether the teacher uses a textbook or not. Not using a textbook won’t make you a good teacher by definition. You can be a good teacher with our without a textbook program, which means good teachers have to plan instruction even when they have a textbook. That is more efficient and it will give kids a fairer shot at success, but it won’t guarantee quality; only teachers and principals can do that.
Also, here is the link to my recent presentation, the Common Core Ate My Baby. https://sites.google.com/site/tscommoncore/common-core-ate-my-baby