Showing posts with label foundational skills. Show all posts
Showing posts with label foundational skills. Show all posts

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why An Overemphasis on Foundational Reading Skills Makes Kids Sick

Principal’s question:

District leadership has advised primary teachers to focus on the Foundational Skills Strand, and de-emphasize the other strands. The belief is that if students go into Grade 3 having mastered foundational skills, they will be prepared to master the rigor of the other strands.

As the principal, the message I'm considering sending is to teach all strands, closely monitoring foundational skills with DIBELS, immediately addressing gaps. Students who are meeting foundational skills standards may spend more time in other strands while those struggling get focused support in assessed areas of foundational skills difficulty. Does that sound reasonable?

I'm concerned that de-emphasizing the other strands will make it hard for students to catch up in third grade, and many students may lose interest if not exposed to a variety of thought-provoking work. On the other hand, I understand the immense importance of systematic, explicit instruction in the foundational skills- and know they must be a focus in early years.

All that said, can you give a guideline as to the percent of the E/LA time that should be spent on foundational skills for the "typical" primary student? Our district adopted Benchmark Advance, which looks to me as though it does NOT emphasize the foundational skills. I would like to give teachers a time guideline for initial whole-group instruction in foundational skills so we know how much we may need to supplement with other curriculum.

Shanahan’s response:

     Imagine if district leadership advised the cafeteria crew to focus on calcium only, and to de-emphasize the other nutrients? Their belief might be that if students reached the age of 8 without strong teeth and bones, they would not be prepared for the later rigors of eating grains, meats, and vegetables.

     You’d be writing to me to find out if it’s okay to serve cereals with the morning milk and green beans at lunch. And, let's face it, these kid's autopsies would likely reveal strong teeth and bones.

     Sadly, this analogy is apt.

     Of course, one can put all the primary grade focus on some skills to try to advance progress in those skills, just as one could put all the emphasis on some nutrients to promote some health needs over others. Doing so won't accomplish the real goal, but it might fool some observers into thinking it has been reached.

     Here are some facts worth knowing:

1.  In the 1960s, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) began a rigorous analysis of beginning reading in an effort to identify how effectively to avoid or to address learning problems. This coordinated effort is generally credited with much of the progress that has been made in understanding the role that skills like phonological awareness play in reading and the value of explicit phonics instruction. One important finding of that effort: addressing only students’ phonological/orthographic needs during the primary grade years leaves those students vulnerable to continued reading disability (due to a lack attention to their language development). There either are usually undiagnosed language deficits early on, that become more evident later, or the inattention to non-foundational skills limits their growth during these years. I don’t think anyone can read that body of research without concluding both that kids need substantial attention to foundational skills early on, AND that solely focusing on such skills would be harmful.

2.  The National Reading Panel was pressed into service to review research on what works in reading at the request of the U.S. Congress, under the auspices of NICHD and the U.S. Department of Education. Unlike many of the critics at the time, panel members, who were unpaid volunteers, were not allowed to have any potential conflicting commercial interests. That panel reviewed 51 studies of the teaching of phonemic awareness, 38 studies of phonics, and 32 studies of oral reading fluency. The panel concluded that students would benefit from explicit, systematic instruction in each of those foundational skills during the primary grades. However, it should be noted that in no case within those studies did anyone consider those skills as separable from the rest of reading. For example, when studying phonics, the students in the control groups and the phonics groups were receiving instruction in vocabulary, comprehension, writing and the like. The only difference was that the experimental group would be getting phonics or some more ambitious version of phonics. Thus, the panel’s conclusion that these skills need to be taught was determined in the context of these skills being taught along with other reading skills. Such a heavy focus on any of these skills to the omission of the others likely would have led to very different conclusions.

3.  Over my career, I have worked with some of the biggest proponents of foundational skills teaching: Patricia Cunninghma, Linnea Ehri, Jack Fletcher, Barbara Foorman, David Francis, Douglas Fuchs, Lynn Fuchs, Christopher Lonigan, Louisa Moats, Michael Pressley, Christopher Schatschneider, Sally Shaywitz, Steve Stahl, Keith Stanovich, Joseph Torgesen, Sharon Vaughn, etc. These brilliant men and women disagree—with me and with each other--on many issues, but they seem to all be in agreement that the foundational skills are NECESSARY for learning to read (so you'd better make sure kids are instructed in them), BUT THAT THEY ALONE ARE NOT SUFFICIENT for learning to read (so you'd better do more for kids' reading than teach them foundational skills).

      I have long been an advocate for providing children with 120-180 minutes per day of literacy instruction. I divide that time roughly in quarters: 25% devoted to words and word parts (e.g., letters, sounds, decoding, PA); 25% to oral reading fluency; 25% to reading comprehension; and 25% to writing. That means that primary grade kids would receive about 60 to 90 minutes per day of foundational skills instruction (combining the word work with the fluency work).

     There are variants on this scheme. For example, Joe Torgesen touched it up by advocating 2 hours of daily literacy instruction, with up to a third hour dedicated to remediation in those foundational skills. Thus, your idea of giving some kids more foundational work beyond the amount that everyone receives in class makes great sense and can easily be accommodated in this plan. However, ignoring essential skills that can't easily be tested to focus on ones that can be, won't help kids much.

      I sympathize with your administrators. They want a quick fix. Sadly, the positive third-grade reading data that they are imagining would at best be briefly hiding their failure. Sort of like painting over the rot in a wooden porch; the paint will make it look nice, but it won't keep the steps from soon collapsing. In addressing a problem, you must recognize what is necessary, as well as what is insufficient.

     Pass the green beans, please!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Of Carts and Horses: Where Fluency Teaching Fits in the Learning to Read

Our preK-5 school has a number of struggling readers, and we were told yesterday that we should focus only on fluency and accuracy, not comprehension or vocabulary. We were also told that we really shouldn't be using our grade level reading materials or complex texts in the classroom until students are fluent and accurate. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what we do when we have large numbers of struggling readers.

I get lots of questions about the sequence of instruction. In this case the issue is fluency versus comprehension; more often it is about phonics, both about the sequence of phonics elements, or like this question, whether decoding proficiency is prerequisite to any other literacy teaching?  

Let’s face it… in life there are times when sequence… definitely put your car in gear before you step on the gas, and my grandchildren love knowing that you have to put your socks on before your shoes if you want things to work out right.

But there are also lots of times when order doesn’t really matter (unless you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but that’s another topic altogether).

For example, when you’re eating your dinner, no one is likely to care much whether you take a bite of potatoes first or a bite of the green beans. It usually doesn’t matter whether you read the sports section first or the news. And, who cares whether you put on your right or left earring first? It makes no difference so such orderings are left to one’s discretion, comfort, or habit.

So what’s the right answer concerning whether teachers should focus only on “fluency and accuracy” before comprehension and vocabulary?

I think whoever is telling teachers that they need to accomplish oral reading fluency before comprehension is wrong. This notion shows a weak understanding of the oral reading fluency concept and what it contributes to literacy learning.

Fluency is not a single skill as much as an amalgamation of skills. It has three dimensions, not two (it is more than just accuracy and speed, but also includes making the oral reading sound meaningful—expression or prosody). Students both develop decoding and comprehension skills through fluency practice, but they also learn to incorporate those skills within their oral reading (how would one know what to do with the homographs—like minute, digest, resent if comprehension isn’t part of it?).

Of course, if contextual information isn’t entering the system, then students’ fluency development will lag. If it is lagging in the first place (which sounds like the case here), then extra fluency practice is sensible… but if decoding and comprehension instruction is being delayed until fluency is developed, then where do they get the skills and knowledge that is part of what makes fluency go?

If the question had been about whether one should wait to work on fluency and comprehension until decoding was accomplished up to some criterion, I would be giving a similar answer. Decoding is central to beginning reading instruction and I don’t believe that we should stint on it. However, that doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t, alongside, be emphasizing comprehension (initially listening, eventually reading), oral reading fluency, and vocabulary, too.

And, no, there is no particular sequence of phonics that needs to be taught—though a planful sequence is important (it just doesn’t matter whether you teach a “d” first or an “m”). Similarly, though the line of development in fluency tends to go from accuracy to speed to prosody, you still should emphasize all of them throughout (that, "read this as fast as you can" is foolishness).

I suspect some of the confusion over this comes from a misunderstanding of how the research is done on these literacy components. People get it in their heads that the phonics studies must have only taught phonics. That tends not to be the way these studies are done. In fact, the most typical experimental design has been that the experimental and control subjects both get a fairly comprehensive instructional program, but the experimental group gets an enhanced, special, super-duper version of whatever the component of interest may be (e.g., vocabulary, phonics, fluency, comprehension strategies). That often means that both groups receive some phonics or some fluency work depending on the individual teachers, but that the experimental ones would be more likely to teach these skills more thoroughly or extensively.

We may be thinking that this is the design:
      Experimental Group                                 Control Group                                                 
         Fluency Instruction                                     No Fluency Instruction

But it is more likely to like this:
 Experimental Group                                         Control Group
   Daily XYZ Reading Program Instruction          Daily XYZ Reading Program Instruction
         +Fluency Instruction                                       + Nothing

And what that means is that it wasn’t the additional fluency or phonics that was raising reading achievement, but that additional instruction was effective when added to an ongoing comprehensive program of teaching. 

One of the things that may be making fluency instruction work is that kids are daily learning about letters, sounds, and spelling patterns—and without that information, the fluency teaching on its own might not help as much. Similarly, the work being done to build students’ knowledge of language, content, and comprehension may also be contributing to children’s fluency growth.

As proposed here, cutting kids off from such simultaneous opportunities to learn may both slow their progress in developing fluency and may make fluency more of a parlor trick than a dynamic part of the reading process involving the coordination of high speed decoding with the context of language and ideas.                  

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Some Updates

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

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

Here are my recent powerpoints as promised: Recent Powerpoints