Showing posts with label phonological awareness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label phonological awareness. Show all posts

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Why Letter of the Week May Not Be Such a Good Idea

Teacher question:
Our district is trying to determine the proper pacing for introducing letter names/sounds in kindergarten. One letter per week seems too slow; 2 seems a bit fast. Most teachers are frustrated by 2 per week.

We are thinking about going with 1 for the first 9 weeks, then doubling up. This would have all letter names/sounds introduce by February. Can you offer some advise? How much is too much?

Shanahan response:
            This seems like a reasonable straightforward, simple question. And, it is, if you are a teacher, principal, or curriculum designer trying to plan a year of instruction. However, it is not the type of question that research takes on, so I can give you an answer, but it has to be one constructed on my understanding of the teaching of reading (research-based, but not research proven).

            The problem is that I could give a very specific answer like, teach one letter per week during kindergarten (and let’s face it, “Letter of the Week” is very popular). However, if I answered it in that way, I’d be ignoring some really important issues, like whether we want that much focus on individual letters and what is it that we want kids to know about letters.

            So let’s start with a really basic question:  What should a kindergartner know about this aspect of literacy by the end of the year? 

           In my opinion, kindergartners should know the names of all 52 upper and lower case letters. That means they should be able to name the letters presented to them in random order. They should also be familiar with one of the sounds associated with each of those letters—and it would be great if they knew both the “long” and “short” vowel sounds (so if I named or showed them a letter they could produce its sound, and if I made the sound, they could tell me the letter). Kindergartners should be able to sound out some one-syllable words or nonsense words using the letters they have learned. They should be able to fully segment single syllable words easily, and perhaps even be able to manipulate some of these sounds (adding them, deleting them, reversing them). And they should be able to print each of these letters and their names without having a visual model in front of them (and print their names).

            That description would be really easy to accomplish in some communities, where kids come to school already knowing letter names and some of the sounds, and it will be tougher in others. However, it would send kids off to Grade 1 ready to really become readers (especially if other aspects of literacy and language are being taught too).

            In any event, to accomplish all of this I would devote 30-45 minutes per day to these decoding issues—including the teaching of the letters (that's for full-day kindergarten--I would cut this in half in half-day situations). However, that does not mean you should sit kids down for 30-minute letter learning lessons—you might work on letters 2 or 3 times per day, for anywhere from 5- to 20-minutes per sitting.

            I think a combination of 1-2 letters per week is reasonable, but I wouldn't teach new letters every week. Remember letter naming or even letter sounding isn’t all that we want them to learn.

            For example, let’s say that on Week 1 I teach the “m” and “t” (letter names and sounds, upper and lower case), on week 2, the “p” and “h,” and on a third week, I teach only the letter “o” and its short sound. Then, on Week 4, there would be no new letters introduced. We would focus on using the 5 letters already taught. That means all of my decoding minutes would be spent on phonological awareness exercises focused on those specific sounds, blending various combinations of those letters (op, ot, om, top, tot, Tom, pop, pot, pom, hot, hop, etc.) into syllables, decoding and trying to spell syllables/words on the basis of the sounds alone. 

            If you gave each vowel its own week, and taught many, but not all, of the consonants in pairs, you could easily introduce all the letters over a single semester of kindergarten—and the students would have had at least 45 hours of practice with those letters; meaning a reasonably high degree of mastery should be accomplished by most kids.

            That means that those “non-letter introduction weeks”—like week 4 above—would be available 18 times during the year--fully half the year. You’d be spending as many weeks introducing letters as not introducing them. Those weeks would allow substantial amounts of phonemic awareness practice with those sounds, decoding work with those letters and sounds, invented spelling work and word construction with those letters and sounds, and ongoing review of all of that to ensure that the learning is really mastered.

            I would not save up those combination weeks until the second semester. I would salt them throughout the year to make sure that the learning was substantial and deep (meaning that kids would not just “know” those letters, but would be able to do something with them). Again, staying with my example above… 3 weeks of letter introduction, and then a week of consolidation might be followed by another week or two of letter introduction, and then back to consolidation with all the letters taught to that time, and that kind of a scheme could go on most of the year. Of course, if you noticed that your kids weren't retaining some of that, there would even be times that you could add in extra days or weeks of consolidation work as needed.

            With a plan like that, by summer, your kids would know their letters. But more importantly, they’d be able to perceive the sounds within words, and to engage in simple decoding and spelling using those letters and sounds. Outcomes not common in "letter of the week" teaching environments.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

What Phonological Awareness Skill Should We Be Screening?

Teacher question:
I read a research study (Kilpatrick, 2014) that questions the value of segmentation tests for measuring phonemic awareness, because such tests did not correlate well with first- and second-grade reading achievement. At our school we have used DIBELS in Kindergarten and Grade 1 to identify children at risk for reading difficulties. Is this really useful or are we identifying kids as needing help when they do not? Should we be using measures of blending and manipulation instead?

Shanahan Response: 
            This question seems so straightforward, but it actually has a lot of moving parts. The two tests being compared, DIBELS and CTOPP, have different purposes, there are things you need to know about phonological awareness(PA)  development, and there are problems with the analysis in the study that you read.

            Let’s take one of these at a time.

Difference Between CTOPP and DIBELS

            Perhaps the easiest one to deal with has to do with the purposes of the two tests. CTOPP sets out to provide a thorough analysis of phonological awareness in a way appropriate to a wide range of ages, including low literacy adults. DIBELS, instead, is just a screening test; it doesn’t purport to provide a thorough inventory of skills, only a reasonable quick prediction of who may need more help.

            The CTOPP would certainly provide your district with a more detailed analysis; sort of a everything you ever wanted to know about your students sound perception skills. It not only will tell you who is having trouble, but it will provide specific diagnostic information about what exactly might need to be taught. And, for that, it will take you about 30 minutes of testing per child; a big investment that no one in his/her right mind would be willing to make several times a school year with classes of real kids.

            In contrast, the DIBELS assessment can be given in a couple of minutes, and all it will tell you is who has an adequate level of PA to be able to learn to read. As I say, they have different purposes. If you are just trying to figure out who may need some extra attention in PA, DIBELS is the way to go, while if you are trying to make a detailed instructional plan, like you might want to do in a Special Education program, then CTOPP is the way to go. It’s up to you to decide what you want.

Sequence of Development

            Your letter and the study that you cite seem to conceive of a collection of different phonological awareness skills. However, most experts on the matter seem to believe that phonological awareness is actually a single line of development, with particular issues or skills emerging at different points of development (Anthony & Francis, 2005; Anthony, Williams, Duran, Gillam & Liang, 2011).

            Analyses of many different test instruments, thousands of kids, and multiple analytical methods suggests that PA is a single continuum with the following three characteristics: (phonological sensitivity progresses from large language units to small language units; from syllables to onset-rimes to individual phonemes within words); detection ability precedes manipulation of sounds, and blending precedes segmentation development; and children do not move through this progression in distinct stages, but may be consolidating one level of learning while starting to progress in the next.

            The point of all that is that the highest level of development in phonological awareness is segmentation of words. Basically, kids have a lot to learn about phonology, but once they can easily fully segment words they have sufficient phonological awareness to learn to read. If they only can blend, then they are not likely to have sufficient sensitivity for the demands of learning to read.

            Given this, it should not be surprising that a predictive screener is going to evaluate whether kids can segment and other more complete measures might consider blending, onset-rime proficiency, and the ability to separate syllables. One progression of learning, but two different purposes for testing.

Problem with Study

            The Kilpatrick study that you cite is an interesting one, but it has some formidable problems. First, this it asks a normative question and yet focuses on a very small and narrow sample of students. The data could be absolutely correct for that sample, but tell us nothing about how this test works with a normal population of kids. One thing I noticed was that the standard deviation—that is the amount of variance—for segmenting was different than for the other measures, and that it also seemed to differ from that reported with other populations who have used that test.

            If there is not equivalent variation in one of the subtests, then a comparison of the subtests will not come out right. Why there was less variability in this measure with this small group of kids I can’t tell you, but it does suggest the possibility of a different result with a more representative sample. (Some explanations, this was a small group that would not be adequate to representing a population; the test administration could have been flawed; perhaps there was something about local teaching that was messing with the variability in particular skills; the children were tested over a long period of time—2 to 3 months, a significant amount of time in PA development—which could have influenced variability in odd ways).

            Given that segmentation is the highest level of phonemic awareness (and the one that experimental studies aim at accomplishing through their instructional interventions), usually I would expect that to have a better or equal correlation with reading, at least in Kindergarten and Grade 1 (with second graders, CTOPP should be reserved for struggling readers).


            If you are looking for a detailed plan of instruction for each kid tested, then use something like the CTOPP rather than DIBELS. If all that you are trying to do is identify early young kids who might struggle in learning to read, then use DIBELS along with a measure of alphabet knowledge and you should get a good picture of who might require some extra help. In such a case, the point is to determine if a student can fully segment with ease. If he/she can, then he will likely do well learning to decode; if he/she can’t appropriate PA instruction could focus on anything from syllable separations to onset-rimes to blending to segmentation.

Anthony, J.L, & Francis, D.J. (2005). Development of phonological awareness. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 255-259.

Kilpatrick, D.A. (2014). Phonological Segmentation Assessment Is Not Enough: A Comparison of Three Phonological Awareness Tests With First and Second Graders, Canadian Journal of School Psychology , 27(2) , 150–165.

Hintze, J., Ryan, A.L., & Stoner, G. (No date). Concurrent validity and diagnostic accuracy of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills and the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing. Hintze article

Monday, December 7, 2015

Do We Teach Decoding in Small Groups or Whole Class?

Teacher question:  You are confusing me. You have said that we should “never do in small group what could have been done as well as whole class,” but you also say that phonological awareness and phonics instruction are more effective when they are taught in small group. What should be taught in small group and what can be taught in whole class?

Shanahan's response: 
            I’m a strong believer that when readers point out my contradictions that it is time to lather on plenty of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was Emerson who famously said, “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

            That quote sure makes me feel better—and if the questioner feels like skulking away at this point, who could blame him?

            Okay, that’s not fair. You deserve an explanation of the seeming contradiction.

            First, the small group/whole class distinction. Small group instruction tends to be more effective than whole class teaching. In small groups, its easier for kids to stay focused, for teachers to notice error or inattention, and there is more opportunity for interaction and individual response.

            Although small groups may be more effective than whole class, that isn’t the real choice facing teachers. Their decisions must teeter between lots of whole class teaching versus small intermittent doses of small group teaching punctuated by independent seatwork. The kids may be advantaged by the small group work, but its benefits are balanced by the time spent on their own.

            Frankly, I see too much done in small groups. Teachers often present the same information over and over. If she has four comprehension groups, she’ll explain how to predict or when to summarize four times. My preference would be for the teacher to explain the strategy or skill to the whole class and then guide the student practice later in small groups. Similarly, when a teacher has two groups reading the same selection, I’d combine them, though it would make them larger.

            Now what about my phonics and phonological awareness statement?
That one is a little trickier. I was explaining the findings of meta-analyses of several studies that were aimed at determining whether phonological awareness or phonics instruction provided any advantage. The studies were comparing phonics teaching with little or no phonics teaching. And, over and over again explicit decoding instruction led to better reading performance.

            Although these were not studies that compared whole class versus small group phonics, the variation in studies made it possible for the meta-analyses to evaluate this feature. In some of the elementary studies the decoding skills were taught in small groups, while in other studies they were taught whole class. The conclusion was that studies that had looked at small group phonics teaching had bigger outcomes. Phonics and PA teaching work either way, but the small group delivery really magnifies those outcomes (perhaps because it facilitates the children seeing the teacher’s mouth movements and hearing the sounds clearly). (With children in preschool and kindergarten, such a comparison is not possible. All of the studies at these levels examined the outcome of decoding instruction delivered in small groups or individually.)

            However, lets not take such a finding as the final word. A program I know of here in Chicago, Reading in Motion, teaches such basic skills through the performing arts, engaging kids in songs and chants and so on.

            They deliver their engaging lessons whole class, but then follow up in small groups as necessary. If kids are making good progress from the whole class lessons, they don’t get small group work. If they struggle, the lessons are retaught in smaller groups to intensify it. Overall, this means less small group work than in many classes, but with higher rates of success. One can be both efficient and effective.

Seattle WERA Presentation Complex Text