Showing posts with label small group instruction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label small group instruction. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Should We Stop Using Guided Reading Because of Common Core?

Teacher letter:
I am now a literacy specialist in a middle school and am hoping you can give me your opinion on the process of the guided reading method of reading instruction. I completely agree with you that the F&P levels are ludicrously low and it would be difficult to transition students to the end goal of CCSS using these levels. However, I’m curious what you think about the usefulness of listening to individuals read in a small group, using running records to track a struggling reader’s progress with CCSS grade-level text used in the classroom, and explicitly teaching strategies and vocabulary in a small group. Is there research that supports this idea? I am desperately trying to figure out how I can most effectively serve a large number of students grades 6-8, many of whom came from elementary schools that use F&P methods.

Shanahan response:

         Your letter points out an important fact about “guided reading.” It is a complex approach and cannot be summarized as simply teaching students with “instructional level texts”—though it is certainly that.

         Guided reading is a collection of approaches or techniques that have been assembled by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. Even the term “guided reading” was not original to them—it was a term used to characterize a basal reader’s lesson plan in the 1950s (one of its competitors marketed the alternative “directed reading activity”).

         F&P’s version of guided reading, the one that has been so influential during the past two decades, gained popularity, at least in part, due to reading policies and programs of the late 1980s. California only allowed state money to be spent on core reading programs that were made up of previously published literature, and publishing companies were banned from altering these selections in any way to make them more readable.

         What that meant was, for a brief period of time, core reading programs got harder to read—particularly in the early grades. As was documented at the time, teachers did not know how to teach beginning readers with materials that they couldn’t read. Often the teachers read the textbooks to the kids. It was part of the big blowup that became known as the “reading wars.”

         In that context, here comes F&P championing the long held belief that students need to be taught with relatively easy texts that would grow progressively more complex (during the 19th Century, one popular basal program was named the “Gradual Readers”). 

         Teachers grabbed for this as the best available alternative. A good choice given that the commercial reading programs were overshooting beginning readers' abilities and lacked any guidance for teaching kids how to read the harder books.

         Now that guided reading is so widely used we can see that its immediate benefits—beginning readers make a surer start—
are at least balanced by holding back older students from sufficient reading progress (can’t learn to read texts that no one will allow you to read).

         The current pushback against guided reading that has come about due to Common Core is focused specifically on its idea of matching kids to texts in ways aimed at preventing them from confronting sufficient challenge. I’ve written before about the dearth of evidence supporting this idea—and there are many empirical examples of harder placements leading to greater amounts of learning (at least beyond beginning reading levels).

         But your letter wisely points out that guided reading has other features, too. For example, many teachers have told me that they thought guided reading referred to small-group instruction. That certainly has been one of its hallmarks. Research has long supported the relative effectiveness of small-group teaching when compared with whole-class instruction (though this is complicated by the non-teaching time usually required by multiple small groups).

         In small groups, teachers are able to interact more with each child, kids have more opportunities to respond, and are more likely to be noticed if they are struggling with something.

         Thus, just because teaching kids at their supposed “instructional level” is nonsensical, devoting some instructional time to small group work—both under immediate and more distant teacher control--makes a lot of sense.

         Also, guided reading includes, well, guided reading. As I pointed out, originally the term guided reading referred to teachers guiding students through the reading of basal reader selections. The teacher would preteach new vocabulary from the selection, discuss relevant background information, set a reading purpose, and then have students reading portions of the selection orally and/or silently, followed by teacher questioning. The idea was to guide or direct students to read texts in a coherent and effective manner, with the idea that students would learn from the shared doing and would eventually apply these habits to their independent reading.

         Of course, there have been controversies over what kinds of questions to ask or how much background review is appropriate or whether kids should read the entire selection before going through this kind of guided sequence. But, basically, the idea of teachers and students reading texts together in various ways makes a lot of sense, and at least some particular approaches for guiding or directing student comprehension have strong research support.

         Finally, the F&P version of guided reading draws from Marie Clay’s “reading recovery,” a program aimed at beginning readers who are making a bad start. I don’t have much problem with the running records idea of observation with beginning readers, but I think that scheme of looking at how kids do with the "cueing systems" is not particularly apt for more advanced readers. By middle school, decoding schemes should be well integrated with meaning making, except for the most severely disabled readers.

         Small group instruction should afford teachers opportunities to observe student problems with reading and interpretation, and this insight should be used to shape instruction.

         So, while I would not limit students’ reading to instructional level texts—teach kids to read texts that match your state’s standards requirements—that would in no way prevent me from (1) working with small reading groups; (2) guiding students reading comprehension in a coherent manner; or, (3) observing students’ reading in ways appropriate to their grade level. Only part of guided reading is under challenge by Common Core, and it only that aspect of it that needs to change to meet your standards.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Making Whole Class Work More Effective

          Recently, I wrote about the quandary of grouping. Small group instruction supports greater student engagement, higher amounts of interaction, greater opportunity for teacher observation, and more student learning. However, the benefits of small group are balanced by the relative ineffectiveness of most seatwork activities. Subtracting the downside of working on one's own away from the teacher from the clear benefits of small group teaching, one ends up with little advantage to all of the effort of orchestrating the small-group oriented classroom.
          Despite this, the benefits of small group teaching is so obvious, it is not uncommon for coaches and supervisors to promote a lot of small group work in spite of its ultimate lack of benefit.

          While arguing to keep the small group-teaching arrow in my quiver, I suggested that one of the best things we could do as teachers was to work on our large-group teaching skills. The focus of this has to be, not on organizing our classes in particular ways, but in ensuring that all of our students learn as much as possible. 

So what kinds of things can one do to make large group or whole class teaching more effective? In other words, how can you maintain the efficiency of whole-class teaching, while grabbing the same benefits one gets from small-group work?

1.     Get close to the kids
            In small-group work, teachers command greater attention and involvement partly by being so close. Small groups are often arrayed around the teacher or pulled together at a single table. But with whole-class work, the teacher may as well be on the Moon. Perching yourself at the desk or whiteboard puts you in a different orbit than the kids. No eye contact with the individual students, or no chance that you’ll reach out and touch them; no wonder we lose attention. Set up your classroom so that you can move easily among the students and can reach them without a lot of rigmarole. Place students where you want them to be to support high attention (no Billy cannot sit where he wants).

2.     Ask questions first and assign them to students later
          One way of maximizing attention is to ask your questions first, and then call on the student who is to answer. Even put a bit of pause in between the question and the assignment. The point of the question is rarely to get one student thinking, but to get the whole class to reflect on the problem. When a teacher says, “Johnny, why was Baby Bear so upset with Goldilocks?,” Johnny will think about it, but most of the other kids will take a pass. When she says, “Why was Baby Bear so upset with Goldilocks?.... Johnny?” everybody has to think about it because they can’t be sure who'll get called. 

3.     Focus on teaching, not putting on a show
          Many of us grew up watching Phil Donahue and Oprah. We know how to run a Q&A discussion with a studio audience because we have seen it so often. The tempo moves along, there aren’t long pauses or digressions, and at the end the pertinent info has been covered. But what’s good TV would be lousy teaching. The idea that you’re the emcee presenting information—even with some audience participation, is the wrong mindset. You may be teaching a group of 30 students in a whole class setting, but you have to think of them as 30 individuals, not one group. Your job is to maximize participation for the students while increasing your opportunity to monitor individual progress.

4    Maximize student response.
                 Too often in whole-class work the teacher asks a question, then calls on a child to answer. There are many better schemes for this that allow more student thinking and response, such as “think-pair-share.” Here the teacher asks a question, but has the kids talking it over with each other before answering (the smallest configuration for this can be pairs, but the pairs can then talk to other pairs, and other schemes make sense as well). This increases the degree to which everyone thinks about the question and tries to figure out an answer.

               Another popular approach is the multiple-response card. With simple yes-no tasks, thumbs up-thumbs down may be sufficient. Thus, if the teacher is doing a phonological awareness activity, she may have the students respond with thumbs up if a pair of words start or end with the same sound, and a thumbs down otherwise. For more complex responses, cards may be better. For example, the students might have a card for each character in a story, and the teacher can then ask questions like, Who packed the picnic basket? Who was supposed to take the basket to grandmother? Who was lurking in the woods? And, all the students then hold up the cards that reveal the answer.

                A third way, not used enough in my opinion, is the written answer. Teachers can ask any kind of question, and have everyone write an answer to the question. The oral responses that follow tend to be longer and more involved than what kids come up with orally. The written record is useful here because it allows teachers to check to see who answered the question well, the quality of the reasoning, and can take them back into the text to figure out the discrepancies.

5    Teach groups in whole class—teaching in a fishbowl
            Sometimes you can increase the involvement of particular students even though you are working in whole class. Let’s say everyone has been asked to read Chapter 6 of the social studies book, and now the class is going to discuss. The teacher might select 5-8 students who she wants to be the primary discussants this time. These students may sit in a circle in the middle of the classroom and everyone else will be arrayed around them. The teacher leads the discussion with her questions and challenges, and the students in the inner circle answer and talk about the ideas. The students on the outside observe, participate in the discussion if the inner group is stuck, and perhaps write answers to the same questions. Through careful selection, the teacher is able to maximize the amount of participation of quiet students or those who usually get shut out of the discussions by being too slow.

6    Be strategic in calling on students 
          It can be difficult to manage the calling on students. Certain students always seem to have an answer, and are quick to respond. This shuts out others who need to explore their thinking and who would benefit from teacher follow up. Teachers can do what football coaches do, which is plan their plays ahead of time, changing up the routine only if the situation changes. Thus, a teacher might, during planning, decide not just what to ask, but who she wants to hear from. That means if certain students are struggling to give longer answers or sufficient explanation, the teacher can be ready to initiate and guide them through some scaffolded work within the context of the whole class lesson. In other cases, more randomized calling (in which everyone has an equal chance) might make sense; this is easily accomplished with the tongue-depressor routine, in which all the student names are on tongue depressors and the teacher just pulls sticks out of the can as she needs a response or explanation.

7    Whole class can be more than lecture or Q&A
          Instead of using worksheets as “shut up sheets” (thanks, Vicki Gibson), use these tasks to engage everyone within the class in an interactive activity. For example, let’s say the task is finding text evidence. The worksheet includes assertions based on the text, and the students have to locate information from the text that supports the assertion. Kids could go off and do that on their own or they could do it in separate small group activities with teacher scaffolding, but that kind of task could be done most efficiently with teacher participation in the whole class. The teacher needs to observe how the students go about the task—maybe even taking notes on who just started reading and who went to particular parts of the text, who's copying, who's paraphrasing, and so on. At any point, the teacher might stop the class and ask about the strategies being used and might provide some guidance for proceeding more effectively.

            Remember, even in whole class teaching, you want students to pay attention; you want to get as many students to respond and participate as possible (without losing everyone else’s attention); you want maximum possibility of identifying when problems and misunderstandings occur so that you can scaffold, explain, and guide students to solve the problem. Structure whole group lessons in those ways, and then follow up in smaller groups (and even individually) to ensure success with what is being taught.

My recent presentation on improving test performance:

My recent presentation on teaching with challenging text: