Showing posts with label time. Show all posts
Showing posts with label time. Show all posts

Monday, November 9, 2015

RtI: When Things Don't Work as You Expected

          When I arose today I saw lots of Twitters and Facebook entries about a new U.S. Department of Education study. Then I started getting emails from folks in the schools and in the state departments of education. IES Study on RtI

          “What’s going on here?” was the common trope.

          Basically, the study looked at RtI programs in Grades 1 through 3. The reports say that RtI interventions were lowering reading achievement in Grade 1 and while the RtI interventions weren’t hurting the older kids, they weren’t helping them to read better.

          The idea of RtI is a good one, but the bureaucratization of it was predictable. You can go back and look at the Powerpoint on this topic that I posted years ago.

           I’m not claiming that I predicted the failure of RtI programs. Nevertheless, we should be surprised that research-based interventions aimed at struggling readers, with lots of assessment monitoring harmed rather than helped kids. But I’m not.

          In fairness, this kind of thing can go either way: on the one hand the idea of giving kids targeted instruction generally should improve achievement… and yet, on the other hand, this assumption is based on the idea that schools will accurately identify the kids and the reading problems, will provide additional instruction aimed at helping these kids to catch up, will offer quality teaching of the needed skills (meaning that usually such teaching will have positive learning outcomes), and that being identified to participate in such an effort won’t cause damage in and of itself (if kids feel marked as poor readers that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy with 6-year-olds just trying to figure things out). 

          When RtI was a hot topic I used to argue, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, for a 9-tier model; the point was that a more flexible and powerful system was going to be needed to make a real learning difference. If the identification of student learning needs is sloppy, or the “Tier 2” reading instruction just replaces an equivalent amount of “Tier 1” teaching, or the quality and intensity of instruction are not there… why would anyone expect RtI to be any better than what it replaced?

          Unfortunately, in a lot schools that I visit, RtI has just been a new bureaucratic system for getting kids into special education. Instead of giving kids a plethora of IQ and reading tests, seeking a discrepancy, now we find struggling readers, send them down the hall for part of their instructional day, and test the hell out of them with tests that can’t possibly identify whether growth/learning is taking place and moving them lockstep through “research-based” instructional programs.

          In other words, the programs emphasize compliance rather than encouraging teachers to solve a problem.

          First, there is too much testing in RtI programs. These tests are not fine-grained enough to allow growth to be measured effectively more than 2-4 times per year (in some places I’m seeing the tests administered weekly, biweekly, and monthly, a real time waster.

          Second, the tests are often not administered according to the standardized instructions (telling kids to read as fast as possible on a fluency test is stupid).

          Third, skills tests are very useful, but they can only reveal information about skills performance. Teaching only what can be tested easily is a foolish way to attack reading problems. Definitely use these tests to determine whether to offer extra teaching in phonological awareness, phonics, and oral reading fluency. But kids need work on reading comprehension and language as well, and those are not easily monitored. I would argue for a steady dose of teaching in the areas that we cannot test easily, and a variable amount of teaching of those skills that we can monitor.

          Fourth, the Tier 2 instruction should increase the amount of teaching that kids get. If a youngster is low in fluency or decoding, he should get additional fluency or decoding instruction. That means students should get the entire allotment of Tier 1 reading instruction, and then should get an additional dose of teaching on top of that.

          Fifth, it is a good idea to use programs that have worked elsewhere (“research based”). But that doesn’t mean the program will work for you. Teach that program like crazy with a lot of focus and intensity, just like in the schools/studies where it worked before—in fact, that’s likely why it worked elsewhere. Research-based doesn’t mean that it will work automatically; you have to make such programs work.

          Sixth, don’t put kids in an intervention and assume the problem is solved. The teacher should also beef up Tier 1 teaching, should steal extra instructional moments for these students in class, and should involve parents in their programs as well. What I’m suggesting is a full-court press aimed at making these struggling students successful—rather than a discrete, self-contained, narrow effort to improve things; Tier 2 interventions can be effective, but by themselves they can be a pretty thin strand for struggling readers to hang onto.

          I hope schools don’t drop RtI because of these research findings. But I also hope that they ramp up the quantity and quality of instruction to ensure that these efforts are successful.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Is Amount of Reading Instruction a Panacea?

Recently, Education Week published an interesting piece about a Florida program aimed at extending the school days of children in the 100 lowest-performing elementary schools in the state. These schools were mandated to add an extra hour of reading instruction to their days. The result: 75% of the schools improved their reading scores, 70 of them coming off the lowest-performing list.


Those who know my work in the schools are aware that amount of instruction is always the first thing that I look at. When I was the director of reading in the Chicago Public Schools it was one of my major mandates. Research overwhelmingly shows that more instruction tends to lead to more learning, and many supposedly research-proven programs obtain their advantages from, you guessed it, offering more teaching than kids will get in the control group.  

But the Ed Week article went on to point out that most of these extra-hour schools were still underperforming demographically matched schools and that 30 of them were still low performing.

Why doesn’t added time always work if it is such a no-brainer?

There are at least a few reasons.

First, time is not a variable. It is a measure or a dosage. Scientists abhor the idea of treating time as a variable. Long ago, the best minds thought iron rusted because of time. Eventually, they figured out that rust is due to exposure to moisture, and that time was a measure of how much moisture the iron was touching. More time meant more moisture.

In education, time is a measure of the amount of curriculum—explanation and practice—that children exposed to. It is the curriculum and how it is taught that makes the difference; time is simply a measure of that.

What if a curriculum is not sound? That is, what if being exposed to it does not usually lead someone to read, or repeats valuable lessons students have already mastered or fails to offer sufficient practice. An hour extra of something that doesn’t work won’t improve things. Time is just a measure, right? An hour of low quality teaching is an hour wasted.

Another problem is whether a mandated hour is actually an hour. Reading First, a federal initiative under No Child Left Behind, required that teachers provide 90 minutes per day of reading instruction. But classroom observers found a lot less than that in Reading First classrooms. Kids in those classrooms spent a lot of time waiting for instruction rather than being instructed.

Teachers don’t always appreciate how powerful their time with kids can be, so they are wasteful of the minutes. Do some self-observation of this and you’ll see what I mean. Thus, the schools stay open. The buses pick kids up an hour later. The teachers and kids are in the classroom. But reading instruction, not so much.

Finally, an extra hour may not equalize performance simply because it may be insufficient. We don’t know how much instruction and practice in reading anyone is getting. How much time is devoted to teaching reading during the school day? How much reading do students do in math, social studies, and science classes? Research studies show big differences in amount of reading instruction in school-to-school and even classroom-to-classroom comparisons.

How much do students read at home? How much time do they spend on the kinds of homework that make a difference? How much language development opportunity do they get before they come to school? What kinds of activities do they engage in through their libraries, parks, churches, synagogues, scouts, etc.?

The fact is that some students receive thousands of hours of instruction and practice in language and literacy each year, while others receive considerably less. An extra hour per day is precious (thank you, Florida), but it simply may be insufficient to overcome the huge differences that exist.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

How Much Time on Comprehension and Phonics

My vacation is over and it is good to be back. The following letter came in while I was gone and I'm happy to answer it.

I am a 2nd year Kindergarten teacher, and I have really known nothing else but Common Core.  I feel as though my understanding of the standards is good.  My teaching style is workshop-based, with an equal amount of time spent on foundational skills as comprehension. I teach all five areas of literacy (phonics, phonemic awareness, oral language, fluency, comprehension) in our half-day program.  My colleagues are veteran teachers, who teach mostly foundational skills with foundational skill-based centers.  My Kindergarten colleagues frown on the workshop approach, although it is used in other grade levels (2-8).  Our school and district has always been high-performing and considered exceptional.  Our common assessments are all foundational skills, and our benchmarking assessment is all foundational skills.  Because I teach in the workshop model, they continually tell me how 'I just don't understand Kindergarten' and I am shorting my kids on foundational skills.  I am beginning to think that my efforts to pay equal time to comprehension are fruitless on an immediate basis, as they are not being assessed or valued.  However, I personally feel that not teaching comprehension on a deep level has been a major mistake in the past.  I want to learn and be a great teacher, but I just don't understand what I see to be the inequity in teaching/assessing/valuing comprehension.  What are your thoughts on the comprehension standards for Kindergarten?  How much time should be spent on comprehension vs. foundational skills in K, and why does it seem like comprehension is an afterthought with many early elementary teachers?

This is an interesting question. The biggest decisions teachers make have to do with how much time to spend on literacy and language and how to divide this time up among the components of literacy. I have long emphasized 2-3 hours of literacy instruction per day in grades K-5 (if you are teaching in a half-day kindergarten, then 90 minutes per day).

To divide instruction appropriately, it is critical to determine what components to include. 

Decoding is very important and needs to be mastered during these early years (preK through grade 2 or 3). Decoding includes phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, sight vocabulary, and phonics (and spelling).

Oral reading fluency is very important, though in kindergarten what needs to be emphasized will depend on whether the children are engaged in conventional reading or not. Oral reading fluency requires students to read text so that it sounds like text. If they can read, then reading texts aloud with repetition is essential. If students can’t yet read, they need to engage in activities like finger-point reading (in which they listen to texts being read and try to follow along by pointing to the words as they are being read).

Oral language includes vocabulary building, extended conversation (with multiple turns), listening comprehension (reading to children), and similar kinds of activities.

Reading comprehension refers to participating in reading text and answering questions and learning strategies for thinking about text. As with oral reading fluency, this one can only be taught if the students can read text. If they can’t read, then you can’t teach reading comprehension. (Listening comprehension is not reading comprehension, talking about pictures is not reading comprehension. Those have a place—in building oral language.) When kids are not yet reading, I would not count comprehension as a component; when they are, it deserves a full share of time.

And one more component that you do not mention: writing. It is critical that students be engaged in trying to express their ideas through written language. Initially, this might be done through dictation, but very quickly should shift to kids trying to do their own technology.

I would argue for dividing the total amount of literacy and language time equally across those five components (or four, if the students aren’t yet reading). Before they are reading, I would devote about a quarter of the instructional time to oral language development (including listening comprehension), a quarter to decoding, a quarter to oral reading fluency, and a quarter to writing. Once children are reading, then the time shifts so that each component gets 20% of the time.

Thus, in a full-day kindergarten in which teachers are spending 2 hours per day on literacy and language, early in the year—before many children are capable of reading text—students would spend about 30 minutes per day working with letters and letter sounds; about 30 minutes engaging in finger-point reading, echo reading, and such; about 30 minutes being read to, talking about text, expanding vocabulary and about 30 minutes writing. Later in the year, when significant numbers of students can read text, then there is a bit of time shift: the foundational skills (phonics and fluency) would drop back to a combined 50 minutes per day, reading comprehension, writing, and oral language would each come in at about 25 minutes. My preference would be that teachers would teach literacy and language for 3 hours per day at kindergarten (not two hours), and if that were the case, even more time would be available for all of these skills and abilities.

When you say that you spend equal times on reading comprehension and the foundational skills (phonological awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency), I think you are making a big mistake. That is not enough time for kids to develop those foundational skills in my opinion, and I think you'll slow their growth in reading. If your colleagues are devoting all of the time to foundational skills (because those are benchmarked), they may be doing long term damage; foundational skills are necessary, but insufficient to make students capable readers. 

A final word… these overall times are not a good description of a school day. When I say, there should be 30 or 48 or 60 minutes devoted to a particular aspect of literacy, that does not mean that teachers should teach phonics from 9:00AM-9:30AM. The reason I say that is that young children need lots of changes of activities and they need opportunities to move. I might read to kids with discussion for 10 or 15 minutes (covering half of my language time), but then could follow that up with a 10-minute writing activity, or a 15-minute phonics activity—or even an activity focused on some other aspect of the curriculum such as science or math. The point is that it is important to keep the day varied and engaging and the amounts of time can be accomplished in a variety of ways.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Amount of Preschool and Kindergarten Literacy Instruction?

I just received this request for information from a friend:
The question being posed is, "how many minutes of literacy instruction is
recommended for early childhood, ages such as preschool and kindergarten?"

The amount recommended in our district for grades 1-8 is 120 minutes, so we obviously need to rethink our message to the early childhood program. I'm not sure if you are familiar with or if this is relevant, but the early childhood program (preschool - kindergarten) uses Creative Curriculum, which incorporates center choices with whole group reading and writing instruction.

Thank you in advance for your advice!

My response:

There are no data that I am aware of on that issue, so anything I can tell you will be conjecture.

When I answer this question (and I do with some regularity), my first response to is ask a question back: “how long are the preschoolers and kindergartners there?” The answer to that usually varies from half day to full day. Because literacy and language aren’t the only issues that need to be addressed in instruction, it is important that literacy be a good curricular neighbor (not crowding everyone else unnecessarily).

If it is a whole day situation, then I would argue for the full 2 hours that you are spending in grades 1-8, and if it is half day, then about 1 hour will have to do it.

What should go into that 1-2 hours? Your curriculum does a good job of supporting teachers in some of these categories, and you might consider supplementing where it does not. We don’t provide children with much oral language stimulation in grades 1-8 (except incidentally across the day), but with young children some direct attention to oral language instruction and stimulation is appropriate as part of the literacy time.

In 2 hours, I would expect some code work (with letters and sounds), some fluency work (like pretend reading, choral reading, fingerpoint reading), some listening comprehension (or reading comprehension if the kids have started reading), some language work (including vocabulary), and some writing time. For a smaller amount of time, I would teach the same things (just not as much of them, but I wouldn’t leave any of them out).

Your curriculum presents letters and sounds whole group, and that is iffy. While juggling times with small groups can be tricky, the studies of code instruction have only been done with small groups at these age levels. This means it will take more than two hours to deliver two real hours of instruction and experience.

Finally, 2 hours does not necessarily mean a block of time. This does not have to be done from 9-11AM; with young kids, short time spans for activities is necessary and these various activities can be interspersed through the day. A little harder to keep track of whether you have hit the time goal, but a lot more sensible to deliver.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When Time isn't the Only Thing

For 20 years, my speeches and writing have been heavily oriented towards time--amount of instruction. I have made a big deal that schools with longer school days tend to do better as do countries with longer school years; that summer school programs increase achievement as do many after school programs; that snow days lower school achievement, as do student absences; that extended school years and all-day kindergartens work; that classrooms differ in how much instruction they provide and that these differences are related to student learning, and that guiding teachers to use time better improves achievement.

A policymaker recently pointed out to me that increases in time don't always work. Specifically, studies of the NCLB-required after school programs show few learning gains. Or, the Reading First evaluation: RF teachers increased literacy teaching by about 10 minutes per day, but their kids did no better in comprehension. Studies of reading interventions for middle school and high school, that provided a reading class, didn't really work either, or not very much anyway.

Have I been wrong about time? I don't think so. From the very beginning of such research, it has been apparent that the students have to be engaged in learning during the time that is allotted. I visited a school recently where the children were ignoring the teachers (running around, throwing things, etc.). Extending the day with those teachers wouldn't raise reading achievement, because there would likely be no additional teaching added. Time increases tend to work because most teachers aren't struggling as much as those two. Mark Dynarski's work on after school programs suggests that those NCLB programs didn't do well, because they have not necessarily added much teaching.

Trading time isn't so effective either. What I mean by that is that, all things being equal, you'll be better off having students attend an extra reading class, rather than a reading class that substitutes for another academic class. Some of those intervention programs that are conferring a small advantage when they are taking the place of other academic experience, but they likely would confer a somewhat larger benefit if they were adding time rather than just replacing it.

How many more minutes does it take to give a learning advantage? In the Reading First study 10 minutes a day didn't have an impact. Now maybe these teachers weren't really teaching, but what if they were? My own personal reading of research says that fewer than 30 additional hours of teaching sometimes helps and sometimes does not (more often the latter); more than 30 hours and the burden shifts (it's still a mixed bag, but more advantages are seen; and when the numbers climb into the 50-100 extra hours, it is pretty rare that gains aren't seen).

One last thought: the reason those interventions may not look like they are working could be that the tests used in the studies aren't sufficiently sensitive to pick up the gains. Imagine a 9th grader in a special reading program. He is reading at a third grade level at the beginning of the year and a fifth grade level by the end. That means he is still 5 years behind, and it is quite possible that he is still testing at the bottom of the scale on the high school test (he learned, but not enough to be noticed by the test). Perhaps interventions with older students need to use multiple evaluation instruments, including out-of-level tests, to be sure that we are really identifying gains.).

(I've come to believe that those middle school and high school interventions may have boosted achievement more than the studies could show, because if you move an older student from a 3rd to a 4th grade reading level that will not necessarily be captured by a high school reading assessment).