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

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

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.