Improving Reading Achievement

  • 19 March, 2008

Dear Dr. Shanahan:

With the pressures and concerns about NCLB and working in a low socio-economic neighborhood, our school district has implemented some mandates to try to ensure the success of our students. It is sort of an interesting imbalance. First, they chose to mandate the use of the SAXON phonics program. It is required of all teachers of students in K- 2. The program teaches phonics in isolation and it takes 40 to 75 minutes to teach each day. 

The second interesting situation is that we are given 4 aides that come into our rooms for an hour each day to teach fluency in small group direct instruction. We use programs such as Reading Mastery and Read Well. The idea was to meet the needs of all students on their level. The reality is that only 2 of my 23 students are in an intensively low situation. Then I have 2 more who are only slightly below benchmark. The vast majority of my students are READERS! and good ones at that. They do not NEED interventions in fluency. They need comprehension, vocabulary, and writing!!! Because about two hours a day is taken up by fluency and phonics- there is little to no time left for vocabulary, comprehension, or writing. I try to work these into my social studies and science lessons- but it is very lacking!

I was able to cover these areas at the last school I taught at. When I mentioned this, our reading facilitator answered, "Yes, but that was NOT a title one school !" We (our second-grade team) has finally gotten enough courage to approach the school district about our concerns that we are not teaching with a balanced literacy approach.

Dr. _________ told of the success you had in Chicago, I felt that you could give me information and ideas to bring to the table to help our district people understand better the value of a more balanced literacy approach.

My response: 

Say hi to Dr. _________ for me. What he was telling you about my work in Chicago was not research, but practice. I had left the university to be the director of reading for the Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the U. S. I was not there to collect data or write research articles, but to see if I could make instructional changes that would raise reading achievement. Chicago, like many large urban districts, is challenged: 85% of our 437,000 kids are living in poverty; more than 25% come from homes where English is not the home language; more than 2/3 of our kids read below grade level.

First, I have no big problem with the Saxon phonics program. It might not be my favorite choice (there are many phonics programs out there), but research doesn’t suggest big outcome differences due to which phonics program is being used, so there is nothing unreasonable about that choice. I also have no problem with its daily use being mandated in Grades K-2; research clearly shows that young children benefit from explicit, systematic phonics instruction included in programs like Saxon’s and such instruction not only improves decoding and spelling skills, but comprehension (kind of hard to get at what an author is saying if you can’t read the words easily and efficiently).

Not every second-grader needs an equally heavy dose of phonics, but given that this is a Title I school it is probably lower achieving than average, so I suspect most of your kids are benefiting from this teaching. I do take exception to the amount of time devoted to phonics that you describe; it sounds high to me. I would limit such teaching to 30-40 minutes a day (not because phonics isn’t important, but because time is limited and other things must be accomplished too). In Chicago, I mandated 2 to 3 hours of daily reading and writing instruction in all classes. In a school like yours and at your grade level, 3 hours would be a good choice. I wanted 25% of that time devoted to word knowledge instruction, so that would be 45 minutes a day. Word knowledge instruction isn’t entirely about phonics, however. In K-1, some of this time goes to phonemic awareness; at your grade level some of it might be for spelling (though that is best done in coordination with phonics), and at all grade levels, some of this time would be used for explicit vocabulary teaching. If most of this time was spent on phonics (as I think it should be in your classroom), you’d be talking about 30-40 minutes per day of phonics teaching. That’s a lot, but it sounds like less than you’re spending now.

Fluency instruction is not just for remedial readers, it is for everyone. The National Reading Panel found that such teaching helped average and above average readers, too. I required 30-45 minutes of daily fluency instruction (it is 45 minutes in the 3-hour plan noted above). Reading Mastery and Read Well are good programs and it is terrific that you are getting help in delivering this instruction as it can help kids to make faster progress. Like the research for phonics, research on fluency teaching finds reading comprehension outcomes for children at your grade level. Again, it sounds like the district might be going overboard on the amount of such teaching, but they’ve got the right idea in ensuring that students make real progress in this important area.

I do wonder when you say that 19 of your 23 students are hitting some benchmark: what benchmark may that be? It sounds like a pretty high level of attainment, which makes me suspect that the standard may misleadingly low (in other words, the kids might be reaching your benchmark, but may not actually be on track, normatively, to make real continuing success in learning to read). Often teachers set standards that are too low to ensure real long-term success for these kids.

Your students absolutely do need instruction in vocabulary, comprehension, and writing, and in my approach that is used in Chicago (with high poverty kids) we spend about a quarter of the 3 hours on reading comprehension and another quarter of that time on writing (I would love to have more time for thorough, explicit teaching of vocabulary; my scheme only allows a little of that during word time in the primary grades, and some less-systematic coverage of vocabulary within fluency, comprehension, and writing lessons; however, when most phonics instruction is completed for most kids, by the end of 2nd grade, most of the word time shifts over to this additional vocabulary instruction).

During comprehension instruction, students should be reading text with guidance from teachers and learning how to apply various thinking strategies to making sense of those texts (the research sketches out some key areas of thinking that can profitably be addressed during such instruction including teaching kids to summarize, ask questions, monitor their understanding, summarize texts graphically, use story maps, etc.). During writing, students should be learning how to compose their own texts for various purposes and audiences (the National Reading Panel pointed out, writing is important and valuable phonics practice time at your grade level). Some districts think that if they only invest heavily in decoding and fluency early on, they will have solved the learning to read problem for these kids; the research doesn’t support that claim, however.

It sounds like your school has made some good choices—and some bad ones, too. I’m not worried about “balanced” instruction as much about complete instruction. The federal government had a group of independent scientists review the research on reading to protect schools from unscrupulous or uninformed gurus, vendors, consultants, etc. That panel, after two years of publicly analyzing the existing research, determined that students benefit from explicit and systematic teaching in: phonemic awareness (Grades K-1), phonics (Grades K-2, and for remedial readers beyond that), oral reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension strategies. School districts might latch onto any one of those findings, of course, and ride it like a hobby horse, but it won’t change the fact that kids benefit from teaching in all of these areas. Research out of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development has shown that when you spend inordinate amounts of time successfully solving kids’ early decoding problems, they still will struggle in future years because of gaps in vocabulary or other aspects of reading. A complete or thorough approach is the best bet for your kids when it comes to their daily classroom instruction.

In Chicago, I took the thorough approach that I described. Our district saw its biggest achievement gains in district history, our kids are reading at the highest levels they ever have (still have a long way to go), and our lowest achieving schools and kids have managed to make remarkable progress (learning as fast as everyone else for a change). As I say this wasn’t a research study, it was a practical effort to improve achievement. I think district reading statistics can be found on the Chicago Public School website. They initially adopted this framework in 2001, so comparing scores from 2002-2007 with the scores obtained prior to that time would allow you to see how Chicago kids have been affected by the changes (unlike in a study, we can’t control for other changes that might be taking place simultaneously—we don’t have a control group, we made all of these changes in all 600 schools).


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Improving Reading Achievement


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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