Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Teachers as Writers: You Can’t Teach Swimming from the Side of the Pool

Today I am pleased to offer a guest post from Cynthia Mershon on the importance of writing teachers being writers themselves. Cynthia is a former long-time literacy specialist and writing teacher and is currently a workshop presenter for Teachers College, Columbia University.

by Cynthia Mershon

During high school and college, I worked as a life guard and a swimming instructor.  Most of the children I met in swimming lessons were between the ages of five and ten – some had never had a swimming lesson, but some knew a little about swimming.  As a swimmer myself,  I appreciated the importance of being in the pool with them, standing beside them and talking with them as they clung to the wall or bobbed up and down in the shallow end of the pool. 

When it came time to demonstrate a particular swimming skill - how to use arms to stroke through the water, or feet to kick, or how to turn the head to breathe - it was easy to gather them around me so they could watch as I moved my arms, or held onto the wall and kicked, or put my face in the water and turned my head to the side and took a breath.  Most of the time, they were close enough for me to touch them and I often did, supporting their bodies while they tried each skill so they could feel what it felt like to be a swimmer, offering them the chance to know what it would feel like to glide through the water when they could put all of their learning together.

Now, many years later, I work with upper elementary teachers, supporting them as they develop their reading and writing workshops.  As a part of our work together, I recommend that teachers write their own pieces when teaching students a particular genre of writing.  I encourage them to share this writing with their students as mentor texts, as examples of the kind of writing they want students to do in the units being taught.  Reading John Hattie’s 2008 analysis of what factors maximize student achievement (Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement,  Routledge), we learn students need crystal clear examples of what we are asking them to do if they are to be successful at specific tasks.  Deliberately producing a piece of writing for them that illustrates the skills and strategies we are teaching so they can use our writing as a model to examine makes perfect sense.   

Another reason to think about writing teacher-generated mentor texts is because they clearly communicate to students that what they are being asked to write is important. So important, in fact, that the teacher – a member of the classroom writing community – is writing the same piece.  Students are perceptive and clearly understand the difference between being given an “assignment” and being included in a community that writes and confers and develops together.  When teachers write and discuss their own mentor texts, students are included in the writing process in a way that allows them to interact with the teacher as fellow writers.  They get to see – literally - what an experienced writer does as she writes in the same genre:  how she creates an engaging lead, or adds details, or uses paragraphs to organize her writing, or chooses language to make her writing more powerful, or creates a closing that sends readers away with something to think about.  What is the teacher doing in her writing that they might try, too, to lift the level of their own piece?

Teachers, too, benefit from composing mentor texts for writing units in several ways.  Most important, perhaps, is the opportunity to know what will be challenging about creating a particular kind of text.  How can a teacher truly know what components of a writing task students will find difficult if she has not attempted to write exactly what students are trying to write?  How will that teacher be able to predict what lessons might be necessary, or where students might need unusual support, if she has not written in that genre in the manner required by the unit students are exploring?  Or, as Donald Graves wrote in Writing: Teachers & Children at Work (Heinemann, 1983): “Teachers who have not wrestled with writing cannot effectively teach the writer’s craft.”

A frequent question from teachers in workshops concerns how they can be more comfortable and effective when conferring with their student writers.  One answer I offer is that when teachers write their own pieces in each unit students study, teachers are more likely to be able to talk fluently and successfully about what students are trying to do in their writing.  Why?  Because the teachers are writing the same pieces and encountering the same demands and challenges as their students.  They will know what it is like to consider choosing a thesis statement for a persuasive essay or finding the heart of the story in a personal narrative or deciding on a topic for a feature article.  They will need to make the same decisions about content, language, and format as each writer in the class is making, and so will be able to offer advice and share experiences when they confer with students.

It is not always easy to begin to write mentor texts for our students.  Most of us do not compose essays, narratives, or informational pieces on a regular basis, if at all.  It can be scary to compose these pieces following the guidelines of the units we are teaching, thinking about how our work will be received by our students.  I remember being afraid when I began teaching writing and producing mentor texts, worried my students would find out I was not a good writer, that I would make spelling or grammatical errors, and that my students might laugh at my writing.  What I found instead was that they valued my participation in the unit, that they could not wait to see what I would write, and that the bond that grew between us as writers far outweighed any thought about whether my writing was good (they thought it was) or whether it was perfect.  They used my writing over and over again in our units as a resource, as a guide to show them what a persuasive essay or personal narrative or feature article looked like, and trusted me to show them how they might use my example to help them move their own writing forward.

My guess is that I learned a lot about teaching writing many years ago when I was standing in three feet of water in a swimming pool, surrounded by ten or so eager, bouncing children who needed someone in the pool with them to teach them to swim.  I know I could not have had the same impact on them if I had been sitting on the side of the pool – can you imagine trying to teach swimming without being in the water with your students?  I think we probably know the same thing is true about teaching writing.  It isn’t always easy, but we know that the best way to teach writing is to be a writer, to understand how the writing process works, the attributes of a genre, and the probable challenges writers will face when writing a particular piece. 

It doesn’t matter if students are new to the writing process or if they have some experience as writers.  We can’t sit on the sidelines and give advice from afar. We need to jump in, demonstrate particular writing skills, and start writing.  We need to sit right next to our students and show them what writing is about.  We need to support them while they try each skill so they know what it feels like to be a writer, offering them the chance to know what it will feel like to compose with abandon and power when they put all of their learning together.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Independent Reading: A Research Based Defense

Independent Reading, sometimes called SSR, DEAR or SQUIRT, is an instructional strategy where students are given time in class to read self-selected books. An instructional strategy which has been around since the 1970s, it has two goals:

  1. Provide students with time to practice the reading strategies they have learned through classroom instruction in a real reading situation and, therefore, improve reading achievement.
  2. Promote positive attitudes towards reading in the hopes of making reading a life-long habit for children.

Recently, literacy guru, Tim Shanahan, has reiterated his opposition to Independent Reading (SSR, DEAR) as an in the classroom instructional strategy. You can read his two most recent blogs on the topic here and here. Shanahan's opposition is based on the following:

  1. A lack of empirical research to support the practice for improving reading achievement.
  2. Independent Reading violates what we know about motivational activities and, therefore, will not create lifelong readers.
It is important to note here that Shanahan's opposition to Independent Reading is not new. He was a prominent member of the National Reading Panel(NRP) study, the precursor of the Reading First initiative, that concluded that "even though encouraging students to read more is intuitively appealing, there is still not sufficient research evidence of high methodological quality to support the idea that such efforts reliably increase how much students read or that such programs result in improved reading skills" (NRP, 2000, pp. 12-13).

In truth there has always been a large amount of research evidence that Independent Reading does improve reading performance and motivation to read, including hundreds of correlational research studies, but the NRP study ignored this research because it did not meet their standards of "high methodological quality." Shanahan has explained that correlational studies cannot be used to determine if Independent Reading was the cause of improvement or if other factors were the cause. 

But there is much more to this story. As Garan and DeVoogd (2008) have pointed out, many areas of human endeavor do not lend themselves well to experimental research designs. Correlational studies have long been recognized as a viable and necessary form of human research. As Stanovich (2007) suggests, just because correlational studies have limited value in making causative conclusions does not mean they are not important to guiding understanding. Cunningham (2001) noted that without the evidence from correlational studies we would have not established the link between smoking and cancer. The NRP rejection of these studies skewed their findings on Independent Reading (Krashen, 2001, Cunningham, 2001, Garan and DeVoogd, 2008). 

Shanahan's second concern is that Independent Reading violates what we know about motivation because it is not truly independent. He says that if the teacher chooses the time for reading, guides the text selection and requires some sort of accountability (like writing after reading, reading aloud during a conference), that we cannot argue that we are encouraging lifelong reading, but simply employing another instructional strategy that is neither independent nor motivating.

Shanahan says, "What motivates someone? I’ve read a lot of that literature and being required to do something is rarely a powerful stimulator of lifelong desire."

I've read a lot of literature on the topic as well. I know, for instance that limiting choice does not necessarily limit motivation. In fact, helping a child find a book that is personally interesting and that that child is able to read may be more motivating than leaving kids to wander through the shelves with infinite choices in front of them. Having a teacher sit next to you to hold a conference about what you are reading may be an accountability measure, but it can also be motivational for children. Children need to know that someone is interested in what they are reading and what they think about what they are reading. One of the key jobs of the teacher is to set up an environment where kids desire to learn can be unleashed in a productive way. Providing a routine for Independent Reading is one way to unleash learning potential. 

So, in 2016 what can we say about the research support for Independent Reading? Unlike Shanahan, most literacy researchers would argue that Independent Reading is well supported by the research. Here is a sampling of research and conclusions from reviews of the research.

Yoon (2002) - Sustained Silent Reading facilitated the development of positive attitudes towards reading.

Samuels and Wu (2003) - Independent Reading is beneficial to all students. It is important to match books to student's reading ability.

Lewis & Samuels (2003) - SSR has a positive impact on student reading achievement.

Garan & DeVoogd (2008) - There is a convergence of research to support independent reading in schools.

Hiebert & Reutzel (2010) - The stamina of readers can be supported by effective, independent, silent reading practice conditions put in place by well-informed and vigilant teachers.

Guthrie (2004) - Simply having Independent Reading time does not ensure engagement. Engaged reading is key.

Topping, et al. (2007) - The quality of the Independent Reading time matters more than the quantity. 

McRea & Guthrie (2009) - Opportunities to engage in independent reading enhance both reading achievement and intrinsic motivation to read.

Gambrell, et al. (2011) - The research base supports the notion that the reading curriculum should incorporate time and opportunities for students to engage in independent reading.

Allington, Billen and McQuiston (2015) - There is sufficient research evidence to support the notion that reading volume is very important to the reading development of students.

The verdict seems clear. A well-planned, well-executed program of Independent Reading is an important part of sound literacy instruction. To be most successful teachers should follow a few guidelines from the research.

  1. Make every effort to ensure student engagement in reading during Independent Reading time. This includes making sure that students are in a book that they can read successfully on their own and monitoring the class during reading time.
  2. Guide student book choice for appropriateness and interest level by working beside them as they make selections.
  3. Confer with individual students regularly. Rather than quizzing their comprehension, start a conversation about the book. What stood out for you? is a good conversation starter.
  4. Provide regular opportunities for students to talk about their reading with other students in partnerships or small groups.
  5. Assist students in making goals for their reading and have them keep track of their progress toward the goals.
  6. Through modeling, teach students how to respond to their reading through a variety of written and oral formats including a response journal,in text post-it notes, letters to the teacher, quick writes, etc.
  7. Rather than set an arbitrary amount of time for Independent Reading from the start, work to build student stamina. Early on in establishing the routine for Independent Reading, stop the reading as soon as students begin to fidget, whether that is in 3 minutes or 15. The next day set a goal for Independent Reading that is a few minutes more than the previous day, until you have built the time spent engaged in reading to your desired length - 20, 30, 40 minutes depending on age and grade.
Shanahan says one of the reasons that Independent Reading fails is that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him take a bath." That may be true, but I think you can lead a child to reading and set up conditions where she is most likely to engage in reading. And if we can get kids reading good books, the research would indicate they will improve their reading and be motivated to continue the reading habit. The best reading motivator is getting lost in a good book that speaks to you in some deeply personal way.

Works Cited

Allington, R. Billen, M, & McCuiston, K. (2015) The potential impact of Common Core State Standards on reading volume. In Pearson, P. D. & Hiebert, E. Research-Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy. NY: Teachers College Press

Cunningham, J. W. (2001). The National Reading Panel Report. Reading Research Quarterly., 30(3), 326-335.

Gambrell, L.B. et al. (2011). The Importance of Independent Reading. In Samules, S.J. & Farstrup, A. What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction (4th ed.). Newrak, DE: International Reading Association.

Garan, E. & Devoogd, G. (2008) The Importance of Sustained Silent Reading: Scientific Research and Common Sense. The Reading Teacher, 62(4), 336-344. Retrieved from

Guthrie, J. (2004) Teaching for Literacy Engagement. Journal of Literacy Research, 36(1), 1-29

Hiebert, E. & Reutzel, D. (eds.) (2010). Revisiting silent reading: New directions for teachers and researchers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Krashen, S. (2002) More smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on fluency. In R. Allington (Ed). Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum. How Ideology Trumoed Evidence (112-124). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Lewis, M. & Samuels, S.J. (2005). Read more, read better? A meta-analysis of the literature on the relationship between exposure to reading and reading achievement. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

McRea, A. & Guthrie, J. (2009). Promoting reasons for reading: teacher practices that impact motivation. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed). Reading more, reading better. (55-76). NY: Guilford

National Institute of Child Health and Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel (NIH Publication 00-4769) Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Samuels, S. & Wu, Y. (2003). How the amount of time spent on independent reading affects reading achievement: A response to the National Reading Panel. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Yoon, J. (2002). Three decades of sustained silent reading: A mta-analytic review of the affects of SSRon attitude toward reading. Reading Improvement, 39(4), 186-195.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fostering Curiosity in an Age of Accountability

In my capacity as Coordinator of College Reading at Rider University in New Jersey, I have the opportunity to teach many students who are, like I was 50 years ago, the first in their family to attend college. Because of this, their SAT scores and a number of other factors, these students are viewed, correctly, by the college administration as "at-risk" of not completing their college education. As all institutions of higher learning should be, Rider is concerned about retaining these students. And so last week I found myself seated in the tutoring center on campus with a consultant the university had hired to help them address the retention issue.

The consultant asked me a straightforward question."What is the one thing you would say these at-risk students need more than any other to be academically successful here?"

The one word answer came out of me quickly and without reflection like I was playing a game of free association. "Curiosity," I said.

I am not sure why I said this. I just blurted it out from the recesses of my brain. I had just come from a class with my students and I was aware of the effort I seemed to be putting in to spark student interest in the vocabulary lesson I was presenting. I remember trying to engage the students and pulling out all my veteran teacher moves (humor, turn and talk, relevant examples, interesting anecdotes, write and reflect, small group discussions) to limited effect. Was this experience where my knee jerk answer came from?

Ever since I gave that answer, I have been reflecting on and reading about curiosity. Where does curiosity come from? What actions foster curiosity? What actions kill curiosity? Why is curiosity important?

I was a curious kid. After toddler years of driving my parents crazy with questions, I marched off to school where I had free rein to drive my teachers crazy as well. Mine was not always a welcome figure in the classroom. My questions bubbled out of me before I could remember to raise my hand. Other students looked at me askance as I bullied my way into one group discussion after another. In high school I was on a first name basis with the entire office staff because I was frequently "excused" from class because of ill-timed outbursts.

I didn't grow out of it either. In my sixties and working as a school district administrator, a good friend and fellow administrator pointed out to me that I tended to dominate conversations in meetings by asking lots of questions and then bursting forth with some insight, relevant or not. He said to me one of the truest things I had ever heard about myself, "These conversations are the way you learn." And there it is. My curiosity and my audacity combined to help make me a successful learner. But how was this fostered in me and how can I foster this in my students?

In pursuit of an answer to my question, I found a terrific article by Erik Shonstrom in Education Week. Shonstrom defines curiosity as "seeking and exploring." Shonstrom says, curiosity does not sit very well in the traditional classroom because it is intense, transient, and propulsive. Curiosity is messy. Shonstrom cites Carnegie Mellon professor of economics and  psychology, George Lowenstein, who says,

Curiosity tends to be associated with impulsive behavior. People who are curious not only desire information intensely, but desire it immediately and seek it out even against their better judgment.

How can we foster curiosity in our students? Shonstrom says that "for students to be curious, they must feel worthy of seeking." Students must feel entitled to ask questions, to explore, to wonder, to speculate. We have all known students who we deem "naturally curious." I no longer think any kids are "naturally curious" at all. Like me, I believe their curiosity was nurtured, by indulgent parents and other adults perhaps, by inspiring and engaging teachers certainly, and by simply being given the time and the feelings of safety and security that allow for brain space to be given over to exploration.

Unfortunately, school often works against the development of curiosity. And, it seems to Shonstrom, schooling for "at-risk" children is the worst offender. He says that if we want to nurture curiosity we need to "disengage from standardized testing and common curricula." "Curiosity," he says, "does not hold up well to intense inspection." He advises that teachers be given the agency to slow down and allow time for kids time to wonder and be curious. I would add that we also need to provide children with a safe environment where exploration is rewarded and not punished and where impulsivity is recognized as an element of curiosity. For some children, school may be the only place where it is safe to let the mind wander and explore or to give in to an impulse.

As a language arts teacher, I think we can nurture curiosity by providing children some choice and voice in their reading and writing in an environment that supportive and safe. In reading this means providing guided, but genuine, choice in what kids read independently and the opportunity to give voice to what they have learned in their reading through conversations with their peers, their parents and their teacher. In writing this means real topic and audience choice for what they write for real purposes. A classroom is too much of a closed environment to nurture real curiosity. When children can get outside of the classroom hothouse either through their imagination or through actual explorations out of doors, we can feed their curiosity. So I think of kids writing about things that matter to them to the people who can do something about it, whether that be their parents, the principal, the local mayor, the Environmental Protection Agency or the President of the United States. Real audiences encourage genuine (and correct) writing and I hope, feed the curious mind.

I started this blog post with speculation on the importance of curiosity for my college freshman. I end it reflecting on the irony of 21st century education reform with its focus on developing "college and career ready" students through standardized test driven accountability and common standards. Could it be, as Shonstrom suggests, that this inspection driven movement, obsessed with data and accountability, is helping kill the curiosity that students need to be truly college and career and, for that matter, life ready?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Fluency Instruction: Building Bridges from Decoding to Comprehension

The reward we get for reading is meaning. When we read we might be entertained or informed or both, but only if we can get to the meaning.  Children must become automatic enough in their decoding to free up brain space to think about what they are reading and make sense of it. Achieving this automaticity is difficult for some children and so, struggling to decode the words in front of them, they have little cognitive space left for understanding what they read. These children get no reward for their reading efforts - no entertainment, no information. Without the reward, they are not likely to continue reading.

When this happens our tendency is to double down on decoding instruction, giving kids extra doses of phonics work and engaging them in all sorts of multi-sensory activities in the hopes of strengthening decoding abilities (tapping, scooping, spelling in sand).  Often these efforts are frustratingly slow and ineffective. Kids may improve in decoding, but still fail to achieve the kind of automaticity they need to get their reading reward.

How to get the kids across the divide between decoding and comprehension? Research would indicate that fluency instruction can  provide the bridge (Pikulski & Chard, 2005).

According to Tim Rasinski, the leading scholar on fluency instruction in the country, fluency instruction has the advantage of focusing instruction on automaticity within the larger context of comprehension. In other words, kids develop the ability to decode at a sufficient level of automaticity at the same time they are being rewarded by greater understanding of what they read.

To understand fluency instruction, we need to first understand that fluency is only partly about reading rate. Rasinski says fluency is automaticity + prosody. Prosody includes the melodic features of our oral language. It is reading that reflects not only the words of the text, but also the meaning of the text. In other words, fluency instruction connects to comprehension when children can read text "so it sounds like talking." Fluency is a skill that can be taught and Rasinski's research indicates that instruction in fluency not only helps children read what they are currently working on, but transfers to future readings (Rasinski & Samuels, 2011).

How can fluency be taught? In many ways and in ways that fit neatly into the regular instruction in a classroom everyday. First of all, kids need a model of what fluent reading sounds like, so we teach fluency when we read aloud to kids. Occasionally, while reading aloud we should stop and talk about how we used our voice to express the meaning of what we are reading. Another highly effective strategy for fluency instruction is repeated reading. We know from Samuels (1979) research that repeated readings improve decoding, automaticity and comprehension of passages. Poems, nursery rhymes, and reader's theater activities provide ample opportunity for repeated readings. You can read more about repeated reading here.

Small group instruction also provides plenty of opportunities to support a student's developing fluency. When children are reading laboriously, we should prompt them to , "Read that again and make it sound like talking" or model what it should sound like and ask them to imitate us until they can read it fluently on their own.

Rasinski, Padak, Linek & Sturdevent (1994) recommend a lesson structure for fluency instruction called, The Fluency Development Lesson (FDL). The FDL is meant to be a 10-15 minute daily lesson where students work on one short text, usually an age appropriate poem. The authors suggest the following steps in the procedure.

  1. The teacher introduces the text and reads it from a chart or overhead display two or three times while students follow along silently.
  2. The teacher leads the students in a brief discussion of the meaning of the passage and how the teacher used her voice in reading it.
  3. Teacher and students together read the text chorally two or three more times.
  4. The children form pairs. One student reads the text aloud to the other two or three times, while the partner follows along and gives feedback on fluency. Students switch roles.
  5. The students then perform their oral readings to an audience - a small groups of students, a visiting parent, another adult, the teacher, etc.
  6. Next teachers engage students in five minutes of word study focusing on word patterns from the text (rhyming words, spelling patterns).
  7. Students save a copy of the text in their personal poetry folder for further reading.
  8. Students take a second copy of the poem home to read to family members.
  9. Before introducing a text for a new lesson, read a few texts from previous lessons.
Kulich's 2009 study of this instructional strategy found it to be effective for all readers, but particularly for struggling readers. In my personal adaptation of the FDL for my own classroom, I also included an "echo reading" of the text, where I would read and point to the text line by line while the students echoed my reading and phrasing after each line. 

While any short poem, nursery rhyme or other text can be used for fluency instruction, Rasinski & partners have two books available that are helpful.

I have also published a book of poems aimed at fluency development and using a similar instructional design.

While you are waiting for these resources, here is a short poem to get you started. Did I mention that fluency instruction can also be a lot of fun?

Laughing Giraffes

On a field trip to the zoo, you must see the giraffe,

But I’ll give you a warning on his behalf.
Have a nice chat; get his autograph,
But whatever you do, please don’t make him laugh.

Though he truly enjoys comical patter,
A laughing giraffe’s knees wobble and chatter,
‘Til he falls to the ground with a clang and a clatter.
For a giraffe a laugh is no laughing matter.

Works Cited

Kulich, L.S. (2009). The English reading development of Karen children using the fluency development lesson in an intensive English language program. Three descriptive studies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Akron, OH

Pikulski, J.J. and Chard, J.D. (2005). Fluency: Bridge between decoding and reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher., 58(6), 510-519.

Rasinski, T.,  Padak, N., Linek, W., & Sturtevent, E. (1994). Effects of fluency development on urban second graders. The Journal of Educational Research, 87(3), 158-165.

Rasinski, T. & Samuels, S.J. (2011) Reading Fluency: What it is and what it is not. in Samuels, S.J. and Farstrup, A. What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction. Newark, DE. IRA.

Samuels, S. J. (1979). The method of repeated readings. The Reading Teacher. 32(4), 403-408.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Bringing "Sophistication" to Vocabulary Instruction

I begin each of my freshman college reading classes with a vocabulary discussion. Students bring in words from their reading in all subjects and we look at the word in context, we discuss the probable meanings, we look it up and discuss possible connotations of the word. On Thursday a student brought in "explicate." The context was, "The professor took an hour to explicate his convoluted thesis on the causes of the Civil War." One student volunteered that the word looked like "explain" and probably had something to do with explaining. Another student said from the context, it made this sound like a long explanation.

Good work on the students' part. I had a student look up "explicate" on a smart phone where we discovered the definition: "analyze or develop an idea in detail."

So I asked, "If we have a perfectly good word like 'explain' that everyone understands, why do we need the word 'explicate'?"

One brave student volunteered, "So we can sound more sophisticated?"

I said, "Say more about that."

"You know, so you sound like an educated person."

"So if I said, 'Allow me to explicate tomorrow's homework assignment', I would sound more sophisticated?"

"Well, actually, you just sound silly? It sounds like you are trying to use a big word."

"Right, so why do we have a word like explicate?"

Another student jumped in, "From the sentence, it sounds like 'explicate' is a more involved explanation."

"Good," I said, "Now why do we need both 'explain' and 'explicate' in our vocabularies?"

"I guess we have these similar words in our language so we can be more specific when we speak"

"Bingo!" I said, "Not only when we speak, but when we write. One sign of an educated person is a person who has the vocabulary to use just the right word to communicate a thought."

I tell you this story because I think it is illustrative of what we need to consider when we teach vocabulary. Just as in reading comprehension, where we activate background knowledge to help readers understand what they are reading, so, too, in vocabulary instruction, we use what students already know about a concept to build new knowledge in the form of new and more specific words.

Allow me to, ahem, explicate.

All of the students in my class had a concept for "explain." To help them learn the word "explicate", I needed to tap into that "explain" concept to help them make the connection to the new word "explicate." We came away from the lesson, I hope, with the understanding that explicate was reserved for rather involved explanations of complex ideas.

Let's consider how this operates with very young children. My 2 year-old granddaughter Schuyler lives in a house with two cats. The first time she saw one of our dogs, she pointed and said, "Cat." Schuyler had a concept for pet (four legs, tail, lives in the house with people) but it was not yet sophisticated enough to see the nuances of dogdom (barking, tail wagging, different kind of fur). After a few exposures to dogs and other household animals, Schuyler had expanded her concept of "pet" to include dogs, birds, fish and other animals.

Now let's move this insight into the classroom. Whenever we are trying to teach new words to children, we must first prepare them to receive the new word by tapping into the already existent concept. Kids have a concept of anger, so if we want to teach the word "livid", we would first ask them to generate words that they associate with anger (mad, angry, unhappy, furious, annoyed, enraged) and then ask them to place these words on a continuum of anger, perhaps from unhappy to furious, and then locate "livid" along that continuum somewhat closer to furious than unhappy.

Here is another way to bring context to bear on vocabulary learning. In the "In the Box, Out of the Box" strategy, students are asked to provide words for a concept they already know. In the example below the concept is "the person who is in charge at the local convenience store." Both words that fit the concept,"in the box", and those that do not, "out of the box", are listed and then the target word "proprietor" is added to the box to show how it fits with the concept. Note that both words that fit the concept and those that do not (cashier, worker) help us to define the concept.
Literacy researchers Nell Duke and David Pearson say that words are not the point of words - ideas are. Ideas are concepts and as we guide children toward more sophisticated vocabulary, we are guiding them, not as my college freshman would have it, to sound more sophisticated, but to more sophisticated ideas, and ultimately toward more sophisticated thinking. You may be able to think a thought without a word for it, but you can't share that thought with others, verbally or in writing, without having the right word for the idea.

The effective teaching of vocabulary, is quite literally, teaching children to think with greater sophistication.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Teaching Struggling Readers: Focus on Meaning

Why do we read? Of course, you will say we read for pleasure and we read for information and perhaps even we read to become better writers and thinkers. In order to enjoy and learn from reading we must make sense of the words on the printed page. This is true of all readers. The driver behind all reading activities is meaning.

Struggling readers have difficulty accessing meaning. This difficulty can lead to a cascading accumulation of reading difficulties. Kids who have difficulty making sense of what they read, read less. When they read with the teacher, they are more likely to be interrupted than skilled readers and so they read less. When children read less, they get less chance to develop the decoding abilities, vocabulary knowledge, syntactic understanding and content richness that good readers need.

Reading researcher, Keith Stanovitch has called this, "Matthew Effects in Reading", the idea that in reading the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, mainly due to differentiated exposure to text. Motivational issues then compound the problem. When you are not good at something, you tend to avoid it. Children who are not good at reading read less.

Stanovitch and others have identified one primary cause of reading difficulty - phonological processing. Children with  phonological processing problems have difficulty decoding words - breaking words down to their component parts or "sounding them out." Often these children are labeled as "dyslexic" a term fraught with mythology and mistaken connotations. I do not think the term is very helpful. Better I believe to think of struggling readers on a continuum of struggle -from those who have a great deal of difficulty taking on reading, to those with more minor concerns.

Whatever the label, however, the identification of phonological processing problems as a major cause of reading disability has led to a cottage industry of programs designed to solve the problem. These programs are, for the most part, based on what is commonly known as the Orton Gillingham Approach. We have Wilson Reading, Spell Read, Stevenson, Corrective Reading and on and on. These programs have two things in common. First, they are heavily focused on phonics instruction. Second, they do not work very well (See below)*

In 2008, the 9 million dollar Power4kids study was lauded as having the "highest possible standards for a research study." The purpose of the study was to find out which of four programs (Spell Read, Wilson Reading, Corrective Reading, and Failure Free Reading) designed for struggling readers provided the best results. Struggling readers in 3rd and 5th grade were studied. The researchers found, to their surprise, that students in the treatment group who received instruction from one of these programs fared worse than students who received no special programs. While the lead researcher, Dr. Joseph Torgeson of Florida University, said that this was an "extremely well-designed study", he backpedaled on the results citing a litany of reasons why the study did not yield the results he had hoped. One reason Torgeson cited for the failure of the study caught my eye - the interventions did not include enough comprehension instruction.

What Torgeson seemed on the verge of discovering, though he did not state it directly, is that any program that focuses on any one component of literacy is doomed to fail. In reading instruction, we tend to want to identify what is wrong and fix it. Since we have identified decoding weakness as a difficulty for many struggling readers, we tend to want to do lots of focused decoding instruction, ala Orton-Gillingham or Wilson. We apply the metaphor of the machine. After all if your car is not running and you identify a faulty fuel pump as the reason, you replace the fuel pump.

But children are not machines and language is not a fuel pump. The key thing to understand in designing a support program for readers is that reading is communication. If we begin our search for the best way to help a struggling reader with the idea that language is meaningful and reading is about making sense of written language, then we have a better chance to help struggling readers.

What does this mean for instruction? One thing it means is we need to provide interventions early, before children experience too much failure and adopt too many "confusions" about how reading works. Secondly, it means that rather than doubling down on phonics instruction, we need to double down on meaning making.  If a student struggles to make meaning from text, we must scaffold the meaning sufficiently to assist the student in decoding the words.

Most instruction for struggling readers, in other words, has it backward. The Orton Gillingham approach and all of its imitators like Wilson Reading and Stevenson, note that struggling readers have difficulty with phonics so they pitch right in to provide large doses of phonics instruction. The study of that great communication skill, reading and writing, is divorced from communication and centers on the tiny bits and parts of words. This fails because the driving force behind reading, making meaning, gets lost in a forest of sounds, symbols, and step-by-step study of one reading skill after another. "Let's focus on the schwa sound today, children and we'll look at 'ed" endings tomorrow."

Now let's imagine an instructional design where we turn this on its head. Reading is chosen for a group of struggling readers that is fairly easy for them to read. The text is deliberately chosen so that the children will likely stumble on only a few words. Literacy researcher Richard Allington says that most struggling readers spend most of their reading time in school reading text that is too difficult for them. So let's make the reading fairly easy.

Next let us suppose that we introduce the story to the children in such a way that it helps them activate their background knowledge for what they will read, builds expectations about what they will read and allows them to predict what they will be reading about before they begin reading. Let's suppose that we get the children talking about the story, noticing things from the pictures that accompany the story and making personal connections to the story before they read.

A good book introduction helps children get ready to read and anticipate what they will read. They have built up expectations and those expectations can help them power through unfamiliar words.

Next let's suppose that while all these struggling readers are reading this story that is reasonably easy for them and that they have been well prepared to read, that we listen in while they are reading (all children reading at the same time, not round robin) and we notice they stumble when trying to identify a word. At the point of difficulty we can then prompt them to use all the cues available to them to identify the word: What would make sense? What would sound right? What would look right? And when they try to make it look right, but limited ability to apply phonics rules interferes? We try other prompts. What do you see that can help you? What is the first letter? Does this look like a word you know?

After the reading and after we have observed what children have struggled with, we can follow up with a decoding lesson based on the struggles that the students had with individual words, but we must also follow up with a discussion that builds the students understanding of what they had read.

Of course, what I am laying out here is the design for guided reading. Guided reading puts meaning at the center of the reading instruction and therefore puts struggling readers in a better position to use all the cues available in reading to decode the text. If we front load meaning, we give struggling readers a better chance to read meaningfully and if children are reading meaningfully they have a better chance to decode successfully, read more and improve their decoding abilities.

Guided reading is based on one reading intervention strategy that has been proven to be effective for struggling readers: Reading Recovery. Like all programs for struggling readers, decoding instruction is an important component of Reading Recovery instruction, but Reading Recovery puts meaning at the front of the instruction.

Literacy expert, researcher and writer, Richard Allington says, "We’ve known for two decades that when classroom reading lessons for struggling readers are meaning focused, struggling readers improve more than when lessons are skills focused."

Enough said. Want to help our most struggling readers? Focus on meaning.

*I know that the statement above is going to anger a number of my hard working colleagues who labor mightily everyday with struggling readers employing one of these Orton-Gillingham style programs. I know they believe in what they are doing and are doing it to the best of their ability in the service of children. But faith is not research and the research evidence is just not there. You can look hereherehere, here, here and here for summaries of that research. The research into these programs indicates that these programs might have some positive effect on "alphabetics", that is phonics, and very limited or no impact on comprehension. This is to be expected. If teachers focus their attention on one thing, kids are likely to get better at that one thing. According to the University of Michigan website on dyslexia, children with dyslexia can learn phonics, their difficulty is in applying phonics in real reading situations. They say "increased instruction in phonics will not help dyslexics" Phonics is not reading any more than spelling is writing.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Stop the Nonsense (Words)

Let's get the main idea of this blog post out of the way early. Nonsense words should not be used for decoding instruction. Period. No how. Not ever.

A while back, I wrote a post that argued that the commonly used early literacy assessment called DIBELs, led to poor literacy instruction because it focused on the bits and pieces of literacy learning rather than looking at the big picture. Paraphrasing literacy luminary, P. David Pearson, I wrote, "the widespread employment of DIBELS has had dire consequences on the actual teaching of reading."

Like many early literacy assessments, DIBELs uses nonsense words to assess student ability to decode. This is a well-validated practice and can provide useful information for diagnostic purposes. But diagnosis is not treatment and nonsense words should never be used for instruction. When a doctor suspects a broken bone, that doctor will often order an X-Ray. If the X-Ray shows a broken bone, the doctor treats the bone with a cast, a wrap or surgery, not with another X-Ray. So it is with nonsense words - they point to a problem, but are not to be used to treat the problem.

Why not?

Because learning to read is an act of communication and communication only happens with real words. In order to develop skilled decoding abilities, children need to be exposed to lots of real words. Real words have a certain set of finite spelling patterns. Yes, in English this is more complex than in most languages and this is a source of much difficulty, but still the patterns are there. The human brain is a pattern identifying machine. And young minds are particularly adept at intuiting patterns. The detecting of patterns in writing is mediated by the child's oral language. A young developing reader learns that the word "man" begins with the sound "mmm" and then learns that that sound can be represented by the letter "m." This can only happen through exposure to real words that are in the child's oral vocabulary.

As we expose children to real words, they get more information to store in the pattern detecting parts of their brain. We can expose the children to words in isolation, in real reading contexts, in word families, or as onsets and rimes (sp+ot), but no matter how we are presenting words to children, we must be presenting real words, so that children can discern the patterns. Of, course we can also teach those patterns explicitly through word families and spelling instruction.

Literacy researcher, Marilyn Jager Adams says that, no matter how we are exposing children to real words,  we can optimize student understanding by making sure that the children see the word, say the word, understand the word and know its meaning. All of these contribute to a child learning a word and building the ability to decode the word and other words with similar patterns.

Of course, not all English words follow regular patterns, so sight word instruction is also key, especially for function words necessary for early reading like the, of, was, do. These words should be the focus of early instruction and learned by sight.

Nonsense words do not give children the opportunity to intuit patterns. They violate patterns and make learning to decode more difficult. This characteristic makes them useful for diagnostic tests, but disqualifies them for instruction.

Literacy researcher, Tim Shanahan, believes that the spread of the use of nonsense words can be attributed to administrators mistakenly using diagnostic tests to evaluate teacher performance. If teachers are going to be assessed on these tests, then teachers can hardly be faulted for teaching kids how to read nonsense words. Simply put, using diagnostic tests in any way to evaluate teachers is, well, nonsense. On using nonsense words in instruction, Shanahan says simply, "Don't do it."

As Adams puts it, "The brain does not grow block by block from bottom up. It grows through its own efforts to communicate and find coherence within itself." Nonsense words interfere with our natural desire to communicate and lack any coherence with a child's spoken language.

Stop the nonsense!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Developing a Literate Home Environment

It is back to school time around the country and with children returning to school, teachers are also gearing up for that great American tradition – Back-to-School Night. One question that always popped up in my Back-to-School Nights over the years was, “How can I help my child in reading and writing?" 

Over time, I developed a list to share with parents of things they could do at home. I share it below. Please feel free to copy and paste and use the list as you wish for your own Back-to-School Night. If you do use it as a printed list, I would appreciate it if you would state that this list was adapted from my new book, A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century.

Developing a Literate Home Environment

Below I list some of the attributes of a literate home environment. This list comes with a caution, however. Not all of these literacy practices fit seamlessly into all families and all cultures. For example, Shirley Brice Heath (1983) found that the way white middle-class family literacy practices with their children differed greatly from African American family interactions. Because the white middle-class family interactions hued more closely to instruction that took place in school, white middle-class students tended to do better in school. This observation does not mean that African American literacy practices are inferior, it means that school instructional practice needs to be more inclusive and more able to build on the literacy strengths that children of all different backgrounds bring to school. The list below, then, is suggestive and not definitive and if some of these are absent in some home environments it does not mean that a rich literacy environment does not exist.

·         Reading is practiced by the adults in the home – When children see that the adults closest to them read, they learn that reading is an important human activity worthy of emulation. It makes little difference what the reading material is, books, magazines, newspapers, in print or digital, as long as children see those around them reading. Adults can drive home the value of the activity by stopping to read something aloud that they found interesting or remarkable, or to share some information they learned from reading.

·         Writing is practiced by the adults in the home – A literate household uses writing in a variety of ways. The important thing that children learn in a household where people write is that writing is a means of communication that can inform, persuade or simply serve as a memory aid. So whether it is letters, emails, grocery lists or post-it note reminders placed on the bedroom door or refrigerator, children should see writing being used to communicate and they should have writing materials readily available for their own writing attempts.

·         Literacy materials are available in the home – When you walk into a Barnes & Noble at the mall you can barely get in the door without tripping over a display of the newest bestsellers. The home should be the same way. Literacy materials should be found throughout the home. Books on shelves and end tables, magazines on the coffee table and newspapers on the kitchen table. For children to grow as literate humans, the “stuff” of literacy must surround them.

·         Children are included and encouraged to participate in family conversations – The greatest ally young students have in learning to read and write in school is the oral language they bring with them from home. Oral language is developed when children are seen and heard. Conversations conducted with children rather than commands directed at children help children develop the oral language they need to underpin their emerging literacy skills in school.

·         Children are read to regularly – Reading aloud is important. Children who are read to from an early age show a greater interest in reading at later ages, have superior reading comprehension skills and have more expressive language abilities. But just as important is the talk that surrounds the read aloud. A read aloud should include frequent opportunities to talk with children about what has been read, to ask and answer questions and to talk about what a story made the child feel and/or think about.

·         Family stories – All families have stories, those stories about the time the cat climbed a tree and refused to come down or when dad or mom did something silly or how grandmother came to be called Meemaw. Sharing family stories around the dinner table or in the car is an important way for children to develop their oral language and their understanding of the narrative structure of stories. Family stories are also a good way to pass down an oral history of the family; an oral history that gives children a firm understanding of who they are and where they come from.

·         Family library trips – Regular whole family trips to the library reinforce the importance of literacy and provide children with a wide array of literacy materials on a wide variety of topics to explore. Many public libraries also have a story time for young children. All members of the family should have a library card and should use it regularly.

·         Family trips to museums, cultural events and historical landmarks – Reading comprehension is built on broad knowledge of multiple topics. Regular family visits to art, history and science museums, and zoos help build knowledge that can be applied to reading and learning in the classroom. For younger children, museums that offer “hands-on” activities offer the best learning opportunities. Many museums offer special programs for children of varying age groups.

·         Share a fascination with words – All of the activities described above will help children develop a rich vocabulary, but parents can also help with vocabulary development by being on the lookout for interesting, exciting, curious words that pop up in reading or in conversation and by simply talking about words used by characters on TV or written on billboards or restaurant menus. We want to develop a “word consciousness” in children – a fascination with words and their many and varied uses. When you see interesting words, talk about them with your children.

·         Combine TV watching with talk – Television is not the enemy of literacy learning. Television viewing can be educational, whether kids are watching something that is informative or merely watching an entertaining cartoon or sitcom. The key to making TV watching a literate experience is talk. During commercials the TV can be muted and parents and children can talk about what they have seen and predict what they will happen next. At the end of the program, the TV can be turned off and the family can discuss what they have seen, summarize the big ideas and each family member can share what stood out for them in the show.

·         Turn the captions on the television – All TVs are now required to have caption capability. Originally developed to help the hearing impaired enjoy television, it has since been discovered that captions help students develop important literacy skills. As Cynthia Mershon notes in an article for the Russ on Reading blog:

Research…reveals that when students read the words on the television screen and hear them spoken by the people in the television program or movie and see the pictures or images on the television screen that tell them what those words mean, their reading comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and general engagement with reading increases and develops at a higher rate than those students not watching captioned television. In particular, learning disabled and ESL students exhibit dramatic improvement in language skills when captioned television is a regular part of their reading program (2015).

·         Continue all of these practices after children begin school – Once children begin school and begin to formally learn to read and write, good home literacy practices, including read aloud, should continue in the home. Continued emphasis on literacy in the home supports the work of the classroom teacher and the continuing learning efforts of your child.

Adapted from: A Parents Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, by Russ Walsh. NY:Garn Press, 2016.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Some Real (Estate) Data for Education Reformers

Education reformers love their data. It is the desire for data that has driven the entire test and punish reform movement from the outset. The idea seems to be that if we get the right data we can identify the problem and if we identify the problem, we can fix it. And so we get more and more standardized tests being used for high stakes purposes like promotion, graduation, teacher evaluations, and school closures. The data extends down into the hallways of schools where "data walls" show student test scores for the world to see, in a mean-spirited attempt to shame students into doing better work.

All this data, we are told, provides us with the information we need to fight the "civil rights issue of our time": the failing urban education system.

As a public service, I would like to offer some data to the education reformer that they seem to be ignoring. This data will tell them more about the plight of urban schools than any test they can give and any data wall they can post.

Each week my local newspaper, The Trenton (NJ) Times, runs a list of real estate transactions. The list includes the sale price of properties in Mercer County, NJ, divided by community.

Here are this week's prices of homes sold in the poverty ridden city of Trenton, a city with very low test scores: $32,000, $32,000, $119,000, $64,000, $44,500, $13,900, $30,000, $39,500, $63,000, $80,000, $315,000, $35,000, $32,000, $38,500, $51,000.

Next on this listing was West Windsor, an affluent suburb 10 miles from Trenton, with very high test scores. Here are the prices of West Windsor homes: $652,000, $362,000, $612,000, $333,500, $676,000, $525,000, $410,000, $845,000, $999,000, $335,000, $270,000.

It seems to me that any neophyte statistician could look at these numbers and determine that the major issue facing public schools in urban areas is income inequity and all the attendant issues that come with that inequity: poverty, deteriorating infrastructure, drugs, crime, violence. All things that have a devastating impact on a child's ability to learn.

Any sensible reformer would look at this data, and also look at the lack of positive results that have come from more than a decade of test and punish, and determine that a reform movement must target income inequity in order to make an impact on student achievement.

Three years ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post suggesting that the best way to provide school choice would be to provide inner city families, not with school vouchers, but with real estate vouchers. With the real estate vouchers, families could buy a home in any community they chose and then take advantage of the public schools there. Perhaps reformers would like to consider this type of choice, instead of offering choice options that maintain segregation and lead to no appreciable educational improvements.

I would challenge education reformers from the highest levels of federal and state government and the wealthy philanthropists who prop up these reform ideas to read this telling data and come up with a plan that deals with the real issue. You don't need to subject kids to test after test to determine this one data driven truth: a full frontal attack on economic and social inequity is our best hope for improved educational opportunity for all.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Teaching, Tragedy and Comprehension

No one can teach for any length of time without being touched by tragedy. Students get terribly sick. Students experience death in their families and we ache for them as they bring the grief on their faces into the classroom. Sometimes, students die. I have experienced these tragedies many times in my teaching career. Suicides. A devastating diagnosis of cancer for a nine-year-old student. Parents who were killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

One particular tragedy stands out for me above all others. Van Johnson was one of my first students as a wet-behind-the-ears 8th grade social studies teacher at Bristol Junior-Senior High School. He was tall, handsome, with a winning smile and a 70s' style Afro that entered the classroom before he did. Van was bright, capable, curious, motivated, challenging and thoughful. He was always engaged in class, always had his hand up (or, truth be told, often didn't have the patience to raise his hand and just blurted stuff out) and multi-talented. In addition to being a top student, he was a pitcher on the junior high baseball team I coached and a performer in the school plays I directed. When I started a branch of the World Affairs Council at the school, Van was elected president. The future seemed very bright for young Mr. Johnson.

During his senior year at Bristol, 17-year-old Van Johnson drowned. He and some friends were celebrating their impending graduation with a late night swim at a nearby lake, when tragedy struck. For all his talents, Van was a poor swimmer. It was foolish for him to be in that lake, but he was, after all, just a kid trying to have some fun.

These memories of Van came rushing back to me as I read an article titled, Will Simone Manuel Encourage More Black Children to Swim? in today's New York Times. The article refers, of course, to the Olympic champion swimmer, Simone Manuel, an African-American who won two gold and one silver medal at the Rio Olympics. The article outlines the hope of many public health experts, swimming advocates and African-American parents, that her charisma and success will lead to more minority children learning how to swim.

Among the many gaps between white and black, majority and minority, rich and poor in this country is a swimming gap. This swimming gap kills. It is estimated that about 70% of African American adults and children cannot swim one length of a pool. For whites the number is 6%. The reasons for this gap are many, but they all begin and end with racism. Segregation kept African Americans away from pools that were often white only. Even when pools were integrated, they often located far from minority neighborhoods. Private swim clubs that did not explicitly exclude blacks were often too costly or built close to affluent white enclaves in the suburbs. Sometimes, when black families did approach a pool or a beach they were the victims of verbal and physical attack.

Van Johnson was African American. He was a weak swimmer. His companions on that fateful night were all white and better swimmers than he. Van paid the price, but in a very real sense we all paid the price that day because Van Johnson was a star in the making. I would have loved to have been witness to the adult he was about to become.

Why tell this story now on a blog about teaching and reading instruction? Because I wanted to illustrate an essential truth about reading that I believe all teachers must bring with them to the classroom and their work with children: reading is uniquely and specifically individual. No one else in the world will read this New York Times article the way I did. No one else in the world knew Van Johnson quite the way I did. My reading is colored by my experience. The fact that I chose to read the article at all is colored by my experience. My reading was full of meaning, some of which the author intended and some of which is clearly mine and mine alone.

Reading is first and foremost a search for meaning. As teachers we must assist children in that search, but be ever mindful that our search is not the same as their search. This means that instead of "comprehension questions" to test a student's understanding of a text, we need to ask what Beck and McKeown (1997) call "queries", which help students build there own meaning. In response to the article in the New York Times, we could ask the comprehension question, "What percentage of African Americans cannot swim on length of a pool?" or even, "What are the implications of so many African Americans being unable to swim?", but we would do much better by starting out with the query that my wife Cynthia Mershon taught me to use many years ago, "What stood out for you?"

Every reading is as unique as each student in our class. Encouraging children to build upon that unique reading is a part of the art and science of teaching reading.

For more information on queries in a reading lesson, you can look at this Read, Write, Think lesson here. Or see Beck and McKeown's book, Questioning the Author: An Approach for Enhancing Student Engagement with Text.