Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Developing Word Consciousness in Children

Kids need to learn about 40,000-50,000 words by the time they graduate high school. Traditional approaches to vocabulary instruction (listing, looking up, defining, writing in a sentence) have proven to be unsuccessful, but even if this instruction were perfectly successful children would fall far short of the number of words they needed to know by the end of their K-12 schooling. It is readily apparent that children must learn most of their words incidentally, in conversation with their teachers, parents and peers and through reading and being read to.

While this learning may be incidental, it does not mean that it cannot be fostered in the classroom. What children need to develop is a word consciousness, an awareness of and curiosity about words that will motivate the learning of new words. Teachers have a huge role to play in developing this consciousness.

Many years ago I wrote a group of poems to help students develop reading fluency and awareness of word families and spelling. One thing I did with these poems was use some sophisticated vocabulary, some words that would not be found in a first or second graders’ vocabulary. I viewed it as an opportunity to stretch kids’ vocabulary in a meaningful context. Here is an example:

            Crocodile Isle
            On a trip to a tropic isle,
            I encountered a crocodile,
            With jagged teeth, a crooked smile.
            We sat down to talk awhile.

            He proved to be quite versatile,
            And told me stories with great style
            Of pleasant trips along the Nile
            When he was just a juvenile.

            So if you should meet a crocodile
            Remember they’re not mean or vile.
            Have a nice chat, but all the while
            Keep your distance – about a mile.
                               (from Snack Attack and Other Poems)

Obviously, the target pattern is –ile words (and one sound alike, isle), but I want to call attention to words like versatile, juvenile and vile. These words would be challenging for most six and seven-year olds, but I included them, not just because they fit the pattern, but also because they provided an opportunity to talk about the words with the children in a real context and stretch their vocabulary.

Since the poem was first presented to the students as a read aloud followed by discussion of the meaning, I had plenty of opportunity to scaffold their understanding of these new words. Further, though these were new words, they were words for which for which students already had a concept, so I could hook these words onto a familiar concept. For example, the students already had a concept of “child” and “young”, so I could talk about the word “juvenile” and help them add this word to their growing concept of “youth.”

In this way, and in many other ways, teachers can help students develop a curiosity about words and an awareness of how words work and how they are interrelated. This curiosity and awareness has been called word consciousness.

In a very helpful article in The Reading Teacher, entitled “For the Love of Words: Fostering Word Consciousness in Young Readers” (Volume 62, Issue 3, 2011), Graves and Watts-Taffe offer a framework for developing word consciousness in the classroom. The framework has six categories as follows:
1.    Create a rich word environment – What are the words that students see in the classroom environment (word walls, anchor charts, etc.), read in a variety of texts in the classroom library, hear spoken by the teacher and other students, and ultimately use in their own speaking and writing?
2.    Recognize and promote adept diction – Diction, in this case is precision in the choice of words. Graves and Watts-Taffe recommend that one way to develop adept diction is through repeated read alouds and direct discussion of words encountered in the read aloud and how they can be used by students. I wrote about the read aloud/vocabulary connection in this post.
3.    Promote Word Play – Stock the room with commercially available word games as well as games that teachers can make and use in word based literacy centers.
4.    Foster Word Consciousness in Writing – Discussion around the best word choices makes for powerful writing instruction and helps to develop word consciousness. For example, a mini-lesson on powerful verbs can show students how the right word choice can bring power and clarity to their writing. “The car sped down the road” is more descriptive and clearer than “The car went down the road.”
5.    Involve students in word investigations – Students might be interested in investigating the special vocabulary used by certain professions, or the derivation of slang expressions or new words that have entered our language in the last decade.
6.    Teach Students About Words – Teachers should take every opportunity to model their own word consciousness by directly teaching kids about words. When students encounter the word “sign” in their reading, I might ask them why the “g” in “sign” is silent. This gives me an opportunity to talk about how “sign” is related to “signal” and that we keep the “g” in “sign” even though we don’t pronounce it, to make sure that the reader understands the meaning. This can then lead to a discussion of all sorts of words – signature, assignment, signage, assignation, signatory, signet, significance, signify, sign language.

Graves and Watts-Taffe recommend that when discussing words with children the teacher should

1.    Explain the meaning of the new word (or have another student explain it).
2.    Extend the meaning of the word by providing examples.
3.    Engage students with the word by helping them to make connections with their own experiences.

Another very useful article on the topic, also from The Reading Teacher is “The Vocabulary-Rich Classroom: Modeling Sophisticated Word Use to Promote Word Consciousness and Vocabulary Growth” by Lane and Allen (Volume 63, Issue 5, 2011). The authors offer a model of how to expand student word consciousness through the various activities of the Morning Meeting. The authors say “[p]romoting incidental learning and word consciousness through frequent and deliberate modeling of sophisticated vocabulary can add substantial breadth to students’ vocabularies.”

Words are endlessly fascinating things. Martin Luther King used his special way with words as the platform for a movement that changed the world (I have a dream). So did Abraham Lincoln (of the people, for the people, by the people) and Franklin Roosevelt (nothing to fear, but fear itself) and John F. Kennedy (ask not what your country can do for you). As teachers we need to foster our own love and fascination with words and we must share that love with our students and thoughtfully and systematically nurture their own word consciousness. In this way we set the stage for the development of the rich vocabulary that is so necessary for our students’ academic, social and professional success.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Assessing Reading Comprehension: Probing Instead of Questioning

When working in my role as a reading consultant, I often hear teachers lament their students lack of reading comprehension. The conversation often goes something like this:

Teacher: Most of my kids seem to be able to read the text fluently enough, but many don't understand what they read.
Me: How do you know they are not understanding?
Teacher: They can't answer the comprehension questions I ask them after they read.
Me: Have you considered that the questions are the problem and not the kid's reading comprehension?

I want to suggest that we disadvantage students when we employ a list of post-reading comprehension questions  (whether teacher constructed or taken from the teacher's guide) as our primary way to assess comprehension, or worse, when we send them off to a computer to complete an Accelerated Reader quiz. What we should be doing is helping kids build on what they have comprehended (and if they are reading with reasonable fluency, they have comprehended something) through probes rather than "comprehension questions."

Reading comprehension is, of course, a highly complex cognitive activity.  It is best understood as a dynamic transaction between the reader and the text. It is dependent upon the prior knowledge of the reader, the reader's vocabulary, the level of engagement of the reader, the skill and craft of the author of the text in communicating meaning, and the social context (place, situation, purpose) in which the reading happens.

Given this complexity, it is important to understand that every child will have a unique comprehension of the text. When a student cannot answer our "comprehension questions", one explanation could be that that child's construction of the meaning did not cause him/her to attend to the information that would allow for a correct answer.

What if we took a different approach to post reading comprehension assessment that built on what kids did comprehend and perhaps helped them extend their understanding? This is where my idea of "probes" comes in. These probes are similar to what Beck and McGowan call "queries" in their outstanding book Improving Comprehension with Questioning the Author, NY: Scholastic. I like the word "probe" because it gets at the concept of getting into the kids brains to help them build understanding.

So, how can we probe for understanding rather than test for comprehension? Here is the first probe I use at the end of any group reading activity. The great literacy teacher, Cynthia Mershon, taught me to use this many years ago.

What stood out for you?

Every member of the group can answer that question and the variety of responses gives all the readers a chance to reflect on what others found interesting or important. I often follow up the first probe with the following:

Can you say more about that? or What made you choose that?

After this start there are any number of probes we might use to both assess student comprehension and build their understanding.

What were some other things you found interesting?
What is something you learned that you did not know before?
What did you find confusing?
What did you read that made you think that?
What does the author mostly want us to know about this topic?
What do you think the author is trying to say here?
Who might like to read this book? Why?
What questions do you still have after reading this?

Probes can drill down into the text as well.

Look at page 7, what does the author focus on here? Why do you think this is important?
What is a new idea that the author introduces on page 9?
Why do you think the author included the graph on page 11?

Some probes lend themselves better to narrative texts.

What is going on in the story now?
What did a character do that you would never do? like to do?
What is the problem here?
How have things changed for the lead character?
How does the author tell us about what the main character is like?
Did you like how the story ended? Why or why not?

I tried a simple application of the probing strategy with a group of fourth grade students yesterday. We were reading an informational text entitled The Story of the Statue by Heather Lynn Banks, about the Statue of Liberty. I began the reading by asking the students to tell me what they already knew about the Statue of Liberty and these ideas were recorded on chart paper in blue marker. After introducing some vocabulary and previewing the text, the students read the story silently. After the reading I asked, "What stood out for you?" As the students responded, I recorded the new information on the chart in red marker. The red demonstrated graphically for the students that their reading had led to new learning.

When students offered brief responses to the probe, I followed with, "Say more about that." I continued by asking the students to share other things they had learned about the Statue of Liberty.  We gathered a good deal of information from the text about the history and significance of the Statue of Liberty.

I ended the discussion by trying to guide the students toward the author's purpose for writing the article with this probe: "The author says that the Statue of Liberty is not just a statue, but also a symbol. What do you think she means?" The students demonstrated clearly that they had understood the main idea of the text was that the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of freedom. By probing with "What do you think this means?", I hoped I was inviting the students to talk and for the group to construct their understanding together.

As we think about a concept as complex as reading comprehension, I think we need to move beyond an assessment based on questions after reading and move towards an assessment based on how students uniquely construct meaning. By using probing "queries" we can find out what we need about student understanding and at the same time help them develop strategies that lead to deeper understanding.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin, Mohandas and Opting Out of Standardized Tests

Pictured at left is my favorite photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. It depicts those two great heroes of civil disobedience, King and Gandhi. The influence of Gandhi on King's nonviolent approach to gaining basic human and civil rights for African-Americans is well known. Both used non-violent civil disobedience to change the world for the better. Their nonviolent model became the template for the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late 60s and for countless other protests aimed at bringing light to issues ignored by the establishment over the past 50 years.

For those of us in education an issue of currency is standardized testing. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has responded to recent criticisms, often from conservative groups, of the over use of standardized tests by doubling down on continued yearly testing in math and literacy. He argues this is the only way that parents can know how their children are doing in school and if the schools are performing up to snuff. A coalition of civil rights groups agrees with Duncan. According to these groups, as reported in the Washington Post, the annual testing has "unmasked yawning achievement gaps and forced all states and school districts to focus on poor and minority students, including those with disabilities."

I am loathe to disagree with a group of civil rights advocates, but as a lifelong educator, I can tell these folks that they are wrong on this issue. While standardized tests may purport to unmask achievement gaps, the only thing that they really shine a light on is income inequality. I could as easily measure that by looking at the average value of a home in the child's school district.

What standardized tests do, in actuality, is provide a bludgeon for those who seek to privatize education. These corporate privatizers can point to low test scores and blame teachers, unions, and school administrators for the failures of our public educational system. They can then propose solutions that take away local control of schools, turn schools over to for-profit companies, open charter schools of questionable quality and with lax oversight, and say they are trying to solve the problem.

None of these solutions will improve the quality of education for children living in poverty (now 51% of all public school children). Nothing short of a full frontal attack on poverty will narrow the achievement gap. Money spent on "measuring the gap" with standardized tests is wasted tax dollars. Better to invest the money in real anti-poverty programs.

So, what can we do to combat the over testing of all school children to no real purpose. I suggest taking a page from Dr. King by practicing civil disobedience - opt out of the tests. The government can offer you no compelling reason to have your child take the test. If you want to know about your child as a learner, ask the teacher. If you want to know how your school stacks up against other schools, ask a local realtor. If you want effective and non-intrusive test data on how your state is doing, look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. Standardized tests given three times in your child's twelve years (say in third, eighth and eleventh grade) in school will give you plenty of information about how your child and your child's school is performing.

If you would like to learn more about opting out I suggest you join the Opt Out facebook page here and visit the United Opt Out website here. To learn more about the abuses of over-testing I suggest reading the work of Fair Test here.

I have no idea how Martin Luther King would feel about the yearly testing of students. Perhaps he would side with the civil rights groups who argue that the testing insures that "every kid counts." I think these groups are wrong, and I believe Dr. King would defend my right to say so and take action accordingly.

Non-violent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored..MLK, 1963

Friday, January 16, 2015

How to Make a Frequent Reader

New research provides an old recipe for success

Scholastic, Inc. is out with a new research report based on a survey of 1,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17. Motoko Rich reported on the research in the New York Times in an article titled, “Study Finds Reading to Children of All Ages Grooms Them to Read More on Their Own.” Rich’s title tells a part of the story. The full report is good news for teachers who need all the data they can to support good instructional practices in literacy in the face of the attack of the Big Bad Standardized Test mania.

Here is what Scholastic found as characteristics of frequent readers (kids who read more than 40 books a year) ages 6-11:
·         They were read aloud to 5-7 days a week before entering kindergarten.
·         They are currently being read to at home.
·         They want books that allow them to use their imagination and that have characters that “look like me.”
·         They do not go online 5-7 days per week.

As Rich alludes to in the title of her article, one of the most important findings of this research is that frequent readers are still being read to at home even after they have begun reading on their own in school. This is critical, of course, because so many parents stop reading to their children once the kids start reading. This is a mistake and teachers need to highlight this research for parents and continually campaign for parents to continue the read aloud practice throughout elementary school and beyond.

Teachers, of course, cannot control what parents will and will not do, but teachers can be read aloud advocates encouraging parents through back-to-school night messages, newsletters and classroom web sites to keep up the home-based read aloud. One overt way to do this is to allow a child to take home from the school or classroom library a book that the child is interested in, but that may be too difficult for that child to read independently. The teacher could send the book home with a quick note to the parents that the book would make a good family read aloud.

Scholastic found the following characteristics of children who are frequent readers (read an average of 39.6 books per year) ages 12-17:
·         They read independently during the school day.
·         They read more books after being introduced to e-books.
·         They live in a home with 150 or more print books.
·         They know their own reading level.
·         They have parents who help them find books and encourage reading for fun.

Here I have highlighted the important practice of having kids 12-17 read independently in school. This in school reading opportunity seems to be particularly important for low-income children who reported they were more likely to read for fun in school than at home.

Independent in-school reading with middle and high school children is central to creating frequent readers. It is one variable that is completely under the control of the school and the teacher. It would be inexcusable if this effective practice were to fall by the wayside in the name of test preparation or some other less productive use of instructional time. We need to remember that all of our instruction in the skills and strategies of reading are for naught if children do not choose to read on their own.

I remember Mrs. V, a wonderful eighth grade teacher I supervised for many years. She had dedicated time in each of her classes for independent reading. Mrs. V built up, over the years, a wonderful library of young adult fiction from which the students could choose books that matched their interests and abilities. Students also made trips to the school library to broaden their choices.

As more and more pressure for test-based accountability began to creep into her school after NCLB, Mrs. V. found her independent reading practice under siege from some administrators. She bravely fought it off with calm reason and clear research on the benefits of what she was doing. Her kids kept reading independently. We all must continue to do the same.

Secretary Duncan says that annual testing of children is a “moral imperative.” Reading aloud to children and providing time for in-school independent reading, for me, is also a “moral imperative.” Which imperative do you think will serve students better over time?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Common Core Concern: The Complexity of Text Complexity

The December 2014 issue of the Elementary School Journal contains an article that addresses a serious concern with Standard 10 of the Common Core State Standards in ELA. That is the standard dealing with text complexity. The article, “Putting Text Complexity in Context: Refocusing on Comprehension of Complex Text” is by three highly respected literacy researchers, Sheila Valencia, Karen Wixson, and David Pearson. They believe that the text complexity issue is receiving too much attention and that the attention is not well informed.

Valencia, Wixson and Pearson believe that the focus of reading instruction should not be on a rudimentary understanding of the complexity of text as determined by a Lexile level, but rather on all the dimensions of reading comprehension. Those dimensions, taken from the Rand Study of 2002, include not only the text, but the reader (what skills and prior knowledge does the reader bring to the text), the task (what is the reader expected to do with the text) and the sociocultural context (what are the social and cultural understandings at work in the classroom).

These literacy experts fear that the Common Core emphasis on text complexity will cause teachers to interpret the Common Core as requiring students to wrestle with more complex texts and that teachers will, therefore, present challenging texts to students while exhorting them to try harder and read more closely without considering the full dimensions of reading comprehension. I expressed a similar concern in this post two years ago.

Valencia, Wixson and Pearson put it this way: “If all this attention to text complexity is to have the desired effect on students’ comprehension and knowledge building from complex text, then task and reader factors need to play a more prominent role in considerations of text complexity than is currently the case… Texts must be accompanied by appropriate tasks and instructional strategies to support specific reading purposes and readers who vary widely in the skills, backgrounds, and dispositions they bring to the classroom.”

In other words, teachers must carefully choose texts and tasks with their own unique knowledge of the students in mind. First, the texts may be “complex” in the sense that they are challenging to this group of students, not because they meet some Lexile reading level criteria. Secondly, the tasks must be “do-able” for the students. That is, the teacher must use knowledge of the students and knowledge of the challenges presented by the text to design instructional activities that provide opportunities for student success. Next, the teacher must provide appropriate scaffolding including activating and building appropriate background knowledge and pre-teaching vocabulary to ensure the students have a successful encounter with the text.

The limitations of a Lexile driven concept of text complexity are readily apparent. The authors provide the example of John Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men. The book has a Lexile level that would place it in the second- to third-grade readability level, but the themes of male friendship, the unrealistic quest for the American Dream, and the predatory nature of human existence make the book a complex read for middle school or high school.

The task, too, can turn a fairly easy read into a complex encounter with text. As the authors show, we might expect a second grader to read and retell the story of Cinderella, we might expect upper elementary students to compare different cultural perspectives of the Cinderella story in books like Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters and Yeh-Shen, while we might expect high school students to examine the gender ideologies evident in the Cinderella text.

The authors conclude by saying, “The point here is that simply knowing the measured complexity of the text is insufficient to locate the text in the appropriate grade-band level without the simultaneous consideration of text-task factors in the context of specific reading purposes.”

Amen. But the authors fail to address how we got here. They say they are surprised “at how difficult it is for many prospective and practicing teachers to fully grasp the importance of taking time, before initiating instruction, to examine the text they are asking students to read and consider the most appropriate instructional goals for a particular text or set of texts and the best means of accomplishing those goals. This is more important now than ever as Lexiles and other quantitative measures of text complexity are influencing curriculum materials and the selection of texts for instruction.”

Their surprise indicates a lack of understanding of how policy changes often work in schools.

I believe the misunderstanding and misapplication of the Common Core Standard 10 lay directly at the feet of the “chief architects” of the Common Core, that small group of (mostly) test designers and consultants that wrote the document. These folks should have known, or at least could have known, how this text complexity standard would have been interpreted by the consumers, especially school administrators with limited expertise in literacy. Two years ago I worried that administrators and teachers would think that the Common Core was calling for kids to read “harder books harder.”

The Common Core architects further clouded the message with a series of pronouncements and model lessons that urged teachers to focus “on the four corners of the text” and to eschew the very kind of scaffolding that can help students read complex text: the building and activation of background knowledge. I addressed that error in this blog post. While the Common Core architects have backed away from some of the egregiously ill-informed recommendations on activating background knowledge, the sample lessons that they have provided through the website continue to recommend that teachers “avoid giving any background context or instructional guidance at the outset of the lesson.”

If those Common Core architects had had real practicing teachers and administrators on their committee, they would have been aware of some of the pitfalls they have fallen into. If the roll-out of the Common Core had been done as a pilot study, these issues would have been readily apparent and might have been corrected. Indeed, if the Common Core implementation process had any way to be amended, revised and corrected, controversy and bad educational practice might have been avoided. But the Common Core proponents arrogantly forced the standards on already over-burdened and under-resourced teachers and administrators and so we have the resultant educational malpractice that Valencia, Wixson and Pearson are worried about.

Pearson was one literacy expert who signed off on the Common Core five years ago. He has been pedaling back from his support since, mostly because of his concerns with implementation.

While the battle over the Core rages on, thoughtful teachers are urged to choose texts carefully and with full consideration of the abilities of the students in the classroom. To consider the text in the light of the task expected of the students and to provide the scaffolding students need to enjoy a successful encounter with the text.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How to Create A Lifelong Reader

The fading photograph to the left is one of my most prized possessions. It captures my mother smilingly reading aloud to me, aged 2, and my joyous response to the story. The book is a Little Golden Book (remember those) perhaps my favorite, The Poky Little Puppy. I don't remember this particular reading time, but I do remember that huge, dark red, fuzzy, old sofa so comfortable to stretch out on, and of course, I remember the warm, cozy feeling of having my mother read to me.

My mom is just 21 years-old in this picture, already with one child and with my brother on the way. She had left school in 10th grade, in the middle of World War II, to work as a telephone operator and married my dad at age 17. Somehow though, she knew how to raise a reader. She knew that reading aloud to her child was a critical part of bringing the precious gift of literacy to her child.

A few years later, when I entered school and was beginning to read on my own, my mother gave me a second great literacy gift. Digging deep into a very tight household budget, she enrolled me in the Weekly Reader Book of the Month Club. I can clearly remember the first book that was delivered to our house. It came in brown paper and, magically, the mailing label read "To: Master Russell Walsh." It is the first parcel I ever received in the mail. It had my name on it. The book was mine. Under the brown paper was The Living Desert, a book based on a Disney documentary on desert plant and animal life.

The book was likely nothing special, but it was mine, all alone, and I treasured it. I took it to my room, and though it was probably above my reading level, I worked my way through it page after page. I groaned when mom called me for dinner and only my father's intervention got me to put the book down long enough to come to the table. As soon as I could, I excused myself and went right back to reading. I finished it, with a flashlight under the covers, late that night. I took it to school for "show and tell" the next day. Over the months and years the books kept coming and I eagerly anticipated my brown paper parcels. I remember titles like Old Bones and Wild Geese Flying and No Children, No Pets and Mystery in Old Quebec.

My progression as a reader was not linear. There were some fallow years where a preoccupation with sports and later, girls, intervened. There were several years where my recreational reading was limited to the backs of baseball cards (loved those statistics) and a little book that I read with eyes wide entitled What Every Boy Should Know. 

Sometime during ninth grade I discovered the short novella  The Pearl by John Steinbeck and I was off and reading again. With fits and starts, I have been a dedicated reader of books, magazines, newspapers and now, blogs ever since. I cannot imagine my world without reading. I cannot imagine living a life without reading.

Since I started teaching, and especially since I became a reading specialist, this has been my goal for all the children I have taught. I want them to know the joy of reading, so I read aloud to them. I want them to know the joy of having your own book, a book of your own choosing, so I try to help them find those special books. I want them to find success as they read those books, so I try to support their efforts at reading

My mother brought this gift to me. When I was small she read to me. When I was a little bigger, she made sure I felt what it meant to have ownership of books. She supported me in all my academic endeavors, even if she occasionally thought I was getting "too big for my own britches."

My mom knew how to create a lifelong reader and while it seems inadequate, I really need to say, "Thanks, Mom."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Limits of "Sounding It Out"

Second grader Luis is reading aloud to his teacher as part of the "listening in" portion of a guided reading lesson. The story is about a cat who can't make up his mind where to go. Luis reads, "And the cat ran off in a new ..." faced with the word "direction", Luis stops. His teacher prompts him to "sound it out." Luis tries the strategy. "duh, dye, dee."

At this point, as the reading consultant in the room, I jumped in. "Luis",  I prompted, "I want you to think about what is happening in this story and reread the whole sentence. Be sure to say the first letter of that tricky word when you get to it." Luis reads, "And the cat ran off in a new direction." I say, "Does that make sense? Does that look right?" Luis nods. "OK, Luis, let's read that sentence again and move on."

"Sound it out" is the go to strategy for many children when they encounter an unknown word. "Sounding it out" has likely become the go to strategy because teachers and parents consistently encourage children to "sound it out" when they encounter difficulty.

Unfortunately, "sounding it out", while a necessary strategy for a child to have in the decoding arsenal, is often not an efficient or sufficient way to decode a word. In the example above, the r-influnced vowel in "direction" likely caused Luis some difficulties in "sounding it out." We would better serve children to teach them to flexibly apply multiple strategies to decoding a novel word. Decoding a new word is best seen, I believe, as a problem solving activity and young readers need to use all the tools at their disposal to solve the problem.

Skilled and relatively automatic decoding is necessary for reading, but we must not narrowly define decoding as the ability to match sounds to letters. In fact, skilled decoders use not only the visual information (phonics) in decoding a word, but also use their knowledge of English to say a word that sounds right and their knowledge of the story to decide what word would make sense.

Let me give you an example:

How would you complete this sentence:

The boy studied for the big test all ___________.

Chances are you have generated words like the following: day, night, evening, afternoon, morning, week.

Notice that all the words generated were nouns. All native and proficient speakers of English know that a noun will come in this place in the sentence because this is standard English syntax. Only a noun will "sound right."

Notice also that all the words you generated to end this sentence are nouns of time. Because we expect English to "make sense" we use our semantic understanding of the language to predict a meaningful word for the context.

Now suppose that I showed the sentence this way:

The boy studied for the big test all n__________.

Immediately you are likely to say "night", because it looks right, sounds right and makes sense. Notice also that if you tried "sounding out" this word, you would run into trouble because the "gh" is silent. Again "sounding out" is a useful, but not sufficient tool for the developing reader.

When I prompt students at points of difficulty, I try to keep these three cues in mind and prompt them accordingly. I want students to understand that their knowledge of English can aid them in decoding. I want them to know that their understanding of the story can aid them in decoding. I want them to know that their ability to "sound out" can aid them in decoding. Most of all I want them to use these three cues flexibly to solve problems as they are reading.

The way we help students at point of difficulty matters. If we ask students repeatedly to "sound it out", students will focus on a narrow strategy. If we appropriately prompt them by saying "What would make sense?" or "Read that again and make it sound right?", we can help them develop the more flexible approach to decoding.

For a complete list of prompts to use with children at the point of difficulty I recommend the list from Fountas and Pinnell's seminal work, Guided Reading.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Dear Pennsylvania Governor-Elect Wolf

Asking Tom Wolf to do the right thing for York, PA school children

(Background:  A judge in Pennsylvania has ruled that the State can proceed with its plan to turn the public schools of York, Pennsylvania over to a receiver, David Meckley. Meckley, A York businessman with no background in education was appointed to oversee the district when it fell into financial difficulty as a result of the draconian budget cuts foist upon it by Governor Tom Corbett.  Meckley has already announced that he plans to turn the district over to the for-profit company Charter Schools USA.)

Because I was a (small time) contributor to the successful campaign for Pennsylvania Governor by Tom Wolf, I received an email survey about the Wolf campaign. At the end of the survey I was asked what I would like to say to the Governor. With the battle for public education being starkly played out in Wolf's hometown, York, PA, I decided to tell him this.

Dear Governor-elect Wolf,

I supported your campaign for governor because I believed strongly that you offered Pennsylvanians a better option when it came to public education. As fate would have it you have been presented with the opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to public education in the earliest days of your administration. I urge you to stop the corporate takeover of public schools in your hometown of York, PA.

As you know, a recent judge's ruling has turned the fate of the school children of York over to a receiver who is committed to bringing in a for-profit company, Charter Schools USA, to run the schools. Such a move would be bad for the bedrock American value of local control of public education and would be bad for the school children of York.

The public schools of York were thrown into financial difficulties by the policies of the Corbett administration and also by Pennsylvania's antiquated property tax system that puts an undue burden on urban school districts and families. The crisis in York schools is in no way reflective of the quality of the schools, the teachers or the school children of York.

For profit charter operations, like all for-profit companies, are in business to make money. Profit motivations supersede educational needs. A for-profit take over of the schools of York will make children into a cost to be controlled, rather than a gift to be cherished and nurtured. Profit motives and educational motives do not mix.

Even a cursory look at the history of for-profit takeovers should provide a cautionary tale. The first all charter school district in the country was in Muskegon Heights, Michigan. The for-profit company failed and negotiated its way out of its contract when it found that running the schools "did not meet their profit profile." For more on Muskegon Heights, see this article by my colleague Peter Greene.

You may also want to do a little background background research on Charter Schools USA. My colleague, Mercedes Schneider has taken a look at what Charter School USA's employees have to say about the company here. You may also want to read about Charter School USA's relationship with at least one school district in Florida here or what blogger Bob Sikes has discovered about the luxurious lifestyle of Charter Schools USA CEO, Jonathan Hage.

So, Governor-elect Wolf, as you move into office, I will be looking for decisive action on your part to stop the war on democracy in York and for a return of local control of the schools in the community. I will then be looking for a budget proposal that will help the public schools get back on their fiscal feet, so that they can provide the education for York children that they already know how to provide, but that they have not had the resources to provide thanks to unreasonable budget cuts and a poor tax structure.

This is your first big test as my governor. I will be watching how you proceed.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Best Education Books of 2014

Here is one person's year end list of the books that every informed educator and champion of public education should read very soon, if not now.

The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation, by Anthony Cody, NY:Garn Press.

If, like me, you were a big fan of Cody's late lamented Living in Dialogue column in Education Week, you will find more of Cody's thoughtful, informed critiques of the corporate education reform movement in this book. Here Cody, one of the true heroes of public education, aims his arrows directly at reformer in chief Bill Gates and he hits bullseye after bullseye. To understand how one person and one person's money can spread a mistaken idea from Seattle to Chicago to New York to the White House to your neighborhood school pick up Cody's impassioned and thoroughly readable book.

A Chronicle of Echoes: Who's Who in the Implosion of American Public Education, by Mercedes K. Schneider, Charlotte, NC: Information Age Press

If Cody focuses on the damage done to public education by Bill Gates, Schneider seemingly takes on every other corporate education reformer in her book. Schneider provides us with a sort of field guide to corporate education reformers. Name a reformer and Schneider will provide a detailed account of her/his misdeeds. Those of you familiar with Schneiders writing from her blog deutch29 (and if you aren't you should be) will be familiar with Schneider's penchant for finely detailed investigative reporting, skilled analysis of data and air of indignation.

50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education, by David C. Berliner and Gene V. Glass, NY: Teachers College Press

Berliner and Glass are two highly respected researchers who use their knowledge of research to systematically dismantle every canard of the corporate education movement. Name an issue: charter school superiority to public schools, international tests showing the failure of our public schools, merit pay will improve teacher performance, class size doesn't matter, retention will improve achievement, money doesn't matter, education will lift the poor out of poverty. Berliner and Glass take on each of these issues, present the reformer argument and then cite research to show how wrong they are.

50 Myths is the perfect book to have on hand when in the company of those who carp about charters, choice and "bad" schools. Clear and easy to read, this is a book you will refer to over and over.

Rethnking Value-Added Models in Education: Critical Perspectives on Tests and Assessment-Based Accountability, by Audrey Amrein Beardsley. NY: Routledge

Here is a book that every teacher must read in the era of standardized test-based accountability. In school after school, in state after state, teachers are being judged (in small or large part) on value-added models (VAMs) based on student performance on standardized tests. Amrein-Beardsley is the foremost authority on  VAMs in the country. She created the blog Vamboozled! as a forum for information and criticism of VAM based accountability measures. In this book, Amrein-Beardsley takes a scholarly approach to the dismantling of the research and rhetoric behind VAMs.

Her conclusions: VAMs are unreliable, invalid, nontransparent, unfair, full of measurement errors, and being used inappropriately to make key decisions about teacher retention, termination and pay. Other than that they are just peachy.

Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers and the Attack on Public Education, by John Kuhn. NY: Teachers College Press.

John Kuhn is one part story teller, one part evangelist and one part passionate champion of public education. Through personal narrative, historical reference, sound research and righteous indignation he lays waste to the corporate education reform movement in his compelling new book. What I love about Kuhn's writing is that his well told stories and carefully cited sources give way at times to bursts of passionate advocacy that have the reader, at least this life-long educator, primed to storm the beaches of the Gates Foundation or the Halls of Teach for America if necessary, to do what is right by children, teachers, parents and public education. You can read my full review of the book here.

Reading Wellness: Lessons in Independence and Proficiency, by Jan Miller Burkins & Kim Yaris. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

This one is for all my literacy instruction friends. Burkins and Yaris cut through all the Common Core standards gobbledy-gook to provide teachers with a clear eyed approach to bringing children to reading by developing both the skill and the will to read. The authors, both former teachers who have become influential voices in the literacy field through their blog, Burkins and Yaris - Think Tank for the 21st Century Literacy, worry that the current mania surrounding standards and accountability will draw teacher's attention away from a broader vision of students as readers and people. They offer up a book of practical lessons and knowing advice to help teachers stay true to their literate selves and true to their students literacy needs in the strange new world that is education in the 21st century. You can read my full review here.

So there you have it. The books that have helped me through another year of public education insanity. What books did I miss? What would you recommend? I would love to hear from you here on the blog or over at the Russ on Reading Facebook page.

Have a Happy New Year and keep reading!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Common Core Backlash: Is It Just About Testing?

Today, the New York Times published an op-ed entitled Rage Against the Common Core, by David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. Kirp ties the backlash against the Common Core to the Obama administrations push for testing and accountability. The op-ed is a fairly balanced piece with much to like in it. But Kirp makes the mistake that I see over and over again in these op-eds from non-educators - that the Common Core is a good thing and that only the testing is a bad thing.

I couldn't let that stand, so here is the response I wrote for the comments section of the Times. They limited me to 1500 characters, so this is an expanded version.

To the editor:

Professor Kirp offers a reasonably balanced assessment of the backlash against the Common Core, but in doing so he makes a fundamental error that I have read from many others. That error is the assumption that the Common Core State Standards are in themselves a "good thing." While it is true that the draconian testing scheme has driven the backlash against the standards, it is simply not true that the standards are an unqualified good.

It is also an error to imply that the Common Core is somehow separate from the tests. From the outset, the Common Core was to be tied to a testing regime. One thing that makes this clear is that the panel that developed the Comon Core was dominated by people with close ties to the standardized testing community. The Common Core was written with testing in mind, not student learning. This is a fundamental flaw; what can be easily measured is very different from what students need to learn.

There are also serious questions about the developmental appropriateness of the standards for young children grades kindergarten through third grade. This is also not surprising, since not one elementary edcuator was involved in developing the standards at the ground level. A joint statement by a consortium of health and education officials cited "grave concerns about the core standards for young children…. "

Professor Kirp goes on to state that many teachers favor the standards because "instead of memorization, the Common Core emphasizes critical thinking and problem-solving." Here Kirp simply repeats a well-worn Common Core advocate talking point. I have been a teacher for 45 years; I have never experienced a time in my teaching where memorization was valued over critical thinking. Good teachers have known for a very long time that the goal of education was to create thoughtful, engaged citizens, not parrots. The Common Core did not invent critical thinking as a goal of learning. In fact, by being so inextricably tied to testing, the Common Core will likely limit the time children spend in critical thinking and increase the push for rote learning.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Least of Russ on Reading

It's that time of year when every Tom, Dick and Mary comes out with his/her personal "Best of.." and "Worst of ..." lists. I thought I would take a little different approach in this post. As a blogger sometimes I feel like the little boy who "shot an arrow in the air, it fell to earth I know not where." Whenever I send out a new post, I really have no idea what the response will be or even if anyone will read it. It has been gratifying that several of my posts seem to attract a fairly substantial readership, but there are others that I am quite proud of that were greeted with a collective cyber space yawn.

I would like to give these posts another shot. So here for the end of the year celebration are "The Least of Russ on Reading", those posts that attracted little attention the first time around, but that I still think are relevant. I invite you to see what you think.

What Do We Want from Public Schools
A plea for schools to focus on the joy of learning for every child.

Creative Stability: A Better Plan for Public Schools
Corporate education reformers love to talk about a business model for schools that features "creative disruption." What kids and schools really need is stability.

Teaching Teachers to Teach: Context Matters
A model for professional development designed for real tachers in real classrooms.

Sacrificing Arts Education at the Altar of Test Prep
If the schools do not offer a rich arts curriculum, where will the audiences for the great plays, great paintings and great symphonies yet to be produced come from?

Does Class Size Matter?
One person's take on this persistent question.

VAMs: Stupid Economists Tricks  
Among the many lousy ideas economists have had in the last 10 years, value added measures of teacher effectiveness top my list.

I hope you all have a happy and healthy new year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Holiday Gift of Poetry

A holiday gift of poetry for my readers, one very old and very familiar and one fairly new and less familiar. Thank you all for your loyalty to Russ on Reading and have a wonderful holiday season.

Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play, 
    And wild and sweet 
    The words repeat 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come, 
The belfries of all Christendom 
    Had rolled along 
    The unbroken song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till ringing, singing on its way, 
The world revolved from night to day, 
    A voice, a chime, 
    A chant sublime 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Then from each black, accursed mouth 
The cannon thundered in the South, 
    And with the sound 
    The carols drowned 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 
It was as if an earthquake rent 
The hearth-stones of a continent, 
    And made forlorn 
    The households born 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And in despair I bowed my head; 
“There is no peace on earth," I said; 
    “For hate is strong, 
    And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
    The Wrong shall fail, 
    The Right prevail, 
With peace on earth, good-will to men.
Taking Down the Tree by Jane Kenyon
“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcase increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.
By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.

Enjoy the holiday and keep reading poetry, for poetry nourishes the soul.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Power of Rereading

What if you knew of a single instructional strategy that research has shown improves decoding, fluency and reading comprehension? Would you use it? Of course, you say. And yet one of the most under used literacy strategies is such a well documented strategy: the strategy of rereading.

The research is clear on the benefits of rereading. What do we know about rereading as an instructional strategy?

  1. Rereading helps students develop a deeper understanding of what they have read (Roskos and Newman, The Reading Teacher, April 2014).
  2. Rereading helps students read with greater fluency, allowing them to give more attention to making sense of what they have read (Pikulski and Chard, The Reading Teacher, March 2005).
  3. Rereading helps students develop greater accuracy in reading. When students reread, words that they may have struggled to decode on a first reading become increasingly easier to parse (Samuels, The Reading Teacher, January, 1979).
Researchers further agree that repeated readings should focus on short chunks of text and that the focus of the instruction should be on both fluency and comprehension (Rasinski, The Reading Teacher, May 2012). A further benefit of rereading is that the fluency that children build by rereading one passage seems to transfer to new readings later on. In other words, rereading leads to better first readings of text. 

With so much research to back it up, rereading should be a daily aspect of every classroom teacher's instruction. The Common Core State Standards' call for repeated reading in a "close reading" design is welcome if it encourages the use of repeated readings in all classrooms, but close reading is only one place where repeated readings can and should be used. Here are several instructional domains where repeated reading can be used to good effect.

Shared Reading

Shared reading is a whole class activity where the teacher and students share the responsibility for reading and comprehending the text. A typical shared reading lesson might focus on a short picture book or poem that is displayed on chart paper or board so that all students can read the text.

Students are prepared for reading the text through the activation of background knowledge and predictions. The text is first read aloud to the students. The teacher would then discuss the meaning of the story/poem with the students and then do repeated readings which would include echo reading and several choral readings. 

In my classroom I used the strategy across a week of morning meeting lessons, where each day we would reread the story or poem to continue the development of fluency. Poetry lends itself particularly well to rereading, because the texts are generally short and the rhythm and rhyme of poetry support a fluent reading of the text.

For a more complete description of a shared reading/fluency model you might want to look at my book Snack Attack and other poems for developing fluency in beginning readers. Infinity Press, 2012

Guided Reading

Small group instruction is another place where teachers can take advantage of repeated reading opportunities. In guided reading, where all students are reading the whole text at the same time, some students may finish before others. Students should be instructed to reread the text if they finish before others have finished.

While teachers listen in to individual readers, students may be prompted to reread a passage to gain better fluency and understanding. indeed, whenever a student stops to "work through" a word, that student should be asked to go back and reread the entire sentence in which that word appeared.

The best follow up activity for a guided reading lesson is to have the students take the book back to their desks to reread, either individually or with a buddy reader. Guided reading lessons should often begin with a "warm up" of rereading the text from the previous guided reading lesson. Eventually guided reading texts should find themselves stored in a "browsing box" where children can revisit and reread them during independent reading time.

Readers Theater

Readers Theater is a type of performance art where actors do not memorize their lines, but instead read them from a prepared script. Readers theater is an ideal activity for encouraging students to do several readings of a text. Readers theater scripts are readily available from many sources both print and online, but the simplest approach, and the most powerful instructionally, is to have studnets adapt a favorite tale for performance.

In adapting a tale, students identify the dialogue in the story, take out the "he saids" and "she saids" and assign narrative eleements of the story to one, two or three narrotors. In preparing for performance, students rehaearse by reading their parts over and over in order to capture their character through vocal expression. This rehearsal provides the student with miultiple genuine reasons for reareading and the performance aspect allows students to focus on commnicating meaning with their voices.

Readers theater activities are ideal for developing another element of reading fluency, called prosody. Prosody is nothing more than reading with expression. When a student reads with expression, that student is demonstrating a deeper understanding of the message the text is trying to convey. We might say that the student is demonstrating an inferential understanding of the text.

For more on the use of Readers Theater as a classroom strategy, see Michael Opitz and Tim Rasinski, No More Round Robin Reading.

Close Reading

Close reading requires at least three readings of a text. Choosing the right texts for close reading is critical. The texts must be brief. The texts must also be of high quality; only high quality texts reward a close reading. So when we choose to do a close reading, we should be choosing to focus on some of the finest passages from some of our finest authors for children, young adults and adults. I am thinking of Steinbeck, Faulkner and Baldwin, but I am also thinking of Cynthia Rylant, E. B. White and Katherine Paterson.

In doing a close reading, the teacher seeks to guide the students to answering three questions about the text.
  1. What does the text say?
  2. How does the author craft the message to say this?
  3. What does the text mean and how is it relevant to me?
In order to accomplish this close reading, the children are asked to read the text to first identify what it says explicitly. They then read the text to observe, with the teacher's guidance, how the author uses the skills of the writer to communicate the message. Finally, the reader reads a third time to discover the larger meanings, the personal connections and the quality of the writing.

Close reading can and should be used sparingly, but as a method that gets students rereading it fits into an overall instructional design focused on improved fluency and comprehension. For more on close reading, and especially for a student focused approach to this strategy, I highly recommend the book Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst.

Rereading is a powerful instructional strategy. The more encounters children have with a text the better they will read it and the better they will understand it. Students need to be rereading text every day.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Real Hero Teachers

While the corporate education reform movement is waiting for Superman and beating the bushes for non-educators who will “teach like a champion”, every day in thousands of classrooms across the country the real heroes of public education are working to provide the best possible education they can to children with widely varying backgrounds and preparedness for learning, often in over-crowded and under-resourced classrooms and under the cloud of a slanderous public relations campaign that seeks to make them out as the villains in a reform fantasy.

Of course, the real heroes I am talking about are the classroom teachers, building principals, and curriculum supervisors who have studied education, who are certified to teach and who are not looking for a quick exit to a more lucrative career, but are in the game for the long haul because it is their life’s work.

I am thinking about these real heroes today for two reasons. First, I read a research report in the Teacher College Record that at first I thought I was going to like, but in the end made me angry. The study, by Stuart S. Yeh, looked at charter school programs like Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and Harlem’s Children’s Zone (HCZ) under the premise that  they “may potentially be very effective in closing the academic achievement gap.”

Yeh concluded that these programs were simply unsustainable when “scaled up and implemented nationwide.” The reason? This is where I started seeing red, so get ready. “The vast army of unemployed, highly dedicated teachers that is required to implement KIPP and HCZ on a nationwide basis simply does not exist.”

Not a flawed educational design. Not ignoring the harsh realities of poverty. Not hiring unqualified temporary teachers. Not skimming the student population to eliminate students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Apparently the numbers of available teachers who have the “right KIPP stuff” doesn’t exist. Especially considering that three year attrition rates in KIPP and HCZ schools approach 50%.

So, not enough hero teachers. That’s the problem. What constitutes a hero teacher for KIPP and HCZ? According to Yeh, a “highly dedicated teacher in these programs” works long hours, teaches Saturday make-up classes, gives students a cell phone number where they are available 24 hours a day, visits student homes regularly, fosters students’ college aspirations and dedicates a large portion of instructional time on test preparation. I wonder why attrition is so high.

For me a real hero teacher in a KIPP school would be a teacher who refused to drink the KIPP Kool-Aid, refused to abuse children with hours of skill and drill test prep, refused to implement the draconian KIPP discipline policies, resigned his position, walked out of the building and then started a blog to expose charter school abuses. I am thinking maybe GaryRubinstein.

The second reason I am thinking about hero teachers is because I had a chance to spend some time with some true hero teachers this week. In my capacity as a literacy consultant, I often get a chance to observe teachers at work. I never cease to be amazed at these dedicated, hard-working professionals who are always striving to improve their practice.

I am thinking of Ms. C, who works with a population of English Language Learners. She knew that her guided reading instruction was helping these third graders, but she fretted that they would not perform well on the new PARCC tests. The concern was clear in her eyes and her voice as we discussed the challenges that ELLs have in comprehension as they continue to work on their fluency in English. I tried to reassure her that her work was making a difference no matter what the PARCC tests might report.

And then there was Ms. F, working in a lively classroom of 28 kindergarteners. The joy of learning was readily evident from the enthusiasm the children showed for every task and also from the noise level that Ms. F struggled mightily to contain. It was a happy room and there was great literacy instruction happening. I saw one group of students taking some early tentative moves to apply sight words they had learned to real reading situations.

After school and after her challenging 6 hours with her troop of 5 year-olds, I happened across Miss F. as she held a hushed and concerned conversation with the school nurse about a child who was often sent to school unbathed and unkempt and arrived in class on this bone chilling November day with no coat.

And then there was Mr. M, one of those rare male kindergarten teachers I have a special affection for. I observed as he directed his little ones to a variety of literacy centers and then sat down for an outstanding literacy lesson with a group of children who were about to take off in reading. Every comment Mr. M made was supportive and on target to help the children develop both the skills needed to read and a sense of the joy of reading. As the lesson ended Mr. M said to the children, “You guys are so smart. I want you all to kiss your brain.” With that the children all kissed their hand and tapped themselves on the forehead.

These folks are the real hero teachers. The real hero teachers show up, day after day, year after year after year. The real hero teachers are certified to teach. The real hero teachers studied education in college and they apply that knowledge to the real, often difficult learning situations they encounter. The real hero teachers seek graduate degrees in education that will help them refine their teaching and they are open to the kind of professional development that can help them hone their craft.

Ms. C, Ms. F, and Mr. M are heroes, but they are not exceptions to the rule. They are typical of the teachers I have known and worked with over the past 45 years. Good, honest, hard-working, intelligent professionals doing the best they can. And the best they can is very good indeed.

The notion that there are not enough heroic teachers to replicate the KIPP or HCZ models is stupid. There are not enough of those teachers because the model is fundamentally flawed and it seeks to draw people from outside the profession, who may have a temporary commitment, but no desire to stay the course. These are not dedicated teachers, they are temps. You cannot build a lasting educational program with temp workers. You just need all the Ms.Cs, Ms. Fs, and Mr. Ms you can find. You’ll find them in public schools.