Sunday, April 15, 2018

Expanding "No Excuses" Models is a Bad Idea

An organization called The Future of Children came out recently with a report titled Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap by Sarah Cohodes, an assistant professor of education and public policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. The Future of Children is a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Brookings Institution whose mission is "to translate the best social science research about children and youth into information that is useful to policymakers, practitioners, grant-makers, advocates, the media, and students of public policy."

Here is the key takeaway from the report: While charter schools as a whole have been shown to perform at about the same level as traditional public schools, some charter schools serving urban, low-income and minority students and employing a no excuses philosophy tend to produce the largest gains. We should, therefore, scale up the no excuses model into traditional public schools to narrow the achievement gap.

The National Education Policy Center has done a terrific analysis of this report and goes into detail into the report's failings. Chief among the weaknesses of the report is a failure to fully examine what "no excuses" schooling really means and just how advisable recommending a no excuses approach is.

I encourage all to read both reports, but in this post I want to address just how antithetical to a real education the no excuses approach is.

For the uninitiated, "no excuses" is a model employed by many charter schools, including those that get the most publicity like KIPP and Success Academy. It includes several facets including high expectations in academics and behavior, longer learning days and school years, extensive tutoring, frequent teacher observation and feedback and data-driven instruction using frequent assessments to inform teachers.

The no excuses approach is controversial primarily because of its harsh, military, style approach to discipline. I have experienced this personally in "no excuses" charter schools. Children are expected to sit up straight, maintain eye contact with the teacher, remain quiet in the hallways, walk to class and lunch single-file and comply unquestioningly to teacher directives. All this doesn't sound so bad, after all an orderly environment is necessary for learning to take place.

But when students do not comply with these rigidly enforced rules, discipline is harsh and focused on shaming. Students may be placed "on the bench", a designation that may require them to wear a garish colored shirt so that all know they have broken the rules, to be isolated from classmates in the classroom and at lunch and to write a letter of apology to the teacher and fellow students that must be read in front of the class.

The sight of privileged, mostly white, teachers and administrators meting out this punishment to mostly brown students is squirm inducing. And the shaming does not stop there. Data Walls in the hallways of many of these schools display student test scores for all to see. I have written about my observations of this discipline based on shame here and here.

I question whether a few points of improvement on a standardized test is worth this kind of treatment. Should we be attempting to narrow the achievement gap by widening the disciplinary gap? These harsh discipline policies often lead to high rates of suspension. Is this really the message we want to send to children and what impact does this kind of treatment have on the kinds of non-cognitive skills that are necessary for success, such things as self-efficacy, persistence, curiosity, assertion, cooperation, and empathy.

There may be some things we can all learn from the charter school innovations. Intensive tutoring, extended school days, effective use of data (actual actionable data, not standardized test scores) all seem to be good ideas for students at academic risk. But the harsh disciplinary practices should be unacceptable to teachers and parents alike. Indeed, the indications are that the "teachers" hired by these charters find these practices oppressive. Research indicates this is one impotant reason for high teacher turnover in these schools.

Slavery was an effective means for getting cotton harvested. That didn't make it right or desirable. Is raising a few kids test scores worth importing the plantation mentality to the classroom?





  proactive  skills  can  be  in  direct  tension  with  disci-
plinary methods found i no-excuses schools


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Building Vocabulary: Words in Context


When a mature reader encounters an unfamiliar word while reading, the first move is likely to be to try to determine the meaning of the word from the context. Because they are trying to communicate with the reader, author's typically leave clues to the meanings of the words they are using in the text (not intentionally, but as a natural part of the communication process). Perhaps because this strategy seems so natural to us as readers, we sometimes assume that students will use the strategy effectively, too. So when a child encounters a word she doesn't know in a text, our advice is often, "Skip it, read on, and see if you can figure it out from the context."

This is good advice, but not good instruction. As maturing, not yet mature readers, students need help in efficiently using the skip-and-read-on strategy. Authors leave clues in a variety of ways in texts. Knowledge about what kinds of clues authors leave and how to identify those clues can help students determine the meaning of unknown words in context. This is a critical skill, since it allows the reader to continue on in the reading without interruptions to look up words, so comprehension is enhanced. It is also critical because it means that readers are building their vocabulary through the act of reading.

The chart below shows six ways that authors leave clues in text. Readers need to be able to identify these clues in their reading. The chart is arranged from the most concrete (definition) to the most abstract (mood or tone) clues.



Instruction in the use of these strategies follows the same gradual release of responsibility model that I have discussed in previous posts. Here is how I would use this model for context clues. What the teacher might say to the students is in italics.
  • Introduce the strategy to the students and tell them why it is important and useful for them as readers. As we have discussed, good readers use the context of what they are reading to help them figure out the meaning of new words. This is important because it allows us to continue reading without interruption and because it helps us build our store of words while we are reading. Today we will continue our study of vocabulary in context, by looking at one type of clue that authors provide for us while reading: contrast
  • Model the strategy through a read aloud/think aloud demonstration. Let's say that we come across this sentence in our reading:  "Unlike her older brother Jerome, who stayed out all hours of the night, Kate obediently followed the curfew her parents set." In this sentence I am unsure of the meaning of the word obediently, to try and figure out the meaning I read the full sentence again including the words that come after the word I do not know. In this sentence, the context tells me that Kate is unlike her brother. I also know that Kate's brother stayed out all night and broke the curfew. So if Kate is not like her brother, is a contrast to her brother, she must be a person who follows the rules. So obediently must mean something like following the rules. Let me reread the sentence and see if that makes sense. If it does make sense I can read on. This modeling can take place over several examples.
  • Work collaboratively with students in using the strategy. Now that I have shown you several examples, let's look at this next sentence and see if we can work together to figure out its meaning using the contrast clue...
  • Give the students opportunities for guided practice of the strategy with partners or in small groups, while you monitor their use of the strategy. Let's now get into groups of three and I want you to work together on the next three sentences to use the contrast clues in these sentences to determine the meaning of the word...While the students work, the teacher moves around listening in, redirecting and coaching use of the strategy.
  • Give students the opportunity to practice the strategy independently. Now it is time  for independent reading. As you read today, see if you encounter any words that you do not know and see if the author has left a contrast clue to help you determine the meaning of the word. Checking in with students as they read, the teacher can monitor the use of context clue strategies.
This process can be used for each of the types of clues and eventually, the students can practice identifying the clues that they used and the meanings of the words they encounter in the text. Pearson and Gallagher, who developed the gradual release model, warn that teachers should not rush through the collaborative and guided stages of this lesson - this coaching art of the lesson has been shown to be critical for student success.

The use of context clues to determine word meaning is a critical skill in reading that not all students adopt automatically. The strategy can be taught, however, and arming students with the knowledge that clues to meaning are available and helping them identify what those clues are, not only aids reading comprehension, but also helps students build their vocabulary while they are reading independently.











 



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Building Vocabulary: The List-Group-Label-Add Strategy

This post is the third in a series on vocabulary instruction. You can find Part 1: An Overview here and Part 2: Teaching from a Conceptual Base here.

In the last post in this series, I discussed the importance of teaching vocabulary from a conceptual base. The idea is that children learn new words best by being able to place them in a conceptual framework, so that they can add new words to a concept they already possess and thus develop a broader, more sophisticated, more specific set of words built around a single concept. Thus a small child may have a rather simplistic notion of the concept pet that may include words like dog and cat, but over time will expand to include many other types of animals and other words from leash to litter box, from domesticated to veterinarian.  Vocabulary instruction from a conceptual frame becomes then a process not of learning individual words, but of connecting new terms to already existing knowledge.

One of the best strategies I have discovered over the years for teaching vocabulary from a conceptual framework is List-Group-Label, suggested by the great social studies teacher, author, and researcher, Hilda Taba, in 1967. While originally intended for use in social studies and science classes, the strategy can be used in any content area. In my own teaching, I have expanded the strategy to include an opportunity for students to add on words as they continue to read and learn about a concept, so I call this adaptation List-Group-Label-Add. Here is how it works.
  1. Choose a word that represents a fairly broad concept. Often these words will be the basis for a unit of study. Water evaporation makes a good concept for this activity, while dew is a word we will encounter in this study, but not broad enough as a concept for our purposes. In the example below, I will use the concept community.
  2. Write the target concept on the board: community. Point to the word, say the word, have the children say it with you and then tell the students the meaning of the word. By the way, we should follow this procedure with all new words we introduce to children. Research has shown that student memory for the meaning, pronunciation, and spelling of a word is enhanced if we follow the simple see it, hear it, say it, talk about it paradigm. For this exercise I defined community as "a particular area with all the places in that area and all the people who live there."
  3. Next I will tell the students, "Take a few minutes to jot down in your notebook any words or phrases that you connect to the idea of community. For example when we think of community we might think of the fire fighters who help us, but we might also think of the fire house that houses the fire engines. We might think of the public library and the librarians, we might think of houses and apartment buildings. "What do you think of that connects to this idea of community?"
  4. After the students have had a few minutes to make their lists, I ask them to share words that they have written. As a students share, I write the words on the board under the umbrella term community. I keep going until I have 25 -40 words on the board. Let's say that we gathered the words in Figure 1 below from the children.
  5. After gathering the words from the students, I put a numeral 1 next to one word, in this case police, and ask the children which words they would also put a 1 next to because they have a similar function in the community. After gathering a group of "1s", I move on to group 2 and 3 and so on as illustrated below. This is the grouping part of the activity. See Figure 2 below.
  6. Next for labeling, I point out all the words in Group 1(police, fire fighters, crossing guard, minister, teacher) and ask the students to give the group a name. Perhaps we come up with community helpers. The process is continued until all groups have a label (play areas, shopping, public buildings, etc.). The specific labels are not as important as the activity of grouping and looking for commonalities. 
  7. Once we have grouped the words and labeled the categories, I take the list and organize it into a concept web and display it in the room or on a Smart Board (See Figure 3).
  8. As we continue our study and reading about community, we then add any new words that we learn to the concept map, determining which category the new words belong to or adding new categories as needed, New words are written in a different color to show that these words are new knowledge acquired during the process of learning more about the concept of community.
After guiding the students through the process in this manner a few times, it is a good idea to turn the grouping and labeling parts of the process over to the students working in small groups to come up with logical groupings and labels for the generated words. As new words are learned, students may find they need new categories or that category names need to be changed to accommodate the new knowledge. 


Figure 1

Figure 2
Figure 3








Monday, March 5, 2018

Building Vocabulary: Teaching from a Conceptual Base

This is the second in a series on vocabulary instruction. You can find Part 1: An Overview here.


Dr. Seuss or Russ Walsh?
There are few things in education that we know with absolute certainty, but one of them is that teaching vocabulary from a conceptual base is far superior to the conventional look it up, define it, write it in a sentence, take a test approach. Despite our knowing this for more than fifty years, the conventional approach continues to be used in classrooms to this day, proving harder to kill than Dracula.

What constitutes a conceptual approach to vocabulary instruction? A concept may be defined as an idea of something that is formed by mentally combining all its characteristics and particulars. So the concept global warming includes such characteristics and particulars as pollution, climate, carbon dioxide, ozone layer, greenhouse gasses, carbon fuels, emissions, methane and on and on. Of course, each of these words is its own concept, so vocabulary growth is a continuing process of refining of the characteristics and particulars of an almost infinite number of concepts. The point is that children learn vocabulary best through the linkages that are provided by learning new words around a particular concept.

On March 2 of this year I was invited to participate in Read Across America Day in my old school district. In one pre-school class I entered I was immediately identified as the real Dr. Seuss. One clearly very exited child ran up to me and cried, "Dr. Seuss are you going to read to us today?" The teacher, Mrs. Clewall, had shown the children a picture of Dr. Seuss earlier in the week. As a result, the children had a concept of Dr. Seuss as an older, gray-haired, bearded man with glasses. I fit the bill. I began the class with a discussion of same and different and the children discovered that while I indeed was an older, gray-haired, bearded man with glasses, I was also different from Dr. Seuss in that I had much less hair, different glasses, and a rounder face. Hopefully, the children's concept of old guys who like to read and write books expanded a bit.

In the first grade class I visited I chose to read Zomo the Rabbit, by Gerald McDermott. This West African trickster tale is the story of a clever little rabbit who goes on a quest for wisdom. I decided that I would introduce the story by having the children explore their understanding of three words: smart, clever, wisdom. Clever and wisdom feature prominently in the story, but I began with smart because I thought it would give me the best chance to bring all the children (in a class I was meeting for the first time) into the conceptual area of focus: the pursuit of wisdom. Through a series of sit and thinks and turn and talks the children discussed the three words and came up with some tentative definitions. Most agreed that smart meant knowing a lot of stuff and clever meant knowing how to solve problems. Wisdom was more of a challenge for most kids, but one child volunteered that it had to do with spending a long time learning about important things.

With that I read the story to the children. In his pursuit of wisdom, Zomo has to do three impossible things, which he is able to do because of his cleverness, but along the way he also gets his jungle friends, Big Fish, Wild Cow, and Leopard, very angry. He learns that wisdom takes more than cleverness and more than courage, it also requires caution and good sense. After the reading we revisited our three words and the students demonstrated a growing understanding of what wisdom might entail. A little cleverness, a lot of knowledge, some caution, and lots of good sense.

This is a sample of what approaching vocabulary from a conceptual base looks like. If we wanted to structure the lesson more formally we might want to employ concept circles to make the connections clear for the students. There are three types of concept circles.

The first asks the student to name the concept given the words within the circle.


 The second asks the student to supply another word that would fit in the circle and help define the concept wisdom.


 The third asks the students to identify the word that does not fit with the others in defining the concept wisdom. Which one of these is not like the others?


Concept circles, and a conceptual approach to learning vocabulary helps kids assimilate new words into already existing concepts, making their concepts more sophisticated and arming them for more and more sophisticated and nuanced understanding and uses of the language.

In part 3 in this series, I will continue our exploration of vocabulary instruction from a conceptual base.











Thursday, March 1, 2018

Buiding Vocabulary: An Overview

The first in a series on teaching and learning new words.

The importance of a strong vocabulary to successful reading is well-documented. Because of its importance vocabulary development is considered one key to a rich language arts curriculum. But while there are many paths to an increased vocabulary, there is no silver bullet, no magic formula, no quick fix for vocabulary. Vocabulary development is the work of a lifetime, a literal cradle to grave activity, a quest that has no end. As teachers our job is, in part, to teach vocabulary, but more importantly it is to set students up to be in the vocabulary acquisition business for the rest of their lives.

First, let's take a look at the many paths that lead students to a rich vocabulary.
  1. Conversation - Children, from the earliest of ages, learn words through conversation with adults and other children. Children who are talked with, rather than talked at, tend to build larger vocabularies. In the classroom it is critical that teachers have real conversations with children and structure the classroom so that children can have real conversations with each other. Conversations are two way streets where participants are expected to listen and also speak. 
  2. Reading - Before children learn to read independently, they learn new vocabulary through read alouds. Once children learn to read independently, wide reading in a variety of genres and on a variety of topics is the single best way to continue developing word knowledge. Read alouds, with teacher explanation of words, should, of course, continue well after children have begun to read independently. In order for reading to lead to improved vocabulary, that reading must be wide awake to the new words the reader encounters. In other words the reader must have a well-developed word consciousness (see below).
  3. Writing - Truly knowing a new word requires many encounters with a word. One good way to reinforce vocabulary learning that comes from reading or direct instruction is through writing. Please note, I am not talking here about writing sentences for words that have been assigned arbitrarily, or the kind of artificial writing created when students are asked to use a set of vocabulary terms in a paragraph. I am talking here of a much more organic approach, where children reinforce new vocabulary by responding to or summarizing what they have read or what new information they have learned. The point of learning new vocabulary is not the words themselves, but the ideas these words convey.
  4. Direct Instruction - Research has shown that students can also learn words through direct instruction. Again, direct instruction does not mean being assigned a list of words to look up, writing the definition, and then writing the word in a sentence. This is not instruction at all, but busy work. Direct instruction means the teacher deliberately discussing a targeted word, talking about its meaning, showing how it is used in context and engaging the children with the word by showing how it connects to their own experience.
  5. Morphemic Analysis - Knowledge of root words, prefixes, and suffixes can also assist students in determining the meaning of a word and in building vocabulary based on common elements. It is helpful when you run across the word "pseudonym" in your reading, if you know that the prefix "pseudo-" means "fake" , and that the root "nym" means name. This knowledge can then help you extend to other words like homonym, synonym, and antonym.
  6. Context Clues - Knowing that authors often leave clues in their writing to help readers determine the meaning of an unknown word is also useful in developing vocabulary. Research has indicated that the use of context clues is most effective when students are directly taught the strategy and the various ways that authors signal the meaning of words. 
  7. Word Histories - The history of words can also be helpful when trying to determine the meaning of a word. Telling word stories can help students develop an interest and curiosity in words. One such story I tell is about the word "sign." It seems that the word sign was once pronounced with the "g" being sounded, but over the years the "g" was dropped and the "i" made long. But the "g" has been retained in spelling to help us with the meaning of such words as signal, signature, signatory, significant, etc.
  8. Consulting an Expert - Sometimes no particular strategy can help and outside help is required. Students need to learn to use resources like a dictionary quickly and efficiently, but I also like to suggest that students should consider other resources that might be available as well. It might be more efficient for the reader to simply ask a classmate (perhaps one with particular knowledge of a particular topic), or the teacher, or another adult.
Just as readers need a repertoire of strategies to decode an unknown word (phonics, word families, chunking, what makes sense?), they also need a repertoire of strategies to determine word meaning. Indeed, any encounter with a new word might involve a bit of recall of instruction, a bit of morphemic analysis, a bit of context, and a bit of consulting an expert. Teaching students these strategies is helpful, but we also need to make sure we teach them to use the strategies flexibly.

Word Consciousness

None of the good vocabulary instruction we do will matter much unless we simultaneously help students develop word consciousness. Word consciousness means an awareness of and a curiosity about new words that will motivate the learning of new words. I have written about word consciousness extensively in this post. Teachers have a critical role to play in developing student word consciousness. First, and most critically that role includes being a model of word curiosity. During read alouds and any other activity, the teacher must communicate her fascination with, enthusiasm for, and love of words, at the ingenious ways that words work, at how the same word can have so many different meanings, at how authors choose to use certain words to communicate certain ideas. 

By skillfully and regularly using think alouds teachers can help students develop their own fascination and enthusiasm for words. Here is an example of a think aloud from a fourth grade read aloud. 

From the reading: The truck farm is located on a beautiful stream in a pastoral setting. 

Boys and girls, I am not sure I know the meaning of "pastoral" in this sentence, so let me see what I can use to help me figure it out. I know that the suffix -al is used on adjectives, so the word is a describing word for the noun "setting." If I take the -al off I am left with the root word "pastor." I know a pastor is kind of like a minister or a priest, but that meaning of the word doesn't seem to make sense here. "Pastor" also looks a bit like "pasture", and this sentence is talking about a farm, so I wonder if the word could mean something along the lines of "like a pasture." That seems to make sense. Let's look the word up and see what the dictionary has to say. So the dictionary says "associated with the country life." So that seems close to what we guessed. The dictionary also says that this is the type of farm is usually associated with sheep or cattle. The word comes from the Latin word pastor meaning shepherd. That also seems to be where the word "pastor" meaning minister comes from, because religious pastors are often referred to as tending to their flock, in this case, not sheep, but the people who attend their church.

In this think aloud I have tried to demonstrate for the children that they can use context clues, morphemic analysis, word histories, and outside experts in combination to discover the meaning of a word and to get the bonus of discovering some interesting ways that words are intertwined in meaning. 

Armed with word consciousness and some word solving skills, students are positioned to grow their vocabulary with each encounter with text.

In future posts in this series, I will look in more detail at other instructional strategies we can use to build vocabulary.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Armed with Books

Let's get this out of the way up front. Arming teachers with guns is a stupid idea. It is such a stupid idea, it gives stupid a bad name. A number of my blogging colleagues have addressed the issue eloquently and if you want to read some great explanations you could read Peter Greene here, or Mitchell Robinson here, or Arthur Goldstein here.

But in the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Parkland, FL, I don't want to talk any more about guns in the classroom. I want to arm teachers with the single greatest weapon society has against evil. It is the traditional weapon that teachers have been wielding  since the very first teacher penned the very first lesson plan. That weapon is the book.

Before you roll your eyes at my naiveté, give me a chance to explain. The written word is the human race's number one defense against ignorance. The written word provides us with the documentary evidence of who we are and where we have come from. The written word allows us access to the thinking of all the greatest minds of all the civilizations that have come before us. The written word allows us to share all our great stories and to invent new great stories. The written word is what makes us human. It is what separates us from all other species. If being human means anything at all, it means that we can continuously improve and if we can indeed continuously improve, it is the written word that will help us some day achieve a world where children do not have to enter school looking for the best place to duck and cover.

Books have the power to make us better human beings. When a teacher shares a great book with a classroom of children, that teacher has brought the world a little closer to the ideal of the peaceful, inclusive, loving world we all desire. This is not mere idle speculation or wishful thinking; the research bears this out. A study done by Castano & Kidd for The New School of Research in 2013 found that reading literary fiction improves readers' "theory of mind." Theory of mind is defined as "the capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires" (Science, 2013). In other words, reading literary fiction helps human beings develop empathy.

And what the world that today's school child encounters needs more than anything else is empathy, that great ability to see the world through another's eyes, to seek to understand different perspectives and to seek to resolve conflict without devolving into enemy camps as seems to be what has happened to our current political system.

In many ways my world view was formed by books. Two authors in particular resonated with me as a young reader and I can still point to the genesis of my current pragmatic progressive philosophy from the reading of two great American authors that I encountered in high school: John Steinbeck and James Baldwin. From Steinbeck I learned that attention must be paid to the plight of all Americans and that it was our responsibility to look out for and protect each other through joint action to insure that all people get a fair shot at a decent life. From Baldwin I learned about the pernicious impact that prejudice has on the mind and heart of the individual, and how that prejudice kills the soul not just of the oppressed, but of the oppressor. These lessons run through everything I have tried to be and do as a teacher and as a citizen.

And so it can be, must be, for our students. Reading great works brings us closer together as a society. Books must be the teacher's weapon of choice.

Here is a list of books for leading children to a more empathetic theory of mind. Special thanks to Cindy Mershon for suggesting a number of these titles.

Picture Books

Angel Child, Dragon Child, by Michele Maria Surat, illustrated by Vo Dinh Mai
A young immigrant from Vietnam and an angry classmate come to understand each other through listening and learning.

The Other Side, Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Children overcome the prejudice of their parents by crossing to the other side of the fence.

The Name Jar, by Yanksook Choi
Unhei learns that her best possible name is her very own name.

Wilfred Gordon MacDonald, Partridge, by Mem Fox
Wilfrid learns great life lessons through his visits to a nursing home.

Fly Away Home, by Eve Bunting
A homeless boy living in an airport terminal with his dad finds hope when a trapped bird finds its way to freedom.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead
Friends comes in all shapes, sorts, and sizes.

Amos and Boris, by William Steig
A mouse and a whale form an unlikely friendship.

Tight Times, by Barbara Shook Hazen
A small boy, who is not allowed to have a dog because of his family's money problems, rescues a starving kitten.

For Young Readers

Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White
The classic story of a very special friendship.

The Invisible Boy, by Trudy Ludwig
No one ever seems to notice Brian or include in in group activities until a new kid comes to school.

Stepping on the Cracks, by Mary Downing Hahn
During World War II, Margaret forms an unlikely friendship with the neighborhood bully, Gordy.

Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk
A young girl's kindness and compassion overcome bullying.

Each Little Bird That Sings, by Deborah Wiles
Comfort Snowberger learns that life is full of surprises and surprises herself in learning how to deal with them.

Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
What do you do when a dog you believe is being mistreated runs away and comes to you?

Navigating Early, Clare Vanderpool
Two boys, both lonely and feeling out of place, form a bond while on a quest on the Appalachian Trail.

Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit
Because no one should escape elementary school without reading this great classic.

For Young Adults

Children of the River, by Linda Crew
A young Cambodian immigrant struggles to fit in in her adopted home in Oregon.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
An unlikely pair of friends form an unshakeable bond out of their mutual loneliness and alienation.

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
An abused and isolated teen learns to speak up for herself and achieves a bit of vindication.

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
We the people, black and white, desperately need each other here if we are to become the nation we aspire to be. Non-fiction.

Want more book ideas? Try Pernille Ripp's list here. Or you could try Sunshime and Hurricane's list here.  And Michele Borba has a list including books for older readers here.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Increase Encounters with Text

In this final entry in the When Readers Struggle series, I want to reveal the silver bullet. The secret ingredient. The magic formula. The boss with the hot sauce. That is: the single best way to help students who struggle with reading. The answer is right in front of us and it is borne out by the research. It is deceptively simple, but too often ignored. The best way to help struggling readers improve is to (drum roll please) get them to read more.

Think about it.

What is the best way to improve student sight word knowledge? Reading daily in a variety of independent level texts.
What is the best way to improve decoding ability? Reading daily in a variety of independent level texts.
What is the best way to improve reading comprehension? Reading daily in a variety of independent level texts.
What is the best way to improve vocabulary? Reading daily in a variety of independent level texts.
What is the best way to improve reading fluency? Reading daily in a variety of independent level texts.

We know this is true from watching our best readers. How do our best readers get so good? Through daily reading of text that is relatively easy for them to read. The irony is that our weakest readers are often the ones who actually get to read the least in school. Instead of reading they are doing worksheets to strengthen skills, or participating in reading groups where they wait their turn to read orally, round-robin style, or being taught decoding strategies like tapping and scooping letters. When they actually get to read they are often interrupted with corrections from the teacher or other students.

Typically, good readers are left alone to read. They do more silent reading in their reading groups, spend more time in independent reading, and spend less time on worksheets and skill lessons. And yes, they spend more time reading outside of school than do most struggling readers. The result - they get better at reading because they get lots of actual reading practice.

In the single best article I have ever read on the struggling reader, Richard Allington's What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers (2013),  Allington says,

Struggling readers just participate in too little high-success reading activity every day...We fill struggling readers days with tasks that have little to do with reading.

Allington recommends eliminating workbooks, eliminating test prep, eliminating computer-based reading programs and focusing on getting struggling readers reading more each day in high-success reading activities like independent reading. Note the term high success. High success reading is reading where the reader knows 98% of the words on the page. Good readers spend most of their reading time reading in high success texts. Struggling readers spend much of their reading time reading texts that are too hard for them, especially if their content text books are "on grade level."

Of course, saying struggling readers need to read more and making it happen are two different things. As we all know struggling readers are often reluctant readers and finding books on the independent level can be a challenge.

What can a teacher do about motivation and materials? Researchers Linda Gambrell and Barbara Marinak have some suggestions.
  • Choice: Allowing children an element of choice in their reading has been shown to increase interest, engagement, and effort in reading.
  • Honoring Books: Research has shown that whenever teachers do something to make a book special like doing a quick book talk introduction to a book, or recommending the book, or even just placing the book upright on a table, students are more likely to choose that book to read.
  • Reading Aloud: Reading aloud allows the teacher to share her excitement about reading and to model fluent reading. Read aloud provides opportunities for students and teacher to collaboratively develop meaning. Gambrell and Marinak recommend reading aloud from a wide variety of fiction, informational and other types of texts daily.
  • A Balanced Book Collection: A classroom library should have a wide selection of fiction and non-fiction books on a wide variety of levels and topics, as well as other valuable reading material like magazines, newspapers, and electronic resources.
  • Make Your Passions Public: Gambrell and Marinak say that familiarity breeds reading motivation. Children like to know what their classmates are reading; they like to read books with the same characters and with the same authors, so be sure to advertise via bulletin board and other communication the classroom favorites as in a Top Ten Books list, a favorite author bulletin board and the like.
  • Use Proximal Incentives: If you want to use incentives to motivate reading, use incentives that actually encourage more reading. Proximal incentives for reading include extended reading time, the chance to choose the class read aloud, extended read aloud time, time to talk about books, extended library time, free books. These types of incentives have been shown to be more motivating for readers than stickers or pizza parties. 
Other ways to increase struggling reader reading time include having students reread books that have been used for guided reading instruction as a warm up for a new small group lesson, having a browsing box full of familiar books that a child can choose from and know that they can read successfully, and sending books home for reading aloud to parents. Buddy reading, the pairing of two readers of differing abilities sharing the reading load and book clubs, built on student interest rather than reading level, are other reading motivators.

Reading books is a powerful remediation for reading struggles. In one study, Allington and his colleagues sought to combat summer literacy loss by simply giving at risk children twelve self-selected books to take home with them over the summer. No instruction, no summer school was provided, just the books. The group of students who received the books showed reading gains by the end of the summer, while those who did not receive books showed the typical summer loss pattern.

None of what I say here should be construed to mean that struggling readers do not need instruction in decoding and comprehension strategies. They do. But if we really want to improve the chances that struggling readers will become able readers, we need to work very hard to make sure that they are engaged in actual reading, not just as much as our best readers, but even more than our best readers.

This may seem a daunting task. But research has shown that if we could just increase the amount of actual, engaged reading a below average reader does by 10 minutes per day, over the year that reader would be exposed to the same number of words in context as an above grade level reader. 

It is ironic that the best strategy for improving the reading ability of our most struggling readers is also the least valued. Teachers need to be diligent advocates for independent and voluntary reading as a major component of the instructional day. This is doubly important for our most vulnerable readers.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Americans Don't Care About Their Children

The continued gun violence visited upon America's schools and school children, along with the abject failure of the adults who run the country to do anything about it, leads me to one inescapable conclusion: In the United States of America, we don't care about our children. When I say "our children" here, I am referring to children in general, not individual children. As the grieving parents in Florida today will attest, we all care about our own children. What we do not seem to care about is all the other children.

I am hardly the first person to make this observation. In her 1992 New York Times essay, Everybody's Somebody's Baby, noted author Barbara Kingsolver was struck by the difference in how children were received in Spain as compared to the United States. She observes that

Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it's not their own they don't want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it. In the United States, where people like to think that anyone can grow up to be President, we parents are left very much on our own when it comes to the little Presidents-in-training. Our social programs for children are the hands-down worst in the industrialized world, but apparently that is just what we want. In an Arizona newspaper, I remember seeing a letter from a reader incensed by the possibility of a school budget override. "I don't have kids," he declared, "so why should I have to pay to educate other people's offspring?" The budget increase was voted down, the school district progressed from deficient to dismal and one is inclined to ask that smug non-father just whose offspring he expects to doctor the maladies of his old age.

In a recent editorial in the MINNPOST, Susan Perry, who writes on public health issues, cited the following statistics.
  • a baby born in the United States has a 76 percent greater risk of dying before their first birthday than one born in other wealthy, democratic countries.
  • a child aged 1 to 19 in the United States has a 57 greater risk of dying before adulthood than elsewhere in the developed world.
  • UNICEF has ranked the US 26 out of 29 developed countries (higher than only Lithuania, Latvia and Romania) with respect to overall child health and safety.
If we cared about our children in this country, school children would not be reporting to under-staffed, under-resourced, rat-infested, moldy, dilapidated school buildings in every urban area in the country. If we cared about our children, those children would not be walking to school through gang infested neighborhoods, fearing for their lives and the lives of their brothers and sisters. All we have been able to muster for these children is the non-choice of school choice, which unleashes usually ineffective, often unscrupulous, frequently disruptive "education-like" schemes on our neediest school children.

When America cares about a problem, the problem gets fixed. We entered World War II unprepared to wage the war that we found ourselves fighting and with a navy that had been crippled by the attack on Pearl Harbor, but we rallied, sacrificed, worked hard at home and abroad and prevailed. When smoking was finally and irrefutably identified as a killer, we took action that has greatly reduced the use of tobacco in the country. When Martin Luther King, Jr. forced us to come face to face with our pernicious racism, we took action, imperfect action perhaps, action that continues to be needed, but action that at least ended the most egregious aspects of Jim Crow, however haltingly, in the country.

The only way to explain the lack of action on gun violence in the schools is that we value our right to bear arms more than we value our children. Politicians seem to be unable to even have a conversation about bringing gun proliferation under control. Our founding fathers, I am sure, did not mean for the second amendment to require that we were to remain impotent in protecting our children from guns in the hands of society's disaffected. Surely. "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" means freedom from fear of being shot in your own classroom. Surely the right to bear arms is a limited right, just as every other right enumerated in the Bill of Rights is limited by the simple fact that the unfettered exercise of that right could endanger others. So we have no right to cry, "Fire!" in a crowded theater and no right to refuse to wear a seat belt and we have even decided to give up the right to smoke in public places. Surely we can all do without the right to carry an AR-15 around with us. 

Small minds look at these types of issues and respond with a wall building mentality. Illegal immigration? Build a wall. Armed, mentally-ill gunmen in the school corridors? Turn the school into an armed camp. We would be better off by far to reject the wall-builders and embrace the bridge builders. Surely we can find a bridge between the second amendment and truly valuing the lives of our school children.

Don't just cry for the children of Parkland, Florida. Do something. Start building bridges. One thing you can do is join me at the National Day of Action Against Gun Violence on April 20 (The anniversary of the Columbine shooting). You can sign up here.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 3, Talking and Writing After Reading

In part 1 of this three part series on reading comprehension, I discussed what the teacher can do to help students develop the background and disciplinary knowledge needed for comprehension before reading. In part 2, I discussed the strategies teachers can teach students to use while they are reading. In part 3, here, I will take on what teachers can do after the reading to develop readers' comprehension of text.
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Typically, post-reading activities focus on questioning to assess student understanding, but while questioning students may give the teacher some idea of what readers have understood and what they have not, it does not develop student comprehension. It does not help students become better comprehenders. What research has consistently shown does improve readers' ability to comprehend is discussion and writing after reading.

Frameworks for Discussion

First I think it is important to define what is meant by discussion. Most of what we call discussion in schools is actually recitation. Recitation involves students responding to the teacher and the teacher responding to the individual student and then directing a question to another student. While students get to talk, the teacher is at the center and all information flows to and from the teacher. In discussion, the teacher may indeed initiate, but the students not only respond to the teacher, but to each other, building on the contributions of the other students in the class as well as providing evidence for what they say from the text. The role of the teacher then becomes to facilitate and redirect the student discussion and to add needed insight when appropriate.

With this definition of discussion we can look at two useful frameworks for class discussion: Questioning the Author and Discussion Web.

Questioning the Author

Questioning the Author (QtA) was developed by researchers Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown at the University of Pittsburgh. The key concept behind this instructional design is that good comprehenders of text work to figure out what the author of the text is trying to communicate to them. Through a series of generic queries teachers lead students to collaboratively examine the text, section by section, with a focus on the author's message. Queries differ from questions because they are open ended, with multiple possible answers and because they encourage talk rather than one right answer. Here are some possible queries.
  • What is the author trying to say?
  • What is the author's message?
  • What is the author talking about?
  • This is what the author says, but what does the author mean?
  • How does this connect with what the author already told us?
  • Does what the author said make sense?
  • Has the author said this in a way that is clear to you?
  • Did the author tell us that?
  • Did the author give us the answer to that?
Implicit in the QtA process is that both the reader and the author are responsible for comprehension. It is the reader's task to determine what the author is trying to say, but it is the author's job to write clearly so that readers can understand, to write a text considerate of the reader. I have discussed this concept of considerate text in a previous post here.

You can read more about implementing QtA by reading Beck and McKeown's book Improving Comprehension with Questioning the Author or check out this brief overview in Reading Rockets to get you started.

Discussion Web

A discussion web is a great way to get students talking to each other to gain a fuller understanding of a text. The procedure works best with a text that is either ambiguous or controversial in nature that allows students to view an argument form two sides. I have often used it successfully with poetry and with persuasive essays, but any text that allows students to view the text from more than one angle will do.


Discussion Web Procedure:
  • Choose a reading that will elicit clearly defined opposing viewpoints.
  • Prepare students for reading by activating background knowledge, eliciting predictions, introducing vocabulary.
  • Read selection aloud or have students read independently
  • With the students, identify the main question addressed and have all write the question on the Discussion Web graphic organizer.
  • Divide the group into pairs. Have the pairs determine at least three reasons in the text that the question could be answered yes and three reasons the question could be answered no.
  • Combine the pairs into groups of four and have them compare their evidence and add to their worksheets. 
  • The group of four must then work to write a consensus conclusion based on the evidence in the text and on their worksheet.
  • A spokesperson for the group can then present their viewpoint to the class as a whole.

Integrating Reading and Writing

Novelist and Essayist Joan Didion has famously said, "I don't know what I think until I write it down." The same could be said for all readers. Research has consistently shown that writing about what we have read enhances our comprehension of what has been read. Instruction in reading comprehension is simply more effective when it is combined with writing. When readers struggle with reading comprehension, we can help to support them by including writing as a part of our reading comprehension instruction. In fact according to research, these two things have a symbiotic relationship. Reading comprehension instruction improves writing and writing instruction improves comprehension.

The Double Entry Journal

One tool that is particularly valuable for enhancing the comprehension of fiction texts is the double entry journal. Despite what has been said by the chief architect of the Common Core ELA standards, David Coleman, "Nobody gives a shit about what you think or feel about your reading", teachers should care very much how children think and feel because in communicating these things the children are developing their ability to comprehend text and express their understanding. 

The double entry journal is one framework teachers can use to tap into student thinking about the text. In a double entry journal a notebook page is divided into two sides. The left side is used for jotting down key information from the text including summaries, key events or details, quotations, vocabulary, etc. The right hand side is used for student reflection on what has been read including the reader's reactions, thoughts and feelings, discussion of the author's message, interpretations of meaning, all backed up by evidence from the text. 

As with all useful strategies, the good use of the double entry journal must be modeled by the teacher several times and then the students must be supported in their developing ability to use the journal. If students struggle with the concept, additional modeling and support may be required. Exemplar double entry journal pages created by the teacher, should be displayed as anchor charts in the room.


Unsent Letters

Unset letters is a strategy that I have found particularly effective in helping students synthesize their understanding of complex issues in reading in the content areas. Unsent letters sets up a role play scenario where the student plays the role of a petitioner writing a letter to the editor or a letter to a historical figure, or even a letter to the school principal in which they explain their understanding of an issue from their reading and ask the imaginary recipient to take some action. Students demonstrate their understanding of the reading through their communication.

An unsent letter requires accuracy in reading, imagination, interpretation, and critical thinking. They are particularly effective when students are reading about controversial topics in science like the environment, pollution, water quality or in social studies such as racism, war, Manifest Destiny, etc. As with all strategies like this, the teacher should model unsent letters and closely guide initial efforts to help student perform their best with the strategy.


When students are asked to convert thought into spoken or written language, they must reflect on what they have read, process it, and make it their own. By helping students talk and write about their reading, we are greatly improving their chances of understanding and retaining what they have read.