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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What's in a Word? Vocabulary Instruction that Works

Words matter. We know that in reading there is a very strong connection between word knowledge and comprehension. Armed with this knowledge teachers have always focused attention on vocabulary in the classroom. Most of us can remember a weekly school routine of being assigned a list of words to look up, write a definition for and use in a sentence. This exercise generally ended with a quiz at the end of the week. The exercise was surely followed by forgetting the words by the end of the next week.

Because words matter, we need a better way to teach words than that old, failed routine. What we need to do is teach words from a conceptual base. The act of learning is the act of connecting the known with the new. In word learning, we need to take advantage of what children know (concepts) to help them add the new (words).

A concept can be defined as an idea of something formed by mentally combining all its characteristics or particulars. Words are what we use to describe those characteristics and particulars. So if the concept is journalism, we could generate the words reporter, news article, editorial, feature article, investigative report, magazine, columnist, objectivity, etc. Of course, each of these words is a concept unto itself. The point is that the words are related and it is that relationship that helps us learn words and gain a more sophisticated understanding of the concept.

Perhaps you have had the experience of watching a toddler beginning to develop language, like the child I witnessed pointing to a cat running through the room and saying "See, dog." What this young child is demonstrating for us is a developing concept of pet. At that moment the child looks at all four-legged furry things as dogs, but in a few months the child will have developed a more sophisticated concept of pet, which will now include four-legged, furry things with whiskers that say meow. The word cat will be added to the child's vocabulary and concept of pet.

As teachers, we can take advantage of a child's developing concepts to teach new vocabulary in a way that children can learn and remember. The key insight is that words are conceptually related to each other and we can help students connect new words to known concepts. Here is an instructional strategy that can help you put this knowledge into action.

In the Box, Out of the Box

Suppose we wanted to teach the word proprietor in preparation for some reading the students are about to do. Without telling the students the target word, I would ask the students,  "What would you call the person who is in charge of the 7-11 convenience store in town?" Words students say that seem to fit the description of "who is in charge" are placed "in the box." Words students say that don't fit the concept are also written, this time "outside the box."


At this point I write the target word  proprietor in the box with the synonyms generated by the students and say, "A proprietor is like a manager, like an owner, like a boss. When you read the word proprietor, think of the person who owns the business and oversees the work that happens there." I would then say, "Thanks, also to those who gave us the words outside the box, because to know what a word is, we also need to know what a word is not."

A simple lesson like this acknowledges what we know about learning and what we know about how human beings organize knowledge in their heads. Through this process, we add a new word to a concept that the children already have about store ownership and thereby raise the likelihood the word will be understood and remembered.

Of course, any single encounter with a new word is not sufficient. In order to truly integrate the word proprietor into their vocabulary, students will need to encounter the word many times in their reading and their discussions over the next several days and weeks. One key to helping students build vocabulary,  however, is teaching through a conceptual lens.

Friday, November 14, 2014

How to Get a Great Teacher in Every Classroom

In case you missed it, the federal government wants states to focus on equity in assigning teachers. To the apparent amazement of the federal Department of Education, schools in areas with high rates of poverty have trouble attracting and retaining highly qualified, high performing teachers. The feds want the states to come up with a plan to ensure that teachers are distributed equitably. Apparently, the belief is that it is a lack of a plan that causes this phenomenon.

Of course this being a directive coming out of the Arne Duncan led DOE, the states are being urged to use teacher evaluation data (read Arne's beloved VAMs) to determine whether those teachers who receive lower ratings are disproportionately assigned to schools with high proportions of racial minorities and students in poverty.

In the most absurd of all the absurd aspects of this discussion of equitable distribution of teachers, we have the city of Minneapolis, where the Superintendent of Schools, Bernadeia Johnson, was dismayed to find out that under the Minnesota teacher evaluation system that includes VAMs, Minneapolis schools  "with the largest number of low-income students have the highest concentration of poor-performing instructors." She says she has a plan to address this inequity by providing incentives and mentoring and by firing teachers. Fellow blogger, Peter Greene, does a great job of skewering Johnson's vapid assessment of the data here.

I would like to save everyone a great deal of time and effort. Let's just concede that if we use student standardized test scores as any significant measure of teacher effectiveness, the teachers who teach in the poorest schools will always be adjudged to be low performing, not because of the effectiveness of their teaching, but because of it has long, long been understood that standardized test scores are a reliable measure of relative student wealth. High percentage of poverty in the school =low test scores. High degree of affluence in the school = high test scores.

A high quality teacher in every classroom is, of course, a worthy goal, but ham-fisted approaches such as those encouraged by Duncan and those apparently being put into effect in Minneapolis will do nothing to move us toward the goal.

My last job in public education before my retirement was as the Human Resources Director for a affluent, suburban school district. I usually had hundreds of applicants for any job opening, and many of these candidates would have been welcome additions to any staff. This afforded me the opportunity to hire the best people I could find. It also meant that most teachers I hired stayed for many years, allowing them to become high functioning effective teachers and allowing for stability in program that fosters student achievement.

Why did I have so many well-qualified candidates? The school district was a desirable place to work. We paid no more than other districts in the state. What we had were the types of working conditions that teachers desire.

From this perspective, here is a plan for ensuring equity in the distribution of teachers.

1. Ensure that every school is clean and safe and has adequate resources. 

Like all human beings, teachers want a clean, safe place to work. They want a building that is in good repair, a well-managed building where safety concerns are minimal and the books, materials and technology that are required to do the job well.

In our cash strapped cities where school buildings have been allowed to fall into deplorable disrepair, where chaos is often the rule in the hallway and where teachers are often required to buy paper, pencils and books for the instruction of the children, we are systematically ensuring inequitable distribution of high-quality teachers.

2. Create a collaborative culture in the building.

Teachers want to work in a place where the administration works with the staff to create a spirit of productive collaboration. Collaborative environments have been shown to be effective in helping all teachers meet the needs of their students. See Greg Anrig's book, Beyond the Education Wars.

This collaboration needs to extend to teacher evaluation systems. Teachers are not attracted to schools where the evaluation system is done to them. The chief aim of a sound evaluation system is to provide meaningful feedback to the teacher.

Any system that uses Value Added Measures (VAMs) for teacher evaluation is sure to keep top teaching candidates away from high-poverty schools. Teachers understand that these measures are skewed against poor children and the teachers who teach them. As I have elaborated on here, a good evaluation system starts with valuing teachers.

3. Provide professional development that is designed by the teachers and for the teachers.

Teachers want to work in schools that help them refine their craft. A school that will attract high quality teachers is a school that not only provides professional development, but includes the teachers in the design and development of that professional development, so that precious time resources are used to meet teachers and children's needs.

4.  Do not use Teach for America recruits in the place of professionals.

One way to ensure inequity is to employ Teach for America (TFA) neophytes in the schools with high levels of poverty. A school building needs a professional workforce of well-trained and certified professionals and it needs a stable staff. TFA provides neither.

A good way to employ these recruits would be as teacher aides, assisting certified teachers in classrooms with high concentrations of impoverished students. That way the TFAs could provide valuable assistance under a professional's guidance and also explore whether teaching is a career they wish to pursue. Then they could go back to school and be properly credentialed.

5. Refuse to include merit pay as part of your plan.

Merit pay does not work in education. First of all, teachers are not motivated by money. Teaching is a calling and teachers are attracted to it because of their desire to work with children. Good working conditions, such as those described above, are much more important than financial incentives (beyond a decent and livable wage).

Secondly , merit pay is anathema to a spirit of collaboration so necessary for a high functioning school that can attract and retain staff. By definition, merit pay sets up a competition for scarce dollars. Finally, merit pay seeds resentments, especially when the measures used to reward winners are suspect and often grossly inaccurate.

To recap: If the federal government and states are serious about wanting equitable distribution of teachers they should focus on the working conditions that will attract top teachers to all schools and they should do away with the foolishness of VAMs, merit pay schemes and neophyte TFA replacement teachers.

Of course, if the federal government is really serious about overcoming the inequity of teacher distribution, they would first have to get serious about the broader economic inequities that pervade this country and are this country's greatest shame. Only by creating a more equitable society will we ever truly erase the many other inequities that stem from that singular reality.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Of Deficits and Differences: Building from All Students' Strengths

Whenever I do a workshop on reading with a group of teachers, I first ask them to think about, list and discuss their students’ strengths as readers. I do this because I believe that students learn based on their strengths, so an initial focus on strengths can go a long way to understanding what we might need to do to help them with any learning challenges they might have as readers. So, if teachers say that students are excited about reading, but struggle in comprehending what they read, I can begin to make suggestions on how we can use that excitement to propel instruction in thinking about text. If students comprehend well when listening to text, but struggle with decoding, we can talk about how to use good listening skills to help with decoding strategies.

I bring this up now because I am afraid I may have forgotten that basic principle in my last post on vocabulary development. In that post I cited the work of Hart and Risley, the widely disseminated research that purports to find a thirty million word gap between the words that affluent children are exposed to as opposed to those that children from low socio-economic status are exposed to. Fellow blogger, Paul Thomas, pointed out to me that there are many flaws in the Hart and Risley study, not the least of which is that they take a “deficit” approach to the language of children living in poverty. One thing that reading Paul Thomas always does for me is make me feel smarter. So after doing some reading from Paul's work and other studies he directed me to, I want to amend and extend my thinking on the issue. You can read some of Paul’s thoughts on the issue here and here.

The most important amendment to my thinking is the understanding that the varieties of  language that all children, rich and poor, bring to school are language differences not language deficits. I know this instinctively and, I hope, in practice, but by framing my last post around Hart and Risley, I am giving their work a power it does not deserve. Paul directed me to a critique of Hart and Risley by Dudley-Maring and Lucas, entitled Patholigizing the Language and Culture ofPoor Children. As the title suggests, the authors argue that by taking a language deficit approach, Hart and Risley perpetuate the stereotype that the children from poor households are somehow sick, lacking a basic requirement for learning. 

You can see the problem, I hope. If the children are sick, we think we must treat them. And how do we treat them? By attacking the disease of language deficits. By extension, we communicate to these children that the language and linguistic talents they bring to school are not useful. In the process we rob them of the greatest ally they have in coming to be literate – their own language and their own ways of navigating the world linguistically. 

Some important insight into what I am getting at here comes from Larry Sipe, late of the University of Pennsylvania, and a person who closely studied children’s responses to read-alouds. Sipe observed children in inner city Philadelphia interacting with a story being read aloud in interesting ways. Culture seemed to be one influence on how children interacted with the text. For example, Carribean and African American children would talk back to the text, spontaneously rise up and act out a part of the text, insert their own ideas in the text or take over the text entirely and tell an alternate story. 

Obviously, children who respond in this way are very engaged with the text, but what if this type of engagement is not valued by the teacher? What if the expectation is that children will sit and listen to the text until invited by the teacher to speak? It is clear that a mere difference could be turned into a lasting deficit through teacher disapproval. Children who do sit and listen and raise their hands will be advantaged over those who do not. Ultimately, a great learning tool that a child brings to school is extinguished because that tool is not valued in the school setting.

But what if the classroom teacher were open to these culturally appropriate responses to story? Sipe suggests that a more culturally sensitive classroom might accept the free expression of these types of responses and use them to promote a richer literary experience and deeper literary understanding. By extension, I would suggest that a richer literary understanding would lead to a richer word level understanding, hence allowing children to use their strengths in interacting and engaging in a story to build greater word level understanding as well.

Dudley-Maring and Lucas say that “teachers need to recognize the linguistic, social, and cognitive resources all children bring with them to school.” When a teacher values all students’ linguistic and cultural experiences, all children can draw from their strengths and apply them to becoming literate. We need to value every child's language and cultural norms as allies in coming to deeper understanding. When we do this, we celebrate difference, instead of seeing deficits and all children benefit. Ultimately, children’s everyday language and way of understanding the world can become the background knowledge for the learning of more formal school language.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Words, Words, Words: Narrowing the Vocabulary Gap through Read-Alouds

In many ways what we routinely call the achievement gap can be understood as a vocabulary gap. It has been almost 20 years since the famous Hart and Risley study pronounced the thirty million word gap. As the graph to the right shows, they found that by age 3 children from affluent families heard 30 million more words than children from the lowest socio-economic group. Additionally, children in higher socio-economic groups heard more statements of encouragement, while children from low socio-economic groups heard more words of discouragement.

The child’s greatest asset in coming to be literate is, of course, the oral language each child brings to the school door. It is obvious that some children arrive with the major advantage of a much larger vocabulary;  a vocabulary learned not through dedicated study, but through lots and lots of contextualized and supportive talk. And this advantage only grows with time. While all children learn many new words in school, children who start with a larger receptive vocabulary add more words more quickly because they have more word structures in the brain (schema) to receive these new words. It is an example of what has been called “The Matthew Effect”, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

Recognizing the critical nature of the first three years in a child’s life and of the huge impact on language development that comes from the primary caregiver of that young child, organizations like Too Small to Fail and the Thirty Million Words Initiative are going into homes and helping care givers learn how to nurture the child’s early language development.

Such programs are hopeful, but once the child arrives at school what can a teacher do to narrow the word gap? It seems obvious that if we could narrow the vocabulary gap we would be making inroads in the achievement gap.

One school-based answer would be to provide children with a language rich learning environment. An environment where the teacher engages the children in lots and lots of contextualized talk about a broad range of subjects, but also an environment where children are talking to each other in structured play situations.  I addressed this issue of talk in the early years of schooling here. I worry that a movement toward a more academic orientation of pre-school and kindergarten could move teachers away from providing the time for the kind of structured play that encourages children to interact with each other around contextualized play. As Fiano (2013) has said,

            Teachers need to be more tolerant of student talk in the classroom. 
            Consistent modeling and multiple opportunities for practicing oral
            discourse in student-led workstations will alleviate off-task 
            behavior by students. Additionally, there needs to be time built in for
            teachers to observe the language that students are using during
            independent workstation use (p. 77).

Another, equally important, answer is the interactive read-aloud. I have addressed the importance of read-alouds in other posts here and here. In this post I would like to make a plea for the interactive read-aloud as a way to build all children’s vocabularies. As I worry that the push for higher standards and test driven accountability might drive out play in the kindergarten, I also worry that these forces might drive out read-alouds from the daily diet of the student. This would be a tragedy on many levels, not the least of which is that the read-aloud offers a great opportunity for narrowing the vocabulary gap.

To learn new words children need to hear the rich language of the best children’s literature as often as possible. Immersion in this language through read-aloud is a good beginning, but children also need to have their word acquisition mediated by the teacher who can contextualize and clarify new words and model for students how the meanings of new words can be determined through the context of the passage.

Enter the interactive read-aloud.

An interactive read-aloud is a systematic approach that includes the teacher doing the following:

·         Modeling higher-level thinking
·         Gathering, confirming and revising student predictions
·         Asking thoughtful questions focused on analyzing the text
·         Prompting student recall
·         Reading one book repeatedly
·         Reading books on a related topic
·         Systematically discussing words through providing short definitions and/or modeling identifying a word in context

Research has shown that it takes many encounters with a word to “own” it. Reading one book repeatedly provides an environment to encounter words over and over again. Reading books on a related topic helps students build a vocabulary around a particular theme or content. For example, reading aloud many books on insects over of the period of a week will expose students to insect related words in a context that allows them to make connections and again encounter these words multiple times. Reading books organized around related topics builds the content vocabulary for future study of these topics.

Simply hearing words in a rich context is not always enough, so it is also important that the teacher stop during the read-aloud to provide short definitions or longer explanations of words when necessary. Taking breaks during the read-aloud to have children turn and talk to each other about words they hear will get the students using the words and reflecting on the meanings.

So much for the how of a read-aloud focused on vocabulary development, what books should we read aloud? The answer is any book of high quality that uses words in a rich and meaningful context. Research has shown that children’s listening comprehension is about two grade levels ahead of their reading comprehension, so interactive read-aloud provides the opportunity for reading highly literate texts that we might not use in regular reading instruction. Aim high with your read-alouds and scaffold the children’s comprehension and vocabulary acquisition.

We should also be reading a good mix of fiction and non-fiction in our read-alouds. Vocabulary development is largely a matter of building more and more sophisticated conceptual knowledge. Reading non-fiction, as well as fiction, helps build this conceptual knowledge.

Read-aloud is a critical part of the instructional day. We must not let it be crowded out by someone’s idea of what 21st century instruction looks like. If we need to justify our read-aloud time in the plan book, we should write that we are narrowing the vocabulary gap by exposing the children to the rich vocabulary they need for continued learning.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Challenging Andy Smarick's Defense of Standardized Testing

It looks like the test and punish crowd is beginning to get worried about all the backlash against high-stakes testing. Lately, I noticed a little spittle forming at the corners of the mouths of the test them to death champions such as those at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Jumping into the fray this past week was one of my reformy favorites and New Jersey's own, Andy Smarick. Smarick brought his own special take on public education to New Jersey as a Deputy Commisioner of Education for a few years, where one of my esteemed colleagues called him "a nice kid who knows nothing about education." Jersey Jazzman has a detailed look at Andy's bona fides here. He is currently a Partner with Bellwether Education, serving on the Orwellian sounding "Bellwether Thought Leadership" committee.

Smarick has decided to bring his "thought leadership" to us all in a recent article in Fordham's Flypaper blog. He worries that recent back peddling on testing by luminaries like Bill Clinton, Bush Era Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, and even Fordham's own "Checker" Finn will lead to a compromise where yearly testing of students is repealed. Heaven forbid, cries Andy. He then offers a point by point rationale for testing kids every year.

I'd like to take a look at Smarick's standardized testing "benefits" a little more closely to see if they hold up. Here is Smarick's list and my commentary.

1. Yearly testing makes it clear that every student matters.

      No, Andy. The only thing yearly testing makes clear is that the education reformers' agenda matters above all. The only reason to give a standardized test every year is to advance the agenda of using test scores to evaluate teachers. If it were truly about the kids, we would stop testing so much and give more time to teaching from a broader, richer curriculum.

2. Yearly testing makes clear that the standards associated with every tested grade and subject matter.

      No, Andy. What would make clear that every standard matters would be a process where teachers were included in the standards formation and delivery. Yearly testing perpetuates the top-down, teacher be damned approach to the Common Core. By testing every year, education reformers seek to force a test driven curriculum on teachers who had little or no voice in the creation of those standards. 

3. Yearly testing forces us to continuously track students, preventing our claiming surprise when scores are below expectations.

      So, if I understand this one correctly, Andy, we need to test kids every year to prove that our tests are showing that a student is under-performing on tests, so that we can redouble our efforts to make sure kids perform better on tests. Or is it that we need to test every year so that we can gather a database of kids scores over time to use in efforts to close schools and fire teachers?

4. Yearly testing gives us information needed to tailor interventions to the grades, subjects, and students in need.

      No, Andy. Actually the information provided by standardized tests does not tell us much about the child as a learner or about how to help that child. Standardized tests may tell us about some broad student strengths and weaknesses, but teachers get much richer and much more actionable information from their own authentic assessments in class. If you want to spend some of that testing money on helping teachers develop classroom based authentic assessments, I am with you.

5. Yearly testing gives families the information needed to make the case for necessary changes.

     So, Andy, we can use standardized tests as a weapon to back up "parent trigger" legislation to close down local neighborhood schools and replace them with privately run charter schools of no better, and often worse, quality. In other words we need standardized tests, once again, to advance the reformer agenda. Of course, we could use the money spent on testing to make sure the existing school has the resources it needs to be successful, but that doesn't fit the agenda.

6. Yearly testing enables us to calculate student achievement growth, so schools and educators get credit for progress.

      How thoughtful of you, Andy. Thanks, but no thanks. I will be happy to celebrate progress in many ways with the students. One way I would get a chance to celebrate, every year, is if we tested only in 4th, 8th grade and 11th grade. That way, my schools and my teachers all get to celebrate, but my kids don't get their brains knocked out by too many tests.

7. It forces us to admit that achievement gaps exist, persist, and grow over time.

      I will tell you what, Andy, I will give you this one. I will admit, lo and behold, that achievement gaps exist, persist and grow. I don't need a test to tell me that. I will also insist, however, that no amount of testing will change this fact. If we want to do more than track the persistence of achievement gaps, we know that we must first address the opportunity gap that is perpetuated by persistent inequity in this country.

8. It prevents schools from "hiding" less effective educators and programs in untested grades.

     So, Andy, we must subject kids to test after test so that schools will be forced to spread their less effective teachers around? It seems a little odd to punish children for the perceived misdeeds of the adults around them. Also, do you imagine that principals and all other teachers don't know and understand that a child's performance on a fourth grade test is the result of the teaching of every teacher that child has ever had? This sounds like just another way to push the test the kids and punish the teachers reform agenda.

Based on Smarick's list of benefits, I would have to conclude that standardized tests are vital to the advancement of the corporate education reform agenda, but not especially useful to students, parents and teachers. Used judiciously, periodic standardized testing can give schools some useful programmatic information. About three times in a student's career seems right. Schools, teachers and children would be better off by far, if the rest of our assessment energies were directed at authentic assessments conducted in the classroom, which yield information that can be acted on immediately.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Percy Jackson, Nancy Drew and Franz Kafka Walk into a Bar...

This week's edition of The New Yorker has an article by Rebecca Mead entitled The Percy Jackson Problem. To the uninitiated, i.e., those of you who don't have a teenager in your life, Percy Jackson is the lead character in a fantasy series based on Greek mythology written by former middle school teacher Rick Riordan. The series has become all the rage with a certain set of middle school readers. I was introduced to the Percy Jackson books when I volunteered to accompany my granddaughters, Kaitlyn and Allison, to a reading that Riordan was doing at the local high school. You would have thought that Elvis was in the building for all the squealing that accompanied every word that Riordan spoke.

In The New Yorker article Mead asks the question,  "Is it OK that kids are reading these admittedly low brow formulaic books or should they be reading richer, more challenging texts?" This question has particular relevance today with the Common Core State Standards call for children to be reading more complex texts in order to be "college and career ready."

Mead cites award winning children's writer Neil Gaimon, author of such popular books as Coraline and The Graveyard Book, who comes down squarely on the side of allowing kids to read what they enjoy. In a speech published in The Guardian he said, "The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them."

Others are not so sure. Mead also refers to an article in The New York Review of Books entitled, Reading Up, by Tim Parks. Parks says, "I seriously doubt if E.L. James [author of Fifty Shades of Gray] is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet." Parks argues that reading genre fiction does not necessarily lead to reading more challenging texts. Many, if not most people, even those who read a lot as school students, do not advance to richer works by Faulkner or Proust, but continue to read genre fiction and fail to stretch themselves as readers.

I think both Gaimon and Parks are correct. First, I believe it is an unqualified good for children to choose to read no matter what the complexity or literary merit of the material. Children could certainly do worse than the Percy Jackson books that have helped my granddaughters to a deep interest in and knowledge of Greek mythology. Among my first forays into reading sixty years ago were the Tom Swift books. Many of my students still report enjoying the Nancy Drew mysteries. But I also believe, as Parks posits, that just because a child reads lots and lots of stuff, we cannot assume this will lead to deeper and richer reading. If deeper and richer reading is desirable, something else has to happen.

Enter the teacher.

The Language Arts teacher must straddle two worlds with children. Those two worlds might be defined as the world of entertainment and the world of edification. One foot, then,  must be in the world of reading for pleasure. Students must be encouraged to read widely in books that they enjoy. Teachers should be introducing these books to children, making sure they have access to these books and giving them time to read them in school.  Let's call this the independent reading part of the curriculum.

I believe that kids that are readers are more likely to be open to reading that may be more challenging. By definition though, this more challenging reading will require teacher mediation. No matter how engaged in Percy Jackson a reader might be, reading Homer is going to need mediation. No matter how much R.L. Stine kids read, they are still going to need help with Kafka and no matter how much they love teen romances, they will still need help with Romeo and Juliet.

Teachers can assist children in making these leaps by connecting the more easily accessible texts to the more obscure ones. The knowledge of Greek mythology gained from a steady diet of Percy Jackson can help students relate to the adventures of Ulysses. The conventions of the teen romance (parents who don't understand, the need for friends to confide in, the desire to escape) can find echoes in Romeo and Juliet. The Language arts teacher would do well not only to know the books in the curriculum, but also the books that kids are actually reading that undergird the curriculum.

Secondly, I think that teachers would do well to read aloud large chunks of difficult text. Through  read aloud the teacher can scaffold the learning through modeling her own thought process, note areas where students are having difficulty and talk the students through obscure passages.

Finally, the teacher should provide opportunities for the students to struggle with some of the challenges presented on their own. Ideally, since understanding is so often socially constructed, this would happen in structured discussions where the students grappled with thorny text problems in small groups to see what best possible understanding they could come up with as a community of readers.

Enthusiastic voluntary reading may not lead to a nation of adults clamoring for the discovery of a new James Joyce novel or T.S Eliot poem, but it is a necessary prerequisite for developing a nation that views reading as a worthy form of entertainment and enrichment. The trick for the teacher is to balance the pleasure of open choice reading with the strenuous effort needed to understand and enjoy richer literature.

Killing the joy of reading in the name of reading texts of greater complexity will be a Pyrrhic victory. Better to focus on nurturing the joy while nudging the complexity along. No matter what the complexity, I have to believe that a reader will be more "college and career ready" than a non-reader.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Reformers Say Field Trips Are Good for Kids: Who Knew?

A recent article on the reformy blog, Education Next, reports on a study out of the Walton Foundation funded Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which found many positive learning outcomes from having students attend live professional theater productions. This report follows last year's groundbreaker from the same group that found positive learning outcomes associated with taking kids on field trips to museums. Both these studies fall into a school of educational research that I like to call a "Duh" Study; that is, a study that purports to discover something that veteran teachers have known, like, forever.

The stated goal of these studies according to the authors is "to  broaden the types of measures that education researchers, and in turn policymakers and practitioners, consider when judging the educational success or failure of schools." That sounds like a worthy goal. Of course, it has been the reformers who narrowed our view of what a successful school is in the first place, so I take their new found insight with a large pinch of salt. These researchers also worry that "as schools narrow their focus on improving performance on math and reading standardized tests, they have greater difficulty justifying taking students out of the classroom for experiences that are not related to improving those test scores." Gee, really? Is it possible that these reformy types are saying a  focus on standardized tests narrows the currriculum? Maybe they have been reading Diane Ravitch.

But perhaps I protest too much. Any study that will help justify putting money back in the budget for culturally enriching field trips is okey dokey with me. In the recent financial crisis field trips took a real hit. These trips were made vulnerable by the obsession with testing coming out of NCLB and the recession was a death knell for many schools when it came to the expense of a field trip. 

For the record the latest study took middle school children to see a live professional production of either The Christmas Carol or Hamlet. The researchers found that seeing a live production enhanced students understanding of character, plot and other factors related to knowledge of the play. Students who saw the live production also showed higher scores for tolerance of diverse points of view and in reading others' emotions. None of this is surprisising, of course. I can trace my lifelong love of the theater and particularly of Shakespeare to a 9th grade field trip to see a production of The Merchant of Venice. It was the first live professional performance I had ever seen and I will never forget it. I can still conjure the three caskets scene in my minds eye 50+ years later.

The earlier study took children on a field trip to an art museum. That study found that the experience improved student knowledge of and ability to think critically about art. Students also displayed stronger historical empathy, developed higher tolerance, and were more likely to visit such cultural institutions as art museums in the future. Again not surprising, but good news. Maybe Bill Gates can divert some millions from his pursuit of the perfect teacher evaluation design to fund kids going on field trips.

The rich educational and cultural possibilities of field trips were readily apparent to me as a very new, very young social studies teacher back in the 70s. I taught in a working class town in southeastern Pennsylvania where my students parents worked very hard every day to make ends meet. There was little time for cultural activities in these families' busy lives and these 12 and 13 year old children, an eclectic mix of white, Hispanic, African-American and newly-arrived Vietnamese, had limited cultural experiences. 

Every year for several years I took three bus loads of these kids to New York for a visit to the Natural History Museum, a tour of the city landmarks, and lunch in Chinatown. I have many stories from those trips, but my favorite involves a young man named Carlos who had his nose pressed to the window pane of the bus from the moment we left the school's driveway all the way up the New Jersey Turnpike. As the bus was making its way downtown to show the kids the Empire State Building, Carlos peered up at a large clock on a bank building and noticed that the clock said 11:05. ""Mr. Walsh, Carlos asked, "It's 11:05 here in New York, but my watch says 11:00. Are we in a different time zone?" I smiled, pleased that Carlos was at least remembering something from my geography lesson of a few weeks before and explained to him that the clock he saw must just be a little fast.

So yes, field trips matter and they matter a great deal. They create memorable moments of great impact on the lives of young people. They also create joy. Joy is in too short supply in schools these days and the reformy focus on standardized tests and accountability must take responsibility for killing much of that joy. It seems that some reformers at least are beginning to realize it. I suggest teachers use these studies in their requests for funds for educationally and culturally enriching field trips in the future.

What else can reforemrs learn that teachers have always known? The sky is the limit.

Next year I suggest the gang at the University of Arkanas investigate whether or not participation in the band at school enhances a student's appreciation of music, ability to work as a team member and self-esteem. I wonder what they would find. And I wonder if what they discover would lead to a reformy call to ensure that every school child had the opportunity to attend a school with a rich music program.

I can dream, can't I.