Sunday, September 25, 2016

Teaching Struggling Readers: Focus on Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 19, 2016

Stop the Nonsense (Words)

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

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

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

Why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop the nonsense!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Developing a Literate Home Environment

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

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

Developing a Literate Home Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Some Real (Estate) Data for Education Reformers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Teaching, Tragedy and Comprehension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 4, 2016

NJ School Board: Punish Children for Sins of Adults

In an act of ignorance, arrogance, shortsightedness, and cowardice, the New Jersey State Board of Education has determined that the PARCC tests in Algebra 1 and 10th Grade English Language Arts will be the determining factor in whether a New Jersey school child will graduate from high school. The ruling begins with current 8th graders, which means the full effect of the law will hit in 2021. Currently, only about 40% of students pass these tests, but according to State Education Commissioner, David Hespe, "you have to have an aggressive goal." The proposal was opposed by a broad based group of parents, local school boards,  and teachers.

The School Board seems determined to set the target high for children, while setting the target very low for themselves. They have learned no lessons from recent education policy history, turned a blind eye to more promising ways to assess student learning in high school, and totally disregarded the failure of the state to provide learning conditions conducive to all students excelling in school. I wish Commisioner Hespe saw fit to set an "aggressive goal" for the School Board.

Recent history demonstrates that setting impossible to reach goals does damage to education. In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) decreed that 100% of children would be proficient, based again on a standardized test, in language arts and mathematics, by 2014. Perhaps you heard, that didn't happen. What happened instead is that schools were labeled as failing, teachers and children were made to feel like failures, teacher morale hit an all time low, curriculum was narrowed to focus only on tested areas, and states started to game the tests by setting lower standards. We can expect the same to happen in New Jersey by 2021, but we will be able to add onto that a vast number of young people wandering the streets without a diploma, many of whom would have qualified with more enlightened assessment.

That more enlightened assessment would take the form of a portfolio of student work, gathered over a four year high school career that shows what a student has learned and is able to do in a variety of subjects that matter, not solely algebra and English. A portfolio is similar to what artists, actors or architects compile to show the quality of their work. Tests could be included in these portfolios, but the tests should be rooted in the criterion developed by teachers in the classroom, so that students are being tested on what they learned. Portfolios would certainly be a better indicator than two standardized tests of  a student's preparedness for "college and career." Apparently, the NJ School Board already knows this is a viable method because portfolios are offered as an alternative for students who, after several tries, don't pass the test.

Why not formalize portfolios as the expectation for all? School Board members might say portfolio assessment would be too time consuming to offer all students. This is only true if assessment is viewed by the State as a hammer to hold over the heads of schools and children. If assessment is seen as a cooperative venture, than local school districts can be tasked with reviewing the portfolios and determining eligibility for a diploma. The State could then monitor each school district by reviewing ten or so portfolios at random to ensure that school districts are maintaining high standards. It is called trust and verify, but apparently the NJ School Board has decided that trust is not in its vocabulary.

Finally, the School Board decrees that this test will be mandatory for all children, while failing miserably to make sure that all children in the state have anything approaching the resources they need to make this happen. The struggles of inner city schools have been well-documented and much of that struggle comes from the debilitating impact of poverty. Many programs could be instituted in the state to ameliorate the impact of poverty, but the only thing the state has been able to come up with is charter schools that do not better, on average, than public schools. The reason that charters generally do no better is because no school can overcome the educational impact of poverty on a child's brain, a child's physical health and a child's readiness to learn. Charter schools are a way to distract the people of NJ from the real issues no one wants to deal with: income inequity and segregation.

But it is not just the urban districts that have not been well-supported by the State. Many districts in affluent areas have also been shorted by the State according to the State's own funding formula, the School Finance Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA). The story of education in the last 30 year in New Jersey is a story of chronic under-funding, test based accountability, and failure to find real, sustainable solutions to educational issues in inner cities, even in those urban school districts that the state has taken over.

I would like to suggest an "aggressive goal" for the New Jersey State School Board. Go back to the drawing board and:

  1. Consider how the very portfolio assessment you suggest as an alternative could be the gold standard for all students. 
  2. Recognize that PARCC proficiency is based on the National Educational Assessment Program (NAEP) tests and is set way higher than the state mandated "basic competency" test and remove it as a graduation gate keeper.
  3. Lobby to ensure that all schools are appropriately funded.
  4. Support social programs, including high quality early childhood programs, and wrap around community services programs that will help children be prepared to learn in school.
In New Jersey, as well as elsewhere in the nation, it is time for policy makers to stop punishing children for the shortcomings of adults.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Seymour Papert, Digital Learning and Missed Opportunities

I read today of the death of educator and mathematician, Seymour Papert. Papert was a visionary in the world of computers as instruments of learning and enhancing creativity. Papert's most famous book was Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas (1980). The book had two major themes: that children can learn to master computer use and that computers can help children think and learn in new ways.

Papert invented a programming language for children called LOGO. Using LOGO children learned to program a robot "LOGO Turtle" to move around a room (or computer screen) based on the instructions students wrote into the program. LOGO was focused on discovery - a self-directed method of teaching and learning. LOGO was also intended to be social - students working together to solve problems and create programming code that worked, with the immediate feedback available to them in the form of the movement of the turtle. Research indicated that LOGO helped children develop metacognitive ability (the ability to reflect on and revise their own thinking), improve problem solving ability, and enhance spatial orientation ability.

As a reading specialist, I was interested especially in how LOGO could be used to help children develop metacognitive abilities and problem solving abilities, both important components of skilled reading. I designed a simple LOGO module for my students, which they could apply on the limited computer screens I had available to them in the 1980s.

No doubt a visionary like Papert would be disappointed in the recent research from the Office of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the people that bring us the PISA test, who report that technology in the classroom has so far had little impact on student learning. William Doyle reported on these findings for The Education Partners and Diane Ravitch discussed the findings on her blog. Doyle says that "there is little evidence that digital tools are inherently superior to analog tools in the hands of qualified teachers in teaching children the fundamentals of learning."

Where did things go wrong. How did the promise of Papert's work devolve into the recent conclusions of the OECD report? A close look at what Papert hoped for and what Doyle suggests in his article might provide some answers.

Papert's vision of technology in the classroom was based on play, discovery, experimentation, and social interaction. The teacher acts as a facilitator of the learning, shaping, guiding, redirecting, but not forcing the learning. This has often not been the way that digital instruction has been used in the classroom. Too often the computer has been used as only an alternate delivery system for information and rote exercises, sometimes in a game like format, but still not appreciably different from traditional textbooks and worksheets. Instead of unlocking the real power of computing, schools have too often replicated traditional analog learning on the computer screen.

Doyle suggests that a return to Papert's original vision may be the way to go. Here is what he had to say about a lesson he observed at a teacher training school in Finland.

In the school's science lab, the fourth grade class is deeply immersed in building physical prototypes of LEGO MINDSTORMS robots. Small teams of twelve-year-olds gather around instruction charts on desktop screens, then get on the floor on their hands and knees to collaborate in the complex task of assembling wheeled mcro-robots that can talk, move, and play music. The teacher, Jussi Hietva explains that the children are learning not only critical STEM skills, they are building "soft skills" of teamwork, leadership, negotiation, trial-and-error and collaboration. Children are encouraged to giggle, wiggle and squirm from time to time, since that's what children are biologically engineered to do, in Finland and everywhere else. "They are having fun while they learn," says the teacher. "Why not? They are children!"

So we have come full circle in our thinking about the role of the computer in the classroom, all the way back to Papert's 40 year-old vision. As we have adopted more and more technology in the classroom we have tried to impose old learning paradigms on a new technology; it hasn't worked. Perhaps there are clues here to why online charter schools have shown such miserable results. We can't just plop kids down in front of a computer screen, expose them to a curriculum modeled after the analog learning models of the past, and expect great learning to take place.

Learning is social. Learning is collaborative. Learning requires the teacher over the shoulder facilitating the learning in real time. This all brings to mind the short story by Isaac Asimov entitled, The Fun They Had. In the story, written in 1950, but set in the world of the 22nd century, children do not attend school, but receive all their instruction on a personal computer programmed specifically for their learning rate. The children hate the mechanized approach to their learning. They find a book, something they have never seen before, that describes something called "school." This school was a place where children learned together with a real, flesh and blood teacher. These 22nd century children can only marvel at "the fun they had" in school.

To tap into the power of the digital age in learning we need to remember that children need to have the opportunity to experiment with the real potential of the computer, not through canned programs, but through experimentation, collaboration, and structured play. As the Finns say, "Play is the work of children." Seymour Papert would agree.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Getting What We Pay For in Our Schools

In September of 1971, I was a 24 year-old third year teacher sitting in the auditorium of  Bristol Junior-Senior High School with my teacher colleagues. Our new superintendent, Dr. Michael Zotos, was up on the stage with transparencies and an overhead projector showing our school district's ranking, based on test scores, against the 12 other school districts in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Bristol, a small, working class school district with considerable poverty, ranked in the middle of the pack. The superintendent found this concerning.

As a newly minted member of the Bristol Borough Education Association's negotiation team, I had some data, too. I raised my hand.

"Dr. Zotos, I see that the test scores show that we are about average in achievement across the county. Is that correct."

"Yes. As I have shown here."

"Isn't it also true that Bristol Borough teachers are the lowest paid teachers in the county?"

"Yes, from what I saw reported in the papers, that is also true?"

"Well then, Dr. Zotos, couldn't we say that the taxpayers of Bristol are getting a very good bang for their buck?"

"Why, yes, I suppose that is true."

I tell this story today, because forty-five years later research shows that this "bang for the buck" is still true. A report from the Brookings Institute yesterday cites a recent study by Erik Hanushek and others on teacher cognitive ability in literacy and math around the world. Now normally I am very suspect of research on education done by economists and especially research on education done by economist Erik Hanushek, who is the father of value added measures (VAMs) and fire your way to excellence. While I am circumspect, however, I think their is information of value in this study.

The findings of the study can be summarized as follows. As measured on the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, American teachers are about in the middle of the pack relative to other college graduates in the United States when it comes to literacy and numeracy. In literacy, teachers score slightly above the norm. In numeracy, teachers score somewhat below the average.

But the researchers also looked at teacher salary compared to other college graduates. What they found was that compared to the other 23 countries in the study, American teachers rank dead last in pay in comparison to other college graduates in their own country. In the US, teachers earn 20% less than the typical American college graduate. In Finland, teachers earn 12% more than the typical Finnish college graduate.

In other words, the taxpayers of the United States are still getting a great bang for their buck. Our teachers are overachieving. As the Brookings Institute's, Dick Startz put it,

American teachers don't have the great basic skills we'd like them to have, not compared to the rest of the world they don't. But, we way underpay for the skills they do have (emphasis mine).

Of course, there are many caveats to be applied when we look at this study. Teaching is a much more complex activity than a simple cognitive standardized test can measure. Teachers need superior non-cognitive skills as well as cognitive skills. Teachers need huge reserves of emotional intelligence and empathy. Cognitive ability is but one measure of the overall abilities of a teacher. It is also true that money is not a chief motivator of teachers.

Still it is clear that in the United States we have tried to do education on the cheap and it is costing us in many ways. In this country we are offering teachers a bad deal. Go to school. Earn professional credentials. Come out and go to work for 20% less than your college classmates.

You would think that corporate education reformers, with their market driven ideology, could figure this one out. In order to attract more highly qualified teachers, we need to pay more from the start.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Do Away with Grades for Reading

We should do away with grades for reading. Reading is a skill, not a subject. I do not like grades in general because they typically don't tell us much about how to improve learning and they can destroy the motivation of kids who get low grades. Grades do make some kind of sense, however, in content areas like social studies, science and math, because there is content to be learned and specific knowledge to be assessed.

Reading does not have a content, unless we artificially invent one for it. And when we invent content it often leads to bad instructional practice. For more than 50 years we have known that giving kids 10 vocabulary words in a list on Monday, having them look them up and write them in sentences, and them quizzing them on Friday, does not improve vocabulary knowledge. When I ask teachers why they still do it, the answer is often that they need some grades for the "Reading" section of the report card.

What goes into a reading grade? Typically these grades include, vocabulary quizzes, spelling tests, reading skill worksheet completion, homework completion, perceived student effort, and perhaps participation in reading group discussions. I ask that you notice that none of these things have anything to do with actual student reading ability. Under this system, it is possible, in fact, likely, that a student who is a poor reader could get an A and a strong reader could get an F. We have all had the strong student who repeatedly failed to complete assignments or put out much effort. Does that student deserve an F? And do we really want to report to a parent of a poor reader that the child is achieving an A in reading?

When I bring this up to teachers or administrators, I am often told that parents expect a grade. This is no doubt true, but parents only expect a grade because we have been providing these grades for 100 years. Parents think they know what grades mean - A is very good, F is very bad and everything else is somewhere in between. We need to show parents that grades carry so much baggage that they are practically meaningless in informing them about their child's reading performance. And we need to show them that there is a better way.

That better way would report to the parent on what the child knows and is able to do in reading. Simple brief answers to a few questions on a report card would do it.

  • Is the student below, at, or above expected reading level for grade/age?
  • Does the student read with appropriate fluency for grade/age?
  • Does the student read with appropriate comprehension for grade/age?
  • Does the student choose to read independently?
  • What are the student's reading goals for the next marking period?
Notice the item on "choosing to read." I think that it is important to communicate to parents that successful readers have both the skill and the will to read.

I have worked in two school districts that did away with grades in reading. It was not easy. It required visionary leadership and a great many teachers working together to make it happen. It required getting the administration on board. It required innumerable parent meetings to explain the changes and then individual teachers explaining the changes to parents at conferences. Eventually, it worked and the changes have stood. You can find the procedure we followed here.

Why would anyone want to take this on? Because a better way of reporting about reading, will lead to a better way of thinking about reading and a better approach to teaching reading.

Friday, July 22, 2016

What Is the Best Way to Assess Early Literacy?

Recently a teacher wrote to me about her school district's plans to scrap Running Records and use a combination of DIBELS and AIMSweb for assessing early literacy abilities. She asked for my help in fighting this ill-advised policy move and I provided some research based resources. I am pleased to say that this teacher, through her informed and impassioned action, was able to prevail and the elimination of Running Records was shelved.

This incident got me thinking and I decided to write this post to clarify some issues on early literacy assessment. As I travel to schools around the country, I have noted the proliferation of DIBELS and AIMSweb. Both DIBELS and AIMSweb are called "curriculum based measures" or CBMs. This term sounds good, of course, and may help administrators sell the product to school boards, but as literacy assessment expert, Peter Johnston points out, neither of these measures is curriculum based, unless we consider counting correctly pronounced words in a one-minute reading a part of the curriculum.

I would like to compare these assessments of early literacy to two assessments that I think are more enlightened and effective: Running Records and The Observational Survey, both devised by literacy researcher/educator Marie Clay.

Both DIBELS and AIMSweb take a "bits and pieces" approach to early literacy assessment. Children are asked to identify the letters of the alphabet, to read nonsense words, to segment the sounds in words, to perform a timed reading for fluency, and to use given vocabulary in a sentence all under rigidly timed constraints. All of these abilities contribute to a child's ability to read and are evident in readers, but to suggest that these "components of reading" tell us much about readers is an error. As literacy researcher Michael Pressley has said, DIBELS

mis-predicts reading performance on other assessments much of the time, and at best is a measure of who reads quickly without regard to whether the reader comprehends what is read.

The Running Record and Observational Survey take a more holistic approach. The Observational Survey is generally used with children after the kindergarten year and specifically with students who are struggling to take on beginning reading instruction. The Running Record is typically used with students who have begun to read, but is also a part of the Observational Survey.

The Running Record requires the teacher to listen to a child read a chosen text on a particular reading level. While the student reads the teacher notes words read correctly, words read incorrectly, substituted or omitted, self-corrections, general fluency, etc. The Running Record session may end with some questions for comprehension check, or more appropriately in my view, with a retelling.

The Observational Survey has six components:

  • Concepts about print to discover what the student understands about the way spoken language is represented in print.
  • Letter identification to find out which alphabetic symbols the student recognizes.
  • Word reading to indicate how well the student is accumulating reading vocabulary of frequently used words
  • Writing vocabulary to determine if the student is building a perdonal resouce of known words that can be written
  • Hearing and recording sounds in words to assess phonemic awareness and spelling knowledge.
  • Running Records to provide evidence of how well the student is learning to use knowledge of letters, sounds, and words to understand messages in text.

So how do DIBELS and AIMSweb measure up with Running Records and The Observational Survey? When judging early literacy assessments, I am guided by six principles many of which come from the work of Peter Johnston:

  • Early literacy assessment must inform instruction in productive ways.
  • Early literacy assessment is best when it resembles actual reading.
  • Early literacy assessment is best when the child's teacher does the assessment.
  • Early literacy assessment must help teachers identify what a child can do independently and with different kinds of support.
  • Early literacy assessment must help teachers provide useful information to parents on their child's developing literacy.
  • Early literacy assessment must inform the school on how well a program is meeting the goals of optimizing student literacy learning.
Informing Instruction

The chief purpose of assessment is to inform instruction. Teachers use assessment to give themselves actionable information that will help them design instruction for learners. As literacy researcher P. David Pearson has pointed out, DIBELS (and by extension the similar AIMSweb), not only do not inform instruction, but lead to bad instruction. In Pearson's view, DIBELS like assessments drive teachers to focus on the bits and pieces of reading, rather than actual reading. DIBELS becomes the driver of the curriculum and the curriculum is narrowed in unproductive ways as a result. To quote Pearson directly:

I have decided to join that group of scholars and teachers and parents who are convinced that DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flash cards.

In contrast, taking a Running Record of a child's oral reading provides the teacher with real, actionable information. By listening to a child's reading and taking notes on that reading, teachers get a window into what a reader knows and is able to do in reading. When the reader makes an error (or in Kenneth Goodman's terminology a miscue), the teacher gets invaluable information for future teaching points.

Following a Running Record, teachers can assess comprehension by asking the child to retell what was read. If a student has sketchy recall, the teacher can ask probing questions to get a fuller understanding of what the reader can recall with teacher assistance. All of this helps the teacher develop future instructional targets. I discussed probing for understanding in this post from two years ago.

Resembling Actual Reading

A Running Record, of course, has face validity because it is actual reading. With DIBELS and AIMSweb students do many "components of reading tasks"and read a passage to assess rate of reading, but not actual reading. As I pointed out earlier, this focus on the components of reading and reading speed can and does lead to wrongheaded instruction.

Teacher Adminsitered

Running Records are administered regularly by the classroom teacher. While AIMSweb and DIBELS assessments are often given by the classroom teacher, the information is not actionable as it relates to improved instruction.

The Observational Survey is typically administered only to students who are struggling to learn to read and take on reading behaviors at the end of kindergarten or the beginning of first grade. These surveys are administered by specially trained teachers who will use the information to inform their individual or small group instruction.

Identify What a Child Can Do Independently and With Support

Running Records provide the opportunity to assess students independently, but can be modified to see what a students can do with support. Support can take the form of a book introduction and practice read or prompting at the point of difficulty.

In assessing comprehension the teacher may ask for an unaided retelling or provide prompts to assist the student in retelling - either way, the results inform instruction.

Provide Useful Information to Parents

DIBELS and AIMSweb are sorting tools that provide teachers with numbers. Teachers can report these numbers to parents and explain what these numbers mean as far as a child's position on a normative scale of these numbers, but they don't really help the teacher say much about the child's reading.

A teacher who administers a Running Record has immediate evidence of what the child can and cannot do in reading, what instruction is needed and where the child is in reading compared to other children in the same grade or same age. This kind of specific information is more useful to parents than number scores in "reading-like" activities.

Informing the School on Literacy Progress

I suspect this is where DIBELS and AIMSweb  have their greatest appeal. They provide numbers that can be easily reported on graphs and charts that schools must provide to local and state accountability agencies. These assessments have the same attraction as an SAT score - they reduce complex processes to simple numbers. They also have all the problems of SAT scores because they reduce complex processes to numbers that are not very revealing of a what a student knows and does not know and what a teacher needs to do in designing instruction.

Systematic, documented and recorded Running Records, over time, can provide numbers for these reports and more detailed information about students actual reading progress.

AIMSweb and DIBELS do have the appeal of speed, but we need to ask at what cost. Does it really make sense to administer these screening tests to normally developing readers? The Observational Survey taps into similar information as these other assessments, but takes about 45 minutes to administer. This would be prohibitive if every child needed to be assessed in this way, but the Observational Survey is given only to those students who are struggling to take on reading. For these students it provides invaluable information and clear targets for instruction.

DIBELS and AIMSweb are artifacts of an assembly line view of reading. Children are placed on the conveyor belt and doses of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency and vocabulary are screwed on and tightened until the conveyor belt spits out a reader. This very American view of production may work for widgets, but it does not recognize the complexity of language or reading development. Rather than an assembly line metaphor, we need to think of the single cell embryo that develops increasing complexity as it grows. For children, increasing language facility develops by interacting with the world, by experiencing language, first orally and then in writing, and then by gradually making sense of that complexity so that they listen with understanding and read with comprehension. Parents and teachers can guide this development and thoughtful assessments that acknowledge this complexity can inform our instruction.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Five Ways to Fight Summer Reading Loss

I am sitting at my computer this morning looking outside at an absolutely sweltering mid-July day in southeastern Pennsylvania. The weather people are warning us that the combination of heat and humidity makes it dangerous to go outside. So, I am thinking that this is a great opportunity to keep the kids inside and have a family reading day (and for me to avoid the needed garden work).

These days most elementary schools provide dedicated in class time for kids to read from books they have selected because of their interests and reading abilities. Unfortunately, for many kids summer is not a time when books are readily accessible or reading time a part of a daily routine. This lack of practice in reading often leads to a phenomenon that reading researchers call summer reading loss or summer reading setback. Kids who don't read over the summer, lose reading gains they made over the school year.

There is plenty of research documenting summer reading loss and you can access some of it here and here. Not surprisingly, summer reading loss impacts children in low income families more than in middle income and high income families. While  there is less research on how to combat summer loss, there are some common sense ways that parents and teachers can use to help fight summer loss.

Give Access to Books

When kids have access to books that they want to read and that they can read, their reading improves. There is actually some good research to demonstrate this. In many lower income families access to books is limited. In order to combat summer loss we must get books in kids hands. Schools can play a role in this. Research has shown that just getting high interest books in the homes of low income children can make a difference in summer loss. Simply by giving kids books to take home at the end of the school year, schools can make a difference. Different schools have found different ways to do this. One way is to seek grants from federal programs like Reading is Fundamental or through PTA fundraisers or book fairs. Local businesses might be interested in underwriting a program of book distribution for low income children who need literacy materials.

One place money might be found to support such a program is the summer school budget. It may be that students would profit more from simply getting books to take home than from a summer school program. Literacy researcher, Richard Allington, who literally wrote the book on summer loss, puts it this way.

We now have the evidence that improving access to books for children from low-income families can have a positive and powerful impact on their reading development. Our evidence suggests that policy makers might reconsider summer school policies, especially for low-income children. Instead of spending a thousand dollars per student to support a summer school program, perhaps support the expenditure of $100 per student to provide kids with books they can and want to read.

Allington also points out that school library books sit idle on the shelves for three months in the summer. He suggests that no child in the school should be allowed to go home without ten books from the school library to read during the summer. We might call it a summer adoption program for books, where instead of taking care of classroom pets over the summer, kids take care of library books.

And here is another great way to provide access to books - open the school libraries during the summer. Education Week reports that the school libraries in 11 schools in Wilmington, N.C, are open and staffed by a certified school librarian throughout the summer. The idea is to have a professionally staffed library open to kids in their neighborhood.

Turn on TV Captions

Kids watch a lot of TV, but TV does not have to be the enemy of literacy. One powerful way to combat summer loss is to make sure that parents turn the captions on the television while the children watch. TV captions have been shown to improve children's reading ability in a variety of ways. Literacy specialist, Cynthia Mershon, explained what research has shown about captioned TV in a guest post on this blog last year.

Research reveals that when students read the words on the television screen and hear them spoken by the people in the television program or movie and see the pictures or images on the television screen that tell them what the words mean, their reading comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and general engagement with reading increases at a higher rate than those students not watching captioned television.

Parents- turn on the captions. Teachers - encourage parents to turn on the captions and make sure you have the captions on when kids view TV in the classroom.

Go to an Animal Shelter

Kids love animals. Animals love kids. Many animal shelters provide a program to match up children with animals for reading sessions. This ASPCA sponsored "Book Buddies" program is an ideal way to encourage reading practice from all kinds of readers, but especially reluctant and struggling young readers. Animals don't judge, they just enjoy the companionship and kids get a warm and wonderful way to get more reading in. You can check out the program here.

Go to the Library

Summer is a time for lots of outdoor fun - swimming, baseball, picnics, hiking, cycling - but it can also be a great time for quiet, cool and relaxing indoor activities. A visit to the library to hang out in the air-conditioning and read is a perfect follow-up to a day of sweaty outdoor fun. Do everybody in your family a favor today, if you do not already have one, go to the local library to get a library card. While you are there, help your children find books that they are interested in reading or ask the librarian to help. Summer should be a time for voluntary reading; for kids to explore their own passions and interests through the printed word.

Go to the Zoo (or Musuem)

Family trips to zoos and museums support children's developing literacy. First of all, the more experiences children have, the more information they have to draw on as they read. A rich store of knowledge about a variety of topics from animals to nature to history is a great ally for reading comprehension. The key to any zoo or museum visit is family talk. Children develop their language in conversation with others, so it is a good idea not just to look at the animals or exhibits, but also to talk to each other about what you are seeing and experiencing.

A trip to zoo or museum inevitably ends in the museum store, where I make it a habit to allow the kids to get a souvenir as long as they also pick out a book that they would like to read.

Summer reading loss is a phenomenon that is born of a lack of access to books and literacy experiences. As teachers we need to make sure our children have the tools of literacy and that parents are informed about what they can do to combat summer loss. As parents we need to be sure our kids have a library card and family experiences that encourage literate interactions.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Second Annual National Give a Kid a Book Day

Today, July 6, 2016, is the Second Annual National Give a Kid a Book Day. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I declared this day one year ago as a way to encourage children to read over the summer. The idea generated enough social media buzz that National Give a Kid a Book Day has actually become a thing. I have applied for the day to be placed on the calendar of national days.

Research indicates that many children lose reading gains they made in school during the summer because they do not continue reading (summer loss syndrome). Research also shows that when children have reading material available to them they are more likely to read.

So today, find a child in your life (son, daughter, grandchild, neighbor's kid) and give the child a book. While your at it, include a lollipop with your book gift to send the message that reading is sweet.

What is Give a Kid a Book Day? It is a day when every adult takes time out of a busy day to let a child know how important reading is by giving that child the gift of a book.

Why Give a Kid a Book Day? We have days for everything. Mother’s Day. Father’s Day. Grandparent’s Day. Administrative Assistant’s Day. Boss’s Day. National Tapioca Pudding Day (That’s on July 15 for those who wish to celebrate). Giving kids books seems at least as important as these.

Why July 6? It seems as good a day as any. July is a month when most children are off from school. Giving a child a book now will give them something productive, entertaining and even edifying to do. It may also help to combat summer loss syndrome, that pernicious affliction that causes students to lose their learning gains by not sufficiently exercising their reading muscles over the summer. It is also my son’s birthday and I have given him books on every one of his 39 birthdays and I am pleased to say he is a reader.

National Give a Kid a Book Day is dedicated to the many hard working people who have gone to extraordinary efforts to make sure that all children have access to books. Toward that end each year on this day we will recognize these folks by placing them on the NGKBD Honor Roll. Last year's inductees were Luis Soriano, Lisa Willever and Philadelphia's Words on Wheels. You can read about their contributions here.

This year’s Honor Roll inductees are as follows:

Dolly Parton - Dolly was nominated for the Honor Roll by blogger, Peter Greene. You can read his piece about Dolly's good works here. Dolly's Imagination Library seeks to place books in the hands of children who may not have access to them. Her program sends books to children once a month from birth through kindergarten. All you need to do to register a child and the books are sent to them for free. Dolly was inspired to start the program by her own impoverished background. She realizes books may be the possessions that spark children's dreams. Her program began in 1995 and has continued to grow across the country and around the world. You can read more about Imagination Library at her website here. 

Leland B. Jacobs - Leland B. Jacobs was a teacher, college professor and writer of children's poetry. Jacobs felt that the best way to help children become readers was to give them good books to read. Dr. Jacobs began his career as a teacher in a one room schoolhouse in rural Michigan and finished as a professor at Teachers College, Columbia.  He championed reading aloud to children to help them "lose themselves in literature." His poetry for children was published in books and anthologies. For Jacobs, exposure to great books was the key to making children into great readers. For his efforts to get teachers to "give children literature", Leland B. Jacobs earns his place on the NGKBD Honor Roll.

Margaret Craig McNamara - Margaret was the founder of the non-profit organization Reading is Fundamental (RIF). She came to Washington, D.C. with her husband, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the 1960s and immediately began work as a volunteer tutor in the D.C. schools. There she observed that many children did not have access to books. Using her political contacts and working with school district officials, she secured a grant from the Ford Foundation to get Reading is Fundamental started. Today, RIF programs operate in all 50 states and provide more than 16 million books a year to children.

Tomorrow my wife, Cindy Mershon, and I leave for Bloomington, Indiana to visit my son Bruce, his wife Jennie, and our brand new grandson, Henry William Walsh. We are taking lots of books as gifts. Need to get the newest Walsh off to a good literacy start. Why not do the same for a kid in your life today?

If you know people who deserve to be in the National Give a Kid a Book Day Honor Roll, please nominate them in the comments section and I will include them next year.