Thursday, June 18, 2020

Instruction for the Vulnerable Reader: Assessment


In order to help a child become better at reading, a teacher needs to have a handle on what the child knows and is able to do. All learning builds on prior learning, so a good clear idea of a child's understanding at the point where instruction begins is clearly a priority. This information is not readily available from standardized tests, inventories, checklists, speed reading trials, nonsense word lists, or anything else that purports to tell us what students know about reading. This information is available to us from listening to a child read, watching the child write, and talking with the child about books and reading.

To the extent that we can set up our classroom so that there are frequent opportunities to interact with children around text, we are setting up a classroom to formatively assess children. As teachers then, we can design instruction that builds on students strengths, using those strengths to help them improve on their weaknesses. The teacher is constantly asking, "What can this child do? What does this child need to be able to do next? How can what the child can already do help us get there?

This is what assessment for reading improvement is about. Assessment is not some abstract score on a DIBELs scoresheet or Big Standardized Test, it is the formative assessment that takes place daily in the classroom. In the best classrooms instruction and assessment are happening at the same time. As my late mentor Susan Mandel Glazer would say, "Instruction is assessment!"

Here are some past posts that may help drive home that point.

What is the Best Way to Assess Early Literacy?

Dump DIBELs

Following the Child: What Does that Look Like?

Assessing Reading Comprehension: Probing Instead of Questioning

Questions as Invitations, Not Inquisitions

Monday, June 15, 2020

Instruction for Vulnerable Readers: Independent Reading


The best predictor of how well children will read is the amount of time they spend reading. This time spent reading must be engaged reading, that is students must not just be looking at the book, but actively engaged in parsing the words on the page and making meaning from those combinations of words. Reading volume is defined as the amount of time children spend reading and the number of words they encounter during that time. As children encounter more words, they apply their problem solving skills to the novel words they encounter, reinforce the skills they already have, build vocabulary, build knowledge, and build stamina for further reading.

It makes sense then, that the best reinforcement a teacher can provide for all the good instruction they are doing in class, is to give students time for independent reading. We would also hope, of course, that children would be motivated by our instruction to do lots of reading outside of school, but in school independent reading, guided and reinforced by the watchful teacher, gives all children a chance to build reading volume.

Here are a few posts on independent reading from my blog. The first one proved to be the most popular entry I ever posted.

Independent Reading: A Research-Based Defense

Independent Reading: One Key to Balanced Literacy Instruction

When Readers Struggle: Increase Encounters with Text

Fostering a Love of Reading in Children

How to Make a Frequent Reader

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Instruction for the Vulnerable Reader: Comprehension

This is the fourth in a series on instruction for vulnerable readers that is a companion to my series on Why Johnny Can't Read. Other posts in this series addressed decoding, spelling and vocabulary. In this post we turn our attention to comprehension.

There are three key concepts to keep in mind when thinking about teaching reading comprehension.

1. Comprehension is an intentional act. Readers need to actively engage with text with the intention of understanding.
2. The more you know about a topic before you read the better your comprehension of the reading will be.
3. Students can be taught strategies that will help them strengthen their comprehension.

So intention matters, prior knowledge matters, and instruction matters. Here are some posts that deal with these issues.

When Readers Struggle: Background Knowledge

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 1

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 2

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 3

Comprehending Non-Fiction: Setting Kids Up for Success

Purposeful Reading: Engaging Students in Content Text

I hope you will find this series of posts helpful as you think about instruction in comprehension for your most vulnerable readers.


Monday, June 8, 2020

Instruction for the Vulnerable Reader: Vocabulary

Previous posts in this series on quality instruction for vulnerable readers have addressed word work and spelling. this post will address vocabulary. I have addressed the topic of vocabulary in a number of posts over the years. There are three key things I think we need to keep in mind when helping vulnerable readers build on their vocabulary.

1. Always work to build vocabulary from a conceptual base; that is, vocabulary is best learned through connections with already established concepts that children possess. If we want children to understand the concept of domestic animal, it is best to work to expand the knowledge they already have about pets.

2. Children need many meaningful encounters with a word before they own it.

3. The best way for children to build vocabulary is through reading widely in self-selected books.

Here are some of those past posts on vocabulary with a focus on our vulnerable readers.

Building Vocabulary: An Overview

Building Vocabulary: Teaching from a Conceptual Base

Building Vocabulary: The List-Group-Label Strategy

Building Vocabulary: Words in Context

Developing Word Consciousness in Children

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Instruction for the Vulnerable Reader: Spelling


Today I continue with my series on the vulnerable reader gathering posts from the past to look at instruction for our neediest readers. My previous post looked at one aspect of word work: decoding. In this post, I look at most frustrating of topics: spelling.

Many vulnerable readers have difficulty with accurate spelling. For some children the difficulty is inability to hear sounds in words in the order they occur. For other children, it may be a lack of visual memory for words. After all, 50% of words are not regularly spelled, so we need to develop visual images of words such as "know" to know how to spell them. Still other children may not develop good spelling because they do not read or write enough or because they have not developed a "spelling conscience", a desire to spell correctly.

Most poor readers are also poor spellers, but not all good readers are good spellers. Many factors go into the equation. The good news is that spelling is not connected to intelligence, and with tools like spell check available, there is no reason for poor spelling to be debilitating to young learners, unless outside forces make it that way.

Invented spelling is a tool for young learners to learn how words work. For children in kindergarten, first, and second grade,  these invented or temporary spellings helps them learn how to decode words and how words are structured. Invented spelling is a key tool in the arsenal for a primary grade teacher and should be encouraged, not discouraged. As children mature as readers and writiers, we will want to see spelling approximations moving closer and closer to standard.

Here is a blog post on invented spelling and another on spelling advice aimed at parents, but with plenty of information for teachers, too. I have also included a link to a Summary of the Stages of Spelling Development that I think teachers might find helpful. Like reading and writing, or anything else we learn, spelling is developmental and an understanding of this development is very helpful for the teacher.

Invented Spelling: Discovering How Words Work

What Parents Need to Know About Spelling

Summary Chart of the Stages of Spelling Development

And here is a little poem I wrote to remind us of the frustration that can come to a child learning how English spelling works.


The Spelling Curse

Of all the subjects I’ve taken at school,
Spelling’s the absolute worst.
I try to spell words correctly,
But my efforts all seem to be cursed.

The problem is plain (plane?), as I see it.
The words “worst” and “cursed” sound the same,
But their spelling’s entirely different.
I wonder who could be to blame.

If I could speak to the spelling lawmakers,
I’d ask that “curst” be spelled just like “wurst.”
It would certainly make me a happier child,
And in spelling I’d be better “vurst.”

from There's a Giant in My Classroom and other poems, by Russ Walsh, Infinity Press: 2013.





Monday, June 1, 2020

Instruction for the Vulnerable Reader: Word Work


Last week's post addressed one aspect of the question Why Johnny Can't Read, the issue of quality of instruction. Quality instruction, I argue, is balanced instruction. Balanced instruction includes word work, read aloud, shared reading and writing, guided reading, and independent reading and writing.

Today, I would like to focus on word work. Here are some posts from over the years that address the decoding and sight words. Other posts will deal with other aspects of word work, namely, spelling and vocabulary. Underpinning any word work is student oral language, so I began this listing with my post on that issue. Once students begin to develop some proficiency in word work, fluency instruction can help them "read the words so they sound like talking", so a post on fluency is also included here.

When Readers Struggle : Oral Language

When Readers Struggle: Sight Words

When Readers Struggle: Word Solving, Part 1

When Readers Struggle: Word Solving, Part 2

When Readers Struggle: Word Solving, Part3

An Onset-Rime Approach to Decoding for Struggling Readers

Decode This: Meaning Helps Kids Break the Code

When Readers Struggle: Fluency

I hope you find these posts, taken together, offer a good starting point for helping children learn to break the code of written language.



Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 6: Quality of Instruction


In order to be highly successful literacy instruction must be informed, balanced, and responsive. To the extent that literacy instruction fails to meet these three components it surely contributes to why Johnny can't read. The other causes outlined in this series, income inequity, racism and segregation, brain-based learning difficulties, and limited resources, all play a part and all contribute to children not learning to read, but they do not excuse in any way the failure to provide the quality instruction that every child deserves. It is our responsibility as teachers, administrators, teacher educators, parents, and community members to insure that the very best quality instruction is available to all students, and for those most vulnerable readers, that the best of the best is available.

Informed Instruction

Pre-service teachers simply do not get enough instruction in how to teach reading. Often formal reading instruction is limited to two courses or about 6 credits. Learning to read is a complex activity. Teaching a child to read is even more complex. At a minimum pre-service teachers should have 9 credits hours in literacy theory, research' and practice. followed by a 4 credit hour clinical practice course that includes the opportunity to work with individual students in reading under the watchful eye of college professors and reading specialists.

In addition pre-service teachers should be observing in regular classroom settings during the sophomore year, assisting a classroom teacher in the junior year, and completing a full semester of practice teaching under the mentorship of a skilled, experienced classroom teacher in the senior year. Ideally, all elementary teachers would be enrolled in a five-year program leading to a Masters degree in elementary education with concentrations in literacy and mathematics instruction.

Upon graduation first-year teachers should be teamed with a skilled, veteran teacher as a co-teacher, honing instructional and classroom management skills. Second and third year teachers should continue a relationship with a teacher/mentor as well as participating in imbedded professional development in literacy instruction. Imbedded professional development is most effective because it happens in classrooms in real time and is conducted by literacy specialists employed by the district.

It is important to note here that this professional development must not be focused on compliance or fidelity with a particular program, but on the developing instructional competence of the individual teacher. We must seek to create teachers who have a deep knowledge on how to teach literacy, how to assess student progress and how to adapt instruction for the needs of individual learners with their unique needs.

Participation in a Professional Learning Community of peers, where problems of instruction are presented, examined, researched, and solutions hypothesized and tested, would act as a continuing professional development for the teacher.

When it comes to our most vulnerable readers, only our most accomplished literacy teachers must be chosen to provide them with whatever additional support may be required.

Balanced Instruction

All children, skilled readers, developing readers, and vulnerable readers must be exposed daily to a balanced instructional program in literacy. A balanced literacy program begins with the recognition that the goal is to develop independent readers, in control of their own reading processes, who possess both the skill to read well and the will to choose to read regularly. This goal is best achieved through the recognition that the goal of reading is to make sense of the words on the page and teach with that goal of meaning making always at the fore of the instruction.

To make this happen we provide all children with daily opportunities in word work, read aloud, shared reading and writing, guided reading, and independent reading and writing.

Word Work: Includes all the aspects of learning how to decode words including phonemic awareness, sound/symbol relationships, sight words, spelling, and vocabulary development. 


Read Aloud: Helps readers understand how fiction and non-fiction books work, develops vocabulary. builds background knowledge, provides a common classroom experience, builds interest in reading, provides a platform for comprehension instruction.

Shared Reading and Writing: Provides all the benefits of a read aloud and also allows readers to develop their burgeoning decoding and comprehension abilities in a supportive environment.

Guided Reading:  Provides small group instruction at the appropriate level of challenge for the child. Working in the "zone of proximal development" the child strengthens decoding and comprehension abilities with a teacher's guidance and prompting.

Independent Reading: Students consolidate their growing skills by reading for extended periods in self-selected books that they can read with a minimum of adult support, but at times perhaps, with a maximum of their own effort.

Independent Writing: Student writing provides students with practice encoding words that they must decode in reading. Writing also provides an opportunity to develop their comprehension abilities and reflect upon their understanding of their reading.

I have addressed various aspects of this instruction at length in other posts over the years. In a future post, I will compile those that are of particular interest to teachers working with vulnerable readers.

Responsive Instruction

Instruction for our most vulnerable readers must not only be balanced, but it must be responsive to the student's individual needs. Responsive teachers develop a strong working relationship with their students. They know their students strengths and weaknesses as learners, but also their personal likes and dislikes, their hopes and dreams. Responsive teachers listen to their students when they talk and apply what they learn to their teaching.

Responsive teachers use daily formative assessments based on observations and informal assessments like Running Records to determine student instructional needs and then design instruction to meet those needs. Students who need more work on decoding receive that work within the context of the balanced program the teacher has designed. Reading groups are flexible and fluid, forming and reforming, as children's needs change.

Responsive teachers adapt their instruction based on the children in front of them rather than from the demands of particular program's prescriptions or standardized test demands. The instruction for any one child is constantly altered and refined as the child provides more information on their needs in daily reading and writing activities in the classroom.


Knowledgable, responsive teachers, using a balanced literacy approach give us the best opportunity to help vulnerable readers achieve literacy, even when other factors make it difficult. Those difficulties, while very real, are obstacles, but not excuses.

Other posts in this series:

Why Johnny Can't Read? It's Complicated, Ms. Hanford
Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 2: Income Inequity
Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 3: Racism and Segregation
Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 4: Brain-Based Reading Difficulties

Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 5: Environmental Resources

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 5: Environmental Resources


I grew up 70 years ago in a lower-middle class suburb, with a bunch of other lower middle class kids. When I was a school aged child, I would walk across the street to my newly opened school. My mother would give me breakfast and watch me leave the house and then watch me enter the school when the bell rang. There was a crossing guard to help me cross the street safely. In the school, I was welcomed by a well-qualified, usually veteran teacher to a classroom of about 30 children all seated at nearly new desks. The room was well stocked with text books. Once a week I went down to the school library to borrow books. The librarian was there to help me find a book or do some research for a report.

I went home for lunch, other students stayed to eat in the cafeteria. At recess I played kickball or basketball of dodgeball with the other kids in the large playground with equipment provided by the school. After school I could be a part of the school chorus or art club, or model airplane club or any other of a number of activities. When I got home my mother was there to greet me. I did my homework in a room with a desk, a lamp, and a set of World Book Encyclopedias. My mother got me a membership in a kids book club that sent me a new novel to read each month. At night, my mother would read to me and tuck me into bed.

I was safe. I was well fed. I had access to reading and learning. In other words, I was set up for literacy success.

For too many children in our society, the story I just told above is a fairy tale. The neighborhood they walk through to school is fraught with danger. They may arrive at school hungry. When they get to the school they may find an aging building suffering from years of budget cuts and patchwork repairs. text books may be old, out of date or non-existent. The library is shuttered and the librarian furloughed years ago. The nurse visits the school once a week because she is the nurse for five schools. The classroom is crowded. The teacher possibly new and inexperienced because of rapid turnover. At home, books and a place for study may be luxuries that are out of reach.

These children are not safe. They may not be well fed. They may not have access to reading and learning. In other words they have been set up for literacy failure.

I am not arguing here for a return to some idealistic 1950s Wonderama of a world that existed only in my mind and is unrealistic in the modern world. What I am arguing is that if children do not have the basic environmental resources of safe shelter, food security, welcoming school buildings, adequate teaching staff, libraries and librarians, we cannot expect them to excel in academic pursuits. The few children who overcome these handicaps and do excel are the exceptions that prove the rule. As a society we have systematically created a system designed to make many children fail and then we have tried to blame the parents, the teachers, the school leaders, or even the children themselves for these failures.

Learning to read and write is hard work. It depends on a child first of all feeling safe and well fed and healthy so that energy can be devoted to learning. If our society is serious about wanting to improve reading and writing abilities, we need to start with improving those factors that can inhibit learning. That means a community school that not only provides the basics of literacy instruction, but the wrap around services of food, health care, and community outreach that treat all aspects of learning preparedness. It means having adequate counsellors in every building and adequate health care professionals in every building.

Next, we need to address literacy resources. If children have few books at home, we must make sure they get books in the home. That means in school libraries and librarians, it means re-opening community libraries, and it means taking advantage of programs that put books in children's hands. It also means filling the classrooms with up to date textbooks and novels and non-fiction books that are right at the children's fingertips when they need them. It means, in the digital age, making sure that digital capability is available to all students both at the school and at home.

Another resource we have to bring to children is experience. Experiences that children have are the underpinnings of reading comprehension. We comprehend text by measuring the world of the book against the world that we have experienced. Educators can play two roles here. One role is obvious. For children who have had limited opportunity to explore the world beyond the neighborhood, field trips and visiting presentations should be regular occurrences. These are often things that are early cuts in a tight budget, but these cuts come at a cost.

Second, teachers must keep a close eye on the reading material chosen for children. To what extent do the materials being used in literacy instruction mirror the experience of the children? Children are constantly gathering experiences, but the experience they gather may not be present in the books they are offered. Providing the children with material relevant to their own experience can form an important bridge to comprehension. When I was in school the clean, scrubbed, white suburban world of Dick and Jane may have ben adequate for my learning, but we can't assume that is true of children today. Children need to be able to see themselves in the literacy materials we provide as well as in the teacher's chair at the front.

Research has shown that simply supplying children with books over the summer reduced the impact of summer reading loss. Here is a resource that will point you to places where you can get free books for kids. Reading Rockets also has some excellent suggestions for finding free books right here. As for experiences, here is a list of outdoor experiences that encourage reading. You can find my Tips for Reading Aloud with Your Child here.

Healthy, safe, well-nourished children are prepared to learn. When these children also have the resources of plenty of reading material, current textbooks, digital access, libraries, pleasant learning environments, rich life experiences, and knowledgeable teachers the odds are tilted in their favor.

Next Up: Quality of Instruction

Other posts in this series;
Why Johnny Can't Read? It's Complicated, Ms. Hanford
Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 2: Income Inequity
Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 3: Racism and Segregation

Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 4: Brain-Based Reading Difficulties


Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Why Johnny Can't Read, Part 4: Brain-Based Reading Disorders


The 4th in a series on vulnerable readers

Some children's brains have difficulty processing written words and text. Such children may have difficulty decoding words, reading fluently, and comprehending what they read. These reading difficulties are not related to level of  intelligence or creativity, and indeed, these reading disorders are often discovered when children's performance in reading is below expectation for their age and grade level. The estimates of the incidence of these brain-based disorders varies widely from about 2% to 20% of the student population, depending on what source you read. The International Dyslexia Association sets the number at between 15 and 20% of the population having "symptoms of dyslexia", which may include "slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, and poor writing."

The label many give these reading disorders is dyslexia. The label may be comforting to some, but according to the International Literacy Association, (ILA) the nature and causes of the difficulty, and even whether or not the label itself is helpful, are still matters that are under investigation. One problem with the dyslexia label is that there are many mythologies and misleading concepts surrounding the term. For example characteristics such as clumsiness, attention deficit, fine motor problems, creativity, or handedness are not considered indicators of dyslexia. Severe reading difficulties also do not result from visual problems that produce letter and word reversals

While the reading difficulties are related to genetics and neurology, we also know that environment and good instruction can ameliorate the impact. Again, according to the ILA survey of research:

When beginning literacy instruction is engaging and responsive to children’s needs... the percentage of school children having continuing difficulty is small. In fact, interventions that are appropriately responsive to individual needs have been shown to reduce the number of children with continuing difficulties in reading to below 2% of the population (Vellutino et al., 2000).

In sum then, brain-based reading difficulties are real, related to difficulties in decoding words, and responsive to good instruction. What should that instruction look like?

Controversy as to the best methods of instruction continue. The differing recommendations generally come from the differing orientations of the researchers involved. Literacy experts (such as the authors of the ILA paper above) tend to argue for more eclectic, teacher driven approaches.

As yet, there is no certifiably best method for teaching children who experience reading difficulty. Optimal instruction calls for teachers’ professional expertise and responsiveness, and for the freedom to act on the basis of that professionalism.

Researchers looking at brain-based reading disabilities from a more medical standpoint such as the authors of the IDA piece above, tend to favor a diagnosis/treatment approach that emphasizes phonological coding work.

To say that there is not broad agreement on how to teach reading to children with dyslexia is a disservice to children and families whose lives are affected by this condition...Environments that provide repeated careful opportunities to practice phonological coding will result in a decreased expression of dyslexia. 

What is a teacher to do with this conflicting advice? I will talk more about what instruction for vulnerable readers should look like in future posts, but for now, I would conclude that it is not really helpful to fight over whether a child is dyslexic or not dyslexic, but rather to look on each vulnerable reader as an individual who is ready to learn and deserves the best instruction we can deliver to meet their very particular needs.

There is one other brain-based factor I would like to consider here because I believe it has a large impact on children's ability to benefit from reading instruction: Student Self-Regulation. Blair (2002) describes a neurobiological model of self-regulation that is essential for learning.

Whether defined as regulation of emotion in appropriate social responding or the regulation of attention and selective strategy use in the execution of cognitive tasks, self-regulatory skills underlie many of the behaviors and attributes that are associated with successful school adjustment (p.112).

Blair's work along with many follow-up studies have shown that we need to expand our concept of readiness beyond the constructs of emergent literacy, to include a readiness to receive instruction. Such readiness includes impulse control, interference control, working memory and cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility, the ability to apply rules flexibly and to switch your thinking based on new information, seems particularly important to literacy learners. Since phonics/spelling rules only apply to about 50% of words, approaching decoding/spelling tasks flexibly would seem to be a hallmark of the skilled literacy learner.

The self-regulating child can best take advantage of all the learning opportunities presented. Blair and others suggest that self-regulation can be taught and should be a regular part of an early education program. A positive orientation toward learning may prove to be as important as the actual literacy instruction provided to the child.

Works Cited

Blair, C. (2002). School readiness: Integrating cognition and emotion in a neurobiological conceptualization of children's functioning at school entry. American Psychologist, 57(2), 111-117.

Mathes, P.G., Denton, C.A., Fletcher, J.M., Anthony, J.L., Francis, D.J., & Schatschneider, C. (2005). The effects of theoretically different instruction and student characteristics on the skills of struggling readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(2), 148–182. doi:10.1598/ RRQ.40.2.2 

Vellutino, F.R., Scanlon, D.M., & Lyon, G.R. (2000). Differentiating between difficult-to-remediate and readily remediated poor readers: More evidence against the IQ-achievement discrepancy definition of reading disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(3), 223–238.

Other posts in this series;

Why Johnny Can't Read? It's Complicated, Ms. Hanford

Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 2: Income Inequity

Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 3: Racism and Segregation








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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Why Johnny Can't Read, Part 3: Racism and Segregation

Woman arrested for trying to read a book in public library, Albany, GA, 1962
The United States of America, legendary land of opportunity, has never come fully to grips with systematically denying opportunity to a significant portion of its population. I am talking, of course, of our African American population, brought here in literal chains and held in metaphorical chains ever since. One of the links of these chains has been the denial of  literacy.

Any school child can tell you the story of how slave holders denied the slaves access to literacy out of fear that a slave who could read would be harder to control. The fear was well founded, of course. Literacy is the enemy of tyranny. Literacy opens up the world to all people. Some slaves managed to become literate, of course, including Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, and one of the leading American intellectuals of the 19th Century.

What may not be as obvious is how the denial of literacy continued after the Civil War ended slavery. The South, determined to maintain a system that favored white over black, instituted a series of Jim Crow laws intended to segregate all aspects of public life. So we had separate public restrooms, separate hotels, separate restaurants, separate seating on buses, and, of course, separate schools. As was eventually made clear in the landmark, 1954,  Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, KS case, separate meant inherently unequal. Unequal funding. Unequal resources. Unequal facilities. Unequal opportunities to become literate.

In the North, the denial was perhaps more subtle, but no less devastating. While few Jim Crow laws existed, segregation was achieved through discriminatory housing practices. Federal and local housing laws denied access to housing in "whites only" areas to African Americans. White flight emptied cities of the middle class families whose taxes supported public schools. Schools were systematically and consistently underfunded. Buildings fell into disrepair.. Teachers were harder to recruit. School librarians and school nurses disappeared due to budget cuts. Aging textbooks were not replaced. Class sizes grew. Access to literacy was limited.

This history matters in present day discussions of literacy acquisition. As the Supreme Court ruled 65 years ago, separate is never equal. Today's segregation is not based on Jim Crow laws, but it is still based on discriminatory practices and it still means that educational opportunity is unequal and it still means that racism is a major factor in the denial of literacy in the country. It means that for many children coming to our schools, literacy, at least in the traditional white middle-class sense, has not, necessarily, been a part of family tradition. 

Recognizing that literacy has been deliberately and systematically denied to a major portion of our population is critical to the teacher wishing to understand the challenges that some children face in coming to literacy. What is required of the teacher is a cultural responsiveness. A recognition that some of the children we are teaching do not share the same linguistic culture that we do. An ability and desire to meet those children on their own ground, valuing the linguistic culture that they do bring, and moving them towards a literacy that is vital to them as individuals and to the well-being of society as a whole is the teacher's job.

What does this look like? It looks like valuing the oral language these children bring to school, valuing the ways these children interact with story, and recognizing that programmatic instructional approaches may not meet the needs of these students.

There are many areas of contention in literacy insrruction, but nearly everybody would agree that a strong oral language facility is a child's greatest ally in taking on literacy in the early grades. Now imagine, if you will, a child who comes eagerly to school only to learn that their oral language is not valued, is constantly in need of correction, is wrong. What happens to your ability to learn to read, if the first lesson you learn in school is that the language you brought from home has no value?

Let me be as clear as possible on this point. Viewing the language that children bring with them to school as inferior is racist. It is also counterproductive, if the goal is to bring a child to literacy. The issue of Black non-standard dialect being a true, rule governed language and not slang or a sign of "lazy" English was settled long ago in the academic literature. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, linguist William Labov showed that what he called African American Vernacular English (AAVE) should not be stigmatized as substandard, but respected as a variety of English with its own grammatical rules. The only reason that Standard English came to be the dominant dialect is because the users of Standard English held the money and power, not because of any inherent superiority

Of course, there will come a time when all children need to learn Standard English, but this can be accomplished without destroying the rich vernacular they come to school with and should be accomplished when children are a little older and more able to discriminate differences. For the purpose of instruction in early literacy, the language that children bring with them will do just fine. Let me be clear here, I am not arguing for Ebonics or for teachers to use non-standard dialect, only for teachers to respect the language that children come to school with and not feel the need for constant correction. In time modeling will do the job, without doing the emotional damage of constant correction. The teacher's job should be to help all children expand their oral language which will serve them well as they apply what they know to written language.

Another place where teachers can be more culturally responsive is in the read aloud. Typically children are taught to sit still and listen to the story, responding to questions if and when the teacher asks them. This is typical of how classrooms function and white middle class children generally come from homes where this is the expectation for interacting with story. Home read aloud mimics school read aloud. The same may not be true for all cultures. 

Research professor. Lawrence Sipe, at the University of Pennsylvania, studied the way children from different cultures interacted with story. I recommend that everyone read his terrifically insightful article, Talking Back and Taking Over: Young Children's Expressive Engagement during Storybook Read-alouds. Studying mostly African American children in Philadelphia schools, Sipe found they had many unique ways of interacting with story. Ways that might not always be welcome in the classroom. Sipe grouped the types of interaction into five categories: dramatizing, talking back, critiquing/controlling, inserting, and taking over.

Dramatizing involved acting out the story, such as doing a dance and making growling noises while listening to Sendak's, Where the Wild Things Are. Talking Back involved children actually talking back to storybook characters, such as shouting for Peter Rabbit to run. Critiquing/controlling involved children suggesting changes to the story such as lying to the Big Bad Wolf in Little Red-Riding Hood, so the Wolf wouldn't know she had food in her basket. Inserting involved the students assuming the role of the characters in the story and speculating what they might do. Finally, Taking Over, involved students manipulating the text for their own purposes and breaking off into a performance, like singing the theme from the TV show Cops! (Bad boy, Bad boy, Whatcha' gonna do?) when a character in the story gets in trouble.

Sipe's work gives us insight into how different children may behave in response to story. This insight might lead the culturally aware teacher to adjust expectations for storybook reading time. I think we can all agree that these ways into story that the children display, while potentially disruptive, are also excellent ways to demonstrate comprehension of the story. Perhaps sitting quietly and attentively on the carpet square is not the best approach for all children.

The more culturally aware we are as teachers, whether it is awareness of language differences or behavior differences related to storybook reading or other aspects of behavior from children, the more prepared we will be to meet those students' literacy needs. 

One place we can be sure that this cultural awareness will be lacking is in programmatic and standards driven educational schemes. Teaching a culturally diverse group of students requires the teacher to rely on a variety of instructional strategies flexibly and in response to the children who show up in the classroom. Standard expectations and programs designed to fit "typical" learners will not suffice. Ultimately, we need to understand that a one-size fits all approach to teaching literacy is counter-productive in a diverse classroom.

If we really want all children to become skilled readers, we need to open ourselves to the different ways that goal can be achieved for a culturally diverse group of children. If we look at the history of racism, both overt and under the surface, we see that, so far, this country has never really committed itself to that goal.

Also in this series: Why Johnny Can't Read: It's Complicated, Ms. Hanford
                               Why Johnny Can't Read, Part 2: Income Inequity
Next up: Brain-Based Reading Difficulties


Thursday, April 30, 2020

Why Johnny Cant Read, Part 2: Income Inequity


In an earlier post, here, I laid out what I believe to be the multiple reasons for reading failure in this country: income inequity, racism and segregation, brain-based reading disorders, environmental factors, and quality of instruction. Without addressing all of these issues, some societal, some child-based, and some school-based, we will never adequately address some children's failure to thrive as readers. In this post I will take on one of those issues: income inequity.

That poverty plays some role in creating vulnerable readers is incontrovertible. Four factors are consistently pointed to in the literature.
  1. Poverty impacts the health and well-being of children. Poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, sub-standard housing, pre-mature births, low birth weights are all products of poverty that impact on a child's physical and mental development.
  2. Children of poverty are exposed to far fewer words, far fewer complex sentences, and are engaged in far fewer conversation eliciting questions than middle- and upper-class children. These language differences can lead to problems learning to read, especially in classrooms where they are treated as deficits and where appropriate accommodations are not made.
  3. Poverty causes high levels of stress. Stress that is chronic and out of the child's control has an impact on brain development.
  4. Poverty limits a family's' ability to provide material resources such as high quality day-care, literacy materials, read aloud sessions, access to technology, and outside of the home cultural experiences. 
In his brilliant article in Medium, here, Paul Thomas, calls poverty a "first-mile problem." If classroom instruction is the "last mile", poverty is the first mile and must be addressed if the cycle of poverty/reading failure is to be broken. Thomas writes:

That first mile is much larger than formal schooling, and what we refuse to recognize is that measurable reading achievement is a marker for the disadvantages of poverty and inequity in both the lives and schooling of vulnerable populations of students.

Poverty may seem an intractable problem, but the truth is that the existence of poverty is a choice we have made as a society. As award winning Princeton economist Paul Krugman has said:

None of this is inevitable. Poverty rates are much lower in European countries than in the United States, mainly because of government programs to help the poor and unlucky.

There are many things that we can do immediately to improve the lives of people living in poverty. How do we do it? By supporting programs that raise the minimum wage, by improving access to high quality child care, by providing universal health care, by using and supporting public transportation, by shopping at local small businesses, and by writing to your government officials to make sure they know these are the kinds of programs you support.

Why, if these things will work, do we fail to do them? Primarily because in America we have embraced the false narrative that poverty is the fault of the people living in poverty. We have embraced the Horatio Alger myth that a people must "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." We have conveniently ignored the fact that our economic policies often cut off the bootstraps before a person can reach down to grab them. Other countries have been far more successful at combatting poverty than we, because their policies are not weighted down with this rugged individualist mentality. As recently as two weeks ago, Senator Lindsay Graham was worrying that people in desperate need of Coronavirus relief funds would use the money to avoid going to work. Blaming the poor for being poor is endemic to American mythology.

The #MeToo movement has taught us not to be so fast to blame the victim of sexual assault. We need a #MeToo movement for poverty. Why shouldn't teachers, those who care so deeply for the children. lead such a movement? As teachers we have an obligation, I believe, to be an advocate for our students. Is it too much to ask that the children who come into our classrooms are adequately fed and clothed and prepared for learning? It won't happen magically. It won't happen if we continue to blame the victim. We will have to fight for policies to make it happen.Teacher's voices can be powerful political weapons. Right now, with schools closed due to the pandemic, everyone is learning just how difficult the teacher's job is. Why not let everyone know how to make the job better and more successful?

Nor is our action on poverty limited to what we can do outside of the classroom. Awareness of the dilatory effects of poverty on learning to read must impact our instruction. If children have experienced mind altering stress at home, we need to attend to the kind of environment, safe, warm, nurturing, that we create in the classroom. We need to double down on efforts to develop relationships with these children, by sharing openly about ourselves and listening attentively as they share their lives with us.

If children have no books at home, we must send books home with them. If children have not been read to at home, we need to read to them more often at school. Not as a reward or as a way to cool down after lunch, but several times a day, so that the children can learn the language of books. If children have had limited linguistic experience, we must make sure that the classroom is full of talk and open ended questions that invite more talk. We must teach children how to talk to each other and structure play time so that they have an opportunity to talk to each other.

If children need to develop an academic vocabulary, we need to recognize that this vocabulary is developed through multiple interactions with words and we must highlight words in our read-alouds and in our conversations and call special attention to words in all of our interactions with students. We know that vocabulary learning happens best in real contexts, so we should downplay word definition exercises and emphasize lots of talk about words. Classrooms where children have the need to build oral language facility, in other words, should be full of oral language. 

We must also downplay measurements of student progress that sort kids into winners and losers at an early age. Assessments that direct instruction are important. A teacher's daily, informal assessments are critical. Standardized assessments that seek to sort, rather than inform, will only reinforce perceived deficits. Let's not think in terms of deficits, but in terms of opportunities for growth and invitations to instruction. Let's suspend the comparisons inherent in standardized tests and emphasize assessments that direct our instruction.

One of the dumbest educational ideas of the last 100 years has been doing away with recess. All children, and especially poor children, needs lots of regular exercise for the development of their brains as well as their bodies. Teachers must fight short sighted efforts to deny recess for any reasons, but especially not for more time for test preparation. It should be noted that movements to deny recess and underfund physical education have targeted schools in poorer neighborhoods. Just another way to punish the poor for being poor.

There is so much to do and so much on the plate of every teacher, but the last thing a child of poverty needs in the classroom is an impoverished, stilted, canned, standardized test driven curriculum. Give the children language. Give them literature. Give them consistency. Give them play. Give them a nurturing environment. Give them lively instruction. Give them joy in each accomplishment.

Let's see how that works.

Next up: Racism and Segregation




Monday, April 27, 2020

Why Johnny Can't Read? It's Complicated, Ms. Hanford.


H.L. Mencken, American journalist and social satirist once said, "For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong." In reading instruction for the last 65 years or so, the simple wrong answer has been systematic phonics instruction.  Rudolph Flesch published Why Johnny Can't Read in 1955. He argued for a phonics-based reading approach as the cure to the then popular look-say method (Think Dick and Jane books). Since Flesch's book, all the "back to basics" movements which pop up about every 15 years or so in education have advocated for phonics based instruction. The latest iteration of this has been from Emily Hanford a journalist at American Public Media, who dresses up Flesch's phonics-based instruction as "the science of reading."

Simple solutions have great appeal. People can understand them. They are easily communicated. They don't cost a lot of money. They give us easy scapegoats, in this case teachers and colleges of education, so we don't need to look closely at ourselves and our society. But as Mencken pointed out, they are most often wrong.

It is interesting, I think, that despite all the hand wringing about methods of teaching reading, about 80% or so of students learn to read very well no matter what method is used. Human beings, for the most part, seem pre-disposed to learn to read. Nonetheless, too many children struggle to learn to read and it is our responsibility as teachers to find a way to assist all these children.

My old history professor, George Turner, used to warn me away from simple explanations in history. He said that historical events were best understood through the concept of the multiplicity of inter-causation: Lots of things conspire to make something happen or not happen. We might remember that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo led to the First World War, but that is an oversimplification. Various alliances, increasing militarization, imperialism, and nationalism were all contributing factors. We may remember the Watergate break-in precipitated Nixon's downfall, but Nixon's arrogance, pettiness, racism, mendacity, and paranoia all played a role.

So, it is with reading difficulty. The answer to why some children do not learn to read is complex. And, therefore, the solutions must match that complexity. Until we recognize this fact, we will continue to search for simple solutions that will inevitably fail.

What are the reasons for some children failing to thrive as readers?

Income Inequity - We can draw a direct line from family income to success or lack of success in reading. There are major differences in the resources available to middle and high income children in regards to reading materials and language exposure when compared to children living in poverty. Growing income inequity in this country continues to put many of our children at risk for failure.

Racism and Segregation - Legal segregation ended with Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954. De-facto segregation, however, has been steadily on the increase because of racism and discriminatory real estate practices fomented by businesses and by the government, aided and abetted by a still racist society. This de-facto segregation guarantees that educational resources are unevenly and inequitably distributed in the country, since so much of the educational tax base is rooted in property taxes.

Brain-based Reading Disorders - For reasons we do not fully understand, some children have difficulty processing the sounds in words. The term dyslexic is often used to describe these children. The number of dyslexics in the population has been difficult to pin down, with estimates varying from about 5 to about 20 percent of the population depending on the definition of the term. The smooth and fluent processing of written words (decoding) is a key component to skilled reading. This is the factor that Hanford and Flesch were addressing. Their mistake is to be overly myopic about this one factor as a cause for all reading difficulty.

Environmental Factors - These factors are closely related to income inequity. Successful learners of reading have access to lots of books in the home. Successful learners of reading have lots of outside the home experiences (background knowledge) to draw on for learning. Successful learners of reading come to school with a rich vocabulary. Successful learners of reading have been read to at home. 

This is not a "blame the parents" game. Parents of all socio-economic groups want their children to succeed in learning to read, but many factors conspire against them in providing a rich literate home environment. One of the underexamined factors here is a lack of home-school cultural match and how that impacts children.

Quality of Instruction - Teachers struggle to meet students needs for a variety of reasons. One key reason is a lack of sufficient understanding of the reading process. Undergraduate teaching programs struggle to provide enough instruction in reading instruction, both theoretical and practical. Contributing to the problem is an over-reliance by school districts and administrators on reading programs. Programmatic teaching consistently fails to meet many students needs and also stunts the growth of the professional in the classroom. Finally, teachers struggle to differentiate learning for the most vulnerable readers, because they fail to understand the learning strengths of children with different experiential backgrounds from their own.

What is lacking is not the right reading program, but an orientation toward responsive teaching. Responsive teaching meets the child where they are and flexibly provides the instruction that is needed. For this to be effective, of course, a deep understanding of reading processes is necessary. As a profession, an orientation toward responsive, rather than reactive, teaching can make all the difference for children. Obeisance to one size fits all teaching, or to any single methodology, will lead to continued failure to meet the needs of all students and continued failure to break the cycle of children who fail to thrive in reading.

Over the next several posts, I would like to explore these themes in detail. We must not say that there is nothing we can do about some of these issues, because if we cannot address each of these issues, we will not break the cycle of failure for our most vulnerable readers.