Friday, January 17, 2014

Ten Ways to Make Learning to Read More Difficult

Learning to read is hard work. Teaching children to read is hard work. Educators don't need to make this work harder by using discredited practices while working with children. Here are ten practices to avoid and the reasons to avoid them.

1. Providing Instruction that Lacks Balance
       Reading is getting the meaning from text while guided by squiggles on a page. It makes sense that reading instruction requires instruction in how to decode those squiggles and how to get that meaning. Any program that requires an out-of-balance attention to one side or the other of this process is not adequate. Decoding is a complex process of coordinatiing visual information (phonics), syntax, and meaning. Decoding instruction cannot and should not be divorced from context because the context is a part of the decoding process. Balanced instruction does not mean equal parts of decoding and comprehension instruction, rather it means instruction on a sliding continuum based on student need. The observant teacher adjusts the instruction based on an assessment of student processing of text. For a more sophisticated concept of balance in reading instruction see this article from Pearson and Raphael, Toward a More Complex View of Balance in the Literacy Curriculum.

2. Putting Faith in Programs over Teachers
     Programs do not teach children to read, teachers do. The wise administration would invest scarce resources in teacher training rather than specific programs. A skilled teacher adjusts instruction based on student need, not on programmatic prescription. No program can be as responsive to a student as can the knowledgeable adult working with that child every day. Empowering teachers to make critical instructional decisions and giving them the support they need to continuously improve performance (not through test scores, but through informed feedback) will improve instruction.

3. Testing Comprehension instead of Teaching Comprehension
     Children do not improve their reading comprehension by answering multiple choice or short-answer questions. Reading comprehension improvement comes through the direct instruction in strategies that focus on comprehension including predicting, questioning, summarizing, monitoring for understanding, visualizing, making connections, and adjusting reading rate. Asking comprehension questions may help a teacher assess student understanding, but it does not teach comprehension.

4. Mistaking Difficult Texts for Rigorous Instruction
     Except in very limited circumstances (some one-to-one tutoring and buddy reading), children do not improve their reading by reading text that is too difficult for them. The Common CoreStateStandards' (CCSS) call for greater rigor and text complexity should not be mistaken as a call for children to be reading text that is too difficult for them. Reading instruction should still occur in texts that provide some challenge for readers, but that are not at the frustration level, in other words, in a "just right" book. More complex texts may be introduced to students through read aloud, because listening comprehension is generally 1 to 2 years higher than reading comprehension. To meet the CCSS call for greater rigor, the teacher should focus on rigorous instruction, not more difficult text. For more on this see here.
5. Interrupting Real Reading for Silly Activities and Worksheets
     Avoid assigning students activities that are not an integral part of their reading while they are reading. For example, do not ask students to look for their spelling words and circle them while they are reading. Don't ask them to find vocabulary while reading. This type of activity actually interferes with the real purpose for reading. Real reasons for stopping reading are based on student choice and comprehension development. An activity like "stop-and-jot" where the student chooses where to stop and what to jot is a genuine reading comprehension activity. Likewise reams of worksheets kill enthusiasm for reading and generally do not reinforce learning. Well structured journal entries or other written response activities are more engaging and more productive.

6. Engaging in Round Robin Reading
     Round Robin Reading is the practice of having one child read aloud while the other children (either in a small or large group) listen in. This practice persists today despite longstanding research that shows it is ineffective. Round Robin Reading has been shown to lower the quantity of reading that children do, to emphasize pronumciation over comprehension and to cause discipline and self-esteem issues. For a fuller look at this pernicious instructional strategy you can look here.
7. Telling Children They Can't Read Ahead
     Sometimes when the whole classroom is reading the same book, or when students are engaged in Literature Circles, students will be assigned to read up to a certain point in the text. Inevitably, some students will finish this assignment and want to continue reading. Let them. We need to decide what is more important, having kids who are motivated and enthusiastic about reading, or controlling kids because it fits better in our lesson plan. Since the greatest single factor in whether students become good readers is how much they read, it would be educational malpractice not to allow children to read ahead. What we can do is make it clear to them that they are not to share with others what they have learned and that they are to focus their comments only on what everyone has read.

8. Not Allowing Children to Take Books Home
     I know, I know. We have limited resources, books are precious and if we allow them to go home, they might get lost. On the other hand, if we allow them to go home, they might get read. And since we know the best way to become a good reader is to read, what we have have here is a cost benefit conundrum. Here is what I suggest. The power and potential of allowing children to take books home outweighs the risk. We don't need to ban books from going home, we need better ways to insure they come back. The first year I taught in elementary school, I ended up owing the library 280 dollars for lost books ( I would take them out and give them to the kids and they would forget to bring them back). Then I instituted a policy where every book that went home from my room went  home in a baggie with my name on it and in it. I then solicited the help of parents through phone calls and backpack mail to assist in making sure books were returned. My losses and out of pocket expenses went down exponentially and kids were reading books at home.

9. Tapping Fingers to Decode Words
     Some children have difficulty learning to decode words. What causes this is not really known, but it is likely a combination of many factors including perceptual issues, developmental issues, literacy experience and instructional isssues. Whatever the cause, these children often find themselves in remedial programs where they receive intensive phonics instruction, sometimes including such activities as tapping out the sounds of words and then scooping the sounds together to make the word. Not surprisingly, these children often get better at word identification activities. What they typically do not get better at is reading fluency and comprehension. The What Works Clearinghouse reviewed one exemplar of this kind of instruction, Wilson Reading. You can find out their conclusions here. It is really not surprising that kids do not become better readers with a program like this. These programs lose the balance I spoke of above. Children who are tapping and scooping are not able to attend to the real purpose of reading - what do these words mean?

10. Interrupting Student Reading
     In typical classrooms good readers spend a great deal of time reading and struggling readers spend a great deal of time having their reading interrupted. It is understandable. We see a child struggling and we want to intervene. We want to provide instruction. When we have a group of struggling readers, it may get even worse. More stopping, more instruction, less actual reading. So what happens is like in our society today, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Skilled readers are likely to have hours more time to actually read in school over the course of a month than struggling readers. The strong readers, therefore, get stronger and the struggling readers continue to struggle. Teachers must find a way to insure that struggling readers get plenty of uninterrupted time to just read (on their own appropriate level) and also additional time for continued reading instruction. Richard Allington has some very cogent thoughts on this topic in his book,What Really Matters for Struggling Readers.

So there you have it. Ten ways to make learning to read harder. Let's see if we can eliminate these non-productive practices from our reading instruction.