Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Keeping Your Balance in Literacy Instruction

By now veteran teachers are accustomed to the pendulum swing in literacy instruction that veers wildly from one new best practice to another, often recycling through a back to basics heavy emphasis on phonics and then swinging back to a more holistic comprehension strategies approach. With the advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) the pendulum has seemingly swung in another direction with the emphasis on students doing “close readings” of more challenging text so that they may be “college and career ready”, whatever that means.

The latest issue of Reading Today (September/October) that arrived on my desktop yesterday is a case in point. The swinging of the pendulum is on full display as Tim Shanahan, emeritus professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago, contributes an article entitled, Should We Teach Students at their Reading Levels? His answer is no. In the same issue a few pages farther back, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris have an article entitled, Break through the Frustration: Balance vs. all-or-nothing thinking. As the title implies, they argue for a balanced approach that includes plenty of on level guided reading.

What is the poor classroom teacher to do? How does the teacher maintain her balance as the pendulum swings seemingly out of control? Let’s see if we can make some sense of all this for the practitioner in this CCSS age.

Tim Shanahan is a very persuasive literacy expert. He writes and speaks well. His arguments are often thoughtful and clear and he makes his ideas easy to implement through his step-by-step instructional style. He is also often wrong and politically motivated. Shanahan is a big booster of the CCSS approach to literacy instruction, including an emphasis on more complex texts and close reading. Before CCSS, Shanahan was a big booster of the Reading First initiative, the now largely discredited Bush era foray into improving reading performance. Shanahan now writes, in addition to his own blog, Shanahan on Literacy, for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Gates funded conservative think tank and leading champion of the Common Core.

In the Reading Today article, Shanahan argues that if we teach students at their instructional level they will never be college and career ready. As Shanahan puts it, “If low performing fourth graders are to be taught from second-grade books, when do they catch up?” Fair enough, but we might want to reverse that question and ask Shanahan, “If fourth graders reading at a second grade level are taught from sixth grade level books, how will they ever improve their reading and are they likely to be frustrated by the entire enterprise and give up?"

Shanahan argues that what we need to do is to provide students with “enough scaffolding to allow them to read harder books successfully.” In this brief article Shanahan does not go into great detail on what this scaffolding might look like, but he does offer a link to numerous research articles that discuss such scaffolding. Many of these articles focus on well-founded instructional practices like re-reading, introducing vocabulary before reading, and teacher modeling.

It is interesting that CCSS champion Shanahan is advocating lots of scaffolding prior to reading frustration level texts, while the CCSS chief architect, David Coleman, argues that students should approach difficult text with minimal scaffolding and focus on “the four corners of the text.” But that is, perhaps, an issue for another day.

In their article, Burkins and Yaris say that we must avoid the extremes, both of an instructional design based too heavily on guided on-level reading or one that tosses out leveled reading for reading texts on the frustration level. They call for balance and they have sound ideas for maintaining that balance. They argue that “our challenge is not to choose between instructional-level text and frustration-level text; rather, the challenge is to manage strategic use of each in varied instructional contexts.”

For Burkins and Yaris, students will continue to need small-group, instructional level guided reading where the student does most of the reading work. They will also need work on frustration level texts through read-aloud where the teacher does all of the print work, and the teacher and students work together on comprehending the work. Shared reading is important also. In shared reading the students and teacher work together to do the print and meaning work in texts that are a little above reading level for most students. Finally, Burkins and Yaris argue for independent reading, where students read books they have chosen due to their own interest and may run the gamut to below grade level through above grade level.

Whoop! There it is.

I recommend teachers jump off the swinging pendulum and do what makes clear sense here. No matter the dictates of the CCSS, no matter Shanahan’s love of the frustration level, in reading instruction balance is critical. Moving away from guided, instructional level reading now will only mean, as Burkins and Yaris suggest, moving back to guided reading when the impact report on the Common Core comes out in a few years.

Keep your balance teachers. Read-aloud daily; engage in shared reading daily; meet a guided reading group or three daily; and allow students independent reading time daily. When you have done all that, maybe you can squeeze in a little math.