Sunday, October 30, 2016

Independent Reading: One Key to Balanced Literacy Instruction

Two weeks ago I posted a research-based response to literacy commentator Tim Shanahan's continuing dismissal of Independent Reading. The post prompted a twitter exchange with Dr. Shanahan in which he questioned the research and I reiterated the broad based support for Independent Reading that I found among literacy experts. The exchange ended with this tweet.

Ignoring for a moment that "fair and balanced" is the slogan of Fox News, I would like to address how Independent Reading is, indeed, a part of a balanced approach to literacy instruction. You can judge who is being fair to kids.

Since its introduction in 1983, Pearson and Gallagher's gradual release of responsibility model has been the gold standard for teaching complex reading strategies. The gradual release model calls for instruction to be organized around four experiences to ensure student learning: explicit description of the strategy, teacher modeling of the strategy, teacher and student collaboration and guided practice in using the strategy, and independent use of the strategy. This model informs much of the current literature on teaching, including Lucy Calkins' "mini-lessons" in reading and writing workshop. Pearson and Fielding (1991) further refined the model specifically for reading comprehension instruction practices that called for read alouds, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading.

In her highly influential book, Becoming Literate (1991), Marie Clay called for a model of instruction where students had daily opportunities to be read to, to be read with and to read on their own. Once again we see an instructional design that includes Independent Reading as a part of the mix for balanced instruction.

So just what does constitute balanced literacy according to the models of Pearson and Clay? Clearly, read aloud, shared reading, guided reading and independent reading all play a role. Let's look at the role of each.

Read Aloud: I have written about the need for read aloud in the past here and here, but for the purposes of this post I would like to address interactive read aloud. An interactive read aloud provides an opportunity for teachers to stop along the way of the reading and model, through a think aloud, problem solving strategies as they are reading. Strategies that can be demonstrated this way include comprehension monitoring (Oops! I didn't understand that.), fix-up strategies (re-reading, adjusting reading rate, activating background knowledge), vocabulary in context strategies, etc. The key to interactive read aloud is to explicitly identify the strategy for the students, explaining why you are using the strategy and then talking aloud to model the problem solving process.

Shared Reading: Teachers often think of shared reading as "big book" reading, where a large format book is placed on the easel and teacher and student read the book interactively, usually with primary grade students. But shared reading can use a wide variety of texts and is effective across the grades. Poetry, short passages from longer texts, even textbook passages can be used for shared reading as long as all students can get eyes on the passage at the same time. Shared reading experiences should include an element of teacher modeling, collaborative predicting and questioning, choral reading, and teacher and student collaboration in word identification and comprehension.

Guided Reading: In guided reading, students and teachers collaborate to read a text that provides a bit of challenge for the reader and that allows the reader to use learned strategies on the fly in real reading situations. It is "guided" by the teacher because the teacher chooses the text, determines the teaching targets, listens in and scaffolds the reading of the text and leads the discussion after reading. Students practice their growing reading abilities in a supportive environment and with a book that asks them to stretch within their own "zone of proximal development."

Independent Reading: The opportunity to sit and read a book of your own choosing and at your own comfort level completes the instructional cycle that is the gradual release of responsibility. Independent Reading is the "reading by" of Clay's model. Independent Reading gives the reader an opportunity to consolidate skills, practice strategies taught in the classroom, and learn that reading can and should be an enjoyable, transporting experience. Independent Reading does not mean "hands-off" teaching, however. Children, because they are children, are not always good at making choices. They need our guidance to make sure that they find something to read of interest and within their reach as a reader. Independent Reading also provides the teacher with an opportunity to listen in to a reader and to to have a conversation with a reader about the reading. It is important that these conversations be a collaborative exchange and not a comprehension quiz. It is also important that readers have a chance to talk about their reading with other students in the class.

Tim Shanahan says that the research does not support Independent Reading as a productive instructional strategy. He bases his position on his reading of "scientific" research. He says that all the research supporting Independent Reading is flawed or unable to make a clear causal relationship between Independent Reading and improved reading achievement. In my post two weeks ago, I tried to show that many other respected researchers and theorists in the literacy field disagree. When we apply models of instruction such as those suggested by Pearson and Clay, we can see yet another reason to support Independent Reading in a balanced approach to literacy instruction.

Works Cited

Clay, M. (1991). Becoming Literate. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Pearson, P.D., & Fielding, L. (1991).Comprehension Instruction. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research. (Vol.2, pp. 815-860). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 8(3), 317-344.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Bob Dylan Wins the Nobel Prize and Walt Whitman Smiles

While many people expressed surprise and some even outrage over Bob Dylan’s selection as the Nobel Prize winner for literature, I must admit, I was not surprised and I was extraordinarily pleased. I had always thought of Dylan as a poet. Dylan was the first poet I thought “I got.” He spoke mostly through song, but I heard the poetry of the words. I was introduced to Dylan the poet early on. He wrote a long and rambling poem as the liner notes to one of the first full length vinyl albums I ever owned – Peter, Paul and Mary’s 3rd album – In the Wind. I read it over and over as I listened to that seminal album over and over.

Later as a teacher, I had a slim volume of poetry in my middle school classroom library, Sounds and Silences, edited by young adult author Richard Peck especially for middle schoolers. The book contained several lyrics from Dylan songs.

As I became more immersed in poetry as an adult, I came to view Dylan as the latest link in a long chain of distinctly American voices in poetry, from Walt Whitman, through Carl Sandburg, to Allen Ginsberg. Dylan and Ginsberg were great friends, of course. The much honored (and reviled) poet was prominent on stage and off on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review. I also have read that Dylan was a fan of Sandburg, even going so far as taking a pilgrimage to an aging and ailing Sandburg’s home in the 1960s.

Whitman, of course, was long dead before the former Robert Zimmerman was born, but reading the poem below makes me think Walt would have welcomed young Bob, not to mention Sandburg and Ginsberg, to the club.

Poets to Come by Walt Whitman

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental,
               greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.

Whitman welcomes “orators, singers, and musicians" to the club, as the Nobel Committee has apparently also begun to do.

One way we can see this American voice across the years is through the all too present existence of war in American history. Each of these poets’ had a response to the wars of their lifetme. For Whitman, it was the Civil War; for Sandburg, WWs I and II. For Ginsberg it was the Cold War and for Dylan, of course, there was the Vietnam War. Here is a look at American war history through the eyes of these four poets. I think the through line is clear.

From The Wound Dresser by Walt Whitman

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.


Thus in silence in dreams’ projections, Returning, resuming,
I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
 (Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

 The Wars by Carl Sandburg                      
 In the old wars drum of hoofs and the beat of shod feet.
In the new wars hum of motors and the tread of rubber tires.
In the wars to come silent wheels and whirr of rods not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.

In the old wars clutches of short swords and jabs into faces with spears.
In the new wars long range guns and smashed walls, guns running a spit of metal and men falling in tens and twenties.
In the wars to come new silent deaths, new silent hurlers not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.

In the old wars kings quarreling and thousands of men following.
In the new wars kings quarreling and millions of men following.
In the wars to come kings kicked under the dust and millions of men following great causes not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.

From America by Allen Ginsberg

America you don't really want to go to war.
America it's them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Readers' Digest. Her wants our
auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our filling  stations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers.
Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Masters of War by Bob Dylan

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten all the triggers
 For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
While the young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
By the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

@Bob Dylan Music Co.

So congratulations to Bob for this prestigious award and thank you from one long time devotee for keeping the American poetic voice front and center for the world to hear.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Teachers as Writers: You Can’t Teach Swimming from the Side of the Pool

Today I am pleased to offer a guest post from Cynthia Mershon on the importance of writing teachers being writers themselves. Cynthia is a former long-time literacy specialist and writing teacher and is currently a workshop presenter for Teachers College, Columbia University.

by Cynthia Mershon

During high school and college, I worked as a life guard and a swimming instructor.  Most of the children I met in swimming lessons were between the ages of five and ten – some had never had a swimming lesson, but some knew a little about swimming.  As a swimmer myself,  I appreciated the importance of being in the pool with them, standing beside them and talking with them as they clung to the wall or bobbed up and down in the shallow end of the pool. 

When it came time to demonstrate a particular swimming skill - how to use arms to stroke through the water, or feet to kick, or how to turn the head to breathe - it was easy to gather them around me so they could watch as I moved my arms, or held onto the wall and kicked, or put my face in the water and turned my head to the side and took a breath.  Most of the time, they were close enough for me to touch them and I often did, supporting their bodies while they tried each skill so they could feel what it felt like to be a swimmer, offering them the chance to know what it would feel like to glide through the water when they could put all of their learning together.

Now, many years later, I work with upper elementary teachers, supporting them as they develop their reading and writing workshops.  As a part of our work together, I recommend that teachers write their own pieces when teaching students a particular genre of writing.  I encourage them to share this writing with their students as mentor texts, as examples of the kind of writing they want students to do in the units being taught.  Reading John Hattie’s 2008 analysis of what factors maximize student achievement (Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement,  Routledge), we learn students need crystal clear examples of what we are asking them to do if they are to be successful at specific tasks.  Deliberately producing a piece of writing for them that illustrates the skills and strategies we are teaching so they can use our writing as a model to examine makes perfect sense.   

Another reason to think about writing teacher-generated mentor texts is because they clearly communicate to students that what they are being asked to write is important. So important, in fact, that the teacher – a member of the classroom writing community – is writing the same piece.  Students are perceptive and clearly understand the difference between being given an “assignment” and being included in a community that writes and confers and develops together.  When teachers write and discuss their own mentor texts, students are included in the writing process in a way that allows them to interact with the teacher as fellow writers.  They get to see – literally - what an experienced writer does as she writes in the same genre:  how she creates an engaging lead, or adds details, or uses paragraphs to organize her writing, or chooses language to make her writing more powerful, or creates a closing that sends readers away with something to think about.  What is the teacher doing in her writing that they might try, too, to lift the level of their own piece?

Teachers, too, benefit from composing mentor texts for writing units in several ways.  Most important, perhaps, is the opportunity to know what will be challenging about creating a particular kind of text.  How can a teacher truly know what components of a writing task students will find difficult if she has not attempted to write exactly what students are trying to write?  How will that teacher be able to predict what lessons might be necessary, or where students might need unusual support, if she has not written in that genre in the manner required by the unit students are exploring?  Or, as Donald Graves wrote in Writing: Teachers & Children at Work (Heinemann, 1983): “Teachers who have not wrestled with writing cannot effectively teach the writer’s craft.”

A frequent question from teachers in workshops concerns how they can be more comfortable and effective when conferring with their student writers.  One answer I offer is that when teachers write their own pieces in each unit students study, teachers are more likely to be able to talk fluently and successfully about what students are trying to do in their writing.  Why?  Because the teachers are writing the same pieces and encountering the same demands and challenges as their students.  They will know what it is like to consider choosing a thesis statement for a persuasive essay or finding the heart of the story in a personal narrative or deciding on a topic for a feature article.  They will need to make the same decisions about content, language, and format as each writer in the class is making, and so will be able to offer advice and share experiences when they confer with students.

It is not always easy to begin to write mentor texts for our students.  Most of us do not compose essays, narratives, or informational pieces on a regular basis, if at all.  It can be scary to compose these pieces following the guidelines of the units we are teaching, thinking about how our work will be received by our students.  I remember being afraid when I began teaching writing and producing mentor texts, worried my students would find out I was not a good writer, that I would make spelling or grammatical errors, and that my students might laugh at my writing.  What I found instead was that they valued my participation in the unit, that they could not wait to see what I would write, and that the bond that grew between us as writers far outweighed any thought about whether my writing was good (they thought it was) or whether it was perfect.  They used my writing over and over again in our units as a resource, as a guide to show them what a persuasive essay or personal narrative or feature article looked like, and trusted me to show them how they might use my example to help them move their own writing forward.

My guess is that I learned a lot about teaching writing many years ago when I was standing in three feet of water in a swimming pool, surrounded by ten or so eager, bouncing children who needed someone in the pool with them to teach them to swim.  I know I could not have had the same impact on them if I had been sitting on the side of the pool – can you imagine trying to teach swimming without being in the water with your students?  I think we probably know the same thing is true about teaching writing.  It isn’t always easy, but we know that the best way to teach writing is to be a writer, to understand how the writing process works, the attributes of a genre, and the probable challenges writers will face when writing a particular piece. 

It doesn’t matter if students are new to the writing process or if they have some experience as writers.  We can’t sit on the sidelines and give advice from afar. We need to jump in, demonstrate particular writing skills, and start writing.  We need to sit right next to our students and show them what writing is about.  We need to support them while they try each skill so they know what it feels like to be a writer, offering them the chance to know what it will feel like to compose with abandon and power when they put all of their learning together.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Independent Reading: A Research Based Defense

Independent Reading, sometimes called SSR, DEAR or SQUIRT, is an instructional strategy where students are given time in class to read self-selected books. An instructional strategy which has been around since the 1970s, it has two goals:

  1. Provide students with time to practice the reading strategies they have learned through classroom instruction in a real reading situation and, therefore, improve reading achievement.
  2. Promote positive attitudes towards reading in the hopes of making reading a life-long habit for children.

Recently, literacy guru, Tim Shanahan, has reiterated his opposition to Independent Reading (SSR, DEAR) as an in the classroom instructional strategy. You can read his two most recent blogs on the topic here and here. Shanahan's opposition is based on the following:

  1. A lack of empirical research to support the practice for improving reading achievement.
  2. Independent Reading violates what we know about motivational activities and, therefore, will not create lifelong readers.
It is important to note here that Shanahan's opposition to Independent Reading is not new. He was a prominent member of the National Reading Panel(NRP) study, the precursor of the Reading First initiative, that concluded that "even though encouraging students to read more is intuitively appealing, there is still not sufficient research evidence of high methodological quality to support the idea that such efforts reliably increase how much students read or that such programs result in improved reading skills" (NRP, 2000, pp. 12-13).

In truth there has always been a large amount of research evidence that Independent Reading does improve reading performance and motivation to read, including hundreds of correlational research studies, but the NRP study ignored this research because it did not meet their standards of "high methodological quality." Shanahan has explained that correlational studies cannot be used to determine if Independent Reading was the cause of improvement or if other factors were the cause. 

But there is much more to this story. As Garan and DeVoogd (2008) have pointed out, many areas of human endeavor do not lend themselves well to experimental research designs. Correlational studies have long been recognized as a viable and necessary form of human research. As Stanovich (2007) suggests, just because correlational studies have limited value in making causative conclusions does not mean they are not important to guiding understanding. Cunningham (2001) noted that without the evidence from correlational studies we would have not established the link between smoking and cancer. The NRP rejection of these studies skewed their findings on Independent Reading (Krashen, 2001, Cunningham, 2001, Garan and DeVoogd, 2008). 

Shanahan's second concern is that Independent Reading violates what we know about motivation because it is not truly independent. He says that if the teacher chooses the time for reading, guides the text selection and requires some sort of accountability (like writing after reading, reading aloud during a conference), that we cannot argue that we are encouraging lifelong reading, but simply employing another instructional strategy that is neither independent nor motivating.

Shanahan says, "What motivates someone? I’ve read a lot of that literature and being required to do something is rarely a powerful stimulator of lifelong desire."

I've read a lot of literature on the topic as well. I know, for instance that limiting choice does not necessarily limit motivation. In fact, helping a child find a book that is personally interesting and that that child is able to read may be more motivating than leaving kids to wander through the shelves with infinite choices in front of them. Having a teacher sit next to you to hold a conference about what you are reading may be an accountability measure, but it can also be motivational for children. Children need to know that someone is interested in what they are reading and what they think about what they are reading. One of the key jobs of the teacher is to set up an environment where kids desire to learn can be unleashed in a productive way. Providing a routine for Independent Reading is one way to unleash learning potential. 

So, in 2016 what can we say about the research support for Independent Reading? Unlike Shanahan, most literacy researchers would argue that Independent Reading is well supported by the research. Here is a sampling of research and conclusions from reviews of the research.

Yoon (2002) - Sustained Silent Reading facilitated the development of positive attitudes towards reading.

Samuels and Wu (2003) - Independent Reading is beneficial to all students. It is important to match books to student's reading ability.

Lewis & Samuels (2003) - SSR has a positive impact on student reading achievement.

Garan & DeVoogd (2008) - There is a convergence of research to support independent reading in schools.

Hiebert & Reutzel (2010) - The stamina of readers can be supported by effective, independent, silent reading practice conditions put in place by well-informed and vigilant teachers.

Guthrie (2004) - Simply having Independent Reading time does not ensure engagement. Engaged reading is key.

Topping, et al. (2007) - The quality of the Independent Reading time matters more than the quantity. 

McRea & Guthrie (2009) - Opportunities to engage in independent reading enhance both reading achievement and intrinsic motivation to read.

Gambrell, et al. (2011) - The research base supports the notion that the reading curriculum should incorporate time and opportunities for students to engage in independent reading.

Allington, Billen and McQuiston (2015) - There is sufficient research evidence to support the notion that reading volume is very important to the reading development of students.

The verdict seems clear. A well-planned, well-executed program of Independent Reading is an important part of sound literacy instruction. To be most successful teachers should follow a few guidelines from the research.

  1. Make every effort to ensure student engagement in reading during Independent Reading time. This includes making sure that students are in a book that they can read successfully on their own and monitoring the class during reading time.
  2. Guide student book choice for appropriateness and interest level by working beside them as they make selections.
  3. Confer with individual students regularly. Rather than quizzing their comprehension, start a conversation about the book. What stood out for you? is a good conversation starter.
  4. Provide regular opportunities for students to talk about their reading with other students in partnerships or small groups.
  5. Assist students in making goals for their reading and have them keep track of their progress toward the goals.
  6. Through modeling, teach students how to respond to their reading through a variety of written and oral formats including a response journal,in text post-it notes, letters to the teacher, quick writes, etc.
  7. Rather than set an arbitrary amount of time for Independent Reading from the start, work to build student stamina. Early on in establishing the routine for Independent Reading, stop the reading as soon as students begin to fidget, whether that is in 3 minutes or 15. The next day set a goal for Independent Reading that is a few minutes more than the previous day, until you have built the time spent engaged in reading to your desired length - 20, 30, 40 minutes depending on age and grade.
Shanahan says one of the reasons that Independent Reading fails is that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him take a bath." That may be true, but I think you can lead a child to reading and set up conditions where she is most likely to engage in reading. And if we can get kids reading good books, the research would indicate they will improve their reading and be motivated to continue the reading habit. The best reading motivator is getting lost in a good book that speaks to you in some deeply personal way.

Works Cited

Allington, R. Billen, M, & McCuiston, K. (2015) The potential impact of Common Core State Standards on reading volume. In Pearson, P. D. & Hiebert, E. Research-Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy. NY: Teachers College Press

Cunningham, J. W. (2001). The National Reading Panel Report. Reading Research Quarterly., 30(3), 326-335.

Gambrell, L.B. et al. (2011). The Importance of Independent Reading. In Samules, S.J. & Farstrup, A. What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction (4th ed.). Newrak, DE: International Reading Association.

Garan, E. & Devoogd, G. (2008) The Importance of Sustained Silent Reading: Scientific Research and Common Sense. The Reading Teacher, 62(4), 336-344. Retrieved from

Guthrie, J. (2004) Teaching for Literacy Engagement. Journal of Literacy Research, 36(1), 1-29

Hiebert, E. & Reutzel, D. (eds.) (2010). Revisiting silent reading: New directions for teachers and researchers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Krashen, S. (2002) More smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on fluency. In R. Allington (Ed). Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum. How Ideology Trumoed Evidence (112-124). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Lewis, M. & Samuels, S.J. (2005). Read more, read better? A meta-analysis of the literature on the relationship between exposure to reading and reading achievement. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

McRea, A. & Guthrie, J. (2009). Promoting reasons for reading: teacher practices that impact motivation. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed). Reading more, reading better. (55-76). NY: Guilford

National Institute of Child Health and Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel (NIH Publication 00-4769) Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Samuels, S. & Wu, Y. (2003). How the amount of time spent on independent reading affects reading achievement: A response to the National Reading Panel. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Yoon, J. (2002). Three decades of sustained silent reading: A mta-analytic review of the affects of SSRon attitude toward reading. Reading Improvement, 39(4), 186-195.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fostering Curiosity in an Age of Accountability

In my capacity as Coordinator of College Reading at Rider University in New Jersey, I have the opportunity to teach many students who are, like I was 50 years ago, the first in their family to attend college. Because of this, their SAT scores and a number of other factors, these students are viewed, correctly, by the college administration as "at-risk" of not completing their college education. As all institutions of higher learning should be, Rider is concerned about retaining these students. And so last week I found myself seated in the tutoring center on campus with a consultant the university had hired to help them address the retention issue.

The consultant asked me a straightforward question."What is the one thing you would say these at-risk students need more than any other to be academically successful here?"

The one word answer came out of me quickly and without reflection like I was playing a game of free association. "Curiosity," I said.

I am not sure why I said this. I just blurted it out from the recesses of my brain. I had just come from a class with my students and I was aware of the effort I seemed to be putting in to spark student interest in the vocabulary lesson I was presenting. I remember trying to engage the students and pulling out all my veteran teacher moves (humor, turn and talk, relevant examples, interesting anecdotes, write and reflect, small group discussions) to limited effect. Was this experience where my knee jerk answer came from?

Ever since I gave that answer, I have been reflecting on and reading about curiosity. Where does curiosity come from? What actions foster curiosity? What actions kill curiosity? Why is curiosity important?

I was a curious kid. After toddler years of driving my parents crazy with questions, I marched off to school where I had free rein to drive my teachers crazy as well. Mine was not always a welcome figure in the classroom. My questions bubbled out of me before I could remember to raise my hand. Other students looked at me askance as I bullied my way into one group discussion after another. In high school I was on a first name basis with the entire office staff because I was frequently "excused" from class because of ill-timed outbursts.

I didn't grow out of it either. In my sixties and working as a school district administrator, a good friend and fellow administrator pointed out to me that I tended to dominate conversations in meetings by asking lots of questions and then bursting forth with some insight, relevant or not. He said to me one of the truest things I had ever heard about myself, "These conversations are the way you learn." And there it is. My curiosity and my audacity combined to help make me a successful learner. But how was this fostered in me and how can I foster this in my students?

In pursuit of an answer to my question, I found a terrific article by Erik Shonstrom in Education Week. Shonstrom defines curiosity as "seeking and exploring." Shonstrom says, curiosity does not sit very well in the traditional classroom because it is intense, transient, and propulsive. Curiosity is messy. Shonstrom cites Carnegie Mellon professor of economics and  psychology, George Lowenstein, who says,

Curiosity tends to be associated with impulsive behavior. People who are curious not only desire information intensely, but desire it immediately and seek it out even against their better judgment.

How can we foster curiosity in our students? Shonstrom says that "for students to be curious, they must feel worthy of seeking." Students must feel entitled to ask questions, to explore, to wonder, to speculate. We have all known students who we deem "naturally curious." I no longer think any kids are "naturally curious" at all. Like me, I believe their curiosity was nurtured, by indulgent parents and other adults perhaps, by inspiring and engaging teachers certainly, and by simply being given the time and the feelings of safety and security that allow for brain space to be given over to exploration.

Unfortunately, school often works against the development of curiosity. And, it seems to Shonstrom, schooling for "at-risk" children is the worst offender. He says that if we want to nurture curiosity we need to "disengage from standardized testing and common curricula." "Curiosity," he says, "does not hold up well to intense inspection." He advises that teachers be given the agency to slow down and allow time for kids time to wonder and be curious. I would add that we also need to provide children with a safe environment where exploration is rewarded and not punished and where impulsivity is recognized as an element of curiosity. For some children, school may be the only place where it is safe to let the mind wander and explore or to give in to an impulse.

As a language arts teacher, I think we can nurture curiosity by providing children some choice and voice in their reading and writing in an environment that supportive and safe. In reading this means providing guided, but genuine, choice in what kids read independently and the opportunity to give voice to what they have learned in their reading through conversations with their peers, their parents and their teacher. In writing this means real topic and audience choice for what they write for real purposes. A classroom is too much of a closed environment to nurture real curiosity. When children can get outside of the classroom hothouse either through their imagination or through actual explorations out of doors, we can feed their curiosity. So I think of kids writing about things that matter to them to the people who can do something about it, whether that be their parents, the principal, the local mayor, the Environmental Protection Agency or the President of the United States. Real audiences encourage genuine (and correct) writing and I hope, feed the curious mind.

I started this blog post with speculation on the importance of curiosity for my college freshman. I end it reflecting on the irony of 21st century education reform with its focus on developing "college and career ready" students through standardized test driven accountability and common standards. Could it be, as Shonstrom suggests, that this inspection driven movement, obsessed with data and accountability, is helping kill the curiosity that students need to be truly college and career and, for that matter, life ready?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Fluency Instruction: Building Bridges from Decoding to Comprehension

The reward we get for reading is meaning. When we read we might be entertained or informed or both, but only if we can get to the meaning.  Children must become automatic enough in their decoding to free up brain space to think about what they are reading and make sense of it. Achieving this automaticity is difficult for some children and so, struggling to decode the words in front of them, they have little cognitive space left for understanding what they read. These children get no reward for their reading efforts - no entertainment, no information. Without the reward, they are not likely to continue reading.

When this happens our tendency is to double down on decoding instruction, giving kids extra doses of phonics work and engaging them in all sorts of multi-sensory activities in the hopes of strengthening decoding abilities (tapping, scooping, spelling in sand).  Often these efforts are frustratingly slow and ineffective. Kids may improve in decoding, but still fail to achieve the kind of automaticity they need to get their reading reward.

How to get the kids across the divide between decoding and comprehension? Research would indicate that fluency instruction can  provide the bridge (Pikulski & Chard, 2005).

According to Tim Rasinski, the leading scholar on fluency instruction in the country, fluency instruction has the advantage of focusing instruction on automaticity within the larger context of comprehension. In other words, kids develop the ability to decode at a sufficient level of automaticity at the same time they are being rewarded by greater understanding of what they read.

To understand fluency instruction, we need to first understand that fluency is only partly about reading rate. Rasinski says fluency is automaticity + prosody. Prosody includes the melodic features of our oral language. It is reading that reflects not only the words of the text, but also the meaning of the text. In other words, fluency instruction connects to comprehension when children can read text "so it sounds like talking." Fluency is a skill that can be taught and Rasinski's research indicates that instruction in fluency not only helps children read what they are currently working on, but transfers to future readings (Rasinski & Samuels, 2011).

How can fluency be taught? In many ways and in ways that fit neatly into the regular instruction in a classroom everyday. First of all, kids need a model of what fluent reading sounds like, so we teach fluency when we read aloud to kids. Occasionally, while reading aloud we should stop and talk about how we used our voice to express the meaning of what we are reading. Another highly effective strategy for fluency instruction is repeated reading. We know from Samuels (1979) research that repeated readings improve decoding, automaticity and comprehension of passages. Poems, nursery rhymes, and reader's theater activities provide ample opportunity for repeated readings. You can read more about repeated reading here.

Small group instruction also provides plenty of opportunities to support a student's developing fluency. When children are reading laboriously, we should prompt them to , "Read that again and make it sound like talking" or model what it should sound like and ask them to imitate us until they can read it fluently on their own.

Rasinski, Padak, Linek & Sturdevent (1994) recommend a lesson structure for fluency instruction called, The Fluency Development Lesson (FDL). The FDL is meant to be a 10-15 minute daily lesson where students work on one short text, usually an age appropriate poem. The authors suggest the following steps in the procedure.

  1. The teacher introduces the text and reads it from a chart or overhead display two or three times while students follow along silently.
  2. The teacher leads the students in a brief discussion of the meaning of the passage and how the teacher used her voice in reading it.
  3. Teacher and students together read the text chorally two or three more times.
  4. The children form pairs. One student reads the text aloud to the other two or three times, while the partner follows along and gives feedback on fluency. Students switch roles.
  5. The students then perform their oral readings to an audience - a small groups of students, a visiting parent, another adult, the teacher, etc.
  6. Next teachers engage students in five minutes of word study focusing on word patterns from the text (rhyming words, spelling patterns).
  7. Students save a copy of the text in their personal poetry folder for further reading.
  8. Students take a second copy of the poem home to read to family members.
  9. Before introducing a text for a new lesson, read a few texts from previous lessons.
Kulich's 2009 study of this instructional strategy found it to be effective for all readers, but particularly for struggling readers. In my personal adaptation of the FDL for my own classroom, I also included an "echo reading" of the text, where I would read and point to the text line by line while the students echoed my reading and phrasing after each line. 

While any short poem, nursery rhyme or other text can be used for fluency instruction, Rasinski & partners have two books available that are helpful.

I have also published a book of poems aimed at fluency development and using a similar instructional design.

While you are waiting for these resources, here is a short poem to get you started. Did I mention that fluency instruction can also be a lot of fun?

Laughing Giraffes

On a field trip to the zoo, you must see the giraffe,

But I’ll give you a warning on his behalf.
Have a nice chat; get his autograph,
But whatever you do, please don’t make him laugh.

Though he truly enjoys comical patter,
A laughing giraffe’s knees wobble and chatter,
‘Til he falls to the ground with a clang and a clatter.
For a giraffe a laugh is no laughing matter.

Works Cited

Kulich, L.S. (2009). The English reading development of Karen children using the fluency development lesson in an intensive English language program. Three descriptive studies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Akron, OH

Pikulski, J.J. and Chard, J.D. (2005). Fluency: Bridge between decoding and reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher., 58(6), 510-519.

Rasinski, T.,  Padak, N., Linek, W., & Sturtevent, E. (1994). Effects of fluency development on urban second graders. The Journal of Educational Research, 87(3), 158-165.

Rasinski, T. & Samuels, S.J. (2011) Reading Fluency: What it is and what it is not. in Samuels, S.J. and Farstrup, A. What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction. Newark, DE. IRA.

Samuels, S. J. (1979). The method of repeated readings. The Reading Teacher. 32(4), 403-408.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Bringing "Sophistication" to Vocabulary Instruction

I begin each of my freshman college reading classes with a vocabulary discussion. Students bring in words from their reading in all subjects and we look at the word in context, we discuss the probable meanings, we look it up and discuss possible connotations of the word. On Thursday a student brought in "explicate." The context was, "The professor took an hour to explicate his convoluted thesis on the causes of the Civil War." One student volunteered that the word looked like "explain" and probably had something to do with explaining. Another student said from the context, it made this sound like a long explanation.

Good work on the students' part. I had a student look up "explicate" on a smart phone where we discovered the definition: "analyze or develop an idea in detail."

So I asked, "If we have a perfectly good word like 'explain' that everyone understands, why do we need the word 'explicate'?"

One brave student volunteered, "So we can sound more sophisticated?"

I said, "Say more about that."

"You know, so you sound like an educated person."

"So if I said, 'Allow me to explicate tomorrow's homework assignment', I would sound more sophisticated?"

"Well, actually, you just sound silly? It sounds like you are trying to use a big word."

"Right, so why do we have a word like explicate?"

Another student jumped in, "From the sentence, it sounds like 'explicate' is a more involved explanation."

"Good," I said, "Now why do we need both 'explain' and 'explicate' in our vocabularies?"

"I guess we have these similar words in our language so we can be more specific when we speak"

"Bingo!" I said, "Not only when we speak, but when we write. One sign of an educated person is a person who has the vocabulary to use just the right word to communicate a thought."

I tell you this story because I think it is illustrative of what we need to consider when we teach vocabulary. Just as in reading comprehension, where we activate background knowledge to help readers understand what they are reading, so, too, in vocabulary instruction, we use what students already know about a concept to build new knowledge in the form of new and more specific words.

Allow me to, ahem, explicate.

All of the students in my class had a concept for "explain." To help them learn the word "explicate", I needed to tap into that "explain" concept to help them make the connection to the new word "explicate." We came away from the lesson, I hope, with the understanding that explicate was reserved for rather involved explanations of complex ideas.

Let's consider how this operates with very young children. My 2 year-old granddaughter Schuyler lives in a house with two cats. The first time she saw one of our dogs, she pointed and said, "Cat." Schuyler had a concept for pet (four legs, tail, lives in the house with people) but it was not yet sophisticated enough to see the nuances of dogdom (barking, tail wagging, different kind of fur). After a few exposures to dogs and other household animals, Schuyler had expanded her concept of "pet" to include dogs, birds, fish and other animals.

Now let's move this insight into the classroom. Whenever we are trying to teach new words to children, we must first prepare them to receive the new word by tapping into the already existent concept. Kids have a concept of anger, so if we want to teach the word "livid", we would first ask them to generate words that they associate with anger (mad, angry, unhappy, furious, annoyed, enraged) and then ask them to place these words on a continuum of anger, perhaps from unhappy to furious, and then locate "livid" along that continuum somewhat closer to furious than unhappy.

Here is another way to bring context to bear on vocabulary learning. In the "In the Box, Out of the Box" strategy, students are asked to provide words for a concept they already know. In the example below the concept is "the person who is in charge at the local convenience store." Both words that fit the concept,"in the box", and those that do not, "out of the box", are listed and then the target word "proprietor" is added to the box to show how it fits with the concept. Note that both words that fit the concept and those that do not (cashier, worker) help us to define the concept.
Literacy researchers Nell Duke and David Pearson say that words are not the point of words - ideas are. Ideas are concepts and as we guide children toward more sophisticated vocabulary, we are guiding them, not as my college freshman would have it, to sound more sophisticated, but to more sophisticated ideas, and ultimately toward more sophisticated thinking. You may be able to think a thought without a word for it, but you can't share that thought with others, verbally or in writing, without having the right word for the idea.

The effective teaching of vocabulary, is quite literally, teaching children to think with greater sophistication.