Wednesday, January 17, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Solving Words, Part 1

The next three posts in this series will deal with what is probably the number one concern of most teachers when it comes to struggling readers: decoding. I choose to label what we typically call decoding, word solving, because I think this term gets closer to what is actually going on as students encounter unknown words in their reading and can, therefore, lead us to more informed instruction.

In Part 1 of Solving Words, I want to address two key underlying understandings of decoding that we may not always think of as we ask kids to "sound it out" when they run into difficulty. The first of these understandings is that identifying an unknown word encountered in text is a problem solving situation and that applying our problem solving abilities is critical. The second understanding is that any of the tools we have to decode words must be applied flexibly because none of these tools works 100% of the time.

When a reader encounters an unknown word, the reader is confronted with a problem to solve. As teachers our job is to help the reader develop as many tools as possible to bring to this problem solving situation. Let me take a step back and look at what steps we follow when faced with any problem to be solved. We'll use the sample of a leaky faucet here.
  1. Define the problem - What is going on here? The faucet is dripping and driving me nuts.
  2. Analyze the problem and gather evidence  - What information is available to help me solve the problem? The faucet is dripping. I know it is old. I know faucets often drip because of a loose connection or a leaky washer.
  3. Inventory my tools - What do I know that can help me? I have a tool box with adjustable wrenches, plumbers tape and a variety of different sized washers in the basement. I also know there is a valve to turn off the water. I also can look for a You Tube video on my IPad to show me how to change a washer in a faucet.
  4. Form a hypothesis - Maybe if I try this I can solve the problem. I think the most likely situation is a leaky washer.
  5. Test the hypothesis - What happens if I try this? The old washer looks like it has moved out of position and is worn. Let's replace it and see if that fixes the problem.
  6. Evaluate the solution - Did the tested hypothesis work? After I put this back together and turn the water back on let's see if it holds. No leaks. Good.
Now lets take a look at these steps as they relate directly to problem solving an unknown word encountered while reading.
  1. Define the problem - This word does not look familiar. What can I do?
  2. Analyze the problem and gather evidence - Ok, I need to know this word to understand what I am reading, so let me see what I can figure out. The word has familiar letters and I understand what I have read so far, so I should be able to do this.
  3. Inventory my tools - I know the sounds of letters, I know how to chunk a word and look for the onset and rime, I know how to look for small words in large, I know the word has to look right, sound right, and make sense. So...
  4. Form a hypothesis - If I work through the word, and use these strategies, I should be able to come up with the word.
  5. Test the hypothesis - After working through the word, I think the word is...
  6. Evaluate the solution - Does the word look right, sound right, and make sense?
Now, obviously a reader must be able to conduct this problem solving scenario almost instantaneously. If the reader struggles for any period of time over the unknown word, comprehension will suffer. So, children need to have a readily available tool box to access quickly and apply efficiently to solve the problem. The point here is to help readers see that they are junior Sherlock Holmes's trying to figure out a mystery with all the clues right in front of them.

Flexibility ties nicely into the problem solving view of decoding. One key element of problem solving is evaluating the solution. Since readers can never be sure that any one solution will work, they must apply the solution, whether it is "sounding it out", or onset/rime, or context clues, flexibly with an understanding the strategy may not work and something else must be tried.

I have often seen a lack of flexibility in word solving frustrate struggling readers. One memorable incident involved a first grade reader at the Rider Reading and Writing Clinic, when I was working there as a clinician. In order to get some sense of what the student (let's call her Mary) knew and was able to do in reading, I handed her a short reading passage about a cat called, Muff. Mary took the passage from me and, in a clear and precise voice, read "MMM-UHH-FFF-FFF." Mary had clearly learned the sounds of the letters and was a champion of "sounding out", but she applied this strategy so inflexibly that she had no other strategy and never blended the sounds into actual words. Mary had a flawed understanding of what reading was and I knew where to start my work with her.

Here is another, perhaps more typical, example of the need for flexibility. Suppose a child is reading the following sentence:

The boy was making a model airplane from a kit.

The child does not immediately recognize the word "model", but knows another word with a similar pattern, "motel." Using the analogy strategy, the child matches "model" with "motel" and pronounces the word "mo del'". The child must now reconcile this pronunciation with what he already knows. An inflexible reader might be satisfied with the incorrect pronunciation. The flexible reader might realize this pronunciation doesn't sound right, doesn't sound like a word I know, and think, "What would make sense?" Combining strategies might get the reader to the correct pronunciation.

So when "sound it out" or analogy doesn't work, kids need to have other tools to go to and they need to be ready to try these tools flexibly to solve the problem.  Teaching for flexibility isn't easy. Some kids cling hard to a one strategy, often sounding it out, and seek to apply it universally. The best approach for the teacher is to communicate to kids that solving words is a problem solving activity and that readers need to be ready to use all the tools that are available to them. And, of course, teachers must model that same flexibility when demonstrating for students how words can be solved.

In Part 2 on decoding, I will discuss the various strategies we need to teach and some possible strategies for teaching them to struggling readers.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Honor Dr. King by Raising Your Voice

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, thousands of people will honor Dr. King by doing service in their community. My hometown of Philadelphia boasts of having the largest MLK Day of Service event in the country. This is a wonderful thing. I am pleased that so many will honor the great man's legacy in this way. 

There are other ways to honor Dr. King, of course. We can honor his legacy everyday by fighting to make the United States live up to its advertising: With Liberty and Justice for All. We can honor his legacy by the way we conduct our own lives, working daily to attain the ideal of an open and welcoming attitude toward all people, no matter our differences. And we also can honor his legacy by speaking up when we see injustice, hate, racism, and intolerance in our society. As the quote above says, we must not be silent about things that matter.

And so today, to honor Dr. King, I must decry in the strongest possible terms the vile, divisive, completely unacceptable rhetoric coming out of the mouth of the President of the United States. This cannot stand and failure to raise our voices against it will mean, as Dr. King suggests, "the life of our nation will begin to end."

Donald Trump is not our first racist president. We have a long history of racism in that office, from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson to Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson to Richard Nixon, but Trump has ridden his racism into office and doubled down on it in office as few others have and after the country has begun to recognize the damage it has done with 400 years of racism and has tried, haltingly for sure, to do something about it. Trump is cynically appealing to the most base instincts of his core supporters for his own aggrandizement and at great cost to the country.  True leaders appeal to people's better angels, asking us to be better, kinder, more open to others. That is the legacy of Dr. King, and, oh by the way, our previous president.

It is no surprise that Trump is racist. Fifty-years ago, he conspired with his father and other real estate moguls to exclude blacks from their housing developments. He rode to prominence politically by leading the birther movement against Barack Obama. He set his campaign crowds to cheering by calling Mexicans rapists and once in office, he praised white supremacists as "some good people."

So, we should not be surprised by his comments this week about "shithole countries" or his negative characterization of the people of Haiti, or his seeming preference for people from lily-white Norway. We should not be surprised, but we should also not be silent. So here is what I plan to do to raise my voice in protest today.
  • Publish this post
  • Call my Republican Senator Pat Toomey and my Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick to insist that they denounce Trump's racist comments,
  • Create five pro-unity, pro-humanity, anti-racism tweets to send out throughout the day and send them to @realDonaldTrump.
Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of Trump's racist statements has been the failure of Republicans to speak out and condemn them. Apparently, Senator Lindsay Graham confronted Trump on this at the meeting. Good for him. Where are the other voices of Republican leadership? In their absence, we must fill the void with our own voices. Qui tacet consentire videtur: He who is silent consents.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Sight Words

I clearly remember my eldest daughter, Beth's, first sight word. Her four-year-old self was strapped into the back seat of our 1965 Mercury Monterey, as we approached the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue in Yardley, PA. From the back, Beth, ever the back seat driver, pointed to the red, hexagonal sign in front of us and yelled, "Stop!" I stopped the car, turned around in my seat and said, "Yes that sign says, Stop."

Now I know what you are thinking. Beth probably wasn't reading the word. She saw the sign, the red color, the shape and used her experience riding in a car before to know what the sign was communicating. All this is true. But what I would like to suggest is that the learning of all sight words is enhanced by context and that when readers struggle to acquire sight words, we might want to consider having them practice them in a real reading context.

The importance of sight words is well understood in the literacy field. Children need a goodly store of sight words in order to smoothly and fluently process text. They need to know many words by sight because so many frequently occurring words (of, was, any, they, said) are irregularly spelled. Sight words also provide an "anchor" for beginning readers learning one-to-one word correspondence in a line of print.

Understanding the critical nature of sight words, teachers use a variety of strategies to help children learn these words. Strategies such as Word Walls, flash cards, sand writing, magnetic letters, and word games like Wordo or Bang! You can read more about traditional sight word activities here.

These are all worthwhile activities when executed well. But it is also necessary for students to encounter these sight words in context. Context helps reinforce the rote learning of Word Walls and flash cards and also provides them with the support of real meaning as they attempt to solidify their perhaps shaky grasp of some sight words.

Contextual sight word activities should include the following.
  • Reading Patterned Books -Multiple readings of simple repetitive pattern books such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What So You See? or We're Going on a Bear Hunt.
  • Repeated Reading - Reading a book over and over again is good for all sorts of literacy learning, including reinforcing sight words. Short texts used for guided reading offer lots of opportunity for repeated reading in school and at home. Poetry also offers good sight word practice in short texts. 
  • Shared Reading and Shared Writing - Shared reading through big books and shared pen writing provide the teacher opportunities to target sight words that need to be reinforced.
  • Independent Reading and Writing - Time to read independently provides children time to practice sight words in context. Independent writing, with the assistance of the word wall or student word bank, provides opportunities to visualize the word and then reproduce that vision on the page with the word available for double checking.
  • Songs - The rhyme and rhythm of songs can help reinforce sight vocabulary. Children sing the songs with a copy of the lyrics in front of them. Just look at the rich store of sight words in one verse of this Raffi classic.
                        Down by the bay
                        Where the watermelons grow
                        Back to my home
                        I dare not go.
                        For if I do
                        My mother will say,
                        "Did you ever see a goose
                        Kissing a moose?"
                        Down by the bay.
  • Word Windows - I've adapted this strategy from an article by Carol Chomsky in Language Arts (1976), titled, "After Decoding, What?" In this strategy children read and reread a short passage or poem or nursery rhyme, until they can read it with ease (even to the point of memorization). The teacher then uses an index card, I use 4' by 6', with a rectangle "window" cut out of it large enough for one word of print to show. The teacher lays the card over the text, revealing one word. This one word is a targeted sight word. The child is asked to read the word. If the child can read the word, great. It is now a sight word. If the child can't read the word, the teacher raises the card and allows the child to read the passage and discover what the word is. Repeated uses of the activity help students truly look at sight words and hopefully commit them to visual memory.

One final (non-contextual) strategy for kids who really have a hard time getting sight words into visual memory - Disappearing Sight Words.
  1. Write the targeted word on a white board in dry-erase marker.* Let's use "said."
  2. Read the word together.
  3. Say the word slowly with the child without distorting the letter sounds: s-s-s-e-e-e-d-d-d.
  4. Have the child use an index finger to trace/erase the word while saying the word slowly.
  5. Repeat 2,3,4 times until the word is completely erased.
  6. Ask the child to try to write the word. (Provide assistance if they cannot.)
  7. Ask the child to read the word.
    * This also works with a regular chalkboard and chalk.
Credit for this strategy goes to Dr. Susan Glazer, late Director of The Reading/Writing Clinic at Rider University. The strategy obviously taps into a child's visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic senses in order to try to create a lasting mental image. 

If you are concerned that some of your students are not acquiring sight words quickly enough to support their growth as readers, I would suggest that you first take an inventory of your practices. Are you using the Word Wall effectively or has it just become another bulletin board in the room? Are the children getting enough contextual practice through repeated reading, and shared and independent reading and writing? This quick inventory may help you make adjustments that will lead to greater sight word success for your students.

This post is Part 3 in a series on struggling readers. You may also be interested in When Readers Struggle: Background Knowledge and When Readers Struggle: Oral Language.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Oral Language

A child's oral language facility, we know, plays a major role in learning to read. As Hiebert, Pearson, Taylor, Richardson & Paris (1998) put it, "Oral language is the foundation upon which reading is built, and it continues to serve this role as children develop as readers." Unfortunately, not all children enter formal schooling with a high level of oral language facility. While all children are language learning machines, and children from all socio-economic status groups develop a remarkable facility to communicate their ideas and use language to help meet their needs, some children do not grow up in environments that encourage them to the expansive use of their remarkable linguistic abilities. While nearly all parents love their children and want the best for them, some parents view communication with children as being a matter of "talking at" their children, while other parents view communication with children as "talking with" ther children.
When children are "talked at" they may develop a transactional view of language. Talk is about communicating to me what I should and should not do and about trying to get something that I want. Children who are talked with may develop a conversational view of language. That is language is to be used for communicating all kinds of ideas in conversation with adults and other children and for speculating about things that may not yet be firmly understood. Obviously the transactional view limits oral language facility and the conversational view expands language facility. Equally obvious is that children with a more expansive oral language facility have advantages in literacy learning.

But no matter what language facility a child brings to school, we must recognize that that oral language facility, limited or expansive or in-between, is the child's greatest ally in learning to read. If the child arrives in our classroom with an expansive oral language, our job is to expand it further. If the child arrives with limited oral language, our job is to develop that oral language so that it can support literacy learning. So again, as I have said in previous posts on struggling readers, we must not think in terms of a learning deficit, but in terms of an instructional challenge that is our responsibility to meet.

How do we both expand and develop oral language in our classrooms? First of all, by recognizing that every child's language deserves respect as a valid system for communication. It reflects the identities, values, and experiences of the child's family and community. Secondly, we can employ strategies that the research has pointed to as effective. Here are a few.

Hold Conversations with Children -

Make sure your interaction with children isn't purely transactional. In a classroom bustling with young children, it is easy to fall into a pattern of transactional talk. "Tommy, please sit down." "Mary please stop talking." "Johnny, put your book away in your desk." "Who knows the answer to the question?"

Transactional talk is necessary in the classroom , of course, but children need conversational talk with an adult to expand their oral language. According to Shanahan and Lonigan (2017)

Teachers interactions that best encourage language learning include having conversations that stay on a single topic providing children opportunities to talk, encouraging analytical thinking, and giving information about the meanings of words.

So we need to make sure that our instruction is structured in such a way as to allow us to have conversations with children on an individual basis. This could mean engaging a child in a conversation about a writing project, about something they read, about something they saw, or about an experience they had outside of school. I think of these conversations as opportunities for the teacher to "lean in" to listen to the child and then respond in a way to help the child develop their conversational competence.

Provide Time for Structured Play

Children also, of course, develop their oral language through interaction with other students, so opportunities for structured play are critical to oral language development. Structured play includes such traditional early childhood activities as block play, dramatic role playing, and such play centers as a classroom kitchen and office where children both play together and talk to each other about their play. I recently enjoyed a session of play with Picasso Tiles with my four-year-old granddaughter that was full of talk and new vocabulary about shapes and sizes.

In a time where structured play in the early years seems to be less and less valued, teachers need to fight for this valuable instructional time by pointing out its effectiveness in developing oral language.

Conduct Shared Reading and Shared Writing Activities Daily

Shared readings of Big Books are a good way to engage children in conversation about a book (such as asking them to make predictions or to summarize what has been read) and to help students make the connection between oral language and print through the teacher tracking the print with her fingers as the words are read to and with the children.

Shared writing of stories or classroom news gives students the opportunity to generate language that is then shared in writing. When students then share the pen (interactive writing) to record these orally composed stories, they again make the connection between oral language and print.

Read Aloud of Challenging Books

When reading aloud to children, an activity that should happen frequently in the classroom, teachers should choose books that are of high literary quality and challenging for the children in the class. By reading challenging works, teachers can help students navigate difficult vocabulary through explanations and help the children to articulate their understanding of the story. The sophisticated language of the high quality picture book exposes the children to the rich possibilities of language and provides a contextual basis for building vocabulary.

Turn Guided Reading Sessions into Guided Talk Sessions

For children whose most important need in the early childhood classes is the development of oral language facility, the guided reading structure might be altered to be a guided talk session. In a guided talk session the focus would not be on sight words or decoding strategies or reading a short text, but on talk. I like to think of this as an expanded picture walk. A wordless book could be used, but any book with pictures that also tell the story can be used. The teacher guides the children in using their language in telling the story that is represented by the pictures. It is important that the teacher encourage the children to tell the story, not just describe the pictures, so a prompt that encourages the students to "Think about the story and talk about what is happening here" is suggested. After going through the book and talking about all the pictures, attempting to weave a story, the children might be encouraged to retell the story individually.

The oral language that children bring to school is a critical factor supporting their growing literacy ability. It is therefore also critical that teachers plan to help children expand or develop that language so that they may be successful literacy learners.

This post is the second in a series on struggling readers. You may also be interested in When Readers Struggle: Background Knowledge.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Background Knowledge

Whenever I ask a group of teachers to identify areas that seem to cause difficulty for struggling readers, lack of background knowledge is sure to be near the top of the list. This is not surprising since a rich background knowledge has shown to be one key to skilled comprehension. Respected reading theorists Richard Allington and Patricia Cunningham have said, "the most important factor determining how much readers will comprehend...about a given topic is their level of knowledge about the topic."

Background knowledge matters a great deal, but I think it is a mistake to say children "lack background knowledge" as if it is some deficit they have. Students are full of experience and background knowledge about all sorts of things. For many children, however, the background knowledge they bring to any reading task may not match well with that task, so better to think of lack of background knowledge as task specific rather than some inherent deficit in the reader. In fact I could make everyone reading this blog feel like a struggling reader by asking that you read and summarize the following.

Having crumbled to 214 all out, with Jonathon Trott's 84 not out the glue across the otherwise brittle English innings, the tourists were back in the contest when Paul Collingswood's brace had the hosts wobbling at 100 for five at the turn of the 21st over.

This passage, reporting on a cricket match in England causes most American readers trouble because of our lack of background knowledge. So. lack of background knowledge is situational, not inherent in the reader. As teachers we need to be able to identify stumbling blocks for our readers and prepare them to read comprehendingly by filling in background knowledge gaps that are exposed by a particular reading selection. Fortunately, we have quite a few tools available to help us fill those gaps.

Picture Books - About 20 years , my colleague, Peggy Burke, a life-long educator with two masters degrees, signed up for a Harvard University seminar on The Science of the Brain. I will never forget how Peggy prepared for the seminar. She said to me, "You know I really don't know much about the brain, so I got this comic book called, The Brain Illustrated, to get me up to speed." Peggy's instincts as an educator told her that when she was going into new learning territory, it was a good idea to get some rudimentary understanding of the topic and what better way to do it than with a book full of pictures and clear explanations?

One very good way to build student background knowledge for a topic is to read aloud to them from picture books. If the topic is metamorphosis, what better way to introduce it than with Gail Gibbons book, Monarch Butterflies? If the topic is the weather, why not start with Seymour Simon's book, Weather? Studying the American Constitution?  I would recommend a read aloud of Jeanne Fritz', Shh! We're Writing the Constitution.

As a bonus, on-topic read alouds can build interest and curiosity about a subject. And the research has clearly shown that engaged reading is more likely to be comprehending reading.

Videos - With the advent of You Tube and other online services, it has never been easier to share video clips in the classroom (provided, of course, you can get past your school district's firewall). Videos go a long way to helping students acquire the background information they need for reading comprehension. The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes, is a poem I like to introduce through video. The poem references a time when the horse drawn coach was the main mode of travel and when robbers (or highwayman) waylaid travelers to steal their money and jewelry. I find that viewing an animated conception of the poem helps students understand this world better. You can find the video I use here.

It is best, I think, to keep the videos brief and it is also important to have the students turn and talk about what they have seen with each other, as well as discussing it as a whole class.

Over the years, I have seen teachers show videos to students as a kind of reward. After struggling through Romeo and Juliet on the page, the students are treated to a video version of the play. I think this gets it all backwards. I believe the reading of the play would be greatly enhanced by showing the video first, so the students have some idea of what they are reading and have a better opportunity to visualize what exactly is going on. 

Talk - In any classroom there is sure to be a wide disparity of knowledge on a given subject. Some kids may know a great deal about a topic, others very little. It makes sense to tap into the knowledge of the entire class to activate and build background knowledge for the entire class. As the teacher, we can provide a structure to make this talk focused and productive. Two strategies that I have found useful for this are PReP and Anticipation Guides.

PReP (Pre-Reading Plan) was suggested by Judith Langer (1981). Implementation follows these steps.
  1. Teacher chooses a reading selection and identifies its central concept. The concept is stated in a simple declarative sentence and shared with the class.
  2. The class is divided into small groups and tasked with listing words are phrases that are connected to the central concept. The students then group these words and phrases into logical categories. The groups share their lists with the class.
  3. The teacher then leads a discussion by asking the students clarifying questions like, "What made you think of that association?" and "How is this association directly related to the concept?"
  4. Students then refine their list, eliminating terms that don't directly relate and adding new terms suggested through discussion.
  5. Students then read the passage with the list at hand and then revisit the list reflecting on how their activated background knowledge aided their understanding.

Anticipation Guides get students talking about what they anticipate they will be reading about and talking about the key concepts they will encounter in the reading. Implementing this strategy requires the following steps.
  1. The teacher chooses a passage for reading and identifies key concepts.
  2. The teacher develops simple declarative sentences to capture the key concepts and sets these up in an agree/disagree, yes/no, true/false format.
  3. The students read the statements and decide if each statement is true or false or agree/disagree, etc.
  4. The teacher then leads a discussion where students defend their positions by providing rationales for their choices.
  5. The students then read the passage to confirm or disconfirm the positions they have taken.
  6. Post-discussion focuses on new understandings that have been developed through the anticipation guide and reading activity.

As teachers we need to embrace student's differing experiential backgrounds, and even their lack of knowledge of things we think they should know, as an instructional challenge and not as a student learning deficit.