Tuesday, August 4, 2020

What's In a Name Chart?

Sylvia Ashton-Warner's book, Teacher, first published in 1963, is a chronicle of her experience teaching Maori children in her native New Zealand in the 1940s and 50s. A major insight that Warner discusses in the book is the concept of "key vocabulary." She approached the literacy instruction of her children through the words that had special resonance for them, through their own experience, much of it fraught with poverty and violence. Warner had each child come to her each day with a word they wanted to learn and led the children though various activities to make sure they learned them. These words, drawn from the "inner life" of the child, were powerful to that child and, therefore, more easily learned.

We have all had similar experiences, I'm sure, with children who can read a word like "dinosaur" before they can read the word "they", simply because "dinosaur" is a powerful word for that child, a "key vocabulary" word, if you will. As Invernizzi and Buckrup (2018) put it, "The effects of experience are personal and profound" (p 92).

Over the years, research has demonstrated the efficacy of Warner's ideas. Perhaps none more so than the research of  Treiman and Broderick (1998) who demonstrated that the identity and characteristics of the first letter of a child's name has a significant effect on the child's knowledge of letter names. If we think about it, this makes perfect sense. What vocabulary is more key to the child than that child's own name. Children's strong attachment to their own names may help them in understanding how letters work in words, first within their own names and later, perhaps in other words (Rieben and Perfittii, 2013).

The research brings me to what I consider one of the most powerful instructional tools we can have in the primary classroom - The Name Chart.

As Benito and David and Matilda and Jayden learn to find their names on the name chart, they can also learn the shapes and sounds that those beginning letters make.  Later they may learn that Belen or Diego or Jessica or Morgan have names that start with the same letter. The powerful words on the name chart are a gateway for children to learn the alphabetic principal, that is, letters represent sounds and that those letters may be used in various combinations to make words.

Here are some other recommended uses for the name chart in the classroom.
  • As a spelling aid when doing shared pen or interactive writing activities. "This word starts like Zachary's name."
  • As a game as children come to sit for read aloud. "Touch your own name on the name chart and then sit down."
  • I'm thinking of someone whose name begins with "M." Who can come up and touch it?
  • Clap the names and count the syllables.
  • Do a shared reading of the names .pointing to each name as you read it in order or randomly.
  • Place cards with the names on them in the word study center and have children sort by first letter.
Our own name is our most powerful word. It makes good sense to guide children in their understanding of the alphabetic principal by showing them first how letters work in their own name.

Works Cited

Ashton-W.arner, S. (1986) Teacher.  New York: Touchstone.

Invernizzi, M.and Buckrup, J. (2018) Reconceptualizing Alphabet learning and Instruction. in Cassano, C. and Dougherty, S..ed., Pivotal Research in Early Literacy. New York: Guilford.

Rieben, L. And Perfitti, C.A. (2013). Learning to Read: Basic Research and Its Implications. Mahwah, NJ. Erlbaum.

Treiman. R. and Broderick V. (1998). What's in a Name: Children's knowledge about the letters in their own names. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 70, 97-113.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Read Along: Assisted Reading for the Vulnerable Reader

In a post two weeks ago, Independent Reading in a Pandemic, I suggested that with all the problems the pandemic was causing, one positive was that it provided time for kids to do extended independent reading. One parent responded by asking, "What should my dyslexic daughter do, look at her books and cry?" Fair enough question. Many of my colleagues responded by suggesting this mother get her daughter listening to audio books. This is great advice. As my colleague, Stu Bloom suggested, apps like Hoopla and Libby connect students to local public libraries and access to audio books. For those who can afford it, Amazon now has an Immersion Reading Program which allows you to listen and read along on a Kindle or Smartphone while the device tracks the words.

While Amazon may call it "Immersion Reading", I prefer the term Carol Chomsky coined in her classic 1976 article, After Decoding, What?, "assisted reading." Chomsky wrote about her work with a group of third grade students who had had plenty of phonics instruction, but had not developed any fluency in their reading. She had the children read story books repeatedly while they listened to the story being read aloud on tape. She wanted the children to read the books over and over again until they could read them back to her fluently without assistance. Chomsky was searching for a method that would "capture their attention and make large amounts of textual material available" (p. 288). She determined that what these students needed was to "shift their focus from the individual word to connected discourse and to integrate their fragmented knowledge" (p. 289).

The students, of course, were not strictly "reading" in the traditional sense, but combining memorization with reading to capture a more fluent account of the text. This new found fluency allowed the readers to engage with the text in ways they were unable to before, so that they gained the pleasure of actually being able to understand the text and talk about it and write about it. Indeed, Chomsky found that these vulnerable readers took great joy in their accomplishments and that writing about what they had read increased their engagement and comprehension. She also found that the gains made in assisted reading resulted in a greater willingness to read in other environments and to choose reading as a "free time" activity.

Subsequent research has supported Chomsky's findings. Repeated reading has been shown to be an effective strategy for improving decoding, comprehension, and fluency. I have written about the strategy in The Power of Rereading and Reading Fluency: Building Bridges from Decoding to Comprehension. The leading expert on fluency instruction in the country, Tim Rasinski is also an advocate of Chomsky's methodology as he discussed in a blog entry on  The Robb Review, The Goal of Phonics Instruction is to Get Readers to Not Use Phonics When Reading. And as Rasinski notes, recent research by Stevens, Walker and Vaughn (2017) who were studying students with learning disabilities found that "assisted reading with audiobooks produced gains in reading fluency and comprehension" (p. 576).

Chomsky added some activities as follow up to the students repeated reading/listening to the stories. As I mentioned, having the students write about their reading seemed to play an important role in their progress. They wrote responses to the stories, answered questions in writing ,and made up sentences using words from the stories.

Chomsky also did some word work with the children after they had mastered the stories. When I was working as a clinician at the Rider University Reading/Writing Clinic, I also used this strategy to good effect. Chomsky took some index cards and cut a "word sized" window into them. She would then move the index card around on the text exposing just one word to see if the student could identify the word. If the student could, she moved on to another word. If the student couldn't, Chomsky picked up the card and the student could then read the full sentence and identify the word that way. The goal here was to supplement the rote recognition that came from memorization with the study of the orthographic features of the words. The idea was to keep the instruction light and game-like, but at the same time help the students look closely at the words and develop their understanding of how words work. 

Assisted reading, let's call it the read along, has proven to be an effective strategy for helping vulnerable readers. Today's technology makes the potential success for assisted reading as an instructional technique even greater. The need for strategies that vulnerable readers can do in the home during this time of pandemic and that is likely to engage them in more real reading makes assisted reading a particularly attractive strategy for the moment.

Works Cited

Chomsky, C. (1976) After Decoding, What? Language Arts, 53, 3, 288-296.

Rasinski, T. (2018) The Goal of Phonics Instruction is to Get Readers to Not Use Phonics When Reading. The Robb Review.

Stevens, E., Walker, M., & Vaughn, S.  (2017). The effects of fluency interventions on the reading fluency and reading comprehension performance of elementary students with learning disabilities:  A Synthesis of the research from 2001-2014. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 50, 576-590.


Monday, July 20, 2020

The First Question to Ask of a Vulnerable Reader

When I was six years old, I was given my very first "big boy" two wheel bicycle for Christamas. I loved it. I can still see it all shiny and red and huge by the Christmas tree. As soon as my Dad would let me, I took it out the side door into the driveway, leapt aboard (it was too big for my six-year-old legs)  aimed it down the steep drive, and rode it directly into the telephone pole in front of the house. I was banged up a little, the bike was fine and I quickly scrambled back on the bike and rode it, a bit unsteadily, up and down the sidewalk until I was comfortable and able to keep my balance without too much wobbling. I really wanted to master riding that bike. I rode it everyday after that until I was 16.

When my student, Ryan, was six years old, he came to me for reading instruction. Ryan had been identified by his kindergarten teacher as a possible candidate for Reading Recovery instruction. His first grade teacher confirmed the recommendation after doing an initial assessment of Ryan's literacy ability during the first weeks of school. I administered an observational survey, which confirmed the  recommendations of the teachers, and so Ryan joined me for one-on-one Reading Recovery instruction.

Ryan and I met daily for 20 weeks. During that time, Ryan made some progress towards being a reader, but the progress was not what I would have hoped and certainly did not help Ryan achieve the goal of being a self-sustaining reader. I pulled out all the stops with Ryan. My lessons, I thought, were well planned. I held a meeting with his family and followed up with phone calls, hoping to engage them in a partnership in helping Ryan. They were open and supportive of Ryan's efforts. I observed Ryan in the classroom, where he was receiving excellent instruction from the classroom teacher. When Ryan failed to make sustained progress, I asked my Reading Recovery trainer to come in and observe my instruction and make recommendations to help me help Ryan.

Despite these efforts, Ryan never thrived in our lessons. While Ryan was always friendly and compliant in the sessions, he never showed much enthusiasm for the instruction or for the stories or even for the progress he was able to make. After 20 weeks, I made the difficult decision to have Ryan referred for testing to the child study team, to see if special education placement was called for. I was frustrated and angry with myself for my lack of success. I hoped that Ryan would find success in another program, but I was not at all convinced he would.

As I reflect on this failure from the distance of 25 years, I think I failed Ryan in part because I failed to ask one simple question. It is a question I think many of us may fail to ask when we are given the job of helping a child learn to read. It is the first question I think we need to ask of any vulnerable reader who comes into our charge. The question is, "Does this child want to learn to read?"

For many children learning to read is hard work. In order to commit yourself to that work, you have to want to do it, just as I really wanted to be able to ride that bike. The desire to read is critical to learning to read. While most children come to school with a burning desire to read, some vulnerable readers do not. There may be many reasons for this, but the reasons are not as important as our awareness that this may be the case and then taking some action to help children develop the desire to read. I want to be clear here. I am not talking about a child who reads little or who is difficult to motivate to read, I am talking about a child who is not interested in learning how to read..

To understand how to help kids who don't have a desire to learn to read, we need to look at why most kids do want to read. It is likely a combination of  factors including: a desire for a ticket into the adult world, a feeling of accomplishment, curiosity about topics like dinosaurs or sports or superheroes, an interest in words and how they work, an interest in stories, and a desire to please the adults in their life.

Based on this list, some of the things we can do as teachers to foster a desire to learn to read are obvious and others, perhaps, not so obvious.

Conversations - Individual and on-going conversations with the child on their own hopes, dreams, interests, activities, can help the teacher build both an understanding of the child and clues to what might be motivators for learning to read. A pet, an obsession with dinosaurs, an interest in trucks, an ability on art. Conversations may provide some keys to the child's desires.

Regular Read Aloud - Read alouds should be from high quality books that integrate pictures and words into rich and complex stories and informational texts on topics of interest to the child.

Book Talks - The teacher should be talking about books and other materials she has read,sharing the richness that is the adult experience of being a reader.

Experiences with Book Tie-Ins - Field trips are obvious ways to provide experiences for developing interest in learning to read, but everyday experiences like walks around the building, or videos on particular topics are great experiences where the teacher can recommend books that tie-in to the topic. The best model I have seen for this type of video is Reading Rainbow.

Think Aloud - The teacher models how she processes a text. This can often be done during a read aloud as the teacher stops and talks about her building understanding of the text and fixes up any confusions that happen along the way. This is also a good time to try to develop a curiosity about words by talking about vocabulary that comes up and modeling different ways that readers figure out the meanings of words. Discussions about words and their endless fascination should be a regular part of dialogue with children who are not yet showing an interest in learning to read.

Specific Praise - Anytime our reluctant reading learner does something reading related it should be met with praise that specifically points to desirable reading behaviors. "Ryan, I noticed you looked at that book on dinosaurs to see if it had some information you are interested in. Good work."

Recommending Books - Knowing the child's interests you can recommend books to the child, place the books in the child's hand, point out pages of particular interest, send them home with the child, and ask about the book later.

Finally, I am not recommending suspending good reading instruction until our reluctant learner shows more interest. What I am recommending is that our reading instruction may be more effective if we focus a considerable amount of our literacy time with these children on developing the desire to read. That desire to read might just be followed by a desire for learning how to read. Once the child is receptive to the instruction, our chances of success are greatly enhanced.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Independent Reading in a Pandemic

We need to get books into our student's homes and hands.

This tweet from the estimable Jennifer Serravallo appeared on my feed this morning. I believe she is right. Schools should not be forced to re-open and the likelihood that a forced re-opening will lead quickly to a renewed shutdown is high. Districts, school leaders and teachers should be preparing for more long-term distance learning. This situation, we know, is not ideal, but as my mother would say, if all you have is chopped meat, make meatloaf. In this case, if we can't meet with our students eye to eye, lets' make independent reading a priority. The one thing that the pandemic gives us is time. The one thing that all research shows is that time spent reading is the best way to improve reading. So we have a potentially winning formula in front of us. How do we make it happen?

  1. Get Books in Children's Hands - Schools need to be working out ways to deliver books to children's homes so they have material to read. My daughter and son-in-law volunteered this spring to deliver lawn signs for graduates of the local high school. Schools need to similarly organize to get the books to the children. 
  2. Make Sure All Children Get WIFI Access - Online communication will be critical. Some school districts are sending out school busses to accomplish this in areas where WIFI availability is spotty for children. Forging partnerships with local providers can be another way to get necessary connectivity to students.
  3. Offer Choice Reading - Teachers can communicate to students about what reading material is available and have kids request books that they are interested in reading. If the books can be made available electronically fine, if not, deliveries are scheduled through parent volunteers.
  4. Get Book Clubs Going - Facilitate students who wish to read the same book to form ZOOM book clubs to discuss their reading. Teachers could provide recommendations for discussion questions or interact with students in the book clubs.
  5. Focus on Interest Rather than Accountability - Rather than attempting to record, assess, or quiz students on their reading, focus on interest and open ended questioning that encourages talk about the reading and explortion of ideas, rather than compliance. Combining elements of choice, interest, and discussion may be the best way to actually encourage time on task.
  6. Enlist Parental Help - Some parents may be able to help with book distribution, but most importantly schools need to communicate to parents guidelines on how they can help their children in a program of independent reading and book clubs. Providing parents with guidelines for talking to their children about books would also be helpful.
This is a new and strange world. Books offer comfort, entertainment, and information. Spending time reading improves reading ability. Rather than lamenting the shortcomings of online learning or trying to make it do something it simply cannot do, let's try to embrace the gift of time we are given and work on developing the reading habit.

Monday, July 6, 2020

The 6th Annual Give-A-Kid-A-Book Day!

Today, July 6, 2020, marks the 6th annual National Give-A-Kid-A-Book-Day. This is the yearly celebration dedicated to getting books into children's hands over the summer. Literacy research has shown that the single best way to combat summer reading loss is to get books in kids hands. One way to do this is to give children books.

Participation is easy. All you need to do is find a child and give that child a book. The child could be your own, a neighbor's child, a student, a grandchild, one of your own kid's friends, children in a homeless shelter. Just give the child a book and say, "I thought you might enjoy this." In these socially distanced times you may want to send the child the book with a note explaining the gift. (Notes provide another reason to read.) Some participants like to include a lollipop or other small treat to send the message, "Reading is sweet", but the most important thing is to give a kid a book.

National Give-a-Kid-a-Book Day is dedicated to the many hard-working people and organizations who have gone to extraordinary efforts to make sure that all children have access to books. Toward that end each year on this day, we recognize these folks by placing them on the NGKBD Honor Roll. Past inductee's include Luis Soriano, Lisa Willever, Philadelphia's Words on Wheels, Dolly Parton, Leland B. Jacobs, Margaret Craig McNamara, M. Jerry Weiss, Joan Kramer, Donalyn Miller, Project Night Night, the Fallsington Pennsylvania Public Library, and The Children's Book Project of San Francisco.

If you wish to read more about these inductees and about the project you can find each year's National Give-A-Kid-A-Book blog posting here, here, here, and here

Here are the 2020 inductees.

The Little Free Library - On my daily walks around my neighborhood, I pass four Little Free Libraries. Those small wooden boxes laden with free books for community members to take or leave books as they wish. The Little Free Library organization has recently surpassed 100,000 such library boxes nationwide. This is truly a remarkable attempt to bring literacy to the neighborhood and kids are included as well. Recently Little Free Library has teamed with PBS in it's "Read Along" initiative. Little Free Library book-sharing boxes play an essential role by providing 24/7 access to books (and encouraging a love of reading!) in areas where books are scarce. We welcome them to the NGKBD Hall of Fame.

Pajama Program - This organization is dedicated to bringing a comfortable, consistent, bedtime routine to all children. Established in 2001, this group has distributed more than 6.5 million pajamas and books to homeless children nationwide. Those of us inn the literacy business know well what no bedtime story means for children and literacy and so we welcome the Pajama Program to the NGKBD Hall of Fame.

Ken Goodman - Ken Goodman, the father of the Whole Language Movement, and a distinguished professor, author, researcher and leader in the field of literacy probably did more than any other single individual to bring quality literature into the classroom reading environment. the rich classroom libraries we see in so many schools today are directly attributed to his view that all children deserved high quality literature for instruction in reading. Ken Goodman died this year at the age of 92. We are proud to include him in the NGKBD Hall of Fame.

Give a kid a book today. You will feel good about it, I promise.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Instruction for the Vulnerable Reader: Assessment

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

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

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

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

What is the Best Way to Assess Early Literacy?


Following the Child: What Does that Look Like?

Assessing Reading Comprehension: Probing Instead of Questioning

Questions as Invitations, Not Inquisitions

Monday, June 15, 2020

Instruction for Vulnerable Readers: Independent Reading

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

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

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

Independent Reading: A Research-Based Defense

Independent Reading: One Key to Balanced Literacy Instruction

When Readers Struggle: Increase Encounters with Text

Fostering a Love of Reading in Children

How to Make a Frequent Reader

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Instruction for the Vulnerable Reader: Comprehension

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

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

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

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

When Readers Struggle: Background Knowledge

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 1

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 2

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 3

Comprehending Non-Fiction: Setting Kids Up for Success

Purposeful Reading: Engaging Students in Content Text

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

Monday, June 8, 2020

Instruction for the Vulnerable Reader: Vocabulary

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

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

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

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

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

Building Vocabulary: An Overview

Building Vocabulary: Teaching from a Conceptual Base

Building Vocabulary: The List-Group-Label Strategy

Building Vocabulary: Words in Context

Developing Word Consciousness in Children

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Instruction for the Vulnerable Reader: Spelling

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

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

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

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

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

Invented Spelling: Discovering How Words Work

What Parents Need to Know About Spelling

Summary Chart of the Stages of Spelling Development

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

The Spelling Curse

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 1, 2020

Instruction for the Vulnerable Reader: Word Work

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

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

When Readers Struggle : Oral Language

When Readers Struggle: Sight Words

When Readers Struggle: Word Solving, Part 1

When Readers Struggle: Word Solving, Part 2

When Readers Struggle: Word Solving, Part3

An Onset-Rime Approach to Decoding for Struggling Readers

Decode This: Meaning Helps Kids Break the Code

When Readers Struggle: Fluency

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

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

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

Informed Instruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balanced Instruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Responsive Instruction

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

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

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

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

Other posts in this series:

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

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Up: Quality of Instruction

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

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

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

The 4th in a series on vulnerable readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

Other posts in this series;

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

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

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



Tuesday, May 5, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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