Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Developing Word Consciousness in Children

Kids need to learn about 40,000-50,000 words by the time they graduate high school. Traditional approaches to vocabulary instruction (listing, looking up, defining, writing in a sentence) have proven to be unsuccessful, but even if this instruction were perfectly successful children would fall far short of the number of words they needed to know by the end of their K-12 schooling. It is readily apparent that children must learn most of their words incidentally, in conversation with their teachers, parents and peers and through reading and being read to.

While this learning may be incidental, it does not mean that it cannot be fostered in the classroom. What children need to develop is a word consciousness, an awareness of and curiosity about words that will motivate the learning of new words. Teachers have a huge role to play in developing this consciousness.

Many years ago I wrote a group of poems to help students develop reading fluency and awareness of word families and spelling. One thing I did with these poems was use some sophisticated vocabulary, some words that would not be found in a first or second graders’ vocabulary. I viewed it as an opportunity to stretch kids’ vocabulary in a meaningful context. Here is an example:

            Crocodile Isle
            On a trip to a tropic isle,
            I encountered a crocodile,
            With jagged teeth, a crooked smile.
            We sat down to talk awhile.

            He proved to be quite versatile,
            And told me stories with great style
            Of pleasant trips along the Nile
            When he was just a juvenile.

            So if you should meet a crocodile
            Remember they’re not mean or vile.
            Have a nice chat, but all the while
            Keep your distance – about a mile.
                               (from Snack Attack and Other Poems)

Obviously, the target pattern is –ile words (and one sound alike, isle), but I want to call attention to words like versatile, juvenile and vile. These words would be challenging for most six and seven-year olds, but I included them, not just because they fit the pattern, but also because they provided an opportunity to talk about the words with the children in a real context and stretch their vocabulary.

Since the poem was first presented to the students as a read aloud followed by discussion of the meaning, I had plenty of opportunity to scaffold their understanding of these new words. Further, though these were new words, they were words for which students already had a concept, so I could hook these words onto a familiar concept. For example, the students already had a concept of “child” and “young”, so I could talk about the word “juvenile” and help them add this word to their growing concept of “youth.”

In this way, and in many other ways, teachers can help students develop a curiosity about words and an awareness of how words work and how they are interrelated. This curiosity and awareness has been called word consciousness.

In a very helpful article in The Reading Teacher, entitled “For the Love of Words: Fostering Word Consciousness in Young Readers” (Volume 62, Issue 3, 2011), Graves and Watts-Taffe offer a framework for developing word consciousness in the classroom. The framework has six categories as follows:
1.    Create a rich word environment – What are the words that students see in the classroom environment (word walls, anchor charts, etc.), read in a variety of texts in the classroom library, hear spoken by the teacher and other students, and ultimately use in their own speaking and writing?
2.    Recognize and promote adept diction – Diction, in this case is precision in the choice of words. Graves and Watts-Taffe recommend that one way to develop adept diction is through repeated read alouds and direct discussion of words encountered in the read aloud and how they can be used by students. I wrote about the read aloud/vocabulary connection in this post.
3.    Promote Word Play – Stock the room with commercially available word games as well as games that teachers can make and use in word based literacy centers.
4.    Foster Word Consciousness in Writing – Discussion around the best word choices makes for powerful writing instruction and helps to develop word consciousness. For example, a mini-lesson on powerful verbs can show students how the right word choice can bring power and clarity to their writing. “The car sped down the road” is more descriptive and clearer than “The car went down the road.”
5.    Involve students in word investigations – Students might be interested in investigating the special vocabulary used by certain professions, or the derivation of slang expressions or new words that have entered our language in the last decade.
6.    Teach Students About Words – Teachers should take every opportunity to model their own word consciousness by directly teaching kids about words. When students encounter the word “sign” in their reading, I might ask them why the “g” in “sign” is silent. This gives me an opportunity to talk about how “sign” is related to “signal” and that we keep the “g” in “sign” even though we don’t pronounce it, to make sure that the reader understands the meaning. This can then lead to a discussion of all sorts of words – signature, assignment, signage, assignation, signatory, signet, significance, signify, sign language.

Graves and Watts-Taffe recommend that when discussing words with children the teacher should

1.    Explain the meaning of the new word (or have another student explain it).
2.    Extend the meaning of the word by providing examples.
3.    Engage students with the word by helping them to make connections with their own experiences.

Another very useful article on the topic, also from The Reading Teacher is “The Vocabulary-Rich Classroom: Modeling Sophisticated Word Use to Promote Word Consciousness and Vocabulary Growth” by Lane and Allen (Volume 63, Issue 5, 2011). The authors offer a model of how to expand student word consciousness through the various activities of the Morning Meeting. The authors say “[p]romoting incidental learning and word consciousness through frequent and deliberate modeling of sophisticated vocabulary can add substantial breadth to students’ vocabularies.”

Words are endlessly fascinating things. Martin Luther King used his special way with words as the platform for a movement that changed the world (I have a dream). So did Abraham Lincoln (of the people, for the people, by the people) and Franklin Roosevelt (nothing to fear, but fear itself) and John F. Kennedy (ask not what your country can do for you). As teachers we need to foster our own love and fascination with words and we must share that love with our students and thoughtfully and systematically nurture their own word consciousness. In this way we set the stage for the development of the rich vocabulary that is so necessary for our students’ academic, social and professional success.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Assessing Reading Comprehension: Probing Instead of Questioning

When working in my role as a reading consultant, I often hear teachers lament their students lack of reading comprehension. The conversation often goes something like this:

Teacher: Most of my kids seem to be able to read the text fluently enough, but many don't understand what they read.
Me: How do you know they are not understanding?
Teacher: They can't answer the comprehension questions I ask them after they read.
Me: Have you considered that the questions are the problem and not the kid's reading comprehension?

I want to suggest that we disadvantage students when we employ a list of post-reading comprehension questions  (whether teacher constructed or taken from the teacher's guide) as our primary way to assess comprehension, or worse, when we send them off to a computer to complete an Accelerated Reader quiz. What we should be doing is helping kids build on what they have comprehended (and if they are reading with reasonable fluency, they have comprehended something) through probes rather than "comprehension questions."

Reading comprehension is, of course, a highly complex cognitive activity.  It is best understood as a dynamic transaction between the reader and the text. It is dependent upon the prior knowledge of the reader, the reader's vocabulary, the level of engagement of the reader, the skill and craft of the author of the text in communicating meaning, and the social context (place, situation, purpose) in which the reading happens.

Given this complexity, it is important to understand that every child will have a unique comprehension of the text. When a student cannot answer our "comprehension questions", one explanation could be that that child's construction of the meaning did not cause him/her to attend to the information that would allow for a correct answer.

What if we took a different approach to post reading comprehension assessment that built on what kids did comprehend and perhaps helped them extend their understanding? This is where my idea of "probes" comes in. These probes are similar to what Beck and McGowan call "queries" in their outstanding book Improving Comprehension with Questioning the Author, NY: Scholastic. I like the word "probe" because it gets at the concept of getting into the kids brains to help them build understanding.

So, how can we probe for understanding rather than test for comprehension? Here is the first probe I use at the end of any group reading activity. The great literacy teacher, Cynthia Mershon, taught me to use this many years ago.

What stood out for you?

Every member of the group can answer that question and the variety of responses gives all the readers a chance to reflect on what others found interesting or important. I often follow up the first probe with the following:

Can you say more about that? or What made you choose that?

After this start there are any number of probes we might use to both assess student comprehension and build their understanding.

What were some other things you found interesting?
What is something you learned that you did not know before?
What did you find confusing?
What did you read that made you think that?
What does the author mostly want us to know about this topic?
What do you think the author is trying to say here?
Who might like to read this book? Why?
What questions do you still have after reading this?

Probes can drill down into the text as well.

Look at page 7, what does the author focus on here? Why do you think this is important?
What is a new idea that the author introduces on page 9?
Why do you think the author included the graph on page 11?

Some probes lend themselves better to narrative texts.

What is going on in the story now?
What did a character do that you would never do? like to do?
What is the problem here?
How have things changed for the lead character?
How does the author tell us about what the main character is like?
Did you like how the story ended? Why or why not?

I tried a simple application of the probing strategy with a group of fourth grade students yesterday. We were reading an informational text entitled The Story of the Statue by Heather Lynn Banks, about the Statue of Liberty. I began the reading by asking the students to tell me what they already knew about the Statue of Liberty and these ideas were recorded on chart paper in blue marker. After introducing some vocabulary and previewing the text, the students read the story silently. After the reading I asked, "What stood out for you?" As the students responded, I recorded the new information on the chart in red marker. The red demonstrated graphically for the students that their reading had led to new learning.

When students offered brief responses to the probe, I followed with, "Say more about that." I continued by asking the students to share other things they had learned about the Statue of Liberty.  We gathered a good deal of information from the text about the history and significance of the Statue of Liberty.

I ended the discussion by trying to guide the students toward the author's purpose for writing the article with this probe: "The author says that the Statue of Liberty is not just a statue, but also a symbol. What do you think she means?" The students demonstrated clearly that they had understood the main idea of the text was that the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of freedom. By probing with "What do you think this means?", I hoped I was inviting the students to talk and for the group to construct their understanding together.

As we think about a concept as complex as reading comprehension, I think we need to move beyond an assessment based on questions after reading and move towards an assessment based on how students uniquely construct meaning. By using probing "queries" we can find out what we need about student understanding and at the same time help them develop strategies that lead to deeper understanding.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin, Mohandas and Opting Out of Standardized Tests

Pictured at left is my favorite photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. It depicts those two great heroes of civil disobedience, King and Gandhi. The influence of Gandhi on King's nonviolent approach to gaining basic human and civil rights for African-Americans is well known. Both used non-violent civil disobedience to change the world for the better. Their nonviolent model became the template for the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late 60s and for countless other protests aimed at bringing light to issues ignored by the establishment over the past 50 years.

For those of us in education an issue of currency is standardized testing. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has responded to recent criticisms, often from conservative groups, of the over use of standardized tests by doubling down on continued yearly testing in math and literacy. He argues this is the only way that parents can know how their children are doing in school and if the schools are performing up to snuff. A coalition of civil rights groups agrees with Duncan. According to these groups, as reported in the Washington Post, the annual testing has "unmasked yawning achievement gaps and forced all states and school districts to focus on poor and minority students, including those with disabilities."

I am loathe to disagree with a group of civil rights advocates, but as a lifelong educator, I can tell these folks that they are wrong on this issue. While standardized tests may purport to unmask achievement gaps, the only thing that they really shine a light on is income inequality. I could as easily measure that by looking at the average value of a home in the child's school district.

What standardized tests do, in actuality, is provide a bludgeon for those who seek to privatize education. These corporate privatizers can point to low test scores and blame teachers, unions, and school administrators for the failures of our public educational system. They can then propose solutions that take away local control of schools, turn schools over to for-profit companies, open charter schools of questionable quality and with lax oversight, and say they are trying to solve the problem.

None of these solutions will improve the quality of education for children living in poverty (now 51% of all public school children). Nothing short of a full frontal attack on poverty will narrow the achievement gap. Money spent on "measuring the gap" with standardized tests is wasted tax dollars. Better to invest the money in real anti-poverty programs.

So, what can we do to combat the over testing of all school children to no real purpose. I suggest taking a page from Dr. King by practicing civil disobedience - opt out of the tests. The government can offer you no compelling reason to have your child take the test. If you want to know about your child as a learner, ask the teacher. If you want to know how your school stacks up against other schools, ask a local realtor. If you want effective and non-intrusive test data on how your state is doing, look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. Standardized tests given three times in your child's twelve years (say in third, eighth and eleventh grade) in school will give you plenty of information about how your child and your child's school is performing.

If you would like to learn more about opting out I suggest you join the Opt Out facebook page here and visit the United Opt Out website here. To learn more about the abuses of over-testing I suggest reading the work of Fair Test here.

I have no idea how Martin Luther King would feel about the yearly testing of students. Perhaps he would side with the civil rights groups who argue that the testing insures that "every kid counts." I think these groups are wrong, and I believe Dr. King would defend my right to say so and take action accordingly.

Non-violent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored..MLK, 1963

Friday, January 16, 2015

How to Make a Frequent Reader

New research provides an old recipe for success

Scholastic, Inc. is out with a new research report based on a survey of 1,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17. Motoko Rich reported on the research in the New York Times in an article titled, “Study Finds Reading to Children of All Ages Grooms Them to Read More on Their Own.” Rich’s title tells a part of the story. The full report is good news for teachers who need all the data they can to support good instructional practices in literacy in the face of the attack of the Big Bad Standardized Test mania.

Here is what Scholastic found as characteristics of frequent readers (kids who read more than 40 books a year) ages 6-11:
·         They were read aloud to 5-7 days a week before entering kindergarten.
·         They are currently being read to at home.
·         They want books that allow them to use their imagination and that have characters that “look like me.”
·         They do not go online 5-7 days per week.

As Rich alludes to in the title of her article, one of the most important findings of this research is that frequent readers are still being read to at home even after they have begun reading on their own in school. This is critical, of course, because so many parents stop reading to their children once the kids start reading. This is a mistake and teachers need to highlight this research for parents and continually campaign for parents to continue the read aloud practice throughout elementary school and beyond.

Teachers, of course, cannot control what parents will and will not do, but teachers can be read aloud advocates encouraging parents through back-to-school night messages, newsletters and classroom web sites to keep up the home-based read aloud. One overt way to do this is to allow a child to take home from the school or classroom library a book that the child is interested in, but that may be too difficult for that child to read independently. The teacher could send the book home with a quick note to the parents that the book would make a good family read aloud.

Scholastic found the following characteristics of children who are frequent readers (read an average of 39.6 books per year) ages 12-17:
·         They read independently during the school day.
·         They read more books after being introduced to e-books.
·         They live in a home with 150 or more print books.
·         They know their own reading level.
·         They have parents who help them find books and encourage reading for fun.

Here I have highlighted the important practice of having kids 12-17 read independently in school. This in school reading opportunity seems to be particularly important for low-income children who reported they were more likely to read for fun in school than at home.

Independent in-school reading with middle and high school children is central to creating frequent readers. It is one variable that is completely under the control of the school and the teacher. It would be inexcusable if this effective practice were to fall by the wayside in the name of test preparation or some other less productive use of instructional time. We need to remember that all of our instruction in the skills and strategies of reading are for naught if children do not choose to read on their own.

I remember Mrs. V, a wonderful eighth grade teacher I supervised for many years. She had dedicated time in each of her classes for independent reading. Mrs. V built up, over the years, a wonderful library of young adult fiction from which the students could choose books that matched their interests and abilities. Students also made trips to the school library to broaden their choices.

As more and more pressure for test-based accountability began to creep into her school after NCLB, Mrs. V. found her independent reading practice under siege from some administrators. She bravely fought it off with calm reason and clear research on the benefits of what she was doing. Her kids kept reading independently. We all must continue to do the same.

Secretary Duncan says that annual testing of children is a “moral imperative.” Reading aloud to children and providing time for in-school independent reading, for me, is also a “moral imperative.” Which imperative do you think will serve students better over time?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Common Core Concern: The Complexity of Text Complexity

The December 2014 issue of the Elementary School Journal contains an article that addresses a serious concern with Standard 10 of the Common Core State Standards in ELA. That is the standard dealing with text complexity. The article, “Putting Text Complexity in Context: Refocusing on Comprehension of Complex Text” is by three highly respected literacy researchers, Sheila Valencia, Karen Wixson, and David Pearson. They believe that the text complexity issue is receiving too much attention and that the attention is not well informed.

Valencia, Wixson and Pearson believe that the focus of reading instruction should not be on a rudimentary understanding of the complexity of text as determined by a Lexile level, but rather on all the dimensions of reading comprehension. Those dimensions, taken from the Rand Study of 2002, include not only the text, but the reader (what skills and prior knowledge does the reader bring to the text), the task (what is the reader expected to do with the text) and the sociocultural context (what are the social and cultural understandings at work in the classroom).

These literacy experts fear that the Common Core emphasis on text complexity will cause teachers to interpret the Common Core as requiring students to wrestle with more complex texts and that teachers will, therefore, present challenging texts to students while exhorting them to try harder and read more closely without considering the full dimensions of reading comprehension. I expressed a similar concern in this post two years ago.

Valencia, Wixson and Pearson put it this way: “If all this attention to text complexity is to have the desired effect on students’ comprehension and knowledge building from complex text, then task and reader factors need to play a more prominent role in considerations of text complexity than is currently the case… Texts must be accompanied by appropriate tasks and instructional strategies to support specific reading purposes and readers who vary widely in the skills, backgrounds, and dispositions they bring to the classroom.”

In other words, teachers must carefully choose texts and tasks with their own unique knowledge of the students in mind. First, the texts may be “complex” in the sense that they are challenging to this group of students, not because they meet some Lexile reading level criteria. Secondly, the tasks must be “do-able” for the students. That is, the teacher must use knowledge of the students and knowledge of the challenges presented by the text to design instructional activities that provide opportunities for student success. Next, the teacher must provide appropriate scaffolding including activating and building appropriate background knowledge and pre-teaching vocabulary to ensure the students have a successful encounter with the text.

The limitations of a Lexile driven concept of text complexity are readily apparent. The authors provide the example of John Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men. The book has a Lexile level that would place it in the second- to third-grade readability level, but the themes of male friendship, the unrealistic quest for the American Dream, and the predatory nature of human existence make the book a complex read for middle school or high school.

The task, too, can turn a fairly easy read into a complex encounter with text. As the authors show, we might expect a second grader to read and retell the story of Cinderella, we might expect upper elementary students to compare different cultural perspectives of the Cinderella story in books like Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters and Yeh-Shen, while we might expect high school students to examine the gender ideologies evident in the Cinderella text.

The authors conclude by saying, “The point here is that simply knowing the measured complexity of the text is insufficient to locate the text in the appropriate grade-band level without the simultaneous consideration of text-task factors in the context of specific reading purposes.”

Amen. But the authors fail to address how we got here. They say they are surprised “at how difficult it is for many prospective and practicing teachers to fully grasp the importance of taking time, before initiating instruction, to examine the text they are asking students to read and consider the most appropriate instructional goals for a particular text or set of texts and the best means of accomplishing those goals. This is more important now than ever as Lexiles and other quantitative measures of text complexity are influencing curriculum materials and the selection of texts for instruction.”

Their surprise indicates a lack of understanding of how policy changes often work in schools.

I believe the misunderstanding and misapplication of the Common Core Standard 10 lay directly at the feet of the “chief architects” of the Common Core, that small group of (mostly) test designers and consultants that wrote the document. These folks should have known, or at least could have known, how this text complexity standard would have been interpreted by the consumers, especially school administrators with limited expertise in literacy. Two years ago I worried that administrators and teachers would think that the Common Core was calling for kids to read “harder books harder.”

The Common Core architects further clouded the message with a series of pronouncements and model lessons that urged teachers to focus “on the four corners of the text” and to eschew the very kind of scaffolding that can help students read complex text: the building and activation of background knowledge. I addressed that error in this blog post. While the Common Core architects have backed away from some of the egregiously ill-informed recommendations on activating background knowledge, the sample lessons that they have provided through the website continue to recommend that teachers “avoid giving any background context or instructional guidance at the outset of the lesson.”

If those Common Core architects had had real practicing teachers and administrators on their committee, they would have been aware of some of the pitfalls they have fallen into. If the roll-out of the Common Core had been done as a pilot study, these issues would have been readily apparent and might have been corrected. Indeed, if the Common Core implementation process had any way to be amended, revised and corrected, controversy and bad educational practice might have been avoided. But the Common Core proponents arrogantly forced the standards on already over-burdened and under-resourced teachers and administrators and so we have the resultant educational malpractice that Valencia, Wixson and Pearson are worried about.

Pearson was one literacy expert who signed off on the Common Core five years ago. He has been pedaling back from his support since, mostly because of his concerns with implementation.

While the battle over the Core rages on, thoughtful teachers are urged to choose texts carefully and with full consideration of the abilities of the students in the classroom. To consider the text in the light of the task expected of the students and to provide the scaffolding students need to enjoy a successful encounter with the text.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How to Create A Lifelong Reader

The fading photograph to the left is one of my most prized possessions. It captures my mother smilingly reading aloud to me, aged 2, and my joyous response to the story. The book is a Little Golden Book (remember those) perhaps my favorite, The Poky Little Puppy. I don't remember this particular reading time, but I do remember that huge, dark red, fuzzy, old sofa so comfortable to stretch out on, and of course, I remember the warm, cozy feeling of having my mother read to me.

My mom is just 21 years-old in this picture, already with one child and with my brother on the way. She had left school in 10th grade, in the middle of World War II, to work as a telephone operator and married my dad at age 17. Somehow though, she knew how to raise a reader. She knew that reading aloud to her child was a critical part of bringing the precious gift of literacy to her child.

A few years later, when I entered school and was beginning to read on my own, my mother gave me a second great literacy gift. Digging deep into a very tight household budget, she enrolled me in the Weekly Reader Book of the Month Club. I can clearly remember the first book that was delivered to our house. It came in brown paper and, magically, the mailing label read "To: Master Russell Walsh." It is the first parcel I ever received in the mail. It had my name on it. The book was mine. Under the brown paper was The Living Desert, a book based on a Disney documentary on desert plant and animal life.

The book was likely nothing special, but it was mine, all alone, and I treasured it. I took it to my room, and though it was probably above my reading level, I worked my way through it page after page. I groaned when mom called me for dinner and only my father's intervention got me to put the book down long enough to come to the table. As soon as I could, I excused myself and went right back to reading. I finished it, with a flashlight under the covers, late that night. I took it to school for "show and tell" the next day. Over the months and years the books kept coming and I eagerly anticipated my brown paper parcels. I remember titles like Old Bones and Wild Geese Flying and No Children, No Pets and Mystery in Old Quebec.

My progression as a reader was not linear. There were some fallow years where a preoccupation with sports and later, girls, intervened. There were several years where my recreational reading was limited to the backs of baseball cards (loved those statistics) and a little book that I read with eyes wide entitled What Every Boy Should Know. 

Sometime during ninth grade I discovered the short novella  The Pearl by John Steinbeck and I was off and reading again. With fits and starts, I have been a dedicated reader of books, magazines, newspapers and now, blogs ever since. I cannot imagine my world without reading. I cannot imagine living a life without reading.

Since I started teaching, and especially since I became a reading specialist, this has been my goal for all the children I have taught. I want them to know the joy of reading, so I read aloud to them. I want them to know the joy of having your own book, a book of your own choosing, so I try to help them find those special books. I want them to find success as they read those books, so I try to support their efforts at reading

My mother brought this gift to me. When I was small she read to me. When I was a little bigger, she made sure I felt what it meant to have ownership of books. She supported me in all my academic endeavors, even if she occasionally thought I was getting "too big for my own britches."

My mom knew how to create a lifelong reader and while it seems inadequate, I really need to say, "Thanks, Mom."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Limits of "Sounding It Out"

Second grader Luis is reading aloud to his teacher as part of the "listening in" portion of a guided reading lesson. The story is about a cat who can't make up his mind where to go. Luis reads, "And the cat ran off in a new ..." faced with the word "direction", Luis stops. His teacher prompts him to "sound it out." Luis tries the strategy. "duh, dye, dee."

At this point, as the reading consultant in the room, I jumped in. "Luis",  I prompted, "I want you to think about what is happening in this story and reread the whole sentence. Be sure to say the first letter of that tricky word when you get to it." Luis reads, "And the cat ran off in a new direction." I say, "Does that make sense? Does that look right?" Luis nods. "OK, Luis, let's read that sentence again and move on."

"Sound it out" is the go to strategy for many children when they encounter an unknown word. "Sounding it out" has likely become the go to strategy because teachers and parents consistently encourage children to "sound it out" when they encounter difficulty.

Unfortunately, "sounding it out", while a necessary strategy for a child to have in the decoding arsenal, is often not an efficient or sufficient way to decode a word. In the example above, the r-influnced vowel in "direction" likely caused Luis some difficulties in "sounding it out." We would better serve children to teach them to flexibly apply multiple strategies to decoding a novel word. Decoding a new word is best seen, I believe, as a problem solving activity and young readers need to use all the tools at their disposal to solve the problem.

Skilled and relatively automatic decoding is necessary for reading, but we must not narrowly define decoding as the ability to match sounds to letters. In fact, skilled decoders use not only the visual information (phonics) in decoding a word, but also use their knowledge of English to say a word that sounds right and their knowledge of the story to decide what word would make sense.

Let me give you an example:

How would you complete this sentence:

The boy studied for the big test all ___________.

Chances are you have generated words like the following: day, night, evening, afternoon, morning, week.

Notice that all the words generated were nouns. All native and proficient speakers of English know that a noun will come in this place in the sentence because this is standard English syntax. Only a noun will "sound right."

Notice also that all the words you generated to end this sentence are nouns of time. Because we expect English to "make sense" we use our semantic understanding of the language to predict a meaningful word for the context.

Now suppose that I showed the sentence this way:

The boy studied for the big test all n__________.

Immediately you are likely to say "night", because it looks right, sounds right and makes sense. Notice also that if you tried "sounding out" this word, you would run into trouble because the "gh" is silent. Again "sounding out" is a useful, but not sufficient tool for the developing reader.

When I prompt students at points of difficulty, I try to keep these three cues in mind and prompt them accordingly. I want students to understand that their knowledge of English can aid them in decoding. I want them to know that their understanding of the story can aid them in decoding. I want them to know that their ability to "sound out" can aid them in decoding. Most of all I want them to use these three cues flexibly to solve problems as they are reading.

The way we help students at point of difficulty matters. If we ask students repeatedly to "sound it out", students will focus on a narrow strategy. If we appropriately prompt them by saying "What would make sense?" or "Read that again and make it sound right?", we can help them develop the more flexible approach to decoding.

For a complete list of prompts to use with children at the point of difficulty I recommend the list from Fountas and Pinnell's seminal work, Guided Reading.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Dear Pennsylvania Governor-Elect Wolf

Asking Tom Wolf to do the right thing for York, PA school children

(Background:  A judge in Pennsylvania has ruled that the State can proceed with its plan to turn the public schools of York, Pennsylvania over to a receiver, David Meckley. Meckley, A York businessman with no background in education was appointed to oversee the district when it fell into financial difficulty as a result of the draconian budget cuts foist upon it by Governor Tom Corbett.  Meckley has already announced that he plans to turn the district over to the for-profit company Charter Schools USA.)

Because I was a (small time) contributor to the successful campaign for Pennsylvania Governor by Tom Wolf, I received an email survey about the Wolf campaign. At the end of the survey I was asked what I would like to say to the Governor. With the battle for public education being starkly played out in Wolf's hometown, York, PA, I decided to tell him this.

Dear Governor-elect Wolf,

I supported your campaign for governor because I believed strongly that you offered Pennsylvanians a better option when it came to public education. As fate would have it you have been presented with the opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to public education in the earliest days of your administration. I urge you to stop the corporate takeover of public schools in your hometown of York, PA.

As you know, a recent judge's ruling has turned the fate of the school children of York over to a receiver who is committed to bringing in a for-profit company, Charter Schools USA, to run the schools. Such a move would be bad for the bedrock American value of local control of public education and would be bad for the school children of York.

The public schools of York were thrown into financial difficulties by the policies of the Corbett administration and also by Pennsylvania's antiquated property tax system that puts an undue burden on urban school districts and families. The crisis in York schools is in no way reflective of the quality of the schools, the teachers or the school children of York.

For profit charter operations, like all for-profit companies, are in business to make money. Profit motivations supersede educational needs. A for-profit take over of the schools of York will make children into a cost to be controlled, rather than a gift to be cherished and nurtured. Profit motives and educational motives do not mix.

Even a cursory look at the history of for-profit takeovers should provide a cautionary tale. The first all charter school district in the country was in Muskegon Heights, Michigan. The for-profit company failed and negotiated its way out of its contract when it found that running the schools "did not meet their profit profile." For more on Muskegon Heights, see this article by my colleague Peter Greene.

You may also want to do a little background background research on Charter Schools USA. My colleague, Mercedes Schneider has taken a look at what Charter School USA's employees have to say about the company here. You may also want to read about Charter School USA's relationship with at least one school district in Florida here or what blogger Bob Sikes has discovered about the luxurious lifestyle of Charter Schools USA CEO, Jonathan Hage.

So, Governor-elect Wolf, as you move into office, I will be looking for decisive action on your part to stop the war on democracy in York and for a return of local control of the schools in the community. I will then be looking for a budget proposal that will help the public schools get back on their fiscal feet, so that they can provide the education for York children that they already know how to provide, but that they have not had the resources to provide thanks to unreasonable budget cuts and a poor tax structure.

This is your first big test as my governor. I will be watching how you proceed.