Tuesday, September 29, 2020

When Best Practice Meets Questionable Methods in Literacy Instruction

All of us try to provide best practice instruction to our students. Sometimes, though, in our enthusiasm to provide the children the instruction they need, we end up using some instructional methods that work against our goals. Here are a few things we know work in literacy instruction, some ways we can turn those good practices into unproductive ones, and then some things we can do instead.

Best Practice: Regular Reading - Kids who read a lot tend to get better at reading, so it is a good idea to get kids to read as much as possible.

Questionable Method: Reading Logs - Research has long shown us that external controls have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation. Reading logs, rigidly employed, can turn the pleasurable act of reading into a chore. Other extrinsic motivators like pizza parties and other non-reading related awards should also be avoided.

What to do instead: Trust in the power of books and focus on student engagement in those books. If we want children to read we need to have many books readily available (classroom library), to provide the opportunity to read them (independent reading), to give children some choice in what they read, and to make sure they are able to read them (just right book). We also need to advertise the wonderfulness of books through daily read alouds and weekly book talks. 

If we want to reward kids for reading, make the rewards reading related, such as providing extended independent reading time or increased time to talk about their books or an added visit to the library.

Best Practice: Written Response to Reading - Research shows that when children write about what they have read they increase their comprehension by at least 30%., so we should have kids write after reading

Questionable Method: Journals - Reader response journals are a good thing, but like reading logs, they may be viewed by many kids as a chore that kills the joy in reading.

What to do instead: Journals can be an important part of the classroom reading routine, but they should be used sparingly and not as a daily requirement. They are most successful when the teacher spends time modeling what a good journal entry should look like for the children. One journal a week seems adequate. There are many other ways that children can increase their comprehension of what they have read. Some days a simple turn and talk to a partner about your reading should suffice. Drawing illustrations and acting out scenes in what you have read are other ways to respond. Another productive activity is the Stop and Jot, where children employ post-it notes to identify particularly impactful passages in their reading. Stop and Jots make good notes for a possible later journal entry. Like giving students some choice in what they read, giving them some choice in how they respond is a good idea. Variety matters here.

Best Practice: Vocabulary Instruction - A strong and growing vocabulary is critical to a child's ability to comprehend increasingly complex text. It is, therefore, every teacher's responsibility to provide vocabulary instruction.

Questionable Method: Vocabulary Lists: Recognizing the need to teach vocabulary, teachers assign lists of words to be looked-up, put into sentences, and studied for a quiz at the end of the week. Fifty years of research has shown that this form of instruction does not work.

What to do instead: Vocabulary is best learned in context and from a conceptual base. Teachers provide context for learning vocabulary through discussing words during a read aloud, by talking about words in a story children have just read, and by using such concept oriented strategies as semantic maps, List-Group-Label, and concept circles. Here is some guidance on teaching vocabulary from a conceptual  base. Here is an example of the List-Group-Label Strategy.

Best Practice: Decoding Instruction - Research shows that in order to read well, children must learn to quickly and efficiently decode novel words as they encounter them. Since this is a critical reading skill, we must teach kids to decode words as they read.

Questionable Method: Over-reliance on the prompt "sound-it-out"- Sounding out is an important skill for readers to have. The ability to match sounds to symbols is critical, but over-reliance or inflexible dependence on "sounding-it-out" is both inefficient and often ineffective. 

What to do instead:  The definition of decode in The Literacy Dictionary (ILA) is "to analyze spoken or graphic symbols to ascertain their intended meaning" (italics mine). Meaning is at the center of the decoding enterprise. Children must be taught to flexibly approach an unknown word seeking its meaning by using a combination of strategies including sounding-it-out, but also employing meaning clues, syntax clues, onset and rime, and morphological clues to decode a word. You can read more about the role of meaning and flexible strategies for decoding here.

Best Practice: Listening to Students Read Orally: Listening to developing readers read a passage orally is an important diagnostic tool for the teacher. Student miscues in oral reading or lack of fluency in processing provides teachers with critical information for planning instruction.

Questionable Method: Round Robin Reading: Round Robin or Popcorn Reading where children are asked to take turns reading orally is a long discredited instructional practice. It is ineffective in improving reading and potentially embarrassing for vulnerable readers.

What to do instead: Students should only be asked to read orally as individuals in three situations. One is a private diagnostic conference where the child is reading to the teacher and the teacher is taking a running record for diagnostic purposes. The second is in a small group guided reading session where again the child is "whisper reading" to the teacher listening in over the shoulder and prompting to assist in processing the text. Finally, performance activities like reader's theater or radio reading, where students are given ample opportunity to rehearse their parts before reading orally. You can read more about the problems with Round Robin Reading here.

In our efforts to provide students with the best possible instruction it is a good idea to keep our eyes on the big picture and not on the most immediately expedient solution. The eventual impact on learning will be profound.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Picture Books for Older Chldren? Of Course

One of the ways that teachers are meeting the challenge of online instruction is through picture books and the read aloud. This is a good idea in many ways, but are picture books appropriate for older students, say fifth grade and up? The answer is YES, OF COURSE. The reasons are many, but I wish to highlight just one of those reasons today. Picture books make a great introduction to many, many complex ideas. They can help to build needed background knowledge for new topics, introduce content specific vocabulary with illustrations to assist the learning, and may serve to engage students in a topic of study that they may not have even known they were interested in prior to the picture book read aloud.

Year ago I noticed my colleague, Peggy Burke, had a copy of a comic book titled, Your Brain and You on her desk. I asked her why she had a comic on her desk and she told me that she was reading it because she had signed up for a seminar titled something like, New Discoveries about the Functions of the Brain for Educators, at Harvard University. Peggy said she really didn't have much current background knowledge on the brain, so before attending the seminar she thought that this picture book could give her some the of the basic anatomy and vocabulary related to the topic. 

And so it is with many picture books, they provide outstanding introductions to a wide variety of topics. I have found Gail Gibbons books particularly effective for just this purpose. Her book, The Monarch Butterfly, for example introduces children to the life cycle of the butterfly, the incredible story of monarch migration, and even some of the cultural celebrations that have grown up to celebrate this wonder of nature. Along the way children are also introduced to the structure of the butterfly as well as key terms like metamorphosis, chrysalis, molting, and larva. Reading this book aloud provides excellent background for a broader study of insects in a middle grades classroom. There is a Gail Gibbons book for almost every conceivable science topic you might want to explore in your curriculum.

Speaking of the brain, Seymour Simon has a wonderful picture book on that topic. Simon is the master of explaining complex topics to children through text and illustration. His books are beautiful, informative, and accurate and make ideal introductions to a wide variety of topics. Among my favorites are Weather, Our Solar System, and the very timely, Wildfires. All of these books contain  glossaries and indexes for easy use.

The more background knowledge readers have on a topic, the better their comprehension of the text will be. The more background knowledge a reader has on a topic the better their engagement in the reading is likely to be. Reading pictures books aloud to older children to help them prepare for study in any topic is a "no brainer." 😏

For some more of the many reasons to read picture books to older children, I recommend this video from literacy champion, Colby Sharp.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Mighty Storm: Multiple Texts Help Synthesize Thought

Three things I read this morning came together in what might be considered a perfect storm of insight. First, I read for one hour the book I'm currently reading, Isaac's Storm, by Erik Larson. Isaac's Storm tells the tragic story of  the deadliest natural disaster in U. S. history, the Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900. The second thing I read was from a headline on the front page of the New York Times, Trump Scorns Own Scientists on Virus Data. The article details how the President rejected the professional scientific conclusions of his own advisers on the prospects of a Covid vaccine being widely available and on the importance of people wearing masks to slow the spread of the disease. The third item was also a headline from the front page of the Times, Unexpected Fury of Storm Pounds Coast of Florida, which tells how the latest hurricane, Sally, proved difficult for forecasters to predict and hit with unexpected force in Pensacola. Florida where people were not expecting it to be as powerful and destructive.

The hurricane in Galveston in 1900 struck unexpectedly and with great ferocity, with winds of more than 145 mph and with a storm surge of perhaps 30 feet. An estimated 6,00 to 12,00 people were killed. Property damage was estimated at 34 million, more than a billion in today's dollars. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all was that their were no warnings about the storm, and no chance for people to evacuate largely because of politics, prejudice, and hubris. Cuban scientists, who had a great deal of experience in predicting hurricanes, had indeed predicted that the hurricane was heading west toward Texas. The weather bureau in Washington, DC, however, predicted that the storm would turn north over Florida and up the east coast to New England. The Director of the Weather Bureau, Willis Moore, was so jealous of the Cubans, and so sure that the Cubans were inferior in their abilities, that he shut off the flow of data from Cuba to the U.S. At the same time, he forbid regional forecasters, such as Isaac Cline in Galveston, from declaring storms hurricanes because he did not want to frighten people unnecessarily.  The combination of blocking information from Cuba, and making it difficult for local forecasters to report hurricanes proved deadly. Kerry Manuel, professor of atmospheric science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology says, "The Galveston hurricane made people realize you can't play politics with the weather bureau. If you make it political, you will die."

The leap from Galveston to the headline in the New York Times about President Trump scorning the advice of his own scientists is not a difficult one to make, I think. When we ignore the guidance of the most knowledgeable people in weather or health related crises, people will die. The third headline, this one about the unexpected force of the Hurricane Sally, however, reminds us that science is not perfect and that we must be ever vigilant, keeping up-to-date on the latest understandings and scientists must continue their research in any fields with open minds and and the rest of us must continue to be informed consumers of the best guidance science can give us.

Why do I bring all this up on a blog dedicated to teaching and reading instruction? I think my experience here is instructive about how people experience reading and how that experience influences comprehension of text. Anything I read right now is influenced by the current pandemic, the current political situation, the impacts of climate change, and the impact of all the background knowledge and personal experiences I bring to any reading situation. As teachers, we must take all of the context of the reading situation for the students into account as we consider how to guide their comprehension of texts. Probing questions can help students build their comprehension using multiple sources of information. I have written about that in a past post here. When we think about building comprehension instead of testing comprehension, students can make leaps to greater understanding.

Another lesson to take here, I think, is the importance of providing students multiple thematically related texts to help them learn to look for patterns and to synthesize information across texts. Multiple short readings on related topics, connected through opportunities to write about the readings and make judgments about what has been read, seems to be the kind of reading activity designed to prepare students for life in a democratic society where critical thinking will be critical for our very survival.

Guiding students with probing questions, providing them with multiple interconnected texts, and giving them opportunities to write about the connections they find may lead to the deeper understandings we desire.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Do Our Children Deserve the Truth?

Knowing our history, the good and the bad, is the first step, I want my children to love the country they live in, but I also want them to be clear-eyed about what that country is.
- America Ferrara , Actor

In 1970, when I was a wet-behind-the-ears, 22 year-old social studies teacher at Bristol Junior-Senior High School, I was teaching a ninth grade Civics course. The topic was the the Bill of Rights and specifically, the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which states in part:

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion...

I explained that the Founding Fathers were concerned about the co-mingling of religion and government that many had escaped in Europe and wanted to be sure that religious freedom was guaranteed in the new country.

A student raised his hand. "Mr. Walsh, if that law is in the Constitution, why do we have do we say "under God" every morning when we salute the flag. Isn't that mixing religion and government?"

Good question. My answer: 

The original Pledge of Allegiance did not contain the words "under God." These words were added in 1954 during the Cold War, a period when the fear of an atomic war between the United States and the communist USSR was high. Many viewed communism as a threat to the American way of life, and were particularly concerned that communism was a godless philosophy.  In this country the period was known as McCarthyism, named after a Senator from Wisconsin, who accused many people of being communists, caused many innocent people to be blacklisted so they could not get  work, and generally stirred -up people's fear of communism. Under pressure from anti-communists in and out of the government, Congress approved the addition of the words "under God" to the Pledge and then President Eisenhower spoke in favor of the change. And so we now say "under God" in the pledge. Interestingly, it was also President Eisenhower who two years later, in 1956, declared "In God We Trust" as the motto of the United States and in 1957 those three words were first printed on our money. Since that time many people have pointed out that these words go against what the Founding Fathers thought about the role of religion in government and the issue is still controversial for some.*

As far as I know no children were harmed by me telling them this truth.

It has always seemed to me that teaching the truth about America is the most American act we can commit. A great deal of our history is wonderful: freedom of religion, land of opportunity, great democracy, economic success. A great deal of our history is horrible: genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, imperialism, economic inequity. In that, we are like every other civilization in history. Have we gotten more things right than many other civilizations? Perhaps. But that does not absolve us from those things we have gotten wrong. 

It has never seemed to me that our heroes needed to be perfect to be considered heroes. It is, indeed, perhaps more heroic that imperfect people overcame their imperfections to make great contributions to our country. It is also true that we must judge our historic figures and the actions they took with a sense of historical mindedness. We cannot blame doctors for bleeding patients in the 18th century because we knew by the 20th century that this was more likely to kill than cure. People are surely products of their times.

With this in mind, we may not wish to judge Washington and Jefferson too harshly for owning slaves, being that this was so common for men of their time, but we cannot excuse lightly, I think, Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. Common practice of the times perhaps, but still rape and still reprehensible. Jefferson, of course, knew this because he kept it secret and his descendants attempted to keep the truth buried. Jefferson's character cannot be fully understood without an examination of this relationship. Nor can we get a full picture of Washington without examining his dogged pursuit of runaway slaves or his evolving views on slavery that led him to (conditionally) free his slaves at the end of his life.

There seems to be a sentiment among some that school children should not learn about the flaws of our heroes. School textbooks have a long history of glossing over the more unseemly aspects of our history. Biographies written for young people are often whitewash jobs. Just this past week President Trump threatened the funding of California schools because they were integrating The 1619 Project into their American History curriculum. The 1619 Project focuses the historical lens around the time that the first slave ship arrived in America. The appropriately named Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has introduced legislation that would prevent schools from teaching the curriculum. 

California's Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond replied appropriately:

California’s educators should feel empowered to lead courageous conversations with their students about the history of race and racism in our country—not worry if their school will lose funding.

And there it is. Courageous conversations are the lifeblood of a history class. For America to live up to its ideals of freedom and justice for all, we must examine our history warts and all. These discussions will not weaken the country, but strengthen it. To come face to face with our history is not to weaken our country, but to make it stronger. To tell our young people the truth is not to undermine our greatness, but to better assure that our greatness can be even greater in the future. Who can't handle the truth? Apparently only a few old white guys in Washington. Our kids and our country will be better off with the truth.

We might ask at what age we would want to make sure the children were hearing the truth. I would argue that if the topic is in the curriculum, whatever grade that might be, is the right time to start. If children are old enough to learn about the contributions of Squanto and Sacajawea, they are old enough to know what the people who came to their land did to their people.

* The words "under God" in the pledge have been challenged many times in the courts. In its most recent ruling in 2004, the US Supreme Court rejected a suit against the words on a technicality, but three of the Justices: Rehnquist, O'Conner, and Thomas, asserted that the Pledge, including the words "under God" were constitutional. Other court cases have asserted that no one can be compelled to say the Pledge.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Vocabulary Instruction: Try Word Riffs

Many young readers hit a wall when their reading demands that they decode longer and longer words. Research has shown that instruction in morphology (roots and affixes) can help readers make this transition. Some excellent resources are available for teaching morphological understanding. One that I particularly like is the Word Ladder approach of  Dr. Tim Rasinski. Word Ladder books for various grade levels are readily available from Scholastic, but lately Tim has been posting Word Ladders on his Twitter feed. You can follow him @TimRasinski1 to get his latest freebies. 

I have had success with a variation on the Word Ladder, adding an element of the Think Aloud, in my own teaching. I call it, for lack of a better term, the Word Riff. The idea of the Word Riff is to help students use morphology in decoding, expand student vocabulary, and turn students on to the richness and logic in the English language. 

The Word Riff grows out of each student's Vocabulary Self-Collection Notebook. As a part of the student's interactive notebook they keep for my class (a place for reflections, reading responses, notes, etc.) I ask the students to collect new, unknown, and interesting words they run across in their reading. The student is asked to identify the word, the context (sentence) the word was found in, a best guess definition of the word, and a dictionary definition of the word. If you would like to read more about the Vocabulary Self-Collection Strategy, please see this readwritethink lesson.

Each day I ask student volunteers to share words they have discovered and then the class decides which word they would like to learn more about. It is at this point the Word Riff begins. Essentially, I take the word and talk about its roots, prefixes, suffixes, derivation, and other words which use the same or similar root. In one class a student brought in the word "signatory." The student, doing some research on local history (4th grade), had come across this sentence:

"George Clymer was an early American advocate for revolution and a signatory of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution."

The student told the class he learned from the dictionary that "signatory" meant "signer." So Clymer was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

I took it from here, writing the word, the sentence, and the definition on the board, I began as follows:

"As you can see, boys and girls, both "signatory" and "signed" come from the same root word, in this case the Latin "sign" which means mark or seal. The first thing I notice is that we hear the "g" in signatory", but the "g" is silent in "sign." One thing we need to learn about the English language is that sometimes spelling is preserved to carry the meaning of the word, even if that spelling does not match the way the word sounds. So the silent "g" in "sign" lets us know that this word is related to making a mark. Speaking of making a mark, right away I am sure you noticed that "signatory" is close to "signature." When you put your signature on your assignment you place a mark that lets me know whose paper it is. And there is the word "assignment", meaning some work that you must do or literally leave your mark on it to signal that it is yours. Notice that "signal" also comes from the same root, so that we know to stop working and look to the front when I signal with two fingers in the air. 

Going back to "assignment" for a minute, we might notice the prefix "as-", which indicates something that happens, and the suffix "-ment" which signals that this word is a noun. Some of you may be aware of the insignias that indicate the various houses of Harry Potter's Hogwarts such as Gryffendor. An insignia is a special design that designates membership in a particular group. Notice that the "g" is silent in another "sign" word "design" and then we hear the "g" again in "designate." In both cases the prefix "de-" meaning to set apart. So a design, like an insignia sets you apart as a member of a certain group and when I call on you or designate you to do something, I am also setting you apart with a special "sign."

Finally, I think it is significant that we talk about one more use of the root "sign" that may come up in our reading. I am speaking of course of the word "significant" meaning important. As in, "Your study of roots and prefixes and suffixes is significant." It is important. I would not want to waste your time with teaching you words that were insignificant. I am sure that you can see that by adding the prefix "in-" to significant I have made the word change from "important" to "not important" at all" because the prefix "in-" in this case means "not."

As I am doing this Think Aloud, I write the highlighted words on the board and underline prefixes and suffixes as appropriate. 

Not all words that children come up with lend themselves to so full a discussion of roots and affixes as this one, but many do. Other examples include man- (as in manufacture, manuscript, manual. manipulate, manager, manumission) and graph-  or gram- (as in graphic, autograph, photograph, grammar, telegram) Chrono- (chronic, chronological, chronograph, chronicle, synchronize). Here is a resource for many, many more.

What I want to communicate to children is that words are fun, fascinating, and surprisingly logical in their construction. I want them to know that when  big words are broken down into their component parts they are not so intimidating. I want them to know the joy I take in discovering new words and in discovering ways that words are connected to each other.