Monday, April 26, 2021

Unsettling the Science of Reading Narrative

Call me crazy, but when I learned I had cancer a few years ago, I did not immediately consult a journalist. Instead I chose to see an oncologist. When COVID broke out, I threw in my lot with Dr. Fauci and other infectious disease scientists, instead of a former reality TV star who suggested I inject bleach. And so, when I want advice on reading instruction, I avoid the journalists, the parent lobbying groups, the reading program sales reps, and the agenda driven pseudo-education organizations, and I look to the experts.

Two such experts, Peter Johnston and Deborah Scanlon of the University at Albany, have recently laid waste to the so called Science of Reading (SOR) in a thoughtful report written for the Literacy Research Association, An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction, with Policy Implications. I strongly recommend reading the entire report, but I would like to share a few takeaways that I think illuminate the current SOR debate. As the title of the report suggests, SOR cannot really be discussed outside of the context of the research related to dyslexia and the current push by well-organized parent and educator groups that argue that dyslexia is a frequent cause of reading difficulties. Currently 42 states and the United States government  have invoked laws enshrining dyslexia. These laws are for the most part aligned with the SOR instructional perspective. The media has famously picked up on this and has helped fuel the narrative that dyslexia is the chief cause of reading difficulty and that SOR is the best instruction not just for those identified as dyslexic, but for all students.

Here are the key takeaways from the report:

  • There is no practical nor definitive way to decide who is and who is not dyslexic. They cite literacy researcher, Keith Stanovich who said in 2014, "The retiring of the word [dyslexia] is long overdue."
  • From an instructional standpoint there is no practical distinction between those classified as dyslexic and others at the low end of word reading ability. There is no evidence that our instructional response should be different for those identified as dyslexic.
  • There is strong evidence that most children identified in initial assessments as being at risk of having difficulty developing reading skills respond well to good first instruction and early intervention.
  • A small percentage of children, 2-6%, make slow progress despite our best efforts. We have little research on how to address these students persistent difficulties. This may be due to the belief that dyslexia is a permanent condition and to the assumption that we already know how to approach instruction for these children.
  • Reading is a complex process and comprehension is the central goal.
  • The idea that there is a "settled science" that has determined that systematic phonics approaches are the only way to approach reading instruction is simply wrong. Orton-Gillingham and derivative approaches like Wilson and Structured Literacy, the favored approach of groups like the International Dyslexia Association and the National Council on Teacher Quality,  has been found to be no more effective in improving reading comprehension than other types of intervention. 
  • There is agreement among researchers that children identified as potentially having difficulty learning to read benefit from explicit instruction designed to develop phonological sensitivity (the ability to analyze sounds in words).
  • Students should be encouraged to use context to direct and check decoding attempts. SOR advocates who say that use of context and pictures is a "disproven" theory are wrong.
  • There is no one right way to teach reading. Student's difficulties are unique to the individual students. Better to assume that the instruction we are providing is not meeting the student's needs and adjust accordingly, than to focus on one instructional approach.
  • Phonics instruction should be flexible and integrated with other reading instruction to create a balanced program.
  • "Research suggests that teachers are the most important in-school factor in a child's learning. It is what teachers know and do, particularly in meeting the needs of individual students, rather than any programs or approaches they use, that are most influential in literacy outcomes."
To sum up: 
  1. Dyslexia is not a useful label.
  2. The Science of Reading is not settled, nor is it science.
  3. Evidence does not support the use of a heavy focus on phonics.
  4. Reading instruction should be balanced.
  5. Teachers are in the best position to make instructional decisions for individual students.
The work to overturn the Science of Reading narrative will be difficult. Parents and legislators like simple solutions to complex problems and terms like dyslexia and "settled science" are seductive. The stakes are high. The goal is clear. All professionals must work to foster a more nuanced view consistent with the research. Our children's access to informed instruction and a full, rich literacy depends on it.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Rhythm and Rhyme: Read Alouds that Support Reading Fluency

April is Poetry Month and here at Russ On Reading we continue our exploration of poetry read alouds for children with a few books that tell their stories in rhyme. Call it doggerel if you will, what children will tell you is that these stories are entertaining and that the rhymes add to the fun. What reading specialists will tell you is that the rhythm and rhyme in these stories support young readers developing fluency. There are many rhyming books out there, some are very familiar like Click, Clack Moo or the many Dr. Seuss books, but here are some of my favorites that may not be as well known.

My son's favorite book when he was growing up, Drummer Hoff,by Barbara Emberley with Caldecott Medal winning illlustrations by Ed Emberley, tells the cumulative story of soldiers of various ranks building a cannon. The ending of the story provides a kind of Where Have All the Flowers Gone?  message to the militaristic affair. Get your kids walking around the room chanting, "Drummer Hoff fired it off!"

My wife, the literacy educator Cindy Mershon, introduced me to the works of Roy Gerard and I have been a happy reader ever since. Gerard has mastered the form of silly rhymes to tell a story like no other author. Sir Cedric is the story of a gallant, chivalrous, and extremely short, Sir Cedric, and his efforts to save the beautiful Matilda from the evil clutches of Black Ned. An absolute joy to read aloud.

I fell in love with the work of Richard Armour while in high school reading his fractured, irreverent, satirical takes on history, Shakespeare, and classical literature. As a teacher, I discovered that Armour also used his gifts to entertain and inform children. This book is out of print, sadly, and may be a bit hard to find, but used bookstores and online outlets like Abe Books, have copies readily available and cheap. All Sizes and Shapes of Monkeys and Apes teaches children about these animals in a most entertaining and rhyme filled way. Don't miss gems like this:

If you think that an ape must be heavy and clumsy,
Slow moving, big-bellied,
As well as all thumbsy,
Consider the Gibbon, so slender and agile,
Beside the Gorilla, he'd look almost fragile.

Former Disney animation illustrator, Bill Peet, has written many wonderful books for children. The Caboose Who Got Loose tells the story of Katy a young caboose who is dissatisfied with her life tethered to the back of a smoky, dirty train. One day an accident sets her free and after many adventures, Katy learns a lesson about enjoying what life brings to you.

Mom is stretched to her limit by her seven children who all have different tastes in food. Amid the chaos, Mom is worried the kids will forget all about her birthday, but to her surprise the kids have been planning a special, and delicious, treat for her all along. The Seven Silly Eaters is wonderfully told in rhyme by Maryann Hoberman, with winning illustrations by Marla Frazel. Don't miss this one.

All of these books provide great fun and joyful immersion in playful language. What better way to celebrate Poetry Month?

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

My Learning Loss Formula: Read, Write, Share

As I addressed in a post a month ago, the Henny Penny's of the world are running around clucking about how the pandemic will lead to inevitable LEARNING LOSS!!!!!  Learning Loss, as Peter Greene at Forbes, has pointed out, is the latest scare tactic being used by educational reformers to push their own agenda (standardized tests, vouchers, tutoring programs). In assessing any learning loss prescription, the first question we need to ask is, "Who stands to benefit/profit?" If the answer to that question is anyone other than school children, we should look for a different solution. 

Many educational researchers are looking at pandemic learning loss as a corollary to summer learning loss. Interestingly, summer learning loss is really only an issue for the most vulnerable in our school communities, those with limited access to literacy materials and other learning opportunities during their time away from school. Richard Allington found that simply giving vulnerable readers books to take home over the summer helped combat summer learning loss. We might conclude that it is not being in school that is most vital to learning, but rather it is about having easy access to opportunities that enhance learning.

With that in mind, I would like to propose my three-step program for combatting learning loss. I base this program on my own pandemic experience, which has been scary and frustrating, but has also opened opportunities based on increased free time.

Step 1 - Read Something

I have spent much of the pandemic catching up on my reading. I have read books that were assigned to me in high school and college that I never got around to reading before (Crime and Punishment, The Light in August). I have re-read some old favorites (Grapes of Wrath, So Long See You Tomorrow) and read books by favorite authors I had never gotten around to (Pastures of Heaven, Time Will Darken It). I have not neglected my non-fiction reading either (These Truths, Donald Trump vs. The United States, K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches). And I have also indulged my love of detective stories by reading the Bosch series by Michael Connelly and the Slow Horses series by Mick Herron.

As teachers, I think we should be spending most of our pandemic teaching time finding ways to encourage students to use a chunk of their pandemic time just reading. Just reading from books they have chosen to read for themselves. Engaged reading, it seems to me, is the single most important antidote to learning loss. Kids need help with this. Teachers help by sharing good books that kids might be interested in and by making sure they have access to them, online or otherwise. Reading something aloud to the students is a good start. Book talks are effective in sharing a variety of books of interest. This reading need not, of course, be limited to books. Interesting articles from online periodicals and news outlets are good fodder for engaged reading. 

Step 2 - Write Something

Writing something is the single best way to make learning concrete. When we write something, shape ideas into words, we internalize our own understanding. Writing also often spurs more reading as we try to get our ideas down just right. During the pandemic, I have used new found time to launch a new writing career based on my love of baseball. I am now writing short biographies for a website dedicated to baseball research. This work has reinforced in me the idea that writing is, in Jerome Bruner's terms, a unique form of learning. 

The pandemic, therefore, seems to me to be the perfect time for teachers to be finding ways to encourage their students to write. One good way to do this is to share your own writing. Teachers who write often spawn students who write. Your willingness to write (personal narrative, feature articles, poetry, whatever you like) and share that writing can be motivating to students. The key is to give kids choice in what they want to explore in their writing. The idea here is to just write. Just write about those things that matter to you, those things that you want to learn more about. Just write, imperfectly at first, to get ideas down on paper. To shape your own thinking.

Step 3 - Share with others

To be human is to communicate with others. Like all of us, my face to face communication has been limited over the past year. Family Zoom meetings and "Happy Hour" Zoom gatherings with friends have offered an opportunity for communication. Publishing my writing on the blogs I maintain and publishing with my newfound outlets like the Society for Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers of America have provided other opportunities to share and get feedback.

Similarly, whether in person or through Zoom-type electronic meeting groups, students should be encouraged to share what they have been reading and writing. When we talk about what we have read, we must formulate our thoughts and reflect on our reading. This work requires a deeper, more deliberate understanding. Sharing what we write, first helps us to judge the effectiveness of our writing and second, gives us the opportunity to get feedback on that writing. Whether through the internet or in person in the appropriately distanced classroom, communicating about what we read and write solidifies and extends our learning.

So, there you have it. My three-pronged formula for combatting learning loss. It doesn't require a great big standardized test. It doesn't cost anything. It simply taps into what we all know is real and personal and lasting in learning.

Monday, April 5, 2021

April Is Poetry Month! Here Are Some Poems to Eat

April is Poetry Month. April is the perfect time for celebrating poetry through read alouds. Actually, any time is the perfect time for reading poetry aloud. Poetry is meant to be read aloud and children love poetry. But April, with its symbols of rebirth, with the daffodils and cherry blossoms blooming and with dormant grass and barren trees coming back to life seems like the best of times for Poetry Month. So, as Eve Merriam suggests in the poem above, let's dig right in and choose some favorite poems to munch on.

Inner Chimes, is a collection of poems about poetry selected by Bobbye S. Goldstein and illustrated by Jane Briskin Zalben. It contains the Eve Merriam poem cited above as well as all manner of poems that discuss how poems are made, how they should be read, and how they are created. Poems by children's poetry luminaries like Karla Kuskin, Eleanor Farjeon, Jack Prelutsky, and Nikki Giovanni are included. This book makes a great introduction to a unit on poetry for students of all ages.

he Earth is Painted Green, edited by Barbara Brenner and lushly illustrated by S. D. Schindler, is a book dedicated to the celebration of planet Earth through poetry. The book is the perfect compilation for Earth Day celebrations, April 22 this year. Poets anthologized here include X.J. Kennedy, Shel Silverstein, David McCord, Myra Cohn Livingston, and Lillian Moore.

In I Feel a Little Jumpy Around You, famed poet Naomi Shahib Nye and famed poetry anthologist Paul B. Janeczko collaborate to collect poems that look at a variety of topics from the differing points of view of women poets and men poets. Topics explored include how men perceive women and women perceive men, and how different sexes view the world. The poems delineate our differences, but also, how we are in many ways very much the same.

The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems, edited by the great American poet Donald Hall, is the essential anthology for classroom libraries. It covers the breadth of American poetic history from early Native American verse to contemporary voices from the Barrio. Poets represented run from Emily Dickenson to Sonia Sanchez, from Robert Frost to Shel Silverstein, from T. S. Eliot to Janet S. Wong. With this anthology on your shelf, you will always have an appropriate poem to match what your teaching at the moment.

Children who are new to poetry may wish to start small and this collection of short form master Valerie Worth's four volumes of short poems is just what the doctor ordered. Her friend and fellow children's author, Natalie Babbitt, provides the charming illustrations. All the Small Poems and Fourteen More makes an excellent introduction to non-rhyming poetry for all children and, therefore, acts as a spur for children to write their own poems. In my classroom, it was a key mentor text for a writing unit on poetry. Here is a (ahem) brief example.

Coins are pleasant
To the hand;
Neat cirles, smooth,
A little heavy,
They feel as if
They are worth something.

If you are looking for ideas on how to integrate poetry into your literacy instruction, Poetic Possibilities, edited by Susan E. Israel with Michelle M. Israel, will be helpful. The authors offer a collection of poems taken from the pages of the journal, The Reading Teacher, and provide discussion prompts and literacy applications for each poem. Full disclosure: I was honored to have one of my poems included in this anthology. You can read it below.

Under the Table
by Russ Walsh

Under the table’s the best place to read.
A good book and small table are all that I need,
For a morning’s adventure
Or a tale of dark doom.
Under the table –
My own reading room.

Under the table, where it’s dark and it’s quiet,
I open a book and start my own reading riot,
With castles and dragons
And maids in distress
And a hero to ride in
And clean up the mess.

 Under the table I’ve a place of my own,
Where my book and I can be left quite alone,
To climb the high mountains
Or swim with the fishes
To uncover a genie
To fulfill my wishes.

So that’s why each morning at just about 10,
When time for reading rolls around once again,
Under the table’s
Where I can be found
With a book on my lap
And no one around.

Enjoy sharing poetry with children this month!