My Bookshelf

Monday, September 29, 2014

Leveled Reading and the CCSS: What's All the Fuss About?

As an elementary literacy specialist, my career was built upon the idea that guided reading moves kids through texts; specifically that expert teachers, relying upon leveled readers, move kids through texts.  I informally assessed my students often, taught students at their instructional reading level during flexible guided groups, and when my district moved to a reader's workshop framework, learned how to teach strategy groups with students' independent reading texts.  Reading level charts (see below) were posted in work spaces and served as a subtle reminder of where we needed to move students by the end of the year. Needless to say, teaching small groups of children in frustrational level texts was a serious no no.  You just didn't do this. Ever.

Recently, with the advent of the CCSS which calls for teaching students to read complex - frustational level - texts, the entire premise of leveling has been called into question. Beginning with second grade, the CCSS have raised the reading levels at each grade level by claiming that over the years, textbooks have been getting easier and so expectations need to adjust to reflect this.  Moroever, several CCSS architects, like Susan Pimentel, have stated that there is no research to support the practice of teaching reading at students instructional reading levels; complex, difficult texts will advance kids further. Even prominent literacy scholars like Fisher and Frey and Timothy Shanahan have aligned with the CCSS and cite several research studies that negate the benefits of teaching leveled reading after first or second grade.

Conversely, well known literacy scholars, like Richard Allington and Freddie Hiebert, have disagreed with the CCSS's call for text complexity.  Heibert takes aim at the text complexity formula (quantitative measures + qualitative measures + reader = text complexity), while Allington cites a body of research that support leveled approaches to reading.  Given these divergent viewpoints (both of which are rooted in research reviews) what's a reading teacher to do?

The healthiest place to begin is to understand both sides of the issue (each provide compelling arguments) and then consider that the most important variable is children's development, both cognitively and emotionally. As educators, we need to be armed with enough knowledge to decide what works for nurturing the students in our classrooms. With that being said, what is all this leveled hoopla about?

To begin, rumblings about text complexity aren't exactly new.  In 2011, Shanahan argued that the formula used to define reading levels (Betts, 1946) was fundamentally flawed due to a shoddy research design (Betts Criteria below):

He further suggested that students will make faster gains by reading more difficult texts rather than reading at their instructional level.  By rejecting Betts' Instructional Level Theory, he ultimately discredits the reading method known as guided reading. In fact, after first grade, Shanahan believes guided reading provides a diminishing return on investment.  To defend this viewpoint, he cites experimental studies with random assignments, that revealed students placed in harder texts learned more.  With the right scaffolding (and this key in Shanahan's position) students can and should read frustration level text.

While discussing content area reading, Fisher and Frey (2014) agreed with Shanahan and suggest that after second grade, leveled reading loses its value as it limits children's literacy development, "Limiting access to complex texts...may oversimplify what readers are able to do even when decoding accuracy and comprehension are not nearly perfect. (p.348)" . Fisher and Frey also suggest that over the years, texts have been getting easier, and schools need to adjust accordingly. They further make the argument that the teacher, not the text, must serve as the primary scaffold in literacy development.  They rely on findings of various studies including one (Stahl and Heubach, 2005) that showed even second graders were able to advance with texts read with an 85% accuracy level (considered frustrational in current leveled frameworks). Fisher and Frey support the notion that the original leveling system established by Betts is flawed and contend that the reading field needs to move beyond this artifact of teaching and give students greater access to complex texts.

Countering the anti-leveled text movement, Richard Allington came out swinging at the recent 2013 Literacy Research Association annual conference.  Presenting with two doctoral students, Allington cited both correlational and experimental studies which suggested that kids benefit the most when reading texts with a high level of accuracy.  He discredited the idea that texts have been getting easier and provided several studies showing the reliability of using the Betts formula as part of elementary instruction. In a subsequent presentation, Allington made implicit reference to the fact that the CCSS is overlooking the potential of the Matthew Effect (Stanovich, 1986) when asking kids to read hard texts. The Matthew Effect refers to idea that when students read "the rich get rich and the poor get poorer". Thus, students who encounter difficulty, will read less than their peers, and this effect is cumulative over time so the discrepancy between low and higher achieving readers widens.  Indeed, insisting on a steady diet of hard texts will only make matters worse. Allington also takes exception to the notion that the expert teacher is all that is needed to accelerate success with complex texts.  Arguing for the impracticality of this idea, he bemoans, "Has your school decided to invest in providing all K-5 teachers with 60 hours of targeted professional  development?"

Another aspect to consider is research showing what kids can do, right now, when attempting to meet the demands of the CCSS. At the 2014, University of Wisconsin Reading Research Symposium, a research poster (Lize, 2014) presented interesting findings. In the study, over 200, 6th grade students were assessed in order to discover if they were proficient at meeting specific common core standards in the categories of literature, science, and social studies (in this study, 70% was considered proficient).  Findings revealed that collectively students were not proficient in any of the areas. Interestingly, students were found to be the least successful in the literature passage (38.15%).  Go figure.

So what do all of these findings mean for classroom teachers who tomorrow morning have to face a classroom full of kids?  A lot.  To begin, abandoning leveled reading in grades K-3 when we don't have enough evidence to support that it will work is a dangerous proposition. Nevertheless, it seems probable that students can benefit from access to multiple types of texts with an expert teacher who can scaffold, motivate, and nurture the learning.  Moreover, students must be provided daily opportunities to read what they want, even if that text is not at their "reading level".  There is true merit to the idea that "leveled texts lead to leveled lives" (Alfred Tatum) especially if our children's only reading identity is that of level.

Of all of the arguments that I have read regarding text complexity, I believe that Allington's reference to the Matthew Effect is critical, especially when we this take this argument to its logical conclusion: Let's say a third grader is provided mainly hard texts, continues to struggle, and then in fourth grade is provided even harder texts, and so on. What's going to happen by eighth grade?  Most likely that student will have dropped out. Wide reading and the affective aspects of literacy development cannot be underestimated (it's interesting that a scant amount of the research reviews that were cited even mentioned affective domains). If we marginalize students by mainly giving them complex texts that unrealistically ask them to persevere and show "grit" (the newest -and utterly skin crawling- buzz word in education) then we risk losing even more students.  Perhaps the best step is to cautiously move forward, observe how our students respond to our wide repertoire of teaching strategies, and adjust as needed. Most importantly, let kids read without limits, listen to rich stories, and TALK about their experiences!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Striving Readers: 5 Ways to Bring Them into Book Conversations

Getting kids to talk productively about text during large and small group discussions can be an arduous task.  For students who struggle, text discussions can overwhelm and silence is often utilized as their key learning strategy. Interestingly, students who experience difficulty learning to read often have concomitant expressive and receptive language impairments (this is not a causal relationship). Since literacy is rooted in language, educators need to make sure to help all students navigate the rocky terrain of book talk.  Here are six ways to breed success:

Build Relationships With and Between Kids: One of my favorite quotes comes from Nel Noddings who said "The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter."  Unfortunately, most school systems seem to have this ethos reversed.  Before any child can engage in discussion that asks him or her to bravely give opinions and share ideas they need to feel safe and respected. Building a classroom community where caring matters; where all ideas are shared; and where a respectful challenge of ideas is the norm can raise the level of quality talk in the classroom. Consider how seating impacts community building (desks in rows kills it). How are shy kids given safe access into a discussion?  What about kids some perceive as unlike them or "different", how are their ideas honored?  Set aside daily time throughout the school year to establish positive relationships with and between students.  Feeling squeezed for time? Remember this: The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter.

Leverage Pop Culture.  If you want kids to talk about books, you first need to get them to talk about what they know, and this is often found outside of school.  Out of school literacies include video games, television, sports teams, music preferences, hobbies, etc.  Ask kids to opine on these favorite topics.  For younger students, think about t.v. shows that they watch: What kind of personality does Austin have on Austin and Ally?  For older students: What makes someone famous on Vine?  Why do you like them?   Unsure what kids are into?  Watch the Kids Choice Awards. Below are the most recent winners:

Favorite TV Show: Victorious
Favorite Reality Show: Wipeout
Favorite Cartoon: SpongeBob SquarePants
Favorite TV Actor: Ross Lynch
Favorite TV Actress: Selena Gomez
Favorite Male Athlete: LeBron James
Favorite Female Athlete: Danica Patrick
Favorite Book: The Hunger Games Series
Favorite Video Game: Just Dance 4
Favorite App: Temple Run
Favorite Movie: The Hunger Games
Favorite Movie Actor: Johnny Depp
Favorite Movie Actress: Kristen Stewart
Favorite Animated Movie: Wreck-it Ralph
Favorite Voice From An Animated Movie: Adam Sandler
Favorite Female Buttkicker: Kristen Stewart
Favorite Male Buttkicker: Dwayne Johnson
Favorite Villain: Simon Cowell
Favorite Music Group: One Direction
Favorite Male Singer: Justin Bieber
Favorite Female Singer: Katy Perry
Favorite Song: What Makes You So Beautiful

Bridge to Academic Language.  Now that you have their attention, bridge the discussion about pop culture to academics.  Before any child engages in discussion around a book, they need to have experiences using the academic language of "book talk".  Marry the pop-culture discussions to academic language by having them state opinions (My opinion about Vine is); give reasons (I think One Direction is... because...); state disagreements (I disagree with this because...). Create visual scaffolds through anchor charts that help kids internalize this academic language.

Facilitate Don't Mediate Discussions.  One of the biggest mistakes teachers make with small group discussions is that they let kids go rogue and/or just rely on sticky notes in books to steer the conversation.  Worse yet, they mediate every student turn (initiate, respond, evaluate, and repeat). These discussions often go nowhere or are so shallow that no critical thinking happens.  Readers who struggle need a teacher to help guide discussions. However, this doesn't mean mediating the talk. Rather it means facilitating the discussion: connecting students ideas; posing thoughtful and provocative questions; providing counter arguments, and so on. Students should talk more than you.

Wait it Out.  Wait time has been a buzz word in education circles for some time, so it's perplexing how much we struggle giving it.  Maybe it's because five seconds can feel like you're stuck in purgatory when no one speaks in the classroom?  Nevertheless, providing just 3-7 seconds of wait time (over the standard one second rule that is found in most classrooms) improves student achievement.  Zip it up and wait for kids to respond.  Chances are they will.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Layers of Teaching and Learning

Surely, the most fervent luddite must acknowledge that preservice teachers need to know how to use instructional technology in their practice.  Unfortunately, many schools of education wrestle with how to best prepare these future educators to employ digital tools that often ebb and flow through various trends. Since Google is the current rage in my professional circles, I decided to watch some tutorials and promos about how Google is being integrated in the elementary classroom. My goal was to share this knowledge with my literacy methods students.  One of the slide show promos that I viewed contained an example of how first grade students used Google Presentation to produce nonfiction writing.  As part of the writing process, students worked in small groups, used nonfiction books to research their topic, and then collaborated with others to create various multimodal presentations. The technology educator who demonstrated how Google is used in this elementary classroom showcased some of this student writing:

First grade students were able to demonstrate they could use the technology, share their work with a large audience, and exhibit engagement.  Important outcomes, no doubt. However, what this Google promo didn't illustrate was the behind the scenes literacy instruction that helped these emergent writers shock and awe us with their work.   Here is just a basic overview of the teaching that was involved in helping first graders flourish with informational writing:

Foundational Reading Skills - Teachers taught lessons on:
  • phonemic awareness 
  • letter and letter sound identification
  • phonics 
  • sight words 
Sentence Conventions - Teachers instructed:
  • punctuation
  • capitalization
Research Skills -  Students learned how to:
  • discern credible information
  • paraphrase
  • safely search for information on the Internet
  • use and write a table of contents
  • use and write a glossary and index
  • analyze and comprehend visual information
  • comprehend nonfiction text structures
Writing Craft -  Teachers demonstrated how to:
  • use headers, captions, labels, bold words
  • provide evidence to support claims
  • use colorful language
  • structure sentences
  • write leads and endings
  • elaborate by using examples
  • focus their topic and writing
  • change fonts to give meaning to the text.
  • revise their writing
Assessment - Teachers knew their students as writers and worked from their strengths:
  • conferred with writers daily
  • provided effective feedback to propel writing feedback
  • understood qualities of writing, assessed for it, and used the assessment to teach
Motivation - Teachers motivated students by:
  • tapping into their interests as writers
  • sharing engaging books to excite their passions
  • sharing their own writing lives
  • believing in their abilities as writers.
  • facilitating their identity as writers
Here's an example of kindergarten writing that showcases this teaching and learning

Visual Presentation - Finally, once students were ready to publish.  Teachers taught:
  • basic skills: opening Google presentations, navigating documents, etc.
  • keyboarding skills
  • embedding photographs and visuals
  • embedding videos
  • embedding sound
Most importantly, all of the above instructional moves were differentiated to meet the diverse needs of first grade learners.  Surprisingly (or not) technology integration is just a small piece of the complex act of teaching. Our best teachers do more than just get kids to collaborate in a Chrome Book.  They understand the science of teaching and learning...they care about their kids.  So to the preservice teachers out there: focus on your craft, deepen your understanding of literacy, and remain technologically current. Above all, remember how invaluable you truly are in the intellectual and emotional lives of children.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Reading Logs: Going Digital

Yesterday, my son came home from the first day of school thrilled with the fact that his new teacher doesn't believe in giving homework. Woo hoo! Truth be told, I completely agree with her.  And like every first day of school, my son's backpack was brimming with the standard information regarding schedules, get-to-know yous, and of course, directions for filling in the ubiquitous Reading Log (which, incidentally, isn't included under the no-homework umbrella).

Reading Logs generally follow a typical format and are used as a means for students to provide evidence of their at home reading and as a way for teachers to gauge if students are reading enough. The one my son received is an example of a commonly designed Reading Log:
Attached to this year's reading log was also a reading incentive challenge wherein students can earn a reward for maintaining their log and reading the minimum amount of minutes per month.

First, let me state that when my kids engage in nightly reading there are few parameters that they need to abide by.  To begin, I don't make them read their "in school" text (unless they have required reading for an upcoming book club discussion).  Instead, my kids can read picture books, nonfiction books, comic books, magazines, fan-fiction, and yes, even content rich websites (instagram feeds do not count!). My goal as a parent is to create readers who can deepen their understanding of how the world works by interacting with people and text.  Thus my kids view text as paper and digital; fiction and nonfiction; visual and print. Above all, text is engagement. Unfortunately, as I began to scrutinize the Reading Log it occurred to me how narrowly defined the word text really is.

Who is the author?
What first stuck me about the Reading Log was the author column.  Here, students must document the text's author which we traditionally think of as one individual whose name is prominently featured on the cover.  However, as shown below, none of the popular picture books that I swiped from my son's book shelf actually contained any mention of an author:

Instead, these nonfiction texts were compiled by several writers as noted on the inside cover:

Even more interesting is the positioning of, or credit given to, these writers: they aren't featured at the top of the list. Instead, prominence is given to creative directors, editors, and mostly, the visual stewards who collectively worked to create these enticing reads for kids. 

I think it's time the Reading Log is revised to recognize this form of authorship.  We  need to help kids recognize how the real world of book creation is often a product of artistic co-construction (isn't that what 21st century learning is all about?).  By challenging kids to scrutinize how texts are written, in all forms, we not only teach a valuable lesson on the importance of collaboration but we also demonstrate the complexities of creativity. 

What is a title?
As long as we're on my son's reading habits, I opened up his iPad to see what he's been up to and this was the web page that popped up:

Go figure.  When I asked him why he searched the word "fetus", he explained that his older sister had been calling him that name and he didn't know what it meant. Authentic vocabulary learning at its finest! I then looked at his search history from last week.  This was a typical example:

This prompted me to consider what would happen if this had been the school year and he had completed his 30 minutes of nightly reading, how would he document Title?  Author? Pages Read? He's read websites about the feeding habits of bearded dragons; investigated how to fish for pike; looked at maps and you tube videos of local lakes in order to deepen his understanding of fishing.  There are no traditional titles to these "texts" (instead webpage titles filled with many subpages) yet they are filled with information. He was engaged. He had stamina. His eyes were on text

A wide body of research has demonstrated that reading begets reading.  If our goal as educators is to strengthen our students' reading amount then we need to broaden our view of what counts as text. Most importantly, we need to share that view with kids and parents.  All things being equal, if my son was forced to read his "school" book at home instead of being provided choice, would he grow as a reader? Yes.  If my son could read all that he wanted in traditional and non-traditional text, would he grow as a reader? Yes. However, the most important question we must ask is, which scenario grows his love of reading and deepens his knowledge of the world?   

I contend that when kids are given freedom to roam coupled with teaching that fosters their ability to critically interact with and talk about the oceans of information that is available to them, they will intellectually and socially grow. Ultimately, children need to feel empowered, motivated, and valued in order to develop as readers. And by allowing them access to multiple modes of texts we can do that.

Let's widen our view of reading by starting small with documents like a Reading Log.  Let's challenge kids to create their own reading logs.  Who are their authors? Their texts? Their genres?  Let's give the real experts ownership.  I bet if we do, we may no longer need to rely on incentives or "challenges".  Who knows? We may actually see some real reform. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

5 Literacy Practices to Abandon This School Year

  1. Round Robin Reading.  Sitting children in a circle and asking them to read aloud one at a time is ineffective and unhealthy.  Let kids read silently or whisper read as you make the rounds and listen to their reading
  2. Popcorn Reading.  This teacher centered practice should be outlawed in classrooms.  It creates anxiety for students and negates comprehension.  Let kids read silently or with partners.  
  3. Garbage Apps and Online Reading "Games".  All apps kids use should be based in what we know to foster literacy learning.  Having kids read a book in an app or online and then requiring them to answer low level literal questions after reading is not developing their comprehension; its assessing their low level comprehension. Language builds comprehension, not cartoon quizzes.
  4. Too Much Teacher Talk.  Yes, we are extremely important for fostering learning but sometimes we get in our own way.  Vygotsky noted that "Language is the tool of tools" as he argued social interaction enriches understanding.  Let students talk, create, collaborate, and think together.  
  5. Responding to Reading Only Through Writing:  Don't get me wrong, students need to learn how analyze text and craft a written response.  However, if the only way we allow students to demonstrate critical analysis is through the writing, then we are missing out on the multiple modalities that deepen students' comprehension.  Look beyond the almighty Readers Notebook and allow students to discuss their ideas orally; record their thoughts digitally; engage in wiki responses; represent their comprehension creatively through the use of smart technology.