Sunday, September 28, 2014

Break through the frustration

I believe that teaching students reading requires that at least some of the reading they have is at their instructional and independent levels. I also acknowledge that the CCSS has something when it says we need to teach students to access challenging material. The Common Core proponents point out that manuals for many jobs are written at levels above that which high school textbooks are written. I believe this is true, but what they fail to point out is that people reading said manuals rarely do so cold for no general reason. They read manuals when they have background knowledge about the subject for a particular real purpose. When we put a document such as Obama's peace prize acceptance speech and ask students to read and analyze it, they may have little background knowledge (and many CCSS proponents would argue against giving them any) and they really do not buy in to the reasons that they are reading it. "Pleasing the teacher" is a common thread but lacking in robustness. "Learning to closely read texts will be important to your future" is a lame answer for most high schoolers. Fascination with Obama, the Nobel prizes or speech rhetoric may entice a few, but certainly not a majority. "It's on the test" or "the state/district/school board requires it" is about as lamely purposeful as many teachers get. Although many students lack what they consider real reasons for learning the material, they and their teachers are going to be held accountable for reading challenging, often "uninteresting" materials.

In order to teach challenging material, we need to provide scaffolding. Some examples include pre-teaching vocabulary, rereading for comprehension and providing non-linguistic background materials. Last summer I ran across an article that discussed presenting the challenging reading first, analyzing student comprehension, providing additional support material (ex. videos with content explanations, simpler readings with similar critical vocabulary, direct teacher mini-lessons and picture supports) at the students needed level and then rereading the challenging material for multiple iterations until comprehension is achieved. These strategies may indeed increase accessibility of the material, but they are all teacher directed and often time intensive.

For our significantly reading disabled students audio versions of the text may be used. This increasingly available tool is rapidly losing its limited distribution. Everywhere but schools we are allowed to use audio versions of just about everything. This strategy is not teacher directed, increases vocabulary and comprehension, but does not increase general "reading" of print.

Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris support an interesting mix of literacy instruction in their Reading Today (September/October 2014, p. 26-27) article, "Break Through the Frustration: Balance vs. All-or nothing Thinking." They suggest balancing instructional contexts to match text-levels. For material substantially above grade level (and I would say student not grade level), they suggest that the teacher does the print work, reading aloud, and the students would, in conjunction with the teacher, make sense of the material. For material at or slightly above grade (again I would propose student) level, they suggest shared reading in which the teacher and the students work together in a shared reading approach. For material at the individual level, they suggest students work in guided or small group instruction. They suggest independent reading varies in difficulty level based on student selection.  This is a fine framework for elementary programs where lots of reading groups and ELA specific time is abundant. At the secondary levels this is a bigger challenge.

Read alouds still provide accessibility and instructional opportunities for teachers of upper level content area classes. Small group work can offer support for struggling readers in the form of their more able peers, support personnel or the teacher. When we send students home, however, if they are not able to easily read the material they have been assigned, they are unlikely to read it. If the material is too far into their frustration level, even having read it to them may not enable them to independently access it. If we want students to read at home, it must be at or near their independent level or we need to provide supports to make it so, such as a paraphrased version or audio version. Yes, they need the challenging material, but they also need independently accessible material. This might mean the homework gets differentiated: three reading levels- one several years below grade level, one at grade level and one above grade level- or supports such as illustrated versions, video clips or the infamous Shakespeare written in modern English. As Burkins and Yaris assert, we need to balance the challenging material with the scaffolding and independent material. This is especially true when we want students to not only become better readers but learn the content as well.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Fluency differentiation

This year I am assigned to work with kids who demonstrate reading challenges. These range from decoding to fluency to vocabulary to comprehension and many of these items combined. Since I have been concerned with the time reading assignments take for my struggling students, fluency has been an area of interest. 

Fountas and Pinnel suggests students read 180-220 words per minute (WPM) by the end of 8th grade, NEAP suggest about 170 wpm after the 5th grade, Rasinski suggests 180 at the 6th grade level and Reading A-Z proposes 170 by the end of 6th grade.  Research by Hasbrouck and Tindal (2006) indicates that in the fall of 8th grade students at the 25th percentile read 106 wpm, in the 10th percentile they read 77 wpm, in the 50th percentile they read 133 wpm and in the 90th percentile 185 wpm. Our best readers read almost two and a half times as fast as our most struggling readers. I looked at sample chapter section of Prentice Hall's World History: Connections to Today (2005) text, a typical 9th and 10th grade history textbook in New York state. Discounting the introductory guidance, sidebars, graphics, and captions the section had approximately 2652 words. A reader at the 90th percentile might need just over 14 minutes to read the text. A reader at the 50th percentile, almost 20 minutes and one at the 10th percentile, over 35 minutes. A struggling reader is unlikely to independently have the stamina to read this, especially with the intense content load, complex vocabulary and challenging names used in the reading. When students do not complete the reading, we ask ourselves, "What is wrong with these students?" We say, "They need to build stamina and perseverance. Look at Johnny, he always gets his work done." Of course he does. It takes him a fraction of the time to do it. His stamina requirements are far less than our struggling reader. So what are we to do? We cannot just assign a shorter reading all the time. No we need to address the underlying cause of the struggles our readers have, remediate and teach compensation strategies and explain the bitter truth of being a slow reader or struggling reader means things are going to take longer. We could also assign our best readers more complex passages that might provide them with some challenge- but that is an issue for another day.

In comes fluency instruction as part of a balanced directed reading intervention. I am working with Wilson reading, but this program does not have a robust fluency aspect, so it needs to be added to the program. I was intrigued with Jerry L. Johns and Roberta L. Berglund's idea of differentiating fluency instruction based on the type of issues the reader is having. Johns and Berglund identify 6 types of readers:
  1. Student reads fluently but exhibits poor comprehension
  2. Student struggles with words and meaning and has generally weak comprehension
  3. Student stumbles over words but has acceptable to strong comprehension
  4. Student reads material slowly, at or near grade level, with acceptable to good comprehension
  5. Student's oral reading lacks prosody (phrasing, tone, pitch, stress, rhythm, pauses, intonations, expression) and comprehension varies
  6. Student is a severely disabled reader who is functioning far below grade level
(Fluency: Differentiated Interventions and Progress-Monitoring Assessments, fourth edition, 2010, p. 26)

I once worked with a type 1 reader. The teachers could not understand that although she read beautifully, her limited vocabulary and concept knowledge extremely limited her ability to comprehend the material. Most students in school that we might identify as needing some support (or maybe we would say are fine) are in the 3-5 groups. I tend to work with students in groups 1, 2 and 6. One of the points that the authors make, however, is that all students need fluency instruction that is appropriate to their skill set at that moment. This includes those secondary students who no longer have reading class.  Being able to identify the types of weaknesses students have enables a teacher to select appropriate interventions and strategies for instruction in the classroom.

In their definition of fluency, Johns and Berglund incorporate comprehension rather than leaving it as a separate entity. This full inclusion into fluency is unusual in their approach to reading instruction. Below the illustration indicates the components of fluency, what they mean and major ways they are addressed through instruction.

Simply looking at speed is clearly not enough. We need to think about all the aspects of fluency and address all the pertinent ones.

After they justify fluency instruction and identify the reader types the authors present a series of 31 strategies that can be used to teach fluency. While many of these strategies are fairly commonly found, the authors' twist on making it unique is how they present each one. Each strategy is described by what reader types it is appropriate for and what aspects of fluency it addresses. There is a general description of the strategy and the research that backs it up. Then they provide ideas for instruction and practice. For example Basic Sight Word instruction is recommended for types 2, 3, 4 and 6 while Guess the Emotion is recommended for types 1, 4, and 5. While I think this is a great jumping point, I suspect that the average secondary content area teacher might need some additional support in determining how to implement the strategies in their classrooms.

The book concludes with three additional parts: a series of graded passages to assess fluency, a series of monitoring resources and then the appendix of resources. I really liked some of the fluency rubrics. I plan on trying to use them with my students for whom fluency is an issue since they nicely describe what fluent reading should sound like.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Challenge reading and fluency

One of the big buzz ideas surrounding the Common Core (CCSS) is challenging reading material. This is a concept that I have intuitive issues with. My gifted daughter has not been presented with a challenging reading in her 10 years of public schooling. Some students I have worked with have found every piece of print ever presented to them a challenging read. Some interpret the CCSS challenging reading to be related to revised Lexile levels that include a stretch. For 8th grade this means starting where the old bands ended. Challenge is completely independent of ability and solely based on age/grade. For other people such as Kevin Baird of Follet Reading webinars and the authors of Fluency: Differentiated Interventions and Progress Monitoring Assessments, Jerry L. Johns and Roberta L. Berglund, challenge is defined by the individual student's ability rather than how old he is or what grade he happens to be in.

From my years in the classroom and my perspective as a parent, challenge can only be defined on the individual basis. You would not ask a NFL quarterback if it was challenging to throw a ball 10 yards to a receiver on an empty field on a calm day with no defenders, but this could be very challenging to a pee wee QB just learning the game. My gifted child is not developing her ability to read when she is presented with tasks that are 4-8 years below her reading level even if it is challenging to the average student in the classroom. Conversely, when a student who encounters frustration when reading a text at the 5th grade level is presented an 8th grade level text, he is beyond challenged and may not even attempt the reading.

When we have students who are struggling readers, especially at the high school level, we need to have a two pronged approach. One, we need to provide remediation at their instructional level. They need their holes in learning filled and their skill set expanded- be it decoding, vocabulary, comprehension, phonemic awareness or fluency. This needs to be intense and in addition to their regular classroom instruction. Two, they need to develop strategies for dealing with  material that is simply too difficult to read. This could be audio recordings, vocabulary companion lists, paraphrased material, low reading level versions of the same material, illustrations, or extra time to work on the material among other things. With the expansion of e-readers and apps that will read the texts to students such as natural readersvbookz PDF reader, or voice aloud reader, audio versions are an increasing viable option.

When we simply say to students, "This is what we are reading and I know that it is challenging but you can do it." we do empower many students to struggle through it. Some students, however, are defeated before they begin. They need support in motivation and perseverance in hard things. They need both remediation and alternative ways to access the reading.

For our gifted and high ability students we need to empower them as well. This means hunting down material with higher reading levels. College textbooks may need to be recruited. Scientific journals may need to be utilized. This may mean more work for already stretched too thin staff, but enrichment coordinators, library media specialists, literacy coaches and teachers of the gifted can be called in to help. Some parent volunteers might also be able to pitch in to provide access to resources or time to go through material and locate appropriate sources.

While not every piece of writing presented to students needs to be challenging, providing material that is appropriately, individually challenging is an important part of educating our children. Fluency in reading, however, is not developed on the challenging or stretch texts, but on material that is at students instructional reading level. This means that accessible readings need to be a part of all literacy approaches. Rereading favorite material is essential. If we want students who can read fluently, then we need to balance both challenge and accessibility on an individual basis.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fun-Tastic Activities for Differentiating Comprehension Instruction Grades 2-6

Sandra K. Athans & Denise Ashe Devine's book, Fun-Tastic Activities for Differentiating Comprehension Instruction Grades 2-6, explains how to use the tic-tack-toe framework to create literacy bins to enhance reading instruction. They include literacy bins in their ELA instruction to a) infuse multiple learning styles into instruction, b) increase motivation around reading tasks, and c) build background knowledge in content areas. They present a large variety of activities to stimulate comprehension, vocabulary, background knowledge and fluency in their students. Presented as choices, the students can complete activities when they have assigned time, have finished other work or they can work on the materials at home. They give excellent directions for introducing the activities into the classroom and monitoring progress. Their appendixes provide a variety of samples and reproducible forms.

While this book is designed for the elementary teacher, this approach can be an excellent one to differentiate learning in secondary classrooms as well. The choices can be presented with different reading levels, different processes (some students might prefer learning from reading and others from viewing video clips), and different products (write your definitions, create metaphors, write them using sentences that explain the words).  Perhaps some students could be assigned a particular one based on their reading level, learning style or learning level. Providing choices is a motivating technique in and of itself.

Two examples I created follow. These could be used for homework or classwork activities. They both involve reading and provide opportunities for online work.

World History example

Your task: Read Chapter 8 section 1, The Early Middle Ages, from your text book (p.182-185). Complete one activity from each column.


details and facts

a step beyond

Page 185, question 1 lists seven people, places, things or terms. Define each of these in your own words.

Using complete sentences, answer questions 3-5 on page 185.

Using complete sentences, answer questions 6 and 7 from page 185.

Page 185, question 1 lists seven people, places, things or terms. Complete a Frayer diagram for each term.

Write a paragraph explaining how the Germanic tribes divided Western Europe into many small kingdoms.


Complete the GoOnline activity on page 185.

Page 185, question 1 lists seven people, places, things or terms. Use each term in a sentence of at least 15 words that shows what the term means.

Write 10 questions that you have after reading this passage.

Go to . View the video, the Reign of Charlemagne and read the information about Charlemagne. Answer the following questions: 1. Compare and contrast the information in the text with the information on line.  2. What might be one of the results of the division of Charlemagne’s empire? 3. Do you think Charlemagne was an admirable character? Why or why not?

Prentice Hall World History, Connections to Today, New York edition.


Biology Example

Your Task: Read pages 310-312 of your Biology book. Complete one activity from each column.


details and facts

a step beyond

In the text margins are definitions for 13 vocabulary terms. Write the definitions in your own words.

Answer the 10 questions on page 313.

view the video at /animation__dna_replication__quiz_1_.html

Then answer the 5 questions on the page. Print your page with answers.

In the text margins are definitions for 13 vocabulary terms. Create a metaphor for each word in the form of ______ is like ______ because _______.

On page 310 there is a green text box with three objectives for the lesson. Do each of the three activities to show your understanding of the reading.

View the video at

List 5 things you learned.

In the text margins are definitions for 13 vocabulary terms. Write a sentence of at least 15 words each that shows what each term means.

Write a GIST statement for each section of the reading.

and read the description of DNA Replication. Answer the following questions:

1.       What do you think might happen if the DNA did not replicate correctly? Why?

2.       Why do you think DNA forms a double helix?

3.       Explain how enzymes are important to human life.

Biology Cycles of Life, AGS Publishing

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Unusually Excellent

John Hamm's book, Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills required for the Practice of Great Leadership, made me think about the various bosses I've had over the years. Since I have taught in several districts, two states and for more than two decades, this is not an insignificant number. I have worked for two truly great administrators, two truly awful ones and many average ones. I appreciate how challenging it is to be truly great and how a school culture tends to breed greatness, mediocrity or poor performance.

John breaks down these skills into three groups: credibility- being authentic, trustworthy and compelling; competence- leading people and bringing talent to teams, leading strategy and leading execution; and consequence- communication, decision making and impact. Leaders I have worked with who are great encapsulate the big three. They might not be perfect, but they admit their mistakes, make improvements and move on. Leaders who do not encapsulate the big three have had morale problems on their teams, poor performance in their schools and toxic work environments.

One of my biggest beefs with the field is with talent and teams. Education struggles because assembling talented teams is often a neglected effort. Although most of the suburban areas around where I live do not suffer from a lack of applicants for positions, I know this is not the case over the nation and through all subject areas. So the first challenge is filling positions. Often schools take the best of a group of limited applicants in order to ensure there is an adult in front of the classroom. Because of salary ladders and limited funds, new to the district teachers are often either newbies or teachers within their first five years. Highly talented teachers are not headhunted the way highly talented professionals of other fields are. Add tenure to the mx so that even promising young things can sit in the passenger seat and cruise rather than continue to grow and develop. Then you add seniority rights which mean that even if the new hires have more desirable skill sets than the more experienced staff members, they go when staffing cuts are made. This combination almost ensures a mediocre profession. Unusually excellent administrators navigate these challenging waters, motivate their staff to continue to grow, provide mentorships to improve skills and fight to keep the best and at least sideline the worst.

I am not a trusting soul. Administrators who fail in the credibility field are forever tarnished in my world. John sights several examples of leaders who were seen as inauthentic or two-faced only once for them to lose credibility forever as well. Our leaders need to realize how high the bar is. They need to be as transparent as possible. They need to be up front when there is a mistake and take ownership of their role in it. One slip up ruins them in the eyes of their staff and creates a culture of cover ups.

John talks of consequence as a question of legacy. We have all seen schools that have rooms, buildings and/or filed named after one beloved leader. We all would love to be the leader that lives on in the eyes of the community because of the immense contributions made to the organization, but this is hard. Some things that impact our legacy are decisions, successes and reputations. Reputations are built by subordinates who cast judgments. It is not that bosses should butter up their staffs continually, but that they should always act in ways that create a positive aftertaste. This is done through rewards, respect, awards and education. Rewards and awards are difficult in the public sector. This is changing in some districts, but in general this is difficult. Our leaders cannot bestow raises because someone went on and beyond the call of duty. Not that I want every staff member to get an award at the end of the school year saying what a great job he did, but there should be recognition for the individual challenges overcome by staff members given in ways the individual appreciates. Betty may need an individual handwritten note, John may want recognition at a faculty meeting and Sally may need both. Great leaders know their staffs and respectfully acknowledge meaningful accomplishments. Being given the opportunity to serve as teacher leaders, mentors and trainers offers a way to recognize talent. Sending people to trainings so they can come back and share their new understandings allows some teachers to be recognized. Administrators need to work to identify ways to reward meaningful feats. It can be done.

John's discussion of legacy left me thinking about how the leader works to develop culture. If a leader creates, supports or encourages a culture of growth, hard work, respect and clear communication, the legacy is likely to be positive. If back-stabbing, telling people what they want to hear rather than the truth, playing favorites and observance of the status quo are parts of the culture, then the legacy is likely to be negative. What brings these together is the way these behaviors will reflect the success of the organization as well. If you promote a positive legacy, the organization will be more successful as a whole. Our leaders need to find ways to be unusually excellent so that unusual excellence can be developed in the staffs of our schools and the educations we offer our students.