Monday, January 30, 2017


One of my first education classes was a reading class that I hated. One of the things we had to do in order to pass the class was pass a phonics test. We bought a book and were told to know the contents by the next class. If we were lucky (I was not), we had been taught to read through phonics and it should not be too hard. For those of us who learned to read with the see and say method (yes, I am dating myself) we were confused. Those of us who had a hard time distinguishing certain sounds were up the creek without a paddle. I had grown up with a mother who pronounced giraffe with a d on the end. I pronounced garage with one syllable. My pronunciation was not good, my spelling was an inventive feat and my knowledge of phonics was negligible. I barely passed that test because of cramming. I spent the first 15 years of my career being grateful that I taught at the secondary level because I did not have to teach "reading," just comprehension. That education class did me a disservice. If the professor had said, "In three weeks we will have the phonics test that you have to pass in order to pass this class. I will be giving instruction in phonics at 9 am on the next three Tuesdays to people who need help to learn it." I would have been golden. I would have learned phonics. Alas the age of whole language prevented much concentration on systematic phonics instruction and I had to wait to really teach myself phonics when I worked with a young lady who was dyslexic. Then, when I had to learn Wilson Reading, I really learned phonics. The long path got me there, but it could have been much simpler.

I know that I was not alone amongst my colleagues having little knowledge of phonics and how to teach reading. In 1995 a study revealed that only half of the student teachers in reading and special education could successfully answer most of the questions on a 15 question phonics survey (p. 26). I was given a secondary student who needed the skill, so I went out and learned it. Not glorious, not easy, but doable. When I consider how many of our learning disabled students are given teachers with exceedingly weak phonic knowledge, I am not surprised at how poor reading instruction is at the secondary level.

Wiley Blevins' book, Teaching Phonics & Word Study in the Intermediate Grades, begins with a brief overview of phonics. Reading it brought me back to those early college days and how I can now read and learn the details and nuisances of information that I was unable to grasp back then. I think about the instruction we provide in phonics and spelling- they are reciprocal skills- improving one helps the other- and shudder. We need to know more so we can do more. While not a linguist or a phonics expert, I have learned enough to be a little dangerous.

We need to know that while English is a somewhat crazy language, 84% of it conforms to phonics rules (p. 25). The second chapter in his text was a great review and listing of the major rules. I may copy a couple of the charts he provides since he clearly delineates the rules. The best part of the rules is that there are only a few that are important, common and consistent enough to really present to a student. My favorite rule to not teach is "when 2 vowels go walking the first one does the talking." This is true only about 45% of the time. Teaching it is a waste of energy and confuses children. We need to be smart about it all.

We shall see what the rest of the book has in store. ...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Intervention Strategies to follow informal reading inventory assessment

JoAnne Schudt Caldwell and Lauren Leslie wrote Intervention Strategies to Follow Informal Reading Inventory Assessment: So What Do I Do Now and have revised it three times. I have long embraced my nerdhood and this book just confirmed it. I love the content dense, authoritative, detached style, but not everyone will. This is, in many ways a textbook. The online access to their PDToolKit lasts only a year, but if you want you can buy access from you college bookstore through a program associated with used book purchases. For an active practitioner, it offends me that I must download everything from the site in preparation for being locked out.

Many informal reading inventories (IRI) exist. The coauthors are responsible for the Qualitative Reading Inventory-5. I have an IRI from a fluency book by Johns and Berglund (see my notes about it here and here), Reading Rockets compares 8 on their site. Pearson has one available on line here. Fountas and Pinnell have one associated with their LLI; SRA and DRA have ones also. For me, at least, the easy part is administering the IRI. The tricky part is figuring out how to create a learning program that matches the needs of the student. This book is the first comprehensive source that I have found. LLI would have you identify reading level and follow their scripted program from there. DRA is similar. I believe that a scripted program will not meet the individual needs of all students and, as such they need to be adjusted to be in alignment with student needs. Taking a program that you are mandated by your district to implement means crafting a plan that focuses most attention on student need areas. One thing that the authors point out is that although students present different profiles, they can all benefit from an approach that includes attention to word study, comprehension and fluency. They argue that the time devoted to each component fluctuates based on student needs.

The book does primarily focus on elementary students. Although the 3rd edition has additional sections devoted to ELL and adolescent learner so, they are added more as an afterthought than an integrated component of the text. Part of the challenge presented is the limited amount of research available on reading instruction of students older than 13. As someone who has focused on adolescents, I have found more studies of older students, but they tend to be more in the nature of case studies which are of limited applicability.

One of the things that the authors do include is a table of structures for instruction of struggling readers (p. 39-41). This includes guidelines for format, grade and time. In this era of RTI where interventions need to be evidence based, this is a resource that could be heavily relied upon. Should a parent look for evidence to support the use of a particular intervention approach, this chart could be consulted. Similarly the appendix is a summary of intervention strategies presented in the book with breakdowns of recommendations for ELLs, adolescents and RTI. When creating interventions, this is also a useful chart. That being said, districts that implement one RTI approach for all students (for example READ 180) regardless of the student challenge profile could benefit from a more customizable approach. RTI programs are supposed to provide intervention in the specific area of need, not reading in general, decoding for all (ex. Wilson Reading), or comprehension for all (LLI).

I know that this book will become a well-thumbed reference guide to inform and defend my instructional practice.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Common Core Coaching Book

Laurie Elish-Piper and Susan K. L'Allier's book, The Common Core Coaching Book: Strategies to Help Address the K-5 ELA Standards, was a book I picked up in the fall. I found the first part difficult to get through. The writing style did not engage me so I put it down and spent most of my professional reading time devoted to professional journals instead. I picked it back up recently and reached the second and subsequent parts of the book which seemed more valuable.

The book, originally published in 2014, in large part discusses adoption and implementation of the CCSS. While the standads are being overturned in many states, they are being replaced by new standards for which the guidelines of working with a "new" set of standards are relevant. Interestingly, the authors do not address the idea that the standards are not universally adopted or accepted or that current political maneuverings have them being revised, rejected and replaced in many states. Further there are only limited references to specific standards so the book is a good resource for phasing in any new standard.

The book is arranged in five parts. The introduction on coaching around the Common Core, large group coaching strategies, small group coaching strategies, individual coaching strategies and a wrap it all together portion. The strategies have excellent templates, both blank for use and completed examples drawing upon vignettes embedded within the text. This format makes the book a useful resource for people looking at how to take off in the world of coaching.

Of particular note were a few items. One was a reference to Cathy Toll's (2005) "the question:... When you think about the reading and writing you want your students to do and the kind of teaching you want to do, what gets in the way?" I like the way this question frames the concept of coaching. It opens the door to discussion, eliminates the blame game and gets at the heart of the matter. It provides an entry point for coaching and professional development and a focus for collaborative work. I need to search out this work and learn more...

Another place that hit home for me was the author's comments about large group professional development: it provides "opportunities to build a sense of community within a school wherein teachers take collective responsibility for the learning of their students" (p. 76). They outlined effective practice means theat there is a "relevant needs-based focus, careful preparation, active engagement of all participants, and a plan for moving the work from one session forward: (p.76). Using these guidelines, I have participated in both effective and ineffective sessions. Team building activites for the sake of team building does not qualify. In my personal department, we have a faculty serving a very diverse group: preK to super seniors, students in highly competive private schools- students whose disabilities-cognitive, mental health and physical- are so significant they have home instruction, students working in public school programs to private programs to those in homes or public libraries, schools using CCSS to those who do not. It makes identification of relevant needs based focuses challenging. I almost think that we should frequently get together and then break apart into groups based on our target audience and participate in meetings based on personal need. The target audience of the book is far more narrow a group, which makes the concept of providing faculty meeting based PD far easier.

Lastly the part that rang true was when they commented about the time commitment required for an individual coaching experience. Co-planning, co-teaching and debriefing take a serious time set aside.They acknowledge this. Interestingly, in the special ed world, coteaching and inclusion programs rarely have adequate time set aside for the development of truly effective interventions. Consequently it is no surprise to me that coteaching is often the least effective intervention. If you are not going to give both people the time to do the job, it will not be what people imagine as helping students to be successful in the mainstream.