Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Struggling readers

Lori Jamison Rog's book, Struggling Readers: Why Band-aids Don't Stick and Worksheets Don't Work, is an easy to read text full of ideas and worksheet masters designed to help teachers in grades 3-9 help provide reading instruction to our struggling readers. Yes, it is a little ironic that her title slams worksheets and yet she has several throughout. The difference is that they are not the typical reading worksheet highlighting a phonics skill, asking students to find the main idea or identify three details from the reading. Her worksheets are more along the lines of graphic organizers- systems that help students identify and organize their thinking. Graphic organizers are highly recommended for all manner of instruction, especially for students with learning disabilities or who are learning to speak English. They include items such as an Analyzing a graphic novel page in which students are asked to identify the settings, sounds, emotions, movement and speech of the sections and then think about what each means; a vocabulary square, a modification of a Frayer model, in which student look at a word and identify both a personal connection to the word and a visual; and a text features checklist. Yes, they are all worksheets, but one must remember that all worksheets are not the same.

Rog comments that dysfluent readers rarely result from a lack of phonics information (p. 92). That being said, approximately 10% of secondary struggling readers need phonics instruction. Do not discard phonics instruction entirely. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of the student and provide instruction where instruction is needed. If a student has good phonetic skills except does not know how to pronounce words with a final v sound- teach it, but that skill alone. Just do not throw a barrage of phonics worksheets at the student. Unfortunately many of the reading interventions we use do not actually address the specific problem of the particular student, but rather the imagined weaknesses of a student. When a student is making huge progress under Wilson reading BECAUSE they have a phonics weakness, they should not be moved to a comprehension intervention like READ 180 or LLI as they move to a new building or grade level. Inversely, a child who is struggling with comprehension should not be put into a phonics program like Wilson merely because they are a struggling reader. RTI approaches are supposed to be targeted interventions that meet the individual student's needs and are complementary to classroom instruction. As students get older, reading instruction switches to more comprehension focus, but if underlying foundations of phonics are not present, the student will not be successful. Further, if a weak vocabulary is found to be present, as it often is in students that struggle with reading, high-quality, evidence-based vocabulary instruction needs to be a component of the intervention.

One of her major thrusts resonates with me. She repeatedly comes back to research that says, "A steady dose of grade-level text for below-grade-level readers not only fails to help them grow, it can even set them back" (p. 13). She even quotes the Common Core State Standards Appendix 9 with "Students need opportunities to stretch their reading abilities but also to experience the satisfaction and pleasure of easy, fluent reading within [their reading abilities]" (p. 13). We need to provide independent reading practice at student reading level- this might mean a high school needs to invest in hi-lo books to ensure that students have access to text within their interests and ability level. Students need instructional level reading material, material they can read with 90-98% word accuracy and at least 75% comprehension accuracy. We need to be careful of our word callers- students who can read all the words but have no idea of what they are reading. These students need to be placed in easier material until their comprehension catches up with their word identification. When reading approaches the lower end of this band, students are stretching. Can you imagine only being able to understand 3/4 of a passage. If you think back to your last interaction with a 3 year old, that is the level of comprehension we get from their speech. Do you really understand all the message? Can you tweak out the nuances of their meaning? This is the task you are asking students to complete. When we reach the frustration level- able to read less than 90% of the words accurately or comprehend less than 75% of the text, we are discouraging reading. Yes, we can power through for a while, but our ability to work at this level is severely limited. Challenge or stretch reading then is not based on the grade level of the student, but on the student's reading level. 

One comprehension strategy she highlights is WITIK folders (p. 102-3). This is based on the K-W-L chart work of Tony Stead (2005). There are four categories of information: What I think I know, what was confirmed in the reading, what I learned and what I wonder or expect to learn. A folder is used and each side of the folder gets one label. Sticky notes are used to record information. On the front side, students are asked to record what they think they know. This is less intimidating than "what I know" and allows for misconceptions. Struggling readers with limited vocabularies and/or background knowledge about the topic will be more willing to participate if that element of caution is injected into their work. Then, as they read they look for confirmation of their selected facts. Confirmed information is moved from the front cover to the inside page. Struggling readers are usually struggling writers. Allowing them to just move the note instead of rewrite it is easier. They could be asked to put a page or line number on the sticky with where the evidence was found. Additional information is added to the what I learned section during and after a second reading. A number of pieces of information could be required in this area. A shorter text could require three new pieces of information while a longer piece could require 10. On the back of the folder wonders occur. These could be from before you  read the text what do you hope to learn or afterwards what questions do you still have. I think this strategy would be interesting to use on nonfiction pieces.  I like the sticky notes. It allows for lots of student choice- color of sticky, where exactly to put it, even what color to write in. Since choice primes the brain for learning, this is a great way to begin.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

struggling readers and reading at your level

This time of year high school social studies teachers are working toward WWII in their classes. Typical class organization involves assigning readings to students to support (or be) the instruction. Struggling readers look at the lovely picture in the text book and are reluctant to read it. In part because of the dry style, in part because of the content dense reading that is difficult if not impossible to get through and in part because of the reading level simply being higher than they can easily access. In Struggling Readers: Why Band aids Don't Stick and Worksheets Don't Work, Lori Jamison Rog argues that it is important students have access to reading material that is at their instructional level. This is the level at which the student can read 95% or more of the words accurately with adequate comprehension (at least 70%, but for better luck try at least 80%). So what is a teacher to do if they have been presented with a textbook series and the instructions that our students need to read at grade level including challenge material. It is on the test?

One approach is to differentiate the content. I know that this is a fallback catch phrase today, but it is what is needed. If you are lucky enough to have a special ed teacher, paraprofessional or English as a second language teacher to work with, they can do some of this preview and prepare for you or help conduct it in the classroom.

Here's an example of what might be done for a class beginning to talk about homefront efforts in the war:

Have the lower level readers (and maybe the struggling English speakers/learners) explore a website such as or a video segment that highlights the homefront efforts. This previews vocabulary and content. Discussion needs to occur. An adult should work with this group to facilitate discussion.

Have the on grade level readers explore the website and answer what did people on the home front do to help the war effort?  Small groups should come up with answers to share.

Above grade level readers can look at the library of congress site and explore the primary sources and answer the same question as the grade level readers.

After 15 minutes of this preview the whole class can come together and discuss what they learned about. Then they can read the text and answer the text questions. Having the chance to explore these sources prior to reading and discussion the material sets the kids up for success when reading.

If we give our kids access to the language they will see in the reading it increases the likelihood that the reading will be comprehensible and as a consequence, done.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Becoming a literacy leader

Jennifer Allen's book, Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, 2nd edition, is a wonderful book about her evolution as a literacy coach and recommendations for others pursuing this path. She talks about her approach as layered coaching. Different activities that all play together in order to reinforce learning in her schools. Her job includes several roles including providing professional development, study groups, individual coaching in classrooms, supporting curriculum and assessments, helping kids on the bubble, creating unity throughout the school, cultivating teacher leaders, and dealing with budgets. In many ways she is very fortunate- her districts recognizes the value of literacy and math coaches, is willing to dedicate both space and financial resources to supporting the coaches and is willing to facilitate experimentation in order to try and meet the needs of the students. While she works in two buildings- a challenge anyone who has been itinerant recognizes- she has space in both. One building has a literacy room and the other involves shared space. As someone who travels, having a space to put your stuff undisturbed is a fabulous commodity others often take for granted.

Her layered approach covers levels I have seen referred to before- full community professional development- at faculty meetings and staff development days, small group attention- study groups, and individual interventions or coaching- she gives advice on implementing them as a new to the school individual and as an in house person. She repeatedly touches on the theme that for adults, professional development needs to come from a level of need of those served. Pushing in and telling people what they must learn and participate in is not a recipe for success. Choice is essential. Teachers need to select if they want to participate in a study group or coaching situation.

She runs about five study groups a year. Teachers elect whether they want to participate or not and provide input about when the group should meet- before school, after school, or during lunch. Each group focuses on a topic usually defined by a book. Unlike most study groups I have been exposed to, however, these do not stop there. Hour long sessions include a discussion and sharing of reflection upon evolving ideas and practice of things they are learning. This is followed by a video clip from either a commercial, on line or in house experience. This showcases an element under discussion. Then there is a reading excerpt in which teachers have an opportunity to reread a short segment that focuses on a critical new element and create meaning as part of a group. Then is a segment she refers to a toolbox time. This is strategy trial. Not role play of a strategy, but use a strategy such as read a poem and try out using two column notes on it. Teachers try to use a strategy they will try to integrate into their practice. Then there is an ideas into practice segment where they share out what they might try in their class and decide on the next reading assignment. Someone is assigned to follow up- remind people about the next meeting, assignments, what to bring and provide additional resources. This format seems a valuable one for PLCs. Each group needs a leader but that leader is not an administrator. I can envision a template that could be used for organizing each session. A teacher leader could be responsible for the organizing and hunting down of materials. Critical components are teacher choice, immediate utility of the learning, and practice within the group of the strategy under motion before being sent off to try it out.

One of the things that fascinated me was the school district's creation of a literacy intervention classroom. It is a classroom staffed with hand picked teachers, with a reduced student load. It has the same diversity as the school as a whole from a gender, socioeconomic and racial composition. Students also have to have good attendance and a history of having stable housing and thus having been in the district for their entire schooling. Students are recommended but parents must consent to placement. Students stay in the program for two years. The class has push in services from both reading and math specialists as well as a Title 1 teacher. Instruction in executive function skills is conducted- organization, time management, and initiation skills. Students are taught to use a small number of graphic organizers in order to complete assignments. Scaffolding of assignments is carefully crafted for these struggling learners. Schedule consistency is seen as critical- lunch and specials (art, music, PE) are at the same time every day. This allows for students on the bubble of success to experience a more intense and more consistent program that will help them to improve their reading, writing and study skills. Interestingly, the author acknowledges that these children may not make the same progress as they average child, but two years of literacy intervention may prevent them from falling further behind. This extra support means they will be in a stronger position when they enter middle school. Interestingly, at no point is the idea of tracking or homogenous grouping addressed. There is a given that grouping these kids in a class where they get extra attention and focus on trouble spots is important for their success.

I purchased this book as an ebook. I have read ebooks for pleasure and novels my high school students are reading, but this is the first professional ebook that I have worked with. Much like my experience with audiobooks, I struggled with the ebook format. I enjoyed taking it with me on my iPad as I traveled from building to building, but I found it easier to look back and annotate on paper. While writing this reflection, it was more challenging to search out information. The book is loaded with an amazing variety of charts as references. For me, finding them is easier in a traditional book. The book also abounds with references to other resources- children's books organized around teaching strategies and professional resources. I would rather have them as a hard copy. Perhaps this preference will change as I increase my exposure to ebooks. I do appreciate the fact that my professional library has not gotten heavier with the addition of another text.