March 7, 2007

How not to teach comprehension

It's been a while since I deconstructed an inane education article, but I think this Seattle Times article, Revving up reading in Marysville schools, is worthy of that treatment:

On a recent Monday morning at Cascade Elementary School in the Marysville School District, veteran teacher Lauri Hagglund engaged in a timeless activity — reading aloud to her second-grade students.

The children sit cross-legged or up on their knees on brightly colored carpet squares. The teacher stops at the end of each page to display the book's illustrations.

But pull the lens back a few feet and the classroom becomes a laboratory for practicing the latest approaches to literacy. A reading coach sits a few feet away from Hagglund, charting plot details about cause and effect from a story involving a very tidy cat and a very messy one.

The problem with read-alouds is pretty clear. During the read-aloud the student isn't actually reading! And what second grade students need to be doing more than anything else is practicing reading.

A lot.

But, let's get beyond that.

What is most string about this "laboratory for practicing the latest approaches to literacy," as you will soon see is how primitive the laboratory actually is. I would have thought that the level of "experimentation" would have been a tad more sophisticated in 2007.

This isn't even the beta version of reading comprehension. In this school, reading comprehension is still in the alpha stage and this is the first trial run through to catch bugs.

At the edge of the reading carpet, several observers, including the district's superintendent, assistant superintendent and school principal, take notes.

When Larry Nyland took over the district in 2004, the new superintendent launched an initiative focused on strengthening students' reading skills. Standardized test scores in the district were among the county's lowest, and classroom assessments showed that even students who read stories at grade level sometimes struggled to understand their science and history books.

It's always worse than you think. They've been in alpha testing for three years now.

Let's go to the videotape and see what the reading scores are:

Fourth grade: percent meeting standard (state average)

2003-04: 75.6% (74.4%)
2004-05: 82.8% (79.5%)
2005-06: 84.9% (81.2%)

Slightly better than average. But look at the third grade scores (only tested in 05-06):

2005-06: 60.9% (68.3%)

Below average.

And, finally let's use the reality check to see how inflates those scores really are: Fourth grade NAEP reading scores for Washington: 33% proficient or better in 2003 and 36% in 2005. That's a nice little 45 point discrepancy.

Perhaps, they'd be getting better results if they wore white lab jackets, thick horn-rimmed glasses, and had shiny silver clipboards because that's what I hear all the real scientists wear when they conduct science-like experiments.

The district developed focused training for teachers on ways they could help students more readily grasp meaning and deepen their thinking about books. Principals learned how to observe and give feedback to their teachers. Reading coaches at every elementary school worked with struggling students.

Seems like they forgot the most important step. Step One: determine if the intervention works. Step Two: disseminate and train.

In January, they began presenting lessons in classrooms while teachers observed both the techniques and their effectiveness with the children.

The elementary classrooms were also re-imagined so that each had a communal-reading area where the children could sit comfortably and closely to the spoken words.
Maybe instead of re-imagining the classroom they should have re-imagined their concept of reading. Last I checked reading involved getting close to the text of books, not getting close to the "spoken word" of a teacher reading the book for you. No wonder the kids have a hard time reading.

District administrators began making regular visits to classrooms to gauge how the training might be furthered or refined. Last year, Nyland and his staff made 500 such visits.

For many teachers, it was the first time they'd been regularly observed and given feedback since they were students, Nyland said. And some were wary of the approach.

"Up until now, administrators were only in the classroom to evaluate teachers," Nyland said. "We had to show them our focus was on improving student learning. It's like athletes watching game film to see what they're doing and what they might want to change."

What is it with teachers being so reluctant to be observed by management? They need to get over that real quick.

Back in the classroom, the school's reading coach, Leanne Rivas, asks the children how the two cats in "The Tale of Two Kitties" feel about each other. In the illustration, they sit at opposite ends of a long fence, their tails toward each other.

Ostensibly, this is a lesson on reading comprehension. And here we are discussing an illustration in the book. I think there's some cognitive dissonance in play here.

Let me suggest a better exercise to teach drawing inferences from text. The students read the following passage: "Linda and Cathy were alone on an island. Linda said, 'Stop crying, Kathy. We are both very smart, and if we use our heads, we will get out of here.'" Afterwards, the teacher asks: "Why was Kathy crying?"

That micro- exercise comes from lesson 68 of Reading Mastery III, a second grade curriculum. The instructional content of that lesson is light years ahead of what's going on in this classroom. Go take a look.

"Turn and talk," Rivas instructs, and on cue, the students turn to a partner to discuss the cats' mutual disdain. The approach seems more typical of a grown-up reading group than an elementary-school classroom, but Assistant Superintendent Gail Miller said that by recalling details, summarizing their thoughts and finding evidence for their views, the students go more deeply into the text and practice skills they'll use all of their reading lives.

No, they're talking about a picture of two cats. One kid is talking to another kid about a picture. Then the other kid takes a turn. Missing is the feedback and assessment by a teacher to determine who understands and who doesn't.

Some shortcomings of the approach are quickly apparent. Confident and chatty children give their opinions first. When Rivas counts backward — three, two, one, time for talk is done — several quieter students haven't said a word.

Another challenge emerges. Rivas is drawing boxes around the plot elements to help illustrate cause-and-effect. Writing the students' own words down also helps them summarize their ideas and gives kids just learning English a chance to see their spoken words in print, but her examples of cause-and-effect get a little lost in all the plot elements.

In short, this is a poorly thought out and even more poorly executed lesson. It is confused. The point of the instruction is unclear. Assessment of individual students is impossible. It is a waste of time from beginning to end. So why was it being presented to the students in the first place. This one should have been strangled in the cradle.

Still, the pedagogy doesn't interrupt the students' enjoyment of the book. Most laugh and point as the cats, Fluffy and Scruffy, team up to rout some impudent mice.

I think they call that being off-task.

I wonder how many of these students know what the words "rout" and "impudent" mean? Not knowing the meaning of words like this is what causes comprehension difficulty in the later grades. Yet, the teaching of vocabulary will be downplayed in classrooms like this in favor of these hokey reading strategies.

About a half-hour after it began, what the district calls a reading "walk-through" ends.

You don't want to know what I call it.

The school administrators regroup with the reading coach in the office of Cascade's principal, Chris Sampley. Miller, who previously worked with student teachers at Seattle Pacific University, asks Rivas to recall the purpose of the lesson and how it went.

Rivas says she realizes she strayed from the initial goal and isn't sure what the students learned.

That pretty much sums up what's wrong with education today. No one knows what the students actually learned.

And here's problem number two:

The observers are less hard on her than she is on herself. Miller reminds her how at different points she guided the students back to the text, the same strategy a more experienced reader would use to search for meaning or relationships.

Everything is all right, sweetie. You just keep working at it. You'll get better. Someday. hopefully soon. Or not.

Rivas, in hindsight, thinks "The Tale of Two Kitties" was better suited to demonstrate compare-and-contrast than cause-and-effect. The observers agree that one challenge of their literacy effort is that each book has to be dissected for its best lessons in advance.

It took three years to come to that realization? This is why we have NCLB. This should have been done thirty years ago.

At lunch time, she'll sit down with the classroom teacher and review any thoughts both of them have.

A week later, Rivas and Hagglund are teamed up again with another book. Some adjustments are immediately evident. The students are instructed to take turns talking about the book so no one is left out. Rivas is also more deliberate about what she chooses to chart, emphasizing cause-and-effect, which she notes is both a life lesson and a question likely to appear on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

See I was wrong. I had initially assumed that the students were instructed to take turns discussing. They weren't. And, it took these two trained professionals a week to figure that out.

The main problems with the lesson are still present: the teacher is reading the book, not the students, the teacher is making the chart, not the students, and the teacher still has no idea if each student learned anything.

After class, Hagglund talks about the literacy initiative and how, after 27 years in the classroom, it's changing her teaching. More than anything, she says, the literacy initiative has reminded her what it's like to be a student again, to be asked to do something new and hard.

"It puts us all in the place of being learners," she said.

I thought that's what ed school was supposed to be for?


Instructivist said...

"The problem with read-alouds is pretty clear. During the read-aloud the student isn't actually reading! And what second grade students need to be doing more than anything else is practicing reading."

Exactly right! Students need to be active readers and receive immediate feedback.

It's odd that the same crowd that keeps talking about "active" learning insists on passive "reading". I'ts sacred dogma in ed school that pupils should not read aloud round robin style or by being picked at random.

I personally know of a case where sixth graders were being read to with a program called Making Meaning (I suppose it is a translation of constructing meaning). Since it is a commercially available programs I am sure it's happening elsewhere, too.

Anonymous said...

This is so sad. I learned about foolishness this year the hard way. I have to watch some idiot teachers ruin some kids because they believe they know more than many experienced educators. First of all they are arrogant to began with. Next they believe some stupid lies told to them by some idiotic college professors. Fools who NEVER, NEVER, NEVER sat foot in a REAL classroom for any REAL length of time.

Now we have foolish teachers in classrooms all over America being cute, calling themselves "using balanced literacy." Whole language is a joke. I have students, who after being at this public school for four years, still cannot decode words.

Please, for the love of humanity, stop the games and gimmicks. It is hurting our children.

D-ED is so right. They love the games and gimmicks because they get to do what they want to do. They don't really have to work if they kids are doing "cooperative learning" or "projects." Saying cutesy catchphrases and dancing around with posters is not teaching reading. Stop it.

Ryan said...

Is there ever a place for read-alouds in the classroom?

And, finally let's use the reality check to see how inflates those scores really are: Fourth grade NAEP reading scores for Washington: 33% proficient or better in 2003 and 36% in 2005. That's a nice little 45 point discrepancy.

To be fair, the NAEP and the WASL assess different skils. Further, is there any good reason to put all that much credence into the NAEP?

What is it with teachers being so reluctant to be observed by management? They need to get over that real quick.

Management might not know what it is they're watching. Management might be where lousy ideas on how to teach reading are spawned. Management might be incompetent.

But you could have guessed at those answers, couldn't you?

And really, you basing your opinion of what goes on in this classroom from one article can be turned around to explain precisely why DI still languishes in the margins after all these years: teachers drawing conclusions based on misrepresentations and Chicken Little-ism.

TurbineGuy said...

The Carolina School for Inquiry is so sure that the way they teach is right, and that I was wrong in my critism of them that they have personally invited me to visit their school.

I even had a doctoral student at the USC School of Education, tell me that an their method is based on education research. Of course she referenced a puff piece instead of hard evidence.

KDeRosa said...

Ryan, let me take your objections in order.

There is a place for read-alouds: during those low-instruction hours in the school day outside of the time devoted to reading instruction.

I understand the objection to the proficiency levels set for the NAEP. I also understand that those levels are somewhat aspirational. But based on the NASL, I'd say the accurate assessment of literacy is closer to the NAEP level than the WASL level.

Management is still management. They run the show and, at least in theory, are responsibble for what goes on in the school. Workers, such as teachers, are obliged to follow management's orders.

I'm not criticising what's going on in this school, I'm merely criticising this particular activity. Although, I'm sure you can guess what else goes on in this school based on this one activity.

KDeRosa said...

We can also turn it around again, Ryan, to explain precisely why test scores still languish at low levels after all these years because educators refuse to follow what works.

PaulaV said...

Thanks for your wonderful site. I frequent it (along with KTM) daily. I'm interested in purchasing Reading Mastery for my kindergartener and third grader. However, I'm unsure where to start. My third grader definitely needs a vocabulary boost. His comprehension seems on track according to his ITBS scores.

Any suggestions?


KDeRosa said...

Paula, I've been meaning to put a post up on this and I will later todsy. I've been asked this question a few times recently and I've been remiss in responding.

The short answer for you inpateient types: ebay

Anonymous said...

I would have thought that the level of "experimentation" would have been a tad more sophisticated in 2007

So what Institutional Review Board OKed unwarranted experimentation on involuntary human subjects? But wait! IRBs exempt educational malpractice:

"Research conducted in established or commonly accepted educational settings, involving normal educational practices, such as (i) research on regular and special education instructional strategies, or (ii) research on the effectiveness of or the comparison among instructional techniques, curricula, or classroom management methods."

So an IRB can approve a program of educational research which fails to meet legal standards compatible with a state constitution's education clause. Of course, highly educated, high SES parents might catch on, so...

PaulaV said...

Perhaps I should clarify. I know where to purchase it, but I'm not sure which level to begin with my third grader. I'm thinking I need to go back to second grade and go from there.

I've noticed he becomes extremely frustrated when trying to figure out words. Forget about context clues. Inference is a difficult skill to use if you haven't been taught to use it properly. Correct?

I am confused however on how he could score so high on reading comprehension (a 91 NPR)and yet have trouble with vocabulary. Don't both go hand in hand?


KDeRosa said...

Paula, it sounds more like a decoding issue than a vocabulary issue.

It's a vocabulary issue when the student doesn't know the meaning of words used in speech, i.e., the words are not in his oral vocabulary.

It's a decoding issue when the student is unable to read a word that is in his oral vocabulary.

I'd suggest administering dibels.. It's free and designed to teest decoding skills.

You also might want to have him try to read the Reading mastery lesson I linked to in the post. Nominally, this is a mid-second grade test, so a third grader whould be able to read it within the errors limits and be able to answer the comprehension questions.

All of the Reading Mastery series have placement tests. Problem is that you have to have the books to get the tests. A chicken and egg problem.

I do have the placement tests if you want to shoot me an email (see my profile).

Catherine Johnson said...

Eric - fantastic find!

Catherine Johnson said...

What frustrates me about education journalism is the suspension of the rule that one seeks comment from the opposition.

Education feature stories all read like marketing material, and in fact are used as marketing material.

Our little local paper recently did a piece on the "Tri-State Consortium" report on our ELA program.

It's happy talk start to finish, with the super telling the reporter how "thrilled" the teachers are (I think "thrilled" was the word.)

Meanwhile parents here are in a chronic uproar about the ELA program. It would have been a VERY simple matter to get a couple of quotes from parents about just how thrilled they're feeling about the Tri-State Consortium.

Catherine Johnson said...

The Tri-State Consortium model, btw, features friendly criticism from friendly peers.

Catherine Johnson said...

I would say there's an important reason to read aloud to children, which is that until 8th grade kids have higher listening than reading comprehension.

In a DI school that might not matter, but in any other school it does.

You wouldn't read aloud as a reading lesson, however.

You would read aloud in social studies or science.

You might also read aloud classic children's literature that's too advanced for the kids.

nbosch said...

I don't teach reading, all my students read 4-8 years above grade level but what drives them crazy is listening to kids in the classroom read aloud. People who teach reading tell me reading out loud increases fluency. Does it?

Instructivist said...

Ken is going to love this NYT article that just came out seconds ago:

More proof of what I have been saying for a long time now: Ideological frenzy trumps money, even prodigious Trump-sized amounts.

[MADISON, Wis. — Surrounded by five first graders learning to read at Hawthorne Elementary here, Stacey Hodiewicz listened as one boy struggled over a word.

“Pumpkin,” ventured the boy, Parker.

“Look at the word,” the teacher suggested. Using a method known as whole language, she prompted him to consider the word’s size. “Is it long enough to be pumpkin?”

Parker looked again. “Pea,” he said, correctly.

Call it the $2 million reading lesson.

By sticking to its teaching approach, that is the amount Madison passed up under Reading First, the Bush administration’s ambitious effort to turn the nation’s poor children into skilled readers by the third grade.

The program, which gives $1 billion a year in grants to states, was supposed to end the so-called reading wars — the battle over the best method of teaching reading — but has instead opened a new and bitter front in the fight.]

Ryan said...

NBosch: I don't think it does, but that's just a teacher speaking off the cuff--the research might well prove me wrong.

I will say that most of the fluency goals that you see (DIBELS, or Hasbrouck-Tindall) are oral reading fluency. One could suppose that the way to increase ORF is to practice ORF.

KDeRosa said...

Ryan's right.

From NIFL: Repeated and monitored oral reading improves fluency and overall reading achievement. Students who read and reread passages out loud as they receive guidance and feedback become better readers. Researchers have found several techniques to be effective including the reading and rereading of text a number of times (usually four times) until a certain level of fluency is reached, and practicing oral reading through the use of audiotapes, tutors, peer guidance, or other means.

No research evidence is available currently to confirm that instructional time spent on silent, independent reading with minimal guidance and feedback improves reading fluency or overall reading achievement. Although this activity's value has neither been proved nor disproved, the research suggests that there are more beneficial ways to spend in-class instructional time.

The reason why the kids read aloud is to gte feedback from the teacher. If the kids are good fluent decoders, the need for read alouds diminishes. I believe it usually starts getting faded out by the fourth or fifth grade.

Instructivist said...

"If the kids are good fluent decoders, the need for read alouds diminishes."

After decoding, the issue of comprehension becomes prominent. Teacher input could still be valuable to clarify and zero in on vocabulary, point out idioms, point out the use of the subjunctive, explain references, provide background information and generally help the comprehension project along.

Kids exhibit a metacognitive deficit for a long time and are notorious for misjudging their own abilities. So they don't ask as often as they should, say, under SSR conditions.