Archive for February, 2012

Why Grammar Doesn’t Stick

Last Wednesday, one of my favorite eighth grade English-language Arts colleagues burst into my fifth period seventh grade class. Herding ten of my previous students through the door to stand in front of my class, my clearly frustrated friend said, “My students can’t identify is as a linking verb in this practice sentence. I asked which students had you last year, and here they are.”

Now, you’ve got to understand my colleague. She did not interrupt my class to challenge my inadequate instruction in grammar and usage. She did not force students into a setting of public humiliation as a matter of punishment. She was not asking the question: Of what use is grammar and usage instruction?

She was simply asking the question: Why can’t students retain knowledge and application of simple grammar and usage from grade to grade? By the way… she knows that I taught is as a linking verb to those students.

You see, my colleague is not convinced by the research that purportedly indicates that direct grammar instruction has no impact on student acquisition of language skills. She recognizes the value of teaching language and wants her students to learn how to speak and write well. I share her views and her commitment to changing how she teaches to accommodate how her students learn. So do most English-language Arts teachers. So do the writers of the Language Strand of the Common Core State Standards.

So, what’s the answer to her question?

Why Doesn’t Grammar Stick?

No pat answers here; however, a few points should be considered. I’ll let the writers of the Common Core State Standards make these points regarding the recursive nature of instruction in grammar and usage:

“Grammar and usage development in children and in adults rarely follows a linear path.”

“Native speakers and language learners often begin making new errors and seem to lose their mastery of particular grammatical structures or print conventions as they learn new, more complex grammatical structures or new usages of English.”

(Bardovi-Harlig, 2000; Bartholomae, 1980; DeVilliers & DeVilliers, 1973; Shaughnessy, 1979).

“These errors are often signs of language development as learners synthesize new grammatical and usage knowledge with their current knowledge. Thus, students will often need to return to the same grammar topic in greater complexity as they move through K–12 schooling and as they increase the range and complexity of the texts and communicative contexts in which they read and write.”

“The Standards account for the recursive, ongoing nature of grammatical knowledge in two ways. First, the Standards return to certain important language topics in higher grades at greater levels of sophistication… Second, the Standards identify with an asterisk (*) certain skills and understandings that students are to be introduced to in basic ways at lower grades but that are likely in need of being retaught and relearned in subsequent grades as students’ writing and speaking matures and grows more complex.”

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons. The lessons also include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out PREVIEW THE TEACHER’S GUIDE AND STUDENT WORKBOOK  to see samples of these comprehensive instructional components.

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the grades 4−high school Teaching Grammar and Mechanics.

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Reading Intervention Programs

So your district is starting to implement a Response to Intervention (RtI) model in its elementary, middle, and high schools. Number One on the agenda is to pull together district personnel, administrators, and teachers to research and recommend adoption of a reading intervention program… You google “Reading Intervention Programs” and find this article. Welcome!

Reading Intervention Program Questions

Which program should your district choose? What criteria should be agreed upon in the selection process? How (or can you) evaluate the success or track-record of the program? Does a one-size-fits-all approach make sense for the students you plan to serve? Which students need to be served? Is your district considering a Tiers II, and III model? Does your district have the financial and support resources necessary to match the scope of its instructional plan? What levels of reading expertise does your district have at its disposal? How well-trained are the teachers who will teach the program? Will the structure of the schools and their programs accommodate the type of reading intervention needed?

But, those questions are only one-half of the equation. Your side of the equation. The other half needs to be considered, as well, to make an informed and practical decision about which reading intervention program should merit adoption. The publisher’s side of the equation.

The Reading Intervention Program Publishing Merry-Go-Round

Following is a somewhat-cynical, but valuable, description of the reading intervention publishing process. Disclaimer: the author of this article has his own reading intervention program to sell, so keep this in mind. So, how do publishers create and market a reading intervention program and get your district to buy it?

Most all of the “big-boy” publishers (and that categorization is gender-accurate, if you look at who runs these publishing houses) already have many reading intervention programs in their catalogs. However, publishers need something new to create “buzz” and sell product. They hire a few well-respected university professors to “author” (repackage) the materials. Grad students and per-hour staff writers re-work and re-package in-print and out-of-print materials. The design team ramps up and creates an attractive product. Ta dah! A new reading intervention program. The two most popular reading intervention programs are Language!® Live is the re-vamped Language!® program from Voyager Sopris with new contributing author Louisa Cook Moats; and READ 180 Next Generation is the thoroughly revised offering from mega publisher Scholastic/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with new contributing authors Kevin Feldman and Kate Kinsella. Check out an analysis of these two programs here.

Next, the publishers jump through all the hoops to get their reading intervention programs adopted by the state. With well-placed lobbyists and state department of education employees with their hands in the deep pockets of these publishers, the hoops are less challenging.

Next, the publisher plans an aggressive marketing campaign to promote their innovative “new and improved” program. The publisher secures a prominently featured row of exhibit booths at the International Reading Association conference to launch the product. Then, the publishers get to work on the school districts. I’ll stop here, because you are involved in this part of the process and will know everything you need to know once you place that call to their program (sales) representatives.

A few comments on this latter half of the reading intervention program adoption equation…

Notice that the practitioners (teachers) have very little to do with developing the latest reading intervention fad. Despite the fact that veteran teachers have years of experience in “trial and error” reading instruction, teachers are rarely consulted in the development of new reading programs. Reading programs are publisher-developed and profit-driven. Programs are delivered as “faits accompli” to districts for approval and purchase. Textbook adoption committees, which include teachers, are left to rubber-stamp programs, ostensibly following pilot teacher recommendations. Actually, districts follow the leads of other districts and the bigger the publisher, the more “resources” are brought to bear in the decision-making. The entire process is carefully guided by publisher representatives.

Here’s another approach. Consider purchasing an economical, data-driven, program developed by an MA Reading Specialist in the classroom. A reading intervention program designed by a teacher for teachers. A reading intervention program that values the expertise of teachers. A reading intervention program that truly allows the teacher to differentiate instruction according to the individual needs of students.

Teaching Reading Strategies provides teachers of remedial upper elementary, middle school, high school, and adult students all the resources they need to turn their students into fluent readers in the shortest amount of instructional time. The instructional design and resources are perfect for Tiers I, II, and III placements. English language-learners will benefit from the design of this program–especially those who have begun reading in their primary languages. Students with learning disabilities, such as auditory and visual processing problems, will get the targeted and flexible instruction they need to address these challenges.

Rather than starting each learner from “scratch” with hours of repetitive practice, like traditional remedial reading programs, the whole-class diagnostic assessments pinpoint individual reading strengths and deficiencies. Teachers simply record the assessment results and then use the prescribed resources to help students remediate their deficiencies. Students see direct benefit and pay-off in each lesson. Instead of tedious practice in a reading skill already mastered, students feel challenged each day and learn quickly in what social psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, termed their “zone of proximal development.” Students become constructive partners in the learning process because they monitor their own progress. As a by-product, students improve self-esteem, classroom behavior, and motivation to learn.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, spelling pattern worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games. Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies.

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