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Reading Counts! Claims and Counterclaims

Accelerated Reader or Reading Counts!

AR or RC?

The purpose of this article on Reading Counts! is threefold: 1. To briefly summarize the basics of the Reading Counts! (RC) independent reading management program 2. To analyze three key claims made by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMS) regarding the efficacy of the RC (formerly Scholastic Reading Counts!) program and provide counterclaims by reading researchers, librarians, students, teachers, and Yours Truly. 3. To promote my own reading intervention program at the end of the article with free teaching resources 🙂

Background

I previously ventured into the deep waters of independent reading management programs a number of years ago with my article, The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader. Accelerated Reader™ is the most popular independent reading management program with 180,000 book titles (January 2019) assigned a Reading Practice Quiz. RC is the second place challenger with 45,000. Teacher comments on my article tend to focus more on the abuses of the program, and less so on the program itself. Many teachers are quite defensive about their use of the AR program. Understandably so. We teachers view our instructional choices as reflections of our professionalism. Curriculum is personal. In anticipation of similar comments to this article on Reading Counts!, I would like to preemptively respond by saying, “I’m sure that you are doing your part to adapt the Reading Counts! program to the needs of your kids, and I respect your professional judgment that you know your students best.” Please don’t shoot the messenger! However, as I re-read “The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader” in preparation for this article, I would have to say that most of the problems in the AR program are applicable to the RC program, as well. I won’t cover the same ground in this article. However, I will analyze three of the claims made in the RC program, which I see as being more exclusive to this program. But first, a brief overview of how the RC program works.

How Reading Counts! Works

  • A school or district pays a school start-up fee of $375.00 and is assigned a sales representative. The RC software management program is licensed for an annual fee of $4.00 per student (a lower price for 2019). The reading placement and monitoring assessment, recently re-named the Reading Inventory (RI), costs an additional $4.00 per student. So, if my math is correct, that’s $4,000.00 for a 500 student elementary school every year. Plus, more money…
  • The school and/or district re-allocate portions of their budgets to purchase books included within the RC program. Currently, RC has about 45,000 titles, but unlike the books in the AR program, the company makes money from each sale, because HMH publishes them! These purchases will necessarily become an every-year budget item. 
  • The HMS sales representative in-services school librarians, teachers, and administrators (lots of online help, as well) on how to implement the RC program. Suggestions as to how to inform and work with parents and corresponding resources are provided. The program resources are relatively easy to use, but time-consuming.
  • The classroom teacher or librarian administers the computer-adaptive Reading Inventory (RI) as a reading placement test to all students participating in the RC program. This test provides a Personal Lexile® score for each student.
  • Teachers use the Student Achievement Manager (SAM) data and management system to generate student and class reports. The reports list the results of the RI as a Personal Lexile® number (level or measure) for each student and a class Lexile average. A higher Lexile number indicates a higher reading level ability.
  • The reports also list the students’ optimal Lexile text readability levels (a numerical range). A text’s Lexile level is determined by its semantic and syntactic degree of difficulty and sentence length. Once students know their reading levels, they can select books from the Search Book Expert Online ,within these reading levels. Although the RC is a Lexile-based program, it also includes grade-level equivalency and guided reading levels in this search engine. Additional filters include grade-level interest (K–2, 3–5, 6–8, high school, and high interest/intervention), fiction and non-fiction, subject areas, genre, and curriculum-integrated books. Note that the HMS reading intervention programs, READ 180 Next Generation® and System 44® include some RC titles for their independent reading rotations.
  • Teachers and students set reading goals in terms of a point system. Each book is assigned a specific point value based upon its length and text complexity. Many teachers establish a monthly points requirement.
  • Once students have finished their books, they take a corresponding quiz on the computer, or the teacher may choose to print the quiz. Although the test bank for each quiz includes 30 items, the default number of questions is 10. The RC authors and sales representatives make much ado about the larger quiz bank of questions compared to that of the AR program. They claim that is less easy for students to cheat due to the randomized 10 question default when students are sitting side-by-side. This may be true; however, a quick search indicated plenty of RC quiz “cheat sites,” as are found with the AR program. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Students are allowed to examine their incorrect responses, but there is no pay-off for doing so if the quiz re-takes use different questions. 
  • If the students achieve a predetermined score (mastery criteria set by the teacher), they receive a “congratulations screen” and an opportunity to rate the book they read on the “Read-o-Meter.” Students can also check their own RC Student Progress Report. Points are awarded based upon the percentage of quiz questions answered correctly. If the students do not achieve mastery, the teacher may require them to read the book again and retest or re-visit the students’ RI Lexile level range and the level and content of the book. Students are able to take the 10-question quiz 3 times, because there are 30 questions.
  • Teachers generate reports on students’ quiz scores and track the amount of reading and student test scores. They can also receive alerts when a student has not taken a quiz within a given period.
  • Once individual student point goals (usually set monthly) have been mastered, the student receives a certificate of achievement.
  • The Reading Counts! Educator’s Guide provides plenty of reproducibles to supplement the quizzes, such as reading logs, story charts, book reports, parent letters (in several languages), and guides for teachers to write their own quizzes (if the school library does not have the RC book).

Claims and Counterclaims

Claim 1: Students improve their reading more when the complexity of the text they read matches their reading ability. The best test to measure that optimal match or zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978)? The HMH Reading Inventory. Why? The RI is a criterion (compared to a fixed goal, such as a Common Core Standard) and norm-referenced (compared to other students) test. This is important because the test design allows teachers to administer the RI twice more within the school year to monitor progress. The Lexiles, which RI uses, have improved readability assessments (standard errors of measurement have been minimized and the amount of comprehension variance that can be explained by text difficulty has been improved. Accelerated Reader’s STAR test doesn’t have those advantages.

Counterclaim: Given that the RI is state of the art, in terms of Lexile levels and matching students to texts, and given that the ability to administer the test three times per year does provide a valid measure to monitor progress. But, the entire design of the RC programs begs the question. It assumes what has yet to be proven. As noted reading researcher, Dr. Tim Shanahan asserts,

…Lexiles have greatly improved readability assessment … and yet we are in no better shape than before since there are no studies indicating that if you teach students at particular Lexile levels more learning will accrue. http://www.readingrockets.org/blogs/shanahan-on-literacy/teaching-books-students-reading-levels

…we have put way too much confidence in an unproven theory. The model of learning underlying that theory is too simplistic. Learning to read is an interaction between a learner, a text, and a teacher. Instructional level theory posits that the text difficulty level relative to the student reading level is the important factor in learning. But that ignores the guidance, support, and scaffolding provided by the teacher. [In doing so, educators] have striven to get kids to levels where they will likely learn best with minimal teacher support. https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/rejecting-instructional-level-theory

Matching the right books to readers is simply more complex than the quantitative Lexile approach RC uses. Content, theme, and sophistication of thought matter, as well as the age and maturity of the reader are critically important factors to consider when students select books for independent reading. Most would find the following strictly quantitative Lexile measurements, listed in parentheses, to be inappropriate criteria for these grade levels.

  • 2nd Grade: Night – Wiesel (570)
  • 3rd Grade: The Sun Also Rises – Hemingway (610); Twisted – Anderson (680); Incarceron – Fisher (600)
  • 4th Grade: Grapes of Wrath – Steinbeck (680); The Color Purple – Walker (670)
  • 5th Grade: For Whom the Bell Tolls – Hemingway (840); Kite Runner – Hosseini (840); A Farewell to Arms – Hemingway (730); Cat’s Cradle – Vonnegut (790)
  • 6th Grade: As I Lay Dying – Faulkner (870); The Sound and the Fury – Faulkner (870); To Kill a Mockingbird – Lee (870); Fahrenheit 451 – Bradbury (890)

http://www.unleashingreaders.com/?p=8891

Additionally, the authors of the Common Core State Standards, with their emphases on text complexity, specifically challenge the notion that reading instruction should focus solely on texts at student ability levels. The authors cite research suggesting that with such scaffolds as close reading, even struggling readers can access significantly more complex text than that to which they have been traditionally given access. https://achievethecore.org/content/upload/Implementation%20-%20Issues%20With%20a%20Leveled-Only%20Text%20Approach[1].pdf

“Below are bibliographic citations for the 26 studies referenced in Shanahan (2014) regarding students making gains with more complex text when given appropriate scaffolding. In addition abstracts and full-text PDF’s of all studies are available as well. These references were provided by Shanahan in “Building Up To FrustrationLevel Text” in Reading Today Online available here:”

https://www.literacyworldwide.org/blog/literacy-daily/2014/09/02/building-up-to-frustration-level-text

Furthermore, reading research has repeatedly demonstrated the important variable of prior knowledge with respect to reading comprehension. When readers have significant prior knowledge on a topic, familiarity with the genre, or experience with the author’s writing style, even high Lexile level texts can be accessible. Prior knowledge and scaffolding relevant content and context can often trump the quantitative challenges of complex semantic and syntactic text for students.

Motivation is another significant variable in matching readers to text that can override the limitations of the RC Lexile levels. My youngest son was in 4th grade when the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out. Clearly, the quantitative Lexile level of 880 should have prevented his MA reading specialist father (me) from purchasing this “frustration level” book. Instead, I dutifully ignored the quantitative data and waited in line with my fourth grader for the midnight release of this treasured book. My son plowed through the book with a high level of comprehension. By the end of fourth grade, my son was reading significantly above grade level. Thanks to motivational influence of J.K. Rowling and the dozens of peers who were concurrently reading and discussion that book during recess.

Others would agree that reader motivation is far more important than instructional reading levels in book selection. From Ricki Ginsberg’s article, “This is my Anti-Lexile, Anti-Reading Level Post” (Ginsberg is Assistant Professor of English Education at Colorado State University):

I’m a 6th grader and when I took a Lexile test for my grade, I got stuck with books I hate so much. We had to search for books in my Lexile. I am so bored of those books. I want to read whatever I want to.

I took my grandson (a few years ago) to his book fair to purchase some books with him. He chose a few, and then we went back to his classroom to get his things, where I met his teacher. She took a look at the books he had chosen, and was excited about, and said, “Oh, I think these are too hard for you. You need to choose ones more at your level.” She didn’t know that I was a teacher, and I didn’t tell her. I almost hit her, but I didn’t do that either. She was the one who pretty much stopped his excitement about reading…

As a librarian, I have fought for years against leveling books. I was supported my district years ago against AR, but my job as a librarian was shifted to support classroom curriculum instead of supporting reading enjoyment, reference process, and library skills. Now a new deputy superintendent, whose old District used a Lexile based reading program, is spending money on a program that is Lexile leveled. While library books are hardly given any budget money, tens of thousands are being spent… The skills that teachers built by learning how to “fit” a book to a student and teaching students to self-select challenging and interesting reading material is being prostituted to paying publishers for poorly written formulaic books dressed up with attractive level numbers. It is a disservice to our students that ultimately destroys their confidence in becoming independent readers.

Unshelved

Used with permission www.unshelved.com

Claim 2: RC provides the accountability to ensure that students are reading independently.

At the heart of this powerful program is the practice provided by its quizzes. Unlike other reading assessment programs, no two quizzes in Reading Counts! are the same, struggling readers have the opportunity to retake quizzes, and quiz settings can be customized based on individual students’ needs for extra support or challenge. This quiz quality leads to more accurate and actionable data to keep students on track for success.

[Reading Counts!] automatically generates a quiz that meets each student’s reading needs. Because every quiz provides a true formative, curriculum-based assessment, As a computer-based program, RC provides immediate feedback and unique opportunities for mastery. Students can review questions that were incorrectly answered. Because each quiz is drawn from a database of up to 30 questions, students not showing an expected level of mastery can retake quizzes with a different set of questions. Research shows that when students are provided with immediate feedback, they are able to self-correct and make academic progress (Branford, Goldman & Vye 1991). https://www.hmhco.com/programs/reading-counts

Counterclaim: While the reading research is clear that students who read independently are significantly more likely to outperform peers who do not read on their own (Anderson, Wilson & Fielding 1998), and those who read more independently score higher on reading tests compared to those who read less (Juel, 1988; Juel, Griffith, & Gough, 1986; Stanovich, 1986), the research does not support the claim of the RC authors and editorial board that the type of accountability that the program uses (quizzes) is necessary to achieve optimal reading gains.

Each of the 45,000 RC quizzes includes a test bank of 30 questions. They are primarily recall questions with some vocabulary and a minimum number of inferential questions. Few of the questions are relevant to the big ideas or themes of the corresponding books. In essence, the quizzes are designed to hold students accountable for reading their books.

Some researchers such as Dr. Stephen Krashen, argue that free voluntary reading, without accountability, produces greater reading gains than independent reading programs with accountability, as with the quizzes in the RC program. You may wish to check out my dialogue with Dr. Krashen on in-class independent reading and accountability. I disagree with Dr. Krashen and support independent reading with accountability.

My take is that we teachers have much better methods to hold students accountable for independent reading that also reinforce effective reading practice. For example, as a middle school teacher, I use online peer book clubs and student-parent discussions for my middle school students. I’ve also taught high school ELA and supervised elementary teachers doing the same. Plenty of accountability and practice, using the motivating social nature of reading. And no in-class independent reading. It’s all homework. I’m no guru, but I’m persistent, and I get between 80–90% participation (more the first semester than the last).

I teach students and their parents how to self-select reading, informed, but not limited by word recognition measures. However, challenging books need not be the only books students read. Reading at multiple levels has clear advantages and reflects real-world reading. I also train students how to discuss their reading in their online book clubs with their peers (one daily post and two comments required using the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks… download follows… to prompt), and I pop in to add my 2 cents. At Back-to-School Night (I require at least one family member to attend, and arrange infinite make-up sessions until I meet with every parent or guardian), I train adults how to hold 3-minute student-led reading discussions and parents assign points for their kid’s 5-days-per-week independent reading and discussion. I’m in a lower, poverty-challenged school with 75% free and reduced lunch, multi-ethnic, multi-languages, etc. If you have tricks up your sleeves to hold students accountable for reading that don’t require additional teacher correction or huge amounts of time, please add to the comments section of this post. At the end of this article, I link to a nicely organized list of articles and free resources for ELA and reading intervention teachers with quite a few more ideas on independent reading.

In the RC program, the SAM management system tracks individual and class quiz scores and also the number of words students have read in each book. If a student doesn’t pass the quiz after three attempts, she or he loses credit for having read the book. This means that the number of words the student has read is not tallied, and the student doesn’t receive a reward certificate as quickly. If it’s the independent reading that reinforces comprehension, vocabulary acquisition, and fluency, why doesn’t the student receive credit for doing so? The bottom line is that students receive positive reinforcement for mastering quizzes, not for reading. Reading is not rewarded; passing the quizzes is.

Claim 3: RC EMPOWERS educators with reports and actionable data at the student, school and district level. As a supplementary reading program, RC REINFORCES comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency skills. 

Counterclaims: The reports do provide information to the teacher regarding who read what, at what Lexile levels, how many pages read, what quiz scores were achieved, who hasn’t taken a quiz for awhile (alerts), and more. Plenty of information about what your students are and are not doing with respect to their independent reading. All interesting information, but information which takes time to input, analyze, and report (whoever says that technology is a time-saver is crazy); and information which RI administrators (like your principal) can access and compare to that of your colleagues. Although not advocated by the authors of the RC program, most teachers do use this data in various ways to provide incentives for participation in terms of rewards and/or grades. Of course, the incentives can become problematic. See my article, The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader for examples. In short, the SAM reports do provide data collection and management functions (ones which could be done by paper and pencil or a simple Excel® spreadsheet in less time at no cost); however, none of these data informs reading instruction.

Next, let’s take a look at the claim about empowering educators with actionable data. Remember, the two assessments of the RC program are the three-times per year, Lexile-based HMH Reading Inventory (used for initial placement and subsequent progress monitoring) and the 45,000 quizzes. To my mind, actionable data should mean teachable data derived from prescriptive assessments that are reliable and valid. Let’s examine whether these two assessments provide information which is teachable.

For example, let’s say the students in your class take the RI during the first week of school. One of your bright students, Amanda, scores an above grade-level Personal Lexile score of 700, while  your class average is 550. With the SAM management software, you are able to use that data to match readers to books. However, other than that use (which we’ve already shown to be of questionable value), those initial RI Lexile scores provide no data to inform our reading instruction. On the RI given 3 months later, Amanda improves to a 750 and her average quiz scores from 80–90%, but your class averages the same 550 Lexile level and has not improved its 70% quiz average.

What does that data indicate? Something appears to be helping Amanda improve her reading, but we have no idea what it is. It could be the RC program; it could be the independent reading, itself; it could be the reading instruction you are doing in class, though you may not know exactly what instruction is helping; it could be what her parents are doing at home. Regarding your class, average Lexile and quiz scores, something appears not to be working. But what is the something so we can do something about it? We don’t know. You could look at subgroups and find out that your girls have improved more than your boys, or one ethnic group over the other, etc. But how does the Lexile and quiz data inform our instruction? The short answer? It doesn’t. The RI and quizzes provide no information about which reading skills have not yet been mastered and which have been mastered by Amanda or class as a whole. Neither assessment offers the teacher any specific data regarding what to teach and what not to teachSo why test if it does not provide actionable data?

A good question. Of course, teachers have been creating diagnostic and formative assessments for years that do inform their reading instruction in specific sub-skills. Good teachers are more than willing to test when the data pinpoints what needs to be taught and practiced and what does not require repeated instruction. Like many teachers, I’ve developed my own assessments to inform my instruction. I’ve written and field tested 13 diagnostic reading assessments with recording matrices and audio files, which provide teachable data. I provide them free of charge to help your students, and because some teachers would prefer not to re-invent the wheel by creating their teaching resources to correspond to each assessment item. Yes, you can buy those instructional resources from Pennington Publishing. Simply click the link and look in the header to download and print the free assessments. Additionally, skim the Articles and Resources to find over 700 articles of interest to the ELA and reading teacher, including a slew of articles on how to create your own no-cost independent reading program that I think does a better job for students than either the Accelerated Reader™ and Reading Counts! programs.

Both the Accelerated Reader™ and Reading Counts! program authors are careful to label their independent reading management programs as supplementary programs, as they should. However, as every teacher knows, instructional time is reductive: if you add on this, you have to take away that. Because both programs are designed for in-class and home practice, AR and RC supplant other instruction, most always reading instruction. Accepting at face value the RC claim that RC REINFORCES comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency skills, my question to teachers would be… Which would help your students improve their reading more? REINFORCING or TEACHING? Feel free to download my SCRIP Comprehension Strategies TEACHING resource at the end of this article as a reward for slogging through this rather long diatribe. I look forward to your comments.

*****

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive assessment-based reading intervention curriculum, the Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLEIdeal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program. Phonological awareness, phonics, syllabication, sight words, fluency (with 128 YouTube modeled readings), spelling, vocabulary and comprehension. The 54 accompanying guided reading phonics books each have comprehension questions, a focus sound-spelling pattern, controlled sight words, a 30-second word fluency, a running record, and cleverly illustrated cartoons by David Rickert to match each entertaining story. These resources provide the best reading intervention program at a price every teacher can afford.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Check out the quality of these programs with a resource which works for both grade-level and struggling readers to improve internal monitoring of reading: 

These five FREE lessons will help you teach the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies for both grade-level and struggling readers. This FREE download is sent safe and secure to your email, and includes a set of SCRIP Posters and Bookmarks.

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Straight Talk with Stephen Krashen on SSR

A few weeks ago, I replied to a post on the community forum found on my favorite site, Jim Burke’s English Companion Ning. The subject? Sustained Silent Reading (SSR). After some challenging back and forth, I decided to write my own article titled “Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work.” I listed and defended eight reasons why SSR is not the best use of class time and closed the article by justifying my proposal that independent reading be assigned as homework, along with the accountability of parent-graded daily reading discussion or online peer response/book clubs.

With such a provocative title, it’s no wonder that I received a number of responses. Among the responses, Dr. Stephen Krashen responded numerous times. Dr. Krashen has always served at the foremost advocate of free voluntary reading, essentially the more scholarly tag for SSR. Read more…

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Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work

O.K. So my title is a good hook. I’m an ELA teacher, so you’d expect no less. However, I’m also an MA reading specialist, so you’d expect me to be passionate about getting students to read and read well. I do believe that independent reading is vital to reading improvement. So why am I writing an article titled Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work?

First, let’s get on the same page about what most of us mean when we talk about SSR. SSR does have a variety of pseudonyms: FVR (Free Voluntary Reading, DEAR (Drop Everything And Read); DIRT (Daily Individual Reading Time); SQUIRT (Sustained Quiet Un-Interrupted Reading Time), WEB (We Enjoy Books), and USSR (uninterrupted sustained silent reading). I’m sure there are more. Essentially, SSR is based upon these assumptions:

  • Reading is a skill which improves with practice.
  • Students should be allowed to select their own books to read.
  • SSR should not include instructional accountability.
  • SSR is best accomplished within the classroom with the teacher as a silent reading model.

Now, of course, not every teacher implements the program in the same way; however, even with teacher tweaks, SSR just is not an effective use of class time. Why so? Here are 8 reasons Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work.

1. Reading Research Does Not Support SSR

According to the Report of the National Reading Panel (2000), the experimental design studies on SSR indicate no statistically or educationally significant differences between those students who do SSR and those students who do not. Now, to be fair, the reading research does not invalidate SSR. There are just too many variables to isolate and no teacher would ever agree to participate in a study in which a control group of students was not allowed to read.

According to noted reading researcher, Doctor Timothy Shanahan in his August 13, 2017 article:

NRP did conclude that there was no convincing evidence that giving kids free reading time during the school day improved achievement — or did so very much. There has been a lot of work on that since NRP but with pretty much the same findings: either no benefits to that practice or really small benefits (a .05 effect size — which is tiny). Today, NRP would likely conclude that practice is not beneficial rather than that there is insufficient data. But that’s arguable, of course.

Some educational researchers have criticized the findings of the National Reading Panel, arguing that long term correlational studies do suggest that students doing SSR gain more in reading than those who do not. However, correlation does not imply causation.

My take regarding reading research is that we should prioritize our instruction to focus on the instructional strategies that both experimental design and correlational studies support. In other words, let’s teach what works for sure. To devote significant class time to an instructional strategy with a questionable research base should give educators pause, especially when there is an alternative which achieves better results than SSR advocates purport to achieve.

2. There is Not Enough Class Time for SSR

There just are not enough minutes in the day to achieve the results desired by proponents of SSR. For example, to achieve year to year vocabulary growth, elementary students need to read a minimum of one million pages; secondary students need to read a minimum of two million pages. Do the math. Many secondary teachers only have four hours of class time per week. No conscientious secondary teacher would allot half of instructional time to SSR. True that many students read in other content classes and some outside of school, but also true that with normal instructional interruptions there are many weeks with less than four hours of class time. In other words, an hour of SSR per week is just not going to make much of a dent in the amount of independent reading that students need to achieve significant reading growth. The “some is better than none” response is just not acceptable.

Additionally, all instruction is reductive: teachers cannot add on without taking away. Should elementary teachers give up teaching science or social studies to add on SSR? Of course not. Furthermore, with the increasing rigor of the language and writing strands of the ELA/Reading Common Core State Standards, both elementary and secondary teachers will be hard-pressed to teach the grade level standards and differentiate instruction as mandated.

3. Free Choice Reading in SSR Does Not Maximize Reading Development

Free choice reading is an essential tenet of SSR proponents. However motivating self-selected reading may be, there are significant downsides. Students often choose books with reading levels far below or far above own their reading levels and so do not experience optimal reading growth. Most reading experts suggest a 95-98% word recognition level as being necessary for comprehensible input and vocabulary acquisition. To be crass, allowing students to choose their own reading material, without any guidance, lets the lunatics be in charge of the asylum.

4. SSR is Not Teaching

Yes, incidental learning does take place when students are in engaged in SSR. Some SSR advocates go so far as to claim that “Free reading appears to be the source of much of our reading ability, our writing style, much of our vocabulary knowledge, our spelling ability, and our ability to handle complex grammatical constructions (Krashen, 1993; Elley, 1991, 1998).

However, having a credentialed teacher model silent reading while 36 students choose to read or not read independently does not avail students of that teacher’s expertise. It’s not a question of which is better: a teacher-centered or student centered classroom. It’s an issue of educational priorities, efficiency, and effectiveness. SSR devolves the responsibilities and applications of reading strategies, comprehension or vocabulary development, and literary analysis to children. I’m not saying a teacher should exclusively assume the role of “sage on the stage,” but a “guide on the side,” should guide, not merely model.

Additionally, SSR is not appropriate for all students. SSR does not magically differentiate instruction. For example, some students (even secondary learners) need oral fluency practice, not independent silent reading. Other students already read extensively at home and do not need more independent reading time.

5. SSR Does Not Hold Students Accountable for Reading

Reading researchers Von Sprecken and Krashen concluded that children were more likely to read during SSR when certain conditions were in place: When there was access to interesting reading in the classroom and students are not required to bring their own reading material, when teachers read while students are reading, and when teachers made efforts to promote and discuss certain books the researchers found that 90% of students were reading. Even in a class in which none of these conditions were met, however, Debra Von Sprecken and Stephen Krashen found that 80% of the students were reading when observed. (California Reader, 1998, 32(1): 11-13) Not many teachers I know would be satisfied with a classroom instructional strategy in which from 4 to 9 of their 36 students (10-20%) did not participate.

It is true that many teachers “band-aid” this component of SSR and both the International Reading Association and important reading researchers part ways with SSR purists with regard to accountability. For example, Fountas and Pinnell suggest keeping records on student reading (2001). Nancy Atwell’s Reading Workshop includes the following: “monitoring the type and the number of books students read; they may also administer assessments, keep reading checklists, and ask questions or encourage student discussion about books.” (Atwell, 2007; Gambrell, 2007; Reutzel, Jones, Fawson, & Smith, 2008). Manning and Manning (1984) found that coupling SSR with peer discussions or teacher conferences led to improvements in reading achievement compared to a control group.” But these “band aids” avoid the fact that SSR necessitates such tweaking to even approach meaningful reading instruction.

6. SSR Provides No Opportunity for Reader Response

SSR is designed as a solitary activity. It is true that we want to equip our students to learn the discipline and enjoyment of the author-reader interaction. However, the simplistic notion that reading makes better readers ignores the fact that better reading makes even better readers. Reader response is critically important to making students better readers.

Students can be trained to become better monitors of their silent reading. Teacher think-alouds, reading journals, and comprehension starters such as the SCRIP comprehension strategies can encourage self-monitoring of reading text. SSR ignores the reading-writing connection. Plot diagrams, character webs, and comprehension questions aren’t just for teaching class novels. Narrative and essay response the same. The social context of reading development to build vocabulary and comprehension has been well-established both in research and practice. Social engagement increases reading motivation and accountability. Classroom reading discussions, literature circles, readers theater, book clubs, book reviews, and online discussion forums can be powerful motivators to encourage wide and thoughtful reading. Now for teachers thinking, “But we can have our cake and eat it, too” with SSR and Reader Response, I kindly suggest leaving the hypothetical and engaging the practical. See #2 above.

7. SSR Turns Recreational Reading into a School Thing

SSR advocates are keen on stressing how SSR is essential at their school because students do not have optimal environmental reading conditions at home or a lack of engaging books to choose from, or the distractions of video games-cell phones-family, et al. However, the fact that SSR in the classroom removes these distractions (highly debatable) sends a message and provides reading habits that require a structured school environment for independent reading. No teacher that I know takes the Free Voluntary Reading to mean “you can read if you want or not if you don’t want to,” whether the teacher enforces accountability procedures or not. Let’s face it. SSR is coercive and required in a contrived setting—hardly the conditions that will transfer to recreational reading out of the classroom. If our end goal is to get students to become lifelong independent readers outside of the school experience, shouldn’t we teachers work toward that end?

8. SSR Gives Up on Students, Peers, and Parents

To work toward the complementary goals of using class time to provide research-based reading instruction (#1, #4, #6) and assigning significant independent reading practice (#2, #3, #5, #7), I advocate abandoning classroom SSR and assigning independent reading as homework. “But they won’t do it. Students will not read for homework.” I have a different view and experience. Students will do independent reading as homework if a motivated teacher provides the leadership, appropriate carrots and sticks, gets parents to buy-in, and has the perseverance to ensure success.

Independent Reading Text Selection

Students choose any reading text that meets these criteria:

The motivational component of self-selection remains, but with appropriate oversight to ensure optimal reader-novel matches.

Independent Reading Accountability

But, how can teachers get students to read at home? How can teachers ensure that students really are reading? I require thirty minutes of reading and three minutes of discussion, four times per week. Student reading is monitored by reading partners, who also grade the quality of the student-led reading discussion. Parents typically serve as these partners. Of course, guardians, child care workers, grandparents, and older siblings can serve just as well. For older students, peer partners can certainly fulfill that role. Discussion partners grade the quality of each daily reading discussion, then total the points and sign the Reading-Discussion Log. I collect and record these logs bi-weekly and count this homework as 15% of the student’s overall grade. Do kids or discussion partners cheat on this? Rarely… and not as much as teachers might think.

Advantages of This Model

This reading-discussion model builds relationships, reinforces internal monitoring of comprehension, promotes reading as a dynamic process of conversation among reader, peers, and author, and motivates readers to read more. Reinforcement and feedback is immediate, not delayed as in the case other reader response assignments such as dialectical journals turned in at the end of each week or book reports completed after a novel has been finished. Students are required to apply the reading strategies we learn and practice in the classroom. For example, I pass out reading strategy bookmarks that that help students frame, but not limit, their book discussions.

What Kind of Results Can Teachers Get?

I get similar participation rates 80-90% (compared to the Von Sprecken, Krashen research) at my lower-middle, 70% free and reduced lunch, middle school, but remember that’s for homework, not for classwork. I would guess that the few students who do not do the independent reading at home would be the same ones that would not do the SSR in the Von Sprecken, Krashen study. Both parents and students love my “only homework is reading” policy. Some of my students prefer to participate in online book clubs in lieu of the parental discussion. I require a daily posting and response to other book discussion colleagues. Hunger Games was big with my students this year. Of course, I get to eavesdrop on their discussions.

My results are a bit less than Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller, achieves in terms of books read per year, but I’ve got a lot more time in class to teach other things I value because I don’t use SSR in my classroom.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned 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 instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

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Free Independent Reading Resources

Sam and Friends Phonics Books

Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

As an MA reading specialist and English-language Arts teacher, I know the value of independent reading. Despite our wonderful instruction in Greek and Latinates, context clues, and vocabulary in literature, students make their greatest vocabulary gains through independent reading at their instructional levels. Not to mention gains in reading comprehension. Teachers are understandably reluctant to allocate much class time to independent reading. Teachers are also unconvinced that their students really will read independently for homework.

However, learning how to teach students to select readings at their instructional level and providing accountability within the home and class community can improve students’ success rates and achieve our goals of turning teacher-dependent readers into truly independent readers. We might just even create a few life-long readers in the process.

Certainly we can go too far in pinpointing what students can and cannot read. The straight jacket approach of the AR program comes to mind. As C.S. Lewis once said… the neat sorting-out of books into age ranges, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers. Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table (1952 essay On three ways of writing for children, collected in Of Other Worlds Harvest Books 2002).

Even so, students can learn to self-guide their own reading selections. Following are articles, free resources (including reading assessments), and teaching tips regarding how to develop an effective independent reading program from the Pennington Publishing Blog. Also, check out the quality instructional programs and resources offered by Pennington Publishing.

Independent Reading

Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/why-sustained-silent-reading-ssr-doesn%E2%80%99t-work/

O.K. So my title is a good hook. I’m an ELA teacher, so you’d expect no less. However, I’m also an MA reading specialist, so you’d expect me to be passionate about getting students to read and read well. I do believe that independent reading is vital to reading improvement. So why am I writing an article titled Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work? SSR just is not an effective use of class time. Why so? Here are 8 reasons Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work.

Straight Talk with Stephen Krashen on SSR

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/straight-talk-with-stephen-krashen-on-ssr/

In response to my article titled “Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work,”Dr. Stephen Krashen responded numerous times. Given the richness of Dr. Krashen’s gracious responses to my persistent challenges and questions, I felt it would be helpful to post the unedited exchange.

Independent Reading Homework

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/independent-reading-homework/

I developed an independent reading program based upon “reading discussions.” Students read at home and lead a literary discussion with their parent for three-minutes per day, four days per week to offer flexibility to families. I devolved the accountability for these assignments to the student-parent partnership. In other words, parents grade their children on the quality of the discussion and I count the points.

How to Select Books for Independent Reading

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/how-to-select-books-for-independent-reading/

Teachers, students, and parents recognize the importance of independent reading. No thinking activity better builds content knowledge, improves vocabulary, or exposes the learner to the world and its ideas. The practical question is which reading materials most efficiently help readers access this world of knowledge? Because reading is an interactive process, the abilities and interests of the readers must also be considered to maximize the learning process.

Level Books with Word Recognition

Level Books with Word Recognition

Put aside the Lexiles, the DRA, F&P/GRL, and ATOS levels and let go of the Lucy Calkins and guided reading assessment-re-tells. Use word recognition. The five and ten-finger methods for book selection are quick, accurate, and easy to apply. Also get a wonderful FREE resources to boost your students’ reading comprehension.

The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/the-18-reasons-not-to-use-accelerated-reader/

Accelerated Reader (AR) is a simple software concept that was at the right time (late 1980s) and right place (public schools during a transition from whole language to phonics instruction) that has simply grown into an educational monolith. Following are short summaries of the most common arguments made by researchers, teachers, parents, and students as to why using AR is counterproductive. Hence, The 20 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader.

Schoolwide Independent Reading Program

http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/schoolwide-independent-reading-program/

I take a balanced approach and recommend such in the development of a schoolwide Independent Reading Program (IRP). On the one hand, we want our students to become lifelong readers. We want them to intrinsically enjoy reading and choose to read on their own. However, I do see the value in some marketing and promotion of a schoolwide Independent Reading Program (IRP). Students work well when pursuing goals and everyone likes rewards. No, I’m certainly not advocating the AR program: See my The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader article.

High Fluency Low Reading Comprehension

http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/high-fluency-low-reading-comprehension/

What can we, as parents and teachers, do for children with high fluency, but low reading comprehension? Check out the six actions steps designed to address this problem and download the helpful instructional strategies and free resources.

Independent Reading: The Meeting of the Minds

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/independent-reading-the-meeting-of-the-minds/

Using the format of  the old television show, Meeting of Minds, some of the greatest thinkers from different eras to discuss the subject of independent reading in the classroom.

How to Determine Reading Levels

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/how-to-determine-reading-levels/

Learn how to use word recognition and motivation to determine reading levels for your students or for your own children.

How to Get Students to Read at Home

http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/how-to-get-students-to-read-at-home/

Teachers and parents recognize the important role of independent reading in developing reading comprehension, vocabulary, and a lifelong love of books. Learn how to promote independent reading at home and help students achieve these desired benchmarks.

Free Whole Class Diagnostic ELA/Reading Assessments

http://penningtonpublishing.com/

Download free phonemic awareness, vowel sound phonics, consonant sound phonics, sight word, rimes, sight syllables, fluency, grammar, mechanics, and spelling assessments. All with answers and recording matrices. A true gold mine for the teacher committed to differentiated instruction!

More Articles, Free Resources, and Teaching Tips from the Pennington Publishing Blog

English-Language Arts and Reading Intervention Articles and Resources 

Bookmark and check back often for new articles and free ELA/reading resources from Pennington Publishing.

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Pennington Publishing’s mission is to provide the finest in assessment-based ELA and reading intervention resources for grades 4‒high school teachers. Mark Pennington is the author of two Standards-aligned programs: Teaching Essay Strategies and Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)Mark’s comprehensive Teaching Reading Strategies and the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books help struggling readers significantly improve their reading skills in a full-year or half-year intensive reading intervention program. Make sure to check out Pennington Publishing’s free ELA and reading assessments to help you pinpoint grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and reading deficits.

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Independent Reading Homework

I have always assigned independent reading, usually with the accountability of journals, logs, quizzes, book reports, etc. Success rate has varied depending upon the school. At my current 70% AFDC multi-culture, multi-language, semi-urban middle school about 25% of my students consistently completed their independent reading assignments. That reflects about half of my grade-motivated students. In other words, 50% of my students and their parents are complacent with respect to grades as motivators. I figured I set the table; it’s up to them to eat.

However, things changed a  few years ago. I read an article by Michael Gerson lamenting the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” I took that one personally. I committed to raising my expectations of my students, parents, and myself and finding new motivators to get my students to read at home.

I developed an independent reading program based upon “reading discussions.” Students read at home and lead a literary discussion with their parent for three-minutes per day, four days per week to offer flexibility to families. I devolved the accountability for these assignments to the student-parent partnership. In other words, parents grade their children on the quality of the discussion and I count the points.

As a work-in-progress I have learned a few things. It’s a lot of work. Both students and parents need training and practice in how to select appropriate independent reading level books. Hands-on practice in the library and classroom, as well as parent meetings, notes, and too-many-parent-phone-calls have all helped. I want student choice, but I also demand optimal levels for vocabulary and reading comprehension development. I am an MA reading specialist, so I’m biased.

I’ve taken the time to train students to read independently. Yes, I’ve had the principal challenge me regarding teaching reading strategies (But which ELA standard is this? Aaargh!) I’ve also spent time training students to lead the “reading discussions.” I developed SCRIP (Summary, Connect, Re-read, Interpret, and Predict) reading comprehension bookmarks to help students self-monitor as they read. I teach context clue strategies and we practice figuring out the meanings of unknown words. I do a lot of “think alouds” to model talking to the text and “making a movie” of the text in one’s head.

Results? Last year I upped my success rate to 80%. This year I want to expand my accountability network to peer relationships via book clubs, literature circles, and online discussion groups. Having taught high school for eight years, these networks would probably be more “do-able” than the student-parent “reading discussions” for most students.

This independent reading program at home frees me up to teach other ELA and reading Standards in the classroom. Instead of taking up valuable class time with sustained silent reading… Check out my dialog with Dr. Stephen Krashen on this approach.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned 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 instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary , , , , , , , , , ,

The Dos and Don’ts of Differentiated Instruction

With the Response to Intervention (RTI) model now being incorporated into many school districts today, it has become increasingly important to help frame the differentiated instruction (DI) discussion in an objective manner that won’t promote narrow agendas and will encourage teachers to experiment with DI in their own classrooms. Before I offer some tips on the dos and don’ts of differentiated instruction, it makes sense to address the key reasons that some teachers resist this educational approach.

Why Some Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction

1. Some teachers resist implementing DI because they wrongly perceive that managing diverse instructional strategies and on-going assessments would necessitate a veteran superstar teacher with no life outside of the classroom. Some teachers believe that DI requires too much preparation, assessment, correction, and record-keeping. These may have been truisms years ago, but clever teachers have since developed effective short-cuts to planning, assessment, and paper work. DI need not be a cause of teacher “burn-out” and teachers of all ability and experience levels can begin differentiated instruction with proper training and support. Furthermore, DI is not an “all or nothing” proposition, as some would lead us to believe. Most teachers layer in different aspects of DI over time.

2. The increasing emphasis on rigorous standards-based instruction and teaching to high-stakes tests have clearly prevented some teachers from implementing DI. In today’s educational climate, teachers do not want to be accused of “dumbing-down” instruction. However, DI can provide better access to those rigorous standards and greater success on those high-stakes tests, if done right. Differentiated instruction adjusts the focus from teaching to learning. Teachers can help students “catch up” through scaffolded instruction, while the students concurrently “keep up” with rigorous grade-level instruction.

3. Some teachers resist implementing differentiated instruction by attempting to create  homogeneous classes. Early-late reading and math instruction in the elementary grades and tracked ability classes in the secondary schools are designed to provide qualitatively different instruction for different student levels. However, analyzing the data of any subject-specific diagnostic assessment will indicate that students have a wide variety of relative strengths and weaknesses in any subject and that “different student levels” is an arbitrary and unworkable concept. Even within highly-tracked programs, DI is absolutely necessary because each student is unique with different skill sets and learning needs.

*For the complete article on Why Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction, check out this link.

The Whats of Differentiated Instruction

Don’ts

1. Don’t Trust the Standardized Test Data. The results of standardized tests provide “macro” data that can assess program quality or level of student achievement relative to the composite scores of other students. The data cannot pinpoint the “micro” data of student strengths and weaknesses in the skills and content that teachers need to assess. Even standards-based assessments provide only generic data, not the “nuts and bolts” discreet skills analyses that can effectively inform instruction.

2. Don’t Trust Your Colleagues. Teaching is an independent practice. No matter how many years we have eaten lunch with our teacher peers, no matter how many conferences, department or grade-level meetings we have attended together, no matter how many of the same teaching resources we share, and no matter how specific our scope and sequences of instruction align, we cannot assume that the students of our colleagues have mastered the skills that we need to build upon.

3. Don’t Trust Yourself. Making instructional decisions based upon “what the students know and what they don’t know” requires objective data to inform our judgments. There are just too many variables to trust even the best teacher intuition: family situations, language, culture, school experience, just to name a few. If we are honest, even veteran teachers are frequently fooled by sophisticated student coping mechanisms and cultural stereotypes.

Dos

1. Use relevant and specific diagnostic assessments. Eliminate the trust factor with good diagnosis. Record and analyze the student data to inform direct and differentiated instruction, including what skills and concepts need to be taught, how much time needs to be spent upon instruction, who needs intensive instruction and who needs only review, and who has already mastered the skill or concept. Use whole-class, multiple-choice assessments whenever possible, to minimize assessment and grading times.

2. Develop quick and frequent formative assessments to gauge student mastery of your teaching objectives. Use the data to inform and adapt your instruction accordingly. Learning is the heart and soul of DI, not teaching.

3. Establish and use a collaborative model to determine the whats of instruction. Include students, parents, and teaching colleagues in data analysis. Collaboration is essential to successful implementation of DI and RTI.

The Hows of Differentiated Instruction

Don’ts

1. Just because DI is student-centered, don’t go overboard on adjusting the how of instruction to correspond to student learning preferences. Learning styles, multi-sensory instruction, and multiple intelligences are long-standing educational constructs, but are based upon minimal research. Learning preference inventories do not provide reliable diagnostics about how to differentiate instruction. For example, auditory and visual processing deficits can be diagnosed, but no research has yet demonstrated which instructional strategies work best for these learners.

2. Don’t devolve all decision-making to student choice regarding how they choose to learn. Students don’t know what they don’t know. To devolve the how of instruction to student choice is to abrogate our responsibilities as informed and objective decision-makers. Do we really want to entrust the how of instruction to an eight-year old student and agree that Johnny knows best how to learn his multiplication tables? Do we really want to allow middle schoolers to choose whether they can listen to their iPods® while they silently read their social studies textbooks?

3. Don’t allow the hows of learning to destroy class management or time-on-task instructional efficiency. We should always perform a cost-benefit analysis on how we differentiate instruction. Good teachers weigh the needs of the class and the needs of the individual students, and then make decisions accordingly. Sometimes the optimal instructional methodology needs to be ditched and substituted with another because the students or teacher just can’t handle learning or teaching that way that day.

Dos

1. Consider the needs and differences of the learners. We never want to limit students to our own imaginations. Students do have important insights into their own learning that we need to consider. Teaching students to monitor and experiment with how they learn best is invaluable to their development as life-long learners. This kind of self-reflection can be promoted by teaching metacognitive strategies, such as self-questioning during independent reading or self-assessment on an analytical writing rubric.

2. Model different ways to learn skills and concepts. For example, in composition, some students prefer to draft first and revise thereafter; others prefer to integrate the drafting and revision process. Wouldn’t a teacher-led “think-aloud” that models these two composition processes make sense? Students learn which option or combination thereof works best for them through teacher direction, not from a sink or swim, work-it-out-yourself, trial and error process.

3. Use a variety of instructional methodologies. Effective DI instruction adapts to the needs of the learners. For some skills or concepts, DI involves direct, explicit instruction to pre-teach or re-teach concepts. For others, DI is best accomplished in heterogeneous cooperative groups or homogeneous ability groups. For still others, DI requires individualized instruction, via targeted worksheets and one-on-one review.

At its core, DI is simply good, sound teaching. Some proponents seem to intimate that DI is the ultimate educational panacea. However, no educational approach absolutely ensures student success. Unfortunately, it is all too often the case that you “can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Some students exposed to the best DI will continue to fail. But, directly addressing the individual learning needs of our students, rather than teaching a class as though all individuals in it were basically alike, offers our best chance of success for all.

The writer of this article, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of assessment-based teaching resources in the fields of reading and English-language arts. His comprehensive curricula help teachers differentiate instruction with little additional teacher prep and/or specialized training. Check out the following programs designed to teach both grade-level Standards and help students master those Standards not yet mastered. For the finest in assessment-based instruction…

Grammar, 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. (Check out a seventh grade teacher teaching the direct instruction and practice components of these lessons on YouTube.) The complete 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, 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. Check out the entire instructional scope and sequence, aligned to the Grades 4-8 Common Core Standards.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, 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 non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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Independent Reading: The Meeting of the Minds

Years ago, Steve Allen hosted and moderated a terrific television show titled Meeting of Minds. Steve resurrected some of the greatest thinkers from different eras to discuss a wide range of ideas and issues. I thought I’d use this format to respond to recent posts on the subject of independent reading in the classroom. I’m sure I’ve managed to set up a few straw men, but here goes…

Steve: The subject of independent reading in the classroom certainly provokes passionate advocates, as well as assorted debunkers.

Plato: Yes, we can’t really see the subject as it is, but we can see it as a reflection of educators’ presuppositions regarding the purpose of education.

Yoda: Right you are. Many are they who assume that teachers should be inculcators of knowledge and skills. Others are they who assume that teachers should be provokers of unfettered thought.

Kerouac: It’s time to get out of your cave and off your planet. It’s the how, not the why that’s important.

Steve: Okay, Jack. Let’s discuss the how. Some teachers assign novels for independent reading; others insist upon free choice of reading materials. Some teachers assign written response and/or assign grades; others do not.

Sartre: Yes, only in the act of freely choosing is one’s humanness truly affirmed. Any procedure designed to produce accountability, such as response journals or grades are counterproductive and coercive.

Tom Cruise: Scientology is the answer.

Plato: Um, okay… We are talking about empty vessels here. Students do not know what they do not know. It is the teacher’s job to manipulate what and how students should read. For example, The Republic stimulates the mind far better than that trashy Twilight or that manga pulp. Most of our students are not philosopher-kings. They will simply stare at pages and live within their dreams, if the teacher does not demand accountability and guide them in their choices.

Dr. Phil: Accountability in class takes time away from exploration. If independent reading is the purpose, what better method is there than free-choice reading itself?

Yoda: Balance is the answer. Of the force, two sides there are. Freedom and responsibility students must learn. Happy and motivated must they be.

Kerouac: It’s the have-to that turns students off to reading. If teachers were really being consistent in their educational philosophies, they would let students choose to read or choose not to read.

Plato: That would be anarchy-mob rule. We need good readers to maintain freedom and democracy. Force-feeding serves a utilitarian purpose. We are a connected community, not individual islands. If students practice reading the classics, they will learn to appreciate their value and be motivated to become life-long readers. Reading has intrinsic worth and attractiveness.

Sartre: Certainly true from the perspective of an English teacher. However, many children and adults are happy without reading.

Tom Cruise: I’m happy without reading. Happiness is Scientology.

Dr. Phil: Happiness is highly overrated. Who has a better life perspective, here—the teacher or the student? Even though most children hate vegetables, they should still eat them. Vegetables are important for future development. Students don’t have to like books to benefit from them. It’s the doing that is important. The present attitudes of children are largely irrelevant in the developmental scheme of things. Most children choose to eat the same vegetables as adults that they were forced to eat as children. Attitudes can and do change; impoverished reading skills rarely do so. Only one in six below-grade-level readers in middle school ever catch up to grade-level reading.

Yoda: Books they don’t like and books they do like, students must read. Very important is teacher judgment, I see.

Sartre: So, less than complete freedom now could produce more freedom later. The more reading skills that are mastered now, even at the expense of student choice, the more options will be available to free-choosing adults.

Steve: What about the issue of teacher modeling? If the teacher spends class time doing independent reading, some would argue that this time commitment teaches students that reading is a priority. Also, some would insist that teachers must read along with their students for proper modeling.

Yoda: A master a servant must have. A model a painter must have. A—

Kerouac: Stop with the direct objects you post-pubescent puppet! Why is conformity so highly prized in our schools? Modeling is overrated. Students will not develop reading skills or learn to love reading because the teacher stops grading papers and reads silently for fifteen minutes a day. There is no causal connection. In fact, rebellious teenagers may be more turned off to reading because they will never identify with some old guy sitting at his desk reading On the Road. Worse yet, some adult reading one of their teenage books… Bob Dylan said, “Don’t follow leaders; watch your parking meters.”

Sartre: And no student would ever think or say, “Ms. Jones, I would really enjoy reading more and realize its true value, if you stopped emailing during SSR.”

Plato: If amount of class time signals educational priorities, why wouldn’t a teacher spend fifteen minutes a day, three times a week, on say morals and ethics? Surely developing kindness and compassion should be equally as important for the good of our society as developing life-long readers. And if teachers must do as the students, to show that they truly value the activity, then why stop at reading along with the students? Should we not study vocabulary when students study vocabulary, do grammar worksheets when students do grammar worksheets, practice our own sentence combining when students do sentence combining, take the standardized test when students are forced to do so, eat a nutritious meal in the cafeteria alongside students?

Tom Cruise: I feel like jumping on your couch, Steve.

Steve: Try to refrain, Tom. I’d like to bring up one more issue for debate: why not read independently at home and save class time for other instructional priorities? After all, students cannot learn how to write an essay at home, but they can read at home.

Tom Cruise: No problem, Steve. I get so excited when Katie lets me out on my own.

Dr. Phil: It seems to me that although students may spend their independent reading time in school just staring at pages, with or without accountability, it is more likely that more students will actually read in school then at home. Countless studies have shown that students, by and large, read very little at home. They are conditioned to read in the school environment. You don’t need Doctor Oz to help you figure that one out.

Sartre: Ah, a logical fallacy. Teachers frequently assume to be true what has not yet been proven to be true. Just because most students do not now read at home, does not mean that they can’t read at home. Those studies that you refer to reflect how things are, not how things could be.

Yoda: Wise you are my philosopher friend. But, all is not light in our homes. Much darkness I see: few books at home, single parents with no time to read to children, illiterate parents, language issues.

Plato: This is especially true with the brass and iron of our state; these students just don’t have the home support that the gold and silver of our state enjoy. Schools have to accept this reality.

Dr. Phil: Yes. The Matthew Effect… Good readers from literate homes tend to become better readers, while poor readers from less literate environments tend to improve less. Teachers want to be released from guilt by blaming illiteracy on parents and the culture.

Yoda: Blame they may be misplacing, I feel.

Sartre: Teachers can become the radical change-agents, not the reinforcers of the status quo. Teachers give up on students and parents too easily. Instead of micro-managing, teachers should be macro-managing. Teachers could be creating literate families. What has happened to Family Literacy Nights? Home visits? Book Give-Aways? Family Reading Incentives? Parent Reading Seminars?

Kerouac: It seems to me that independent reading at home would go further in creating life-long readers than reading that is solely dependent upon teacher control within the class. Since when has dependence ever fostered more independence? If we are, indeed, talking about creating the habit of independent life-long reading, we need to encourage students to read on their own, apart from the teacher’s watchful eyes.

Yoda: Truly. A wise master a servant must become.

Sartre: And the master must become the wise servant. Teachers have an important role in teaching reading skills. Students don’t learn these skills exclusively through independent reading.

Plato: More reading skill instruction in the classroom and required independent reading at home = more reading practice. A perfect tautology.

Yoda: Integral to reading success are both sides of the force.

Tom Cruise: Scientology has all the answers. Trust me on this one.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned 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 instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

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How to Select Books for Independent Reading

Teachers, students, and parents recognize the importance of independent reading. No thinking activity better builds content knowledge, improves vocabulary, or exposes the learner to the world and its ideas. The practical question is which reading materials most efficiently help readers access this world of knowledge? Because reading is an interactive process, the abilities and interests of the readers must also be considered to maximize the learning process.

A variety of readability measurements and comprehension assessments have been developed over the years to help match the reading level of texts to the reading level of readers. The Fry’s Readability Graph, Reading Recovery® Levels, Lexile® Levels, and the Fleish-Kincaid Reading Ease® (popularized in Microsoft Word® are just some of readability measurements. These measure all use formula based upon word frequency, syllable counts, and lengths of sentences (among other factors) to determine a numerical reading level equivalent. Reading comprehension assessments include normed tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test, the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests, the Metropolitan Achievement Test, and the SAT I. Criterion referenced tests, such as the plethora of “state standards” reading tests and the DRA generally produce a spectrum of reading achievement relative to the tested standards. Finally, individual reading inventories, such as the John’s Basic Reading Inventory and the Qualitative Reading Inventory are leveled assessments that measure inter-related reading skills and establish reading grade levels.

However, each assessment has its limitations. The variables of reading texts and readers preclude hard and fast diagnoses and limit the practical application of the data. Additionally, the assessments are time-consuming and hard teachers, students, and parents to properly interpret. In fact, trained reading specialists have difficulty making appropriate use of the data.

What reading specialists do know, however, is that word recognition is a quick, easy, and painless way to determine approximate reading level. Word recognition is not to be confused with word identification, which involves phonemic awareness and decoding (phonics). The Slosson Oral Reading Test and the San Diego Quick Assessment have been used for years to match students to grade-level reading through word recognition levels. In these assessments, a reading grade level is assigned, according to the number of correctly read single and multi-syllabic words, i.e., words read with automaticity. However, these assessments still require the other side of the coin, i.e., the reading level of the text, to match texts to readers.

A much more direct approach that applies word recognition to the specific text to determine if the text-reader match is appropriate for the individual learner’s optimal “zone of proximal development” follows. It’s reader-centered and easy to train teachers, students, and parents to use.

How to Select Books that Have the Appropriate Reading Levels

The goal is to match individual readers to text that has about 5% unknown words. A much higher percentage is too hard for the reader; a much lower percentage is too easy for the reader.

How can you pick a book to read that has 5% unknown words? Choose a book of any genre and count the number of words on any complete page found near the beginning of the book and multiply that number by 3. Read a page toward the beginning of the book, counting the number of unknown words. A good guideline would be “if you can’t define it with a synonym, antonym, or example,” it is unknown. Then, read a page near the middle of the book and continue the count. Finally, read a page near the end of the book and finish the count. Divide the total number of unknown words by the total number of words found on the three pages. The result will be the percentage of unknown words. Anything within the 4-6% range is acceptable. For example, a reader counts the number of words on a page and arrives at 225. 225 x 3 = 750. After reading the three pages, the amount of unknown words totals 30. 30.00 divided by 750 = .05, or 5%.

A word about reading content and genre… Reading to learn suggests that reading in the school context should help improve a student’s independent access to and ability to understand text. Reading to learn also suggests that the reader should be exposed to a variety of reading genre. These being said, motivation is also a key factor in reading to learn. Reader interest plays an important role in increasing reading comprehension. Providing a balance between assigned texts and “reader’s choice” makes sense.

Additionally, practice does make perfect when the practice is done correctly. Besides appropriately matching the text to the reader, teachers and parents can students become better independent readers by teaching good silent reading habits, self-questioning reading strategies, context clue strategies, vocabulary, inference strategies, etc. Furthermore, discussion of the reading is essential to reading comprehension. See Reading Homework for an easy-to-follow independent reading program.

How Much Independent Reading is Appropriate?

The English-Language Arts Content Standards for K-12 Public Schools has established the standards of 500,000 words for primary students, 1,000,000 words for middle school students, and 2,000,000 words to be read annually by high school students in order to ensure grade to grade reading growth. This breaks down to 2,400 words per day for primary students, 4,800 words per day for middle school students, and 9,600 words per day for high school students (reading year-round, four days per week, assuming that only a minimal amount of reading is accomplished in school, which unfortunately is the norm). With the average page in a middle school novel consisting of 30 lines of 8 words per line, this means that reading only 20 pages of 240 words per page would meet that standard.

Because each student reads at different reading speeds, each child must be assessed to determine the number of words per minute that the child does read. Like oral fluency timings, silent reading speed is measured as follows.

Determining Individual Silent Reading Speed

  1. Have the students count the number of words on three consecutive full lines of print, for example, 24 words on 3 lines.
  2. Divide this amount (24) by 3, to give average words per line (8).
  3. Have the student read, beginning at the top of page of the text for one minute.
  4. Have the student count the number of lines (not sentences) read during that timing. Tell the student not to count any lines with 3 words or less. Say the student read 25 lines.
  5. Have the student multiply the number of lines read (25) x the number of words per line (8).
  6. The product (200) is the number of words that the student has read in one minute.
  7. Repeat the entire process once more and average the final total to determine the student’s silent reading fluency number.

How Many Minutes Do Students Need to Read Each Day? Or?

If the student reads at a rate of 200 words per minute, as in our example, the student would need to read for 24 minutes to achieve the goal of 4800 daily words (4 days per week, year round) for middle school students. This amount of time assumes a summer reading program or a daily commitment to independent reading during the school day.

However, because students have an amazing ability to daydream or stare at the same page in a text for minutes on end… a better approach is to require pages read per day. Based upon the number of words per page of the text and the student’s reading speed, it would be simple to require our example student to read 24 pages per day. Teachers can thus differentiate instruction and have students read a different amount of pages per day, based upon their silent fluency numbers. Of course, frequent assessment is suggested to adjust to different texts and student improvement.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned 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 instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

Reading, Study Skills , , , , , , , , , , , , ,