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READ 180 and Phonemic Awareness

My district, Elk Grove Unified, has decided to “speed pilot” two reading intervention programs for our middle schools and high schools: READ 180 Next Generation from Scholastic Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with new authors Kevin Feldman and Kate Kinsella and Language!® Live from Voyager Sopris with contributing author Louisa Cook Moats. I teach at a large middle school and we have one pilot teacher for each program. Training has been quite thorough, especially from the well-funded READ 180 reps. Elk Grove Unified is  California’s third largest school district and so a district-wide adoption would be welcomed by either of the two companies.

Although I am the only reading specialist on staff, I decided not to pilot either of the two programs. However, I do have a vested interest in getting to know both READ 180 and Language!® DISCLAIMER: I am the author and publisher of my own assessment-based reading intervention program: Teaching Reading Strategies with the Sam and Friends Phonics Books and Reading and Spelling Game Cards. I’ve chosen not to sell my own program within my district to avoid any potential conflict of interest.

I do use Teaching Reading Strategies with a seventh grade support class, so I can compare programs and results with those of the students in the READ 180 and Language!® at the same school with the same placement criteria. I’ll not pretend to have created an experimental design to determine if there are statistically significant differences between my program and the others. Of course I am biased, but I can present a few observations and allow teachers to draw their own conclusions.

I decided to start my comparisons with the screening and placement assessments for each program. As a reading specialist, I’m always concerned about using assessments to deny or provide services. Plus, as a matter of equity I’m very invested in the placement process: I hate to see a child overlooked who needs to learn to read but I’m equally distraught to see a student misplaced into a program who does not need to be there.

I decided to start my analysis with the READ 180 program. Specifically, in this article I’m taking a look at the phonological awareness component from one of the two assessments in the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI): The Foundational Reading Assessment. The second assessment is the Reading Comprehension Assessment. In my first article on these two reading intervention programs, I noted my concern that no encoding (spelling) test was included as part of the screening and placement assessments for READ 180. Jane Fell Greene’s encoding test has always been part of the competing Language!® program.

I emailed Dr. Richard K. Wagner, author of the READ 180 assessment (originally developed as the iRead Screener for another program). I asked him “If you were to add a print component that would ameliorate some of the limitations of the computer-based format, what would that include? I was hoping that you would have added an encoding test and a timed fluency assessment at the students’ lexile levels.

Rick kindly responded: “What you say makes sense.”

Now onto the specifics of what is actually on the READ 180 Foundational Reading Assessment. This computer-based assessment includes a total of 82 possible items, divided into three strands: Phonological Awareness, Letter-Word Identification, and Word Attack.

Let’s look at the first two of the three strands. In my next article I’ll tackle the word attack component. The Phonological Awareness Strand has 12 total items. First, let’s look at two definitions to get us on the same page:

Phonological awareness refers to a general recognition of speech sounds. “When that insight includes an understanding that words can he divided into a sequence of phonemes, this finer-grained sensitivity is termed phonemic awareness” (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998, p. 51).

Phonemic awareness is the recognition that words are made up of speech sounds (phonemes) and that these phonemes can be segmented (pulled apart), blended (put together), or substituted, added, or subtracted from one word to the next to create new words. It also refers to the understanding that the phonemes combine to form distinct syllables and words.

It doesn’t take a reading specialist to understand that phonological awareness precedes phonemic awareness. However, what teachers need to know to properly screen and place students is student mastery of the basic phonemic awareness skills. This data we do not get from the Foundational Reading Assessment. If teachers have to assess for proper placement (we do), why not kill two birds with one stone and assess to inform instruction as well?

Three of the test items in the phonological awareness assessment measure students’ rhyme identification skills. Students see an image and hear a word read aloud. They then see three more images and hear three more words. One of the words matches the beginning, middle, or end sound of the first word, or rhymes with the word. The test design certainly makes sense, but why only three rhymes? Rhyming is a critical component of phonemic awareness and is one of the earliest developmental stages of pre-reading. Rhyming is usually taught at home, in nursery school, and in kindergarten.

If I were designing the assessment, I would include 10 rhymes: one for each of the five short and five long vowel sounds. That would be an assessment that would properly screen, help place, and ultimately provide useful data for the teacher to teach to… in other words, assessment-based instruction. Yes, that is the format for my Rhyming Assessment in the Teaching Reading Strategies program. The test is a simple five-minute whole class audio assessment.

The balance of the Phonological Awareness Strand test includes students’ abilities to identify initial, final, and medial sounds (only three test items for each). These elements of phonemic isolation are important pre-reading skills, and teachers need to know exactly what their students do and do not know for both program placement and for instruction. My phonemic isolation assessment has 10 teachable components on the five-minute whole class audio assessment.

And, most importantly, why isn’t phonemic segmentation, phonemic blending, and syllable awareness part of the assessment? These kindergarten−first grade pre-reading skills are essential skills to assess. And, no, READ 180 does not include separate diagnostic assessments for these elements of phonemic awareness. Teaching Reading Strategies does. Each of these three assessments has the usual five-minute whole class audio assessment.

The second component of the Foundational Reading Assessment tests letter name and letter sound knowledge items. The test uses a sample of 5 items assessing lowercase letter name knowledge and 5 assessing uppercase. Last I checked, there are 26 letters in our alphabet. Additionally, 10 letter sound items are included.

Interestingly, the publishers have taken the step to test the validity of their assessments to those of the University of Oregon’s Dibels Next assessments; however, Dibels Next assesses all 26 upper case and lower case letters as does my own Teaching Reading Strategies program. Knowing which letters students know and don’t know allows the teacher to teach to those deficits. Again, the READ 180 program does not provide assessment-based instruction with its screening assessments. Sampling has its drawbacks; teachers need teachable data.

The little known fact about the READ 180 program is that students who fail the Foundational Reading Assessment will need to be assessed and placed in another program: SYSTEM 44. This program is a separate program and is extremely expensive. The publishers claim that READ 180 and SYSTEM 44 can be taught concurrently in the same classroom, but none of our pilot teachers throughout our district is doing so. Fair to note that the Language!® Live program and Teaching Reading Strategies each provide the instructional resources to teach the full range of student pre-reading and reading needs within the same program.

READ 180 and Language!® use adaptive computer technology to teach individual student deficits. Technology is wonderful; however, there are limitations. Most teachers I know prefer to control

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

what needs to be taught, when it needs to be taught, and how it needs to be taught—not trust the machine and a canned reading program to “fix ‘em.” This is especially important in teaching phonemic awareness. Since phonemic awareness is an auditory, not a visual skill set, the face to face teacher to student instruction is essential. All six of the alphabetic and phonemic awareness assessments in the Teaching Reading Strategies program have specific corresponding instructional activities to ensure that your students will master each of these essential pre-reading skills.

In my next article I will continue my comparative analysis of the screening and placement assessment components in the READ 180 Next Generation and Language!® Live programs with the word attack (phonics and sight words) screening and placement assessment.

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