Posts Tagged ‘reading instruction’

Read 180 Foundational Reading Assessment

I teach two “regular” and one “support” English-language arts classes on a block schedule at a middle school in Elk Grove, California. Elk Grove Unified is the third largest school district in California with a treasure trove of ethnicities and languages and schools ranging from 75% free and reduced lunch semi-urban (my school) to schools from wealthy rural enclaves.

I served for years as a district elementary reading specialist before the sunset of our program at the beginning of the recession. I transitioned back to the classroom as a middle school teacher. With no funds to purchase new language arts or reading intervention programs and the advent of the Common Core State Standards, we teachers were encouraged to develop our own curriculum. Works for me!

As the only reading specialist on staff, I volunteered to teach our “support” classes. I will admit to having dual motives. I’m also an author and publisher of assessment-based curriculum. I decided to put what I learned as a district elementary reading specialist into practice in the classroom and into writing curriculum. I’ve always found teacher-created curriculum to be the stuff that works best for kids and trying out and revising curriculum to get the best results in your own laboratory (the classroom) is ideal. So on with my DISCLAIMER: I sell my own reading intervention program: Teaching Reading Strategies with the Sam and Friends Phonics Books and Reading and Spelling Game Cards.

As money has finally started to creep back into education, districts are now turning their attention and dollars into purchasing reading intervention programs. My district has decided to “speed pilot” two reading intervention programs for our secondary schools: Language!® Live is the re-vamped Language!® program from Voyager Sopris with new contributing author Louisa Cook Moats; and Read 180 Next Generation is the thoroughly revised offering from mega publisher Scholastic/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt with new contributing authors Kevin Feldman and Kate Kinsella. At my middle school we have one pilot teacher for each program. Training has been extensive from these two eager publishers because Elk Grove Unified is the third largest district in California and a district-wide adoption would be quite a plum for either of the two companies.

So I’ve been able to check out these two programs to compare to my own. A bold move given that my cost per class of 25 students is about $15 per student, whereas the cost per class for each of the two comparative programs is closer to that of a well-equipped Lexus. I started my comparisons with the screening and placement assessments in Read 180. Of course, as a publisher (check out my program advert to the right of the article, you would expect bias. See what you think.)

Our school has always struggled with screening and placement for our “support” classes. As a large middle school with about 1100 students, we have five “feeder” elementary schools and lots of transfer students. Program scheduling is a nightmare. We have used a variety of assessments, teacher recommendations, and decision-making tools to place students with mixed results. Since teachers have done “their own thing” in the “support” classes for years, the “curriculum” and instruction has only haphazardly matched the student needs indicated by the placement tools. Since the placement criteria has been a “moving target,” misplacement of students has been an ongoing concern. Our principal makes all transfer decisions and, fair to say, these are rare. Once students are placed in a “support” class, they remain all year. So if the district adoption of either the Read 180 or Language Live! program would mean that screening and placement assessments and exit criteria would be honored at our school, we might be moving onto the right track. Or will we? This article will focus on the Read 180 Foundational Reading Assessment.

Read 180 Foundational Reading Assessment

As described in a companion article, READ 180 and Phonemic Awareness, the first part of the Foundational Reading Assessment (designed by Dr. Richard K. Wagner as a K-2 test and published as such for another program) consists of a short random sample 12 rhymes, initial, final, and medial sounds (3 each). I can hear kindergarten teachers cringing at the sample size and components. The take-away from my article is that the test assesses only part of what constitutes phonological or phonemic awareness and is not teachable because it is not comprehensive.

The next component of the assessment is the Letter-Word Identification Strand, which includes 10 items designed to measure students’ knowledge of uppercase and lowercase letter names and 20 items designed to measure students’ sight word knowledge. The last component, the Word Attack Strand, includes “40 total items, specifically 10 items designed to measure students’ ability to identify letter sounds and 30 nonword items designed to measure students’ decoding skills” (SRI College and Career Technical Guide).

Sight Words

“A total of 20 sight word items were developed using the 100 most frequent words from Fry’s (2000) 1000 Instant Words. The distractor items were other high-frequency sight words or common decodable words.”


Sight words are, by definition exceptions to the rules. Random sampling presupposes that the components are representative of the whole. How can there be external validity when the sample does not match the group? It’s a bit like tasting 6 of the 31 (the same percentage) ice cream flavors at Baskin Robbins and claiming that students either like or don’t like all ice cream based upon the results. Missing 20 out of 20 sight words indicates that the student does not know those 20 sight words. It does not mean that the student does not know the remaining 80. My Teaching Reading Strategies program assesses and provides instruction to remediate all 100 of the most frequently used sight words. That makes more sense.

Why have sight words as part of a screening and placement test in the first place. Knowledge of sight words is not a reliable indicator of reading difficulties. And why 20 test items when there are only 30 phonics sound-spellings (a much more reliable indicator). The ratio is completely out of whack. Plus, as any remedial reading teacher will tell you, the easiest reading remediation is memorizing those 100 words.


“A total of 30 nonword items were developed, representing the full range of commonly taught phonics skills. All targets and distractors were nonwords or obscure English words that are unlikely to be known. In addition, all targets and distractors follow conventions of English spelling, and care was taken to avoid Spanish words, slang, and nonwords that sounded like real words.”


While my Teaching Reading Strategies program includes the same sound-spellings as the 30 nonword items, my program includes 52 vowel sound-spellings and 50 consonant sound-spellings in the nonword format. Phonics tests are necessary as screening and placement assessments for reading intervention, but why not test everything that needs to be taught with corresponding activities and worksheets? The tests take only 12 minutes to give and can be graded on Scantrons® or Grade Cam®. Audio files are provided with the program. Why not check out these assessments yourself?

Finally, 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.

Mark Pennington is the author of the Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program. Teaching Reading Strategies Book Preview




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Don’t Teach to Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences

Most teachers believe in some form of learning styles or multiple intelligences theories. The notion that each child learns differently, so we should adjust instruction accordingly (learning styles) just seems like such good old-fashion common sense. The theory that each child has different innate abilities (multiple intelligences) just seems to be confirmed by common experience. But common sense and experience are untrustworthy and unreliable guides to good teaching. Despite what the snake oil learning styles and multiple intelligences folk tell us, they are simply wrong. Here are five reasons why.

1. We don’t know enough about how the brain works to change the way we teach. What we do know about the brain suggests that catering instruction to specific modalities can be counter-productive. Knowledge is stored in the form of memories and only 10% of those memories are visual and auditory representations. Meaning-based memories make up the 90% (Willingham on Learning Styles Don’t Exist–TeacherTube). Those impressive-looking illustrations of the brain on the Universal Design for Learning site and interesting graphic organizers on the multiple intelligences sites hopelessly simplify what we know is a far more complex subject. Daniel T. Willingham, cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Virginia advises districts, schools, and teachers to “save your money” on any brain-based instructional in-services or instructional resources. See Willingham’s excellent YouTube on the fallacy of brain-based instruction.

2. Research does not support adjusting instruction according to learning styles or multiple intelligences theories. To sum up his extensive meta-analysis of modality research, Willingham states “…we can say that the possible effects of matching instructional modality to a student’s modality strength have been extensively studied and have yielded no positive evidence. If there was an effect of any consequence, it is extremely likely that we would know it by now (American Educator 1995).” With respect to research on multiple intelligences, “The fundamental criticism of MI theory is the belief by scholars that each of the seven multiple intelligences is in fact a cognitive style rather than a stand-alone construct (Morgan, 1996). Morgan, (1996) refers to Gardner’s approach of describing the nature of each intelligence with terms such as abilities, sensitivities, skills and abilities as evidence of the fact that the “theory” is really a matter of semantics rather than new thinking on multiple constructs of intelligence (,” Frankly, the essential variables of motivation, preference, teacher perception, and the learning tasks themselves probably cannot ever be isolated in an experimental design, thus prohibiting statistically significant conclusions regarding how students learn best and how teachers should teach.

3. Learning styles and multiple intelligences theories beg the question about how students learn. The assumption is that students learn best by receiving instruction in their strongest modality or intelligence. This may make sense for designated hitters in the American League. Allow me to explain. In the American League, pitchers rarely bat; instead, designated hitters bat for them. The designated hitter does not play in the field. It would make sense for the designated hitter to practice according to his modality strength. Developing kinesthetic expertise in slugging home runs will earn him his multi-millions. But exclusive kinesthetic batting practice will not help him become a better fielder. There is no learning transfer. We certainly don’t want designated hitters in our classrooms. We want students to be complete ballplayers. In fact, it makes more sense to practice our relative weaknesses. Why should kinesthetically adept Johnny continue to make project after project rather than practicing in his areas of relative weakness: oral (auditory, aural) and written (visual) communication?

4. By emphasizing the how of instruction, learning styles and multiple intelligences practitioners lose sight of the what of instruction and tend to force square blocks into round holes. For teaching input to be processed and stored in the memory, that input has to match how the information will be stored. Little of what we teach will be stored as visual or auditory representations. This does not mean that good teaching won’t use the visual or auditory domains, but the focus of most all of our instruction is meaning-based. We want our students to know stuff. We have to match the how of instruction to the what of instruction, not the reverse. “All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality (Willingham in American Educator 1995).” It should go without saying that if a child has, for example, an auditory processing disability, the how of instruction should be limited in that modality. Similarly, adapting learning tasks to perceived student intelligences is impractical for the vast majority of our teaching standards. A student with musical intelligence still needs meaning-based practice to understand the roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

5. Although learning Styles and multiple intelligences theories seem individual-centered and egalitarian on the surface, the converse is more likely true. The practical applications of these theories tend to pigeon-hole students and assume that nature plays a greater role in learning than does nurture. For example, teachers disproportionately tend to label African-American children, especially boys, as kinesthetic learners and Asian kids are more often classified as visual learners. Being labeled limits options and dissuades effort and exploration. Learning styles and multiple intelligences assessments particularly have this egregious effect. Our students are not stupid. Labeling them as “good at” and “has strengths in” also labels them as “bad at” and “has weaknesses in.” Students “shut down” to learning or “self-limit” their achievement with such labels. If limited to what the students know and don’t yet know, assessments data can be productive. If extended to how students learn, data can be debilitating. Additionally, who is to say that how a student learns remains a constant? Teachers certainly have an important role in nurturing motivation, risk-taking, and exploration. Teachers should be about opening doors, not closing doors.

Unfortunately, the differentiated instruction movement has largely adopted learning style and multiple intelligence theories. Check out why differentiated instruction should be more about the what and less about the how in 23 Myths of Differentiated Instruction. As we move ahead in the Response to Interventionprocess, this subject of how to best serve students with learning challenges is especially relevant. Readers may also wish to check out the author’s introductory article: Learning Styles Teaching Lacks Common Sense.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) 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.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

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