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Standards and Accountability

A recent discussion on my favorite site, the English Companion Ning, made me take a critical look at just what has engendered the recent demands for increased accountability in our public schools. Both Democrats and Republicans are playing the blame game and teachers are the easiest targets. As a public school teacher, my initial response has been defensive; however, upon a bit of reflection I’m thinking that teachers may well largely be to blame–not for the “sorry state of public education” as our critics claim, but for the very accountability movement that is being used to attack us. We teachers are often our own worst enemies.

A bit of history helps put things in perspective. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s teachers felt that our norm-referenced testing, such as the ITBS, SAT, CTBS, MAT, provided data that did not measure what we are teaching. We used sophisticated psychometric criticisms such as sampling and measurement error and socio-political criticisms such as bias to largely rid ourselves from the nuisances of these exams. We teachers went wild. Authentic assessments, multiple-measure assessments, and no assessments ruled the educational landscape. I once taught a sophomore world history class for an entire year without giving any traditional tests.

However, with teacher-created assessments, testing manufacturers lost money. Educational Testing Services and others do not like to lose money. So, the test manufacturers changed tactics. They asked for and gave teachers what teachers said they wanted–tests that purport to test what we teach. In other words, criterion-referenced standards tests. And the standards-based movement was born.

Teachers were even asked to develop their own subject area standards. A seemingly bottom-up initiative. How inclusive! Each state department of education, county office of education, and most school districts funded the creation of these subject area content standards documents. I joined other colleagues in spending countless hours developing the English-language Arts Standards for my own school district.

Now the test-makers were happy. They had the basis of a new revenue stream. And, now because the tests ostensibly test what teachers teach, administrators, politicians, and even billionaire do-gooders can hold us accountable and measure teacher/school/district/state performance. The zenith? Our Common Core National Standards.

Teachers helped create this mess. We enabled the accountability movement that is choking teacher creativity, teacher autonomy, and teacher initiative. And our students are the ones who are paying the greatest price. In replacing normed-reference testing with criterion-reference testing, we replaced something bad with something worse. “Meet the new boss.” Not the same as the old boss. Apologies to Pete Townshend.

And now the standards-based movement is so endemic that any challenges to teaching to the test or resisting accountability standards are viewed with wonderment by many in our profession. The standards-based movement with its frame of accountability is fully entrenched. Newer teachers have known nothing else. With the new PAARC and Smarter Balanced Common Core assessments, the tail is wagging the dog once again. Teachers are spending valuable class time test prepping and changing instruction to be more test-friendly. The tests themselves take an inordinate amount of class time. Last year at my middle school, we English-language arts teachers had the task of testing all subject area. It took two weeks out of our teaching schedule to administer all of the tests.

Sigh. More on Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post site.

Response from Maja Wilson, author of Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (Heinemann, 2006) and the recent article, “First blame the teachers then the parents”  in the Washington Post.

Mark,

This is why I argue that trying to get and maintain a “seat at the table” is ultimately counterproductive. The meal served at the table of power is unhealthy, the conversation is stilted (actually, there isn’t much conversation–lots of orders given and followed) and those who partake leave with indigestion. That’s what happened when teachers created standards–following orders at the table–that were then used against them as the basis first for high-stakes standardized tests, and then as a springboard for national standards created by a corporation created by governors and business interests (Achieve Inc).

Instead, we should create, set, and decorate another table, then serve a tasty and healthy meal there. We could invite as many people to join as possible, and then enjoy a rich conversation and lots of laughter together as we dine.

Michael (another poster to Maja’s initial post) may be right that the problem is that we can’t agree on what to serve at that table. But hey, even a potluck would be tastier, healthier, and more socially edifying than the cardboard and nails currently on the Department of Education’s menu.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each

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

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

full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

 

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Why and How to Teach Complex Text

A growing body of research presents a challenge to current K-12 reading/English-language Arts instruction. In essence, we need to “up” the level of text complexity and provide greater opportunities for independent reading. The Common Core State English-language Arts Standards provides a convincing three-reason argument in support of these changes in instructional practice. Following this rationale, I will share ten instructional implications and address a few possible objections.

1. Text complexity is the most important variable in reading comprehension. The level of difficulty is a more important variable in reading comprehension than is a reader’s degree of mastery of inferential reading strategies or critical thinking skills. In other words, what you read is more of an issue than how you read. Now applying reading strategies and critical thinking skills can certainly scaffold a reader’s ability to comprehend difficult text, but vocabulary, text organization, and sentence length seem to be more crucial variables.

From the Common Core State English-language Arts Standards Appendix A…

In 2006, ACT, Inc., released a report called Reading Between the Lines that showed which skills differentiated those students who equaled or exceeded the benchmark score (21 out of 36) in the reading section of the ACT college admissions test from those who did not. Prior ACT research had shown that students achieving the benchmark score or better in reading—which only about half (51 percent) of the roughly half million test takers in the 2004–2005 academic year had done—had a high probability (75 percent chance) of earning a C or better in an introductory, credit-bearing course in U.S. history or psychology (two common reading-intensive courses taken by first-year college students) and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better in such a course.

Surprisingly, what chiefly distinguished the performance of those students who had earned the benchmark score or better from those who had not was not their relative ability in making inferences while reading or answering questions related to particular cognitive processes, such as determining main ideas or determining the meaning of words and phrases in context. Instead, the clearest differentiator was students’ ability to answer questions associated with complex texts. Students scoring below benchmark performed no better than chance (25 percent correct) on four-option multiple-choice questions pertaining to passages rated as “complex” on a three-point qualitative rubric described in the report. These findings held for male and female students, students from all racial/ethnic groups, and students from families with widely varying incomes.

2. Post K-12 text complexity in college, the workplace, and in popular media has remained constant or increased in terms of levels of difficulty over the last fifty years.

From the Common Core State English-language Arts Standards Appendix A…

Research indicates that the demands that college, careers, and citizenship place on readers have either held steady or increased over roughly the last fifty years. The difficulty of college textbooks, as measured by Lexile scores, has not decreased in any block of time since 1962; it has, in fact, increased over that period (Stenner, Koons, & Swartz, in press). The word difficulty of every scientific journal and magazine from 1930 to 1990 examined by Hayes and Ward (1992) had actually increased, which is important in part because, as a 2005 College Board study (Milewski, Johnson, Glazer, & Kubota, 2005) found, college professors assign more readings from periodicals than do high school teachers. Workplace reading, measured in Lexiles, exceeds grade 12 complexity significantly, although there is considerable variation (Stenner, Koons, & Swartz, in press). The vocabulary difficulty of newspapers remained stable over the 1963–1991 period Hayes and his colleagues (Hayes, Wolfer, & Wolfe, 1996) studied.

3. K-12 text complexity has declined over the last fifty years.

From the Common Core State English-language Arts Standards Appendix A…

Despite steady or growing reading demands from various sources, K–12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century. Jeanne Chall and her colleagues (Chall, Conard, & Harris, 1977) found a thirteen year decrease from 1963 to 1975 in the difficulty of grade 1, grade 6, and (especially) grade 11 texts. Extending the period to 1991, Hayes, Wolfer, and Wolfe (1996) found precipitous declines (relative to the period from 1946 to 1962) in average sentence length and vocabulary level in reading textbooks for a variety of grades… Carrying the research closer to the present day, Gary L. Williamson (2006) found a 350L (Lexile) gap between the difficulty of end-of-high school and college texts—a gap equivalent to 1.5 standard deviations and more than the Lexile difference between grade 4 and grade 8 texts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

http://www.corestandards.org/

Ten Implications for K-12 Instruction

1. Higher Expectations

Clearly, we teachers need to “up” the level of difficulty of text and provide the scaffolds students need to understand that text. We need to challenge our students to struggle a bit. We can’t focus all of our instruction on the lowest common denominators.

2. Vocabulary

We need to use a systematic approach to vocabulary instruction including teaching structural analysis, context clues, and rote memorization and practice in what Isabel Beck calls “Tier Two” words that have high utility and applicability in academic language. Our students have got to master frequently used Greek and Latin affixes and roots.

3. Sentence and Text Structure

We need to not only analyze sentence and text structure, but also practice variations and complexities in our students’ writing. Good writers are better equipped to understand the complexities of how ideas are presented in academic text. The reading-writing connection is teachable.

4. Content

We need to teach the prior knowledge that students need to access difficult text independently. And we need to share and coordinate the load with our colleagues. For example, are our novels, poetry, and writing assignments aligned with what our students are learning in their history classes? We need to work smarter, not harder.

5. Reading Strategies

We need to be both content and process-driven. If we do not provide the tools and practice for our students, “reading to learn” will never work. Our elementary colleagues have largely handled the “learning to read,” but we need to apply the basic to the complex.

6. Critical Thinking

We need to teach the elements of logic and higher order thinking are prerequisites to understanding difficult reading text. Recognizing both solid and fallacious reasoning is an essential reading skill.

7. Expository Text

We need to put aside our exclusive love of literature and poetry for the sake of our students. College, workplace, and popular media texts are overwhelmingly expository in nature. We can do both.

8. Novel Selection

We may need to let go of traditional novels. Let’s take a hard look at what we are teaching to maximize content and process instruction. For example, Reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry may cover the content and standards nicely for an eighth grade ELA class, but the largely fifth grade reading level does not provide the text complexity that our students need. Additionally, shorter novels, selections, poems, articles, etc. will do the job more efficiently and with greater variety.

9. Differentiated Instruction

We need to recognize that all of students simply do not read at the same levels. Students have  different reading issues that inhibit their abilities to comprehend challenging text. We have to find out who has what issues and adjust our instruction accordingly. It does no good to play the “blame game” on previous teachers. We teach standards, but we also teach students. Diagnostic reading assessment has got to be a given for the conscientious reading/ELA teacher.

10. Independent Reading

We need to stop being co-dependents. The Common Core emphasis on CLOSE READING STRATEGIES can can be overdone. We do have to transfer the demands of accessing text over to students at some point. Plus, we need to fight the hard fight and require students to read at home. The amount of independent reading needed to increase even one grade level in terms of reading comprehension and vocabulary development necessitates reading at home.

Possible Objections and Howevers

We can certainly question the adequacy and accuracy of the tools used to measure text complexity. However, we all know that our students’ biology textbooks are more difficult than the Manga and Twilight that are students are reading.

What about the joy of reading? We want to create lifelong readers, not factory-trained automatons for the needs of academia, the workplace, and popular media. Reading trash can be entertaining. However, text complexity does not preclude reading for fun. The ability to read and understand more complex text should expand and enhance that experience.

What we teach in K-12 is in-it-of-itself valuable and relevant to the needs of our students. It may also be foundational in terms of content and process for greater text complexity. We are not just training students for future college, careers, and citizenship; we are teaching students now. However, can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? If our students need to know about chimpanzee behavior, can’t we replace Curious George with a scientific journal?

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, 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.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

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Teaching ELA/Reading: 10 Impediments and Solutions

None of us gets into the teaching profession with the hopes of being mediocre. All ELA/reading teachers want to do their best for their students. But how can we give our best when so many impediments stand in our way? I’m not talking about the usual ones we discuss in the staff room: discipline problems, overbearing administrators, bothersome parents, lack of materials. I’m talking about the all of the stuff that reductively minimizes our opportunity to be our best. In other words, if we could just rid ourselves (and our students) of… XXXX, we could truly be the teachers we want to be. So, let’s explore the impediments many ELA/reading teachers that keep us from teaching how and what we need to teach, the solutions as to how to reduce or get rid of these in our teaching repertoire, and most importantly what to teach now that the impediments have been removed.

10 Impediments and Solutions

1. Standards

Impediments: Although most teachers support the notion of an instructional scope and sequence, district-state-national standards were not delivered at Mt. Sinai. Some ELA/reading standards are more important than others and we ultimately and practically teach our students, not the standards. Our students are an unruly lot, refusing to progress at exactly the same rates and generally making a mess of our year-to-year academic standards.

Solutions: Establish priorities in terms of instructional time. Does anyone think that an identifying author’s purpose standard merits the same amount of attention as a reading comprehension standard? Develop a balance between teaching grade-level and review standards, according to the needs of your students indicated by diagnostic data.

2. School Culture and Interruptions

Impediments: At the middle or high school level, the ELA classes check out all books in the library, get student identification pictures, get picture re-takes, listen to counselor career presentations, and attend discipline assemblies. Daily announcements, spirit assemblies, guest speakers, phone calls interrupt all teachers. Not to mention the usual bathroom/counselor/nurse passes.

Solutions: Be assertive and learn to say “No.” Get other colleagues on board, work through the appropriate channels, and be willing to compromise; but guard “time on task” and re-visit these impediments regularly—they have a habit of sneaking back in.

3. Traditions

Impediments: 3rd grade silkworms and the reading incentive program, 4th grade dioramas and animal reports, 5th grade sugar cube castles and state reports, 6th grade science projects and PowerPoint® presentations, 7th grade African masks and oral reports, Martin Luther King, Jr. essay contest and 8th grade U.S. Constitution graduation requirement. You get the idea.

Solutions: Develop the mindset that any instructional activity that can achieve the same objectives in a more efficient manner than another instructional activity should be the one you choose. Don’t confuse content and process objectives.

4. Colleagues

Impediments: “We all teach XXXX. It’s a team decision—there is no I in team.” Disagreement is perceived as personal attack. Gossip, friendship, even romance. And colleagues tend to prey upon our good natures to get us to follow their agendas.

Solutions: Affirm your colleagues’ agendas, but don’t get sucked in. Always run a cost-benefit analysis when changing instruction. Being a team player doesn’t mean sacrificing your autonomy. Do what makes sense for you and your students.

5. Scheduling

Impediments: Advanced band is only offered this period, the special education pull-out study skills program, the reading intervention program, the remedial-basic-advanced-honors ELA classes, and the computer lab. And others.

Solutions: The needs of the students should dictate schedules; however, well-intended interventions, pull-out programs, and tracking can reduce the amount of core instructional time each student receives and/or change a teacher’s instructional plans. Insist upon differentiating instruction within the scope of the core ELA curricula and the confines of the regular classroom to address student needs.

6. Pigeonholing

Impediments: Shouldn’t the ELA teachers teach XXXX? Reading (literature and reading skills and SSR), writing, listening, speaking. Note-taking. Critical thinking. Problem-solving skills. Study skills. Career exploration. And let’s add on basic parenting.

Solutions: Preach “all teachers are teachers of reading, writing, and thinking.” Get to know the process-oriented standards of your math, social studies, arts, foreign language, physical education, and science teachers for ammunition and encourage everyone to share the load.

7. Educational Fads

Impediments: Learning styles, rigor and relevance, multiple intelligences, small learning communities, tribes, Cornell notes, reading fads, levels of questioning. And a few hundred more.

Solutions: Before jumping onto bandwagons, talk to veteran teachers for their “what comes around, goes around” perspectives, search the Internet for the real research on any educational fad, and take all professors’ and presenters’ information with grains of salt. Stick to the basics when in doubt.

8. Bureaucracy and Paperwork

Impediments: Progress monitoring charts, skills documentation, reading logs, independent learning goals, student evaluations. Staff meetings. Department meetings. Grade-level team meetings. Cross-disciplinary meetings. Vertical articulation. The mind boggles.

Solutions: Veteran teachers know how to cut corners when they need cutting. Ask them. Insist upon written agendas with time allocations and a time-keeper for meetings. Push to get everything in writing that can be written on an agenda and e-mailed in advance. Hold colleagues accountable for “birdwalking.” Keep business meetings all-business, and schedule personal hang-out/discussion time prior to or after meetings.

9. Testing

Impediments: State testing, district testing, diagnostic assessments, formative assessments, summative assessments. Standardized test preparation. Unit test review.

Solutions: Select colleagues committed to protecting teacher instructional time as district representatives on testing committees. Minimize isolated test preparation. The best test preparation is good teaching in the core ELA instructional components.

10. Ourselves

Impediments: I love to share my personal life with my students. My students love my stories. My students love my jokes. I just enjoy talking with students. I go with the “teachable moments.” I teach more of this because I like it better. I hate teaching, never liked, or I’m bad at XXXX… so I don’t teach it.

Solutions: We are often our own worst enemies. Ask a trusted colleague to observe you, your personal idiosyncrasies, and how you waste instructional time. Video-tape yourself. Don’t confuse your own teaching style with poor time management. Teach all the core curricular components and work on those in which you are weak.

Instructional Priorities

There are curricular priorities that most ELA teachers would agree to teach “if only they had the time.” To be practical as possible, here are the specific “Big Six” ELA instructional components with percentages of instructional time that make sense to allocate to each. Having taught at the upper elementary, middle school, high school, and community college levels, I believe that the core instructional components and allocations of instructional time should remain constant across those levels. Take stock of what you teach and how much time you allocate to each instructional component. And feel free to disagree.

The Big Six

1. Word Study (Vocabulary, Spelling, Syllabication) 16%

2. Grammar and Mechanics 16%

3. Reading Strategies 16%

4. Literary Analysis 16%

5, Writing Strategies 16%

6. Writing Process Papers 16%

That leaves 4% for the impediments that you cannot remove. Such is life.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, 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.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

Grammar/Mechanics, Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,