Archive for February, 2016

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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Comparing READ 180 and Language! Live

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 our district, 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.

I am not one of the pilot teachers; however, I am curious. So now 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. I developed the program in three instructional settings: grades 4−6 as a district elementary specialist; middle school as a “support” teacher; and high school as a co-teacher of a remedial reading class with a special education teacher.

As my colleagues have been piloting, I’ve been able to log-in as a student and 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. But, you get what you pay for… right? Well, you do get a lot of bells and whistles.

I’ll begin with the screening and placement assessments for the programs. First I’ll start with the READ 180 program. This article will begin to tackle just one of the two assessments in the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI): The Foundational Reading Assessment. The other assessment is the Reading Comprehension Assessment. As a reading specialist, I always gravitate to phonemic awareness, decoding, and encoding materials, so I’ll start there.

My first ah, ha was the lack of a spelling test as part of the screening and placement assessments. The Language!® program has one; my program has one. What gives?

I will say from my own 25+ years of teaching remedial reading that a student’s ability to encode (spell) certainly has helped me properly place students in instructional programs to target their individual needs. I would go as far as saying that a spelling test (Jane Fell Greene’s encoding test, the Qualitative Spelling Inventory developed by Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, and Johnson (2000), or my own comprehensive Diagnostic Spelling Assessment) provides essential information for program placement.

I did a little digging to see if a spelling assessment was part of the READ 180 companion program for beginning readers: SYSTEM 44. Nope. The Scholastic Phonics Inventory® has letter name recognition, sight word recognition, and nonword decoding, but there is no accompanying spelling test.

I decided to email the assessment author, Dr. Richard K. Wagner, and Rick kindly replied twice to my questions. Not to put words into his mouth, but I seemed to get support for my view that using spelling as a screening assessment makes sense.

Now READ 180 does provide individualized assessment and spelling instruction as part of its program, but not as part of its screening and placement. I will give my take (Spoiler Alert: It’s not the best Yelp review) on this spelling “instruction” in a related article.

But why use screening and placement assessments solely to determine whether students qualify for some form of tiered reading intervention? In other words why waste time giving separate placement and diagnostic assessments? Why give a test that provides nothing to teach to?

My Teaching Reading Strategies program uses 3 of its 13 diagnostic assessments (fluency, phonics, and spelling) to both place and provide comprehensive data to inform instruction. For example, the Diagnostic Spelling Assessment includes 102 assessment items with an accompanying audio file to handle the 23 minute test administration. Each of the 102 spelling pattern test items has a corresponding worksheet to help students master each of their deficit spelling patterns. Students complete spelling sorts, rhymes, word jumbles, and brief book searches. After completing each worksheet, the students self-correct to learn from their own mistakes and complete a short formative assessment.  Now that’s a placement assessment that gives you something to teach.

In successive articles I will continue my comparative analysis of the other screening and placement assessment components in the READ 180 Next Generation and Language!® Live programs, as well as my shameful self-promotion of Teaching Reading Strategies.

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

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