If you’ve been following my blog for awhile now, you may know that I actually enjoy reading professional articles and books. Last year I came across Richard Allington’s article “What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers” in the April 2013 of The Reading Teacher. I immediatley made copies of the article for all my colleagues. I think we all read that article over 50 times as each person’s copy was tattered, had rows of text marked with highlights, and notes scribbled in the margins. We talked about the content of that article for months. I will admit, it kind of shook our world. Several of his issues with current practices of instruction and intervention for struggling students we were actually doing. I needed to know more so I ordered Allington’s book.
One of the areas where we continue to struggle in is in the area of comprehension. Phonemic awareness, fluency and phonics– well, they’re relatively easy to assess and teach. Vocabulary and comprehension; however, a bit more elusive. That’s why I found chapter 5, “Students Need to Develop Thoughtful Literacy” quite helpful. Allington states that “in school we have too often confuse remembering with understanding.”
Think about it. How do we typically assess and teach comprehension in school? Tasks such as copying information from text into a blank on a worksheet, matching text to answers or completing multiple-choice tasks are relatively low-level recall tasks yet these practices are prevalant in so many classrooms. There is a difference between recalling information and understanding. What does it mean to understand text? Allington uses real-life examples to help make his point. So, here’s my text-to-self example:
Let’s go back to the article handed to my colleagues last year. As we were reading the article, we were making connections. We were making text-to-self connections (am I using some of these practices right now that he felt were ineffective?) and text-to-text connections (how is what he is proposing matching to what other researchers are saying?). We were summarizing, analyzing, synthezing and evaluting all at the same time. Most importantly, we were discussing. Our discussions regarding that text and material relating to that article continued for over an entire school year. The lively debates and professional challenges were incredible. That’s what makes reading alive. Would my colleagues have been impressed if I asked them true/false questions about the contents of the article? Would that have assessed their understanding of the material? Would that have stretched all of our thinking? When we are asked to explain, discuss or write about texts that we’ve read we are more likely to demonstrate true understanding. Just as an FYI- one of the main reasons I blog after reading a chapter of a book is to help myself understand what I’m reading.
What Does the Research say on Effective Comprehension Instruction?
It’s important to know that reading comprehension can significantly improve with effective instruction. We can, and must, explicitly teach students strategies to comprehend text. It’s also important to know that learning strategies take time. These are not one week lessons, but rather require explict modeling and practice over a significant period of time. Another point that Allington made was that students should be taught the strategies within “bundles” rather than treating each strategy as a stand-alone. For example, the strategy of “summarizing” may involve several strategies such as activiating prior knowledge and paraphrasing. Reading programs that teach a strategy and then another and then another are not likely to be the most effective.
There are several strategies that research has proven successful in improving reading comprehension. Each strategy is described below in this handout:
Just click the following link to download this FREE handout Reading Comprehension Strategies
Let’s just add that above all students need to interact with the text. They need to talk about what they’ve read with their teacher and their peers. They need to write about their thoughts and feelings about the material. They need to make reading come alive!
I’m so looking forward to reading Chapter 6 “Where to Begin: Instruction for Struggling Readers”. Grab the book. Share it with a few colleagues and have your own rich discussions too!
My oldest son is now a junior at Michigan State University so for the past few years I’ve been following Spartan athletics. I really enjoy football, but I really LOVE watching the Spartan basketball team. Last year during a televised airing of the Spartans playing a game at the NCAA tournament, the announcer briefly shared the story of Adriean Payne. Adreian is MSU’s star player and how he ended up at MSU is nothing short of remarkable. As a kindergarten student, Adreian was identified as a student with a cognitive impairment and placed in special education. Adreian is now a highly recruited player for the NBA and also a MSU academic scholar! Below is an article I wrote on Adreian’s story last year after doing a bit of research. Please read as the implications for the education of all students is great. What I didn’t share last year is Adreian’s special relationship with a young girl whom he met while visiting children with cancer on a hospital visit. You’ll want to be sure to read it too. Here’s the link: The Adreian Payne Story: How Michigan State Star Became the Ultimate Role Model.
Image obtained through Getty Images
What is a cognitive impairment?
A cognitive impairment implies low intelligence. In the educational world we currently use the term “cognitively impaired” to describe individuals who fall significantly below the average range in intelligence (“mentally impaired” and “mental retardation” are older terms not currently used). In the school setting (at least in Michigan), a student’s IQ must fall two or more standard deviations below the mean. That’s translates into a standard score of 70 or below.
Click the following link to download this printable Michigan Criteria for Cognitive Impairment
In addition to low IQ, both the student’s reading and math skills must be significantly below the norm (below the 6th percentile) and the student’s “adaptive behavior” skills need to be significantly impaired. This means that in addition to low IQ, low academic skills, social, communication and self-help must also be significantly below the average.
I’ve been scouring the internet trying to piece together Adreian’s story. Here’s the jist. Adrien began receiving special education services in kindergarten. He was in a self-contained classroom and integrated into the general education setting for “specials”. That meant that he attended music, art and gym with general education students and received all academic instruction in the special education classroom. Adreian’s mother died when he was 13 and he was raised by his grandmother until her death in 2011. According to an ESPN publication, a general education math teacher by the name of Richard Gates walked by Adreian’s classroom one day during his freshman year and observed the students watching television. Mr. Gates questioned the quality of instruction Adreian and his fellow classmates were receiving. Mr. Gates contacted Adreian’s grandmother, Mary Lewis, and told her that she needed to remove him from the special education program. Ms. Lewis attended an IEP and basically declined all special education services. Adreian then attended all general education classes and Mr. Gates tutored him every day for three years. Just imagine that! A special education student spending the large majority of the day in a self-contained classroom for 9 years just put into all general education classes. With hard work and dedication (a lot of it), graduates from high school and attends college.
So why am I so intrigued with this story? I am the specialist (figuratively speaking) that would have evaluated and placed Adreian in the special education program.
So What Went Wrong?
What I do know about educators is that we entered our careers to help children. We certainly didn’t become an educator to inflict harm. I do, however, have tons of questions regarding Adreian’s early educational experiences and the decisions that led to his special education label. For starters, what was the quality of reading instruction in kindergarten, first and second grade? Did his school have a reading curriculum? Was his teachers knowledgeable in the 5 key areas of reading instruction? Was instruction differentiated? Did he received intensive small group intervention either in his classroom or through Title One? If so, was it research-based intervention? My colleagues who evaluated Adreian, I’m sure followed their state rules and regulations. I’m sure the diagnostic team, when labeling Adreian, had his best interest at heart. It’s really difficult to see a child struggle; it’s heartbreaking. Add to that increasing demands of the curriculum and environmental factors. It’s human nature to want to make it easier for children and special education is often a way to do that. But, is it the right thing to do? I don’t know exactly why or how the decision was made and I honestly don’t know if I would have made the same decision, but with 20-20 hindsight, it was the wrong decision. Had not Mr. Gates walked by the classroom that day, had the courage to go against the experts within the school and had not Ms. Lewis stood her ground and removed her grandson from special education, Adreian’s life would have turned out very differently.
What Happens When We Label a Student?
Typically, students are identified as having a specific learning disability (SLD) around 2nd or 3rd grade. We are usually able to determine a cognitive impairment much sooner. When a child is determined through an evaluation as having a disability, an IEP (Individual Educational Planning) meeting is held. The IEP team makes a placement decision and determines how much time the student will receive instruction in an alternative placement. Typically students with a SLD spend about 1-2 hours in a special education classroom where a student with a cognitive impairment may spend much more time. The problem is that what begins as “getting a little extra help to close the gap” turns into more and more time spent receiving instruction in the special education classroom as the child grows older. At those beginning IEP meetings, we rarely tell parents that the possibility of their child exiting special education is extremely slim. Compounding the issue is that special education classrooms are often filled to their limit in terms of numbers. Why would we think a student can close the gap if placed in a classroom with 18 students ranging in age from kindergarten to fifth grade with vastly different needs? Generally speaking, the more time the student spends out of his/her general education classroom, the more the gap continues to widen. Unconsciously or even consciously, another issue is that we tend to lower expectations for our students receiving special education services.
So What are Some Solutions?
I wish I had all the answers. I do know, however, that collectively we can do better. Here are some of my thoughts:
1. As diagnosticians, we cannot make mistakes. We have to evaluate not only the child, but the quality of instruction the child had and currently is receiving. We need to be able to distinguish if the student’s low performance is a result of a severe neurologically-based deficit or a result of inadequate instruction. It’s not ethical to label students as having a disability when in fact the real issue was inadequate instruction.
2. Prior to being evaluated for special education, the student must receive high quality supplemental small group or individual instruction using a research-based program. We use an Orton-Gillingham based program. There are several other programs such as Reading Recovery, Lindamood-Bell which also provide systematic and explicit instruction. The intervention must be delivered by a qualified professional and with fidelity.
3. If a child is to be placed in a special education classroom, the instruction needs to be more intensive and more “expert” than what he/she would receive in general education. This means group size must be smaller and the teacher must be highly trained in reading instruction. We cannot continue to fill special education classrooms to their limit and expect results.
4. Especially in the early grades, reading instruction in the special education classroom should not supplant instruction provided in general education. The student needs more instruction. The reality is that there are only so many minutes in the day–something will have to give, but it shouldn’t be reading when reading is the area of deficit.
5. An increased effort for co-teaching should be made in many schools. In a co-taught classroom, a special education and general education teacher are both responsible for delivering instruction within the general education classroom. Supports for learners having difficulty (either special education students or general education students) can be provided within the classroom. Here are a few resources on co-teaching.
6. Students with learning difficulties will require accommodations to be successful within the general education classroom. Fortunately, technology has advanced (e.g. text to speech) to the point where it is much easier now to alleviate some of the barriers to accessing text. A thoughtful accommodation plan will need to be developed for students to be meaningfully integrated into the general education classroom.
7. Keep expectations high. One of my favorite sayings is, “go as fast as you can, but as slow as you need to.”
So What About IQ?
The reality is is that IQ does predict school performance, and to some extent, school performance predicts success later in life (as measured by job happiness and income). It’s a long-held belief that IQ doesn’t change–no matter what you do. In essence, you live with the cards you’re dealt and those around you “adjust expecations”. There was an article recently published in the AFT magazine entitled “What Every Educator Should Know About IQ”. The thing is is that there are two kinds of intelligence-fluid intelligence and crystalized intelligence. Fluid intelligence refers to the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly. Fluid intelligence declines with age. Crystalized intelligence consists of the knowledge and skills that are accumulated over a lifetime. Crystalized intelligence improves with age and with experiences. Can we change our IQ and the IQ of our students? Of course we can!
We can learn a lot from Adreian’s story. Most of all, we need to have high expectations for all students. Our beliefs determine our behavior. Do we believe that all children can succeed? Do we believe that we can have a significant impact in the lives of all students? Can we change the course of someone’s life? We can.
It happened again. I’m reviewing a file of a student having difficulty learning to read and there it is! A recording of three failed school vision screenings. I would love to say that this is an isolated incident, but unfortunately, all too often we seem to overlook the obvious. With all of our literacy screenings, progress monitoring, digging deeper assessments, we have all seemed to neglect the possibilty that the child may not even be able to see the text clearly. We assume that the parents, after receiving the letter from the health department, followed through on the recommendation for further vision testing. Ugg…. what valuable instructional time has been lost.
Another frustration is that many children who actually are prescribed glasses are not wearing them during school. I can’t tell you how many times I go to work with a child, ask the child to bring their glasses and wait patiently as the child digs through their backpack in search of the glasses case. Yikes! Does this mean that the child did not wear their glasses during guided reading? With 80% of childhood learning processed through vision, and knowing that 25% of children K-6 have vision related issues, it’s critical that we know which children have issues with their vision.
Vision plays a critical role in learning to read. Not only do children need to be able to see the print clearly, they must also be able to coordinate the movement of their eyes. They must also be able able to “track”–meaning that they are able to follow a line of print without losing their place and their eyes need to be able to focus on the print and make quick adjustments as they move from the page to the board and back. Children must also be able to interpret and accurately process what they are seeing. Sounds a bit complicated? Maybe, but a difficulty in any one of these areas can have a pretty dramatic impact on the child’s ability to read.
Eye Teaming Problems
Children with eye teaming problems may see the print as blurred, scrambled or as doubled. Our eyes work as a team. When the eyes look at an image, let’s say a word on a page, each eye sends a separate message to the brain. The brain then combines each image into a single picture. If the eyes are not aiming at the exact same point, each image that’s being recorded is slightly different. If the images sent to the brain are greatly different, the brain cannot combine the images into a single picture. The child’s vision will then be blurred.
Children with tracking problems often lose their place in text, skip line, misread short words. They have great difficulty controlling the fine motor eye movements at a close range.
When reading, the eyes must maintain a clear sharp images for extended periods of time. The eyes must also be able to shift easily and focus from near and far. For example, the student must be able to look at the print on a page, look up at the teacher, and then look back on the page. This is a quick transition and the eyes must be able to quickly adjust to the changing distance. Children with focusing issues may experience an increased blurriness in print the longer they read. Their eyes may easily fatigue.
Visual perception is the ability to understand and use the information that is seen. Students with visual perceptual difficulties may have difficulties in the following areas:
Well, having glasses is just the start. There are definitely visual issues, other than acuity alone, that could be the cause or a contributing factor with difficulties in learning to read. Unfortunately, the screenings offered within the school do not detect all visual issues relating to the ability to access print. Children who are experiencing reading difficulties really need to receive a complete eye exam.
As educators, it’s our responsibility to ensure that our students are able to access the educational experiences that we offer. For students with visual difficulties, that education is clearly compromised when they cannot see or process text. For all students, but especially for those who are struggling, please look through the student file to see if there is a record of failed vision screenings. Also, make it a point at conference time to recommend an eye exam. For those students who are already prescribed glasses, please be sure to set up systems in your classroom to ensure that the students wear them. Here are some ideas for reluctant glasses-wearers:
Click the following link to download this file Who Wears Glasses?
There are so many challenges that face our students today. So many of those challenges are totally out of our control. Ensuring that our struggling readers can first access the text seems like a good place to start. Encouraging parents to get an eye exam for their child and making sure that the students who need glasses to read actually use them are two things that we can do right away.
This is a post about helping children to become better readers- I promise. Before we talk about reading, however, I’d like to share with you a story about the love-hate relationship that I have with my guitar. Yep, that’s right- my guitar.
Fifteen years ago I was a stay-at-home mom. My children were just old enough to entertain themselves for brief periods of time so I thought I’d do something new. That “something” would be learning to play the guitar. At the time was I attending our contemporary mass at church and a new friend was one of two guitar players. I asked Lori if she wouldn’t mind teaching me to play. She agreed, so off I went to purchase a guitar. Lori taught me a few chords and within a short time I was playing a “real church song”. The song was “Come to the Water”. If I was to correlate this song to a reading level, I’d say it’s on par with “Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See” (1.4 reading level).
I practiced this song over and over and over again. Lori and I met about once a week to practice- we chatted and played. We had so much fun! One evening Lori called and asked if I would play with her at mass. Tom (the lead guitar player) wasn’t able to attend that evening and she didn’t want to be alone. I agreed and was then under pressure to add “Praise the Lord My Soul” and “Lead Me Lord” to my repertoire. These songs were a bit more difficult. I’ll equate them to “Frog and Toad” (2.4 reading level). I thought helping my friend that evening was a one-night-thing, but I still play at our 5:30 mass to this day.
Here’s something else you should know about my guitar playing. You may be thinking with 15 years of playing guitar, I’m pretty good. The honest truth is is that I’m not very good at all. Despite taking lessons for 2 years and playing weekly at mass, I stalled out somewhere at Junie B. Jones (about a 3.1 grade level). There really is no mystery as to why I’m not very good. I simply don’t practice. My guitar teacher was really cool. I really enjoyed the lessons, but I didn’t practice during the week. He was fine with that. Although I had the music for the upcoming mass, I rarely practiced. Tom and Lori were so good, that if I skipped a chord, it didn’t matter. Sometimes I even played chords that were “close enough”. Sound like any struggling readers you might know?
I’m hoping by this time, you can make the correlation between my learning to play the guitar and helping students become better readers. The bottom line is that, just like with learning to play an instrument, the only way to get better at something is to actually do it! So, how much time should you practice? Well, not sure if there’s been studies about playing guitar, but there have been studies looking at time spent reading and performance on achievement tests. Take a look at this:
You can download this chart by clicking the following link Why Reading Outside of School Is Important
It’s important to know that it’s not only about the time spent reading, it’s also about the quality of what is read. What if every day I only played “Come to the Water” and “Lead Me Lord”. I love those songs. I feel really good about myself as a musician when I play them, but will I actually improve? Probably not at a rate that’s acceptable. It’s not harmful. My fluency with the chords in those pieces would improve and it would help my muscle-memory, but is playing the songs I already know all I need to do to become a better player? To improve my guitar skills, I not only need to increase my practice time, but I need to systematically play songs that are more difficult. The songs can’t be too hard that I’m frustratrated and give up, and they can’t be too easy either. They need to be “just right”. Just challenging enough that I’m learning something new. In terms of reading, helping children choose “just right books” is critical. You can use the book leveling system (e.g. Acclereated Reader) or try this quick and easy way of teaching children if a book is a good fit:
You can download this poster by clicking the following link Finding the Right Fit Book
It’s kind of tricky balancing the “just right” books for students. Again, they can’t be too difficult. Studies have shown that reading at 98 percent or higher accuracy is essential for reading acceleration. Anything less slows the rate of improvement, and anything below 90 percent doesn’t improve reading ability at all (Allington, 2012; Ehir, Dreyer, Flugman & Gross, 2007). It’s so, so very important that we find the right books for our struggling readers. It’s pretty clear that consistently having students read at their frustration level does little good. Maybe this handy little chart can help:
You can download this file by clicking the following link Determining Reading Levels
We can’t have a discussion about about increasing time reading without talking about motivation. So, how do you motivate students read? More importantly, how do you motivate the struggling reader to read? Let’s digress to my guitar playing example. My all-time favorite Christmas song is “Child of the Poor”. When our choir sings this song–it’s beautiful. The melody is to “What Child is This” and the last verse we sing as a round. I really wanted to be able to play this song from beginning to end without skipping chords at Christmas mass. The song was a bit beyond my level (inching into the frustration level), but I practiced it diligently for weeks. That darn “B” chord gave me the most trouble, but with a lot of practice, I finally got it! It was a song that I was highly motivated to learn and I was willing to put in the time and practice to master it.
So, how do we motivate those struggling readers, here’s a few ideas:
I’m reading this really great book on increasing the amount and complexity of student reading. It’s a pretty easy read with great ideas for increasing reading time within the classroom. Feel free to check it out! Be sure to let me know what you think in the comment section.
I love it when we can find a super cheap and efficient way to meet the needs of our students. For students with ADHD we often recommend tools such as sissel seats, therapy balls and fidgets for use in the classroom to allow students to move and, hopefully, maintain attention to instruction. These items are often so expensive, and with our ever dwindling school budgets, well, need I say more? A few weeks back, Scott Ertl contacted me and asked if I would try out his new Bouncy Bands. Scott is an elementary school counselor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and works with students and teachers in developing plans for helping students succeed in the classroom. When I first received the Bouncy Bands in the mail I immediately shared them with our Occupational Therapists. Our OTs have used therapy bands (again expensive) and tied them between the legs of the desks. One issue with this is that the therapy bands easily slide down. They thought the idea of using the PVC pipe was pretty clever. I love the idea of using recycled bicycle tires. They are much more durable than the therapy bands and provide more resistance. Best part– they’re FREE!
So, making the Bouncy Bands is really easy. Simply purchase a 10 foot length 1 1/2″ diameter PVC pipe. Cut the pipe into 9″ long pieces. You can get 13 pieces from one tube (that’s enough for 6 desks). Now visit your local bike shop and ask for a donation of used bicycle inner tubes. They are so happy to help–be sure to tell them it’s for your classroom. Now you’ll just need to cut the inner tube. Cut the nozzle and then the tube into a 34-36″ strip.
Once your materials are ready, just slide the PVC pipe on the legs on the desk and tie the inner tube in place. Super easy and super cheap. You can make a whole classroom set for about $20!
If you’d like more information on how to use and make the Bouncy Bands be sure to visit Scott’s website. Just click HERE or on the picture below. If you don’t wish to make your own, Scott has an order form on his site and you can simply purchase one or even a classroom set.
I found this really great book. I mean A REALLY GREAT BOOK! I attended a conference a few weeks ago and came across Elaine McEwan-Adkin’s book 40 Reading Intervention Strategies for K-6 Students: Research-Based Support for RTI. I opened the book, took a few minutes to look it over and headed right over to the check out counter. I needed this book- and NOW! Here’s why I love this book!
All 40 intervention strategies are listed in this handy table! Each strategy is then categorized per instruction or target area and THEN the grade level in which the strategy is appropriate is checked! OMG! Is this awesome or what? The book then has a chapter for each strategy in which the research behind the strategy is shared, a clear and concise explanation of the strategy is given and a sample lesson demonstrating the strategy is provided. Just for my own quick reference, I typed up the strategies per grade level. Feel free to download these handouts.
To download this 2-page pdf, just click the following link: Kindergarten Reading Interventions
To download this 2-page pdf, just click the following link: First Grade Reading Interventions
The 40 Reading Intervention Strategies for K-6 Students would make a great book for a grade level team book study.