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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

The New Reading Program Implementation Blues

January 23, 2018

Teacher question:

I am a reading coordinator. We are in our first year of implementing a new reading program. As we have rolled out the new curriculum, we've been explicit about the reading instructional practices and routines that we expect to see used each day. We’ve had lots of PD. How else are we going to know the impact that the series has on our achievement data if we don't have fidelity our first year? That's the direction that we've taken. I'm sure that you appreciate the “change” process. We've changed a lot of behaviors but I'm afraid that we haven't changed a lot of beliefs of teachers about reading instruction. Our mid-year reading performance data are not where our teachers want it to be. Many of them are grumbling about going back to the old program and they wonder if we should have bought a new program in the first place.

We have held off implementing the leveled readers part of the new program because we wanted teachers to have a good handle on the whole group instruction part of the program. Each grade level has their own 90-minute Instructional Framework and each is required to spend at least 10 minutes on fluency a day. I have not been able to guarantee that each teacher has done that. Some are using round-robin reading strategies because, well, I'm sure you can understand why. I’m worried that with the leveled-readers reading instruction will devolve into too much small group teaching.

But I need some guidance. Are we on the right track?  Do you have suggestions or next steps? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Shanahan's response:

Congratulations on the new program.

It is not unusual to have first-year implementation problems. Many teachers suffer the “new program blues.” They may suffer from “buyer’s remorse” if they were part of the selection process, and in a case like this—where they did not want to make any changes in the first place — coordinators get to suffer the recriminations (often silent recriminations, like the uncomfortable hush that overtakes the lounge when you enter).

Sometimes the second year is much better — teachers are less confused, they’ve figured out what can be skipped safely, and what needs extra emphasis — and scores rebound. It is not uncommon that reading scores drop during implementation year, but they usually come back once the unfamiliarity goes away.

Of course, other times those implementation problems burgeon, and the second year is as big a mess as the first.

I admit to being confused by your letter. You say that fidelity is important and you’ve set rules about how the new books have to be used, but then you point out that you prohibited them from using a major component of the program. Big mistake. One of the most important aspects of any reading program is the amount of reading within instruction that it fosters. These days, with core reading programs, that tends to be dual selections — one read whole class, one read in small group — but the key is they are both read. I would guess that your fiat reduced the amount of instructional reading by, perhaps, 30-35% for a full semester. That’s a lot; enough that it could make a difference in those lagging mid-year reading data.

As a program author of several instructional programs since the mid-1980s, I’m always trying to sneak more reading in …. Longer selections, more selections, more words. It hasn’t much mattered the kind of program (core, supplemental, intervention), the target ages (K-3, K-6, 6-8, 6-12), or the publishing company; it comes up frequently.

You’ve done the opposite. You’ve adopted a program and found a way to systematically reduce the amount of reading that kids were expected to do. Wrong direction. My advice: get teachers implementing the new program more fully. That should help a lot.

A second bit of advice has to do with fluency instruction — I don’t think you are encouraging enough of it.

You don’t explain what framework the teachers are required to use, but I wonder if it includes everything that it should. Certainly, in the primary grades, I would push for 30-45 minutes per day focused on word learning: phonological awareness, phonics/spelling, sight vocabulary. Kids have to learn to decode and recognize words. Likewise, instead of 10 minutes of fluency in grades 1-5, how about 30-45 minutes — a lot of oral reading practice (not the extremely restricted practices that round robin allows). And, I’d do the same with comprehension instruction and writing.

I don’t know how much your teachers will have to squeeze or twist that reading program to get that much teaching out of it, but figuring that out is a big part of what year one of an adoption is all about. If there isn’t enough fluency teaching, sit down together and figure out how that can be remedied. If there is too much phonics, decide on the best lessons; if there isn’t enough, find supplements.

A third recommendation would be to worry less about whether teaching is in small group or whole class. What you want is effective and efficient instruction — not small group or whole class instruction. The latter are tools. Nothing more. I definitely would not be willing to drop either of them from my teaching routines.

Whole class teaching is fabulous for efficiency. Everyone gets to hear the same thing at the same time. That is a terrific way, for instance, to introduce a new reading skill or strategy.

Small group instruction is better for up close interaction; teachers can observe student responses more trenchantly and can respond to what they see more immediately. They also allow kids more opportunities to respond and interact, all important.

Like you, I think small group teaching is oversold, and that a lot of instructional time is lost to repetition. Reading instruction should be a mix of whole group and small group teaching, but I would definitely try to rely as much as I could productively on whole group teaching.

To make that successful, your PD should focus on things like how to seat the kids and position yourself so that you can see what is going on (and so the kids can). For instance, a key to successful decoding instruction is making sure the kids can see the teacher’s mouth when pronouncing the various sounds. When teachers try to do PA or phonics in a large group, how do they ensure that kids see what they need to. Or, how can a teacher get multiple responses in a whole class without taking large amounts of time in doing that?

Don’t ban or avoid small group teaching, but ensure that it is worth the time devoted to it.

Some things to do to keep those small groups effective: for initial teaching, keep the groups as large (and as few) as your teachers can do productively; if the leveled readers are linked, have the lower readers reading multiple little books in the same time the program has them reading only one; with the older kids, try reading club style grouping in which the teacher is not always in the group (that way 2 and 3 groups can work at the same time); consider reversing the whole class text (which is usually at grade level) with the leveled readers (which may not be) — read a leveled reader as a class to learn a new strategy and then work in small groups on the hard selection where the teacher can provide greater support in figuring out the challenging text.

My advice?

Collect information about what is going on with your new program. Do surveys or put some feet on-the-ground in classrooms, but find out what your teachers are teaching and what they are actually doing with the new program (including which lessons they are skipping or having difficulty with). You don’t just want to hear what is good, but what real problems the teachers are having (including what they are not understanding about the design and purposes of those lessons). Take a hard look at whatever assessment information that you have on the kids and see how those data match to what is going on instructionally.

On top of that, indeed, get the leveled readers going (show teachers some ways to use those — but increase the amount of reading within instruction that your kids engaged in). Obviously, if you find out that first-grade teachers are blowing off the phonics or third grade teachers don’t do fluency or they don’t know how to get the kids to actually to read the selections then either have meetings about such subjects or address it through PA (many times the teachers are doing what they know). Address gaps through PD and supervision.

I’m telling you that you have two priorities: 

  1. Find out what is going on.
  2. Address it.

Oh, and don’t wait for number 1 to deal with number 2.

That way, a kid’s second year with the program will definitely be better than the first.

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"Reading is not optional." —

Walter Dean Myers