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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.

Do You Have Any Pet Peeves about Reading? Here Are My Top Ten (Part 1)

October 13, 2021

People who ask a question just so they can answer it.

Yep, I’m the punchline. I’m asking this question only so I can answer it. Though I hope this stimulates you to add your own.

Pet peeves are, by their very nature, complaints. Of course, no one wants to hear a lot of whining these days. If they did, they’d be on Twitter or the U.S. Senate.

Given that, I’ve split this rant into two parts. Yep, I’ll provide 5 pet peeves about reading education this week, and the remainder next time.

Pet peeve #1: balanced literacy proponents who either don’t tell what must be balanced or whose conception of balance is woefully unbalanced

Many districts brag that they offer “balanced literacy” programs. Balance, according to my dictionary, is a condition in which “different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.” That suggests to me that a balanced literacy program is one in which the various elements of literacy are accorded equal amounts of instruction. Or, failing this, that the amounts of time devoted to each is based on something that would suggest they are in correct proportion.

What elements are balanced in balanced literacy?

According to one guide, there must be a balance need be between reading and writing instruction, teacher-directed and student-directed activities, and skills-based and meaning-based approaches (Frey, et al., 2005).

Many schools try to provide 90 minutes of daily reading instruction and 30 of writing. Such a schedule obviously fails to accomplish that reading instruction-writing instruction balance.  

The idea of balancing teacher- and student-directed activities causes me some concern as well because of the research on the issue. Carol Connor and her colleagues found that students are likely to need more of one of these than the other. More learning accrues from explicit teaching than from discovery learning or independent practice (e.g., Foorman, et al., 2006; Gallagher, Barber, Beck, & Buehl, 2019). Rupley, Blair, & Nichols, 2009), at least for struggling students (Connor, Morrison, & Katch, 2004; Connor, Morrison, & Petrella, 2004). Balancing teacher and student-directed activities seems like a good way to hold back some kids, particularly the most disadvantaged. That can’t be good.

Then there is that third balance, the idea of balancing skills-based and meaning-based teaching. I assume that means half the instructional time is for phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, handwriting, and oral reading fluency, and the rest is devoted to guided reading, shared reading, independent reading, writing, oral language and the like. With 2 hours of ELA time, that would give students an hour of skills and an hour of meaning. Given various models of reading, that kind of balance makes sense, but to tell the truth I rarely see that amount of skills teaching in any of the balanced literacy schools that I’ve visited. Despite the balanced label, skills tend to get short shrift in these classrooms.

I hunted up some more recent descriptions of “balanced literacy” on the Internet. One site says a balanced program “strikes a balance between both whole language and phonics.” I’m not sure what they mean by whole language, but an hour of daily phonics instruction would be excessive (NICHD, 2001). That site goes on to indicates that there are 5 components of balanced literacy (read aloud, guided reading, shared reading, independent reading, word study). That suggests neither a time and attention balance or a devotion of time to word study that would be consistent with the research (successful phonics programs typically deliver about 30 minutes of such daily teaching).

Another Internet site indicates that the balance is of “explicit skill instruction and by the use of authentic texts.” This seems an echo of Michael Pressley’s claim, “Skills instruction and holistic reading and writing are balanced” (Pressley, Mohan, & Fingeret, 2007). Another site calls for a balance among reading workshop, writing workshop, and word work.

I quit looking at that point. I’m sure if I would have continued, I would have found even more versions of what needs to be balanced in a balanced literacy program.

From this is should be obvious that balanced literacy isn’t really a thing. It’s a shell game. Given that no one agrees on what the necessary components are or what balance even means, it is just another of those feel-good terms — socially appealing — but with no real meaning. Advertisers like the term because it “counter[s] consumers’ negative emotions” while requiring nothing (Labroo & Rucker, 2009).

That’s why I get peeved about the use of the term balanced literacy without any meaningful explanation of its meaning. It sounds reassuring to parents, but often just camouflages the fact that key aspects of the literacy program will get inordinate amounts of attention at the expense of other things that could greatly benefit the children’s progress.

Pet peeve #2: calls to end the reading wars

I love the idea of peace. A world without reading wars would be lovely.

I honestly believed the two years I contributed to the National Reading Panel would help bring an end to those wars more than two decades ago.

The latest breakout of these skirmishes seems attributable to Emily Hanford’s (2018) radio documentary that called out the reading profession for phonics neglect. She showed, through an examination of various surveys and teacher and parent interviews (Joshi, et al., 2009), that many kids weren’t getting much phonics. That led to public outcries, particularly from parents of struggling readers and to state legislation requiring more phonics.

Perhaps the reading field should not have been surprised about the inattention to phonics. We should have been aware of this given the popularity of reading programs (Education Week ) that included no phonics (e.g., Units of Study) or the decoding instruction of which is poorly aligned with the research (e.g., Guided Reading).

The Hanford documentary focused attention on this widespread neglect, and one may have presumed that the professional community would have endorsed the idea phonics that requires a clear place in primary grade reading instruction.

Instead, they seem to have been grieved by the complaints. Professional responses have included claims that teachers are already teaching phonics universally (denial); that this push for phonics is illegitimate because it comes from journalists and parents (anger); that there are lots of other ways to teach reading (bargaining); and now is the time to find some way to end these reading wars (depression).

Many fine scholars have been publishing pieces revealing the importance phonics — along with other aspects of reading that must be taught (Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018; Duke & Cartwright, 2021).

These reviews are correct that reading is complex, that there are many skills and abilities that must be nurtured if students are to become readers, and that phonics is only one of these. But pointing that out seems more like a fair warning to not overdo phonics rather than an effort to address its recent neglect in American reading instruction.

Those who profess to want to end the reading wars seem to think the best way to do that is for the pro-phonics people to stand down, so that the anti-phonics people can continue to dismiss the impressive body of research supporting its teaching.

My peeve here is that we need less angst over the wars and more emphasis on what a solid, comprehensive, research-based reading program would look like. Such a program would include a lot more than phonics, but the in the primary grades, phonics and phonemic awareness would get more than the 5-10 minutes often accorded to it.

Pet peeve #3: educators who seek research to support their actions, rather than to determine them  

I get far too many letters from school board members, superintendents, curriculum directors, and school principals asking for my help with a new program or policy they have recently adopted. Usually, they have made some decision or choice, and when the time came to implement it, they ran into some pushback.  

Their missives to me ask if I know of any research that could be used to support their action.

This offends me even when I would have endorsed the action they’ve taken.

That they made a sound decision by accident is not heartening.

Educators who must make major decisions that will affect student learning should review the research first and then make an informed decision. Asking a buddy in the next district if their recent implementation went well (e.g., no complaints) is not a sufficient basis for establishing a new policy or buying a major new program.

Putting the research horse before the adoption coach is one way of increasing the chances that we will improve students’ reading achievement (and avoid those surprising pushbacks that often accompany bad decisions).

Pet peeve #4: teachers who claim that 2-minute individual conferences promote the same depth of thinking as a 20- to 30-minute group/classroom discussion

Too many teachers have been led to believe that they can effectively guide students to deep understandings of text or proficient strategy use through brief one-on-one conferences.

There is no research supporting this weird idea. I can’t even understand how anyone might think it could be true.

My hunch is that these teachers have never, themselves, participated in any kind of rich, rigorous discussions of literature or “great books.”

I checked online and across the country there are incredible opportunities to participate in such book discussion experiences. Check with your local university extension program or your public library. These days there are even online opportunities.

When teachers see what a high-quality discussion group can do with a book, and how much it stretches your own thinking, they are amazed. I took part in a film discussion group this summer (thank you, Stanford University) and every week I was staggered by the insights and observations of the teacher and other participants who saw things that I failed to ken.

Brief individual conferences do little more than allow teachers to determine whether the kids have read the text. But they do little to go beyond superficial responses to text. Probing below the surface takes time and it benefits from the diversity of reactions from a group of readers.

Pet peeve #5: teachers who become enamored with one or another aspect of literacy instruction

Teachers devote more time to areas of a curriculum with which they are comfortable, and less to those areas about which they know less or care less (e.g., Blank, 2013).

Let’s say Mrs. Anderson loves science. The boys and girls lucky enough to get into her class are going to do a lot of science this year. Conversely, those assigned to Mr. Ferguson may get little more than the occasional foray into the science textbook (perhaps for some round robin reading).

This happens with reading instruction, too. Some teachers don’t teach fluency because it’s too noisy or because teachers may be uncertain about how to teach it. With other teachers, fluency may be front and center.

When a teacher lacks confidence in an area or has antipathy towards some part of the curriculum, it is startling how often it just doesn’t get addressed. It may be in the lesson plans, but it evaporates from the life of the classroom, as other lessons go long and take its place. 

Teachers need to develop schedules that devote attention to all the major components of reading. Not time devoted to different instructional activities (e.g., guided reading, word study, shared reading, conferencing, independent reading) but time aimed at accomplishing specific learning goals (e.g., vocabulary, comprehension, writing, fluency, decoding).

Then teachers need to provide that instruction, even for the less favored goals. If something gets shortened up today because another lesson went long, you redress the difference tomorrow.

Doing that means many teachers will need to teach some things they struggle with. Instead of avoiding what you don’t like, those are the areas where there is a need to bone up; talk to some colleagues, arrange visits to other classrooms, work with the reading specialist, read a book.

But don’t skip what you don’t feel like teaching or that you don’t feel comfortable with.

I’m peeved because that kind of curriculum slighting ends up slighting the students.  

That’s it for today. Those five peeves are what are making me a grumpy old man this week. Next week there’ll be five more.

Feel free to add your own complaints to the comments section.  

References

Blank, R.K. (2013). Science instructional time is declining in elementary schools: What are the implications for student achievement and closing the gap? Science Education, 97(6), 830-847.

Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5-51.

Connor, C. M., Morrison, F. J., & Katch, L. E. (2004). Beyond the reading wars: Exploring the effect of child-instruction interactions on growth in early reading. Scientific Studies of Reading, 8(4), 305-336.

Connor, C. M., Morrison, F. J., & Petrella, J. N. (2004). Effective reading comprehension instruction: Examining child x instruction interactions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(4), 682-698.

Duke, N. K., & Cartwright, K. B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly.

Frey, B., Lee, S., Tollefson, N., Pass, L., and Massengill, D. (2005) Balanced literacy in an urban school district. Journal of Educational Research, 98(5), 272-280.

Foorman B.R., Schatschneider C., Eakin M.N., Fletcher J.M., Moats L.C., & Francis D.J. (2006). The impact of instructional practices in grades 1 and 2 on reading and spelling achievement in high poverty schools. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 31, 1–29.

Gallagher, M. A., Barber, A. T., Beck, J. S., & Buehl, M. M. (2019). Academic vocabulary: Explicit and incidental instruction for students of diverse language backgrounds. Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 35(2), 84-102.

Hanford, E. (2018, September 10). Hard words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? Minneapolis, MN: American Public Media. 

Joshi, R. M., Binks, E., Graham, L., Ocker-Dean, E., Smith, D. L., & Boulware-Gooden, R. (2009). Do textbooks used in university reading education courses conform to the instructional recommendations of the National Reading Panel? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42(5), 458-463.

Labroo, A., & Rucker, D.D. (2009). Balance in advertising. Kellogg Insight. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University.

Pressley, M., Mohan, L., Raphael, L. M., & Fingeret, L. (2007). How does Bennett Woods Elementary School produce such high reading and writing achievement? Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 221–240.

Rupley, W.H., Blair, T. R., & Nichols, W.D. (2009). Effective reading instruction for struggling readers: The role of direct/explicit teaching. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 25, 2-3, 125-138.

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"The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I [haven't] read." — Abraham Lincoln