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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.

What Do You Think of the Reading Workshop? or How Not to Teach Reading Comprehension

September 23, 2019

Teacher question: I saw you make a presentation recently, and I was surprised to hear that you did not like the conferencing that is provided in Readers Workshop. That is the method that our district requires. Isn’t it research-based?

Shanahan's response:

No, it definitely is not research based.

I can’t find a single study that supports its use.

I can’t even find any study that supports programs that include this approach.

Of course, a lack of research support for a particular method doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Perhaps the technique has never been studied, or if it was investigated maybe the study had some important flaw.

I don’t think that’s the problem here, though. I think it is just a bad idea.

Readers Workshop is an approach that seems to have emerged from Writers Workshop. I’m more sympathetic to the latter than to the former. Although there are important connections between reading and writing, that does not mean that they should to be taught in the same way — and in this case, the workshop method is not particularly supportive of reading.

There was a similar approach recommended for beginning readers back in the 1950s referred to as “individualized reading” (thank you, Jeannette Veatch), but this modern version doesn’t seem to be closely aligned with that.

Basically, readers workshop provides extensive collections of books, emphasizes student choices of what will be read, limits students’ reading to texts that can be read easily by them, requires that the students spend extensive time reading these books, provides explicit teaching through mini-lessons, and monitors and supports reading comprehension development through one-on-one teacher-student conferences.

There are various problems with this approach, but, to me, the most egregious ones are the heavy emphasis on texts that the kids can already read well, and the remarkably weak support provided for making sense of text.

Last week I defined reading “as making sense of text by negotiating the linguistic and conceptual affordances and barriers to meaning.”

By that definition, high quality reading comprehension instruction would introduce students to texts that they could not already read easily or well, and would provide some kind of guidance or support to help them negotiate the text or content features that might be tripping up their sense making.

Of course, easy books are important in this Readers Workshop since the kids will be doing so much of the reading on their own, and with so little teacher support. Hard to imagine many students reading hard books on their own for 80 minutes per day (40 minutes during the workshop and another 40 at home in the evening) — though those amounts of reading are surely admirable.

The lack of teacher support strikes me as, well, bizarre.

Awhile back I got in a Twitter fight with some teachers who were claiming that they were able to get kids to do ambitious, sophisticated close readings of challenging texts through their one-on-one conferences that typically take 1-3 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, discussions of books can be very powerful stimulants of reading comprehension and learning. Research has certainly shown that to be the case (Murphy, Wilkinson, Soter, Hennessey, & Alexander, 2009).

But it highly improbable that a 1-minute discussion of a text is going to help a student develop some deep insight to meaning, to grasp some subtlety expressed idea, to gain purchase on a concept like symbolism or allusion, or to learn how to deftly connect prose and graphics.

My hunch is that teachers who think such brief exchanges are effective are those who have not been fortunate enough to engage in deep discussions of books.

Even more disturbing was that my Twitter compatriots were not only certain that these brief text conversations were potent teaching tools, but that they didn’t have to know the books the kids were reading.

I thought that was kind of crazy, but then I recently read Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Grade 3: A Workshop Curriculum. It’s one thing to say something dopey on Twitter (who hasn’t done that?), but to write it in a book takes some real forethought.

On page 52, teachers are given advice on how they can fake it when they haven’t actually read the book. Calkins and company are concerned that teachers might “feel insecure” having to confer about unknown books. They make no mention of the instructional value of reading guidance from a teacher who couldn’t possibly know what the student is dealing with, but we certainly wouldn’t want uncomfortable teachers.  

Yes, if you’d read the book you might know that the confusing thing is that two of the characters are really similar, or that the most important idea is that the changes in the setting are reflective of the changes in the characters, or perhaps it’s the comparison of two science concepts.

But since you haven’t read it, you can’t help with or emphasize any of that.

And, yet, according to Calkins and company you can conduct a probing interrogation like, “Can you tell me a bit about the main character?”

Little Johnny is fighting his way through Moby Dick, and the teacher’s one-minute conference might go something like this:

Teacher: Johnny what are you reading?

Johnny: Moby Dick.

T: How’s it going?

J: Good.

T: What can you tell me about the main character?

J: He’s a whale.

T: What have you learned about him?

J: He’s white.

T: Is the main character the narrator?

J: Sure. Moby tells the story.

The fact that little Johnny isn’t really understanding Moby Dick could easily be lost on a teacher who herself hasn’t read the text.

This illustration is silly, of course. First, no kid in Readers Workshop is likely to decide to take on Melville, even in high school. Second, no teacher is going to let a kid take on Moby Dick because its Lexile level will likely be beyond their supposed “instructional levels.”

Nevertheless, the point is a fair one: Kids learn more from texts when they are engaged in discussions of those texts (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988; Murphy, et al., 2009), but the discussions that have been studied are led by teachers who have read the texts and who are going to help the students to develop a coherent understanding of them. 

There are wonderful research-based guides out there that provide direction for leading such discussions based on teacher knowledge of the text (Dwyer, Kelcy, Berebitsky, & Carlisle, 2016; Kucan & Palincsar, 2018). But, then what else would you expect from the research community? They couldn’t possibly understand the depths of comprehension that can be stimulated by teachers without any real knowledge of a text.

Of course, teachers who follow textbooks can fall into the same trap. They convince themselves that because the textbook editor has read the story and provided some questions that they don’t have to read it, too. You know them, the “We’ll learn this simultaneously” crowd.

This is like those supposedly “driverless cars.” The car might do most of the driving, but there has to be a human holding the steering wheel and paying attention. No matter how good the textbook program, teacher still need to read the texts to be adequately prepared to guide kids’ reading when it needs guiding.

Next week’s blog entry will focus on why effective math teachers don’t need to know anything about mathematics?

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"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl