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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.

Middle School Interventions

March 30, 2015

We are a K-12 district and are revamping our grade 6 through grade 8 instructional supports, which include a 40 minute additional session of reading and/or math instruction anywhere from 3 to 5 days a week. This extra instruction is provided to any student below the 50th percentile on the MAP assessments — roughly 2/3 of our student population in our five middle schools.

Where we are struggling is in determining whether this additional instructional time (taught during later periods in the day by different teachers from the core instruction) should be based on addressing gaps in foundational skills or supporting grade level curriculum.

In the four years we have been using this system of support we have changed our position, from filling in holes to supporting core instruction and our results have been inconclusive on which method leads to the greatest growth. We are torn between raising the rigor of instruction to offer students more “time” grappling with the harder material and using a Leveled Literacy program that has delivered good results to us in the primary grades. Help.

What you are trying to do is terrific for the kids. You see some students who aren’t keeping up and you want to beef up the amount of reading support that they get. That makes great sense to me and seems to be very much in line with the research. Additional teaching is a great idea.

However, the 1-49 percentile span for this group is simply too broad and too differentiated a swath of kids with whom to take a single approach. If I were calling the shots, I’d treat those below the 30th or 35th percentiles differently than those who are a little bit behind.

I suspect that as you move down the continuum of kids you’ll start to find those with substantial gaps in their foundational skills (decoding and fluency, basically). That is much less likely to be true for those who are almost at the 50th percentile. In discussions of learning disability, various experts (e.g., Joe Torgesen, Jack Fletcher, Reid Lyon) treat the 35 percentile as being a dividing point between kids who are garden variety stragglers and those who might have a real learning disability. This will likely vary a bit by grade level and test, so rather than giving you a hard-and-fast rule, I’m suggesting that the cut-point be somewhere around the 30-35th percentile.

Above that cutoff, and I would definitely just give these kids extra time with the demanding grade-level materials. Below that line, and I would want to provide at least some explicit instruction in foundational skills. (I don’t know what assessment information you have on these kids, but if such data reveals particular foundation gaps for students reading below the 35th percentile, I’d be even more certain that offering such teaching is a good idea.)

What should the instruction look like for these groups?

For those who are in that 35-49 percentile span (i.e., kids who are at grade level to about 2-3 grade levels below level), I would have them doing more work with the grade level texts they are reading in class. This work should give kids opportunities to read the material again — but with greater or different scaffolding and support. Students might read this material before it is read in class (to give them a boost) or after, to ensure that they make as much progress with it as possible. I would consider activities like repeated reading (oral fluency practice with repetition), rereading and writing about the ideas in the texts, going through the texts more thoroughly trying to interpret the most complex sentences or to follow the cohesive links among the ideas.

For the students below the 30-35th percentile — who are low in decoding (probably the majority of them) — I’d provide a systematic program of instruction that offers at least some explicit phonics instruction. I very much like the idea of using a program that has been found to be effective by the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) (that won’t guarantee it will work for you, but that it has worked elsewhere tells you it is possible to make it work effectively).

As important as phonics instruction can be to someone who lacks basic decoding skills, I’d recommend against overdoing it. The National Reading Panel found that phonics instruction for poor readers beyond grade 2 tended to improve their decoding skills (which is good), but without commensurate impacts on spelling and reading comprehension (which is not so good). I think it is important to make such decoding instruction part of a larger effort that addresses reading comprehension, vocabulary, writing and oral reading fluency.

How best to balance this effort will depend a lot on what else the kids are getting. For example, if the really low decoders are already being instructed in these skills in Special Education, then I wouldn’t double up here. That would just free time space for other kinds of reading help.

Another possibility may be to offer these students some of the same grade level instruction noted above, but in smaller groupings to enable the teachers to offer greater support to these kids who are further behind. Beyond beginning reading levels, there is no evidence students need to work with low-level texts — at least when there is sufficient scaffolding to guide them through such reading. Perhaps these students would work on decoding and fluency using a set program part of the time, and working with regular classroom materials with greater amounts of scaffolding than would be available to the other, better-performing students.

One last thought. It is terrific that the intervention program you have identified is working well with your primary kids. That's great, but it does not mean that I would necessarily adopt it for use in my middle school. I'd go with a program either aimed specifically at these older students or I'd try out the materials with them to see their reaction. Often, terrific decoding programs are too babyish to gain much buy in from the older kids. It would even be better if WWC indicated that the program had worked effectively with middle-schoolers.

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