Friday, April 15, 2016

Testing: Is the problem in the theory or the execution?

This morning, my son and I had our own little pep rally as we rode to school.  This was the last day of NY state testing for him.  Today he will finish the math constructed response portion of the test.  All week, he's been confident.  This was much different than his experience last year.  During the last day of the ELA portion of the test, he broke down in tears because he struggled with the extended response sections.  Now, some may read this and say, "See that's why we shouldn't be testing these kids.  Or, that's what's the problem with Common Core. Or that's why we opted out.  It's too much pressure for kids these days."  I didn't quite view it in that way.  When I spoke with my son and still ask him about his apprehension, it's not the test that scares him.  He says that he doesn't want to get held back.  His stress comes from the disruption of his social confidence.  This makes me ask the  question, why does he think that he will repeat a grade if he doesn't do well.  Why have we put that type of pressure on kids?

I hear many arguments about why testing is harmful to children especially as the "opt out" movement gains traction.  I can remember as early as first grade taking the California Achievement test and then moving to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, PSAT's, SAT's, Praxis and so on and so forth.  With each level of my educational career, there was another test that I had to pass to prove my knowledge and skills in certain contexts.  I don't ever remember feeling stressed out about testing even though we completed practice assessments and learned test taking strategies and on and on.  Can we say that we are preparing students for college and career-readiness without then, also preparing them for the very things that they'll need to do in order to get into college or secure a career?  How many professional careers don't require some form of testing to show proficiency?

I wonder if our perception of testing has contributed to the way we execute our emphasis on testing.  I can remember some years back, working in a school that was introducing a new behavior system.  I sat back and listened to some of my colleagues ask questions and push in areas where they perceived the system to be punitive.  In theory, the system was more neutral than awards-based or punitive.  As I listened, I anticipated the misconceptions would play out in the execution.  I pleaded with my school leader to have a follow-up session to clear some of these misconceptions.  As with all schools, time didn't allow for the school to tie-up loose ends and these same teachers used this system in a punitive way.  It produced major consequences for the school, teachers, students and parents.   In this way, their perceptions led a clear path to their execution.

Do I think testing is bad?  I don't have a definitive answer to that question yet.  I'm still gathering research around that.  Do I think there is room for changes in the execution of preparing students for testing absolutely on all levels?  This shouldn't just be a teacher's cross to bear, but the readjustment of perspective should also come from from each state's DOE to the district superintendents and also the school leadership.  When you tie anything to someone's survival, there are bound to be terrible consequences. 

 Hmmm, makes me wonder.  Is this the common "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." argument?   Not sure.  What I do know, is from my son's point of view, its not the testing he's afraid of, but the fear of repeating 4th grade.  With an open heart and mind, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time,

Let's Get Kids Reading

Monday, March 28, 2016

Who exactly is a reader?

I often think about my first memory of being a reader.   I was about 4 or 5 and I picked up the bright yellow cover of The Lucky Glasses and asked my mom if could I read it to her.  This was the same story that my mom read to me every night so I'm sure she was just "thrilled" to hear it yet another time.  I took that book, opened the cover and began reading about Tippu the mouse.  The story began with Tippu being proud of the gold star he received in school for knowing all of his colors until that dreaded day... when Tippu's teacher asked him to identify a number on a card and Tippu had trouble recognizing it.  And you guessed it, Tippu needed glasses (trust me, at 5 this was a page turner).  Well, I got to the end and proudly proclaimed "The End."  I had memorized that story and read those pages like nobody's business.  But, was I a reader?

Webster's Dictionary defines a reader as simply, a person that reads.  The broader definition elaborates on the object being read such as a book, magazine, newspaper, etc.  Another source defines a reader as a person who reads or is fond of reading.  If a reader is simply one that reads or is fond of the act of reading, then I often question why we often exclude so many that fit into this category.  When we see the four year-old reader loudly and proudly reading The Hungry Caterpillar that s/he loves but perhaps adding their own interpretation to it, do we proclaim them as a reader or will they only be a reader when they learn how to identify the words correctly?  I'm sure if my mom would have said, "No, no Kanika.  That's not how the words go."  I would have been completely devastated.  She would have crushed my love of books.  She would have crushed the very idea that I was in fact a reader.

I can remember years when in the first weeks of school, I set out to determine which of my Kinders were "readers".  In my mind, the readers were the ones that could read simple books.  You know, the ones that could at least pass the Fountas & Pinnell Level A benchmark assessment.  But, weren't they all readers?  Growing readers, mind you, but readers all the same.  Weren't they all on the edge of their seats when I read during Read Aloud?  Didn't they all make predictions about what would happen next, ask questions about what was happening and write about their reading?  Didn't they all beg to bring their favorite book to read when they realized this was "a thing" in our classroom?   I wonder in those early years, whose hopes did I possibly crush or hinder from sharing their pride of their reading abilities because of what I thought a reader should be.

I was recently at a session facilitated by Kathy Collins.  She asked participants to think about the characteristics of adult readers we admire.  Just like many others, I jotted down characteristics such as, an avid reader, one that shares and talks about books often and reads for pleasure.  She then shared some quotes from students about characteristics of readers they admired.    They stated things like, "They're in the blue reading group.  She reads fast.  They don't have to to to Mrs. Reilly's room. She reads chapter books"   I wonder how many of these kids were shut out of our cool group at an early age.

Don't get me wrong, a proficient reader MUST be able decode and comprehend the words and messages that the author intended.  My goal is not to redefine what skills a reader must possess.  Just simply, broadening the circle of those we include in the coolest group of them all, "Readers".  Don't we want more readers who are excited about reading?  Don't we want more readers who love the way the pages of their book, magazine, kindle, iPad or any other tool used to access text turn?  Don't we want to start that love as early as possible and to continue for as long as possible?  Just like those enticing, sugary cereal commercials that come on during your child's favorite shows, we need to build brand loyalty as early as possible.  So help that 2, 3, 4, 5 year old fall in love with books and proclaim, they too are readers.




Until next time,

Let's Get Kids Reading

I was rummaging through some of the books that were donated to an old colleague.  I came across this book and my face lit up.  I tried to explain the story about reading it to my mom, but I don't think she quite got it but realized how excited I was about this book.  (I'm sure I looked pretty crazy talking about a book that was published before she was even born.)  She thoughtfully gifted it to me and I must have read it dozens of times to children from Atlanta to New York.  Thanks Beccca!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Death To Sound It Out!

When I was in college, I had a Teaching Reading professor named Christine Farris.  She was tough.    BOY was she tough.  I guess she had to be tough since she was the eldest sibling to the late great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  She would come into the classroom sharp with her zebra print from head to toe.  She would say, "Whole language" in her southern drawl and discuss the ongoing debate of whole language versus phonics instruction.  I guess it was this experience that laid the foundation for my work as an early elementary teacher and later work as a literacy coach.

As a teacher, I watched kindergarten and first grade students struggle to learn to read.  They would memorize sight words, learn letter names and sounds.  When they would struggle, I would jump in and tell them to "sound it out."  Some would have success and others would continue to struggle.  As I travel from school to school, I hear teacher after teacher echo my same call to struggling readers, "sound it out, sound it out, sound it out, " with little or no success.    Sound out that sight word, which is designed to be just that, a word that you can recognize based on viewing the whole word.  Sound out millennium, a word that is multi-syllabic and should be divided into its syllables.    Why do we do this?  Why do we continue to use something that only proves effective a percentage of the time?  If we were doctors trying to draw blood, would we continue to prick the same vein if we're not getting enough blood to fill the vile?

When we say sound it out, often times we don't see this process from a struggling reader's point of view.   For instance, for a simple word like cat, a reader must look at the grapheme c, think about the sound it makes and say /c/.  Next, look at the grapheme a, think about the sound it makes and say /a/.  Then look at the grapheme t, think about the sound it makes and say /t/.  Then remember all of those sounds, blend them in their head and come up with a word that makes some kind of sense.  We are asking students to first segment /c//a//t/,  then blend /caaaaaaat/ when all we really need them to do is blend.   So when the student says, /c/ /a/ /t/ and says tap and looks at you for reassurance, please know that we've created too many steps.  For a struggling reader, simplicity is key. 

Segmenting is a skill more aligned to spelling.  With writing,  you need to think about each sound in isolation and write the grapheme that matches /c/ /a/ /t/ cat .  Blending is the skill that is aligned to reading because we want readers to seamlessly push the sounds together /caaaaaaat/ cat. We see this understanding of blending in reading intervention programs such as Reading Mastery and the little character word-solving strategies (stretchy snake).

I know what you're thinking.  If I don't prompt, "Sound it out," what exactly am I supposed to do, not teach them to read?  And the answer is, of course not.  There are many strategies that students can use to become flexible word solvers.  Here are some alternatives based on the developmental stages of reading that you might find useful:  (click here for a brief overview of characteristics of each stage)

For Emergent readers trying to use picture cues to make meaning of the text, try:
  • Look at the picture to figure out what would make sense here?
  • Does the picture help you figure out that word? 
For Early readers trying to use picture cues, letter cues and sight words to make meaning of the text, try:
  • Get your mouth ready to say the first sound  Look at the picture. Think about what would make sense here.
  • When you see a sight word, you can read it quickly.
  • Have you seen this word before?
  • Can you read the whole word at once?
  • Look at the sounds in the word and read through the whole word
  • Check the beginning and ending letters
  • Does that look right? Does that make sense?
 For Transitional readers trying to use parts of words (word families, blends/digraphs, differentiating between short and long vowels, syllabication) to make meaning of the text, try:
  •  Look for the parts of the word that you already know.
  • Do you know a word like that?
  • What word family might help you figure that out?
  • Does that make sense?  Is this what is happening in the story?
  • You said_____.  Does that look right?  Does that make sense?
  • Go back and reread it again.  Something didn't quite (look, sound, make sense) right.
  • Skip the word and keep reading.  Think about what would make sense here.  Then go back and try it out.
  • Do you think if you keep going, you could figure out what's happening in the story?
  • Did you try saying the vowel both ways(short and long)?  Does that make sense? 
  • Can you take that word apart? 
  • Look at the parts of the word you know.  You can break it into syllables.
  • Do you know the root word/prefix/suffix?
These are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of prompts we can use to help readers unlock their ability to be flexible word-solvers.   It's time to break the cycle.  Stand with me and say Death to Sound It Out!  If you're not into the dramatics, then maybe just try adding a few new prompts into your repertoire.

Until next time, Let's Get Kids Reading!
Word-Solving Anchor Chart