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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.

Our Younger Readers are Doing Better, So What's He Upset about Now?

April 2, 2017

Great report about beginning reading achievement in the most recent issue of Educational Researcher (Literacy Achievement Trends at Entry to First Grade). D’Agostino and Rodgers show that, beginning literacy skills have improved annually from 2002 through 2013. Beginning first-graders have steadily improved in letter identification, phonemic awareness, concepts about print, writing vocabulary, word reading, and text reading.

These gains were not just evident for the average or typical student, but for the relatively low achieving ones—though the gains for the latter have lagged those of their more advantaged peers. The researchers suggest — though do not claim to prove — that these data reflect an increased emphasis on literacy instruction in preschool and kindergarten, probably due to the reports of the National Reading Panel and the National Early Literacy Panel.

Except for the fact that the low learners haven’t been advantaged as much as the typical learners, this all sounds like good news to me. However, as is usually the case with reading achievement, there are some key things that educators should be concerned about as we go forward.

1.    Research is a great starting place for reading improvement efforts.

These results are heartening because they suggest that there can be clear learning benefits from pursuing research-based solutions to learning problems, as long as there is a substantial, continuing, wide-ranging effort to bring those solutions to classrooms. Often we know things from empirical study, but they don’t get implemented. That evidently was not the case here.

Think of all the efforts over the past 15-25 years to enhance early reading instruction. The Reading Excellence Act, Reading First, Early Reading First on the national front, and the many state level initiatives to address these needs. Of course, there have been less-touted initiatives to infuse the National Reading Panel research into Title I and Head Start, and think of the individual efforts of thousands of teachers and school administrators.

In the current political and economic climate it might not be possible or likely that we’ll see additional efforts of these types to expand the scope of these findings. Nevertheless, it should be absolutely clear that it can be done and focusing on the reliable findings of extensive research is more likely to succeed than pursuing the idiosyncratic agendas of random reading gurus who are willing to put their own opinions above the accumulated empirical evidence.

2.    We need to follow all the reading research, not just the convenient parts.

One of the concerns that D’Agostino and Rodgers expressed has to do with the fact that much better improvement was obtained with letter names, phonemic awareness, and word reading than was true for text reading,

I think that pattern of outcomes is to be expected given that these were beginning first-graders. Kindergartens would have a lot more support in providing phonics and phonemic awareness instruction, than they would for writing or oral reading fluency.

However, that narrowness of focus is inconsistent with the research findings. The National Early Literacy Panel found evidence concerning the importance of advancing young children’s oral language (towards improving later reading comprehension), and the What Works Clearinghouse concluded (Shanahan, et al., 2010) that reading and listening comprehension instruction in kindergarten made great sense. Similarly, I would argue that given the level of word reading these children appear to be accomplishing, there would be no reason to delay fluency instruction either. Past instruction in this skill tended to start in Grade 1, but that was based on the literacy practices of the time; when few kids were learning to read in kindergarten.

We need to embrace the notion of outcome-focused reading instruction aimed at teaching children to read words, to read text fluently, to comprehend text, to write text, and to expand oral language proficiency … preschool through grade 3. All of these are important. The idea that our emphasis should be on one or another of them at the expense of the others makes no sense.

I suspect the reason that letter names and letter sounds get the major attention has more to do with the availability of screening measures that allow teachers to easily see whether kids are making progress. We are never likely to see such assessments of higher order abilities like reading comprehension, so it is important that teachers have explicit amounts of time devoted to instruction in all of the areas that children have to learn.

3.    Early leads may not translate into wins.

Again, hooray for the educators who have so steadily and so surely improved the literacy performance of these youngsters. However, too often, these kinds of early gains do not translate into higher achievement. In fact, it is quite likely that they will not.

Unless first- and second-grade curricula and instruction are adjusted to accommodate for the advanced beginning literacy skills of these entering children, then I am certain that they will languish. As young children attain these higher levels by the end of kindergarten, that should mean that first-grades spend less time on letter names and phonemic awareness instruction than in the recent past. Likewise, it may have made sense before to delay fluency instruction or reading comprehension instruction until later in first-grade, when the boys and girls could read, but these data argue that kids should be getting the full literacy curriculum in grade 1, from the beginning.

These teachers and parents have increased the quality of young children’s literacy. Now, first-grade teachers need to build quality on quality — raising the ante with these better-prepared kids. And, then each grade needs to build upon those increasing advances as kids work their way up the grades. Remember, early reading instruction is not a vaccination — one shot won’t protect them. Education doesn’t work that way. Instruction has to continue to build quality on quality to the point where more kids are at high levels of performance by the time they leave school.

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"Children are made readers on the laps of their parents." — Emilie Buchwald