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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.

A Spirited Reaction to One District's Approach to Standards-Based Reading Instruction

August 27, 2017

Teacher question:
My district has moved into an approach of asking teachers to locate materials for standards-based instruction. They have opted to create assessments to isolate individual standards to teach/test each standard individually. Each assessment is named by reading standard and is associated with grade-level English Language Arts courses. What thoughts do you have on how I might guide them to move from assessing isolated standards to a more integrated approach?

Shanahan's response:

Research has made it pretty clear that it is not possible to assess any of the individual standards so spending time on as your district is doing is a fool’s errand. Whatever scores or ratings they are coming up with have much in common with the syllables used for decoding in DIBELS; they’re nonsense.

Several years ago, ACT found that if texts are easy enough, kids can answer any kinds of questions about them. And, if the texts are hard enough, kids can’t answer even supposedly easy questions about them. What makes the difference in reading performance isn’t practice answering certain question types, but practice in interpreting texts that are challenging — that pose barriers to meaning.

That finding has been replicated numerous times between 1944 and 2017.

That’s the reason why both PARCC and SBAC are so careful to describe how they have developed tests based on the reading standards but then make no attempt to report on how well students or schools are doing with regard to any of the individual standards. It can’t be done in any meaningful or useful way, so they don’t do it.

School administrators and reading directors not knowing the difference between item writing and the psychological reality of the underlying cognitive constructs supposed to underlie those test items, blunder forward anyway.

The point isn’t that the standards should be ignored, but that teachers have to understand that reading comprehension tests do not/cannot measure single, separable, independent skills. These instruments provide nothing more than an overall indicator of general reading comprehension performance.

I don’t want to sound too negative on this: the point isn’t that reading comprehension tests are bad. They’re not. It is just that they measure “reading comprehension,” not independent skills like identifying the main idea, making comparisons, or drawing conclusions. Those “skills” can’t be separated and they certainly can’t be interpreted separately from the passages they are inquiring into.

Instead of focusing on trying to get kids to answer certain kinds of questions, teachers should be teaching kids

  • to read complex texts that pose various comprehension/interpretation barriers;
  • vocabulary and how to figure out word meanings from morphology, context, and reference guides;
  • how to connect the ideas in a text with what they already know;
  • to interpret complicated sentences (by untangling the grammar);
  • to make and trace cohesive connections across a text;
  • to identify a text’s structure and how to use this structure to understand and remember the purpose of the text and what it says;
  • to use comprehension strategies when they find a text to be tough going (like summarizing, questioning, visualizing/imaging);
  • to pay attention to text meaning and to do something if it isn’t making sense;
  • to decode the words;
  • to read the text fluently with proper phrasing (paying attention to punctuation and meaning);
  • to write about the ideas in a text (modeling, summarizing, analyzing, critiquing, synthesizing).

Beyond that, teachers should be giving kids lots of practice reading such texts, participating in discussions of those texts, writing about those texts, and using those texts to accomplish other purposes (e.g., doing science experiments or art projects, constructing websites, or conducting historical investigations). All of those things should take place with texts that the students initially struggle to read, but that they master through instruction and practice.

What teachers should not be doing is spending inordinate amounts of time scrambling to find texts to work with, or teaching kids to answer particular kinds of questions, or having them practicing the answering of such questions. Those, it seems to me, are the teacher versions of having kids copy spelling words 10 or 20 times — a big time waster, with little potential learning payoff.

If you have kids reading texts and you have deep conversations about the texts — conversations that critically explore the ideas communicated and the value and quality of how that information is expressed—I have no doubt that an appropriate mix of question types will be considered.

I think your district is making a big mistake. What a waste of resources and effort. What a waste of children’s learning opportunity.

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"You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend." — Paul Sweeney