Category Archives: IRRC

Summer Reading Programs Survey

The DE issued a press release, for the Iowa Reading Research Center commissioned survey of Iowa summer reading programs, entitled Survey shows need for funding for summer reading programs.

Just kidding. Despite survey findings that funding is the primary barrier for the majority of school districts not yet offering summer reading programs and the current school funding debates, the DE instead chose to emphasize a need for statewide standards or control with this title: Survey shows need for consistency in summer reading programs.

The sixty-nine page report has quite a lot of information in it (though it is light on recommendations), but I think it is unfortunate the public library summer reading programs have been lumped together with summer school programs and other reading skills oriented community programs in this survey. Perhaps it adds to the inconsistency among programs surveyed: public library reading programs are focused on supporting a love of reading rather than teaching or maintaining academic skills, are less likely to offer formal assessment of reading skills, are unlikely to set academic goals, are unlikely to require attendance, and are not staffed with licensed teachers. But I hope it isn’t a sign that the DE and/or the IRRC are going to develop standards for public library summer reading programs. Encouraging kids to find reading for pleasure a worthwhile activity is a valuable endeavor and librarians, though not licensed teachers, are trained professionals well suited to helping kids find books they will like–or even love–reading.

Talking (Down) to Parents

The Iowa Reading Research Center has been tweeting more links to the IRRC blog lately. The blog seems aimed at driving parent traffic to the IRRC searchable collection of resources (which appear to all be links to other websites).

I suppose the blog is meant to be drawing attention to useful information parents might not otherwise find on their own. However, it is disingenuously presented as a parent-to-parent blog when the author is, in fact, a literacy consultant for the IRRC. And worse, the blog is largely written from a faux-clueless parent point of view.


I say faux-clueless because I refuse to even entertain the idea that a literacy consultant, for example, would need to learn that it is okay to ask questions at the library, is incapable of effectively using a library catalog to find books about robins, needs someone else to suggest the idea of pairing reading a book with watching a movie based on the book,  or needs reminders of the importance of talking to her baby.

I suppose that having paid for the creation of the resources collection, the IRRC needs to drive some traffic to it. But 1) how likely is it that parents who need to be told these things are actually following the IRRC’s blog, or the IRRC Twitter and Facebook accounts? (Maybe aiming at professionals who work directly with the parents most in need of the information the IRRC wants to share would be more productive.)

And 2) can’t the IRRC adopt a less condescending way to address parents? (See, for example, Dan Willingham’s Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.)

Have Fun, Start Now

Have fun, start now are the guiding principles in Dan Willingham’s latest book, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do.

Willingham focuses on three foundations of reading: decoding easily, comprehension, and motivation. These foundations are addressed by age groups, birth through preschool, kindergarten through second grade, and third grade and beyond. Willingham discusses what you might expect to be happening at school and what you can do at home. And, because it is Willingham, there are references to research, both what we already know and where further study could be helpful.

This book is aimed at helping you help your child to see the value and pleasure in reading for enjoyment or entertainment. Basically, kids who read have a self-concept of themselves as readers (“reading is one of the things that I do”) and Willingham offers suggestions for helping your child build that self-concept as well as positive encouragement (it’s never too late to start!).

Willingham also cautions about relying too much on your child’s school. From the Introduction:

If you want your child to value reading, schools can help, but you, the parent, have the greater influence and bear the greater responsibility. You can’t just talk about what a good idea reading is. Your child needs to observe that reading matters to you, that you live like a reader.

I found myself nodding along throughout much of this book, though there were two points at which I was stopped short. The first was at this passage, from Chapter Five:

I encourage you to be very cautious about providing reading instruction at home. There are studies showing that such teaching can help children learn to read, but in these studies, parents are trained in specific techniques by the researchers. If you’re not trained by researchers (or your child’s teacher), you’re either going to go with your gut instincts about how to teach (which is dicey) or you’ll choose one of the many products out there for parents to work on phonics with their kids. Many of these products are not sound in how they approach reading instruction, and most are terribly boring. (Emphasis in the original.)

I agree that many products (and advice) sold to parents may not be sound in how they approach reading instruction, but I am confident that that statement may too often be true with regard to materials (and advice) sold to schools as well. In other words, I’m less optimistic than Willingham that schools are mostly getting systematic phonics instruction right.

In addition, I think parents either trying to evaluate the quality of their child’s school’s reading instruction or listening to their child’s early efforts at decoding and offering effective corrective feedback may need to study up on systematic phonics instruction anyway, in which case, you’re most of the way to being prepared to teach reading to your own child (one-on-one). So while I might agree that there’s no reason to intervene if you are satisfied with your child’s reading instruction, I wouldn’t hesitate to intervene if I had concerns; just be careful who you take advice or purchase materials from.*

Case in point: here’s a portion of a literacy consultant’s blogpost, on the Iowa Reading Research Center website blog, highlighting a video, “Reading Solution: Don’t Give Me the Answer”, from the IRRC Family Resources page.

The video also shares that if a child is stuck on a word after a few tries, a parent can support the child by asking some questions. The parent in the video encourages the child to use the pictures in the book to see if the word makes sense. I decided to try this and it worked! Griffin stumbled on the word “tickets” in the sentence “Mom gets tickets.” I asked him to look at the mom and see what could be in her hand and to think about what they needed to get into the fair. Since he had figured out the first part “tic”, he was able to guess the rest of the word correctly. (Emphasis added.)

Let me suggest something different this parent could have said to her child instead. How about, “Griffin, each syllable in a word has a vowel sound. Let’s see if we can divide this word into syllables and try sounding it out again?” Having assisted Griffin in dividing “tickets” into two syllables (tick-ets), Griffin should have been able to sound out this word, not guess the word from the pictures (which, it should go without saying, won’t be a particularly good reading strategy in the long run).

The other passage that stopped me short was this one, from Chapter Six, following a discussion of the importance of broad general content knowledge:

In chapter 5, I encouraged you to count on your child’s teacher to get him reading, but when it comes to knowledge building, you can’t exhort the schools and hope for the best. This work will fall to you.

In this case, it wasn’t so much disagreement as discouragement about the general state of schools with regard to content knowledge that would cause Willingham to write this and what it means for local efforts to address the achievement gap. As we add more time to the elementary school day, I hope local school officials will take note that making time for building content knowledge (history, civics, science, art and more) is vital for supporting later reading comprehension (Chapter Six).

One other topic of particular interest to me is the role of electronic devices in reading and in schools. Willingham notes that it probably doesn’t matter if your child reads on an e-reader or not (Chapter Eight). However, in Chapter Eight, Willingham notes:

There is one qualification to that conclusion. If your child’s school is considering moving to electronic textbooks, be at least a little wary. Publishers are working to improve electronic textbooks, but with the current offerings, the research is pretty consistently negative.

Willingham discusses digital technology more extensively in Chapter Ten:

The consequence of long-term experience with digital technologies is not an inability to sustain attention. It’s impatience with boredom. It’s an expectation that I should always have something interesting to listen to, watch, or read and that creating an interesting experience should require little effort. . . . We’re not distractible. We just have a very low threshold for boredom.

But it’s not all bad news (e-readers can help make appealing reading material easily accessible) and Willingham offers a number of suggestions to encourage kids to choose to read.

All in all, a worthwhile and engaging read, and a book I’d like to see local teachers and school administrators find time to read.

*FWIW, I like the Montessori preschool writing to reading sequence of materials and activities. I also like Sound Steps to Reading (plus storybook) by Diane McGuinness.

IRRC: Off to an Inauspicious Start

Michelle Hosp has been named director of the Iowa Reading Research Center.  She had been serving on the IRRC Advisory Board as an RtI (Response to Intervention) State Transformation Team Representative.

From the National Center on Response to Intervention:

Dr. Michelle Hosp is a Research Associate in the College of Education at the University of Iowa. She has a background in school psychology and special education. Her research is in the areas of assessment and reading. She has published articles, a book, and conducted workshops both at the state and national level on implementing Progress Monitoring within a Problem Solving framework.

From a quick search of GALE Academic OneFile at Iowa AEA Online:

And the book, (available at

  • The ABCs of CBM: A Practical Guide to Curriculum-Based Measurement (Practical Intervention in the Schools) [Paperback] Michelle K. Hosp PhD (Author), John L. Hosp PhD (Author), Kenneth W. Howell PhD (Author)

Earlier this month, Hosp made a presentation to the Iowa State Board of Education on Reducing the Achievement Gap.

The DE reports that Hosp will have the IRRC focus on three broad-based priorities:

  • identification of evidence-based practices in literacy
  • strengthen the partnership among a broad spectrum of education stakeholders across the state
  • expand its website

There is something vaguely depressing about the notion that a person “whose career has focused on literacy, instruction, interventions and assessments” would need to identify evidence-based practices in literacy.  One might like to think that such a person might already be up to speed on those evidence-based practices–if so, why not get right to spreading the word and designing the summer literacy program?

[Note: one easy place to get an overview of evidence-based reading instruction (just click on the link and read): Reading is Rocket Science by Louisa Moats.]

Also vaguely depressing?

Here’s what you get (for now) when you click on “effective reading instruction“:

IRRC eff reading copy

And this: (that would be onset and rime–not rhyme):

IRRC onset and rhyme copy

And this (click for a larger view):

IRRC phonics copy

Here’s hoping things start to look better soon.

Iowa Reading Research Center [updated]




IRRC Logo 2


Update: Iowa Reading Research Center’s has a new website here.

The House passed an education appropriations bill, HF 604, on March 20th.  The LSA has an eight-page summary of the bill available here.  Under the heading major increases/decreases/transfers of existing programs it is noted that the Iowa Reading Research Center sees “[a] decrease of $2.0 million to no longer fund the Center.”

The minutes of the November 7, 2012 meeting of the State Board of Education indicate that there was discussion of “what will happen if the center does not receive future funding” but the details of that discussion are not included.

While we wait on the Senate version of the education budget, here’s an update on the reading center:

The IRRC has a logo (see above), an interim director, and a website.  The IRRC is accepting applications for Director of the Center through March 31st, with the office location and employing AEA to be determined by current location of the selected candidate.  (Apparently Director Glass has chosen the AEAs to host the IRRC).  Grant Wood AEA 10 was chosen to be the fiscal agent of the Center.

The rules governing the IRRC are in the Iowa Administrative Code under the Education Department [281] Chapter 61.

The Reading Research Council released a report in January, which is available for download on the DE website here.  From page 4 of the report:

Much of the work of the Iowa Reading Research Center will be done through a partnership between the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa Area Education Agencies called Collaborating for Iowa’s Kids (C4K). The intent of the collaborative is to effectively and efficiently work as a comprehensive educational system to accomplish agreed-upon high-impact priorities: the literacy component of the Iowa Core, Response to Intervention, educator quality, and school improvement. The initial work for the group’s collaborative efforts will be preK-6 reading with a focus on early literacy.

The C4K website is here and an AEA blogpost about the C4K partnership is here.

It’s hard to know what to say about all of this, so I’ll just leave it at this:  I remain skeptical about the likelihood that there will be a substantial, positive change in reading instruction as a result of this work.

More of the Same?

For reasons I can’t even begin to understand, phonics is apparently a word not to be spoken in polite company in Iowa, at least not in education circles.  Phonics has been curiously absent from this past year’s debate on early reading instruction in Iowa and is also absent from the recently released report of the Iowa Reading Research Center Committee (available here).

There are forty-three sounds used to form words in spoken English.  Written English uses single letters or combinations of letters to represent each of the sounds that make up a spoken word.  Written English is complicated by the fact that a letter or combination of letters may represent more than one sound and one sound may be represented by more than one letter or letter combination.

There are basically two possible approaches to early reading instruction.  We can provide complete and systematic instruction in synthetic phonics or not.  If not, we leave children to puzzle out some or all of the letter/sound relationships for themselves.

As far as I can tell, Iowa follows the second approach.  Prior to the adoption of the Common Core, I compared the Iowa Core and Massachusetts’s standards here.

Massachusetts’s standards plainly stated, “In the primary grades, systematic phonics instruction and regular practice in applying decoding skills to decodable materials are essential elements of the school program.”

In contrast, Iowa offered the following:

Use multiple decoding strategies to read words in text.

  • Apply knowledge of letter/sound correspondence
  • Recognize sight words.
  • Look for parts within words.
  • Skip the unknown word(s) and continue reading.
  • Reread sentences/paragraphs.
  • Look for graphic cues.
  • Use the context of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and text.
  • Ask if the word(s) make sense.

Guessing words from the pictures or the context, simply skipping words, or filling in words that make sense is not reading.  Furthermore, unlike decoding, guessing isn’t a particularly useful skill for a child to use when there are no pictures or multiple words might make sense.

Here is some similarly minded advice from an Iowa Reading Recovery teacher:

If your child gets stuck on a word, wait a few seconds and then encourage him/her to: read the sentence again, and think about words that would make sense; look at the word for parts that he/she knows; or think about what would sound right. Most importantly, tell him/her the hard word before frustration sets in, and jot me a note in the journal about that. This time is supposed to be a time for your child to feel successful about reading.

Note that the Reading Recovery teacher does not suggest encouraging the child to sound out the word or remind the child of a phonics rule.  The parent is advised to wait for them to guess a word that would make sense or sounds right, and if the child can’t correctly guess, just tell them what the word is.

No doubt that there are children who can figure out the rules of phonics for themselves with minimal or incomplete instruction in phonics and others who get enough help outside of school to become proficient readers.  But what of the children who don’t fall into either of these categories?  What is the value for them in withholding systematic phonics instruction?  What is the value for the community in withholding systematic phonics instruction from children who are otherwise capable of learning how to read if someone just takes the mystery out of knowing how to sound out words?  What are teachers for, if not to take the mystery out of the disciplines they teach?

I see no indication in the report that the IRRC Committee members are inclined to question Iowa’s current approach to reading instruction.  I hope I am wrong, but I don’t see much likelihood of the IRRC bringing about a substantial, positive change in reading instruction.