Category Archives: reading

Math and Reading are Fundamental

Jack has a new, thought- and blog post-provoking blogpost entitled Why Math & Reading are Overrated.

I read the post largely as a call for broader assessment of students, both in rating schools and college admissions. I understand Jack’s points, but I would like to suggest that there are good reasons for maintaining a narrow focus on math and reading in large-scale assessments.

Math and reading are fundamental, necessary if not sufficient for success in a broad range of academic pursuits. To deprive children of the opportunity to master reading and elementary mathematics is to severely limit their future options, both in school and in the workforce. To use Jack’s example, weak public speaking skills aren’t likely to prevent a person from successfully completing an engineering degree, but weak math skills certainly will.

I’m no longer sure that there are any other academic subjects or skills, except to some extent writing, for which this is more or less universally true. That is, for any other academic subject, we can identify many successful people with little knowledge of it–geography, history, government, science, art, music, literature, or foreign languages.

Moreover, if something is hard to measure well in a large-scale assessment, we certainly shouldn’t be measuring it poorly with high stakes attached to the results, no matter how highly we value the thing that is hard to measure well.

Consider the case of large-scale writing assessments and the unfortunate effect they have had on writing instruction. There is an inherent difficulty in ensuring consistent scoring for thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of writing samples (or extended constructed responses, if you prefer), necessitating a detailed scoring rubric, followed by teaching to the test (scoring rubric, really), with the horrible result of not excellence, but tedious and formulaic writing (see the five paragraph essay or the 3-5-3).

No doubt that attempts at large-scale assessments of 21st century skills would result in teaching students to produce similarly tedious and formulaic evidence of their capacities for “critical thinking”, “creativity”, “innovation”, “collaboration”, and public speaking.

Which means, I think, that a narrow focus on math and reading is preferable to more expansive large-scale, high stakes tests in order to allow local districts and individual students as much leeway as possible to shape school programs according to their own educational values and goals.

More than that, I think that a narrow focus on assessments of basic competency in math and reading is preferable to more expansive, high stakes tests that purport to be able to measure higher order thinking/depth of understanding or other 21st century skills. I think H. Wu offers a compelling argument for a driver’s license style, basic competency assessment for math and reading. His article is worth reading in its entirety, not just for the details of his suggested alternative, but also for his overview of the limitations of large-scale assessments.

Would the assessments measure all of the things that Jack thinks are important? Nope. But perhaps they could change the conversation we’re currently having about public education and mitigate the worst effects of large-scale, high stakes assessment.


Reading with Children

I read Principal Joey’s post, Stop trying to make your kids read, a few days ago.

I agree with much of what he says–though I find the statistics he cites on adult readers, and specifically those training to be teachers, to be horrifying–with the exception, perhaps, of making time for reading at school.

I think that reading for pleasure requires both free choice and uninterrupted time, two things that schools are not particularly well-known for providing.

I think that making time for reading at school might be the functional equivalent of reading logs, just shifting monitoring duties from parent to teacher.

I think it is hard to get absorbed into a book if the teacher is going to make you put it down after fifteen or twenty minutes to move onto the next classroom activity.

I think that peers can sometimes be a problem. One thing I love about my Kindle is no longer receiving negative comments about what I’m reading when I take a book to read while I am waiting somewhere–although I miss out on the opportunity for positive comments too, the comments were, in my experience, largely negative ones. (Knitting in public, on the other hand, in my experience, results in uniformly positive comments for whatever that is worth.) Imagine having your reading level/interests on display in front of classmates if your reading level/interests diverge from what the cool/popular kids are reading?

I do think that if schools want to encourage reading for pleasure, they could make time during class for two activities:

  • The teacher reading aloud to the students. I still remember Mrs. W reading aloud from The View From the Cherry Tree. We moved before she got to the end and I spent months waiting to get my hands on copy so I could find out how it ended.
  • Regular visits to a well-stocked school library, staffed by book lovers who are skilled at connecting children to books that may be of interest without being judgmental.

In a related vein, I have found myself spending more time reading fiction of late (while those education books gather dust in the too-be-read pile). Though I read classic and contemporary adult fiction, one of the joys of parenting has been spending more time reading juvenile and young adult fiction too, in parallel reading with my kids, preview reading for them, and reading aloud to them.

There have been some surprises along the way–my children loved Jules Verne (whom I hadn’t read previously, but also enjoyed) but hated Harriet the Spy (a frequently reread favorite of my childhood)–which means I’m generally on the lookout for book recommendations, particularly ones beyond my usual preferences.

Here are a few that have been particularly successful for reading aloud with my kids:

  • Diana Wynne Jones (especially Archer’s Goon, but all have been well-liked)
  • Carl Hiaasen juvenile fiction (Chomp was particularly fun to read aloud)
  • Ursula Vernon’s Danny Dragonbreath series
  • Star Wars, Last of the Jedi series

We are currently reading The Bronze Bow and Gregor the Overlander together, with The Magic Thief books in reserve.

Any recommendations for other books to try–as read alouds or independently? Please share in the comments!


Paper and Screens

I am a reader.

A reader with mixed-feelings about my Kindle.

The Kindle was a lovely and thoughtful gift from my husband that sat neglected for months until  John Irving’s latest novel hit the stores and was nearly instantly downloaded onto the Kindle for me by the aforementioned husband.

So, finally, I read my first book on the Kindle and was somewhat underwhelmed. I love being able to set down a book without scrambling for a bookmark to hold my place, but I missed the sense of progress marked by the bookmark’s progress from front to back of the volume, and the ability to peek ahead to see just how long the next chapter will be before I decide whether I have time for just one more chapter before bedtime.

Turns out that I’m not alone on this.

Salon had an interesting article (months ago now) on e-readers and reading comprehension, that touched on not just the differences in reading between paper and screens, but also how reading on screens might inhibit reading comprehension.

In any case, I have long wondered about role-modeling reading for children in a digital format. When I read on the Kindle, does that really register with my kids that I am reading rather than, say, playing video games, watching a movie, or keeping an eye on my Twitter feed?

So, while we settle into a mix of paper and digital books here at home, I particularly liked this bit from Neil Gaiman’s speech, printed in The Guardian, on the future of reading and libraries (although the whole speech is worth reading):

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.


The Reading Wars Explained

If you need a quick introduction to the Reading Wars, take a few minutes to read Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet post “Another blast in the reading wars.”

The post consists mostly of a letter written by Steven Dykstra, and signed by others, in response to critics of NCTQ’s review and rating of teacher preparation programs (see previous The Answer Sheet posts “Literacy experts say reformers reviving ‘reading wars’” and “How the ‘reading wars’ are being reignited“).

Here’s a taste:

The Reading Wars are an ongoing struggle between those who understand that children must be taught to use letters and sounds to decode and spell words, and those who think children should mostly or entirely eschew that method (generally known as phonics) in favor of guessing.  The first side is guided by science, the alphabetic nature of our written language, and a common sense recognition that understanding the meaning of text is predicated on accurately identifying words.  The second side believes that children should be taught to construct meaning from text based on their own meaning-based intuitions about what the words might be.  That is, rather than reading the words of a text to expand their knowledge and understanding (as well as their reading prowess), this second side encourages children to use their own existing knowledge and understanding to guess at words.

Supporters of Reading Recovery might take note of a quote from Marie Clay:

“All readers, from five year old beginners on their first books to the effective adult reader need to use: the meaning, the sentence structure, order cues, size cues, special features, special knowledge, first and last letter knowledge before they resort to left to right sounding out of chunks or letter clusters, or in the last resort, single letters.” (citations omitted)

If Marie Clay sounds right on the money to you, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this issue.  I’m opposed to causing children to become “reading failures” before we clue them in that written English is a code system that uses single letters and combinations of letters to represent the sounds used to create spoken words.

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.

State School Board Retreat 2013

The Iowa State Board of Education met for its annual retreat last week.  The agenda is available here but be forewarned that clicking on the tabs will download pdf files (rather than opening them in a new browser window).

Reducing the Achievement Gap update: Tab A is Michelle Hosp’s PowerPoint presentation.  This is essentially an overview of how the State Board plans to approach improving reading instruction in Iowa:

  1. C4K
  2. Universal reading screening assessments for all students and progress monitoring assessments for students identified for additional instruction or intervention:  Formative Assessment System for Teachers earlyReading, CBMReading, and aReading; and Individual Growth and Development Indicators.
  3. RtI (Response to Intervention) data system to collect assessment data and to provide access to the data at the teacher, building, district, AEA, or state level.  Check out the TIES (Technology and Information Educational Services) Iowa promotional video.
  4. If less than eighty percent of students are proficient on the universal screening assessment, examine reading instruction practices.
  5. Identify a standard treatment protocol for use with students identified as at-risk during the universal screening process.

Assessment Redesign: Tab B is Dave Tilly’s twenty-eight page handout which includes Iowa’s current teacher evaluation requirements, an overview of the Federal Flexibility Waiver process, a letter from the USDE about the status of Iowa’s flexibility waiver, and notes on teacher evaluation and student achievement data.

The student achievement data section may be particularly interesting for those following the VAM debate in Iowa.  In a “slide” labeled “Value Added Adds Quantitative Data to Teacher Evaluations” we learn that “‘[v]alue added’ is a statistical method of estimating the effect of a teacher’s instruction on his or her students’ test scores.”  On the same page we also learn that Iowa is one of many states “developing systems of aligning teacher related student achievement data (including value added measures) with teacher educ[ation] programs.”

The discussion questions (see pages 2 and 3) look interesting; I hope the minutes are detailed.

Priority Setting: Tab C is the draft of policy development priorities (which I assume is meant to be a draft for 2013-14 and not 2012-2013?):

Competency-Based Education.

Online Learning and Other Technological Advances.  One of the following bullet points is “[s]upport a requirement that all students take at least one class online”.  What is the purpose of this?  To acclimate students to online learning options for learning after high school or as a move towards a different model of schooling?

Improving Teacher and Leadership Preparation

One of the following bullet points is to study accountability (especially use of student achievement data).

Reducing Achievement Gaps.  Based on Michelle Hosp’s presentation, this seems to be largely about improving reading instruction.

The goal ought to be effective classroom instruction that minimizes reading failure and the need for intervention, in other words, getting reading instruction right for as many children as possible the first time (in the classroom) so that as few children as possible require intervention.  This is a difficult goal to achieve when there seems to be so much resistance to discussing whole language, balanced literacy, phonics, or the five elements of science based reading instruction (see generally posts in the reading category).  Much safer to talk about data and assessments and standard treatment protocols.

While avoiding the discussion might keep the peace, it also likely deprives some number of Iowa students of the benefits of effective reading instruction.  From Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science by Lousia Moats (1999), pages 9-10:

The tragedy here is that most reading failure is unnecessary.  We now know that classroom teaching itself, when it includes a range of research-based components and practices, can prevent and ameliorate reading difficulty.  Although home factors do influence how well and how soon students read, informed classroom instruction that targets specific language and reading skills beginning in kindergarten enhances success for all but a few students with moderate or severe learning disabilities.  Scientists now estimate that 95 percent of all children can be taught to read at a level constrained only by their reasoning and listening comprehension abilities.  It is clear that students in high-risk populations need not fail at the rate they do.  When placed into schools with effective principals and well-prepared and well- supported teachers, African-American, Hispanic, or students who are economically disadvantaged can learn to read as well as their more advantaged peers.  Further, students who lack the prerequisite awareness of sounds, symbols, and word meanings can overcome their initial disadvantage if teachers incorporate critical skills into lessons directly, systematically, and actively.  Thus, while parents, tutors, and the community can contribute to reading success, classroom instruction must be viewed as the critical factor in preventing reading problems and must be the primary focus for change. Ensuring effective classroom instructional practice is well within the purview of educational policymakers. (Emphasis added.)

Evaluating teachers using student test scores and providing mentors and teacher collaboration time might gets us to widespread implementation of science based reading instruction in the classroom, but it is far from certain, especially without clear understanding, guidance, and support from the DE, the State Board, and the new Iowa Reading Research Center.

If we continue to avoid this conversation, there are more potential reading pitfalls ahead as we implement Common Core English Language Arts Standards (which were incorporated into the Iowa Core).  From Louisa Moats again, this time from her article Reconciling the Common Core State Standards with Reading Research (HT: Alecia RahnBlakeslee):

The lofty goals of the CCSS and the realities of student learning as we understand them from research may not easily be reconciled. Students who struggle with reading, including those with dyslexia, comprise at least 30% of the population (Fletcher, Lyon, Fuchs, & Barnes, 2007). About 34% of the population as a whole is “below basic” on the National Assessment of Academic Progress in fourth grade. Often, up to 70–80% of students in high poverty areas enter school at risk for reading failure. Mixed in as “poor readers” are all those who simply have not been taught how to read or who do not speak English. These facts imply that raising standards and expectations, without sufficient attention to the known causes and remedies for reading and academic failure, and without a substantial influx of new resources to educate and support teachers, is not likely to benefit students with mild, moderate, or severe learning difficulties. Rather, the stage is set for those students to suffer adverse consequences, such as forced grade repetitions, denial of promotion or diplomas, and irrelevant requirements that do not, in fact, enable students to be more ready for college or career. (Emphasis added.)

Moats goes on to identify specific shortcomings with the standards:

With the CCSS’s emphasis on informational text, complex text, reading aloud, and inquiry-based learning, more of the nation’s attention is currently focused on higher-level comprehension, leaving almost no room for discussion of beginning reading and the needs of students with reading difficulties. The teacher-directed, systematic, sequential, explicit approaches that work best (Archer & Hughes, 2011; Clark, Kirschner, & Sweller, 2012; Rosenshine, 2012) are receiving much less discussion than they deserve. The risk, of course, is that even larger numbers of students will fail to become independent readers and writers.

Currently, the standards document obfuscates important relationships among word recognition, spelling, fluency, and comprehension (e.g., Mehta, Foorman, Branum-Martin, & Taylor, 2005) that provide the rationale for a multi-component approach. For example, from the standards document, a reader cannot learn that speech sound blending supports word recognition, that spelling supports vocabulary, that understanding of morphology speeds word recognition, or that oral language capacities are the underpinning for written language. One would not realize that handwriting, spelling, and sentence composition support higher level composition (Berninger & Wolf, 2009). Thus, it is vital that consumers of the standards document recognize its limitations as an instructional guide and look elsewhere for trustworthy, research-based guidance on curriculum and professional development.  (Emphasis added.)

The RtI data system and the assessments might be a step in the right direction, but I’d sure like to hear something more from the State Board, the DE, and the IRRC that indicates that they really understand early reading instruction issues and see improving classroom instruction as a top priority.

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.