Women, Research, and Reading
Women’s History Month is here, providing space to celebrate and reflect on the contributions of women over the years. In the area of reading instruction and research, women have consistently been at the vanguard of formulating reading theories, testing them through study and experimentation, and using them to build classrooms practices that teach children to read, write, and spell. As I think about women in history, I believe reading research is an area of science where women have consistently shone across the many decades.
Historically, women were not welcome in sciences such as physics, astronomy, chemistry, and medicine. Of course there were outliers – Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson come to mind – but by and large, women were not encouraged to pursue or even allowed to enter scientific studies. But in the sciences of education and reading, this was not the case.
When I think of those who have contributed to my understanding of what reading is and how I can best teach it, my thoughts quickly go to a list of women, including Elfreida Hiebert, Dolores Durkin, Dorothy Strickland, Margaret McKeown & Isabel Beck, Linda Gambrell, Catherine Snow, and Mary Anne Wolf. From thematic teaching and vocabulary instruction to reading comprehension and the neurobiology of the reading brain, the work of these researchers helped me to see that seemingly disparate parts of reading are actually facets of a complex and sparkling whole. Equally important, their insights have allowed many, including myself, to develop routines, activities, and curriculum that increasingly give all children a greater chance of becoming fluent readers, writers, and spellers.
The list above doesn’t include my all-time Big Three of reading researchers. That trio would be Louise Rosenblatt (the transactional nature of reading), Jean Chall (stages of reading development), and Linnea Ehri (the essentiality of orthography), all of whom I’ve mentioned in previous blogs. If you don’t know these scientists, I encourage you to look them up, read about them, and reflect on what they’ve brought to the teaching of reading.
Dorothy Strickland Maryanne Wolf Linnea Ehri
A small sample of powerful reading scientists/researchers
Women as Teachers
As I reflect on reading researchers, I can’t help but wonder about the role of American women in education and how their progress in the field of teaching has ebbed and flowed over time. According to a pithy article in The Western Carolina Journalist, prior to 1850, teaching was a career dominated by men. But enormous social changes in the latter part of the 19th century brought about an almost complete reversal. As industrialization lured men into money-making businesses – building and running railroads, managing factories, trading in the stock market – thousands of teaching positions opened up. At the same time, immigration brought more children into cities, creating a demand for more teachers.
Over the decades, women in education, who now comprise more than 80% of all teachers, made better wages, achieved status, and gained freedoms and opportunities to further their careers. They also suffered through large classroom sizes, meager pay, and burdensome oversight from male administrators. To this day, advancement continues to march forward and lurch back. Unions, as well as changing societal norms, have helped women achieve economic protections, better working conditions, more career education, and organizational positions such as curriculum directors, principals, superintendents, and senior researchers. But at the same time, some in the greater world still see teaching as “women’s work” – a belittling and ignorant phrase – and pay for women in all fields, including education, continues to lag behind that of men.
An early teacher
Illustration via American Antiquarian.
Those Who Can, Teach
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my mother, an educator and lover of science. She was a huge influence on what I’ve learned about the teaching of reading and her career journey reflects both the joys of teaching and the struggles of women to be truly free and equal. As a young woman, she showed a keen intellect and a knack for observation of the natural world. She was interested in the sciences and in high school garnered a science scholarship to attend Temple University. But my grandfather, a school principal at the time, discouraged my mother’s love of science and desire for advanced study, instead strongly suggesting that she study nursing (the profession of my grandmother) or teaching.
In the end, my mom choose teaching, attended a local Pennsylvania Teachers College, and had a long and satisfying career as a most excellent teacher, teaching as a reading specialist, a university professor, and a first grade teacher. Like many women, her accomplishments were astounding and included the raising of three children, running the family’s day-to-day operations, sometimes being the major bread winner, managing classrooms of rambunctious elementary-age boys and girls, and teaching the essential skill of reading to hundreds of children, thus changing their lives forever.
So, here's to the women of the world, to the teachers and researchers, and to all those working to help people everywhere become more educated and open minded!
Artificial intelligence is big news. Over the last three months, I’ve taken in a half-dozen podcast episodes on the subject, as well as heard and read reports from NPR, CNN, The Guardian, Reuters, and The New York Times, just to name a few. According to some, AI-powered chatbots are set to replace everyone from counselors and journalists to Broadway-bound playwrights. Even 4th grade writers may become a thing of the past! And what of teachers? Could AI-powered robots replace us? More importantly, should they?
Setting the Stage
After presenting at a recent reading conference, I was approached by a researcher who told me she was working on robots capable of teaching reading skills. My first thought was, “That’s crazy talk. Who would want that?” But as I listened to the professor speak, and later, as I reflected on what teaching efforts are required to teach readers who struggle, I found myself thinking yes, robots could teach important reading skills and yes, I am open to the possibility of AI-powered programs and robots that teach certain components of reading.
There are, of course, many excellent reasons why robots and AI should not replace humans in the world of work. From a humanist viewpoint (all technical, historical, ethical, and equity issues aside), my reasoning is fairly simple: 1) jobs and careers often bring dignity and a sense of purpose; 2) humans thrive when they have both; 3) if we allow intelligent robots to take our jobs, our ability to live purposeful, thriving lives will be greatly diminished.
But if we consider AI as a supplement to what humans do rather than a replacement, then my opinion changes: I think it could be somewhat to very helpful to have robots and AI in our world. For example, robots and artificial intelligence are already hard at work in medicine, quickly and accurately spotting malignant tumors, transcribing doctor-patient interactions, assisting with prostate surgery, and designing previously unimagined molecules and proteins for new lines of research and drug therapies.
Obviously, artificial intelligence is now at the point where it is able to perform certain technical tasks better than humans, in ways that are increasingly beneficial to its human masters. In the field of education, robots and AI might function in the same supplemental way, teaching skills that require a lot of repetition for mastery, supporting students during independent work time (when a teacher is engaged with a small group), performing formative assessments and designing maximized-for-learning follow-up lessons. Let’s consider these more deeply, starting with repetition.
Go Back, Jack, Do It Again
As part of my one-day seminar on dyslexia, I present seven teaching techniques useful for teaching all children to read and especially helpful when teaching students who struggle. The first is repetition, a technique common to all effective teaching and a prominent part of tried and true reading interventions such as Wilson Reading, 95%, Corrective Reading, and so forth. Teachers using the Orton-Gillingham program sometimes refer to repetition as “relentless redundancy” but no matter what you call it, when combined with distributed practice, repetition is a foundational component of effective reading instruction, especially when it comes to teaching students on the dyslexia continuum. To become fluent readers, children MUST break the code and for some it will take dozens of repetitions to form sound-letter relationships. Therefore, repetition is a necessary part of their reading instruction.
Like everything positive, repetition comes with challenges. One is to avoid the drill and kill trap, where a teacher and/or program uses the same materials and activities over and over again for too long of a period of time, thus boring the student and possibly the teacher. Once boredom sets in, distraction and irritation follow, along with decreasing levels of learning.
Thoughts About Bots
One way to minimize “repetitive equals boring” is to use a variety of activities that teach the same concept or skill repeatedly over time. Enter intelligent robots! In situations demanding high degrees of repetition, such as teaching sound-letter associations, decoding skills, and spelling patterns to students who struggle to learn, non-human instructors could provide efficient and effective instruction. For students, the instruction would be novel and engaging. Many children might be tickled to spend 1-on-1 time with a robot or an especially clever and chatty computer program. And as we know, motivation and engagement are huge factors in how much a student learns. So, anything we can do to motivate and engage is a good idea.
As for teachers, there are many possible benefits. First, for some teachers, repetitive intervention programs are problematic (i.e. uninteresting). But robots don’t mind repetition (in fact, they don’t “mind” anything at all). Second, a robot running skill practice with an individual student or small group would enable a teacher to work with other students, individually or in small groups. Third, robots don’t have feelings, one way or the other, for any particular reading program and so their ability to carry out a particular methodology isn’t influenced by how they feel about it. Finally, artificial intelligence can easily gather, manage, and translate large amounts of assessment data, an ability that could free teachers to concentrate on the big picture of classroom achievement.
Speaking of data translation, AI is already capable of crafting future lessons that take into account past response patterns, thereby allowing for the fine-tuning lessons for individuals. This targeted instruction can lead to greater student learning in a shorter amount of time. In turn, students who quickly learn basic skills feel less frustrated and more happy. These happy feelings then feed positive feedback loops. Nothing succeeds like success, right? Equally important, less time spent on drilling skills (because students learn more efficiently) means more time spent on other important educational endeavors, such as exploration, discovery, discussion, and synthesis.
As Paul Simon sang in The Boy in the Bubble, “These are the days of miracle and wonder.” Technology, as always, is showing up in our world, whether we are ready or not. And so it behooves us to start carefully considering how, when, where, and especially why we want to use those intelligent robots.
Here is a fact: Journalist Emily Hanford helped popularize the term “Science of Reading,” Some would call that fact a dead fact. Here’s another fact: It takes some children hundreds of repetitions to associate a sound with a letter. I call that fact a live fact. Okay, here’s another dead fact: The term dyslexia is made from two Greek roots, dys, meaning “difficult or inadequate,” and lexis, meaning “word.” Now, another live fact: Teaching students the six syllable types can increase their chance of mastering encoding and decoding.
Are you starting to see how dead and live facts differ?
What is a dead fact?
In his thought-provoking book If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity, author Justin Gregg explores how unique human cognitive abilities, such as mental time travel and creating moral systems, are double-edged swords, each as likely to lead to individual suffering and world catastrophe as to personal contentment and a livable future. In one chapter, Gregg introduces the term dead facts.
Coined by philosopher Ruth Garrett Millikan, dead facts have to do with the human brain’s tendency to elaborate and expound upon (to think thoughts about) incoming sensory information. To understand just what a dead fact is, let’s first consider a nonhuman brain and its reaction to sensory input. For example, if I were a rabbit and I heard a loud rustling behind a nearby tree, I would bolt in the opposite direction. Why? As a rabbit I know this fact: rustling equals danger. And so I run!
Most animals that hear rustling probably don’t think anything more than rustling equals danger. Humans, however, are different. My human brain might quickly move from “rustling equals danger” to thoughts about why the rustling is happening. It's a fox, I think, or a falling branch. Or maybe it's a coyote. Could it be a wolf? Just as quickly, my brain might fabricate more improbable thoughts. For example, I might remember the time I played hide and seek with my sister, who was hiding behind a tree. Then I might think, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if my sister is making that rustling sound?” Cooler still, I might wonder “What if the rustling is caused by a lost extraterrestrial or a sasquatch, hiding to avoid detection?”
For humans, these recollections and imaginings are simply how we roll – one event occurring in our environment can trigger the remembering of countless bits of trivia and the dreaming of endless stories of fiction. Ruth Millikan called these kinds of thoughts dead facts because they have nothing to do with our acting on incoming sensory data in ways that boost our chances of immediate survival.
This is not to say that our wishful thinking and imaginative musings don’t have a place in the world. I enjoy thinking weird and whimsical thoughts. And ever-evolving thoughts and connections often lead to innovations, solutions, art, and religions. But when it comes to the efficient solving of an immediate problem, fabrications, ruminations, and the random recall of trivia can distract us. Which leads me to reading instruction.
Live Facts for Reading Instruction
Yes, facts like “journalist Emily Hanford helped popularize the term science of reading” and “the term dyslexia is made up of two Greek roots” are fun to know. But they are of no use to me when comes time to teach kindergarten students sound-letter associations or help a dyslexic adult become a more fluent reader. Thus, I want to stay focused on live facts, the ones most useful in my day-to-day instruction and capable of lifting my teaching to the most effective level. Here are some live facts I strive to keep in mind:
In conclusion, when it comes to reading instruction, consider the facts and decide which ones are dead and which ones are live. Then give the live facts priority! Review them on a regular basis and keep them in a brain space that is easily accessible. Finally, use them as the foundation of your reading, writing, and spelling instruction. When instruction is built upon a firm foundation of live facts - facts that enable efficient and effective teaching - students more easily become thriving readers, writers, and spellers.
This post was specially written for MarkWeaklandLiteracy.com
By: Reina Janice
In recent years, digital technologies have occupied a huge space in education. For example, our post on using ‘The Slide Show to Build Language Comprehension’ talks about how a modern slideshow can convey so much information in an engaging way. Compared to previous decades, where available images could be limited or outdated, slideshows are a tool to add new words and their corresponding meanings to a child’s mental lexicon.
Based on Maryville University’s description of American education, digital innovations are also rapidly transforming the way we approach learning. Around 21.1% of public schools offer at least one purely online course, while 90% of teachers believe that classroom technology is important to student success. However, 60% of teachers also report that they are “inadequately prepared to use technology in classrooms.” Many instructors need to keep up with shifts like swapping textbooks for tablets to effectively prepare students for a high-tech future.
One area of concern, in particular, is whether or not reading in a digital format affects comprehension. Reading is not a natural skill, and it takes real work for us to master it. Unlike learning to talk, which we absorb by listening to others, the brain doesn’t have a special network of cells exclusive for reading. Instead, it borrows networks that evolved to do other tasks. For example, brain circuitry that evolved to recognize faces is used in reading to recognize letters. This flexibility is beneficial, but it can be a problem when reading different types of texts. When we read online, we use a different set of cellular connections from the ones we use to read in print.
In this article, we’ll look at how reading in digital formats can affect comprehension and how to help students read across mediums.
Reading a screen makes us faster readers – but not in a good way
Reading on a screen often involves skimming, scrolling, browsing, and scanning. There is a sheer volume of content available online, which invites us to read quickly without going in-depth. As the University of Washington’s study on social media points out, we often enter a dissociative state when we scroll online and stop paying attention to what we’re doing, so sometimes we don’t even remember what we read on our phones. We’ve also gotten used to short reads like text messages or Tweets that don’t require much effort to understand. Living in a fast-paced digital world can change younger students’ brain plasticity and influence their ability to improve in comprehension, since the environment rewards shorter attention spans — even if we’re not absorbing ideas well.
Digital reading can lead to shallow processing
A research on smartphone reading published in Scientific Reports discovered that reading on a smartphone can promote brain overactivity in the prefrontal cortex, leading to poor narrative content comprehension and lower cognitive performance. It’s possible that the amount of digital stimuli — ads, updates, emails, texts — places a heavier visual load on our brains. In comparison, reading in print is less visually demanding. There are spatial and tactile cues that help us process the words on the page. For example, while reading in a digital format, readers can only navigate through text left to right and up and down. But a physical book gives spatial cues in three dimensions: left-right, up-down and forward and backward, across pages and entire chapters. Digital reading is also less likely to foster habits like reflection and note-taking, and a gap in these habits can limit overall comprehension.
Some training is needed to read digital text effectively
Researchers at the Complutense University of Madrid note that when eBook materials are properly selected and used, young children can develop literacy skills equally well and sometimes better than with print books. eBooks are more accessible, after all. Those with reading disabilities can adjust the font size, background color, and typeface for ease. And you can highlight the text, take notes, or visit links to additional resources. It just takes some training to better engage with digital text. For younger readers, they can try to summarize what they’ve read orally, while older children can reflect through writing. The key is to be mindful and strategic when interacting with whatever we read.
Specially written for MarkWeaklandLiteracy.com
By: Reina Janice
I love reading. It informs me, whisks me away to other worlds, entertains me with gripping stories of love, adventure and redemption. I love science, too, because it thrills me with descriptions of billion year-old life forms and humbles me with deep-space photos of a million spinning galaxies. So, I was delighted to discover a few years ago something called the Science of Reading. “It’s science and reading combined,” I cried, “like sweet chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese’s Cup! What could be better?”
But I must confess that lately, when I see that capitalized label stamped on book covers and classroom materials, I am surprised to hear my inner skeptic whispering words of caution. And I can’t help but think of that quote from the American philosopher Eric Hoffer: “What starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation.“
To ensure the Science of Reading avoids this fate, let’s consider how we present the science behind the teaching of reading. I’ll kick off the consideration by sharing two things on my mind: honoring our reading history and avoiding the bandwagon.
Honor Reading History
Scientists (aka researchers) have been shedding light on the subject of reading for a long time. This is true for both theories that describe what reading is and instructional practices that bring it into being. Sixty-five years ago, Harvard’s Jeanne Chall wrote Learning to Read: The Great Debate and the subject it surveyed was the fifty years of reading research that occurred prior to the book! Around now for at least 115 years, the science of reading is nothing new.
That, of course, doesn’t mean reading science has nothing new to offer us. For me, the information bundled as the capitalized Science of Reading is exciting for a number of reasons. First, by highlighting the workings of the human brain (and the mind that arises from it), it brings new information and energy to old ideas. Second, by emphasizing particular aspects of reading, it makes effective instruction more possible, specifically because we have increased our focus on teaching phonology and orthography, using explicit and systematic instruction, and melding language comprehension and automatic word recognition.
But although the capitalized label is relatively recent, much of the information that supports the Science of Reading (SoR) is not. Regarding the research that supports the movement, the work of (among others) Linnea Ehri, Philip Gough & William Tunmer, Jeanne Chall, and David Share goes back forty or more years. Also, many important areas of reading research that have lead to effective classroom practices are not officially part of SoR. These areas include studies on the transactional nature of reading, the importance of writing, the role of motivation in reading, the function of authentic and diverse books, and the value of differentiation.
And here’s something else: just because a practice like literature circles or a philosophy like balanced literacy lacks science in its title, that doesn’t mean it isn’t based on some scientifically derived insight. Nor does it mean that the practice or philosophy isn’t worthy of classroom use.
To summarize, the specific scientific ideas promoted by the Science of Reading, and the classroom practices that flow from this promotion, are tremendously important. But there are other important classroom practices to incorporate into our reading instruction and as an educator deeply involved with the lower case science of reading, I owe a debt of gratitude to the scientists who have brought forward all of these important practices.
Beware the Bandwagon
Also beware the cult and the pendulum swing. All are created when a group of people, from reading specialists to a school board or publishing company, too fully embrace a particular set of educational ideas while rejecting others. The end results include money wasted, conflicts created, teachers confused (and turned off), instructional effectiveness diminished, and worst of all, students who don’t learn what they need to learn.
Recently I’ve been wondering if our field’s tendency to jump on a bandwagon is due in part to labeling. Any educational label – from guided reading and balanced literacy to the science of reading and structured literacy–collapses a rich body of thinking into just a few words. Thus, labels perform a useful function, allowing us to quickly grasp and remember the details of intricate, multi-faceted subjects. Perhaps labeling is part of our brains’ amazing ability to create schema: one thing is attached to another, which is also attached to another and another. Conjure up one strand and very quickly an entire tapestry comes into focus.
But catchy labels are double-edged swords: they can lead to simplistic and fuzzy thinking, blind allegiance, and corporate greed, all of which can keep large numbers of children from learning how to read. Lucy Calkins, the well-known educator and creator of Units of Study, seems to have been effected by all three (as described in a 5/22/22 NYTimes article), embracing her own theories and data too fully, excluding other important data sets too completely, and concentrating too much on product production and not enough on product effectiveness. Perhaps this explains how and why a thirty-year giant in the field has only recently embraced the idea that teaching phonemic awareness and spelling-phonics to mastery levels is a critical part of any foundational reading program.
Sadly but not surprisingly, the Science of Reading may be suffering from the same effects. Scroll through the #scienceofreading Twitter feed and you’ll see blindly allegiant Tweeters angrily tagging others as idiots, the enemy, or both. And recently a friend mentioned a meeting he had with an educator who demanded more fidelity to the Science of Reading message and more publications flying its banner. To my friend, the encounter felt “like a witch hunt.”
As for money making, I have on my computer desktop The Reading League’s defining guide on the Science of Reading. According to the League, the Science of Reading is definitely NOT a program of instruction or a one-size-fits-all approach. But also on my desktop is a Science of Reading product, available from Teachers Pay Teachers, that very much looks like a program of instruction that feed a one-size-fits-all approach. Products such as these, each promoting their particular version of the Science of Reading, proclaim that balanced literacy “teaches with no pre-determined scope and sequence,” “presents spelling as if words are remembered by sight,” and “does not address orthographic mapping.” I know many excellent teachers, teaching in “balanced literacy” schools, who say nothing could be further from the truth!
In a World of Riches, Why Be Binary?
Sadly, our nation is plagued by divisions. Media reporting repeatedly uses the word “war” to describe our political, cultural, and economic differences. I don’t agree with the use of that term and I certainly don’t believe there needs to be some horrific struggle over how to teach reading. Rather, there is room for sharing and synthesis because we know what works. In fact, I see this sharing and synthesis all the time.
The field of reading is blessed with more scientifically-derived support than any other elementary school subject area. Again- there is much agreement on what works. So don’t sweat the tiny details. And certainly don’t let anyone say you have to choose one side over the other: direct and explicit spelling-phonics over shared reading, small group skill work instead of guided reading, decodable text rather than engaging picture books. Pick the best parts of each, basing your picks on the needs of your students, giving some students more of this and less of that.
Finally, regarding the Science of Reading, let’s do the following: 1) connect the current Science of Reading movement to the long history of science in the field of reading, 2) show how SoR works with other science-informed bodies of classroom practice, and finally, 3) work to keep its message respectful, nuanced, and positive. The end result will be more reading success for more students.
I love statistics: they’re fun, fascinating, and shed light on the world around me. For example, an average day, American men still do much less housework than American women (19% to 49%). Over the last 50 years, the average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size, yet 1 out of every 10 Americans rent offsite storage and 25% of all people with a two-car garage don’t have room to park even one car inside it!
Statistics also inform my teaching. For instance, over the last few months I’ve been mulling over the frequency of phoneme spellings. Consider this: the Long O sound is spelled much more frequently with an open syllable (as in go, hero, and open) than vowel-consonant-E (as in hope, stone, and invoke). Specifically, the Long O sound is spelled open syllable 73% of the time while O-consonant-E is used 14%. Is this an interesting but useless fact? Not at all. Knowing the frequency of phoneme spellings can help teachers more effectively teach spelling and phonics.
Frequent phoneme spellings
The most common spellings of the 44 English language phonemes were originally explored and cataloged in 1966. In a study still available through JSTOR (citation below), researchers considered 17,000 of the most frequently occurring words in English. Later, the now famous word researcher Edward Fry revised the research, putting the results into more clearly understood tables and answering this question: what are the most useful (highest frequency) phoneme-grapheme correspondences?
I first learned of Fry’s most frequent phoneme spellings while doing research for my 2017 Stenhouse book, Super Spellers. Lately I’ve been using the information to help me construct the effective spelling-phonics scope and sequence that I’m using in two curriculum projects.
Below this post is a table that “paraphrases” Fry’s summarization. I find it not only valuable but also often surprising. For example:
To statistic lovers, the phoneme spelling frequency table is interesting. But to teachers it is super valuable because it shows us the letter patterns most advantageous for primary grade reading and writing. Said another way, the chance of primary grade reading and spelling success increases when we de-emphasize or avoid the rare spellings that take up instructional time but are of little use to readers and writers at a less advanced level.
For example, let’s consider those Long O spellings I mentioned earlier. Remember, 73% of words with the Long O sound are spelled with an Open Syllable O while 14% use O-consonant-E. How does this inform my instruction? When it comes time to teach the various vowel-consonant-E spellings, it means that, sure, I will focus on O-consonant-E. But I won’t focus on O-consonant-E for too long because I’ll want to quickly move to the important open syllable O spelling, which allows students to spell and read words such as no, go, also, silo, hero, zero, hello, bonus, focus, open, over, program, protect, rotate, locate, motion, lotion, radio, studioand many others!
Here are some of the principal spellings in order of frequency, along with example words. Note: it is important to pay attention to the example words because the phonemes are not represented with the additional “sound markings” that Fry included. Also note that some spellings are so infrequent, such as /er/ sound spelled IR, that they are not included on the chart. For the complete chart, go to the "File Cabinet" tab of this website and download the PDF, which is the second file in the left hand column.
Information on spelling frequencies allow us to identify and then focus on what is most important for foundational reading skills. The big idea is often times the most frequent sound spellings are the most useful for the early development of reading and writing skills. When we identify and focus on frequent spellings, our students have a greater chance of mastering spelling in general, which then helps them become more fluent readers.
In my next post, I’ll consider what the frequency of sound spellings means in relationship to a couple of actual spelling scope and sequences: one used by the Jolly Phonics program (for emerging readers and writers) and the one I’m making for use in my curriculum projects.
Teaching Sponics and Morphabulary
Sponics and morphabulary – ever heard of them? Microsoft Word certainly hasn’t. As I type the words on my laptop, they appear underlined in jaggedy red. Jaggedy is underlined, too!
I love language and so it’s fun for me to create new words by playfully combining elements of spelling & phonics, morphology & vocabulary, and jagged & raggedy. Each of those six words, by the way, is an entry in your brain dictionary. As your eyes scan each word’s letter sequence, your brain recognizes that the sequence is a correct one. In other words, each word is spelled correctly. This recognition of a correct word spelling then triggers word meaning (definition) and sound (pronunciation). On the other hand, my three made up words – sponics, morphabulary, jaggedy – are not entries in your brain dictionary. That’s why when you first encountered them, you probably slowed down to ponder them.
I’m using made-up words as an entry to these important points: 1) spelling is critical to the reading process, 2) it pays to teach spelling and phonics together, 3) it also pays to connect morphology and vocabulary, and 4) all manner of reading, writing, and spelling is dependent upon the orthographic processing system.
Orthography and More
Orthography is the conventional spelling system of a language. It can be thought of as the recordings of correct letter sequences. These sequences, stored in our brain’s neural circuitry as chunks and words, are used for spelling and reading. The two actions of spelling and reading, or encoding and decoding, inform and reinforce one another. Practicing spelling can help us become more fluent readers; conversely, engaging in lots of reading can help us remember the spelling of words.
I like to use one term – orthography – when discussing instruction that teaches spelling-phonics because I want to drive home the idea that the two are best understood when presented together. Linnea Ehri famously pointed out that encoding and decoding (spelling and phonics) are “two sides of the same coin.” Vocabulary, which has to do with meaning and may involve the analysis of morphemes (word parts that have meaning), also has connections to encoding and decoding. Thus, I often think of instruction that promotes automatic word recognition in terms of one hyphenated concept: phonics-spelling-morphology-vocabulary. In more playful moments, it’s sponics and morphabulary. Either way, integrated instruction leads to synergy, an effect beyond what is contained in the individual parts.
With its roots firmly in phonological awareness and its parts intertwined with language comprehension, phonics-spelling-morphology-vocabulary becomes much less than itself when disassembled into parts that are then taught in isolation. So it makes sense to engage in integrative instruction. Here are two routines that neatly combine spelling and phonics (orthography), as well as sound (phonology) and a bit of vocabulary and morphology (meaning).
Hear It, Say It, Write It, Read It
Based on the work of Dr. Richard Gentry, this routine is an alternative to a traditional spelling quiz. Start with ten words that contain the patterns you want to teach. For example, let’s say you want to teach ways of spelling the Long O and Long E sound and your lesson is on the positional spellings OA and EA. My routine, which starts with direct and explicit instruction and then moves to repeated guided and independent practice, activates meaning, sound, and spelling (the Eternal Triangle I love to talk about). The routine might sound something like this:
You’ll notice that the routine has the students say the word multiple times (phonology) and gives an opportunity for both spelling and then reading (orthography). Also, the routine does not present the word in a sentence, such as “When he found his wallet was missing, the man let out a load groan.” Rather, it directly and explicitly defines the meaning of the word: “Groan, a deep sound of sadness or pain.” Thus, meaning is directly and explicitly built, just like the spelling of the sound.
In the Hear It, Say It, Write It, Read It routine, meaning is rooted in vocabulary. But we can also teach meaning through morphology, as in the word ladder routine below. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a word. Ant has one morpheme – the word itself, meaning a small, hard-working, colony-based insect. When we add a plural S to make ants, the word now has two morphemes, ant + s. Anthill also has two morphemes or meaning parts: ant + hill. If we add a plural S to make anthills, the word has three meaning parts.
Word Ladder for Meaning, Sound, and Spelling
This word ladder routine is an example of teaching meaning, sound, and spelling with a special emphasis on morphology. Like Hear It, Say It, Write It, Read It, this routine starts with direct and explicit instruction and then moves to repeated practice that activates meaning, sound, and spelling. Here’s an example of what the routine might sound like in a classroom.
* NOTE: Continue this routine to teach the ED ending.
Both routines activate the Eternal Triangle: meaning, sound, and spelling. Both incorporate Linnea Ehri’s very important observation that decoding and encoding are “two sides of the same coin.” They use the effective instructional practices of direct and explicit instruction and repetition. And both create synergy by incorporating some vocabulary and morphology instruction. Sponics and morpabulary - no matter how you spell it, directly and explicitly teaching students the fundamentals of reading in a synergistic way is effective practice, the kind that helps to prevent reading difficulties from developing.
When it comes to how reading arises, we know a lot. For example, we know that 1) reading arises from the interaction of specific brain processing areas (semantic, phonological, and orthographic), 2) the visual perception of correct letter sequences is the first thing to occur in the reading process, and 3) processing, strategy use, and opportunities to practice collectively work to build increasingly skillful reading.
From this body of evidence flow many practical and effective classroom practices or actions, useful for teaching students in a variety of settings, able to prevent many reading problems, and valuable as teaching tools that help students overcome many reading difficulties. Previously, I outlined practices for preK to first grade. Here are thoughts on the broader K to 3rd grade band.
Kindergarten through Third: Reading and Meaning
Reading is ultimately about meaning. This is why we always help students connect the act of reading words to the act of comprehending words. But when students don't automatically recognize words they encounter, their levels of comprehension drop. And so we help students vigorously build and then skillfully combine both streams of the reading river: language comprehension and automatic word recognition. Let’s tackle the last one first.
Helping young readers develop phonological and orthographic skills is critical. To break the code and become automatic word recognizers, some children need a great deal of direct, explicit, and systematic phonics and spelling instruction, coupled with instruction that lifts them to phonemic proficiency. This is especially true for students who have or may have dyslexia. The skills students need to become automatic word recognizers include:
Activities and materials that can be used to teach phonological and orthographic skills to mastery include:
Helping young readers develop language comprehension skills is critical. To become strategic readers who actively reflect, problem solve, use strategies, and ultimately read with deep meaning, all students need to develop the skills listed below, and some will need a great deal of direct and explicit instruction with repeated practice to reach mastery levels.
Activities and materials that can be used to teach language comprehension include:
Of the actions I’ve pointed out in this blog, most are presented in detail in my 2021 Corwin book How to Prevent Reading Difficulties. Also, if you visit my YouTube channel, you can see me model some of the teaching practices or actions I mentioned, including Look-Touch-Say, flip folders, word ladders, and sky writing.
Wishing you successful weeks of teaching and a relaxing and happy holiday break!
Dyslexia: Evidence and Action
I have been presenting seminars on dyslexia for more than two years now, but the question “What is dyslexia?” still worries my mind. I want to make sure I'm getting it right! Some researchers, like Julian Elliot and Athansios Protopapas, say this: dyslexia is simply the far end of the reading achievement bell curve. They believe this lack of reading achievement is not neurobiological in nature (because evidence doesn’t support this conclusion), and labeling students as dyslexic is generally unhelpful, if not downright harmful. Meanwhile, professors like Andrew Johnson claim dyslexia is best understood as an ineffective use of meaning-making strategies (an idea also put forth by Constance Weaver) and disparage programs like Orton-Gillingham, saying they are unproven, overpriced, and ineffective. Statements such as these, however, are in the minority.
Many more experts say this: dyslexia is a collection of traits, neurobiological in origin and arising from genetics, that lead to differences in the performance of reading-brain circuitry. In turn, these differences make it especially difficult for some people to learn how to read and spell and result in life-long challenges (of varying degree) in reading and spelling. Here is something else many experts say: direct, explicit, and systematic instruction - grounded in phonics, phonology, and fluency and focused on mastery learning - is effective in both preventing and overcoming many types of reading difficulties.
For me, this stance sits on solid ground and reflects what I see and hear in the world of teaching.. Based on theories of reading built upon large bodies of evidence, the stance is anchored in the research of Bruce McCandliss, David Kilpatrick, Stanislas Dehaene, Gene Oulette, David Share, Mark Seidenberg, Mary Ann Wolf, and Linnea Ehri, to mention just a few. Importantly, this body of evidence points to these facts: 1) reading arises from the interaction of key brain processing areas (semantic, phonological, and orthographic), 2) the visual perception of correct letter sequences is the first thing to occur in the reading process, and 3) processing, strategy use, and opportunities to practice reading and writing collectively work to build increasingly skillful reading.
Not only is this theory of reading (and the related theory of what dyslexia is and why it persists over time) backed up by evidence, it leads to many practical and effective classroom actions that can be used to teach the students who struggle the most, regardless of whether or not they are identified as having dyslexia or a specific learning disability. When these classroom actions are put in place, they prevent many reading difficulties from occurring. Not only that, if difficulties do occur, these actions help students to overcome their difficulties. Finally, when I travel around the country and ask teachers if programs like Heggerty Phonemic Awareness, Read Naturally, and Lindamood-Bell’s LiPPS are helping to move struggling readers and spellers forward, their answer is resounding YES! This is why I present dyslexia as being a learning difference that is neurobiological in nature and responsive to Tier I, II, and III instructional practices that stresses phonology, orthography, and fluency.
What are some of these specific instructional practices? In the rest of this post, as well as a following one, I will give a variety, starting with PreK to First Grade. Here we go…
PreK to First Grade
For young students, one of the most important things you can do is teach phonological awareness to an advanced level. Aggressively teaching phonological awareness to an advanced level can help prevent reading difficulties from occurring, as well as help students overcome challenges if they do manifest.
A sequence of necessary phonological skills includes the following:
Phonological skills, from identifying and manipulating syllables and rimes to phoneme segmentation and manipulation, can be taught through a variety of activities and materials, including:
Assessments that give information on whether or not students have or are developing advanced phonology skills include:
In next week’s post, I’ll continue the above list of classroom actions, giving you activities for orthography (phonics-spelling) and fluency, kindergarten through 3rd grade. In the meantime, thank you, teachers, for the work that you do!
Reading fluency enables readers to gain a large amount of meaning from a large amount of text in a short amount of time. How can we help developing readers build their fluency? To answer this question, let’s begin with a definition.
What is Fluency?
Fluency is made up of rate, accuracy, and prosody. When students exhibit appropriate amounts of all three, we can say they are fluently reading. Here’s another way to say it: Fluency is reading the words of any text accurately, at a reasonable pace, and with expression and phrasing that sounds like talking.
Accuracy is easy to define and quantify - a student reads each word correctly or not. Likewise for rate - it is words read correctly per minute. But in any given text, how many words per minute should a student read? And is there a degree of accuracy all students must achieve? As we’ll see, these questions are trickier to answer.
Last but not least is prosody, sometimes defined as “reading with feeling.” When I listen to students read, I’m listening for appropriate intonation, stress, and phrasing. Prosody is intimately tied to rate and accuracy; it begins when students reach a decent rate of word reading and a high degree of accuracy. But prosody has an even greater chance of blossoming when students also have background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, and a familiarity with genre and text structure. Thus, knowledge built from reading volume and breadth can in turn build prosody.
How Can We Think About Rate Scores?
There’s no doubt reading rate is important. Like airplanes rolling down runways, readers must hit some minimum speed to take flight. And once airborne, they must achieve a decent average speed to cross the landscape. In other words, readers must read a certain amount of text in a suitable amount of time. But are there exact numbers that all students must definitely achieve? Not really.
First, benchmark scores vary by assessment. For example, Acadience Learning (formally DIBELS) wants springtime 2ndgraders to read 87 correct words per minute. Meanwhile, AIMSweb wants them to read 92 and Scholastic 94. As for fluency norms, when Hasbrouk and Tindal updated their oral reading fluency norms in 2017, they found that springtime 2nd graders falling in the center percentiles (25th to 75th) read between 72 and 124 words per minute. That’s a pretty wide range.
Of course, we don’t want students to read too slowly. But we also know some children are “slow and steady” readers with good to great comprehension. Finally, and I think interestingly, Hasbrouk and Tindal found that with one small exception all of the 2017 oral reading fluency norms were higher than the 2006 ones. What does this say about our reading instruction? And what does it say about the nature of fluency itself?
How Can We Think About Accuracy Scores?
Regarding accuracy, it’s important that we give it great attention in our teaching, especially when working with struggling readers. We want to teach developing readers to read through every word, master phonic patterns, and apply decoding strategies and rules as a first line of attack. I’ve learned from researchers like Sally Shaywitz, Louisa Moats, and Timothy Shanahan, and from organizations like the Iowa Reading Research Center, that it is important to build accuracy first, as well as not lose sight of expression and phrasing. As the IRCC puts it, “Reading quality rather than reading speed.”
Even as we pay great attention to accuracy, we don’t want to let “the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I recently talked to a reading interventionist who was teaching a 4th grader with dyslexia. After direct and explicit strategy instruction and lots of decoding practice, the student had greatly increased his reading accuracy and self-correction of larger words, in turn deepening his text comprehension and coming to enjoy the act of reading more. But with small words (was, use, then), he was still inaccurate. This didn’t greatly interfere with his ability to make meaning (his teacher deemed it satisfactory to excellent) but it did chronically keep his accuracy score at 97%, just below the 98% needed to move to the upper reading levels.
Because the very act of “moving up” is motivating, the teacher said she wanted to bump her student to the next level, even though he consistently failed to make the cut score. I agreed with the teachers thought. And when I did some research, I found the creator of the leveled reading program was right there with us. Here’s a quote from Gay Su Pinnell: “Rather than setting a rigid criterion for moving a student ‘up’ a level, use informed teacher decision making.” When I touched base with the teacher two months later, she reported her student was doing “just great” in the upper level.
In summary, pay close attention to accuracy and rate numbers but temper their power with your intimate knowledge of the reader who sits before you. Yes, teaching reading is a science but it is also an art!
How Can We Help Students Strengthen All Components of Fluency?
If you’re looking for effective and practical practices to increase all components of fluency, a great starting point is repeated reading. It comes in many forms, all initially guided by the teacher. All of the following activities are described in my previous blog posts and some are described in my recent Corwin Connect posting.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.