Groves Literacy

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Lazy Lucy: Another Controversy for the Minneapolis Public School System

Controversies within the Minneapolis Public School System sometimes appear to be a dime a dozen.  Many are not really controversies at all; they are differences of opinion made to be controversies because political axes are in need of sharpening.  The most recent controversy, “Lazy Lucy,” involves the introduction of some readable text of questionable nature for first through third grade emerging readers.

On its face, the controversy involves the district spending 1.2 million dollars on an early literacy curriculum which is accompanied by short, decodable stories that students can easily read.  The “Lazy Lucy” story features Lucy, an African girl, who is too lazy to keep her hut clean.  Then there is “Nieko, the Hunting Girl” in which an American Indian girl, with her father, stalks a wooly mammoth.  There is also one about Kenya, where people run really fast.   It’s not a stretch to see why minority communities might question the subject matter, and it leaves one scratching one’s head as to how the decision was made to choose the curriculum.  Was there a committee charged with reviewing several curricula and making a recommendation as to which to purchase?  Did a heterogeneous group of teachers and administrators comprise that committee?  Or did a single individual make the decision to make the purchase?  Were there any checks and balances in place to ensure that the decision to purchase the curriculum was a good one?

If we peel back the skin of the onion a little further, we see that the controversy involves more than just choosing a curriculum containing stories that might be racist at worst or insensitive at best.  The curriculum decision also reflects the deep disagreement that exists within the district as to how reading should be taught.  The reading controversy has existed in the ten plus years I have been at Groves Academy, and I am sure it existed long before I arrived.  A controversy that has been brewing nationally for the past forty to fifty years, it pits whole language advocates versus “phonics fanatics.”

Unfortunately, over the years the reading wars’ pendulum has swung back and forth within the district as it has throughout the country.  When I first arrived at Groves Academy in 2005, it was quite clear that the district was following the whole language protocol.  There were leveled readers in the classroom, and students practiced daily guided reading with their teachers.  There was very little explicit reading instruction happening.  Instead, the belief was that if you exposed kids to great literature and gave them a little push, they would begin reading when they were ready, when their brains were mature enough.  Not surprisingly, many students didn’t score well on national reading tests, and a significant achievement gap between white middle class students and African American students continued to grow.

A few years after I arrived, the district changed the reading curriculum, presumably due to low test scores.  The district moved to supplement their whole language reading curriculum with some phonics instruction found in the workbook, Words Their Way.  The change was made late in the spring of 2009, and with teachers leaving for the summer, district administrators were scrambling to figure out how adequate professional development could take place.   After speaking with a few Minneapolis public school teachers the following fall, it was apparent that adequate professional development had not taken place.

When a school district does not thoroughly vet a reading curriculum, it inevitably will make a poor decision.  There is a lot of money to be made in education, and publishers attract attention and boost sales with slick marketing campaigns.  There doesn’t have to be much, if any, substance behind the marketing.  In fact, there are phonics reading curricula in the marketplace that are just as poorly anchored as whole language curricula.  Bad phonics curricula only serves whole language advocates as they can accurately exclaim, “See, I told you phonics doesn’t work!”  The pendulum then shifts back to whole language.  This is the story of the reading wars over the last forty to fifty years.  People get on their soapboxes, and children are harmed.

In truth, a good reading program for emerging and struggling readers does contain more phonics with explicit instruction than it does whole language.  In truth, controlled, decodable readers, like “Lazy Lucy,” which students can read easily, are more appropriate for these readers than is good, non-controlled literature with which young readers are forced to guess at a word’s identity.  But phonics alone is not enough.  Teachers need to be prepared to teach deep-level phonics, not just symbol-sound correspondences.  They also need to be well versed in phonology, morphology, vocabulary development, orthography, semantics, and syntax.  Teachers need to know more than just believing that reading comes naturally when the brain has developed and a good book is placed in front of their students.

On the surface, the latest Minneapolis Public School District controversy may be about race and insensitivity, but it’s really about much more.  It’s about how kids best learn to read.

John Alexander, Head of School



NY Times Opinion Piece

Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, recently penned an interesting opinion piece for The New York Times titled “Teachers Aren’t Dumb.”

Willingham’s contention is that students aren’t learning like they could, or should be, not because their teachers lack smarts, but, rather, because their teachers haven’t been properly trained to be good teachers.  This is a common refrain of this literacy thread.  We train lots of teachers at Groves, not just our own teachers, but teachers from the community who come to learn more about literacy, math, and written expression through both workshops and through intense classes and practicums.  Many of these teachers spend their own money to become better prepared to teach their students.  Often they are dismayed and frustrated that the knowledge they acquire with us was not made available to them in their college teacher preparation programs.  For example, how can elementary school teachers be good teachers of reading when their professors can’t identify the phonemes (sounds) of a given word?  A study by a professor from Texas A&M found that 66 professors of reading instruction could correctly identify the sounds of a given word only 62% of the time.  They struggled even more with identifying morphemes of a word (a morpheme is the smallest unit of sound that conveys meaning), correctly identifying morphemes only 27% of the time.

It gets worse.  There are many professors across the country–including in Minnesota–who not only do not understand the structures of language like phonology, phonics, morphology, orthography, syntax, and semantics needed to become an effective reading teacher, they even remark that this understanding is not even needed to become a good teacher of reading.  These professors would rather offer guessing strategies to emerging and struggling readers.  Really?  If a child has not mastered symbol-sound correspondences (phonics), he is supposed to guess at the word based on visual features, the context of the sentence he cannot read, or picture clues?

If professors of education do not understand what it takes to teach reading, how is a teacher ever supposed to impart this knowledge to her students?

Something has to change.

John Alexander, Head of School

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Is Guessing An Effective Way to Teach Reading?

Believe it or not, emerging and struggling readers are taught that guessing at a word’s identity is an effective way of identifying the word.  Teachers teach students to guess at a word’s identity based on context, the visual appearance of the word, or even pictures on the page.  Many professors of education advocate for this practice, placing guessing at a word’s identity as a more valuable strategy than using letter-sound identification.  These are the people who are training our nation’s teachers, and using this approach to “read” a word is a primary reason for the literacy crisis we now face in this country, a crisis in which almost 40% of our nation’s fourth graders do not read at a basic reading level.  They can’t identify the words they are trying to read.  It’s a crisis in which almost two-thirds of our nation’s fourth graders do not read proficiently–with good comprehension.  Instead of looking at teaching practices which lead to instructional casualties, these purveyors of reading knowledge blame the students.  The students are not motivated to read; they come from homes which don’t value reading; they have parents who don’t read to them; there are not enough books in the home; etc.

Guessing is a terrible strategy for emerging or struggling readers to use to recognize words.  The simple example below will demonstrate this.  Using context and the first few letters of the words, identify the words that are missing letters.  (I apologize.  There are no picture cues to help you with this.)

From the Wikipedia definition of covariance:

“Analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) is a general lin __ode__ which blends ANOVA and re__s__on. ANCOVA e___t__s whether po___tion means of a de___nt variable are equal across levels of a cat____ in____nt variable often called a tr____t, while statistically controlling for the effects of other c______s va____s that are not of p____ interest, known as covariates (CV) or n_____ variables. Mathematically, ANCOVA de____es the variance in the DV into v____ce explained by the CV(s), variance explained by the categorical IV, and re___al variance. Int____y, ANCOVA can be thought of as ‘ad___’ the DV by the group me__s of the CV(s).[1]

Clearly, guessing is not an effective strategy for identifying the missing words.  While guessing might work for skilled readers who have an adequate background knowledge of the subject matter, it is not an effective strategy for reading the above passage because most readers do not have the background knowledge to predict the identity of the missing words, even when letters are provided to aid the guessing process.

The following is the above passage with the missing letters of the words supplied.  Can you read the paragraph?  How did you read it?

“Analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) is a general linear model which blends ANOVA and regression. ANCOVA evaluates whether population means of a dependent variable (DV) are equal across levels of a categorical independent variable (IV) often called a treatment, while statistically controlling for the effects of other continuous variables that are not of primary interest, known as covariates (CV) or nuisance variables. Mathematically, ANCOVA decomposes the variance in the DV into variance explained by the CV(s), variance explained by the categorical IV, and residual variance. Intuitively, ANCOVA can be thought of as ‘adjusting’ the DV by the group means of the CV(s).”[1]

More than likely, you used your knowledge of sound-symbol correspondence to decode the words in the above paragraph.  Emerging and struggling readers must have this knowledge to unlock the code.  Teaching another method as a primary means to recognize unfamiliar words not only does a disservice to emerging and struggling readers, it is unethical.

John Alexander, Head of School

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Did This Really Happen?

We recently assessed a student, “Sally,” about to enter seventh grade.  We wanted to know her proficiency with oral reading fluency.   Fluency is a student’s ability to read with adequate rate, accuracy, and with prosody.   It is a gatekeeper to reading for meaning.  If a student is an accurate decoder but spends a great deal of time pulling the printed word off of the page (decoding), he won’t have enough mental capacity left to make meaning of what he has decoded.  And, obviously, if a student reads quickly, but not accurately, he, likewise, will not comprehend what he reads.

Sally’s mother was thrilled because Sally had been tutored during the summer through a local school district.  Mom was told that the student was reading fluently at the seventh grade level.  When asked what took place during the thirteen tutoring sessions, I was told that the tutor, a public school reading teacher, taught Sally using Read Naturally Live as the primary intervention.

Using Read Naturally Live, the teacher scores the number of words read correctly for a given reading passage.  If a student does not reach the goal on the first reading, the student then practices reading the passage while listening to a recording of the passage.   No more than three practice readings with the recording of a given passage should be needed to obtain a preset words correct per minute (WCPM) goal (usually the 50th percentile of a given grade level).  Unfortunately for Sally, the teacher had Sally reading from seventh grade passages, and she had to practice many passages over 20 times to reach her goal; Sally even had to practice one passage 31 times before she reached her goal.  Sally wasn’t “reading” the passages; she was memorizing them.   This is not good reading instruction.  In fact, an argument could be made that not only was the tutoring time not well spent, the tutoring sessions could have created more harm than they did good as these practice sessions could have further eroded Sally’s confidence that she could learn to read.

We assessed Sally using the Gray Oral Reading Test (GORT) after her summer tutoring sessions had concluded.  She scored at the fifth percentile for reading rate, reading accuracy, and reading fluency.  Her grade equivalents for each of the measures was 2.2, yet just a few days before Sally’s mother was told by the tutor that Sally was reading fluently at the seventh grade level.  How could this be?  Again, Sally reached her fluency goals due to many repeated reading practice sessions.  She wasn’t reading; she was memorizing the passages given to her by her summer tutor.

Given Sally’s reading fluency was at the 5th percentile for her age as measured on the Gray Oral Reading Test, she clearly was placed at an inappropriate grade level for her Read Naturally Live tutoring work during the summer.  Sally’s experience this summer is a clear example of why we have a literacy issue in this country.  We have teachers who have not been provided with the proper professional development to teach reading.  They don’t understand what is important in reading instruction, and if you don’t know what you don’t know, how can you possibly teach students how to read?

John Alexander, Head of School