Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Country Roads and Interstates - A Reading Journey

This week I am participating in a LETRS workshop.  For those of you who haven't heard of it (like me a couple of months ago!), that is Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling.  Check out their website if you want to learn more about what they do.  I have only attended the first two days so far, so this post isn't really about the training, but about processing the information they gave us yesterday and what it means for our students.

There are several things I took away from yesterday.  First and foremost, I had no idea how much I didn't know about teaching reading!  I've discovered that my lessons have included things that are accidentally correct, but I had no idea why they worked.  Given that my goal is to be deliberate in my teaching, I am absolutely in the correct place this week.

The second thing I learned yesterday is how complicated reading is when you look at what has to happen in our brains for it to work.  Reading requires that four different parts of our brain have to work together.  That's a lot of connections to make when you consider how many words we read a day.  Reading is so natural for me that I never considered that it isn't actually the way our brain is wired.  Our brains are wired for speaking, not for reading.  But here's the biggest take away - our RSA law the way it is written will never help our students.  Now this is obviously not written into the training, but here's the way it stacks up.

Functional illiteracy is a problem in the U.S.  45 million adults are functionally illiterate.  That means they can't read above a 5th grade level.  50 million adults can't read past the 8th grade level.  44% of adults do not read one book a year.  Considering that compulsary education wasn't the law until the 1920s, I'd say we've done a lot of catch up.  However, there is a long way to go.  We all know that reading affects how successful or unsuccessful you are in life.  60% of adults in prison cannot read.  85% of juvenile offenders struggle with reading.
What my book looks like after we've covered the material.

Now that we have established that there is a problem, let's look at the solution our legislators have come up with - RSA.  Use one measure of a student's progress and retain them if they can't pass a 3rd grade reading test.  Okay.  What's wrong with that, you ask?  If they can't read, they shouldn't go on, right?  Social promotion does no one any good.  Solve the problem when they are young, so everyone has a chance, right?

The school system is set up to send kids from K to 1st to 2nd to 3rd.  Some schools might have a T1 class, which is an extra year between K and 1 to help them further develop their skills, but those schools are in the minority.  Between the increased "rigor" forced on us by the education "reformers" (much of which ignores all science and research about developmental capabilities) and the "early intervention" required to comply with RSA, we have 90 minute reading blocks, 90 minute math blocks, and we are supposed to teach Science and Social Studies in there somewhere too.  Each grade level has a set of standards for each of those subjects, and the teachers are required to teach each of those standards in each subject during the year. That takes all of our time each year.  Every bit of it is taken up with the standards we have to cover each year and the testing we have to do.  So, where does intervention fit?

The state has a set of textbooks we are allowed to adopt from, and during adoption years each district chooses the one they will use for the next 6 years (at least).  Our current reading curriculum is two years past its adoption period, and we'll have it for at least one more year.  So for 9 years, we have had the same curriculum to teach from.  What resources are there for intervention beyond that program?  The state provided REACH coaches for a couple of years, but then that program was defunded.  Title 1 funds - those funds provided by the federal government to help low income schools - have been cut drastically.

But here is the biggest problem.  There has been no new teacher training.  As far as I know, no funding was provided with the RSA law at all.  Not for students, not for curriculum and not for teacher training.  This year, education funding will remain "flat" again.  Since we have more students, that means that once again our resources have been cut.  Reaching struggling readers requires training.  Their brains are different.  Seriously!  MRIs taken of their brains when they are reading shows that they work differently.  Reaching struggling readers requires different tools.

According to our training, research shows that after age 9, it takes four times as long for a student to learn a reading skill.  Retaining a student in 3rd grade puts them at the very end of that "easier" learning age.  Not only that, they are retained in a grade where they really don't teach the skills they need.  Most of them need early literacy skills, not comprehension skills.  Giving them another year in third grade gives them another year learning the same skills they weren't ready for the first time. Clearly intervention is needed much earlier.

In that case, what if we retain earlier?  That's where they learn those skills, right?  True, but is repeating the same grade with the same standards and the same curriculum useful?  That's like the having this conversation:

     Person 1:  To get to the restaurant, take a left on A Avenue, then a right on B Street.
     Person 2:  I'm sorry, I don't know where those streets are.
     Person 1:  To get to the restaurant, take a LEFT on A Avenue, then a RIGHT on B Street.
     Person 2:  I'm sorry.  Could you tell me where those streets are?
     Person 1:  To get to the RESTAURANT, take a LEFT on A Avenue, then a RIGHT on B Street!
     Person 1 to self:  *Sheesh.  What is with this guy?  I can't get any more clear on the directions.*

He may have emphasized different parts of the directions, but nothing was done to solve the actual problem.

10001 - 01136  by Dhammika Heenpella cc by 2.0
Our trainer gave us an analogy of our kids' brains.  She said that a good reader has paths in his or her brain that work like our highways.  They are quick and efficient and get information to and from the different places it needs to be easily.  A struggling reader has a brain that works like our country roads.  They wind about, are a little rough in spots, and are pretty slow, but eventually they get you where you need to go.  It put me in mind of what my Great Aunt said about the back roads in Pennsylvania, where that side of my family is from.  Many of the roads were just paved over cow paths.  Wherever the cows had worn a path, they put a road.  Needless to say, cows are not necessarily using the most efficient ways to get places.  That's what these kids' brains do.  We have to retrain them to create highways.  Like any path, it takes meaningful and purposful repetition to create.  In the case of struggling readers, they often have to "unlearn" something they have practiced incorrectly for years.  Just repeating a grade isn't going to help them.  They need dedicated practice in the skills they are missing, helped by trained teachers with a wide variety of tools available to them.  What they don't need is to re-take every standard from every subject for an entire year.

Red, White and Blue by Howard Ignatius cc by 2.0
What then, is the solution?  First of all, get rid of the high stakes testing.  It doesn't tell us what we need to know anyway.  It only predicts how well they will do on their next standardized test.  Secondly, focus on grades earlier than 3rd - not to require retention, but to focus on interventions.  Provide the funding, the teachers and the materials needed to address the deficits these kids have.  Third, if retention is going to be a requirement anywhere, then those kids need to be placed on a different track for the next year.  One that focuses only on the skills they need.  Create those transition grades between grade levels so that can happen.  Move the kids forward, just a little slower than the rest of the class.  Of course, that would require extensive funding and finding teachers for those classes would not be easy given the current teacher shortage.  Finally, train the teachers.  Give all teachers the professional development they need to understand how to teach reading effectively to all students.

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