Text Levels– Tool or Trouble?

 

By Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

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This post was originally published on October 23, 2013

When my colleague Gay Su Pinnell and I created a gradient of text for teachers to use in selecting books for small group reading, we were excited about its potential for helping teachers make good text decisions to support the progress of readers.

Our alphabetic gradient is widely used by teachers for this purpose and has become an essential tool for effective teaching in guided reading lessons.

With every good intention, the levels may have been applied by professionals in ways we would not have intended. We did not intend for levels to become a label for children that would take us back to the days of the bluebirds and the blackbirds or the jets and the piper cubs. Our intention was to put the tool in the hands of educators who understood their characteristics and used it to select appropriate books for differentiated instruction.

We are well aware of the importance of communicating student progress accurately to families. Rather than the use of levels in reporting to families, we have encouraged the use of terms like “reading at grade level expectation” or “reading above grade level expectation” or “not yet reading at grade level expectation” on report cards along with other clear indicators of a student’s processing abilities such as understanding, word-solving abilities, accuracy or fluency. In addition we have encouraged the use of indicators related to amount and breadth of independent reading.

Students actually experience a variety of books at varied levels in a rich literacy program. They may experience complex texts as read aloud or shared reading selections and a range of levels in book discussion groups or independent reading. Highly effective teaching provides a range of opportunities with different texts for different purposes.

In our best efforts to use assessment indicators, we want to be sure that our purposes best serve the children we teach and give families the important information they need. This may not mean using labels such as book levels that hold more complexities and are intended for the use of the educators as they make day-to-day teaching decisions.

Are We Opening the Door Wide Enough for Our Readers?

By Vicki Vinton, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker 

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LFA2018-Vicki-VIntonRecently, I’ve been starting PD sessions by asking teachers to engage in what Harvard’s Project Zero calls a “chalk talk.”  A chalk talk asks participants to consider a question then silently write down their ideas about it, without talking to each other. Then once they’ve gotten their own ideas down, they’re invited to respond to others—again, without any talking.

As you can see, the question I ask is “What do you think are the ‘right reasons’ to teach reading?” And to spark their thinking, I share this passage from Vicki Spandel’s preface to The 9 Rights of Every Writers, where she lays out what she believes are the “right reasons” to write:

Our reason is not—or at least it should not be—to help students meet the standards we set…[Instead] I believe the most worthwhile goals of writing are: writing to think, to move another person, to create something that will be remembered, to find the most salient personal topics that will weave a common thread through virtually all the writing text in one’s life, to develop a unique personal voice with which one feels at home, to develop and maintain a spirit of unrelenting curiosity that drives the writing forward.”

 Every time I ask teachers to do this, they come up with many worthwhile and meaningful reasons to teach reading:

  • To become a more empathetic human being
  • To acknowledge the complexity of human experience
  • To help us understand how we fit into our world
  • To feel more understood and accepted
  • To not be satisfied with the status quo

Yet often, in their classrooms, these same teachers spend much of their time teaching discrete skills, standards and strategies that, in and of themselves, may never touch on these deeper reasons for reading. To be clear, this isn’t always the fault of teachers. Many schools use packaged or scripted programs, which they require teachers to implement “with fidelity,” and the lessons in those programs are mostly framed around discrete strategies, standards and skills. And in schools that aren’t using packaged material, teachers are often expected to write a specific outcome in the classroom each day—often presented as an “I can” or “Students will be able to” (SWBAT) statement—and then assess who’s met the outcome, or not, by the end of the period.

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Inevitably, what this does is narrow the door for readers in a way that can give them a warped view of reading—and it prevents us from seeing all they might be capable of. To see what I mean, let’s imagine two groups of students both reading the following passage from Patricia Reilly Griff’s Fish Face, which is a Fountas & Pinnell level M book. One group is being asked to identifying character traits, a commonly taught skill, while the other is reading the passage more holistically to consider what it might mean in a broader way.

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When asked to identify each character’s trait, many students will read this passage and conclude that Emily is nice, friendly or kind and that Dawn is shy. In each case, they’d be able to support these conclusions with evidence from the text: Emily is nice because she wants the new girl to sit next to her and says friendly things, like “You have a pretty name,” while Dawn is shy because she’s a new girl and doesn’t always respond to Emily. They might meet the outcome on the board by doing this, but they’d be missing a lot. I’ve seen many, for instance, who miss the fact that Emily has lied to Dawn because, having already identified a trait, they think their work is finished. And by missing that, they also miss the chance to engage in meaningful reasons to read: to realize how complex people are.

Now, let’s see what can happen if we opened the door wider and set the task, not on practicing a skill, but on exploring what the writer might be trying to show her readers. And let’s say we do this in a way that encourages students, not to rush to make claims, but to consider multiple possibilities. Those students might think that Emily could be nice, kind and friendly and also envious, while Dawn might be shy but also mean or snooty. Many might also consider that envy could lead to lying, which would help them understand that people are complex—and might make feel understood and empathetic.

So how do we open the door wider to give students more room to engage in deeper thinking and reap the real benefits of reading?

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Shift from Answers to Thinking

While standardized tests are all about answers, reading is an act of meaning making, and the first thing we need to do is shift our focus from looking for answers to thinking. To do that, we need to be, as Walt Whitman once said, “curious, not judgmental.” That means not hopscotching from student to student until we get the answer we’re seeking, but accepting a wide a range of thinking—not to debate, but to consider. It also means honoring provisional thinking, which uses words like might, couldandmaybe. After all, the only way to really know what’s going on with the characters in Fish Face is to suspend judgment and keep on reading with these possibilities in mind, revising your ideas as you go.

Use Kid-Friendly Language

 I’m often in schools that want teachers and students to use academic language because, after all, they’re in school and that language will be on the tests. Much of that language, though, consists of abstract words connected to abstract concepts, like theme, and while we can teach students to use this language, it doesn’t mean they really understand it.

Take, for instance, the small group of fourth graders I used the Fish Face passage with. Like our second group, they inferred up a storm, though they hadn’t explicitly been asked to. After they’d shared their thinking, though, I asked them—in front of all the fourth grade teachers—if they knew what the word inferringmeant. To their teachers’ dismay, some said they’d never heard it before, while others said they’d heard it, but couldn’t remember what it meant. But finally, a boy said he knew what it meant: reading between the lines.

Of course, that definition is abstract as well. So to help them see what inferring meant, I named for them what they’d done: they’d added up small details in the story to figure something out the writer hadn’t said directly. And to make that even more concrete, I took one of the inferences they’d made and wrote it out as an equation:

Dawn had curly hair and ladybug earrings

+ Emily had straight hair and no earrings

+ Emily wanted earrings (“She flicked at her ears” and has begged her mother)

Emily is envious of Dawn

“Ah,” they all said, now they got it. What they needed was an experience and a concrete example drawn from their own thinking to attach the abstract word to.

Trust the Process

In our current climate of teacher evaluations, accountability measures and mandates, trust is often in short supply. And I’m aware that some teachers are afraid that, if they open the reading door wider, they’ll be seen as not doing their job.

I’m reminded, though, again of something else Vicki Spandel says about writing:

The problem with standards is not that they aim to high but that often they do not lift us up nearly enough. The great irony is that when we teach writing for the right reasons. . . the little things tend to fall into place anyway. . . What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said we said she should, but because they took her to a place where her writing became powerful.

 When we open the door wide enough for students to engage in real meaning making—which involves continually revising your thinking and considering multiple possibilities—the strategies and skills we can belabor often seem to magically appear. Like the fourth graders, students reading for meaning often infer at higher level than students who are charged with practicing a skill. Also, the claims students reading for meaning make tend to be more nuanced and complex than those of students reading to identify a trait. And when it comes to standardized tests, they’ll be ahead of the game. Instead of starting to think once they’ve read the passage and get to the questions, they’ll be thinking from the very first sentence.

Finally, when we open the door wider, we create enough space for students to feel the power of reading to help them better understand themselves, other people and the world around them. And if those chalk talks are any indication, that’s just what we want to happen.

 

References

Spandel, Vicki. 2005. The 9 Rights of Every Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Giff, Patricia Reilly. 1984. Fish Face. New York: Random House Children’s Books.

 

Gay Su Pinnell Receives Honorary Doctorate from Lesley University

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Gay Su Pinnell speaking at Lesley University’s graduation ceremony on May 19, 2018

by Cindy Downend, Assistant Director for Primary Programs, Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

We all had much to celebrate this weekend here in our Center. Lesley University recognized Gay Su Pinnell for her life-long work in the field of literacy education with an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, at this year’s commencement ceremony. Dr. Pinnell delivered a highly motivating speech to the graduates that inspired us and offered some words of advice that are helpful for all to consider no matter where they are in their careers.

Below are some highlights from her speech as featured on the Lesley University website:

“Education is nothing short of the power to change the world.”

“From everything I have learned about Lesley I conclude that people here see education broadly, including intellectual, social and aesthetic learning—what people need to prepare for vocational success, yes, but even more important, to live a quality life from the earliest years on,” Pinnell said. “Lesley faculty and students are also interested in and fully support social justice, something my own father talked about on a day-to-day basis in my home. They study it and they fight for it.”

As Pinnell discussed the power of education, she also revealed the oppression that attends a lack of education.

“There were reasons that it was illegal to teach slaves to read and that even today, the poorest children are the most likely to be taught with a mindless, unthinking curriculum, without being able to read very well,” she said.

“It’s not the mechanical act of decoding words that’s so important, they get taught that really well and it is essential,” Pinnell added. “It’s the way the words are strung together to create language that enters the human being’s mind from the earliest listening to a book to the extensive reading I know all of you engage in. It is power over language. It’s the thinking that emerges from deep comprehension of text after text, of talking with others about ideas, and being inspired. As teachers, that’s what we do.”

Gay urged us to hold on to optimism and determination in a world that can sometimes seem divisive. She also encouraged all to not try to be perfect; don’t be afraid to fail; make lofty goals but break them down into small manageable steps; find good work companions with whom you can laugh; know the theory and rationales behind your teaching; and never give up your dreams.

Please feel free to congratulate Gay in the comments section of the blog.

Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative home page: www.lesley.edu/crr

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Cindy Downend, Gay Su Pinnell, Irene Fountas, and Eva Konstantellou

The Buzz About Phonics and Word Study From Spelling Bees to Classrooms – Sparking Students’ Interest in Words

by Jillian Fountain, Intermediate/Middle Literacy Trainer, Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Jillian FountainLast month, ESPN aired the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee.  You may have watched some of the contestants as they asked for the etymology of a word, the pronunciation again, or the familiar question, “Can you please use it in a sentence?”  The contestants certainly appeared nervous, but if you looked closely, you would also have recognized the moment when a child’s eyes glimmered, the corner of her mouth ticked up just a bit, and she allowed herself to exhale.  The expression on each contestant’s face in that moment of recognition made me realize something.  We, as educators, craft belief statements about literacy instruction, but often we leave word study out of these written proclamations.  Yet, learning about words and how they work impacts all aspects of literacy.

I am in awe of how much interest the spellers in the Scripps National Spelling Bee have in words and how they work, and I began to think about what I might begin to put in a belief statement about phonics, vocabulary, and spelling.

Students will develop curiosity and excitement about words and how they work.

When children feel excited about something, it drives them to discover more about it.  Students who are curious and excited about words will notice new words and share them with classmates, talk about favorite words, and use words or parts of words learned in various instructional contexts in their own reading, listening, speaking, and writing.  The energy they exhibit becomes infectious.

Students will use what they understand about words to expand their knowledge.

Phonics, spelling, and vocabulary are complex concepts that require many years to develop.  As adults, we continue to grow our understandings of words and how they work.  We also know that learning builds on learning, meaning that broad understandings get refined as students participate in reading, writing, speaking, and listening over time.  If during a word study minilesson, a class learned that adding the suffix –al to a noun makes it an adjective, meaning “related to,” the next time they encountered a word like chemical, the students would notice it and refer back to their previous learning.  In writing, if a student wanted to describe something that happens over and over again, he could think about how it is a cycle, and use his knowledge of the –al suffix to call it cyclical.

Phonics_Event_PhotoStudents will recognize relationships between words.

Words are closely connected with one another.  Synonyms, antonyms, homophones, homographs, words that have similar meanings that are not exactly the same, multiple meaning words, words that share the same base word, etc., turn language into a puzzle.  If students can spend time thinking about how words are related, it will deepen their understanding of words and how they work, as well as help them more quickly recognize words and their meanings, and more rapidly access words to use in talk and writing.

Students will use their knowledge of words to more clearly understand, and more precisely communicate. 

Ultimately, the point of teaching phonics, spelling, and word analysis strategies is to develop students’ proficiency as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners.  If students internalize word-solving strategies, they can quickly and without much effort, accurately read books, articles, letters, and other pieces.  They can also produce a large amount of writing to create readable stories, poems, essays, and other pieces.  If they know a lot about parts of words and relationships between words, they can understand what the writer of a piece or a speaker is trying to communicate.  They can also consider the same information when deciding how to say or write something to get across the message they are hoping to convey.  Think of the power that lies in understanding and communicating precisely.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee occurs once per year, but what I learned from watching this year’s event will stay with me.  As I continue to help teachers think about word study instruction, and how to support students’ understandings of how words work across the school day, I hope teachers see the value in this work.  A curiosity and excitement for, and a depth of knowledge of words will help students throughout their lives.

For more information on our Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling in the Reading/Writing Classroom K-3 course August 7-11, 2017 in Cambridge, MA, click here!

 

Navigating The Literacy Continuum to Guide Responsive Teaching

by Helen Sisk, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative Faculty

 

helen-siskTeaching in a responsive manner requires us to think reflectively about literacy growth by noticing and analyzing student talk and written work. We reflect on why students respond in certain ways and know how to help them take on next steps in building a complex and flexible literacy processing system. It takes a skillful teacher to do this effectively.

One tool that can guide our decision-making is The Literacy Continuum: A Tool for Assessment, Planning, and Teaching (Fountas and Pinnell, 2017) It is a valuable resource to support us in observing what students know and understand as readers and writers and it informs our teaching. It is organized around eight literacy learning continua that span grades PreK-8. Not only is it aligned with literacy standards, it includes detailed descriptions of student progress over time.

The Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University is excited to offer an introduction to this continuum during our summer institute for teachers of grades K-6: “Navigating the Literacy Continuum to Guide Responsive Teaching,” This institute is an opportunity to delve into the new, expanded edition of the Literacy Continuum, and learn how to use it as a guide to observe, plan, teach, and reflect on literacy teaching.

The reading focus in this institute includes extending teacher and student talk for effective processing during interactive read aloud and shared reading. Two other components that further address comprehension include guided reading and writing about reading.  All of these literacy elements will be explored.

The writing focus begins by understanding the continuum of word study and how it progresses over the school year and across grade levels. We will study student writing to develop purposeful mini-lessons and the talk surrounding teacher-student conferences to identify strengths and next steps to address in teaching.

Come hear Irene Fountas discuss the Literacy Continuum and its impact on teaching and learning. Work in small groups with literacy trainers and other teachers to refine your practice and expand your knowledge about the teaching of reading and writing.

We hope to see you here at Lesley University for our Summer Literacy Institute, July 10-13, 2017. Register now!

Making the Invisible, Visible: 5 Ways to Illuminate Learning in Our Classrooms

By Paula Bourque, Literacy Coach/Author and Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Paula Bourque

  • A student returns to class after pull-out support, looks around, and asks, “What are we doing?”
  • I’ve finished my mini-lesson and call on a student with a raised hand. “I don’t get it.” he says.
  • I conference with a student who holds out her paper and asks, “Is this good?”

These interactions remind me there is often a mismatch between teaching and learning.  Learning is that “in the head” process only perceptible through the work, behavior, or conversations of our students. So I need to keenly observe their words and actions to get inside their heads, see my teaching through their eyes, and better align pedagogy to student need. I need to find ways to make my intentions and expectations more visible and accessible to them. If I have any hope of cultivating self-directed learners they truly need to see the direction we are headed! Here are a few approaches I have found to be helpful.

Give them the box to the puzzle! For some of our students, school is a big puzzle. Routines and structure can be like the box to that puzzle for students; the big picture for how all the pieces fit together. Frameworks that use a workshop model, mentor texts, exemplars, anchor charts, and posted learning targets give a visible structure to the expectations. This predictability can free up working memory from what are we doing to focus more on how are we doing it.

For students who are pulled from our classroom for supports, it is critical that consistent structures are in place as they come and go. They should see assignments, anchor charts, exemplars, and/or learning targets posted so they can join in with minimal difficulty. They should have an idea of what the class was doing while they were away so they can continue to make connections to their learning. If students seem disoriented, confused, or disconnected, we need to find ways to take the mystery out of how school (or at least our classroom) works for them.

You can’t hit a target you can’t see. Unless students clearly understand the intended learning, it is difficult to meet the expectations. Students are shooting blind when the teacher is the only one who knows the exact location of the bulls eye. They may be aiming in the right direction, but their accuracy is severely compromised.  When we create ‘kid-friendly’ learning targets that address ‘bite-sized’ amounts of learning, it removes the blinders and allows for greater self-direction from students.  It makes the intention of the lesson visible and accessible to everyone, not just the teacher.

Try to see our expectations through our students’ eyes.  What would “right” look like? What would comprehension/understanding sound like? How will I know when I’ve “hit” the target? Many teachers use a framework for targets using this stem to increase visibility:  Today I will____, So I can____. I’ll know I have it when____. Students need to see how the activity they are engaged in moves their learning and skills forward. Time is too precious of a commodity in schools for students to engage in activities that do not explicitly advance their learning or understanding.  Making our expectations clear and visible can eliminate wasted time and energy for students trying to figure out what we want from them.

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Post Look-Fors. Anytime we hang student work in the hallways or publish it to an audience, we can’t be sure what others will notice. I encourage teachers to post Look-Fors that direct attention to the learning that happened while completing a piece of work.  If word choice was a focus for a writing project, a Look-For that illuminates this for the audience will give equal time to process as well as product. Ex: “We’d like you to notice our 4th graders worked hard on using more precise and descriptive words in this writing.”  Look-Fors invite others to appreciate the learning and encourages other students to try out those skills and ideas as well.

Student Look Fors          Look Fors

Good demonstration is good communication. Think alouds and demonstrations are nothing new, but I think they are often underutilized in classrooms that feel time-compelled to fit more and more into a busy day, but they are one of the best ways to make the invisible (thinking) more visible (words and actions).  They require us to slow down and accurately recreate the thinking and behaviors that go into successfully completing a task or understanding a concept.

However, I would encourage us to reflect on our demonstrations and consider how closely they mirror the thoughts and behaviors of all the students in our classrooms. Frequently we model or think aloud the right way to do something, yet we have students who don’t grasp what we are doing. Our modeling is outside their zone of proximal development. If we asked ourselves, “How might a struggling student approach this task?” and offer a demonstration with this in mind, we may provide a more accessible model. What are some typical misconceptions we are seeing with students? How can we offer demonstrations to address and support them? What if our think alouds walked students through common confusions?

The best demonstrations offer our students a visible path from where they are to where we want them to be. Modeling expectations without contemplating the starting point of our learners may end up leaving many behind.

Create/document a learning history.  Sometimes it takes visible proof to help students see their learning and foster a growth mindset. Because it happens so incrementally, students often don’t believe they are growing. Keeping samples of student work in portfolios (either digitally or on paper) can be a powerful visual documentation of their learning history.

Students who keep writer’s notebooks are often amazed near the end of the year when they look back at their early work. (“I never even used to paragraph!”) Students who keep reading logs/lists are frequently stunned at how much they read. (“Oh wow, I forgot I read all those Flat Stanleys!”) Keeping samples of math work can demonstrate the increasing complexity and variety of math work students worked on during the year. (“That’s so easy now.”)

Opportunities to reflect on learning over time is a powerful way to develop a growth mindset that can sustain students when they encounter new challenges. Invite them to reflect with stems like: I used to ________ but now I ______.   Some things that used to be hard for me were: _____.  Then encourage students to lean on those revelations to buoy them in the future: “When I have assignments that are hard next year, I’m going to remember_____.”

In the same way, we make physical growth visible with lines drawn on door frames, and we can make their cognitive growth more visible as well. For many of our students, seeing is believing. We need to make the invisible, more visible.

Are You Teaching or Testing Comprehension?

irene_fountas_photoby Irene Fountas, Author and Founder/Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

All too often, successful comprehension has been regarded as a student’s ability to answer a teacher’s questions (which is one way of assessing comprehension), but it does not enhance the reader’s self-regulating power for processing a new text with deep understanding. Think about how your teaching moves may be focused on testing when you continually pose questions, or how you can shift to teaching or helping students learn how to comprehend texts for themselves.

Teaching for comprehending means supporting your students’ ability to construct the meaning of the text in a way that expands their reading ability. You can help them learn what to notice in a text and what is important to think about, how to solve problems when meaning is not clear, and provide scaffolds to develop their in-the-head systems for working through the meaning of the text. These abilities are generative, so students will be able to transfer what they learn how to do as readers before, during, or after reading to a variety of increasingly challenging texts in every genre.

Introduce the text to readers

When you introduce a challenging text to your students, be sure to help them notice how the writer constructed the meaning, organized the text, used language and made decisions about the print features. Help them know how the book works and get them started thinking about the writers’ purpose and message and the characteristics of the genre.

Prompt the readers for constructive activity

As students read orally, interact very briefly at points of difficulty to demonstrate, prompt for, or reinforce effective problem-solving actions that they can try out and make their own. Your facilitative language is a call for the reader to engage in problem-solving that expands their reading strengths.

Teach students how to read closely

Take the readers back into the text after reading to notice the writer’s craft more closely. Select a phrase, sentence or paragraph, or focus on helping them notice how the writer organized the whole text. Revisiting the text calls the reader’s attention to particular features.

Engage students in talk about texts

Talk represents thinking. When students talk about a text, they are processing the vocabulary, language and content aloud. This enables them to articulate their understandings, reactions and wonderings. When they learn to be articulate in their talk, they can then show their ability to communicate their thinking about texts in their writing.

Engage students in writing about texts

Writing about reading is a tool for sharing and thinking about a text. When students articulate their thoughts in writing, they confirm their understandings, reflect on the meaning and explore new understandings.

Testing is a controlled task for measuring what students can do without teacher help. Teaching is the opportunity to make a difference in the self-regulating capacity of the learner. Reflect on your teaching moves and engage in a discussion with your colleagues to shift from testing to teaching. When students focus on meaning-making with every text they read, they will be able to show their competencies on the test.

For more information about the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative’s events and trainings, visit http://www.lesley.edu/crr