Monday, November 18, 2013

Using Assistive Technology for Literacy Instruction

Photo courtesy Old Shoe Woman via Flickr

What happens when students fall behind in their reading skills?  As adolescents, "students should make the leap from learning to read to reading to learn and should be capable of reading to solve complex and specific problems (Urquhart Engstrom, p.30).  For many students in our school systems, a learning disability (LD) makes it difficult for students to make the shift to reading to learn, especially in text-heavy courses.

In Ontario, defined by the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario, "learning disability"
"...refers to a variety of disorders that affect the acquisition, retention, understanding, organisation or use of verbal and/or non-verbal information. These disorders result from impairments in one or more psychological processes related to learning (a), in combination with otherwise average abilities essential for thinking and reasoning. Learning disabilities are specific not global impairments and as such are distinct from intellectual disabilities." 
 One solution is to design the class to meet the individual needs of those most at risk of not doing well -- that is, students with special needs. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is defined by the Ministry as a "teaching approach that focuses on using teaching strategies or pedagogical materials designed to meet special needs to enhance learning for all students, regardless of age, skills, or situation". The catchphrase, "necessary for some, good for all" sums up the general idea well.

Common Misconceptions of Learning Disabilities:

The most common misconception is that students with LD have cognitive impairments or limitations; in fact, students with LD are able to function at age appropriate cognitive levels when they are provided appropriate tools to accommodate for their LD. Generally, students with LD have difficulty in oral communication, writing, reading, and mathematics.

Another misconception centres on how an individual "attains" an LD; in fact, learning disabilities are biological in nature.
"Learning disabilities are due to genetic, other congenital and/or acquired neuro-biological factors. They are not caused by factors such as cultural or language differences, inadequate or inappropriate instruction, socio-economic status or lack of motivation, although any one of these and other factors may compound the impact of learning disabilities. Frequently learning disabilities co-exist with other conditions, including attentional, behavioural and emotional disorders, sensory impairments or other medical conditions." (Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario)
So, since students with LD are cognitively able to do grade or age appropriate work, then what are some of the technological accommodations available to help with literacy? What tech tools can teachers embed into their classes using Universal Design?

Common Tech Tools for use as Assistive Technology in UGDSB:

Education for All (2005) defines assistive technology as "any technology that allows one to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of an individual with special learning needs (Edyburn, 2000). Its applications and adaptations can help open doors to previously inaccessible learning opportunities for many children with special needs (Judge, 2001)" (p.127). In Ontario, many of these tech tools are provided, at no charge, to students.

top logo
Read & Write for Google: This web-based Google application (to be used in Chrome) will read aloud text in multiple formats - Google Docs, the Web, PDFs, ePub, and Kes (Kurzwell 3000 Files). The application sits right over top most pages launched in Chrome and is activated either through a drop down tab & menu or through the extension link in your toolbar. The voice can be customized (multiple choices and accents are provided as it is a global market); students are able to create their own, printable dictionaries (standard and pictorial) and vocabulary lists; a prediction tool helps with spelling; and students can directly search terms that may not be clearly defined in the reading. 

kurzweil educational systems
Kurzweil is software which promotes independent reading and writing in students with LD by converting scanned text and images into pages that can be read aloud by the computer (students can choose from a number of voices). Files are editable, so that students can also write tests and compose their own writing on computers. 

Word Q and Speak Q: these programs suggest words and read aloud words for students while sitting overtop their regular software programs. Especially useful for those with challenges with spelling and auditory processing.


Dragon Naturally Speaking: speech recognition software which allows students to dictate their notes, tests, essays, etc. Students can train the software to recognize their voice and essentially allows students to run their computer programs using their voice, which is significant for those with processing delays or students having difficulty writing.

Promethean & Activ Inspire: Promethean multi-touch, interactive whiteboards and the sophisticated software allows students to actively engage and collaborative in a digital context. Students can interact with the software through their tablets or interactive devices, allowing teachers to collect data and provide immediate feedback to students.

Smart LogoSmart Ideas: SmartBoards and the software, Smart Ideas, allows students to actively engage with a touchable and computer-like, interactive whiteboard screen. The package is engaging, collaborative in nature, and appeals to multiple modalities in students. Smart Clickers also allow teachers to collect data from students and provide immediate feedback.

Need help with these programs? Contact your Resource teachers and those with Special Education Specialists. Much of the software is available through the OSAPAC (Ontario Software Acquisition Program Advisory Committee). 

Why use these technological supports?

Today's technology allows students with LD to participate like never before; many tools are free to all students in Ontario (through OSAPAC) and require little training. Most importantly,
"Two major reviews of the research in assistive technology (MacArthur, Ferretti, Okolo, & Cavalier, 2001; Okolo, Cavalier, Ferretti, & MacArthur, 2000) confirmed the utility of computer-assisted instruction and synthesized speech feedback to improve students’ phonemic awareness and decoding skills, as well as the benefits of electronic texts to enhance comprehension by compensating for reading difficulties. Assistive technologies include text-to-speech software, word-processing programs, voice-recognition software, and software for organizing ideas.While these technologies are relatively new, they hold the promise of bridging the gap between a student’s needs and abilities." (Urquhart Engstrom, p.31). 
Integrating explicit instruction of reading strategies and assistive technology can improve content area comprehension. Students can improve accuracy, speed, and comprehension of text which will therefore allow them to better demonstrate their understanding of course material. More importantly, students with LD are cognitively capable of grade-appropriate work and need academic challenge; limiting critical thinking, using low level vocabulary for academic vocabulary, or substituting easier texts for challenging texts should not be accommodations. Rather, teaching students how to access these texts using assistive technology will enable success. To best accommodate our students with learning disabilities, we need to ensure careful planning and classroom instruction which will accommodate for any deficits a student may be experiencing. 

Ministry of Education (2005). Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6  "Computer-based Assistive Technology” Ch. 10, pp. 127-138. 

Ministry of Education (2010). Caring and Safe Schools in Ontario:  Supporting Students with Special education needs through progressive discipline,  Kindergarten to Grade 12

Urquhart Engstrom, Ellen (2005). "Reading, writing, and assistive technology: An integrated developmental curriculum for college students." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 49:1. pp. 30-39.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Cross-Curricular Connections in Literacy

"Literacy floats on a sea of talk..." James Britton (1970) in Think Literacy, p.4.
I have been really fortunate over the past week; I have participated in a number of really rich professional learning experiences with a focus on literacy, all of which were cross-curricular in nature. Additionally, all of the sessions had one key thing in common: the focus on talk (or academic discourse) as the foundation of literacy.

First, the Ontario Ministry of Education did a fantastic job of rolling out the new Social Sciences and Humanities curriculum. Part of the success of the two day sessions was the use of protocols, or talk structures to encourage equitable participation in conversation and encourage thinking (for examples, see the Facilitator's Guide for the ALG).  As a discipline, the social sciences and humanities rely on using non-fiction; teachers are, by necessity, teachers of literacy.  This expectation is fully embedded into the curriculum:

"Many of the activities and tasks that students undertake in the social sciences and humanities curriculum involve the literacy skills relating to oral, written, and visual communication. For example, students use language to understand sources, to analyse and evaluate arguments and evidence, and to present findings in oral, visual, and written forms. In all social sciences and humanities courses, students are required to use appropriate and correct terminology and are encouraged to use language with care and precision in order to communicate effectively" (Ministry of Education, 2012, p45).

Literacy GAINS resource
Foundational to Ministry documents and revised curriculum is the recently released Adolescent Literacy Guide, a resource which outlines a new vision of literacy for adolescents focused on three core skills: the abilities to read, write, and think (see graphic above).

Additionally, Literacy GAINS have created classroom-ready ALERTs (Adolescent Literacy: Engaging Research and Teaching). These practical documents use the foundations laid out in the ALG and apply them to grade 7-12 contexts. At our Literacy Symposium, one presentation focused on the "Talking to Learn" ALERT, which shares classroom ready strategies for teachers alongside the research to support the best practice. The two teachers presenting were able to share strategies that work in all classrooms (the presenters were an English teacher and a History teacher).

Later in the week, the Student Success Literacy Committee hosted the Upper Grand DSB Literacy Symposium on Friday, November 8, 2012.  Keynotes were delivered by Lucy West and Kathleen Gould Lundy, and workshops were led by over twenty UGDSB educators, who shared effective literacy practices with their colleagues in seventeen sessions. These sessions were cross-curricular in nature and covered at least one of the components (see diagram above) relating to the recent publication, Adolescent Literacy Guide (2012), published by the Ministry of Education through Literacy GAINS. Presentations ranged from discussing literacy in alternative education programs to using specific strategies in a novel study to using TED talks and Genius Hour in Geography classes to using inquiry to build knowledge in all grade 9 classes... The sharing was rich and teachers were excited to hear from each other. Participants walked away with classroom ready ideas.

Both of the keynote speakers focused on talk structures. Lucy West's focus on academic discourse involves the teacher facilitating the discussion through specific practices to ensure that all students are held accountable for the learning. The teacher should:

• Write relevant student statements, vocabulary, and/or representations on white board or on technology board—make language and diagrams, tables, etc. visible for all learners

• Have students turn and talk to a partner to explain the idea or representation and be able to explain the idea/representation to the entire group

• Ask clarifying questions to the presenter

• Ask members of the group to explain, restate, or paraphrase what was just said or demonstrated BEFORE agreeing, disagreeing or adding to the idea and BEFORE expressing another idea. In other words, the community works to keep one important idea in play until all members of the class can engage in the conversation. (Lucy West, Metamorphosis Teaching Learning Communities)
Lucy West's focus was clearly cross-curricular; as a former mathematics teacher, many of her specific examples were not those traditionally seen at a literacy conference. However, they were clearly relatable for all teachers in the room. The need to engage students in accountable talk is a cross-curricular best practice. (For an example of a protocol from Lucy's website, see Talk Circles).

Kathleen Gould Lundy was also able to share her effective practices in an engaging and often humorous way. As a drama and arts teacher, Kathy has developed several talk structures which hold students accountable for deep thinking while engaging students. Her book, Talking to Learn, contains several specific structures that help the teacher assess oral communication, embed metacognition, scaffold talk, model talk, create informed talk, and help students present their ideas. Amazingly, woven throughout her presentation were artifacts (literal and figurative) that she uses to demonstrate the true cross-curricular nature of her work: student voice was included through student poetry created in various classes. 

On Friday and Saturday, I was fortunate to participate in the "Sharing the Learning Summit" which was the culmination of the TLLP project through OTF; the Teacher Learning and Leadership Project is a self-directed professional learning opportunity supported (financially and purposefully) by the Ontario Ministry of Education. This conference was an opportunity to set up a display to share the learning from my project while seeing others' results as well. In addition to seeing many excellent projects which were truly cross-curricular in nature, we also heard fantastic speeches from Annie Kidder, of People for Education; the Minister of Education, Liz Sandals; and Ann Lieberman, a Stanford University researcher who praises the TLLP for it's lofty goals and rich action research. I found their presentations interesting and attempted to share the ideas through Twitter, which is a fantastic tool for students to use to summarize, annotate, and comment on what they find important. Brevity is important when you only have 140 characters!

Again, what resonated in this experience was another element of talk: the importance of stories. Both Kathy Gould Lundy and Lucy West spoke of the importance of story-telling as a talk structure or for discourse; Annie Kidder shared personal anecdotes about her children's experiences in education and Ann Lieberman shared about her research in Chile and China.  Even Twitter, in it's truncated form, is about story-telling. All of these speakers wove stories throughout their presentations, making them effective by allowing for personal connections in the audience. For students, a great story can pull them in, activate prior knowledge, transmit new learning, consolidate their thinking, and even help recall important facts and details. By using the narrative structure, especially in oral forms, we enable students to understand non-fiction better, creating more personal connections to a text.

All in all, I return to one of Canada's great thinkers, Northrop Frye and his essay, "Don't You Think It's Time to Start Thinking?". Frye argues that the liberal arts and humanities are essential for today's students and the development of what we would today call critical literacy.  This great essay argues its thesis by using George Orwell, a great author of fiction and non-fiction alike.  Moreover, Frye stresses the importance of talk, for
"...ideas do not exist until they have been incorporated into words. ... The operation of thinking is the practice of articulating ideas until they are in the right words."


Frye, Northrop. "Don't You Think it's Time to Start Thinking?" in Thinking Through the Essay (1993). Eds. Judith Barker-Sandbrook and Neil Graham. McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

Literacy GAINS (2012). Adolescent Literacy Guide. Curriculum and Assessment Branch, Ministry of Education.

Ministry of Education. Think Literacy: Cross-Curricular Approaches, Grades 7-12. Queen's Printer.

Monday, November 04, 2013

What Are Your Students Reading? And WHY?

What resources we use in the classroom are often dictated by forces beyond our control: budgets limit purchases of new novels, textbooks are over a decade old, photocopying is limited... But, teachers can be creative and source new materials -- especially those in the digital realm. New media has given us video, Tweets, blogs, and a variety of other "texts" for students to read and create on their own. Our challenge is to find the right text for the right student at the right time.

Cris Tovani writes about the importance for texts to be authentic. Students need challenging texts that will push their thinking in different subject areas. Current articles, in a variety of genres, can help pique students' interest.
"If we don't begin to find accessible text for all adolescent readers, they will continue to fail, only to become someone else's problem the following year. More students will become turned off to the content we love." (Tovani 42).
It's important to remember that even students who have difficulty reading may still be able to access challenging texts if we provide them with the appropriate supports. In secondary school, content area teachers can help teach reading strategies; in fact, they might be better positioned to do so. I know science teachers who are some of the most effective teachers of reading -- not only do they convey a passion for their subject area, but also, they bring in current readings and videos to ensure that their students are accessing current thinking, controversies and theories in science.

In addition to the need for texts to be authentic is the inclusion of student voice and choice in reading materials. We need to honour the choices they make and include new media forms. In fact, we need to help them decode, deconstruct, and dissect texts (in all forms). Moreover, we need to do this so they can then construct them. Good readers become good writers. There is a fallacy that because students are accessing text online, they are able to effectively read online.
Photo courtesy of Dallas Theological Seminary
"As new technologies increasingly become a part of classroom lessons, teachers are discovering that many students do not possess the new literacy skills required to successfully read and write with the many new technologies that regularly appear in today’s world." 
(International Reading Association [IRA], 2001, cited in Henry 615)

Laurie Henry provides a framework, SEARCH, for students to utilize online text effectively. Firstly, Henry outlines the need to locate information -- if a student is unable to locate useful, quality information, then all further activities related to research (comprehending, synthesizing and communicating ideas) becomes moot (616). Henry's framework is useful for adolescents as it's fairly straightforward:
1. Set a purpose for searching.
2. Employ effective search strategies.
3. Analyze search-engine results.
4. Read critically and synthesize information.
5. Cite your sources.
6. How successful was your search?
I would argue that the last step is especially important; not only do students need to be able to research independently, but they need to evaluate their own performance (metacognition). Of course, in order to reflect, students need to have been explicitly provided direction about the purpose for reading (which can easily be communicated through learning goals).

Understanding purposes for reading and writing will also help students become proficient readers and writers. Tovani quotes one of my favourite thinkers about reading, Kelly Gallagher (2003):

"We adults have already found a multitude of reasons to read. Sometimes we are conscious of these reasons; but often, I suspect, many of these reasons have become internalized. We often take them for granted because we have long ago acknowledged their value. We motivate ourselves to read, consciously or unconsciously, because the benefits of doing so are ingrained in us. Unfortunately, this is not often the case with our students. Just because we have internalized a number of reasons why reading  enriches our lives doesn't mean we should assume our students have done the same." (in Tovani 52)
Teachers need to scaffold purpose for students in the same way we scaffold other activities; students often need to be told the purpose for reading (especially if we are assigning the reading!). Eventually, though, we need to help them determine the purpose themselves. Tovani (p.61) outlines seven key ways to "hold your thinking" (that is, determine purpose, especially when reading a 'boring' text):
  1. Look for interesting details that could have multiple meanings.
  2. Ask questions about titles and subtitles.
  3. Ask questions about the piece.
  4. Look for the author's opinion.
  5. Read a piece to learn new information.
  6. Make a connection to the piece.
  7. Who is the author?
Photo courtesy
Students need to practice, discuss, and evaluate texts with a variety of purposes if we want them to internalize these processes. The use of protocols such as the 4A's Text Protocol (Assumptions, Agree, Argue, Actions) or the I Say, It Says, and So Protocol help students by providing structure to ensure they all participate to create understanding and therefore internalize good reading habits.

In the end, it's important that we expand our reading choices for students. Ignite their curiousity by giving them new and interesting readings that will challenge them intellectually. Provide opportunities for students to engage in lively discussion and debate to really explore authentic texts. Engage in new literacies and help students become proficient readers and writers of digital texts, whatever form they take.


Henry, Laurie A. (2006), "SEARCHing for an answer: The critical role of new literacies while reading on the Internet." International Reading Association. pp. 614–627.

Tovani, Cris (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke.

Ministry of Education. Think Literacy: Language / English, grades 7-9. Queen's Printer.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Who are the "good readers" in our secondary school staff?

"I'm not a good reader..." How many times have we heard students say this? How many times have we heard other educators say this? Too often, some "content-area" teachers, especially teachers of math and technological studies (communications technology, construction technology, health / personal services, manufacturing technology, technological design, transportation design, computer studies) do not identify as "good readers". Yet, these same teachers are frequent users of texts - often in authentic contexts - which suggests a need to shift attitudes and help these teachers recognize the influence they have as teachers of reading. 

Both Cris Tovani and Jacqueline Darvin discuss the importance of demonstrating to students the things that good readers do (typically through modelling, read alouds, or think alouds). While Tovani focuses on the use of specific strategies in the classroom (such as using text features, double entry journals, and modelling thinking to overcome challenging texts), Darvin's research took a closer look at tech classrooms (or what she terms, "vocational classrooms"). Darvin concluded that
"Vocational classrooms are discourse communities that combine the multifaceted worlds of school and work, the two places where adolescents and adults ... spend the majority of their time. They provide their members with opportunities to interact with texts in authentic, interesting ways that make use of the tools of multiple disciplines..." (17)
In some cases, the teachers in her study were unaware that they were not only functioning as "good readers", but that they were modelling great practice for their students. Teachers tended to use texts purposefully: "One difference between vocational and academic educators, they told me, is that tradespeople don’t usually read texts in a linear, sequential fashion. They use texts in bits and pieces to solve problems, research, and enhance particular stages of the projects in which they are engaged. They typically read not for the sake of gaining general knowledge but to accomplish particular goals and to gain specific information" (Darvin, 12). Tech teachers help students manage texts in order to perform specific tasks; teachers focus on text structures, reading with purpose, evaluation of the text, and other practices used in English classrooms. But, in many cases, students, and some teachers, do not necessarily value the reading of a recipe or a manual.  
"... two common misconceptions that several other vocational teachers also expressed in their interviews about reading. The first is that good readers should read quickly. The second is that only novels are real books." (Darvin, 13)
We need to help technological and mathematics teachers embed reading strategy instruction into their practice; that is, they need to name the explicit use of strategies in authentic tasks. Professional learning communities, professional development or any professional learning, needs to occur in cross-curricular environments and encourage all participants to share effective practice. We need to validate and honour different types of reading. Darvin suggests:
"...these educators clearly do not view themselves as proficient readers or highly literate members of society. These perceptions have likely been cultivated from their experiences with schooling and narrow societal views about high-status and low-status texts (i.e., The New York Times versus Popular Mechanics); which genres of texts are privileged over others and considered “real reading”; the speed at which a person should read; the linear, sequential order in which texts should be approached; the emphasis on summarizing and memorizing material; and so forth. This is unfortunate because it results in a “distancing” of vocational educators from the larger educational and research communities. This situation needs to be remedied if we are to learn from one another and bridge the highly publicized gaps between school and workplace literacies" (17).
My own experiences in an Ontario secondary school mirrors Darvin's conclusions. In addition to the fact that tech teachers don't identify as "good readers", I would add that there is a perception that tech teachers aren't "real" teachers since they may not have attended university. This is a divisive and dismissive attitude and doesn't help anyone, contributing to the "distancing" that Darvin notes. I've watched a committed chef work through this process, giving up two summers and evenings to get his teacher's certificate. And, he's an amazing teacher -- I would be seriously challenged to recreate the magic that happens in his classroom.

Staff attitudes matter; students learn from how we interact with each other. If the tech teachers and the English teachers (or the Math teachers and the Family Studies teachers) collaborate and share their work with students, it helps to validate both as effective teachers. More cross-curricular exploration of reading strategies is warranted. We are all "good readers"; we need to value different forms of text.


Darvin, Jacqueline (2006). "'On reading recipes and racing forms' - The literacy practices and perceptions of vocational educators" Journal of Adolescent Literacy. 50:1. pp. 10-18.

Tovani, Cris (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke. pp 23-36.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Effective Group Work with Reading Instruction

The teacher announces a group project; the class audibly groans and eye-rolling reaches new heights. How does a teacher avoid this response? What does effective group work look like in intermediate / senior classrooms?
"Talk helps all learners articulate their thinking. Small groups also give more students a chance to participate in a way that they wouldn't do in large groups." - Chris Tovani, p. 98
In her book, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12, Chris Tovani provides excellent examples of students at work in groups, sharing their thinking, discussing rich texts, collaborating on meaning, asking questions when they have trouble, and generally helping each other problem-solve the text. First, she addresses past poor experiences, asking her students to help define what doesn't work in group work. Next, she models (using the fishbowl strategy) what group work looks like (including the negative behaviours they identified) and discusses how to problem-solve for times when people are off task or conversation stalls. Interestingly, she doesn't abdicate all group responsibility to the students; the teacher's task is to provide timely feedback, which she does in the form of plus/minus notes, quoting students directly to indicate situations and thinking that moved the group forward versus behaviours or thinking that stalled the group.  And, of course, all of this is powered by providing students with rich, authentic, meaningful texts. Students are provided strategies like using post-its to record their thinking, make connections and share their findings.

I have experienced the classroom with both functioning and non-functioning groups and it's clear what makes the difference: the teacher's expectations of the group. If the teacher takes the time to appropriately group students (based on needs, interests, skills - any number of variables), explore behaviours that help and hinder group work, and generally agree to some norms, then group work has a shot at working. The best tools I have discovered recently are protocols (like those from the National School Reform Faculty of the Harmony Education Center), which basically are strategies for discussion; they are timed, inclusive, well-designed group discussion strategies which promote deep thinking and meaningful conversation. I have been using them predominantly with adult learners recently (teachers), in an effort to model effective group work strategies. Protocols help minimize negative behaviours - such as one person monopolizing the conversation - while focusing the group on the task at hand. Also, as Tovani points out, it's important to provide feedback while groups are working; they need specific examples of positive work behaviours and thinking as well as problem-solving strategies when faced with barriers to conversation.

Tovani's book is widely read because it's well articulated, well organized, and well researched. Her use of real-life examples to start each section is book-ended by a summary which collects key info for readers. Throughout, the text boxes provide great prompts, focus questions, and exemplars to aid understanding. I would recommend this book to colleagues or to a reader who is especially interested in strategy-based instruction in reading. When the text does focus on assessment, the focus is well placed on assessment for learning as opposed to assessment of learning.

Reference: Tovani, Chris (2004) Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke. pp 89-116.

Monitoring Reading: How can I Assess Student Comprehension?

An important piece of improving student reading is the constant assessment of student comprehension. Students need timely feedback on specific learning goals in order to know if they are improving their skills (and what to do if they are not). Sounds easy, but of course, it's more complex than that.

The Ministry document, A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 2: Assessment outlines the key purpose of assessment in literacy:

Assessment supports and furthers the broad goals of literacy instruction, which are
to enable each student:
• to become a strategic reader, writer, and oral communicator;
• to expand thinking skills (including metacognitive and critical-literacy skills), developing the necessary habits of mind;
• to deepen the motivation to learn;
• to develop independence as a learner.
In order to develop independence, educators need to constantly introduce new opportunities to students grow as readers by using their repertoire of strategies with increasingly complex readings (at least, this is what is suggested by the curriculum). I think the above list still applies to adolescent readers; my experiences working with reluctant readers indicate that motivation continues to be a significant challenge, but that ability is also a problem. Students in our Essential level classes (designed for students functioning below grade level) are broadly grouped into 3 groups: those functioning at grade 1/2 levels, those stalled out around grade 5/6 and those slightly behind in grade 7/8 levels. The students lack the strategic skills and/or thinking skills that define them as grade appropriate-competent. And, in many cases, students identified as MID (mildly intellectually delayed) are in our Essential classes; a common characteristic for this identification is a limited capacity for thinking, which may impact reading comprehension (as an aside, I find it odd that we still prescribe to tests that measure intellect and classify/ identify people -- often for years -- with that label).

Interestingly, a common concern for secondary school English teachers is that we struggle with knowing how to teach reading or how to effectively "diagnose" the reading levels of students. I think this translates to a difficulty understanding assessment for learning or as learning. We haven't been trained as teachers of reading and struggle to consistently monitor comprehension during reading and before reading. Additionally, it can be a challenge to find find appropriate tools for adolescents.  There are so many tools out there that it's often difficult to ascertain the most appropriate diagnostic tools to use with adolescents. Specific tests, like the Woodcock-Johnson or the Gates-MacGinitie are generally used by Special Education departments for testing, but not all students in Essential have undergone the testing. In our board, we use a range of tools from  PM Benchmarks (using Running Records) in our Primary/ Junior grades through to CASI in our Junior/ Intermediate grades through to OCA in our Intermediate grades (including grade 9). In secondary school, it's difficult to know what other tools to use for diagnostic assessments, but some teachers of Essential are able to use miscue analysis or running records. The real challenge lies in finding appropriate reading materials for adolescents functioning below grade level. Furthermore, as both the Ministry resources and Tovani argue, we have to have reading strategies fully embedded into daily practice, with constant monitoring of growth and feedback to promote growth.

"In our profession, we've come to believe that assessment is about giving credit for the right answer. If we're looking only for the right answer, then students often will not risk admitting confusion. This really puts us teachers at a disadvantage, because then we have to play the role of mind reader. Without the assessments that can guide us, we have to guess where to take our teaching. It's so much easier if we can get our students to share their thinking." - Chris Tovani, p. 115

When it comes to assessments of reading, intermediate teachers still often design language arts/English units around texts (like the novel); in our secondary schools, we often use Scholastic magazines, Orca readers or HIP books to provide appropriate high interest, low readability resources for students. While there needs to be some measurement of comprehension, more important is the metacognition - the assessment as learning. Teachers need to model (through think-alouds, for example) how to reflect on their reading; students need explicit instruction in how to reflect. Metacognitive prompts need to guide student reflection to explore new strategies as they become more proficient readers. It's a balance of activities to monitor comprehension before, during, and after reading that will help promote independent readers.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2006). A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 2: Assessment. Toronto: Queen's Printer.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2006). A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 3: Planning and Classroom Management. Toronto: Queen's Printer.

Tovani, Chris (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke. pp 89-116.

Upper Grand DSB. (2003). Blueprint for Literacy: A Handbook of Effective Teaching Practices.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Strategy in Reading: the 3 Rs +1

The following post was created for an Additional Qualifications class (Reading Specialist, Part 2). 

Using Retell, Relate, and Reflect

At its simplest level, the 3R prompts - retell, relate, reflect - are about summarizing, making connections, and thinking deeply about a reading (fiction or non-fiction). It is a simple way to organize student responses, but can be a powerful way to engage critical analysis, especially when paired with scaffolded instruction (eg. providing sentence stems, think-alouds, guided practice, descriptive feedback). 

However, if the prompts are too vague, it can be challenging for students to understand how to adequately respond. The use of success criteria or a rubric helps alleviate this concern.

Below is an example of the strategy in use with texts about reading.

Front CoverTovani, Cris (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension , Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke/ Stenhouse.

"The only reason to teach kids how to be strategic readers is to help them become more thoughtful about their reading." - Cris Tovani (9)
This comment from Tovani really resonated with me; we spend much of our time "teaching" strategies, but do we really ensure that they are well integrated into students' reading habits? Ideally, they should internalize this process. I also really like Tovani's suggestion that we focus on a few really powerful strategies and teach them really well (5-6). I relate to this because, as a teacher of adolescents who struggle with literacy, I have spent a lot of my time trying to find the "magic bullet" solution (which, of course, doesn't exist). I have used many of the strategies in Tovani's book, but I am not sure that I have helped students learn them really well. I can think of a couple of strategies that we've used regularly, which is part of the key to making it a habit. More important though, is Tovani's final point in the introduction of this book:
"Meaning doesn't arrive because we have highlighted text or used sticky notes or written the right swords on a comprehension worksheet. Meaning arrives because we are purposefully engaged in thinking while we read." (9)

I love the text feature at the end of each of Tovani's chapters -- the "What works" questions for reflection and a "Teaching Point" to focus on. This book will provide very helpful for my work; points such as, "Good readers don't need end-of-the-chapter questions or isolated skill sheets. They ask their own questions, based upon their need for a deeper understanding of specific aspects of the text." These summaries at the end of each chapter are great as "take-aways" and are truly cross-curricular in nature. I love the focus on authenticity in reading; this is such an important part of helping students become better readers. If we continue to ask them to read materials that they neither care about nor like, then of course they won't read that fascinating article on the history of Canadian law (just because we find it fascinating doesn't mean they will too!)

That said, there is something about a teacher's enthusiasm and passion for a subject that, in turn, excites kids. They need to see reading strategies modelled and explained clearly. And nothing does that better than the Read-Aloud (especially when paired with explicit instruction of strategies, like the Think-Aloud).

Fisher, Douglas, James Flood, Diane Lapp, and Nancy Frey (2004). "Interactive read-alouds: Is there a common set of implementation practices?" International Reading Association (pp. 8-17).

Oster, Leslie (2001). Using the Think-Aloud for Reading Instruction. The Reading Teacher Vol. 55, No.1 September 2001 (pp. 64-69).

The Read-Aloud takes some work to do, but is not a difficult strategy to employ in any classroom. It's important to use more complex texts for read-alouds; if it's too easy, you may lose students. As Fisher et al argue, "Read-aloud texts, which are typically more difficult for children than their independent reading texts, are often followed by a brief discussion of the events and themes." I especially like this as a practice for guided reading; we should be challenging all levels of readers in our classrooms.

Also outlined as important is the need for reading fluency - something that not all of the teachers in the study were able to do (14). I found the Frey et al article really interesting as it suggests that there is a "right" and "wrong" way to do the read-aloud; yes, it's always a good idea to read-aloud, but what's more important are the strategies and supports that go with it.

"Because children move from hearing to reading to telling to writing original stories that include the literary patterns to which they are exposed (Peck, 1989), the read-aloud is paramount in a child's literacy development." (Fisher et al, p15)
Teachers need to be explicitly trained and need to practice this skill to ensure that it has a positive impact. I especially like that the article outlines a study of the skill; too often we (literacy leaders and teachers) jump from one strategy to the next big thing. It' s always good to have evidence to support the use of a strategy as best practice.

Another effective practice is that of the Think-Aloud, which pairs well with the Read-Aloud, as Fisher et al explained (13). The explicit use of discussion prompts or questions before, during, and after reading help students see and hear what good readers do (to borrow Tovani's phrase). Leslie Oster's article explains the use of the think-aloud as as assessment tool (especially assessment as learning or for metacognitive awareness) and an instructional tool, which demonstrates the power of this strategy. I find it fun to use this in class; students get a kick out of hearing a teacher explain his/her thinking and hearing the connections their teacher makes.  It can be challenging, as it's not always a linear process, but paired with a graphic organizer (and here's where Retell, Relate, Reflect would work well), it is powerful. I like that Oster talks about pushing students to go deeper, moving beyond the obvious (ideas explicitly stated in the text and even inferences) to critical analysis while still validating their obvious observations (66). Validating a student's idea is so important, especially for a reluctant reader. If a student is struggling with comprehension, then just identifying an obvious statement about the text is necessary, if only to build confidence in reading. Paired with this is the student's ability to ask a question; even reluctant readers should be able to articulate questions (they might need guidance to come up with higher level questions), as Tovani pointed out to the students in the demonstration class (3).

To sum up, I return to Tovani's central idea for literacy instruction:
"Instead of thinking of this work as teaching 'content-area reading' or 'reading at the secondary level', I think of it as teaching students how to remember and reuse the information we ask them to read." (7) 
I firmly believe that literacy underlies everything we do as educators. It does not matter what subject-specific curriculum is being taught if a student cannot access and comprehend the information. Secondary school teachers have a responsibility to continue direct instruction in literacy; I would argue that good teaching relies on being able to help students access text in responsible manner.  Students need to feel empowered to react to the information they are expected to read and comprehend; they need the skills to read, retell, relate, reflect, and react accordingly. 
"Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st century will read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives. They will need literacy to cope with the flood of information they will find everywhere they turn. They will need literacy to feed their imaginations so they can create the world of the future. In a complex and sometimes even dangerous world, their ability to read will be crucial. Continual instruction beyond the early grades is needed." (Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, & Rycik, 1999, p.3 as quoted in Vacca)
Vacca, Richard T. (2002).  "From Efficient Decoders to Strategic Readers." Educational Ledership. ASCD. Vol. 60, No. 3. Reading and Writing in the Content Areas. Pages 6-11.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Getting to Know Your Students as Readers

Schoolchildren reading, 1911. USA Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons.

A first step in helping students become better readers is to identify their strengths and needs as readers. Building on student strength is a great way to address needs (as I have learned through the appreciative inquiry model). We need to start reluctant adolescent readers where they are and work from there. To do this, surveys and self-assessments are important tools.

The following is a worksheet assessment for students found in Appendix 1 of the Ontario Ministry of Education's  Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 2: Assessment. It clearly targets Junior level students, but could easily be adapted for Intermediate / Senior students.

Self-Assessment Survey: A Portrait of Myself as a Reader, Writer, and Speaker

Think about yourself as a literacy learner and indicate the number beside each statement
that best reflects you as a learner.
1 – not at all like me 
2 – sort of like me 
3 – a lot like me

I enjoy discussing ideas and issues with others. ______
I enjoy doing oral presentations. ______
I can explain ideas and information clearly. ______
I am comfortable presenting in front of others. ______
I would rather talk about ideas than read or write about them. ______
I speak clearly and can easily be heard by others. ______

I am a good writer. ______
I like to use lots of description and new words in my writing. ______
I like to write in point form or fill in charts. ______
I only write in school. ______
I use e-mail and chat rooms on the computer. ______
I like to write things like newspaper articles or informational pieces. ______
I like to write imaginative narrative stories. ______
When I write I try to spell all the words correctly the first time. ______
I keep changing and improving my writing. ______

I am a good reader. ______
If I have trouble reading I use lots of different strategies to understand. ______
I find reading non-fiction texts easier and more interesting. ______
I take a long time to read things. ______
I read outside of school. ______
I read more on the Internet than in books. ______
I read sports books or how-to books to learn about things that interest me. ______
I would rather read magazines than books. ______
When I read I see pictures in my head. ______
When I read I worry about saying the words just right. ______

Circle the types of reading you enjoy.
Fantasy            Mystery books      Comics
Adventure       How-to books       Sports stories
Riddle and joke books                 Real-life stories            Stories set in the past
Humorous stories                         Newspaper articles      Fact books
Magazines                                    Animal stories              E-mails
Romance stories                           Legends and poems      Websites
Copyright: Olybrius, Wikimedia Commons
I do like that the inventory includes electronic versions of reading and writing (emails and chat rooms), but it does so in a very limited way. Many of today's teens are avid users of internet tools and we need to be asking questions about their online use as it applies to reading. I would add to the list of types of reading: blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter, texting, and online discussion boards. It is especially important to validate the reading choices of reluctant readers.

Another approach is to question students about their reading habits and materials with a series of questions; this requires students to write out responses, which could be useful is you are also attempting to get a sense of student writing. However, it might be challenging for some students; a great accommodation would be to complete it as an interview. This particular survey, from Nancie Atwell, via, will likely work with intermediate students, but may not with reluctant readers.

Reading Survey
1. If you had to guess…
How many books would you say you own? _____
How many books would you say are in your house? ____
How many books would you say you’ve read in the past year? _____
2. How did you learn to read?
3. Why do people read? List as many reasons as you can think of.
4. What, in addition to books, do people read?
5. What does someone have to do in order to be a “good reader”?
6. What kinds of books do you like to read?
7. What, besides books, do you like to read?
8. How do you decide what you will read?
9. Who are your favorite authors/writers?
10 Have you ever re-read a book? List the title(s) of anything you’ve read more than once.
11. Outside of school, how often do you read?
12. In general, how do you feel about reading?

I also like the approach posited by Frank Serafini in his book, Classroom Reading Assessments: More Efficient Ways to View and Evaluate Your Readers. He includes tools for observation of students, which are important to supplement self-assessments by reluctant adolescent readers. Many reluctant readers will have difficulty filling in an inventory (or may simply refuse to do so). Thus, observation becomes very important to garner more data about students.

Observational Guide for Reading and Readers (circa 2009)

General Info
___ is able to choose an appropriate text for independent reading
___ reads daily, chooses to read
___ carries a book each day
___ explores a variety of genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, magazines, etc.)
___ is able to sustain reading for an extended period of time
___ uses library frequently
___ uses computers for information
___ uses reference materials for inquiry

Reading Strategies
___ attends to paratextual elements (title, cover, end pages, etc.)
___ recognizes miscues
___ draws inferences from texts
___ understands directionality, concepts of print
___ draws upon prior knowledge
___ makes predictions based on experiences with texts and life
___ does not over-rely on decoding strategies
___ exhibits effective sampling of visual information
___ confirms, cross-checks information
___ monitors comprehension and self-corrects when necessary
___ adjusts rate of reading depending on text and purpose
___ is able to visualize when reading
___ can summarize what has been read
___ knows various purposes for reading
___ asks questions when reading
___ notices elements in design and illustrations
___ makes connections to other literary texts
___ uses context clues appropriately
___ reads fluently with expression
___ is able to read most/all high-frequency words

Response to Reading
 ___ is able to talk about what has been read
 ___ discusses details about text
___ notices illustrations
___ can connect with character’s actions/motives
___ reads other connected texts
___ makes recommendations for other readers
___ is able to conduct book talks

I'm hoping to explore the topic of reading inventories further in my new Reading Specialist course; it's particularly important to find resources that will work for intermediate/senior students.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2006). A Guide to Effective Literacy Instruction, Grades 4 to 6, Volume 2: Assessment. Toronto: Queen's Printer.

Atwell, Nancie (1998). In the Middle. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Serafini, Frank (2010). Classroom Reading Assessments: More Efficient Ways to View and Evaluate Your Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.