Levels are for Teachers NOT Students


Yesterday I saw two former students excited to share with me their middle school lives and all their improvements they have notice they are making as learners.  When it came to talking about reading  I was surprised that they did not talk to me about genres, book titles, or favorite characters…they told me their Lexile levels.  When I asked them about a favorite text they had read recently the conversation stopped.  Then one of the students said “I read a chapter book.”

Now, when any student tells me “I like to read chapter books” or “I read a chapter book” a red alarm goes off telling me this reader is either not reading and trying to impress me or is putting their focus on the wrong things (volume and pride over story and knowledge).

I strongly believe levels are for teachers, not students.  Here are some of my favorite articles recently published on sharing levels with students:

A Kid is Not an “H” by Kylene Beers

Text Levels Tools or Trouble by Irene Fountas

More on Text Levels: Confronting the Issuse by Irene Fountas

Guess My Lexile by Donalyn Miller

Rejecting Instructional Level Theory by Timothy Shanahan

Further Explanation of Teach Students with Challenging Text by Timothy Shanahan

The Slow Path Forward: We Can–An Do–Learn from Reading Research by Timothy Shanahan

Reading and Lexile levels are flawed assessments.  They provide a snapshot into behaviors a reader both demonstrates and neglects.  This school year let’s talk to our readers and their parents about reading BEHAVIORS and not levels and numbers.  This will help everyone focus on what really matters.


The Reading Teacher


Today I received my November/December 2015 copy of The Reading Teacher and I got to do something I haven’t done in a VERY long time…read it (well, at least the first article)!

The journal begins with an article by Linda Gambrell titled Getting Students Hooked on the Reading Habit.  Click here to download your copy of the article:  Gambrell-2015-The_Reading_Teacher

Getting students to take on the reading habit is something I am passionate about so I was extremely interested in what Linda’s suggestions were.

Here are my favorite research quotes:

  • It is important that we recognize we have two equally important reading goals: to teach our students to read and to teach our students to want to read. p. 259
  • Teaching students specific reading skills is important, but it is equally important to give them the time and opportunity to read so that they develop a love of reading. p. 259
  • There are a number or research-based practices that are critical to supporting students’ motivation to read.  p. 259 (my summary: materials, opportunities, and social interaction)
  • A national survey from Scholastic (2015) found:  33% of participants ages 6-17 had a designated time during the school day to read a book of their choice, and only 17% reported they had independent reading everyday. p. 260
  • School plays a bigger role in reading books for pleasure for students in lower income homes. p. 260

Here is what the article suggests we can do in classrooms:

  • Focus on more authentic literacy tasks and activities. p. 260

Here are ways suggested to encourage authentic literacy:

  • paired students with an adult pen pal who wrote letters about the shared text and posed higher-order questions:
    • Let me know what you think about…
    • I’ll be interested to know if you agree with…
  • Have students summarize and share Book Tweets.
  • Have activities be high interest and moderately challenging.

Overall, I thought the research was strong in this article but the action steps left me thinking…what else can I do?  I think that motivating students to read looks different from class to class and student to student.

The first thing we need to do is look at how we spend our students time.  One of the implementation changes we have made in the classrooms I work in was move from 30 minute to 20 minute reading groups.  This allows our neediest readers time to meet with me (the Reading Specialist), the classroom teacher, and still have time for independent reading daily.  I was happy to read that all the research presented in this article supports this instructional change.

Here a few things I have done recently to encourage authentic literacy tasks in the classrooms I work in:

  • 3rd grade – we were studying author’s purpose last week and had students write one piece a day with a different purpose in mind: Persuade, Inform, or Entertain.  Then, on the 4th day students picked their favorite piece and were filmed reading it out loud.  These clips were made into a video and shared with the class who had to decide on each author’s purpose by recording it on a sheet of paper.  The smiles, laughter, and correct responses were amazing!
  • 4th grade – to moving away from printing out graphic organizers (which are not authentic) I show students how to quickly sketch organizers they need on any sheet of paper.  Last week students used Venn Diagrams to compare and contrast characters in different books.  The Venn Diagram below is from one of our most struggling students who took this task on independently using his guided reading books…YAY!  He cut up post it notes to put on his diagram probably because I used post it notes in my class model.

Venn Diagram

  • 5th grade – we have been using KidBlog to connect with different classrooms across the US who are reading the Global Read Aloud book Fish in a Tree.  Last week students logged onto other classroom boards, read students’ posts, and responded to them.  Students are also working in research groups (3-4 students in a group) where they chose the research topic that was of interest to them.  Now they meet daily prior to reading workshop to check in and assign roles for the day to be completed during independent reading time.

So, what do you do in your classroom to support authentic literacy? Please share below!

The Dyslexia Debate

In the 5th grade class work in, we are currently reading the 2015 Global Read Aloud Fish in a Tree.  In this text, the main character Ally has been diagnosed with dyslexia as described in the movie The Big Picture.  The question is…what exactly is dyslexia?

An interesting chat among LRA (Literacy Research Association) members is going on right now about dyslexia.

Jo Worthy stated:

I was still shocked to read that the interventions used with students labeled as dyslexic in schools and intervention programs are highly scripted and that they are virtually all based on a program that originated in the 1930s, in the heyday of behavioral approaches to learning, and has changed very little since that time. If you’d like a taste, search for Orton Gillingham on youtube and critically examine some of the videos. Again, I was shocked and saddened by what students are doing when they get pulled out of classrooms as they are here in Texas, and by what parents are paying 100/hour or more for. Spoiler: There was not a book or any other meaningful reading material in sight or in use.

I think it’s safe to say that literacy research and practice has come a long way in understanding the importance of helping students see literacy as purposeful and relevant through meaningful instruction and access to a wide range of texts and literacy practices. Students with reading challenges, whether they are labeled dyslexic or not, need and deserve high-quality, meaningful, engaging instruction from knowledgeable teachers. I have had many parents come to me to for advice about dyslexia, and my advice is always the same. I refer them to an outstanding literacy teacher who will use a variety of informal, reading and writing-based assessments to plan instruction geared toward their child’s unique understandings, strengths, interests, experiences, and challenges. All for far less than the cost of tutoring by someone “trained” to deliver a scripted program.

Valdine countered Jo’s claim with:

Those with a reading disorder, as it has been proven in research, require a multisensory approach far different than being offered in mainstream schools unfortunately. This population does not work well to engagement-first instruction. Just as a psychologist would be distracted by a new formal assessment that they are administering, possibly missing the nuance of interpreting student behaviour. A student who does not have the entry level tools  to decode and encode cannot move very efficiently toward our ultimate goal which is comprehension and engagement.

I suggest that academics in the literacy world be cognizant of current brain research.

This lead David Reinking to comment:

As for dyslexia, as a doctoral student back in the early 1980s, Jay Samuels used to tell us that a belief in dyslexia had more to do with religion than with research and science.  Seems like little has changed.  Since the term was introduced in the late 19th century, there is still no clear consensus about what exactly it is, exactly what causes it, who does or does not have it, how prevalent it is, or what specifically to do about it beyond what might be tried with any child having difficulty reading and taught by a well-informed and experienced reading teacher.  

And then George Hruby informed:

Well, in my religion, one of the holiest books for engaging in the necromancy of diagnosis is the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in a recent 5th edition, meaning it will be around for about another ten or so years. APA warns against the use of the term “dyslexia” because it has been so widely misused. Instead, the correct term, according to the DSM-V, is Specific Learning Disorder with Impairment in Reading. The definition of this, its diagnosis based on symptoms, and its cross-checking with symptoms that allow you to rule out dyslexia are fairly precise, but it amounts to essentially the same definition of “dyslexia” that the NIH put together in 2001, adopted by the International Dyslexia Association in 2002, and more recently by ILA. This simple, one paragraph definition is fine as far as it goes, but it seems that reading disorders are contagious, because few who specialize in their treatment are able to read it with full comprehension (as it would be defined by the Common Core State Standards).

I call attention to one sentence in the middle of the definition in particular. “These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.” The first two words — “these difficulties” — relate to the preceding  sentence in the definition which lists the primary symptoms: “difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.”

What that means is that a struggling reader does not suffer from dyslexia if the problem is a linguistic comprehension issue (poor language skills, limited vocabulary, weak comprehension monitoring, inadequate prior knowledge, poor syntactic or semantic processing, etc.). Basing a diagnosis of dyslexia on below average reading comprehension test results (as I have seen done) is not an adequate approach. The MAP test is not a useful screening instrument! This is particularly an issue with the misdiagnosis of post-primary readers.

True, if a reader cannot adequately decode a text, s/he cannot comprehend it. But to jump to the claim that if someone cannot comprehend a text, they suffer decoding difficulties is to fall afoul of the affirmation of the consequent fallacy. If you car is out of gas it will not run. But it does not follow that a car that will not run it is out of gas.

Secondly, according to this tightly worded sentence, the struggling reader does not have dyslexia if s/he has not had access to effective reading instruction. We can argue about what effective reading instruction entails, but I would suggest that at a minimum it requires (1) a probable approach to teaching reading (nothing works for everyone, and nothing works for anyone all the time, so a good approach is to heft a heavy toolkit), (2) a demonstrably effective reading teacher (we can argue about how to determine that, too, but let us at the very least acknowledge the sizable number of teachers who are either only provisionally certified, or simply untrained and not certified at all — and then there are the teachers across the grades who know little of the fundamentals of teaching reading or supporting reading development), and (3) the student was developmentally ready for reading instruction when it was offered (not all kids are ready at the same time, regardless of what your legislature decrees, and with kindergarten now the new first grade, we can expect increasing numbers of “dyslexic” kids; the curricular maps and pacing guides drive instruction forward whether the kids are ready or not, and by the time the late bloomers are ready, the standardized outcomes have moved on; in this way we construct failure. I have seen too many kids “get it” in 2nd or even 3rd grade and blossom thereafter. My own daughter started 2nd grade at 1st percentile in reading on the MAP, but 12 months later was 86th percentile and has never looked back. Developing off the legislated schedule may be a political crisis for some, but it is not a crime against nature, and does not warrant a diagnosis of dyslexia.

Finally, it is not dyslexia if there are other cognitive abilities (including inabilities) that can account for the difficulty. Severely poor vision, for instance, precludes easy learning of letter identification, and no amount of phonological skill drilling will fix a kid’s vision. Ditto for ADHD, behavioral self-control issues, or severely depressed IQ. I know special ed folks like to confuse this truth by bringing up the discrepancy definition issue, but the discrepancy definition (and the lack of correlation between decoding skills and IQ) only applied(s) to IQ in the normal range. Severely deficient intelligence constitutes a general learning disorder — general because it will impact everything including the ability to learn to read. Claiming a specific learning disorder of someone with a general learning disorder makes no sense; it might be true, but how can you tell? In any case, even most of these kids can still learn to decode, it just takes more time and effort than the pacing guide will allow.

As for Orton-Gillingham, the IES’s What Works Clearinghouse reviewed variations on the O-G multi-sensory approach 9 times including a total of 106 studies! Only 2 met IES criteria for a scientific research, and of those 2 neither demonstrated evidence of effectiveness. But let’s be serious. If dyslexia is indeed “a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin,” and with a presumed genetic basis, than it is unlikely a garden variety reading instruction method from the 1930s like O-G could work. If phonological training can’t fix visual problems, it certainly isn’t going to change your genome or mend severe neurological impediments. The compensatory approaches that are hawked are what ought to be a part of basic reading instruction anyway for all readers. Once the over-learning of orthographic patterns in English has done its work to allow sight word reading, greater reliance on syntactic and semantic patterns is required anyway.

Wanda Hendrick then posted:

What is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person’s ability to read. These individuals typically read at levels significantly lower than expected despite having normal intelligence. Although the disorder varies from person to person, common characteristics among people with dyslexia are difficulty with phonological processing (the manipulation of sounds), spelling, and/or rapid visual-verbal responding. In individuals with adult onset of dyslexia, it usually occurs as a result of brain injury or in the context of dementia; this contrasts with individuals with dyslexia who simply were never identified as children or adolescents.  Dyslexia can be inherited in some families, and recent studies have identified a number of genes that may predispose an individual to developing dyslexia.

Is there any treatment?
The main focus of treatment should be on the specific learning problems of affected individuals. The usual course is to modify teaching methods and the educational environment to meet the specific needs of the individual with dyslexia.

Which prompted Peter Fisher to write:

I am not a fan of the term dyslexia, but we should acknowledge that it may sometimes be helpful to the students themselves. In some cases it is the only way in which they can receive extra services. For other students it enables them not to feel “stupid” as they struggle to do as well as they can with their schoolwork.
I have no answers in terms of instruction,  but I don’t want to say that something never works. The issue, as with all labels, is where does one draw the boundaries between someone who is “dyslexic” and someone who is just a below-average reader.

And Nancy Knapp added:

My concern with the term “Dyslexia” is sort of the opposite of Peter’s point ( which I also understand), in that the term implies an irremediable, neurological disability, which in turn implies that, even with great struggle, “dyslexic” people will never become easy, fluent, excellent readers.   This is not only incorrect, but incredibly discouraging.  Actually, I have the same concern with the term “specific learning disability in reading.”

I find it fascinating that in 2015 literacy researchers still do not agree on dyslexia and as a result, I am sure this debate will continue.  Interested in joining the LRA and being part of the debate?  Click here.

Word Callers

1001004010639249This week I met an interesting 3rd grader.  In the classroom she is often spotted hunched over a book intensely reading.  She spends her entire independent reading time with her nose in the book and rarely comes up for a breath.  Sounds great, right?

Well, I began to wonder about this reader when I sat in on a partner conference and she was demonstrating the same behaviors as independent reading time — nose in book reading to herself.  When I asked her to share with her partner (who was just sitting next to her unsure of what to do) she looked up at me as if I had asked her to do the unthinkable.  She sharply told me, “I am just reading the book.”  Through further prompting her partner and I found that she was unable to tell us anything about the book she was so intensely reading.

Then yesterday, I sat down with her for her beginning of the year reading assessment and my fears were confirmed — she is a word caller.  She read the entire text with 100% accuracy but couldn’t tell me a thing about what she had read.  Sigh.  Now what?

Today, I dusted off the book Word Callers by Kelly Cartwright to begin forming my plan of attack to get this child to be both a word reader and a thinker.  “Word Callers” is just 127 pages long and is fairly easy to study in a day.  The text includes a literature review, an assessment with materials, and lesson plans.

Here are some important facts I pulled from the book:

  • What word callers have in common is and “inflexible” approach to print. (p. ix)
  • For many word callers, reading is a “case of words or meaning.” (p.1)
  • Inflexible reading is evident when readers do not notice meaning (p. 38)
  • Students who spent one lesson per week on flexible thinking showed significant improvements in reading comprehension over students who just participated in regular small group lessons. (p. 39)

Word Caller Lessons:

  • Make students aware that there are multiple dimensions to print
  • Give students practice in thinking flexible

IMG_8017The book provides teachers with a five lesson intervention plan that helps to foster flexible thinking and improve comprehension.  The lesson directions are very thorough providing record keeping sheets, materials, pacing, and even a script to use if needed.  There are 5 lessons for one-to-one work and directions on how to adapt these for a small group.

The book also identifies word callers meaning-processing problems and provides lesson ideas for:

  • Multiple Meanings
    • homonyms
    • homophones
    • compound words
    • word parts
    • ambiguous sentences
    • jokes and riddles
  • Visualization
    • scaffold imagery
    • storyboards
    • story maps
    • paragraph restatements
  • Inferring
    • connecting lives to stories
    • two-story clue hunt
    • step building inferences
    • Cloze-ing gaps and checking

The book closes by encouraging teachers to not just give worksheets to practice comprehension but to teach students how to comprehend through strategy instruction.

So now that I have read this book what will I do?  I am going to start by giving my 3rd grade friend the 10-15 minute assessment outlined in chapter 3 to see what I can learn about her flexibility of thinking.  I will also be looking for other word callers in her class.  Then I will add a word caller lesson outlined in chapter 4 to her weekly small group plans.

Anyone else have word callers?  What do you do to change their understanding of what it means to read?

Reader Statements

img_0383Carrie Gelson recently shared these Reader Statements pictured above.

Here is what she said about them:

Reader’s Statements communicate what readers do. For example: Readers think about what they read or listen to or Readers make sure what they read makes sense. I record Reader’s Statements that come out of student conferences and post these up with the name of the child that talked about the idea. We refer to these often!

A GREAT idea to steal!


04143cb93aabe926ec6bca3704bc5497The Two Writing Teachers have a great Blog.  This week they are sharing their thoughts on creating classroom environments.  Saturday’s topic was charts and there were some GREAT ones that I want to remember:

Here is their Getting Started with workshop chart:

workshop-i-can-chartI love how this chart shows what the students AND teacher will be doing during this time.  I also love the WHY the work is important inclusion.  Too often my charts just focus on the students.

Here is their Staying Focused chart:

focused-chartI love how much ownership this provides students in problem solving for themselves!

Here is their Talking chart:

basic-talking-chartYes, I think even 5th graders need this detailed of directions on how to talk with others!

Here is my favorite…their Stamina chart:

imag2019I love the word challenge used on this chart, how it explains why stamina is important, and what part of stamina they are working on.

Here is another interesting chart I found on the Internet:

cea8430e6492f2b849a599bfe09a95a7Click on the link about to see the complete list of charts that were posted.  Which are your favorites?