District gives schools four signposts for reading instruction

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On Thursday, Chicago Public Schools launched a new reading initiative
with a framework designed to make it easier for teachers and principals
to assess the quality of reading instruction at their schools.

On Thursday, Chicago Public Schools launched a new reading initiative with a framework designed to make it easier for teachers and principals to assess the quality of reading instruction at their schools.

The district’s longtime strategy of “balanced literacy,” which focuses on developing word knowledge, comprehension, writing skills and fluency (the ability to read smoothly out loud) – will remain. So will the Chicago Reading Initiative, CPS’ nearly decade-old approach to implementing balanced literacy that requires two hours of reading instruction a day in elementary and high schools. That initiative has shown mixed results.

The new principles unveiled today dictate that each day, every student should:

* “Read about something I like and understand”

* “Write about something meaningful to me”

* “Enjoy listening to an adult read aloud”

* “Talk about what I read and write”

Dixon Elementary reading specialist Maureen Gallagher says she thinks the new principles are solid but present challenges:  “Getting the amount of books in the classroom that children really need and getting teachers to [expand] their toolbox to implement as much reading as possible.”

Elizabeth Cardenas-Lopez, who manages the Striving Readers project, says CPS is having “an ongoing conversation” about where additional funding for books might come from.

“If it doesn’t come from central office, hopefully it will come from principals, areas,” she says.

Debra Moriarty, director of student achievement at the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership, says that AUSL-run schools are already using similar principles. “It is awesome [that we will] have the support and professional development that is needed for teachers to really implement this,” she says. “They have to have a greater understanding of what it means to give an effective read-aloud, to have independent reading in their classroom.”

Nationally-known literacy specialist Richard Allington appeared at Thursday’s event at the Chicago History Museum to launch the initiative. (He came in conjunction with the American Reading Company, which pitched its classic children’s books to educators in attendance.)

Before Allington spoke, Paul Whitsitt, director of the Office of Reading and Language Arts, told the crowd that the district’s more complex, six-year-old reading instruction manual will still be used, though it will be updated and re-launched in late winter or early spring 2011. Teachers, he said, still need more professional development to understand the district’s strategies.

 

But the new principles offer an “emergency-level,” simple message that any teacher, administrator or parent can quickly use to check the quality of reading instruction, Whitsitt added.

Determining the right reading level for books for students to read can be challenging, Whitsitt said, but “if a child’s enjoying what they are reading, they probably understand it,” which is important.

The framework will not create additional work for teachers, he said, but they should keep the principles in mind when creating lessons.

Allington described the poor quality of reading instruction he observed at a recent visit to a failing school district: “In nine days, we never saw a child reading anything longer than a sentence, never saw a child writing anything longer than a sentence.” Children spent their time working on low-level worksheets.

While reading programs commonly available from publishing companies include an average of just 12 to 18 minutes a day of reading, students should be reading in school for at least an hour, or even two, each day, Allington said.

“That may be the reason you have low reading achievement,” he added. “You’ve got [only] enough reading in a core reading program to get you through Monday.”

Someone who is reading at a 2nd-grade level for two hours a day should read 12 short children’s books each day, Allington pointed out, or about 750 books in a school year. By the same token, teachers should assign older students one or two (or more) chapter books a week, instead of spending several weeks – or worse, months – working through one book.

He also emphasized that teachers and students should engage each other in “literate conversation.”  When adults talk about news articles, Allington pointed out, they rarely ask each other trivial questions like “What was the title of the man from the mayors’ office who was quoted in the third paragraph?’”

“Never ask a child a question you know the answer to,” he advised.

Struggling readers too often spend their time waiting to take their turn reading aloud (in “round-robin” style, a strategy experts now widely consider to be ineffective), doing worksheets, and spending time on decoding drills.

To improve reading, Allington recommends that Chicago scrap workbooks, test prep and copied material like worksheets and instead give teachers “$500 gift certificates to Barnes & Noble” to buy books for their classroom.

Other mistakes Allington said schools make when students have reading problems are:

* Relying too much on classroom aides. A study found that classes with aides actually had lower reading scores than those of the same size without aides – a result Allington chalks up to teachers having aides work with struggling readers. “We’ve got almost 50 years of research showing if you want kids to be stupid, put them with a paraprofessional,” he said.

* A lack of communication between classroom teachers and special education and bilingual teachers. Students can’t learn to read with just 30 minutes of good teaching a day but the rest “crap,” Allington said. “The teacher’s job is not to teach a 4th-grade reading curriculum. It’s to teach the children in front of her.”

* A lack of reading expertise on the part of special educators. “Only 19 states require special education teachers to have even one course in teaching how to read,” Allington said. “Special ed kids get less, and lower-quality, reading instruction than anyone else in the building. If you wanted a system that didn’t work, that would be a damn good plan.”

* Unequal treatment of struggling readers. One study found that teachers correct reading mistakes by good readers using a problem-solving approach – asking questions like, “Did that make sense?” But poor readers are interrupted eight times more often, usually the moment they utter the wrong sound – causing them to read word-by-word, slowly, and with a hesitant tone that sounds like they are asking a question.

Allington slammed the federal Reading First program, as well, for its over-reliance on phonics and its use of the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) assessment. “You don’t need to test kids to figure out where they are,” he said, noting that young children’s “invented writing” of words – usually filled with mistakes and non-letters – provides a good sense of how much phonemic awareness they are developing.

After the event, principals and literacy specialists met in six break-out groups to share successful strategies for increasing children’s interaction with reading, writing, talking, and listening.

Buckingham Therapeutic Day School reading specialist Rosa Sutton told a group that when she noticed that books in the library were not being utilized as fully as they could be, she “emptied the library to make sure there were enough books in the classroom.”

“It really increased the [classroom] library,” she says. “You should have 35 to 40 books per child.”