By Delia Stafford
Dr. Adams is internationally regarded for research and applied work in the area of cognition and education. Recipient of the American Educational Research Association's Sylvia Scribner Award for outstanding research, Dr. Adams' contributions include the books, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print and Phonemic Awareness in Young Children (coauthored). Dr. Adams has also written/designed several empirically proven instructional programs including a thinking skills curriculum for middle school students, a reading and writing program for elementary school students, and a curriculum on linguistic awareness for emergent readers and special needs students. Dr. Adams is cited in the 2000 Politics of Education Yearbook as one of the five most influential people in the national reading arena. She is currently a Research Professor in the Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences Department at Brown University.
Nationally recognized as an instructional expert, Janie Feinberg is President and CEO of JP Associates. For over forty years, starting as a classroom teacher, then senior consultant for SRA/McGraw Hill and finally as the head of a national professional development company, Ms. Feinberg has worked with thousands of schools, teachers, and students in creating and sustaining effective schools. She has developed field-tested school implementation methods solidly based on research. At the center of these approaches is side-by-side classroom coaching.
One of the challenges facing schools is how to apply research to the classroom effectively. Both Feinberg and Adams represent two sides of the same "education" coin—research and application.
Delia Stafford: Over the past several years, there has been a good deal of attention given to the achievement gap in the early grades. More recently, we have seen attention given to student performance at the 8th grade level and in high school. How pervasive are the problems at the middle and high school levels?
Marilyn Jager Adams: I'm so glad you asked this. I can't tell you how many educated people continue to believe that reading difficulty is a problem for only a few, unfortunate children. Our country cannot gather the resources or will to fix this problem unless, and until, people wrap their arms around the facts that it is the majority of our children who are failing and that an inability to read takes with it the ability to learn in every other academic domain.
Educational achievement is regularly monitored by the federal government through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2007, which was the most recent assessment, the percentage of 8th graders reading below grade level was 69%. Not surprisingly, the percentage of 8th graders below grade level is similar in the content areas: 68% in science, 78% in civics, 83% in US history, and 78% in math. The potential benefits of schooling depend critically on students' being able to read.
Janie Feinberg: Every school day approximately 3,000 middle and high school students drop out of school. The middle and high school years are coming under more and more study. It is clear reading is not just an elementary school issue. A recent report, "The Forgotten Middle," provides insights into the state of these students. Only 1 in 10 eighth graders will be ready for college level work by the time they graduate from high school. The question we need to ask ourselves is if these students are even ready for high school.
From an implementation point of view, I would add that these are the very children who have a problem in elementary school, but where it would have taken thirty minutes to teach/intervene with children in kindergarten; those same students need 2 hours a day to remediate by the time they get to 4th grade. The same holds true for the middle and high school student. Just like their younger counterparts in the primary grades, without an effective intervention these students may never catch up.
Delia Stafford: How much of what we have learned concerning the primary grades can we apply to middle and high school?
Marilyn Jager Adams: The recent emphasis on primary grade instruction has confirmed the crucial importance of ensuring that students have secure knowledge of what I call the alphabetic basics – letter knowledge, phonemic awareness, decoding, and syllabification. In addition, it has given us a number of effective approaches for assessment and instruction in these domains.
On the other hand, the primary grade reading initiatives have also made abundantly clear that, even though solid, working knowledge of the alphabetic basics is absolutely necessary for literacy development, it is not sufficient. There are a number of historically low-performing districts that have registered dramatic gains across the primary grades, only to watch student growth languish from the middle grades up. Beyond the basics, students must develop the fluency, vocabulary, syntax, knowledge, attitudes, and modes of thought on which productive reading depend.
Effective focus on these needs is urgent.
Janie Feinberg: What is clear is that a failing reader is a failing reader, no matter the age. We must meet failing readers at their level of success and build up from there. The challenges at all levels are the same and the strategies for success are applicable at all levels. Instruction must be structured, systematic and explicit. There needs to be regular monitoring and feedback and this data must guide instruction.
In a MS or HS implementation, Dr. Adams has "hit the nail on the head."While the alphabetic basics are, unfortunately, still a necessary part of a MS or HS implementation, these older students need to learn the "text talk" of their content area subjects. Because they have not been in the habit of reading, their vocabulary and background knowledge is severely limited- much more so than the elementary child.
Delia Stafford: What can be done with the older student that has fallen a year or two behind their peers? What does research tell us about the nature of the interventions? How can they best be implemented?
Marilyn Jager Adams: Unfortunately, the needs of older students who are only a year or so behind grade-level are most often overlooked. Bear in mind that grade-level reading is equal to the 75th percentile on a norm-referenced test.
Most of all, these students need to read and, ideally, to read with the kind of guidance that leads them to read with discipline and intelligence. In particular, shared reading of content-area texts deserves special attention, not just for reason of the information such texts offer but equally in consideration of the special language and logic they use. This kind of shared reading is not juvenile--I even do it with my graduate students when first assigning research papers. I find that surprisingly little such support can be of huge benefit. Given some guidance, people learn remarkably quickly. In contrast, absent such help, it is easy for students to become frustrated and give up.
In the same spirit, perhaps, I personally am a fan of grammar instruction. Understanding parts of speech is an invaluable leg up on learning a second language. But still more, I mean the kind of grammar instruction for which "Grammar School" was named. Syntax or grammar carries the logical constraints of the language. That being the case, reflective understanding of the syntax or grammar of the language is a real asset toward reading, writing, and reasoning clearly.
It may be worth reminding our readers that there are also many, many adolescents whose reading is more than a year or two below grade-level. Helping these kids to catch up and move on requires a more intense program of instruction and supported reading practice. In addition, work with these students must begin by finding out why they are so far behind, so that instruction can be targeted to their specific needs and difficulties.
Janie Feinberg: I would have to agree with Marilyn, that the sad fact is these students, who are more than one grade-level behind, are often forgotten or ignored. It is even sadder because we have the means to help them accelerate, catch up and be successful.
For implementation purposes, these students need a more intense period of instruction that is also longer in duration. If you are behind in a race, you can't keep going at the same rate and ever hope to catch up- you must go faster. These students need a 2-hour block of reading/language arts each day. The class size for these students must be reduced significantly. I totally agree about including a large dosage of grammar and, in addition, we must expose and teach them good literature.
There are many essential factors for a successful instructional implementation. In this situation, one factor is that librarians need to be shown how to code and shelve reading materials so these students (and teachers) have easy access to materials on their level.
Delia Stafford: What specific strategies can be offered to teachers?
Marilyn Jager Adams: One practice that I would recommend to teachers from the middle grades up is to take the last 15 minutes of class time, and ask the students to pair up and read the first few pages of their assigned chapter aloud to each other. As the students take turns reading paragraphs to each other, the force of the activity is for them to flag, discuss, and take note of any mysterious/baffling terms, allusions, or sentences. Circulating across pairs, the teacher will find it easy to encourage this behavior by pausing and asking about challenging of the text, praising students for issues they have already raised themselves and otherwise reminding that this is their goal. As the teacher monitors this activity, the teacher will gain a good sense of what warrants explanation or discussion before sending the chapter home to be finished. Just as importantly, the teacher soon gains a good sense of the reading level of each student in the class.
Janie Feinberg: Many of our new teachers tell researchers that they simply are not trained to teach reading at the HS or MS level. They are uncertain what to do. At the same time, we need evidenced based programs that have a long history of success with students who have suffered from not learning to read. Evidenced based programs containing all 5 elements, SSBR, must be given to teachers of these students. That must be coupled with intense and ongoing professional development. RTI's are now part of every academic plan. Teachers at MS and HS are dealing with a much more challenging situation than if the child were in 1st or 2nd grade. Teachers should be coached by an outside expert often and in the classroom with their students. The professional relationship that develops between teacher and coach can have a dynamic effect on the teacher and the classroom.
Content area teachers must be given the researched based practices that explicitly teach vocabulary and comprehension strategies (read alouds, preteaching challenging words, self-questioning skills) to our students. As Dr. Adams said, these students CANNOT read a chapter silently to themselves and be able to answer questions independently. The professional development for the content area teachers would, therefore, not be focused on the alphabetic principle.
Delia Stafford: Are there specific elements/factors that are integral to a middle/high school literacy program? If so, what are they and how can they best be implemented?
Marilyn Jager Adams: A very common strategy that warrants review is that of trying to boost reading growth among below-level students by giving them below-grade-level texts to read – so called "high-low" texts. This strategy may not be productive with students who are reading at or above the third grade level. That is, it appears that a sixth-grader who struggles with a sixth-grade text is little better off when reading a fourth-grade text. The major difference is that the fourth grade text does not offer the language or information that this student needs so urgently to conquer. A better strategy is to find ways to provide supported reading of grade-level text.
Janie Feinberg: If we are to meet the academic instructional needs of the adolescent student, there are key elements that should be in place. An important part of the process when we work with a school is the needs assessment. In addition to any program testing for placement, we sit with the administrator and teacher leaders to identify both strengths and weaknesses. The implementation is then designed to address these points.
These key elements that I am speaking about include a committed and supported school leader; formal and informal assessments that guide learning of both students and teachers; ongoing, onsite profession development that includes classroom coaching; trained and supported teachers in content areas that model and provide explicit instruction to improve comprehension; and strategic and accelerated intervention.
Let me address the final point of team building a bit more. Creating change is a difficult process. Key to that change happening is the development of what JP calls a "Culture of Collaboration." Administrators, teachers, students and parents need to be part of a community of learners in which there is opportunity to learn, share and feel safe and supported. There is growing research that demonstrates that there is clear correlation between how teachers work together as a team and student performance.
Delia Stafford: How important is professional development?
Marilyn Jager Adams: Any school that has students who are reading below grade-level must have teachers who have appropriate training, resources, and time to work with them. That's a given.
However, there is a second kind of professional development that is at least as important, easier to accomplish, and widely neglected. Specifically, I wish that all upper grade teachers would receive professional development in how to look for signs of reading difficulties. There are so many poor readers in the middle and upper grades whose reading difficulties are never detected. Such students are too often labeled as unmotivated or lazy or difficult when, in fact, they just plain can't read well enough to get through their assignments productively. In order for these kids to get the help, somebody responsible must recognize that they need it.
Janie Feinberg: Simply put, you cannot be effective at any level, but particularly, at the MS and HS level unless a strong, effective and on-going staff development plan is in place. Teaching Reading Really is Rocket Science by Louisa Moats should be mandatory reading. Teaching reading takes an incredible and specific kind of knowledge. Each error a student makes must be taken as a reteaching opportunity. Teachers need to know how to assess each student and then, based solely on the data, make an appropriate intervention to fill the gap in that student's learning.
ALL teachers need an expert coaching them through this process until the teacher becomes independent with that knowledge. Professional development should be seen as an evolutionary process. The outside agency should be training each school how to be self-sustaining and be able, eventually, to provide a large portion of their own in-house training.
The connection between professional development and student performance has been proven repeatedly through research. For example, in the report "Instructional Leadership, Teaching Quality and Student Achievement" the authors observed what could be described as a professional development chain reaction. Principals who received more professional development were more actively involved in the professional development of their teachers. The teachers who received more professional development taught lessons that were of higher instructional quality. Moreover, schools where instructional quality was higher had students with higher academic achievement. This not only underscores the importance of professional development, but also the importance of everyone from the principal on down actively participating in professional development.
Feinberg sites are coached from the first day that this must be a team effort. Attending professional development strategies as one staff, administrator and teachers, sends a very strong message that student performance is everyone's responsibility and training is an essential factor in ensuring students achieve.
Delia Stafford: How important is strong academic leadership in a school in general, but specifically in a school with low performing students?
Marilyn Jager Adams: The outcomes research literature everywhere points to the insuperable importance of good school leadership. After all, it is the building leadership, more than anybody else, who is able to influence issues that transcend the separate classrooms, where those include instructional prioritization, resources, organization, scheduling, expectations, communication, collaboration and – not least – honoring staff for their contributions and accomplishments. For low-performing schools, the building leadership is only more important, as there is so very much more to get done.
Janie Feinberg: Well, we covered a little bit of this in the last question. The principal is the leader in the school. This means not just as the primary administrator, but as the academic leader as well. It is important that the teaching staff see the principal in this dual role. It is important that teachers do not just see the principal as a place to send problem students, discuss behavior or the like. Principals should be seen as actively involved in the instruction of the students.
Research has shown that strong and effective leadership in a school makes a significant difference in student achievement. Focused leadership is even more important in schools where students are low performing. Interventions for older students require many changes in scheduling - that alone can be a nightmare for MS or HS. Principals must be able to adjust scheduling so that students receive far more concentrated time in reading. Releasing of teachers for professional development, attending all such trainings to show support, being in the classrooms on a daily basis, meeting with grade level teams and having a strong part in the assessment of each student are just SOME of the duties.
To motivate staff, the principal needs to promote a team-based approach and remain actively engaged in the literacy initiative.
Delia Stafford: What kind of data should be collected to aid in guiding instruction at that particular age level?
Marilyn Jager Adams: Every student with poor school performance or full-scale reading scores should be considered a possible reading casualty. As a next step, oral reading fluency samples are a solid, first-pass means of identifying those whose educational difficulties are rooted in reading. Oral reading fluency also offers an objective, quantitative means of monitoring growth. Having said that, however, I wish quickly to add two cautions. First, while fluency assessments can indicate who has reading trouble, figuring out how to help requires follow up, which includes sitting and working with the student while she or he reads. Second, it is not uncommon for older students to obtain marginally respectable fluency scores despite serious reading difficulty. It important to follow up with any student whose reading fluency lies below 130 words per minute.
Janie Feinberg: I totally agree with Dr. Adams. As implementers, we must train teachers how to use these assessment tools to determine accurately who these students are, and the assessments must be on going. The more intense the reading problem, the more often the assessments are given. Teachers need to know quickly whether their interventions are effective or not, so that if the student is not making adequate progress, their interventions can change. As implementers, we train teachers in giving on-going fluency, accuracy and comprehension assessments. Let me also add, these assessments must totally drive instruction AND, so the student is not intimidated, these assessments must be short in duration.
Assessments should be formative and summative. The data collected must be shared with the staff otherwise, the assessment process is meaningless. The school leadership team should establish a data management process that includes a blueprint that keeps everyone on target so that the assessment is a real tool for improvement.
Delia Stafford: How should a middle/high school go about identifying an effective literacy program that can be reasonably implemented?
Marilyn Jager Adams: I would like to emphasize the importance of coupling instruction with ample practice, where that includes challenge to extend taught skills on their own. Students must learn to unlock new challenges on their own; that's the whole point.
And again, a good program for such students ought to have excellent assessment strategies built-in. A tricky part about working with older, struggling readers is that most of them do know a lot about reading already. They do not have patience for being taught what they know already and, importantly, neither do they have time. Providing efficient, effective, considerate support for older, struggling readers depends on focusing instruction on each student's specific needs, and they are all different. The program should include well-tested initial assessment both for identifying individual needs and levels and for monitoring progress throughout, indicating when students need additional work and when they should move on.
Janie Feinberg: A school should determine their needs when seeking an effective literacy program and match up the needs of their students with the features of the program.
An effective, scientifically based program should possess some essential elements. It should clearly communicate the outcomes for student learning. It should structure the academic tasks for students and demonstrate the steps necessary to accomplish that particular task. Effective programs monitor student progress and use that information to guide instruction. The implementation of the program should provide teacher feedback during student practice to ensure student success. Students should be held accountable for their work through frequent teacher review. It should help students focus not only on what they are learning, but also on the process they are using to learn.
Research has shown us that with a direct, structured and explicit approach to instruction students learn more.
Published May 21, 2008
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