When Everyone Pulls Together: The Secrets of Success Academy

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

5 years ago, after the latest round of NY state test scores were released and Success Academy took 7 out of the top 15 spots in NY state, Robert Pondiscio wrote:

“What is imperative now is for serious, unbiased experts and observers to descend on Harlem and figure out how these extraordinary results are being achieved and, if all that glitters is gold, how to replicate them.”

Pondiscio has put his time and effort where his mouth was, and spent a year in a Success Academy elementary school in the Bronx. The outcome is a gobsmackingly incisive and nuanced book in which he attempts to document how those extraordinary results are achieved. This is Pondiscio at his best.

I’ve always been skeptical of Success Academy (SA), but unlike some of my district school colleagues, I don’t have a sustained interest in political nor ideological turf wars against charters. I am interested in learning from what any school or network may be doing that is effective. When I saw those phenomenal results 5 years ago, just like Pondiscio, I wanted to know what the heck SA was doing. And I wanted to know whether what SA is doing is truly successful from a long-term perspective. I came up with a list of questions:

Leadership

  • What do the formal and informal leaders say and do? How and what do they communicate consistently? (This includes student leaders).
  • Is the leadership distributed?
  • What mechanisms are in place for students, parents, teachers, and leaders to collaborate and receive continuous feedback? How do leaders respond to feedback?
  • How is diversity in student ability, knowledge, and skills strategically recognized and cultivated?

Content

  • What are the values and vision behind assessment and unit design?
  • What texts are taught in ELA? Why?
  • How well do topics and themes build knowledge and understanding of academic domains and the world sequentially across classrooms and grades?
  • How are students engaged in their community through units?
  • What scaffolds and interventions for students who are struggling are applied consistently both in and out of classrooms?
  • What opportunities beyond academics are provided for all students?

Environment

  • What does it feel like when you walk into a Success Academy school? What does it sound like? What does it look like?
  • How relevant is posted work and displays to students and their community?
  • What is the ratio of positive to negative language used by students and staff in the building?
  • How (psychologically) safe do students with special needs feel in the hallways, lunch rooms, and classrooms?
  • How are supportive social relationships and networks developed and sustained by the school?

In How the Other Half Learns, Pondiscio ends up answering a fair number of those questions. Read it to learn more.

What this review is and isn’t

I would love to write a more lengthy expository on nearly everything in the book—there’s certainly plenty to dig into—but realized I would never end up finishing, so I’m going to focus on a few things that struck me.

I’m also not going to spend much time on the school choice argument that Pondiscio mounts throughout the book, as interesting as it is, because most other reviews—and there are many—dig into those kind of things more in full. I’m more interested in practice than in politics.

And finally, this really isn’t a proper “review.” So here’s a proper review in short: The book is well-written and thought provoking at every turn. Do yourself a favor and read it.

That said, let’s get to my takeaways:

So what’s the secret sauce?

Photo by Buenosia Carol on Pexels.com

Let’s get something straight: SA posts amazing results, pretty much any way you slice it. But Pondiscio doesn’t shy away from reporting that a key ingredient in their secret sauce is the careful vetting and grooming of a parent population that is involved and committed enough to SA’s approach to make it sing. In fact, Pondiscio leverages that fact to underpin his key argument for school choice: “Well-intended efforts to leverage schools as a means of ending generational poverty are perversely doomed to perpetuate it—unless we allow like-minded parents to self-select into schools in the greatest numbers possible.”

They end up typically being two parent families, faith oriented, and appreciative of firm discipline, according to Pondiscio’s reckoning, drawing parallels to Catholic schools, which historically have served similarly and effectively in the poorest zipcodes.

But aside from hand selecting the parents who are most committed to SAs vision, what exactly is SA doing?

This is the key theme that emerged for me while reading this book: when all adult oars pull in the same direction—in synchronicity—around children, then amazing results can be achieved. Even if the oars or the hands pulling them are far from perfect.

“When you are surrounded by adults who are demonstrably invested in your success, who do not assume your inevitable failure or condescend because they perceive you as less than or other, who do not dwell on your deficits or perceive you as oppressed or a victim, you are pointed in a specific direction in life.”

Let me give you two examples of this from Pondiscio’s reporting of SA, one an example of great literacy practice, and the other one of questionable value.

Exemplary Literacy Practice

SA provides a rigorous balance of close reading of shared grade-level texts that are worth reading, while ensuring that each and every student reads a steady volume of texts that are more accessible. The manner in which they do this rendered clear to me something I’d been sensing but hadn’t yet been able to fully express—students need this balance to become fully literate. Yet in many schools, there is no balance whatsoever—it’s tipped completely one way or another. Either students read a bunch of mostly random books of choice at their “level,” and little else, so they build little background knowledge. Or they read a few books (or excerpts) from their curriculum that are at grade-level, but struggle to understand it and teachers receive little support on how to scaffold those texts beyond injunctions to differentiate, and their school doesn’t have the necessary expertise and resources to provide appropriate intervention.

A key lever at an SA school is that they push the preponderance of volume of independent reading onto parents, and hold parents and students accountable to it. Here’s Pondiscio:

The guidance is specific, granular, and deliverable. Parents are expected to read six books aloud to their children every week through the end of second grade; they must monitor and log their children’s independent reading and homework through high school, emulating the habits and structures associated with affluent families.

In the schools I work with, the common complaint is that many students don’t read on their own and they lack the proper environment or resources to do so even when they are motivated to do so.

The other key lever, which is more scalable to other schools, is that SA’s close reading methods are structured and consistent from grade-to-grade, starting from the very beginning. They have a list of concise and clear “thinking jobs” by genre that students enlist to guide their discussion and annotations, and teachers and students have a clear structure that guides their process of textual analysis. This is what could be called “test prep” when executed poorly and haphazardly with little connection to any disciplinary or world knowledge, but it’s also more generally what we call “close reading.” They study shared complex texts and engage in intellectual discussions around the structure, purpose, and meaning of those texts. So long as the texts selected are worth reading, this is an exemplary practice.

So I found this description of their practices highly useful to my own work, because it clarified the importance in both increasing volume of reading, while also reading shared grade-level text. I came up with a wee graphic to depict this which I now use whenever presenting on close reading:

I’d like to write more on this another time, but while we’re on it, just want to note there are now curriculum offerings that provide more of this type of interweaving balance. For example, Bookworms (freely accessible) intriguingly scales not only between texts at student level and grade-level, but furthermore read alouds of texts at above grade-level, such that it provides a tri-pronged attack for building knowledge and vocabulary alongside increasing volume (listen to Karin Chenowith’s ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast on Seaford, DE, for more on this). STARI, a Tier 2 intervention (also freely accessible), similarly scales between accessible, relevant texts and grade-level work. More to explore here!

At SA, having an abundance of resources and in-classroom coaching all centered around a curriculum and set practices is a given. There is that “educational infrastructure” around the classroom that Elizabeth Green refers to in Building a Better Teacher fully present across the SA network.

As Pondiscio notes, SA is built to run on the backs of extremely young and inexperienced teachers, and it manages to so so effectively, but this also is one of the factors that shows it can’t be done at scale and sustainably.

I’ve spoken to a few folks who’ve worked at SA before, and from what I can glean, it would be a great place to learn the ropes, but not the kind of place you’d want to stay in for long, because if you want to have a family or life of your own, you won’t have any time for it. (As a side note, this is why I think it was extremely shortsighted of the NY Board of Regents to nix legislation allowing teachers to gain a license directly from charter schools, rather than through traditional routes.)

Not-so-exemplary literacy practice

SA isn’t a guiding light in all its literacy practices. One of the most intense, which is quite revealing of SA in all its glory and its shame, is that kindergarten students may be held over if they do not reach Level D on Fountas and Pinnell running records by the end of the school year.

Fountas and Pinnell (or F&P as it is widely referred to) and guided reading is starting to get put under the microscope because though its leveled method appears scientific, it’s not based on solid science. Yet F&P is pervasive in the field, and kids across our nation refer to themselves as “I’m a level __” —even though F&P themselves state that the intent of the leveling system is to pair kids with books, not to define the kids.

SA disregards all of this and goes all in on leveling:

“Classroom libraries have book bins sorted by levels; children’s nightly reading logs have a column to record each book’s level. Data walls in every classroom indicate each child’s current reading level.”

And yet . . . in one scene Pondiscio describes the joyous celebration that occurs when a boy, who has been struggling, moves up a level. As he proudly shares this information with other adults in the building, and it becomes an impromptu parade, this suspect practice still can result in motivating kids to improve their reading ability, when their parents are firmly in tow.

When all adults pull in the same direction—even when the practices might be of questionable value—gains can be made, as SA consistently shows every single year. F&P and running records might not be based on the most solid of science, but they provide clear goals and progress monitoring, and when a school commits to a specific approach and goes all in, you will see impact.

I should also note that when I raised questions about their literacy practices on Twitter, Michele Caracappa, a former CAO at SA who is quoted in the book, clarified the science-based reading practices they do engage in. More here:

What I Think the Book Oversells

Pondiscio was surprised to find that the SA curriculum was not as knowledge based, direct instruction based, and central to SA’s success as he suspected. But he also determines that there is enough knowledge building going on across contents at SA that it warrants a general stamp of approval. He spends a chapter on his greatest hits on the importance of knowledge (great if you aren’t up to speed on it; I have been on the knowledge tip long enough to know it by heart – the baseball study, background knowledge, vocabulary, etc), but I think he oversells the fact that SA aligns with a solidly knowledge-based approach.

They pick books worth reading and they ensure science and history are adequately taught, which unfortunately are all areas many schools are deficient in. But I would argue that their coherence lies primarily in their practices and coaching, not necessarily in an explicit and sequential curriculum that builds knowledge.

To be fair to Pondiscio, he acknowledges the weaknesses in the curriculum, and gives a kind of mea culpa at the conclusion, which I’ll get into in a moment.

What I Think the Book Undersells

I’ve written a lot here about the importance of physical environment, and SA ensures that its physical environment is in top form. I think the impact of this goes further than you may think.

I work with a few schools that are colocated with a Success Academy in the same building, and it’s been endlessly fascinating to me how you can walk from one hallway to another and enter a completely different headspace. They always replace the older school doors with more modern, window covered doors that block out sound well and close quietly. Even this one simple change goes a long way towards reducing the amount of reverberating noise that speeds along down those long echoing corridors.

Their colors, immaculate spotlessness, focused bulletin boards, signage, etc all creates a physical environment that enables learning to occur, both acoustically speaking and in what is communicated to students.

What’s especially interesting about SA is that they have a dedicated leader in each building, parallel to the principal, specifically assigned to building operations!

While Pondiscio notes the attention to physical environment, he doesn’t dwell on it. Here’s what he notes:

The level of detail is exhausting, from checking hallway bulletin boards for ripped papers and making sure classroom posters stay up to ensuring that the overnight custodians who vacuum classroom rugs remembered to replace the “baby plugs” that keep children’s fingers out of wall sockets.

Walk-throughs are done nearly hourly by Fuoco or one of three staff members. While every Success Academy has an ops team and a BOM, the checklists are unique to the layout and physical condition of the building where each school is co-located.

Something else that I think Pondiscio touches on but possibly undersells is the importance of all the various educational infrastructural pieces that together SA does so well, such as PD, strategically mixing classes each year, ensuring intellectual preparation by its teachers, leaders who know the content well, systems for assessing and monitoring student data, and so on.


If the teachers are going to be teaching this lesson on the central idea of this poem, then the leaders need to be getting together two weeks before, and doing the intellectual prep themselves,’ even practice-teaching everything themselves so that they can then go lead that effectively with teachers,’” recalled Toll.

The Tiffany Test

In district schools, we seem to have committed all of our resources and attention to ensuring that even the toughest students are rarely suspended and spend more time in the classroom. A worthy goal, to be sure, but Pondiscio posits a “Tiffany test” that should give all of us strong ethical pause, based on a former student he had who sat quietly and did all that was expected of her, receiving little of the intellectual challenge she deserved due to other students’ misbehavior:

The weight of education policy and practice, as enshrined in impulse, empathy, and the law, comes down on the side of the disruptive child. But not at Success Academy.

A significant tension between public schools and charter schools is the question of who bears the cost and responsibility for the hardest-to-teach students.

….children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient and less engaged peers.

I have worked with some pretty tough students in my time, and my heart always, always goes out to them, like most other educators I know. They are the ones that keep me up at night and who come back to haunt me. If you ever corner me in a bar and get me talking about some of my former students, I will weep. I can’t help it. But I also think back to the quiet ones, the ones who sat with their hands folded as that one student cursed someone out, or threw a tantrum for the umpteenth time, the ones who quietly and dutifully filed out of my classroom and lined up along the wall when one student would go into crisis and became violent because I didn’t call on him when he raised his hand. I had to learn to handle such crises mostly on my own. I didn’t have a coach or a behavioral team who would swoop in and ensure I could continue to teach the lesson.

So his argument struck me to the core.

And yet, I also work with tough schools where they get students who are dumped on them from charter schools like SA, and they get them shipped over to them without even getting the associated funding for that student because of the strategic timing of when the charter school dumps them.* (See updated footnote on this based on feedback from James Merriman) How is that fair? And these are often the toughest students to teach, all concentrated in that local school because we have to take them, and we do, and we serve them the best that we can, with the limited support and resources we have, because schools like SA can’t or won’t.

This is the Tiffany test, and the Adama test, and it is a tough ethical dilemma worth pondering in depth, and Pondiscio forces us to grapple with it through this book in a meaningful and provocative manner.

On the one hand, there are the students who struggle who will simply not do well at SA:

“For those who try and try and can never get out of the ‘red,’ Success Academy is not for them”

But on the other hand, SA is serving the students and parents who have committed to it and can rise to its challenge, and are raising the bar so high the entire state cringes to look directly at its achievement.

There’s no clear answers here, but I think Pondiscio has some strong medicine here that needs to be more deeply considered on all sides.

It’s the Culture, Man

Pondiscio lands in an interesting place at the finale of the book. SPOILER ALERT: He concludes that what makes SA tick is not scalable, and its not scalable because what’s really happening at SA has more to do with an adaptive, squishy thing like culture, and less to do with technical things like curriculum. And this was a hard thing to come to terms with: “School culture is freighted, hard to define, harder to impose, and nearly impossible to shape through public policy.”

Here’s the money quote for me, and I think you’ll see why:

. . . a comprehensive and equitable system of public education does not require that every school be exactly the same; it requires an ecosystem of schools that collectively can serve the need of every child.

In addition to using the word that gives this blog its name, he acknowledges the key issue that this blog has been focused on conveying for some time: schools and school systems are complex. Imposing a prescription at scale is unlikely to improve the majority of our schools, and the real work is at the ground level. It’s adaptive work, in addition to highly technical work. We need to cultivate and sustain conditions that will enable that hard work to bear fruit and thrive more widely. And ultimately, this requires we think far more flexibly beyond static divides like school district boundaries, charter vs. district schools, and private vs. public funding and institutions.

If there’s one thing we can thank Success Academy for, it is that it shows what can be done when all the adults, from the parents, to the staff, to the leadership, pull in the same direction. It’s a machine that not everyone can hold onto, and it leaves a bloody trail in its wake, but it’s certainly a sight to behold.

*Update 1/1/20: James Merriman gave me some important corrective feedback on my comment on charter schools dumping kids on district schools and keeping the money. I’ll admit I threw out that comment based purely on anecdotal information, not on empirical data, and with little of my own direct experience with this. You can view his comments here in this thread:

To Rime, or Not to Rime?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

After posting my last piece extolling the virtues of rime, I’ve been forwarded critiques suggesting rime awareness is in actuality not all that useful, with links to corresponding research, from a few critical friends on Twitter. Thank you, critical friends!

Like I said in my last post, I’m no reading specialist, just an educator trying to figure this stuff out as best I can so I can better serve and support the Bronx teachers and schools I work with. The schools I mostly work with are the ones with the lowest ELA proficiency rates in the city, and the highest concentrations of students in poverty. The students in my schools need their teachers to teach them how to read the most. The situation is dire, and urgent, and massive. So when I hear challenges to the way I’m developing my understanding of reading, I take them very seriously, because I need to get this right.

Also I want to give a little more context about where I’m coming from: I work with some elementary schools, but the majority of my schools are middle schools, and my background is special education, so my guiding focus tends to be: how do I help students who are struggling the most and who are way, way behind? So the lens I tend to use is looking backward, rather than forward from a preventative preK – 2 stance. This may complicate some of the way I also present what I’m learning. One of the reasons I got so excited about rime is that it seemed like a potential way to begin intervention for students way behind with phonological awareness and orthographic mapping.

One other thing before we look at the critiques: I have been relying heavily on David Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success manual as a guide, and I don’t want to misrepresent his presentation of the science. He in no way suggests that onset-rime teaching is sufficient — he outlines the importance of letter-sound proficiency and basic phonological awareness before beginning word study activities, and he stress the importance of phonemic awareness as the basis for strong reading throughout. He also notes that his program should be taught alongside of a phonics program.

The Claims Against Rime

OK, let’s get to the criticisms of rime, in order of the published date of the research. First off is a 1997 study, “Phonemic segmentation, not onset-rime segmentation, predicts early reading and spelling skills.” This was shared with me by Jo-Anne Gross, who has warned me against an onset-rime focus since I first tweeted mention of it:

This critique, as in the next study we’ll look at, argues specifically against a theory proposed in the early 1990s by Goswami and Bryant, in which they seemed to echo very strongly the ideas I proposed in my last post:

According to their view, most children are aware of onsets and rimes (e.g., train (/tr/ – /ein/) before they are able to analyse and manipulate words at the level of the phoneme, and awareness of onset and rime is crucial to the very earliest stages of literacy acquisition. Goswami and Bryant argued that children who are able to recognise and categorise words that rhyme are sensitive to the phonological rime unit and this awareness, in turn, phonologically underpins early reading in that it allows children to map between sound and spelling at the level of the rime unit (Goswami, 1993).

Nation, Kate & Hulme, Charles. (1997). Phonemic segmentation, not onset-rime segmentation, predicts early reading and spelling skills

But in this study, they fail to find any correlation between onset-rime segmentation and reading or spelling ability, whereas they found a strong correlation with phonemic segmentation. This suggests that time spent on instruction is best spent on phonemes, rather than on rime units.

I received a similar piece from Miriam Fein that also critiques Goswami and Bryan’s stress on onset-rime importance, this one a meta-analysis from 2002, “Rhyme and reading: a critical review of the research methodology.”

Their review looked for evidence of 3 claims: 1) rhyme awareness is not only related to, but is predictive of reading ability, 2) rhyme awareness affects or determines reading ability, and 3) rhyme awareness leads to phoneme awareness.

It is claim 3 that is most relevant to my last post, since the theory I proposed was that an understanding of rime supports development to the further abstraction of individual phonemes. The author, Macmillan, lays out a few different studies that directly contradict that theory, and much like the conclusion drawn by the 1997 study above, they argue that time is better spent on individual phonemes, rather than rimes.

“Much of this evidence suggests that it is letter-sound teaching, not rhyme or rime instruction, which is responsible for producing phoneme awareness. . . there is no reliable evidence to date that teaching children how to link spoken rhyme segments with printed rime units, or how to use a rime analogy strategy will speed early reading progress over other forms of instruction.”

Macmillan, Bonnie. (2002). Rhyme and reading: a critical review of the research methodology.

The Wind Is Let Out of My Sails . . . BUT

Man. I was so excited to think I was gaining a deeper understanding of phonological awareness, and these two papers really blew a hole in my sail!

Yet. . . that last study was 2002. And there’s a few things still holding me up from jumping on the teaching and assessing onset-rime is a complete waste of time bandwagon just yet.

  1. The PAST assessment of phonological awareness moves from syllable-level, to onset-rime-level, to phoneme-level, and in the assessments I’ve administered thus far, I can witness a clear progression in difficulty as students move up the levels. So if onset-rime awareness isn’t indicative of reading ability, while phonemic awareness is, it still seems to make sense that onset-rime awareness is a progression towards phonemic awareness.
  2. Goswami and Bryant, the originators of the theory on the importance of onset-rime awareness, are still kicking it, and in a 2017 chapter of Reading Acquisition, they state: “Three longitudinal studies have shown a striking relationship between children’s early rhyming skills and their later progress in reading.” (Update 1/1/2020: Sarah Glaser corrected me and noted that this is actually a chapter from 1992, it was just an updated edition. Goswami does have more current stuff, which is fascinating in and of itself, but Tiffany Peltier has also forwarded a long piece by Goswami and Ziegler in 2005 that actually addresses Hulme’s 2002 critique and goes quite in depth. It lays out a theory called “psycholinguistic grain size theory” that is relevant to rime and everything else discussed here. More to come!)
  3. A chapter on spelling instruction and intervention provides an overview of linguistic strategies that seem very closely aligned with David Kilpatrick’s outline in Equipped for Reading Success, and also notes some more recent studies that seem to present some benefit for rime unit instruction when implemented in a specific manner:

This chapter from the 2013 Handbook of Language and Literacy was forwarded to me by Sarah Glaser:

This chapter is available online at ResearchGate. There’s a lot of good stuff in there on the importance of teaching morphology and word study activities that allow students to problem-solve and apply their reading and spelling skills.

They refer to a concept new to me, “mental graphemic representations,” (MGRs) which sounds in their first description disturbingly similar to the idea of “sight words” as whole word memorization. But they then outline a specific form of MGR formation, termed the analogy method, that sounds very closely related to orthographic mapping and the word study strategies Kilpatrick describes. The analogy method:

“. . . is a strategic method for memory of letter combinations within words is the analogy method. This method can be generalized to words that students have not directly memorized and refers to the process of applying MGRs of familiar words to an unknown word that has a similar rime unit. . . . Although this strategy of using analogies requires some phonological awareness in that the rime unit is blended with the onset, the main focus is on the application of the MGR spelling of the rime unit.”

Wolter, Julie & Squires, Katie. (2013). Spelling: Instructional and intervention frameworks.

I also did a quick Google Scholar search for “rime reading” since 2002, and I can say that it looks like there is still healthy debate ongoing between researchers about this.

So I’m not going to rule out the magic of the rime just yet, folks! I’m certainly open to it, and those two aforementioned studies seemed to clearly poke major holes in the way I laid it out, but I’m beginning to think I may have just laid it out too simplistically.

Let me test out another way of saying where the teaching of rime units can fit in:

  • Students need proficiency with letter-sounds
  • Then they need proficiency with basic phonological skills
  • As they begin deepening their phonemic awareness, teach explicit rime units and engage them in word study activities that support their ability to recognize and map those rime units into spelling (analogy method)
  • Work with rime units in this way can support the statistical learning and orthographic mapping process as they encounter new words on their own

OK, that’s where I’m going to leave this for now. I can see myself going down a rabbit hole, so will open it up to other practitioners and any experts who can share their expertise. Please continue to push my thinking, share relevant research, and help me get this clear so I can support clarity in the thinking of others!

And wishing you all a very happy new year, filled with new learning on the science of reading.

The Magic of the Rime: Mapping Sounds to Letters

Since my last posts (Learning How Kids Learn to Read, Applying What I’m Learning About How Kids Learn to Read, and Assessing and Supporting Word-level Reading) about reading, I’ve been grappling with how to bring this knowledge into practice in classrooms in a concrete and manageable way for teachers who do not yet have this background.

I’ll write more about how and where that’s going in another post when I have time, but I wanted to first share a new understanding I developed while re-reading a chapter in David Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success program.

One of the threshold concepts I’ve been unpacking through these posts is how important phonological awareness is to fluent word-level reading (read more on this in Tiffany Peltier’s post), and of how phonemic awareness is a layering of abstraction away from the spoken word. On the progression towards that abstraction is the ability to discern onset-rime sounds. Onset refers to the first consonant sound in a syllable (if there is one), while rime refers to the ending vowel and consonant in a syllable. For example C – AT, where C is the onset and AT is the rime.

While I got that onset-rime awareness was a progression on the road to phonemic awareness, I didn’t fully grasp why instruction on onset-rime could be important until I reviewed (for the umpteenth time) Kilpatrick’s descriptions of word study techniques that develop orthographic mapping.

But first, let’s review some of the revelations I’ve had thus far about the importance of phonemic awareness:

  • Phonemes are an abstraction (a single unit of sound in a word vs. a fluid stream of a spoken word)
  • There is a progression towards that abstraction in our ability to fluently hear and speak phonemes, moving from syllable, to onset-rime, to individual phoneme level
  • This fluency determines how well we acquire a sight word lexicon as we are exposed to new written words, in a process called orthographic mapping
  • Orthographic mapping is when we map the sequence of the letters of a written word to our phonological memory for future effortless retrieval
  • The reason we are able to store such a vast quantity of words in our memory is due to this phonological—rather than visual—basis of word retrieval

Here’s Kilpatrick’s description (for the Backward Decoding technique) that made me sit up and tweet in excitement while on the bus reading it:

The traditional left-to-right phonic decoding is inconsistent with how our memory system is organized. This left-to-right approach seems perfectly logical, because we read from left to right. However, despite the intuitive logic, it may not be the most efficient way. Consider when a first grader sees the word tap for the first time. Left-to-right phonic decoding would suggest starting at the beginning with the /t/ sound. So far, so good. We learned from the demonstration described above that the first sound is a critical cue in our memory system for oral words. In the phonics approach, the next step is to sound out and blend the first and second letters: ta—. Do you notice what is happening here? The left-to-right decoding splits the rhyming portion of the word. This nullifies the other important cue for verbal memory activation. By splitting the rime unit ap, the student loses the benefit of a powerful verbal organizational principle already built into our memory system. As logical as left-to-right decoding may seem, it is not as efficient as preserving the rhyming part of the word (i.e., the oral rime).

Here we get to the root of the meaning of the academic use of the word rime. It ain’t referring to hoarfrost, but rather to an archaic form of rhyme. We can see in this description how it’s related to our more general use of the word, and as we all know, rhyming is one of the most basic aspects of phonological awareness, cultivated for centuries by nursery rhymes and in music. Rhyming helps us to remember spoken language — and if phonological awareness is a fundamental aspect of learning the written language as well, then it’s something we can tap into through the explicit teaching of rimes, both in their oral and written form.

Once I got this, many of Kilpatrick’s other activities started to make more sense, such as building a rime “word wall,” mapping rime units, backward decoding, highlighting the rimes in words, word structure analysis, and others. By building student awareness and knowledge of common rime units, they can more fluently recognize many other words that are made up of those rime units.

In other words, Kilpatrick is advising that we teach rimes just like we do words. “Students should learn these word parts as familiar letter sequences, storing them like they store a word (Appendix F).”

This is something I don’t think is a common practice in most reading instruction. In fact, when I just posted that little excited tweet the other day, I got this response from a reading intervention specialist in Toronto:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

She seems to be saying that rime units are not as fundamental as Kilpatrick is presenting it. I’m not a reading specialist and I’m relying heavily on Kilpatrick as my guide at this point, so I’d like to learn more about how rime units are more widely viewed and taught. To my developing understanding, they seem like a potentially underutilized resource for equipping students with stronger orthographic mapping ability and thus, a broader orthographic lexicon. An area for further research?

What do you think? What do you know? Please share! This is proving to be an incredible learning journey and I’ve been benefiting from the generous sharing, thoughtful critique, and positive support from all of you reading geeks out there. Thank you in advance!

UPDATE: I’ve since received some more critiques and information on onset-rime. Please see my next post, To Rime, or Not to Rime? for more.

Assessing and Supporting Word-level Reading

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In this post, I’ll continue pulling together my notes on what I’m learning about reading. Thank you in advance for reading, sharing your thinking, and helping me to connect with a broader community committed to improving literacy instruction.

I want to first draw everything back to the Simple View of Reading as a friendly reminder that reading is big.

Word-level Recognition X Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension

I’ve only been focused on the word-level piece, because that’s the part that was so new to my own understanding. But the language piece is HUGE!

Anyway, in this post, I’ll keep with the word-level recognition side of things and focus on what assessments and programs we might be able to use to tackle just that one side of things.

It’s one thing to have a clear theory and a model; it’s another thing to act upon it. This is where the real debates begin, because at some point, the rubber needs to hit the road:

  1. What will we use to screen and diagnose code-based and meaning-based literacy skills?
  2. What will we do in our core instruction to prevent reading difficulties?
  3. What will we do to intervene when core instruction is insufficient?

This means a school needs to have an RTI model of some kind, which is a level of sophistication, unfortunately, many schools struggle with. There’s a lot more that Seidenberg, Kilpatrick, and I have to say on this topic, but in this post, I’ll maintain a narrower focus. I’d like to dig further into the RTI piece of it in a future post (I have some criticism of the model, though I’m rethinking it in light of some of my new understandings).

Every School Needs a Universal Screener

One of my favorite things about the Advanced Literacy framework that both NY state and NYC have adopted is that it promotes the need to go far beyond the data provided by a state assessment. We need universal literacy screeners–a short test that can help immediately identify kids who are behind in either code or meaning-based ability, from which we can then drill into further with diagnostics.

Because the available tests are not always ideally suited for assessing the various components of reading, the best reading assessment tool is the evaluator’s knowledge of research on reading acquisition and reading difficulties.

David Kilpatrick in Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties

The problem is that there are no perfect assessments. As Kilpatrick notes, “Because the available tests are not always ideally suited for assessing the various components of reading, the best reading assessment tool is the evaluator’s knowledge of research on reading acquisition and reading difficulties.

And there are so many levels to reading assessment that it’s almost fractal in nature. You’d need a significant battery of subskill assessments to get a full and accurate picture of any individual child’s reading ability.

Another problem is that time is limited, and there are already a substantial number of tests that students are forced to take. Some are in-house, some are district mandated, some are used to evaluate teachers.

Ultimately, a school must make sense of them as best they can. This is where The Simple View of Reading really comes in handy. Different assessments provide you with different kinds of information.

There’s thankfully a lot of great resources in determining what screeners your will use. The Gaab Lab at Boston’s Children Hospital has an extensive compilation of screeners here.

Assessments of Phonological Awareness

Kilpatrick recommends using both the PAST and the C-TOPP2 as a further diagnostic after a universal screener. But I recommend using only the PAST because it’s free vs. $347 for the C-TOPP2 kit. Why is the PAST test free? Because Kilpatrick developed it and publishes it for free here: https://www.thepasttest.com/ He provides instructions on the site as well. Pretty darn cool.

I’ve begun piloting the use of the PAST at a few schools I support, and it’s been pretty eye-opening to see just how much need there is with phonological awareness in the students I’ve tested. I’ve administered it to an 8th grade self-contained class, and all of the students had phonological deficits — some at the most basic of levels. One student struggled to say the word “fantastic.” He couldn’t get that last syllable, even when I slowed it down and repeated it. 8th grade.

This has only gave me a greater sense of urgency in figuring this out.

The other thing I noticed is that the person administering the PAST really has to know their phonemes. It’s surprisingly hard to do well. In order to get an accurate gauge of student ability, you have to deliver the instructions swiftly and precisely. If you slow down or stumble when saying, “Say guide. Now say guide . . . but instead of . . . /g/ say /r/,” you can easily tax the student’s working memory, and they forget which word they are supposed to use while paying attention to the phonemes you’re saying.

When training teachers to administer the PAST, I first have to ensure they can pronounce the phonemes accurately, and then deliver the tasks with swift pacing. This takes practice!

So my advice is to practice delivering the PAST with someone else, multiple times, before you administer to a student.

Check out my new Resources page for a couple of trackers you can use once you’ve administered the PAST.

Assessments of Phonics Skills

Kilpatrick recommends using the TOWRE-2 Phonemic Decoding Efficiency subtest and KTEA-3 Nonsense Word Decoding subtests. The problem is that these are subkits of a larger kit, and the kits for each are expensive. If you’ve got a school psychologist in your building who uses these and can lend you a hand, that’s great.

Protip: “Nonsense word tasks appear to be the best way to evaluate a student’s phonics skills. In essence, all unfamiliar words a student encounters are functionally ‘nonsense’ words until they are correctly identified. . . . Timed nonsense word reading, such as in the TOWRE-2 and the KTEA-3, is arguably a better assessment of a student’s cipher skills than the traditional, untimed nonsense word reading tasks.  . . . It is recommended that any timed nonsense word reading task be administered after an untimed task, and not before.”

Though Kilpatrick recommends these normed assessments, he does acknowledge that they “do not provide much information about the specifics of what elements of phonics skills are weak or missing. By contrast, there are many criterion-based assessments of very specific elements of phonic knowledge. Some are commercially available assessments and others are free online. These criterion-referenced assessments will index the particular letter-sound combinations that the student knows, such as the various letters, blends, digraphs, and diphthongs, which can aid instructional planning.”

So my (admittedly amateur) advice? Normed assessments are great if you can afford them. But you can use something like the CORE Phonics Survey, the DIBELS Nonsense Word Fluency tasks, or Ruth Miskin Nonsense Word Test (all available for free). I also just got an OG (Orton-Gillingham) phonic screen from a colleague, and it was really short. Please let me know what else you might recommend.

I’ll stop here.

There’s much more to talk about with assessments for word-level reading, but I’ll stop here. Even out of these two, phonemic awareness and phonics, I’ve elected to only focus on one — phonemic awareness. Why? Because if Kilpatrick and Seidenberg are right, this is the core area of deficit that causes word-level reading gaps. And because I’m just trying this out and seeing what kind of practices and systems I can support a school in developing that are sustainable and scalable, and you have to start somewhere.

Even just administering the PAST is a much bigger endeavor than it seems at first glance. You need to train and practice with it. Then you need to test each student individually, in a space where you have enough quiet to be heard.

And then you need to figure out how to provide effective intervention in a consistent and effective way. From the first set of data I just collected last week, I can see this will be more complicated than I thought. Each student is at different levels of phonemic awareness, so how can we group them strategically while still addressing each student’s need?

Help! If you’ve used Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success program, especially with older students, any advice is much appreciated.

Applying What I’m Learning About How Kids Learn to Read

It was pretty cool to see my last post catch 🔥 and link me in to a vibrant and smart community of educators committed to the science of reading.

To review, in that post I laid out what I’d begun learning after realizing I knew absolutely nothing about learning to read:

Summary of critical points on word-level reading

The Simple View of Reading provides us with a clear and research-based model of reading comprehension

  • This doesn’t mean it’s completely definitive–no model is. But it does give us a useful map for aligning and targeting our assessments and instruction

Anyone who hears and speaks can be taught to decode words in print

  • IQ is not the basis for the ability to decode
  • Nor is it ever too late to address decoding issues

Units of sound (phonemes -> phonology) are the basis of written language (graphemes -> orthography)

  • Most word-level reading challenges are related to issues with hearing and speaking the sounds of the letters in words

We acquire new words as we read via a process called orthographic mapping

  • It is the phonological part of our brain that anchors the written word in our memory, not our visual memory
  • We learn the vast majority of words (after we have decoded them) by rapidly and unconsciously recognizing the sequence of the sounds of the letters in a word — even when they are irregular

The root cause of most struggles in word-level reading is a lack of proficiency with advanced phonemic skills

  • Students require fluency with deleting, substituting, and reversing phonemes to acquire a large stock of sight vocabulary

Since Then

Since writing that post, it’s felt like a whirlwind of learning. In the NYCDOE, I learned that there are K-2 supports in many elementary schools called Universal Literacy coaches, and they are trained in the science of reading. I spoke with a few and saw how they are attempting to bridge the various programs and curricula schools use to the science. I read Robert Pondiscio’s superb book on Success Academy, How the Other Half Learns, and struggled to square how SA consistently achieves the highest reading proficiency rates in NY state, while applying some reading approaches not fully aligned to the science. (More on that in another post; there’s a lot to dig into from that book, and I’d like to do it justice.)

I then went to a training on Equipped for Reading Success with David Kilpatrick, and got to ask him directly about the distinction between statistical learning and orthographic mapping. He views them as different processes — orthographic mapping refers specifically to the mapping of individual phonemes, and it’s far more quickly acquired (1-4 exposures), as compared to statistical learning, which is a more global pattern recognition process that requires far more exposures. He had a nifty little chart he pulled up to explain the distinctions. Either way, however, I found Marnie Ginsberg’s explanation in a comment on my last post to be a pretty good way to think of it, though with the key addition being that while proficient readers can rapidly do all of this on their own, we need to explicitly train and teach the skills required for orthographic mapping (a chart that outlines those skills below).

A graphic from Equipped for Reading Success that should be widely known in every school.

It can be hard to gain clarity on anything in the world of education, but most especially when it comes to reading. So even as I take one step forward, I often take two steps back further steeped in doubt. Yet I’ve decided to commit to Kilpatrick’s manual as my North Star for the next quarter.

The Knowledge

I’m still moving through the Equipped manual a little each day on my commute, marking it up and imbibing what I’ve taken to calling “the Knowledge” in my annotations, an allusion to the famed test for London cab drivers. The Knowledge, in this case, being terms like digraphs, blends, diphthongs, onset, and rime.

Terms like these, much like grammatical terminology, can seem unnecessarily technical and unessential to good teaching. Yet imagine a world in which it was required for teachers to learn and be assessed on the knowledge behind the terms of word-level reading! I never understood– nor was exposed to–what “onset-rime” means until I read Kilpatrick’s manual. Yet once I grasped it, it served as a threshold concept for understanding phonological awareness.

Here’s the passage from Equipped for Reading Success that expanded my mind and made me aware of a key distinction between the syllable level and onset-rime level of phonological awareness:

“The onset-rime level of phonological awareness goes beyond the syllable level because the child has to break apart the syllable. . . . Onsets and rimes can only be understood within the syllable. Not every syllable has an onset, but every syllable has a rime. This is because every syllable has a vowel.”

–David Kilpatrick, “Equipped for Reading Success” pgs. 20-21

Remember how in my last post I had the big realization that phonemes are an abstraction from our everyday experience of spoken language as a stream of sound? The onset-rime level of sound awareness is one further abstraction from hearing syllable level sounds. There are gradations of abstraction on the road to distinguishing those individual phonemes, and that progression moves from syllable level (“baseball” = 2 claps), to onset-rime level (“baseball” = 4 claps (“b” is onset, “ase” is rime, “b” is next onset, “all” is final rime), to phoneme level (“baseball” is 6 claps (/b/, /A/, /s/, /b/, /a/, /l/).

I’ve begun playing some of the “word games” in Kilpatrick’s manual with my two and a half year old son to cultivate phonemic awareness, and I’ve noticed he can’t yet isolate the second part of a two syllable word. He can identify the first part, however. Which is of absolutely no concern to me, given his age, but I found it revealing of an even more fundamental progression in terms of working memory and the awareness that we can break up multisyllabic words into smaller parts.

When it comes to foundational reading skill knowledge like this, it’s always been something I’ve wished I’d known, but didn’t consider it essential, because the expectation was that I focus on grade-level texts and content. And yet I had students reading far below grade-level. One would think that this would have compelled me to learn it at that point–and I did try, I went through some of the files from my first years of teaching, and I found a whole set of phonics related stuff I’d amassed–but the reality is that it was something else on top of many other things I needed to know and do, and I put my primary focus on grade-level texts and skills. Not a bad focus, of course, but I look back on my many students who were struggling with decoding words, and I feel like I have failed them. I have failed them.

Teaching is a hard job. But so is nursing, and I’m watching my wife as she goes through a nursing program and struggles to acquire a vast body of knowledge that must be applied on a daily basis in a clinical setting. Nurses have to acquire this knowledge and be able to apply it, their jobs demand it. People’s lives are literally on the line. And yet, when it comes to teachers, our society seems to be perfectly fine to let them off the hook.

In How the Other Half Learns, Pondiscio has an especially wry zinger (in a book full of them) in Chapter 1 when he states, “Teaching is the easiest job in the world to do badly. . . But it’s the hardest job to do well.”

We are graduating too many students who are functionally illiterate. We all need to step up our game.

My Theory of Action

My working hypothesis, based on Kilpatrick: many of the struggling readers in the schools I support are struggling with a core phonological deficit. Therefore, if I administer the PAST and identify where a student’s phonemic awareness level is (and train teachers to do so), and support targeted daily instruction in phonemic awareness until proficiency is attained, then those students’ reading levels will improve.

I’ve brought the PAST, a short phonemic awareness assessment from Equipped for Reading Success, to a few of the middle schools I work with, and have begun pilots with self-contained classrooms and students. I just administered the PAST to my 1st student last Wednesday. We selected him because we knew he was struggling with reading. But it still shocked me with just how basic his phonemic awareness level was. He was at nearly the lowest level, the syllable level, a pre – mid kindergarten level.

Let me frame the wider context of what we’re up against: in that school, roughly 40-50% of students across the 6-8th grades are identified as struggling with decoding, according to an iReady diagnostic. Of that ~50%, how many are struggling with a phonological deficit? I’d like to find out. And help to do something about it.

Finding a way to tackle something that massive, while continuing to ensure that core instruction demands grade-level expectations, is a tough challenge. Because let it be known that I am in no way suggesting that kids struggling with word-level reading should no longer be exposed to grade-level texts and content. What I am suggesting is that it is incumbent on teachers at any level (and schools) to be knowledgeable enough of foundational skills and grade-level content and skills to scale their instruction accordingly. And yes, this is a heavy lift indeed. There’s never enough time in the day.

Yet I’ve found Kilpatrick’s materials promising in this regard, because some of the phonemic awareness activities are “1 minute” practice sessions. Every single minute we have with a student is precious time, all too easily squandered.

I recognize there’s many other aspects to this, such as administering a phonics screen or oral fluency task and pairing students with different programs depending on the need. But I’ve got to start somewhere. I’m going to start small to see if my hypothesis is verified and if I can help to enact instruction that will target those needs. This is where the rubber hits the road.

I may fail. This whole thing is, ironically enough, a pet project of mine. It is no official aspect of my duties and role in the schools I support. And I take on too many side projects as it is. I’ve got a book I’m supposed to be writing, by the way, but can no longer find the time for, let alone post on this blog. But I have a hard time thinking of anything more important than getting this right. So I’m saying this publicly so the network I’ve begun connecting to can help support me, so I can better help support the students and teachers I touch each day.

If you are on a similar journey, please connect with me here or on Twitter @mandercorn and let’s work through this together. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there, we just have to each individually connect the dots.

Thank you in advance, and thank you for reading. In solidarity.