Learning How Kids Learn to Read

You might assume I know something about teaching kids to read. I studied English at UCLA and obtained my master’s in education at The City College of NY. I taught special education grades 5-8 for 7 years, and I’ve supported schools and teachers throughout the Bronx with K-8 ELA instruction over the past 3 years.

Yet you’d be wrong. I’ve come to realize I know next to nothing.

In case you haven’t been aware, there’s been a firestorm of educators on platforms like Twitter gaining newfound awareness of the science of reading, with an urgent bellows inflamed by the ace reporting of Emily Hanford. For a great background on this movement, with links, refer to this post by Karen Vaites. And make sure you check out Hanford’s most recent podcast (as of today!!! It’s amazing!) outlining how current classroom practice is misaligned to research.

Impelled by this burgeoning national and international conversation, I’ve sought to educate myself about the science of reading. I began with Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight, took a linguistics course, and have just completed David Kilpatrick’s Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Seidenberg is not only pithy, but furthermore impassioned, while Kilpatrick is deeply versed in both the research and application in practice as a former school psychologist. Both experts provide an incendiary takedown of more than a few sacred cows in the educational establishment.

It’s been fascinating to learn more about the science of reading while simultaneously working with a school where I could see problems elucidated by reading researchers and advocates play out in real-time. It has made what I’m learning gain an even greater sense of urgency. I would read pages critiquing the “three-cueing system” and balanced literacy approaches on the bus in the morning, then walk into classrooms where I saw teachers instructing students, when uncertain about a word, to use guessing strategies such as “look at the picture” and the “first letter of the word,” rather than stress the need to be able to decode the entire word (for more on the problems with current classroom practice, listen to Hanford’s podcast).

There’s so much to digest and apply from all of this. This post is my attempt to begin synthesizing the information I’ve read. I’ll start general and then focus on the word-level reading aspect of the research in this post. And there’s so much more I want to cover, but I’ll be leaving tons of stuff out that I would love to explore further. Someday . . .

Reading Can Be Simple

First off, though reading is complicated, it can be outlined by a simple model, known aptly enough as The Simple View of Reading. It can even be put into the form of an equation. The theory was first developed in 1986 by researchers Gough and Tunmer. The original formulation was D (decoding) X LC (linguistic or language comprehension) = Reading Comprehension.

After years of further research, this distinction has mostly held up, though it has become greatly expanded, especially in our understanding of what constitutes language comprehension.

Decoding has been clarified as one umbrella aspect of word-level reading, which is composed of many sub-skills. A more updated formula, courtesy of Kilpatrick, is:

Word Recognition X Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension.

If you struggle with word recognition (such as with dyslexia), or if you struggle with language comprehension (English language learner), then you have difficulty reading.

Protip: if you are an educator in NY, know that this distinction can be framed around the language from Advanced Literacy as code-based (word recognition) and meaning-based (language comprehension) skills. And if you are a NYC educator, you can furthermore align this to the Instructional Leadership Framework. Bonus points for alignment to state and city initiatives! Yay!

Within each of these two domains lie the various sub-skills and knowledge that make reading so very complicated. Here’s a chart I made to visualize the “Expanded” Simple View:

Protip: Most educators are already familiar with the “five pillars” or “Big 5” of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, so it can be helpful to build a bridge between that knowledge and the Simple View. At a recent session I facilitated, I asked teachers to consider the Big 5, introduced the notion that they are composed of subskills, then asked them to sort those subskills into code-based or meaning-based groups. Here’s a print-out you could use to create the sorting strips.

Note that word recognition skills are mostly mastery-based. And a key point experts like Seidenberg and Kilpatrick make about word recognition is that word recognition can be acquired by all children. IQ discrepancy is not a factor.

Here’s Seidenberg:

“For children who are poor readers, IQ is not a strong predictor of intervention responses or longer-term outcomes. Moreover, the behavioral characteristics of poor readers are very similar across a wide IQ range. . . Within this broad range of IQs, poor readers struggle in the same ways, need help in the same areas, and respond similarly to interventions. In short, the skills that pose difficulties for children are not closely related to the skills that IQ tests measure. The primary question is about children’s reading—whether it is below age-expected levels—not their intelligence.”

Here’s Kilpatrick:

“Discrepancies between IQ and achievement do not cause word-reading problems. Rather, deficits in the skills that underlie word-level reading cause those problems. The component skills of word reading can be strong or weak, independently of IQ test performance.”

“A common belief that continues to be recommended is that some students with severe reading disabilities simply cannot learn phonics and they should be shifted to a whole-word type of approach. This recommendation is inconsistent with the accumulated research on the nature of reading development and reading disabilities

“The simple view of reading applies to poor readers with IDEA disabilities (SLD, SLI, ID, ED/BD, TBI) and poor readers not considered disabled. Thus, when asked the question, ‘Why is this child struggling in reading?’ we would no longer answer, ‘because the child has an intellectual disability (or SLI or ED/BD or whatever).’ Those disability categories do not cause reading difficulties—specific reading-related skill deficits cause reading difficulties.”

What this means for educators: there is simply no excuse for any student to graduate from any of our schools without the ability to decode words in print. As Kilpatrick stated in a presentation (thanks to Tania James for her wonderful notes), “If a child can speak, they can learn phonics.”

Language comprehension, on the other hand, may be a tougher beast to tackle. Linguistic skills and knowledge are cumulative and on-going. Most importantly, a core component of language comprehension is background and topical knowledge, in addition to grammatical and syntactical knowledge — both which are inadequately taught in most schools due to the lack of a strong and coherent core curriculum.

I should note that Siedenberg doesn’t seem to fully subscribe to the Simple View, and that by no means should we begin to think any one model can adequately describe something so complex as reading. In his endnotes he states, “The main weakness in Gough’s theory is that it did not make sufficient room for the ways that the components influence each other. Vocabulary, for example, is jointly determined by spoken language and reading. Vocabulary can also be considered a component of both basic skills and comprehension.”

Kilpatrick contradicts this view when he states, “In the context of the simple view of reading, it appears that vocabulary belongs primarily on the language comprehension side of the simple view equation, not necessarily on the word-reading side.”

Seidenberg proposes his own model, based on computational simulations, which looks something like this (Figure 6.2 from Chapter 6):

I think this model is useful for conveying why reading is complicated and can be hard to learn, but maybe not quite as useful for guiding school-based assessment and instruction.

Why is The Simple View of Reading important?

Having a clear model for reading comprehension means we have a guide for aligned assessment, prevention, and intervention. Unfortunately, many schools base ELA instruction primarily on state assessments, which tell you very little about a student’s reading needs. People seem to forget that the function of a state assessment is for school, district, and state level accountability, not to direct classroom instruction.

Protip: One “research snapshot” I found useful from Nonie Lesaux and Emily Galloway’s Advanced Literacy framework is the distinction they make between “literacy performances” and “specific skills and competencies.”

A state literacy assessment is a “literacy performance.” Here’s an explanation in their book, Teaching Advanced Literacy Skills:

“There is a tendency to examine the results of outcome assessments at the item level—to figure out the types of items groups of students struggled with and then go back and teach to support this understanding. Perhaps the most universal example is ‘finding the main idea’ in a passage . . . the problem is that finding the main idea—among many other similar performances or exercises—is just that—a reading performance. It is not a specific skill. That is, to perform the task at hand, in this case to find the main idea, the reader draws on many component skills and composite competencies and initiates those in concert with one another. In turn, when a student is not able to find the main idea, we still do not know why.”

In order to know why, we need assessments that can better pinpoint where the breakdown occurs, whether in word recognition or in language comprehension, or both. And then we need to do something about it. This is where it gets hard.

Reading is Hard

Though we can draw on a simple model to explain it, in actuality reading is complicated.

First of all, it’s completely unnatural. While we acquire spoken language organically, reading requires the imposition of an abstract system onto that language, a grafting of a fragmented alphabet onto a river of sound. Writing is something our species invented, an ingenious mechanism to convey information across space and time. While the first writing appeared around 3,200 BC, humans have been speaking for anywhere between 50,000 to 2 million years prior (we don’t know for sure because we couldn’t record anything yet, duh).

There are many irregular words in the English language, which would appear to make the teaching of something like phonics a daunting endeavor. We assume that kids need to be taught the rules, and then memorize the exceptions (these are known as “sight words.”) Makes sense, right?

Yet research has made it clear we don’t acquire most sight words through memorization. Instead, we draw upon our letter-sound knowledge and phonological analysis skills to recognize new written words and unconsciously add them to our “orthographic lexicon.”

What’s interesting on this point is there appears to be some disagreement between the models Seidenberg and Kilpatrick use to explain this process. Seidenberg calls it statistical learning, meaning that we learn to recognize patterns in common words, from which we then can recognize many others, including ones with irregularities. Kilpatrick, on the other hand, terms it orthographic mapping, which is the process of instantaneously pulling apart and putting back together the sounds in words, drawing upon letter-sound knowledge and phonemic awareness. In either model, what is acknowledged is that children learn to recognize a large volume of new words primarily on their own, but that such an ability is founded upon a strong understanding of sounds (phonology) and their correspondences in written form (orthography).

Honestly, I find both concepts—statistical learning and orthographic mapping—hard to wrap my head around.

It’s also possible they describe different things. Seidenberg’s term seems more global, explaining how we acquire vocabulary, while orthographic mapping refers more specifically to the relationship between decoding and acquiring vocabulary. I should note here that Kilpatrick did not come up with the term, “orthographic mapping,” but rather draws on the research of Linnea Ehri.

Here’s Seidenberg on statistical learning:

“…learning vocabulary is a Big Data problem solved with a small amount of timely instruction and a lot of statistical learning. The beauty part is that statistical learning incorporates a mechanism for expanding vocabulary without explicit instruction or deliberate practice. The mechanism relies on the fact that words that are similar in meaning tend to occur in similar linguistic environments.”

Here’s Kilpatrick on orthographic mapping:

“Roughly speaking, think of phonic decoding as going from text to brain and orthographic mapping as going from brain to text. This is, however, an oversimplification because orthographic mapping involves an interactive back and forth between the letters and sounds. However, it is important that we do not confuse orthographic mapping with phonic decoding. They use some of the same raw materials (i.e., letter-sound knowledge and phonological long-term memory), but they use different aspects of phonological awareness, and the actual process is different. Phonic decoding uses phonological blending, which goes from “part to whole” (i.e., phonemes to words) while orthographic mapping requires the efficient use of phonological awareness/analysis, which goes from “whole to part” (i.e., oral words to their constituent phonemes).”

Kilpatrick notes that “The vast majority of exception words have only a single irregular letter-sound relationship.” This means that if a reader knows their letter-sound relationships well, they will be able to negotiate the majority of words with exceptions and irregularities.

What this means is that students need to be provided with sufficient practice to master phonological awareness and phonics skills. And we can not blame the failure of a student to learn to decode on the irregularity of the English language.

Phonology: What We Can Hear and Speak is the Root of Written Language

In Seidenberg’s book, he argues that phonemes are the first abstraction on the road to the written word. A phoneme is the individual sound that a letter can represent (e.g. the sound of “p”). While we learn many such sounds as we acquire spoken language, the need to disaggregate a single component sound into a phoneme only becomes necessary in the translation of speech into the written form. As Seidenberg puts it:

“Phonemes are abstractions because they are discrete, whereas the speech signal is continuous. . . The invaluable illusion that speech consists of phonemes is only completed with further exposure to print, often starting with learning to spell and write one’s name.”

No wonder “phonemic awareness” is central to learning to read! The ability to know and discern individual sounds, and then to be able to play with them and put them back together, is the core skill of reading. In other words, if you struggle with blending and manipulating the sounds in words, you struggle with reading.

And indeed, this is why far too many of our kids have problems with reading. As Kilpatrick puts it, “The phonological-core deficit is far and away the most common reason why children struggle in word-level reading.”

Once I grasped this deceptively simple idea—that fluent reading is dependent on the ability to hear and speak the sounds of letters within words—prevention and intervention began to make more sense to me. Before, my understanding of the distinction between phonological awareness and phonics and what this meant for instruction was muddy. Now, I know that before even looking at a letter or a word, a student needs to practice hearing and speaking the sounds. This is how the student develops phonemic awareness. Phonics, on the other hand, is taught when those sounds are then applied to letters.

Protip: “A good way to remember the difference…is that phonemic awareness can be done with your eyes closed, while phonics cannot” (Kilpatrick, 2015a, p. 15).

The Importance of Advanced Phonemic Awareness

That may sound straightforward (no pun intended), but one of the key understandings I gained from Kilpatrick is that we too often stop at basic phonological awareness, both in our assessments and in our intervention. While sound instruction in grades K-1 in phonological awareness and phonics should help to prevent most word reading difficulties (“Intervention researchers estimate that if the best prevention and intervention approaches were widely used, the percentage of elementary school students reading below a basic level would be about 5% rather than the current 30% to 34%”), there are some students who will present with more severe difficulties. And those difficulties often stem from lacking more advanced phonemic awareness. He also points out that these advanced phonemic skills continue to typically develop in grades 3 and 4, well past the point that most schools provide systematic phonemic and phonics instruction.

Kilpatrick stresses that intervention and remediation for such students requires explicitly teaching advanced phonological skills.

So What Can We Do?

The great thing about Kilpatrick’s book—and why you should buy it—is that unlike many writers in the field of education, he actually goes through what assessments you can use and what you can do instructionally, both for prevention (K-1) and for intervention (grades 2 and up), to address reading needs. He calls out programs by name and praises or critiques them based on key understandings from the research, and some of it was pretty surprising to me.

But I’m going to stop here for this post before it gets overlong. When I can find time to post again (it’s seriously hard with a 2 year old and 9 month old and the school year is about to begin), I’ll share some of the assessments and programs that I think are most accessible from Kilpatrick, as well as dig into some of the sacred cows that Kilpatrick, Seidenberg, and Hanford have slayed.

Afterword

You’ll notice I didn’t mention what I learned from my linguistics course, which was just an online series. It was fine, but I only found it useful insofar as it equipped me with some terms like lexicon, morphology, semantics, or pragmatics. If you have any recommendations for further learning in linguistics, please let me know.

Also, if I’ve demonstrated any misconceptions in this piece or you would like to challenge or add to anything I wrote, please share!

And thank you for reading.

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Building an Instructional Core for Student Literacy: Part I

Identifying the problem

Why aren’t many students graduating from our schools ready to perform the reading and writing tasks demanded of them by a college or career?

Answers to this will vary widely, of course. Based on my own experience working in NYC schools, I suspect that at the core of this problem lies incoherency, and beginning with this post, I’m going to try to persuade you that this is an issue, as well as provide some ideas on what schools can do about it. BTW I’m not the only one who suspects incoherency is at the core of our educational woes: researchers like Anthony Bryk have been making this case.

Read the vision and mission statements of most schools and you’ll see it for yourself in the vague, fluffy proclamations that bear little meaning to the content of what is actually taught.

What is taught in most schools? Who knows? Good luck finding data on curriculum being used. Despite the moniker of “public,” most public schools make little effort to transparently communicate what curriculum they purchase or develop and use from year to year.

There are a few charter networks that now publish most of their curriculum online. Kudos to Success Academy, Match, and Achievement First. Apparently KIPP will also start sharing their content. New York and Louisiana have at least made quality curriculum freely available, though it’s unclear how many of their schools employ it. (If I’m missing any schools, public, private, or otherwise that are doing this, please share in the comments so I can include them.)

Why we need to change how we approach literacy instruction

Every year schools examine state test results, then set targets for supporting their students’ literacy development. But they typically fail to consider the actual curriculum students receive in their classrooms each and every day—the texts they read and the writing tasks they are expected to perform—and whether that curriculum coherently and intentionally fosters and reinforces the skills and knowledge considered most essential to future student success (more on which skills and knowledge in a future post).

Or, they substitute one curricular program for another, ready to adopt the “next new thing” despite substantial time invested in adapting and tailoring a curriculum. Or, they adopt multiple curricular programs that don’t align, then expect teachers to be able to interpret, synthesize, and implement them with little support nor time for collaborative planning.

This is a significant problem I see in many of the schools I work with, which happen to be the schools in the Bronx struggling the most. There are schools using both EngageNY’s Expeditionary Learning curriculum for the “reading” period, and Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project’s writing curriculum for the “writing” period. If you know anything about either curriculum, this is confounding, both from a teacher and a student standpoint. Students are receiving two unaligned approaches, most likely delivered poorly, and teachers are being asked to read through and understand and plan and implement two very dense and confusing narratives for every single lesson.

Teachers, for various reasons, but most especially due to nonsense like the aforementioned, choose to do their own thing, drawing lessons from test prep books or online sources willy nilly, without coming to a consensus as a department or school on what is most important to teach across grades and classrooms.

Gaining academic knowledge, language, and skills are not natural and require a structured and systematic core curriculum in order to ensure all students have plentiful opportunities to practice and master them at the level necessary to succeed in higher education or in a complex career. We know from decades of research on learning and cognition that in order to transfer an understanding of new concepts and skills into long-term memory and apply them in real-world contexts, students require repeated exposures to those concepts and skills, spaced out over time.

Yet in many schools, most especially those that serve disadvantaged communities, students are exposed to an incoherent mix of concepts and skills that ill prepare them for success in a competitive college or career.

The literacy department of a school should promote a coherent vision oriented around shared instructional concepts, practices, and content. By coming to a consensus on what is most essential for students to know and be able to do in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, then designing backwards from those targets, the ELA team can build a backbone of coherency that will support literacy development across grades and classrooms.

A hypothesis

If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.

In my next post or two, I’ll lay out some ideas and processes that can help an ELA team to do this work.

The Symbiosis Between Scaffolding and Differentiation

A while back I wrote a long post redefining scaffolds and examining their connection to success criteria.

I then wrote a post drawing a distinction between scaffolds and differentiation, and I cast some shade on differentiation.

But I’m no longer quite as opposed to differentiation, and I can now see how there can be a strong symbiosis between scaffolding and differentiation.

I’ve been working with a school in the Bronx where we’ve been talking a lot about these concepts, and they’ve helped me to think a little more deeply. So I figured it would be worth sharing my updated learning.

Why it’s important

Teachers are often criticized by school and district leaders for not “differentiating” enough, yet rarely provided any clear guidance on how to do so. And there’s furthermore a lot of vagueness out there in the field on the distinctions between scaffolding and differentiation.

I want to share my revised thinking on the connection between the two concepts in the hope that I can help to clarify, rather than muddy, the use of these terms.

Here’s a visual model of how I now view scaffolds and differentiation:

Scaffolding = Steps

As students practice a skill or develop knowledge of a concept, their ability and understanding increases in complexity. A master teacher breaks down a skill or concept into smaller components, all the way down to the most basic and fundamental level, so that students can accelerate up the ladder towards mastery (just as jump school recruits do with a parachute landing fall).

Those sequential steps are the scaffolds.

Scaffolding, therefore, requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught (content/skills).

Differentiation = Where each student is on those steps and what they need to progress

Differentiation, on the other hand, requires a teacher to know their individual students well enough to know what each student requires at every step on their trajectory towards mastery, and where they are on that trajectory.

Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each of their individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

Distinguishing between Scaffolds and Differentiation

  • Scaffolding is aligned to a concept or skill.
  • Differentiation is aligned to the individual student.
  • Scaffolds are the sequential steps that lead to mastery of a skill or a deeper understanding of a concept.
  • Differentiation is in what manner and how much time a student may need to practice or review a step, as well as how much feedback may need to be provided.
  • Scaffolding requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught.
  • Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

The two thus work in tandem.

A sidenote on how all this relates to personalized learning

This brings out something interesting about the edtech industry’s drive for “personalized learning.” The concept of personalized learning arguably aligns most strongly with differentiation.

What is not frequently discussed is that in order to personalize something, you must first define that “something” and break it into its component parts. How you do this and the decisions you make and the feedback you provide are just as important as matching that content to a student’s needs.

In other words, whenever you hear about personalized learning, ignore the inspirational student-centered rhetoric and home in on the content itself. What platform or curriculum is being used? What trajectory is presented by that content? Does this trajectory align with widely respected standards or guidance from national or international professional organizations.

Definitions and Characteristics

Scaffolding

Definition

A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.

Characteristics

  • Smaller, sequential components of a complex concept, task, or skill
  • Requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, a scaffold isn’t about making something “easier” for students
  • Must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along or have a scaffold removed until they have demonstrated mastery of each component
  • Doubles as performance-based formative assessment

Differentiation

Definition

Differentiation provides an individual student with the targeted practice or thinking, and with the necessary feedback, in order to progress towards defined learning goals.

Characteristics

  • Adjustments in environment, content, process, or product to account for an individual student’s current level of knowledge, ability, or interest
  • Based on the trajectory of scaffolding for the current topic or unit of study
  • Requires the teacher to be deeply aware of an individual student’s needs and current level of performance
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, differentiation isn’t about making something “easier” for the student

You’ll notice that there is a key characteristic that is shared between these two: neither are about making something easier for a student — they are both about moving learners closer to mastery of whatever it is that they are practicing and studying.

This is important because unfortunately there is a strong tendency by educators to deem some students as incapable of achieving mastery of success in academic learning.

But what is most often the case is that the educator doesn’t know what they are teaching well enough in order to provide specific and targeted supports for their students.

There’s still a lot more to dig into on this topic — specifically how it relates to formal education plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. But I think this is more than enough for one post!

Please push back on any of this to help me further clarify and refine my thinking on scaffolding and differentiation.

Scaffolding vs Differentiation

My recent post on scaffolds and success criteria seemed to be useful to folks, so I thought I should share something more on scaffolding that can help to further clarify the term.

Scaffolding and differentiation are both words frequently thrown around in schools, often interchangeably and without precision. But there’s a clear distinction between the two that must be made, most especially as teachers are increasingly pressured to “differentiate” their lessons by school and district leadership with little guidance and concrete models.

So what is differentiation?

Differentiation asks teachers to plan different tasks or learning experiences for different groups of students, with the idea being that we can better meet the needs of diverse learners.

So for example, if we had our “high” student, our “medium” student, and our “low” performing student, we might provide a different text for each one in order to ensure they would be reading something at their “level.”

But there’s a problem with this. If the so-called “low” students only ever receive less complex and challenging expectations, texts, and learning experiences, they will continue to perform at a lower level.

This is why too many of our kids end up in “remedial” classes if and when they make it to college. This is why too many students consigned to a segregated “self-contained” program rarely even make it to graduation.

There’s another problem with differentiation. It demands quite a bit from a teacher to design (at least) 3 separate tasks or resources for any given lesson — time and energy that could perhaps be more effectively spent elsewhere.

To acknowledge these problems is not to say that differentiation can’t be applied effectively nor that it is universally the wrong thing to do. Structures for guided reading, for example, draw from this model and can be very effective in a school and classroom that have developed the necessary systems and routines. But these problems are big enough that they should give us strong pause before mindlessly evaluating and chiding teachers about whether they are adequately “differentiating” their lessons.

What is scaffolding, and how is it different?

The concept of scaffolding shifts how we approach meeting the needs of diverse learners.

We may have students coming into a learning experience with differing levels of knowledge, ability, or background, but rather than providing them with something different, we instead consider how we can provide the scaffolding necessary to ensure they can work together in grappling with a common task or text.

This is a shift offered by common standards, which demand a shared set of expectations for all students. For our students who may struggle in meeting these more rigorous demands, we must consider how to scaffold the concepts, procedures, and environment to support their engagement in practice with the texts and learning experiences that can enable them to meet those expectations.

This is certainly not an easy thing to do, either. But if I had to take a pick about what is going to give me the most bang for my buck, designing access and practice with common vocabulary, tasks, and texts is where I would ask educators to more wisely invest their time and energy.

For more on what that scaffolding should look like, take a look at my prior post, Scaffolding and Success Criteria.

Scaffolding & Success Criteria

What is a scaffold, anyway?

While working on a series of workshops about scaffolding, I came to a revelation about what the term really means. It’s one of those words, like “differentiation,” so ubiquitous in the field it seems to mean almost anything. But such generality can easily lead to some big misconceptions in actual application. I’m going to share my learning here in the case it may be useful and help others to avoid some of those missteps.

In order to truly understand scaffolding, I think you need to be able to answer this question:

Why should a scaffold used during a lesson align to the success criteria of a unit of study?

Furthermore, I think you need to understand what it takes to master a parachute landing fall at the army jump school in Fort Benning, Georgia.

Mastering a Parachute Landing Fall

For a reading that serves as a great basis for a team discussion on rigor, assessment, or scaffolding, I urge you to read Chapter 4 pg. 69 – 71 of Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Read the whole darn book while you’re at it, of course; it’s all good. But I found this particular chapter especially relevant to scaffolding.

Since I obviously can’t reproduce the chapter for copyright reasons, I’ll give you an executive summary. At the army jump school in Georgia, mastering a parachute landing fall is a necessity. The jump school supports and drives recruits to mastery of this extremely complex and difficult skill within three weeks. How do they do this?

First, recruits initiate their practice in a gravel pit. They receive demonstrations of different falls. Then they practice falling and they receive feedback and they practice some more.

Next, recruits move to a short platform a couple feet off the ground. They practice jumping off the platform and executing the falls they had mastered in the gravel pit.

The challenge is ratched up. Recruits move to a zip line and practice falling from a higher drop that’s propelling them in different moving directions. They can control when they drop off the line.

You see where this is going. The recruits move to a platform 12 feet off the ground. They put on gear and jump down a mock chute, connected to a zip line. But this time the instructor pulls the cord and introduces the element of uncertainty and surprise. Recruits now have to be able to demonstrate a PLF according to chance, simulating the variables of an actual fall.

Finally, they move to a 34 foot tower. This is the final step of demonstrating mastery before boarding a moving airplane and engaging in a real-world application of the skill.

There’s some aspects of this narrative that illuminates effective scaffolding:

    • Each step provides practice and feedback on a component skill that requires mastery before moving on
    • Practice grows increasingly complex and difficult
    • At no point is the practice easy
    • Practice serves simultaneously as performance-based assessment

 

There’s a term that the authors of Make It Stick introduce that is useful for this progression of increasingly rigorous steps: desirable difficulty.

Desirable Difficulty, Academic Rigor, and Scaffolding

Desirable difficulty, a term coined by psychologists Elizabeth and Robert Bjork, is a way to describe short-term impediments that lead to stronger learning. At the army jump school, you can see desirable difficulty in action, and it highlights key aspects of effective scaffolding and how it connects to academic rigor.

At each successive step of training, the recruits are engaged in practice at a level of desirable difficulty required for them to master each successive component skill. Once they’ve mastered that skill or set of skills, they are then ready to move to the next level.

This is important to highlight for a few reasons. One is that it’s clear that at no level is the work and practice “easy.” A common misapplication of scaffolding is that it makes work easier for a student. This might make the teacher and student feel better about themselves, but it does long-term damage to student learning.

But a well-designed scaffold should not make a task or concept easy. Rather, it should provide the right level of impediment and challenge for the level of practice in the skills or concepts required to move forward.

This means that instructors can have extremely high expectations for students, as the army jump school has for its recruits, while providing well-structured practice and guidance that will lead to achievement that matches those expectations.

It also means instructors must be crystal clear about the component skills and practice that will build successively and sequentially to mastery.

Scaffolding as Performance-based Formative Assessment

“It’s one thing to feel confident of your knowledge; it’s something else to demonstrate mastery. Testing is not only a powerful learning strategy, it is a potent reality check on the accuracy of your own judgement of what you know how to do. When confidence is based on repeated performance, demonstrated through testing that simulates real-world conditions, you can lean into it.”

Make It Stick

There’s another aspect of scaffolding that is really interesting to consider from the jump school example: effective scaffolding is a performance-based form of formative assessment. Formative assessment, for those of you not up on the ed jargon, simply means testing that occurs during learning. This is in opposition to summative assessment which takes place at the end as an evaluative measure, and is usually accompanied with a grade. In the jump school example, the summative assessment would be executing the parachute landing fall from a plane.

A well-designed scaffold, therefore, engages a student in the practice of a skill that informs the instructor whether the student is ready to move on. This should be immediately visible and clear, enabling the instructor to provide ongoing feedback as the student engages with the scaffold.

Now let’s return to our original question and bring this back to the classroom:

Why should a scaffold used during a lesson align to the success criteria of a unit of study?

Success Criteria

Let’s break this down. What the heck are “success criteria”?

Success criteria are what you use to assess whether you’ve achieved the goals for learning in a unit of study. You’ll typically see these as a rubric or a checklist. The criteria are directly aligned to standards or expectations for learning for the subject and grade.

As an example, let’s say I’m an ELA teacher and I wanted to assess a third grade student’s ability to determine a central idea of a text. The Common Core Standard for Reading Literature states that by the end of third grade, kids should be able to “Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.

So an example of a few success criteria I might use to assess that student’s progress towards the standard could be:

☐ I can distinguish between the important and unimportant details in a text.
☐ I can determine the details most essential to understanding a text.
☐ I can combine key details to determine a main idea.

Let’s look one of these criteria: “I can distinguish between important and unimportant details in a text.”

Many students will struggle with this abstract skill (not least because they don’t know enough about whatever they’re reading in order to do so . . . but that’s a whole other post). So they will need some type of scaffold to assist them in getting started on this.

So what could such a scaffold be?

One possible scaffold could be to support them in first distinguishing between details that are merely interesting, such as details that an author gives to make the text more engaging to read, from details that are central to understanding the topic of the text.

We might create some type of graphic organizer or chart to support students in practicing this with a text, and of course, we’d probably model it and do it together as a whole class before having students practice it in groups or pairs, then we’d ask individual students use it on their own.

Some students may be ready to just make a T-chart in their notebooks, while other students may need some more guided practice with a handout. Some students may need manipulatives, such as cut outs of both interesting and important details, in order to get started and to feel success before they are ready to move to greater abstraction.

But notice something about my description: the scaffold is less about a graphic organizer, chart, or manipulative, and more about the practice of a specific skill component: clarifying the difference between interesting and important details.

In other words, the point of a scaffold like this isn’t really about the thing — it’s about the thinking that students are training their minds to do through the application of the scaffold.

A scaffold should therefore provide the thinking practice that a student needs to master the criteria for success.

If we just told students to distinguish between the important and unimportant details in an informational text, some might be able to do so, and some will not. The point of the scaffold, in this example, is to train students who don’t yet see it to become aware of the difference between details provided by an author that are merely interesting, versus details that are important to understanding the topic.

Eventually, those students should no longer need a scaffold. They’ll internalize the concept and be able to apply it without thinking. A few students may never need such a scaffold at all. That’s the differentiation piece. If they don’t need it, they shouldn’t be practicing it.

We may think of something like a stepladder or the scaffolding on a building when we use the word “scaffolding.” Or you might think of a bike with training wheels, or a parent holding the bike as the child learns to pedal.

The model of a bike with training wheels is probably closer to the way we should think of what a scaffold means in instruction. We want to shift our mental model of what a “scaffold” is away from it being a tool that merely makes a task easier, to a process or activity that engages a student in the practice that they can experience success with, while on the road to mastery.

What’s the difference? Some students will need to practice a whole bunch using a scaffold before they get it. A few students may not need it at all. But the expectation is that all students will be expected to achieve that mastery.

Which leads us to another realization about what function a scaffold serves. If a scaffold is directly aligned to the success criteria in a unit of study, then it serves not only as a form of practice to achieve mastery, but it furthermore serves as method of formative assessment for both students and teachers. It provides performance-based, task-based feedback on whether or not a student has achieved the success criteria.
So a scaffold does not mean making learning easy. It doesn’t mean giving kids a shortcut so they can reach something they will never be able to reach again. It’s about having rigorous expectations and demanding that students practice in a way that will enable them to achieve those expectations.

A New Definition of Scaffold

A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.

Characteristics of Scaffolds

  • Scaffolds are smaller components of a complex task or skill
  • Scaffolds are at the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice.
  • Scaffolds are not “easy”
  • Scaffolds must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along until they have mastered each component
  • Scaffolds serve as performance-based formative assessment