Building an Instructional Core for Student Literacy: Part II

In my last post, way back in August (things got busy!), we examined the problem of incoherency in literacy instruction, and I proposed the following 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.

So how can a school come to a clearer understanding of what they teach, how they will teach it, and a rationale and vision for literacy?

Define What You Want Kids to Know and Be Able to Do

A good place to start is for a school to define what knowledge and skills they believe children should walk out of their building equipped with when they graduate. And by define, I mean truly define discretely, not simply generate a set of feelgood statements like, “I want kids to be lifelong learners and passionate, independent readers who have 21st century learning skills. .  .”

A hearty chunk of skills are already defined by state standards (which was already contentious enough of a process) but due to the decentralized nature of American schools, as well as a strong anti-intellectual current, there’s reluctance to define the content–in the form of topics or texts–that students should study.

And so here we are, like I said in my last post, in the situation wherein parents and the wider public have nary a clear what is actually taught in most public school classrooms.

I think that much of this is attributable to confusion between knowledge and skills. Some school officials, if challenged, will point to state standards and say, “There’s what we teach.” But standards are relatively abstract goals composed of various strands of skills wrapped together. They require significant work on the educator’s part to “unpack” in order to break them down into more concrete subskills and targets for learning.

But even then, you’ll still be missing a critical component of literacy.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’ve broken down the third grade Common Core reading literature standard which states, “Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.” You’ve broken down the ability to meet this standard into a few subskills, such as, “I can distinguish between the important and unimportant details in a text” (look familiar? This is from my post on scaffolding a while back!).

That would be a typical “learning target” in a classroom. But there’s a key element missing: Which text? What details?

Because that’s really where the rubber hits the road. We pretend academic literacy can be developed from an isolated set of skills, but vocabulary and background knowledge are a critical component of literacy. And academic vocabulary and knowledge are built cumulatively from the study of related texts and topics over time.

Knowledge vs. Skills

Knowledge and skills are not the same thing, and it’s important to be able to delineate them. They exist on different planes, but they share a point at which they converge.

Here’s a little graphic I came up with to demonstrate their convergence and differentiation:

The Roadmap to Literacy V2

Where lies the point of convergence between literacy knowledge and skills? It lies in the texts that students read.

Do the texts cumulatively build knowledge of key topics and themes? Or are they happenstance and scattered, dependent on the teacher?

This is why you’ll hear literacy experts talk about the importance of “text sets” that focus on key topics and themes. This is how academic vocabulary and knowledge is built.

Speaking of “experts,” I had an extended dialogue with an author and professional development facilitator who claimed that rather than two strands, like the one above, that there are in fact three strands, or “three dimensions” of learning: concepts, facts, and skills. She and I went back and forth about whether and how conceptual knowledge is distinguished from factual knowledge. Rather than refer me to research or other verified sources, she would just tell me that I needed to read her book. Color me skeptical.

Maybe she’s right, but I ain’t reading her book (unless she sends me a free copy. Then, maybe). But I figured I should put it out there in case you do find that distinction useful.

I’ll stop there for this already overlong post. There’s a heck of a lot more to dive into. But I’m hoping that even just drawing that line between knowledge and skills might help you to redefine how you talk about literacy in your school. Do your students have text sets available to them that build knowledge around key topics and themes that they can use to practice and apply key literacy skills more independently? Has your school defined key topics and themes?

Does the curriculum your school uses build knowledge around key topics and themes? Does it build it vertically across grades and horizontally across subjects? Or is it so heavily skills-based that it’s entirely unclear what texts are actually to be read?

Start there, and your school can begin to tackle the sticky problems of literacy at a much deeper level, and that approach can pay dividends in student learning over time.

 

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Exciting things happening in Louisiana

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Don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but Louisiana Superintendent John White, despite great controversy, has been making strong leadership moves over in LA, writing smart op-eds, maintaining a clear focus on higher standards in the face of volatile political headwinds, working with innovative partners to develop online curriculum, and pulling teachers together to conduct thorough reviews of curricular options according to LA state standards (I wrote a little more about how their reviews compare against EdReports here.)

And now, White is continuing to steer Louisiana on the path to meaningful reform with a proposal to pilot a new form of assessment that recognizes the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. These assessments will do so by merging social studies and ELA texts and units throughout the course of a year. Here’s his explanation:

“Rather than administering separate social studies and English tests at the end of the year, Louisiana schools participating in the pilot will teach short social studies and English curriculum units in tandem over the course of the year, pausing briefly after each unit to assess students’ reading, writing and content knowledge. Students, teachers and parents will know the knowledge and books covered on the tests well in advance. Knowledge of the world and of specific books will be measured as a co-equal to students’ literacy skills. And teachers would have good reason to focus on the hard and inspiring lessons of history and books.”

This type of assessment is something I’ve been dreaming about for years, and that former NY State Commissioner and current Executive Director at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, David Steiner, has been talking about for years. At a Research ED conference back in September, I had a chance to chat with Steiner about this a little bit. It’s not a topic that non-wonkish education people seem to care about, but he is also passionate about this issue, and it’s really nice to see that this might finally get a chance to get “tested” by a state.

Too bad NY couldn’t get itself together to make this happen first.

Here’s a short video I had made about ideas for successful implementation of the Common Core standards back in 2014 in which I also make the case that all teachers on a grade-level should be held accountable by literacy assessments:

States don’t measure what kids actually know. That needs to change. John White / The Hill

 

Smorgasbord: Complexity, Reading, Morals, and Algorithms

Free vector graphic: Panda, Golf, Animal, Bear, Sports - Free ...

Stop wasting your time on item-analysis of standards and skills on state ELA tests, people

Tim Shanahan has some advice and candor that many principals and district leaders sorely need to hear.

“What makes the difference in reading performance isn’t practice answering certain question types, but practice in interpreting texts that are challenging–that pose barriers to meaning.

. . . The point isn’t that the standards should be ignored, but that teachers have to understand that reading comprehension tests do not/cannot measure single, separable, independent skills. These instruments provide nothing more than an overall indicator of general reading comprehension performance.”

This is the annual rigmarole that schools waste their ELA teachers’ time with at the beginning of each school year.

Stop it, folks. Just stop it. You’re not going to glean new insight about how to effectively teach literacy to your kids by doing intensive item analysis of the standards and questions on the ELA state test.

Instead, read real literature and engage your kids in learning about their world. Then you might actually have an impact.

A Spirited Reaction to One District’s Approach to Standards-Based Reading Instruction, Shanahan on Literacy

Teach morals by human example, not using cute animals

“Books that children can easily relate to increase their ability to apply the story’s lesson to their daily lives.”

But the study also notes that “The more a child attributed human characteristics to the anthropomorphic animals, the more they shared after reading the animal book.”

So as always, it’s about how the adults reading the books with children help them pay attention to and understand what’s most important.

Human Characters, Not Animals, Teach Children Best Moral Lessons, Neuroscience News

If laptops are detrimental to learning in college classrooms, then . . .

“We find that allowing any computer usage in the classroom—even with strict limitations—reduces students’ average final-exam performance by roughly one-fifth of a standard deviation.”

Should professors ban laptops?, Education Next

Bellwether reviewed NY’s ESSA plans and provides a useful critique.

NY has a strong foundation, but it’s accountability measures may be too complex for parents and the public to make sense of, as well as too vague.

An Independent Review of New York’s Draft ESSA Plan, Bellwether Education

A Friendly Reminder: Schools are Complex

“At least on paper, it is difficult to tell what separates the schools at the bottom of the list from those at the top, which cuts to the core of what makes school turnaround so difficult: nobody knows precisely what works.

‘The problem is that there is no silver bullet to turnaround interventions,’ said Priscilla Wohlstetter, a distinguished research professor at Columbia University’s Teacher College. ‘It’s a really tough thing to figure out what makes the difference in schools.’”

For $582 Million Spent on Troubled Schools, Some Gains, More Disappointments, NY Times

And school closures? Also complex

Make sure to read behind the headlines on the new CREDO study. There’s a lot of unknowns and nuance to their findings.

Matt Barnum does a nice job of drawing those out in this Chalkbeat piece.

“…the study can’t explain why closures happen more often in certain communities. For instance, if low-achieving schools with many white students are especially likely to be located in rural areas where there are fewer alternative schools, that may help explain the results.

Another explanation could be that the expansion of charter schools in high-minority areas puts additional fiscal and enrollment pressure on districts and charters — as charters expand, other schools may close as their enrollment declines.

What is clear, though, is that black and low-income students and communities are especially likely to have a school closed.”

Schools with more students of color are more likely to be shut down — and three other things to know about a big new study, Chalkbeat

A NY City Council bill could make public the algorithms that affect the public

An innovative–and some would say, long overdue, bill has been introduced in the City Council by Bronx Councilmember Vacca.

This would make the algorithm that the city uses to sort students for high school would be made transparent.

Showing the Algorithms Behind New York City Services, NY Times

A “historic” literacy effort in Napa Valley may be less about iPads and “engagement” and more about carefully sequenced, structured learning

the74 breathlessly reports on a digital early learning initiative in California wine-making country, but I’m not sure the lessons promoted therein should be taken at face value.

“The first message is, digital works,” Nemko [the Superintendent and promoter of this effort] says. “Digital is engaging, and the one thing we know is that student engagement is the biggest measure of achievement. If you are engaged more — and this has a breadth and depth because of all the additional games and letter recognition — you are going to learn more.”

But that’s not the message I receive when I read this article. What I see is what happens when a concerted effort is made to provide a systematic and structured effort to address literacy development in young learners. I’m sure all the bells and whistles of an iPad are lovely. But adding animations and interactivity to a text alone are not what promotes literacy growth. What I view as the most powerful levers here are that the initiative is getting parents involved, and they are structuring vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension activities around a core body of texts.

So kudos is certainly due to the efforts being made, in public-private partnerships, to promote the literacy development of Napa Valley children. But let’s not turn this into another mistaken boosterist heralding of iPads and personalized digital learning.

A Historic Literacy Effort in California Brings Personalized Learning to English Language Learners, the74

On Threshold Concepts and Experiences

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In a recent post, “On Knowledge and Curriculum,” we reviewed a few disruptive ideas from cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, with the most incendiary implication being:

a school needs to come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain and carefully sequence and reinforce those concepts across classrooms and grades.

So how can a school embark upon this quest? In this post, I will attempt to provide some guiding ideas and protocols for this work.

How Do We Reinforce Knowledge?

First off, a few guiding documents to equip you with the cognitive principles of affirmative testing, which are essential to reinforcing knowledge over time:

—Annie Murphy Paul, “Affirmative Testing” (she has designed an entire e-course around these concepts!)

—Deans for Impact, “The Science of Learning

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How Do We Determine the Knowledge that is ESSENTIAL?

Folks are going to disagree about this, including the “experts,” so ultimately, this determination should be made collaboratively within a school (and beyond). The key is that the school comes to a consensus on this essential knowledge, then teachers carefully sequence it across the curriculum and quiz it repeatedly in a low stakes manner.

There’s a useful frame, known as threshold concepts, for drilling down to this “essential knowledge” within a specific academic domain. Threshold concepts come out of higher ed academia, and it’s admittedly a bit esoteric in the literature, but I think it’s a useful lens with practical implications. Threshold concepts are very much related to Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas,” but with a few interesting twists.

I first stumbled over the threshold of these concepts in blogs from UK educators, to whom I’m indebted for starting me on this journey:

—Alex Quigley, “Designing a New Curriculum: What are your ‘Big Ideas?’

—Joe Kirby, “One scientific insight for curriculum design” (he also sums up research on affirmative testing really well here)

What we’re really trying to get here is that 20% of the knowledge that is most essential to understanding an academic domain in a specific grade. Here’s a frame for this:

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How can threshold concepts help us to determine that 20% of essential knowledge within a specific academic domain? I decided to review some of the literature for further clues:

—Ray Land, Jan Meyer, and Jan Smith,”Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines” (Land and Meyer are the rockstars who originated the concept)

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—James Rhem, “Before and after students “get it”: threshold concepts” (a useful overview)

This idea of a transformation of understanding that is essential for progressing deeper into the academic content is really interesting.

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—James Atherton, “How do people ‘get it’?” (another useful overview)

There are many other characteristics that were identified, but they don’t all seem very useful in a practical sense for K-12. I think the three outlined above are the most relevant and applicable.

—Tracy Fortune, Priscilla Ennals, and Mary Kennedy-Jones, “The Hero’s Journey: Uncovering Threshold Barriers, Dispositions, and Practices Among Occupational Therapy Students

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I love this idea of viewing a student’s passage through a threshold concept as akin to a hero’s journey. In considering this journey, what are the troublesome obstacles and bottlenecks that student will face? The idea of “bottlenecks” comes thanks for the link immediately below. In thinking through this, I also think we need to acknowledge that bottlenecks may not be purely conceptual — they can also be procedural, in the form of skills required to complete academic tasks, as well as social-emotional (this can be a tremendous and often unaddressed barrier for many kids).

In this sense, then, we can expand the notion of crossing a threshold to not solely refer to concepts, but furthermore experiences. As educators, we seek to design experiences in which students engage in an academic form of a hero’s journey, learning to overcome barriers and gain the intellectual accomplishment of mastering skills and knowledge.

—Joan Middendorf & David Pace, “Decoding the Disciplines: A Model for Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking” (they offer a useful protocol that I’ve drawn from below)

OK, So How Do We Discover These Threshold Concepts and Experiences?

But we still need some kind of process for distilling away all the cruft and getting down that 20% of the most essential knowledge within a content and grade.

Here in the US, we have a general list of skills we use as guidance in the form of state standards. And as I’ve done with the Common Core standards, we can do a deeper analysis to begin unpacking what that knowledge might be.

But this can still be at a pretty abstract level, and we want this to be relevant to classroom teaching. By focusing on the topics and texts that will be studied, we can make this more concrete.

Because English Language Arts is my specific area of expertise, I’ve focused my efforts in this area, especially since this content area is probably the most difficult to pin down in terms of a progression of knowledge.

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There’s two ways we could utilize this protocol: 1) unit of study, or 2) over the entire school year.

1) Consider the topics and/or texts that will be taught.

2) What will be the product or products that students will be expected to create that can demonstrate their mastery of learning? (This product could also be a performance).

3) What are the primary modalities that this product is focused upon? In literacy, of course we’re focused on all modalities, but it helps for a department to focus upon the one they consider most essential.

4) Now consider the standards that your district adheres to. For the Common Core, they are helpfully broken up by modality, so turn to that modality. Then, narrow down which specific, few standards you will primarily be targeting.

5) What are the bottlenecks, most especially those that are conceptual and specific to this content, that students will encounter?

6) Evaluate the list of items you have generated. Do they fit the criteria of a threshold concept or experience? Are they transformative, integrative, and troublesome? If not, they may not be essential.

7) You don’t have to do this, but I find that at this step it can be useful to phrase the threshold concept in the form of a message or lesson, akin to a theme statement.

For example, for an upcoming professional learning session I’m working on about supporting struggling middle school readers, I’ve identified the following threshold concepts:

  • Students that struggle with reading comprehension also often struggle with a lack of academic and world knowledge. An English Language Learner can also be understood as native English speakers that do not understand the language of math, science, social studies – i.e. academic, formal, domain specific language.
  • A teacher must work through a task/text in order to identify key takeaways, key vocabulary, and potential barriers to learning, regardless of whether a curriculum is provided.
  • All learners can be engaged in reading and comprehending complex academic texts through well-designed activities, tasks, and resources.
  • An environment in which a student feels safe to take risks in front of peers is a prerequisite for learning — most especially for struggling readers.
  • Learners should be explicitly equipped with strategies and mindsets for when they encounter challenging vocabulary on their own.

It’s important to note that threshold concepts will vary completely depending on any teacher’s specific set of knowledge, perspectives, and interest, and I think that’s OK. What’s most important is that once these most essential concepts and experiences have been identified and voiced, they will not only help to focus that teacher’s instruction on what they feel is most important, they will serve as a basis for arriving at a consensus as a department and as a school.

Here’s a few really basic examples at a unit level of study:

Now that threshold concepts and experiences have been identified, here’s the really hard part:

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This is where the rubber hits the road. This is the part that is so very contrary and disruptive to the norms of public education.

 

I hope some of these resources in this post are useful to your work. The slides outlined above and the protocol are accessible and downloadable here: