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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Let Students Read Independently - Part Two: My Response To Tim Shanahan's Rebuttal


         What's more controversial than the race for president these days?  Get a group of reading teachers together and you just might be surprised to learn that it's the topic of independent reading. If you have been following my blog, you know that recently I wrote an open letter to educational leader Tim Shanahan who had called a teacher "ineffective" in his recent post due to her desire to foster a love of reading via independent reading time.  His original letter where he argues that research does not support this practice can be found here and my response to his post where I argue that research (both quantitative and qualitative) does support independent reading can be found here.  Recently, Shanahan decided to respond to my open letter on his own blog
          Both blogs sparked quite an uproar on social media websites with passionate educators and literacy authors on both pedagogical sides engaged in thoughtful discussions about whether independent reading should stay or go.  Are we surprised?  I would argue that a large portion of reading teachers became teachers because they both love students and possess a solid passion for reading.  It only makes sense that we would want to ignite that same fire for the written word in all of our students, not just the ones that already come with the spark lit.  Passionate arguments and even disagreements about independent reading occur because we all, hopefully, have the same goal even when we disagree with how to get there:  to increase the literacy skills of our students so that they can become informed readers who not only enjoy reading but enter the world prepared to read and think with a critical eye. 
          After reading Shanahan's response , where I feel some of my ideas and arguments were misinterpreted, I debated about whether or not I should respond again.  Then, as I was  bombarded by emails and comments about my response, I considered the teacher who may only read his one blog post and felt obligated to respond and further clarify my original intent. Since we live in and breathe the Common Core these days, I've decided to utilize a few of the 8th grade informational text learning standards while analyzing the effectiveness of Shanahan's rebuttal.


Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.

How does Shanahan's argument stacks up against 8th grade Common Core Standard 6?

       Shanahan is successful in relaying his purpose.  His purpose is clear.  His agenda is to stop educators from providing time for students to read independently in schools, a practice he purports to be wasteful.  
       Unfortunately, Common Core Standard 6 requires authors to "acknowledge and respond to conflicting viewpoints." Shanahan does not fully address conflicting evidence.  He claims that research does not support independent reading and that "studies in which DEAR time is provided to some kids but not to others have not found much payoff—even when the non-readers were doing no more than random worksheets."    He neglects to address the large body of research that suggests otherwise.  In a recent blog post, Stephen Krashen (Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California and author of over 250 articles and books on literacy and bilingual education) refutes several key points in Shanahan's original blog post with cited research studies.  Krashen's blog -- which can be read in its entirety here -- refutes Shanahan's claim that SSR does not benefit students by providing the results of a meta-analyses of several studies suggesting that, in fact, independent reading does achieve substantial results for students. He discusses studies that found students made substantial gains on the PIRLS after moving from no independent reading time to an almost daily practice.  
        In addition to the studies suggested by Krashen, other research supports the practice of independent reading.  The Research Journal of the American Association of School Librarians, for example, cites a research study by Ozburn (1995) that found an at-risk group of high school freshman who participated in sustained silent reading along with best practices to earn an average of 3.9 years growth on reading achievement scores. More studies like this one do, in fact, exist.
       Furthermore, in his blog response to my open letter,  Shanahan chooses to disregard the qualitative data I provide, the detailed stories of at-risk students who found their love of reading after being given time to read independently in school.  Because, really, how can you argue with stories of individual success?  
        By failing to present and refute the conflicting body of research presented by Krashen and others, Shanahan's argument falls short in mastering this Common Core standard. I would hope my eighth graders would come to the conclusion that disregarding significant pieces of opposing evidence makes his argument weaker. 
       Since the appearance of my first blog, I've had countless teachers  across the country share similar stories about students who have changed their minds about reading when given time to read quality titles independently. As I said in my first letter, not everything important can be measured by a pen and pencil test.
        The truth is that in education, where a number of variables outside of our control exist, research can be found to support and disprove almost any practice.   What we can't do is vehemently deny the other half of the research exists to suit our needs.  While some would like to believe that teaching is a pure science, I would argue that it is a delicate balance of science (using data and research to drive instructional practices) and art (building relationships with students --ie Hattie's research on visible learning-- while using creativity and passion to deliver lessons rooted in best practice).  

I've heard teachers argue that independent reading is wasted time -- a time for teachers to sit behind their desks and grade papers while students stare at the ceiling and daydream.  In this case, I would agree that the practice is ineffective.  Unless any practice is followed with fidelity and delivered in a well orchestrated and engaging way for students, we may  dismiss practice instead of choosing to reflect on the causes behind its failed success.

Common Core Target:

Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced.

How does Shanahan's argument stacks up against 8th grade Common Core target 8?

 In Common Core Standard 8, students are expected to examine claims made by authors and analyze whether or not they've provided logical reasoning and sufficient evidence to support their claims.   In his response to my argument that independent reading practices lead to students who become life long readers (an idea supported by the research of Pilgreen and Krashen, 1993 as and Greaney and Clarke, 1975 as cited by Krashen), Shanahan writes that "if this practice so powerfully fosters 'a love of reading' among kids that lasts a lifetime, then why aren’t years of it lasting even until kids are 12?"   He seems to suggest here that if students independently read in middle grades, then that should be sufficient to continue their independent reading practices for the remainder of their lives without any kind of support of such practices by future teachers.  This argument falls short in the logic department required of this Common Core Standard.
      Let's say I have an elementary student who struggles with organization.  I may work with him to develop a system of organizing his locker in fifth grade and even check in with him every few weeks to see how his organizational progress is going.  Should I assume, then, that he will have a spotless locker for the remainder of his school career because I've spent time in elementary school developing this practice? Maintaining any practice -- reading including --  especially with students who are not intrinsically motivated by nature to read -- requires ongoing support and dedication by adult role models as well as peers.
Furthermore, to understand why students still need to be given choice of reading materials and the time to read them as they age, we need to consider the developing middle school brains.  Research by James Bjork as discussed by Emma S. McDonald in her article "A Quick Look Into the Middle School Brain" reveals that normal brain development leads teens to "seek activities and behaviors that either lead to a high level of excitement or require very little effort."  By giving students time to read in class, we are making pleasure reading an activity that requires "very little effort" on the part of the students. Once a student is immersed in a good book, he is much more likely on his own to take that book home and continue the story. How do I know this?  As recent as 2014, Scholastic coupled with YouGov conducted research by surveying a national sample of students and parents on their beliefs and practices on pleasure reading.  One of the findings from the study was that "factors that predict children ages 12–17 will be frequent readers include reading a book of choice independently in school, reading experiences, a large home library, having been told their reading level and having parents involved in their reading habits."  Although educators can't necessarily control the reading habits of parents or the size of students' home libraries, one thing we can control is providing students time to read in school.  Why wouldn't we want to give it a go?
       Shanahan is right that different students are motivated by different things.  Kelly Gallagher wrote an entire book about this called Reading Reasons.   The research of Gay Ivey has suggested over and over again, however, that student choice of reading materials is pivotal if we wish to motivate our students.  And again, as I noted in my first post, Dwek's research reminds us that motivation leads to engagement which translates into increased learning gains.  Many of us have experience with students who love to read during class but can't seem to find the time in their overly scheduled lives to read on their own. Other students, who are more intrinsically motivated by nature and may find the time to read outside of school even if they are not provided time in class, still need to be exposed to book-talks and exposure to quality titles that they may not know exist.  Different strokes for different folks.  Independent reading gives students power over their learning in a way many teacher-structured activities cannot.   

Common Core Target:

Craft and Structure:

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.

How does Shanahan's argument stacks up against 8th grade Common Core target 4?

         The second half of this Common Core Target requires students to take specific words and phrases and analyze how they impact the tone of the piece, thus ultimately affecting the meaning.  Shanahan refers to a specific word that I used in my letter to him, "visceral" and says, "I’d rather that teachers reacted intellectually rather than 'viscerally' to questions about instructional practices."  Here he is misconstruing my use of this word.  

       As a literacy coach in a middle school that has worked hard to earn its second National Blue Ribbon Award this year, I come from an environment where we live and breathe data to drive our instructional practices. Due to our implementation of best practices (included but certainly not limited to independent reading), eighty-five percent of our 8th grade students met or exceeded standards on the PARCC exam in 2015, the first year students were exposed to the new Common Core driven assessment. In fact, nearly one out of every three eighth grade students actually exceeded standards on this already rigorous exam. In my world, researched practices are held with the utmost regard, and I don't believe we'd see students surpassing the high levels of learning they do each day without utilization of best practices. I would never advocate for an instructional practice simply because I had a passion for it.

       My original comment, taken out of context, was that "Although I usually value his opinions and have referenced him several times on my blog, I had a strong, visceral response to his latest piece."  This statement suggests that I responded with deep-seeded emotion to the message he was sending educators about the value of independent reading and not that I was going to make my decisions on instruction based on emotion alone as Shanahan implies.  One need only to read my earlier explanations regarding the research supporting independent reading to see that although I feel strongly about fostering a love of reading in students, both quantitative and qualitative research exists to support the practice.

Additionally,  Shanahan analyzes the impact of tone in my own argument when he writes in his rebuttal that "There are many statements here evidently aimed at conveying the idea that I’m rude, that I don’t care about kids, and that I pay attention to numbers rather than stories. "   I think he unfairly misses the mark on this one. No text evidence (CCSS Standard 1) exists in my open letter that would allow a reader to infer that I do not think he cares about students. I would like to think that we can engage in thoughtful discourse with those who disagree with us without getting personal.  I said in my first post that I have the utmost respect for Mr. Shanahan and have used his arguments and ideas often in my own blog and in my professional development with teachers.  I stand by this sentiment and just wish he would reconsider his unwaveringly rigid stance on independent reading as he reaches a wide audience.  And to quote Spiderman's Uncle Ben, "With great power, comes great responsibility."

Finally, if I were to ask my students to analyze the tone of Shanahan's original post to the teacher inquiring about independent reading practices, I would expect them to pull out specific words and phrases as the Common Core Standard Four demands to determine the implied tone in the piece.  Students would most likely find that even the very first line of Shanahan's piece  "I think you sound like a nice teacher, but perhaps an ineffective one" already begins to develop his tone. Suggesting that a teacher is "ineffective" is a bold statement to make especially with conflicting evidence in regards to independent reading.  As Shanahan moves through his claim, he continues to use a condescending tone by using phrases like "If you don’t want kids to love reading, then sacrifice their instructional time to focus on motivation rather than learning" and "use reading to isolate kids."  Words like "isolate" and "sacrifice" have negative connotations and suggest that teachers choosing to independent reading are willingly damaging their students.  Shanahan concludes his piece by saying, "I hope you care so much that you’ll be willing to alter your methods to actually meet your very appropriate goals for them."  The use of the word "actually" in this sentence further develops a tone that one could argue is lofty, at least. I guess my visceral reaction to his first blog came from the message he was relaying (Common Core Standards 1-3) as well as the manner in which it was delivered (Common Core Standards 4-6).  My attempt to mimic his tone in my open letter response was not well received, but revealed an important point: I believe Mr. Shanahan experienced a visceral response.

I leave Mr. Shanahan with one important question:  If you do not advocate for independent reading in classrooms, what practices do you suggest to instill a love of reading in students? How, specifically, do we ensure that our students read for pleasure daily in a world full of distractions and commitments?

 I'm reminded every day as I watch the presidential election draw nearer that it is much easier to shoot down the opposition than it is to reveal a practical solution to the problem.  As a nation, I hope we continue to listen to all sides of an argument with open ears instead of simply waiting our turn to prove ourselves right.   I know that I've learned a lot myself during this dialogue as it has forced me to research more than I would have and ultimately conclude that more research supports the practice of independent reading than I had even originally thought. 

 And I have you, Mr. Shanahan, to thank for it.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

My Letter To Tim Shanahan: In Defense of Independent Reading

Recently, I read the latest blog post by Tim Shanahan where he provides his strong opinions how giving students time to independently read in class is wasteful.  Although I usually value his opinions and have referenced him several times on my blog, I had a strong, visceral response to his latest piece (which can be referenced here). I felt compelled to stand up for the inclusion of independent reading time during the school day.  Thus, I crafted this letter.  I'm hoping he reads it.  

But, more importantly, I'm hoping that teachers who wish to instill lifelong reading habits in their students do not stop with Mr. Shanahan's advice and consider my perspective and the perspective of others on this important topic.

Dear Mr. Shanahan,

I think you sound like an impolite blogger, and perhaps a misinformed one.  
You've neglected to consider the following important points in your discussion of the value of independent reading.

You claim that time spent independent reading is wasted due to the fact that "even when they have been done well, the "learning payoffs" have been small.  By "learning payoffs," I am assuming that you mean students' progress on standardized exams (typically the way reading growth is measured in research studies) does not increase with the inclusion of independent reading time in schools. 

Some major problems exists with this claim.

Increased reading does lead to increased achievement.

  Research does support the idea that students who typically achieve higher on reading tests are also those who read more voraciously.  Those who score at the lower end usually read less.  Since research also shows that the amount of time middle school students typically spend reading outside of class declines as they grow older, finding time for students to practice reading independently in schools is crucial.  If we do not attempt to foster a love of reading inside the classroom, how will we help students who have not yet discovered the joy of reading on their own increase their reading minutes?  

      For many students, teachers are their only adult role models who read.  As educators, we cannot control anything that happens outside of the school day, but  we can control what happens during it. Your suggestion to "encourage them to build reading into their daily life when away from school" seems an implausible goal.  Giving all students access to quality texts and time to read them while you are with them is the right thing to do.    

       You mention that summer reading programs are also ineffective. I can see how they could be ineffective if teachers do not take the time to instill lifelong reading habits in their students during the academic year.  Why would students read during the summer months when they are not encouraged to read on a regular basis for most of the calendar year?  As teachers, we have nine months to build the momentum inside our classrooms so that the enthusiasm can spill over into the summer months. Building enthusiasm for reading looks and feels a lot different than "requiring" students to read -- one of your arguments for why independent reading can fail.

       This year in our school district, instead of requiring each grade level to read a specific title, we made our summer reading program more open-ended. We provided book suggestions but also allowed students to veer off this list and read what they wanted to read.  We book-talked several different titles and tried to motivate kids to "Read Harder," mimicking the adult challenge placed by Book Riot.  Assignments were not attached to this reading.  Students pledged to read a certain amount of books -- more than they would typically read in the summer months.    
6th Grade Summer Reading Survey

I'm not sure what you consider success to be with a summer reading program, but a portion of the survey results of one of our grade levels is detailed above.  As you can see, one out of three students in sixth grade reported reading more than they normally do each summer.  Many students read multiple titles of their own choosing.  Most importantly, less than one percent of our students reported having read nothing over the summer moths. I would consider this a success.     Perhaps even more telling were the comments from students about their summer reading. Overall, students were thrilled to have the freedom to choose their own books and reported that they read some books that were recommended (but not required) they normally wouldn't have read.  

Motivation and Learning Go Hand in Hand

           I'm sure you are aware that much research exists linking student engagement (i.e. motivation) to increases in learning.  Thus, spending time on increasing student motivation should, in fact, lead to increases in achievement.  You advise teachers that " If you don’t want kids to love reading, then sacrifice their instructional time to focus on motivation rather than learning."  This argument, although cleverly disguised, is a type we would use with students when poking holes in an argument and is a type of logical fallacy.  Your argument seems to suggest that teachers can focus either on motivation or on learning.  Can we not focus on both?  If I can focus on fluency and comprehension in the same class period, surely I can find the time to increase motivation and skills as well.
     Have we forgotten that we are teaching students and not robots? So much research exists about how reading literature can increase a students' ability to feel empathy toward others, for example.  When we are motivating students to read, we are increasing their social emotional skills and focusing on the whole child.   Too many times I've seen the pendulum swing in education from one extreme position to the other when really the middle road is the most logical approach. 

Just Because Reading Motivation Is Difficult To Measure Does Not Mean It Doesn't Matter

        You claim that the motivational impact of independent reading has been "studied less" and with "less payoff."  Since motivation is a key reason for including independent reading in a school day, the fact that it has been studied less should be a huge red flag in what researchers deem as important.  Let's be honest.  It's probably been studied less, because motivation cannot be measured with a paper and pencil test.  We can't stick a thermometer in a child's mouth and gauge whether he is more or less motivated to read.  We are less concerned with developing life long readers and more concerned with creating strong test takers.
       As classroom teachers, when we spend time instilling a love of reading in our students, we are flooded with qualitative data that is arguably more powerful when it comes to analyzing student engagement.  We might not be able to display our evidence on a pretty graph, but our data provides powerful stories about individual children and their immediate reactions to the books they read.  We witness first hand how reading for pleasure has the power to change lives.

 I will share with you just a few pieces of this powerful data that I vehemently believe outweighs any effect size that you could ever measure with a fancy math algorithm.  I'm sure every teacher has his/her own stories to add to this list.

  • I have witnessed an eighth grade at-risk student who admitted to having never finished a book from beginning to end take a book with her after independent reading time and carry it to each class that day, hiding the book behind her textbooks because she was so engrossed in the story.  And the next day, when that same student who 'hated reading' came running into my classroom with fire in her eyes to tell me she'd finished the book and needed a second recommendation, I considered independent reading a success.
  • I have witnessed struggling readers groan and complain when independent reading time is over, asking for a few more minutes.  You claim that your experience has found that good readers enjoy independent reading time while  "the other kids don't enjoy it much since they don’t read very well" worries me. Is perhaps the self fulfilling prophecy at work here?  Often, when teachers struggle with the delivery of a lesson or do not buy into a philosophy behind an activity themselves, they struggle to elicit buy-in from students as well.  I encourage you to read the research behind Carol Dwek's growth mindset to analyze where your delivery might have fallen short.  Student success is often tied closely to a teacher's belief in them.  If teachers believe independent reading time is only for good readers and that "the other kids don't enjoy it much since they don’t read very well," then of course students who struggle will "fake read" as Cris Tovani has coined it.  But if we instead find clever and creative ways to drum up excitement about independent reading and believe that all students can become life long readers, then all students (even the "other kids" you refer to) will over time develop a love of reading.  
  • In reading intervention, I once had a group of struggling readers get so excited to read the Hunger Games after we had modeled a strategy with the first chapter that they begged me to give them the last ten minutes of class time to read the next chapter independently.  I would love to say that these same students rushed home that evening like the girl in my last example and finished the Hunger Games on their own.  But they didn't.  Life got in the way, and as I mentioned earlier, I can only control the time I have with them. These students did, however, come in the next day begging to read more of the novel.  It wasn't a part of the lesson plan, but I can tell you that I made sure that I fit it in that day in hopes that at some point, a day would come when they would find time to bring home those books and do some reading on their own time.  
  • I have witnessed first-hand students swarm the learning center after school in hopes of arriving before their peers to check out books that have just been book-talked by their teachers.  You might argue that many of these students are already readers.  Perhaps you are right.  But if even one student is a non-reader who has suddenly been inspired to read for the first time,  the time was well spent.

As Kelly Gallagher reminds us, scarier than a world of illiterates, is a world of aliterates.

Not everything can be measured quantitatively.

Teachers:  Please feel free to share your own stories of independent reading success from your own experience.  Thank you for all you do to encourage a love of lifelong reading.  Keep it up!