Friday, December 21, 2012

A decade of lost action in reading: Let's get some balance!

The Weekend Australian's front page article A Decade of lost action on literacy reports on Australia's poor performance in a recent international reading test. According to the PIRLS results 25 per cent of year 4 children in Australia failed to meet the standard in reading for their age.

The paper version of the Australian has a cartoon placed at the beginning of the article. The picture shows a female teacher with an annoyed look on her face and assuming an aggressive pose. Her fists on her hips while standing over a sheepish looking boy sitting at his desk. In the middle ground there is an adult male and female looking through the classroom door.

The female figure says, "Is the kid a slow learner?"

The other observer then replies, "No but the teacher is."

The first comment is designed to blame the child by giving him the label - 'slow learner'. The second comment blames the teacher.

What is even more interesting is that the electronic version of the article (see the link above) completely leaves out this very derogatory cartoon. Quite possibly, it may have been a copyright issue or maybe the editor realised that it was demeaning to a mainly dedicated and self-sacrificing group of people.

What did the newspaper replace the cartoon with?

Now this is worth a thoughtful look. The photo shows a teacher  in the foreground with his back to the viewer and facing a large group of students sitting in regimental rows of single desks with heads bent over their work. Presumably this is a test situation but the question is, "Why did they choose this particular photo to go with the article?"

The second attempt to blame the victim employs another label - "Whole Language". The implication being that the drop in our reading results is because teachers have been using a 'whole language' approach.  Whole language was a term that became popular about three to four decades ago but few Australian teachers embraced this as their only approach to the teaching of reading. Can you even find a single teacher still using a whole language only approach today? How long will they keep using this label as an excuse? If you did a word frequency count of all articles in Australian professional journals over the last 15 years you would most likely find that the term 'phonics' or 'phonics instruction' has a high count while the term "Whole Language" is hardly ever mentioned.

Even though the teaching of phonics is essential it is not sufficient for reading progress through school. Phonics teaching by itself is a very simplistic response to a very complex learning process. There is more to reading than what you see. An emphasis on phonic instruction as the panacea for all reading difficulties can lead to a situation whereby children can word call with little or no comprehension. This  debate continues in the United States where similar arguments are often used. Some eminent researchers in the US claim that some phonics only approaches are driven by vested commercial interests. Obviously it is very simple to market a phonic teaching package rather than invest in ongoing training of teachers in effectively teaching the reading process. Recognised research reports advocate for a balanced approach to reading instruction, this includes the US National Reading Panel, Australia's Nelson Report and prominent researchers such as the late Michael Pressley.

Low scores for reading in year 4 support the notion of a well recognised year 4 slump. This is not only a problem in Australia but can be seen in other English speaking countries including the US and England (see my Book). This is a complex problem  - many children, who appear to read well in the lower primary or elementary grades begin to exhibit difficulties in reading around this year 4 period.  At this stage the language in books becomes much more complex with less illustrations to assist comprehension. In the lower grades books are often levelled to match children's individual reading ages and many children tend not to acquire new and challenging words. During the year 4 stage more complex non-fiction genres are introduced and children are expected to read to comprehend. This requires the explicit teaching of reading comprehension skills with practice over an extended period of time. Reading problems begin to manifest in year 4, particularly in schools where little emphasis is placed on comprehension in the lower grades.

The situation is that if education systems continue to place more emphasis on word level skills and neglect training teachers to implement a balanced approach that includes reading comprehension, they will face a very slippery decline in reading performance.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Visualization and Comprehension Pt 10

This is the final post in this series of blogs so I thought that I should direct fellow bloggers to three very good resources related to visualization and reading comprehension.

The first site 'TeacherVision' shows you how to begin a series of visualisation lessons .

The second site 'Readwritethink' (the International Reading Association's blog) has a good beginning visualizing lesson plan to start the ball rolling.

The third site is the Lindamood-Bell 18th International conference, 'Imagine Learning' (see the picture below).

I have been invited as a guest Research Presenter and I've chosen to call my presentation 'Tale of Three Cities' tracing my research across three Australian cities. This will be a brief outline spanning twenty-years of exploration and discovery. It centres around Dual Coding theory and the teaching of visual and verbal thinking processes to enhance reading comprehension, particularly for children who struggle in this aspect of their learning. It begins on the Gold Coast (the Surf City), continues in Canberra (the City of the Lake) and finishes in Brisbane (the River City).

The underlying theme of this research journey will be how I have endeavoured to link visulaization (Australians use 'visualisation') at the local level or sentence level with the larger global level comprehension of text discourse.

Hope to see you there!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Visualization and Comprehension Pt 9

Oral  vocabulary is one of the most important contributors to children's reading, academic development, and progress through school. It is a significant indicator of success at school. However, it has been estimated that the size off children's receptive flexibility can vary quite considerably. Children with poorer vocabularies may have as many as 4000 fewer words in their mental lexicon than children starting school from homes where parents regularly interact with their children and provide rich language experiences. As a result, children entering school with larger vocabularies tend to have less problems with reading, read more, and learn more new vocabulary through their extensive reading experiences. In contrast, children who have poorer vocabularies tend to have more difficulty learning to read, read less, and fall behind their more successful classmates in acquiring new words.

Produced using 'Wordle'

At school good readers learn a vast amount of new vocabulary incidentally as they read. They are able to use the context to help them decipher new meanings for new words and add them to their mental lexicons as they read. However, many children struggle with reading and this word learning process becomes quite difficult for them. In response to this, it is necessary for some direct teaching of  vocabulary in the classroom.

I have been working on an article for a professional journal about teaching vocabulary in the classroom.     While doing this I came across an article  by Mark Sadoski called "A dual coding view of vocabulary learning" (see below). This was very timely as it gave some insights on how 'Dual Coding' theory can contribute to the teaching of vocabulary (as well as fitting neatly into this blog series).

According to Sadoski, words are verbal labels for concepts, their meanings and even pronunciations  are determined by their connections to a variety of other words. However some words are easier to learn than others. For example, words like 'sofa', are more concrete and are generally easier to imagine than words that those that are more abstract,  such as the word 'justice'. This notion supports dual coding theory because it demonstrates that people use different coding systems to encode the words. Concrete words tend to be associated with imagery while abstract words depend primarily on the web of verbal associations for their meaning.

One particularly effective direct teaching method for learning new vocabulary is called the keyword method. This requires learners to form an interactive mental image of the definition of the new word together with a familiar concrete word that shares a similar acoustic element. In the article Sadoski uses the example of the word 'potable', which means suitable for drinking. 'Pot' is the keyword that forms part of a word potable and can be visualised as the pot containing water.  Thus, visual and  acoustic  word associations are linked to word symbols, meanings and context. Word roots, suffixes and prefixes can also used in conjunction with the key word method to enhance this learning experience.

Sadoski, M. (2005). A dual coding view of vocabulary learning. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 21, 221-238.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Reading: Stepping Forward, Stepping Into, Stepping Back

Article review
Recently I read a research article on reading by Dinsmore and Alexander (2012) in which they reviewed the research on how readers process text while reading. They found that most researchers generally agreed that reading is a thinking activity that takes place on two different levels simultaneously. They proposed that when good readers read they engage with the text at a surface-level and also at a deep-level of processing.

On reflection
On reflection, these two processes are important for effective reading comprehension to take place. However, reading involves more than decoding and interpreting a written message, it also involves an analysis of the reading process itself and how the message will impact the reader's view of the world.    What I am proposing is that there are not two but three levels of processing during reading: a stepping forward, a stepping into, and a stepping back.

At the surface-level readers decode the surface or physical features of the text itself. They generally do this by focusing on the written message by identifying letters, clusters of letters, words, and clusters of words in order to follow the text discourse. As they do this they often sub-vocalise or speak the written words in their heads. I refer to this process as a stepping forward. In stepping forward the reader must process larger amounts of text in order to decode the message more efficiently because working memory has a limited capacity and too many small bits of information can stifle this stepping forward process. Thus, for reading to progress well the reader must touch as fewer bases as possible by sampling some of the surface features of the text and filling in the missing details from their long-term memory. This recognition process eliminates redundancy and ignores the non essential information that would clutter their working-memory. The surface information is processed not as verbatim strings of letters and words or word-for-word but as small chunks of meaning called propositions. Many children step forward with their reading but many do not go any deeper than merely decoding the surface features of the text.

The stepping into of text processing operates when readers enter a deep-level of processing. This is the mental space where information is transacted and transformed. For example, the propositions made during the stepping forward are transformed by the reader's ability to develop inferences while reading. Usually inferences are formed when readers link ideas from one part of the text to another or by creating bridging inferences by combining existing information from the reader's own background knowledge to fill in the gaps. This mental activity is often required because texts would be too long and copious if all the information were to be supplied. Therefore, authors naturally expect that readers will draw from their own world experience. This is a type of two way constructive mental process that seeks to build a situation model of what the reader is comprehending during reading.

Stepping back is a third level of processing but is not often included in discussions about levels of processing. However, this is possibly the most important element of information processing. The term stepping back implies that readers step back, or change their perspective from a focus on the surface features and on the meaning of the text to one of examining the reader's own thinking processes before, during, and after reading. In other words, it is like having a bird's eye view of the reading terrain. Readers do this by; setting goals for the reading, monitoring their reading, and then reflecting on their reading performance and reading goals. This stepping back also affects the readers' ideas, opinions, and responses. It may also affect the readers' self-efficacy and their self-perception as a reader (see next blog series).

Mother and son using the 10 Principles for Assisting Reading.

What does this mean for the reader?
  1. Obviously unless you can step forward it is not possible to step into or to step back. The reader must be able to negotiate the surface features of the text. In my first series of blogs (10 Principles for Assisting Reading) I describe how to assist novice or reluctant readers. In another 10 part series I discuss fluency, another important aspect of stepping forward.
  2. Stepping into involves  using working memory more efficiently, as discussed in my 10 part series on working memory. The next series, Visualizing and Reading Comprehension, discusses the use of visualization techniques as way to bring together many aspects of stepping into reading.
  3. Some basic aspects of stepping back were also discussed in the working memory series. For example, goal setting, monitoring, and reflection were stepping-back skills (more ideas in the next 10 part series on metacognition). 

Dinsmore, D., & Alexander, P. A. (2012).  A critical discussion of deep and surface processing: What it means, how is measured, the role of context, and model specification. Educational Psychology Review, 24, 499-567.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book Review - Thinking Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman 

This was an interesting and thought provoking book. I must admit that I was more interested in part 1 (pages 1 to 105) because it gave me some fresh insights into human cognition and memory. The author simply divides thinking into two systems: system 1 - thinking processes that are automatic, and system 2 - thinking that involves conscious effort. To show the difference between the two systems I will use an illustration from the book.

“Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book ‘The Invisible Gorilla. They constructed a short film of two teams passing basketballs, one team wearing white shirts, the other wearing black. The viewers of the film are instructed to count the number of passes made by the white team, ignoring the black players. This task is difficult and completely absorbing. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a gorilla suit appears, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and moves on. The gorilla is in view for 9 seconds. Many thousands of people have seen the video, and about half of them do not notice anything unusual. It is the counting task – and especially the instruction to ignor one of the teams – that causes the blindness. No one who watches the video without that task would miss the gorilla.”

The people who are not given the counting task operated using system 1 and tended to see the gorilla because they were not focused on particular details but attended to the more general information. They noticed the unexpected because of its novelty impact. On the other hand those given the counting task used system 2 and focused all their attention on the counting task, they tended to use conscious attention and this meant that they actively ignored other extraneous information. In order to achieve their goal they attended to some things but were bind to others. 

What struck me as being important was that I related this idea to the task of reading - if readers are using conscious attention to decode print then they will miss out on the broader thematic or global ideas that hold a story together. In other words if you attend to the details such as letter by letter or word by word decoding it will overload working memory and other information will tend to be ignored. This also has challenged my thinking about having children set personal reading goals before they read. In other words, if the reading goal is too specific it may narrow the reading focus and some other story information will be ignored.  Alternatively, if the reading goals are made too general then some finer details will be missed. The balance might depend on the purpose for the reading.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Visualization and Reading Comprehension Pt 7

Visualizing strategies can be used by readers at three strategic phases of story reading.

When used at the before reading phase it can activate background knowledge and enable the reader to predict and select a schema or knowledge framework to provide a flexible structure on which to scaffold their imagination as the story events unfold. 

The during reading phase should be characterised by an active imagination that creates images from a combination of the reader's past experiences and the new story ideas. Good readers will often visualise the story as if it was a movie. This visualising activity helps the reader organise and make sense of the text information while, at the same time, enables their working memory to function more efficiently. 

The after reading phase is a  re-organization phase that helps children re-imagine and re-create according to their own view of their world.  Trevor Cairney's blog, 'Literacy,  families and learning' recently had an excellent post that is quite relevant to this third phase. 
He says, "Imaginative recreation is an essential part of learning, probably even life. It sits alongside 'story' as an essential way to relive or enrich narrative experiences. Story in its own right is critical to learning, communication and well-being. Imaginative recreation is one of its essential foundations. For many children, the re-creation of story is a critical part of their growing knowledge of narrative."

Trevor goes on to say that this re-creation phase not only enhances children's enjoyment but also deepens their understanding and appreciation of literature. On his Blog there is an extensive list of visualizing activities from using manipulatives to role play.