Monday, December 30, 2013

The Importance of Building Background Knowledge

Last week I finally got to sit down with our reading professional development coordinator to show her some of the vocabulary and QRI testing results I had been getting on my eighth grade target students.  She confirmed my fear, after looking at all of the scores.  These kiddos needed support in their oral vocabulary in order for them to build reading skills.  This was the first time I had really gotten a chance to approach this dilemma from a reading specialist standpoint, and I was anxious to hear what she had to say.

She introduced me to the idea of multi-level text sets (different texts on the same topic that require students to determine importance and extract information - all part of our new Common Core Standards), which is not a new concept for me in any respect, but for the sole purpose of building vocabulary it was. This conversation started me thinking about some things I then wanted to develop.

She also introduced me to, a news website where teachers can find one article on a topic and download it in four different lexile levels! Her thought was to start with the article in a 730 lexile, do a vocabulary building activity, and then read the exact same article in an 850.  The idea is to read the same article four times, each time building more and more background knowledge, more and more vocabulary, until we got to the article at the 1130 lexile.  She also suggested that I try to use an article that connects somehow with content area material that our kiddos might be studying by the end so that the knowledge and vocabulary might support these students in their content-area classrooms!  Genius!

From this, we started to formulate some thoughts that have been brewing over the last month or so - the idea of building background knowledge.  I was talking to a sixth grader who struggles with reading.  He insisted that he wanted to read the Twilight series.  Now, if you're familiar with the read at all, you might know that the lexile level is in the 600s - a nice easy read for an adult, but it is LONG and rather mature for an eleven-year-old struggling reader.  Many of my adult friends found the book annoying and repetitive, and yet I was captivated by the love story.  Still, this boy was insistent and went on to tell me that he had watched the movie several times AND he had read the graphic novel and he LOVED them.  It was at this point when the conversation I had with our reading professional development coordinator started ringing with me again.  This was a perfect opportunity for this kiddo to challenge himself with a lengthy book on which he already had a TON of background knowledge and maybe build some reading stamina.  So we found the novel for him, and he checked it out for winter break.

After these two incidents last week, a few ideas developed.  Aside from my more solidified plan to go to our Tier 3 team with the pull out idea for vocabulary groups, I'm also going to work to target background knowledge building activities with our struggling readers in their content area classes.  Meeting with some of the content area teachers and coming up with lists of specific students to target is next on my list, and then I'd like to somehow target these students specifically.  One big challenge is finding the time during the day for pull out groups.  For now, however, I'm making a list of ideas (many of which come from the CRISS manual) that will help in building background knowledge.

Keep in mind that building background knowledge and activating background knowledge are very different. When activating background knowledge, you assume that the learners have some background knowledge.  Building it means that there is nothing filed away in your students' schema for them to build upon, and now, not only are you responsible for the new knowledge, but you have to give your kiddos some background in order for the new knowledge to stick as well.

Let me give you an example.  I worked in December with a few colleagues who had their sixth graders writing a RAFT assignment.  The idea was that students would use multiple texts to research something specific about the Olympics and then write a perspective piece based upon that research.  During the time students were supposed to be writing, I noticed that critical pieces of information were being left out or wrongly assumed.  Then it hit me - when one student began to write about a skiing event, and her first paragraph mentioned traveling to an arena for the event.  I finally asked her if she had ever seen an Olympic skiing event before, and she shook her head.  Another one struggled to write about her ice skating event until I realized she had never seen an Olympic ice skating competition or ANY ice skating competition, for that matter.  After that, I spent the entire day looking up Youtube videos of the different events and watching them with the kids.  Two things could have been done to prevent this - and I don't know why we didn't think of it before beginning the project.  Hindsight is always 20/20, I suppose.  We could have spent a day watching videos of the different events together OR we could have left a few more days for research and insisted that each student watch several videos of the events.  However it was, we have noted it and I would like to see us include the extended time for next year's project.

So for this blog, I've made a list of background activation activities and background building activities so that you can begin to think about how to use these effectively with your students.  Keep in mind that many of your students who struggle with reading may need background knowledge building activities because they lack much of the vocabulary necessary to function at grade level.  I think our biggest problem here is differentiation.  You will, undoubtedly, have students in your class who have access to background information.  How you will use some of these ideas in your classrooms most effectively is the next step.  I realize that you may not have these strategies in your pocket, and if you don't, please don't hesitate to ask about them.

Background activation activities

  • Preview the reading by looking at text features (titles, subtitles, illustrations, vocabulary, etc.) and making connections/predictions in partners or groups of three.  Give specific guidelines for group work and set strict time limits.
  • Use an easy organizer (such as a word map or Venn diagram) and have students work individually or in pairs to fill it out before previewing the information.  
  • Easy word sorts or pattern puzzles (both strategies require words cut up ahead of time and are basically matching activities - ironically interesting for our older students) in partners or groups of three.  These usually work, themselves, as classroom managers so you won't have to do much work in terms of management unless you find that your students have no background knowledge on the topic.  In which case, you'll want to skip down to the next section.
  • Discussion strategies such as the ABC Brainstorming (literally a list from A-Z where students have to think of an on-topic word that begins with each letter of the alphabet), mind streaming (partners each have to spend one minute blurting out any information that comes to mind on the topic without interruption or stopping), Discussion Webs, Carousel Brainstorming, and previewing using questioning techniques
  • K-W-L plus (categorize information gathered on the K-W-L)
  • Anticipation Guides (agree/disagree questions for students to consider that are directly related to the topic) and Double Entry Reflective Journals (Questions or statements to be answered before learning and then again after learning.  It's my personal favorite.)
  • One sentence summaries and/or paragraph frames before learning
Background building ideas
  • Youtube, United Streaming or another video websites
  • Articles and/or other text-selections well-below grade-level on the same topic
  • Preview vocabulary necessary for learning (use an engaging activity such as word sorts and pattern puzzles that are more guided)
  • Web quests or website exploration
  • Photos, pictures, artwork, primary source documents (with active learning strategy attached - you could consider having students work through a Double Entry Reflective Journal with these.)
  • Easier non-fiction text to build knowledge for fiction and visa versa
  • Picture books (another favorite of mine!)
  • Musical recordings (with an active learning strategy attached. - for example, have students journal how the music makes them feel when listening.)
  • Cartoons (for some reason the Simpsons seem to have an episode for everything!)
  • Poetry or lyrics to songs
  • Field trips (if your students are lucky enough to be in a district that funds them)

And the list goes on and on . . .

Friends, I implore you to really look hard at your clientele.  Our students need us to understand that we can't take for granted that any of them have the background knowledge or the vocabulary to tackle even the easiest knowledge, skills, or information in our classrooms.  Don't leave your kiddos behind because they lack the background necessary to easily pick up on what others can manage without much thought.  Observe. Evaluate. React. Give them success that they might not have otherwise.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advocating for our Strugglers and Teaching Them to Do the Same for Themselves

Since I began really digging into this vocabulary issue, my eyes are opening to the idea that we are not just talking about the typical reading struggles, but a much more serious deficit in oral vocabulary.  So where do I start?  That has been my question all week, and if you read last week's blog on expressive and receptive vocabulary, you know why. And now that we have established that the issue is no longer just about reading but about speaking and listening - we ALL get to participate!

I had the chance to pull out four more students for vocabulary screening tests over this past week.  Because I've been so busy, I only completed two.  I plan to pull the other two next week to finish that testing before I bring their scores to our Tier 2/3 team.

One student has been on the fence with me since she was in sixth grade.  Her progress was minimal, at best, and yet I felt like when I made more contact with her she seemed to do better than when I left her alone.  We worked hard during her sixth grade year to move over the humps of phonics and fluency.  Our seventh grade hurdle was finding reading material that she would actually READ.  Oh, this was ridiculous!  I will forever remember this girl as one of my most difficult in terms of matching her with a book, but in some way we ended up hooking her up with the Miki Falls series by Mark Crilley (which she inhaled) and then branched her out bit by bit.  Currently, she is an eighth grader and has gotten her hands on the Perfect Chemistry series by Simone Elkeles (on of my all-time FAVORITE love stories, because I'm kind of a love story lunatic).  Although we do not house this series in our middle school library, our eighth grade girls (and some boys) always seem to end up with it in their hands before year-end.  Simone has been so kind as to send me a stack of very cool posters (autographed by her) with pics of the (adorable) three main characters.  When I have a kiddo who is THIS into that series, I always award them a poster when they finish it.  It's a motivator for our girls, anyway. I digress.  Anyway, I ran the vocab screener on this student.  She fell within the two middle quartiles.  Relatively average, although when I looked at her scores, the range seemed low, but I'm not familiar enough with the testing to make that determination, so I'm going to have our speech path take a gander at the numbers as well to help me interpret them and make the best use of the data.  This student, however, I know has some major motivation issues.  I just need to figure out the source.  For right now, she goes into my "not scary" pile for vocabulary screeners.

I had a request from a science teacher to move another student who has come up as a concern. She's a good student.  Quiet.  Hard working.  Grades are okay.  Normally, she wouldn't be one that would rise to the top of our "concerns" pile, but I've been digging around for kiddos, and her name surfaced due to lack of progress in the READ180 program and a concern that she needed support in science and social studies.  So I screened her.  Her numbers came up at close to the bottom of the middle two quartiles.  Low.  Hers went into the "scary" pile.  I've got at least one more that will go in there once I finish her testing because her receptive testing was at the bottom of the average range, and her expressive seems like it is going to be much, much lower.

Our speech pathologist got me thinking a lot last week when we discussed these kiddos.  I usually have strategies in my back pocket for a majority of reading issues, concerns, and supports, but I've got empty pockets on this one.  The idea that I could be working with small groups of kiddos who are potentially tens of thousands of words behind their on-grade-level peers scares me so much!  It's like looking at our kitchen and trying to figure out where to start cleaning it after a Lambert Thanksgiving! The situation is daunting, at best.

But one thing our speech path said stuck out to me.  It was the idea that we need to teach these students to advocate for themselves because self-advocacy will help them immediately, whereas vocabulary-building will come with lots of time and work.  In other words, we need to teach them to ask for clarification.  Because we are working with eleven to fourteen-year-olds (and an occasional fifteen or sixteen-year-old), they need some "right now" strategies.  Much easier said than done.  Here are the immediate setbacks of this idea:

  • Most of the kiddos I pull out for testing don't have a clue that they need support.  This is just life for them, and they don't get that things would be a whole heck-of-a-lot easier if somebody would open up their brain and pour in a Webster's Dictionary.  This is that whole fixed versus growth mindset.  It is cultural.  How do we bring our students who are currently in this fixed mindset (thinking that this is just the way things are) to a growth mindset where they feel like they can make some changes to their situation and feel successful more often?
  • Many of the students I'm identifying are ELL.  If you remember from my blog over the summer on reaching our social students, we are looking at a variety of cultures sitting in front of us daily, and those who come from a more collectivist culture are taught not to bring attention to themselves in class - which includes asking for clarification.  What we are now asking these students to do is go against everything they've been taught socially by their parents so that they can succeed academically.  Not an easy request!  It's family-first for many of these kids, which means what I teach them about helping themselves may fall upon deaf ears if it goes against what Mom and/or Dad has taught.
  • This is middle school, and asking for clarification is uncool.  If you're caught looking even remotely interested in academics, there is a stigma attached to your efforts.  Asking questions is often out of the question.  
So in an effort to approach this with a growth mindset myself, I went hunting for some things I can do as a reading specialist to start working with some of these kiddos (and their teachers).  My search is most definitely NOT over. This is just the beginning as I start scratching the surface on my increasing pile of students who lack receptive and expressive vocabulary.  Here are some goals I've set for myself for 2014.
  • Identify groups of students who would benefit from small group "self-advocacy" and "oral vocabulary building" instruction. This is going to require a lot of work on my part because each time I give the test, it takes twenty to thirty minutes to administer.  For one student.  
  • Identify appropriate times in the school day for this small group instruction (Working with social studies teachers to use social studies material as a springboard for this instruction is one idea that I have discussed with our district reading coordinator).
  • Reach out to teachers with specific student names and specific data to illustrate the need to be sensitive to the way instruction is given in the classroom setting.
  • Give teachers specific strategies and behaviors that they can begin using in the classroom to better support our increasing numbers of students who have fallen into this linguistic abyss (for example, rewording directions even if nobody asks for clarification or creating a visual or demonstration of the directions aside from just giving them orally).
  • Continue to look for researched strategies to use for older students.  There's a lot of research there on building expressive and receptive vocabulary with preschoolers and younger elementary kiddos, but once they get into the middle levels, the research and strategies taper off.  To me, its scary.  
  • And you have the motivation piece to factor in - because, by this age, many of them are feeling pretty unsuccessful, and to ask them to stick their necks out and try again is asking a LOT.  What can we do to motivate them?  I need more motivation strategies!
  • Buy stock in Kleenex because I feel like I'm going to be doing a lot of crying over all of this in the next year.
So there you have it.  Nothing.  Not a strategy that is even close to useful, I'm afraid.  Just a lot of unanswered questions and vague goals.  But my direction this week is more clear than it was last week, and by next week I am hoping to hone in on some strategies that I can start whipping out at you so that YOU have some ideas in your pocket you can use.  So stay tuned as I detective my way through some of your kiddos to figure out what their issues are.  I figure if I dig far enough eventually I'm going to uncover something we can use!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Why do many of our English Language Learners suffer in our system?

I'm wondering when my reading specialist colleagues are going to stop answering text messages and emails from me with the subject "vocabulary".  They have to be sick of my ranting by now because I've been beating that poor dead horse all year, and it seems that I'm only beating harder nowadays.  But this time I'm backing up my rants with some real data. 

For two years, I've suspected that vocabulary is at the root of our issues for many of our kiddos, but vocabulary is such a vast and general topic, and I'd never been satisfied with any assessment that I'd seen for vocabulary.  As it currently stands, there's the most commonly accepted Three-Tier Model for reading vocabulary: Tier 1 vocabulary (sight words), Tier 2 vocabulary (academic vocabulary), and Tier 3 vocabulary (content-area vocabulary).  Project CRISS's fourth edition manual now includes a Four-Level Model that, in no way, aligns with the Tiers, but the tiers would absolutely fit into the four levels (mostly academic and/or content-specific vocabulary).  Level 1 critical words are words that must be pre-taught before reading.  Level 2 words are important but do not require a lot of pre-teaching time.  The third level are words that are important, but they are clear in the text and do not require preteaching.  Finally, level 4 words are words that are not necessary to be taught to students before, during, or after.  As an educator, I make automatic assumptions that vocabulary-building means words that you read, right? Well, after this week I have begun to wonder if maybe I had it all wrong from the beginning.

With all of these categories and ways to approach vocabulary, why do we struggle so much once we hit this roadblock in reading?  We seem to have all of the answers for phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency, but yet when it comes to vocabulary - the answers come in all shapes and sizes, and yet none seem to be fitting for so many of our middle schoolers.  Most of us skip considering vocabulary as a major issue because we assume that we are covering it when we teach content or literature-specific words, and when our kiddos test below level in comprehension, we push comprehension strategies, not vocabulary (in my case because I thought I had already covered it).  But what happens when you have a student who started life speaking a different language (in the case of most of our ELLs - Spanish)?  Maybe she began learning English at the age of six.  Imagine all of those important first-words that she missed and then had to learn!  How many years do you think it takes to catch up in a new language?  And how does that impact her at the age of thirteen?  Research tells us that each year our students absorb thousands of new words, but what if you don't start learning them until age six or seven?

So a few months back I remembered an assessment from my graduate work in reading that I wanted to try - one that targets oral vocabulary, specifically.  Although I was unable to get my hands on that specific assessment (the Peabody), our speech pathologist had something very similar for both receptive and expressive vocabulary.  I spent some time skimming through these two assessments and decided to give them a shot with one of our eighth graders (let's call him Tito) who has been through just about every Tier 2 intervention we offer.  At this point in the year, I begin to panic when nothing is working because I know that my time is limited with our almost-freshmen, and I need to act quickly to pinpoint a solution.

What I found did not surprise me one bit with this kiddo, and my former hypothesis that oral vocabulary is at the root of many of our English Language Learners' reading struggles sprung to life again with all sorts of questions attached to it.  Tito's scores on both the receptive and expressive vocabulary tests were in the very low average and below average range.  During the receptive vocabulary testing (where he had to identify pictures that best matched the words that I gave him), his responses came quickly.  However, the expressive vocabulary assessment was almost painful - he took so much time trying to formulate words for the pictures that at one point I wondered if he had forgotten that he was supposed to give an answer!  In several instances he finally gave up and said, "I don't really know."  Also, at times when the answers were incorrect, Tito's response was a short phrase description of the actual word.  It was obvious he was trying his best to express himself correctly every time.

I then started to formulate a list of questions that I will be pondering over the next few months:

  • What can I do, as a reading specialist, to help close the gap for these ELLs who fall under the RtI umbrella?  It is my responsibility to "catch them up" in reading, and yet I'm not trained to develop tens of thousands of missing pieces in oral vocabulary.  This is the most loaded question and very general, so then I started to get specific.
  • Will testing more of our ELLs produce the same information?
  • How do these gaps effect their performance in their content area classes?
  • What can I do to communicate this information to our staff?
  • How can I support our students who are lacking in oral and aural vocabulary so that they can be more successful?
  • What strategies work best for middle level students who have significant gaps in expressive and receptive vocabulary?
  • Within the confines of our current schedule, when can we work on these gaps?
  • How can my speech path (who is AWESOME, by the way) and I work together to make a plan, even though she is tied mostly to her students with IEPs?
  • Who else can help? (I have already talked to our speech pathologist who gave me some ideas, a bilingual reading specialist, and gotten an email from a former colleague who is hoping to help me use some resources to which she has access, and I'm super excited about all of it!)
  • At what point do I stop digging? Because I'm exhausted and exhilarated at the same time.  Although the screeners are just screeners, so are our comprehension, fluency, and phonics screeners - but you have to start somewhere, and the fact that both of Tito's tests came out just a few points from each other tells me that we do, indeed, have a problem.  
By next weekend, I hope to have a few more students assessed so I can report on how those went.  I have chosen three more students (three eighth graders and a repeat seventh grader) on which to complete testing. Once I get that done, my next step is to consult with our other reading specialists on this and formulate a plan of action after we put our resources together.

For now, friends, the next time you stand in front of your class and register that you have ten students who appear to have zoned off, take a moment to evaluate how you speak to your class.  The trick is to support them all without "dumbing it down".  The last thing we want to do is to stop exposing them to rich academic vocabulary, but know that if you do that without rephrasing and supporting, many of your kiddos may not have the skills to even understand the words that come out of your mouth.  A few years back I had this exact conversation with a respected social studies colleague who admitted that she hadn't considered that her vocabulary choice when instructing her students would impact their performance in class.  Also, we often think that if we read the text to our kiddos it will make a difference (and it sometimes does!), but imagine trying to keep up with an instructor who spoke to you in words so difficult that you often couldn't understand him, no matter what strategies you used.  What would you do?  I know what I would do, and it certainly wouldn't be to pay more attention and take more notes.  And yet this is often the answer just about every student gives when we ask them what they think they can do to improve themselves - even those who struggle due to language . . .