Comprehension Instruction for Digital Natives

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How shared reading and cooperative learning are transforming two diverse New Zealand classrooms.

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Comprehension Instruction for Digital Natives

  1. 1. Comprehension Instructionfor Digital NativesHow digital shared reading and cooperative learningare transforming two diverse New Zealandclassrooms Neale Pitches
  2. 2. Page |2 know – that while children generally developThe Problem sound reading skills when they first beginYear after year, Kyran Smith – Deputy school, many later find that they are no longerPrincipal and Literacy Leader of Wellington’s able to apply those initial reading strategies toMiramar South School – faced classes full of more demanding texts. At this point, contendsgrade 5, 6, and 7 students who struggled with Canadian sociologist Keith Stanovich, goodliteracy. Kyran was a competent teacher, so readers get better while those less wellwhy wasn’t she managing to make inroads equipped fail to progress. The prevalence ofinto her students’ flagging reading this veritable phenomenon led Stanovich tocomprehension? brand it the “Matthew Effect,” applying the Biblical reference to the “haves” and theFarther south in Christchurch, high-school “have-nots” in terms of literacy wealth.English teacher Laura Borrowdale was askingherself the same question. Over the course of While this fall-off in comprehension rates is an18 months, she’d tried many approaches to attested fact in many Western nations,improving the low literacy rates of her grade 8 including Australia and the United States,and 9 cohort. But even with the in-class Kyran and Laura refused to accept this fate forsupport of a specialist literacy educator, their students. Questioning their approach toLaura’s students’ progress was too slow. teaching rather than the students’ capability to learn, the two educators discovered a newThe two teachers could have decided their mixed-media comprehension system designedstudents were inherently poor readers. Kyran precisely to target this problem.could have invoked the low socio-economicstatus (SES) and ethnic backgrounds of herstudents, predominantly from Pasifika, The Interventionindigenous Māori, and refugee/ELL families. Neale Pitches is the CEO of South PacificLaura could have likewise blamed the Press, in New Zealand. He is an educationalbehavioral problems of her mostly male 14– resource developer, and a former teacher and15-year-old students at Hagley Community principal. He is not willing to accept theCollege, an inner city school known for taking inevitability of middle years’ literacy failure.in “last-chance learners.” Neale found a willing joint-venture partner in Jim Connelly, President of Pacific Learning ofBut Kyran and Laura refused to believe that California, and began work in 2005–2006their students were destined to the low developing a resource, grounded in bestliteracy rates, and decided to keep trying for practice and robust research, to providethat elusive progress in literacy. instructional support – leadership even – to teachers and students in grades 3 to 8 andBoth teachers were in fact dealing with a above. Neale brought together a team,more fundamental problem that goes beyond including New Zealand educator Meryl-LynnSES indicators and beyond New Zealand Pluck, publisher Matt Comeskey and, for theborders: the slump in reading comprehension first year, Pacific Learning’s Toniin the middle years of school that occurs in Hollingsworth. Over a period of two years thethe USA and throughout the OECD (Mullis, team developed CSI – ComprehensionMartin, Gonzalez, & Kennedy, 2003; OECD, Strategies Instruction, the acronym2001). Research indicates – and teachers well deliberately chosen to underscore the Neale Pitches, “Comprehension instruction for digital natives” © 2011 South Pacific Press
  3. 3. Page |3similarities between reading comprehension provide many of the literacy challenges toand forensics with which popular culture has middle years students.an enduring fascination, due in part to thesuccessful television series of the same name. In their recent publication “Let’s Start LevelingNeale was convinced that the deliberate and About Leveling,” (2011) Glasswell and Fordexplicit teaching of comprehension strategies conclude that there needs to be a balanceas advocated by, for example, Harvey and between texts that are cognitively challengingGoudvis (2000; 2007) and P. David Pearson in and those that are emotionally supportive.the context of a strong engagement factor The CSI project team had the same(advocated by US academic John Guthrie philosophy, believing that students would[2001]) would yield the accelerated progress benefit from on-grade-level texts if they hadthat was needed. That engagement factor the support of their teachers, their peers, andwould need to be a mix of pedagogy, texts, the digital scaffolds that are all features of theand technology – quite a challenge. CSI project.The pedagogy was influenced by the findings This challenging yet supportive design hasof researchers Graham Nuthall and Adriene been endorsed by both Kyran and Laura, whoAlton-Lee, but especially the work of Nuthall, have reported how well students havewhose research Neale allied to his own views responded to more difficult texts, and howthat a child’s educational performance was much they engage with and enjoy being ableheavily influenced by classroom practices, and to read, think, talk, and write about the on-that there was no inevitability about low SES grade-level texts.effects on student literacy learning. Pitchessynthesized the big idea in Nuthall’s research Harnessing interactive whiteboard and otheras “all students can learn difficult concepts as advanced technologies, half of the CSI textslong as they have several exposures to the (those designed for explicit teaching) areconcept in different ways while the concepts interactive digital texts which include hyper-are in working memory.” The CSI project, linked glossaries and video footage. Theaccordingly, adopted a learning model which student cooperative texts are hard-copyinvolved text-based, explicit instruction of a format accompanied by audio files. This is anew concept, followed by text-based peer new approach to “differentiated instruction”cooperative learning of that concept that was whereby students’ differences arefurther extended: not only do students work accommodated through scaffolding rathertogether as learning partners, but they work than leveling. The strongest scaffold is explicitas a learning community – entire classes work teaching, where the teacher reads and thinkstogether on the same text. aloud and encourages student interaction as, together, the teacher and class work throughIn two further decisions the CSI project team the text.determined that teachers and students woulduse texts that were on-grade level and that 80 Kyran and Laura believe that this is key.percent of all texts to be used would be Although the CSI package includes guidancenonfiction, and three quarters of texts would and lesson plans for teachers, both teachersbe from the content areas of science, math, now feel sufficiently experienced andand social studies. The research indicates that comfortable with the method to the pointit is the content area and nonfiction texts that where they don’t need to “follow the lesson Neale Pitches, “Comprehension instruction for digital natives” © 2011 South Pacific Press
  4. 4. Page |4plans.” Kyran, for instance, no longer even aware of their thought processes and thepre-reads passages before class. In displaying strategies they employ to understand a givenan unseen text, she can emphasize to her text. What’s more, they develop skills instudents that she and the students are “all the monitoring and evaluating the effectivenesssame” in that neither have seen it before, but of these approaches when assessing theirthey all share their thinking strategies in trying levels of understanding. As a result, theto understand it. This equal footing is students take ownership of their reading andempowering for the students, Kyran says. become more independent, more confident readers.After reading the text aloud together, thestudents – and Kyran – show each other how Not only do the students become moremuch they feel they understood the text, on knowledgeable about themselves, but theiran imaginary sliding scale with their hands. breadth of world knowledge increases, too. Clearly the content of the texts and the quirky, thought-provoking and inspiring topics provide much-needed background knowledge as well as motivation to read. They variously present young people as heroes, raise moral and ethical questions, or take poetic form, all authentic examples of the sorts of text that students meet every day. In terms of content literacy, the exposure to such a wide range of material seems to add substantially to the students’ vocabularies and their ability to handle more complex texts.Kyran Smith and a Miramar South student show Indeed, experience with a variety ofeach other, and the class, their levels ofunderstanding of a CSI text, which has been stimulating texts is increasing not only theprojected onto an interactive whiteboard. baseline of cognitive skills that students master on their own, but also their ability to operate at higher levels without guidance.Kyran then talks the class through her own This is evident by the strong increases inway of processing the text, while making sure comprehension evidenced by the post-testing.to reference the particular CSI readingstrategy (or strategies) the class is working on: Furthermore, the students are up for the“This is what I do as a reader. I’ve never been challenges of more demanding texts. Theto space so I’m making connections to the domain-specific vocabulary, and the conceptsworld, from what I’ve seen on TV *. . .+. I’m included in the texts are purposefully tough ingoing to show you what I do using the places. In Kyran’s experience, however, thevisualizing strategy. I’m picturing a cloud of students thrive on the challenge. If they aredust that looks like a flower . . .” Working with unable to draw on any prior or backgrounda learning partner, the students then discuss knowledge, they draw inferences or use otherand apply the strategies for themselves. comprehension strategies, working togetherThe metacognitive principles on which CSI is as a learning community. While Kyran admitsbased encourage learners to become critically that she would never have given her students Neale Pitches, “Comprehension instruction for digital natives” © 2011 South Pacific Press
  5. 5. Page |5such difficult texts in the past, she nowrecognizes that the texts need to stretch the The Outcomeslearners – high- and low-operators alike – so The excitement and engagement of Kyran’sthat they can see the strategies working. and Laura’s students are borne out in the results of pre- and post-tests for literacyLaura voices this exact same opinion. In many levels. Three years of asTTIe (Assessmentways, she adds, the pressure is taken off her Tools for Teaching and Learning) data forstudents to perform if they know that the Miramar South School consistently show hugetexts are tough. So when Laura tells her improvements in the reading comprehensionstudents that The Hounds of the Baskervilles is of students after CSI instruction. Figure 1a difficult text, their appetites are whetted (below) gives a snapshot of the percentageand they rise to the occasion, performing change in students’ test scores before and“almost despite themselves.” Again, this after the intervention in 2009.experience confirms the research cited byGlasswell and Ford that “children can have Across 2008–2010, an average of 86 percentless than successful interactions with at-level of students started the year in the lowertexts and sometimes more successful quartiles for reading. By the end of each year,interactions with more difficult texts.” (210) however, almost half of the students, onAfter trying to figure out the puzzle, what average, were reading at or above nationalthen really delights learners is being able to norms. Disaggregated by ethnicity, the testcheck the meaning of selected words by scores for the three years of different cohortstouching vocabulary that is hyperlinked to reveal that Māori students made some of theembedded digital glossaries. biggest advances in comprehension, with shifts to the upper quartiles of up to 75 percentage points between tests.Figure 1: Percentage of students at Miramar South School reading at or above national norms inthe asTTIe test, pre- and post-CSI (2009) 100 80 60 % 40 20 0 All Pasifika Maori Other NZ Boys European Girls Feb-09 Nov-09 Neale Pitches, “Comprehension instruction for digital natives” © 2011 South Pacific Press
  6. 6. Page |6On a larger sample size, Pasifika students also Students from Hagley Community College alsomade considerable gains: in November 2010, produced dramatic results, as illustratedfor example, 72 percent of this learner group below in Figure 2. Before the CSI intervention,was reading at or above national norms, Laura’s students posted an average score ofcompared to 22 percent before the CSI 50 units in the Progressive Achievement Testintervention. As for performance by gender, (PAT) for reading comprehension, well belowdata indicate that boys progressed at a the national average of 72 for their age group.greater rate, meaning that they caught up But after just four-and-a-half weeks of CSIwith – and in one instance, surpassed – the instruction, the same students lifted theirproportion of girls reading at or above the average to 60 PATC units.national norm. Figure 2: Percentile-based ranks of students at Hagley Community College against national distribution for the PAT reading comprehension test, pre- and post-CSI (2009) Neale Pitches, “Comprehension instruction for digital natives” © 2011 South Pacific Press
  7. 7. Page |7While this score remained below the nationalaverage, the students experienced remarkably The Implications foraccelerated achievement, progressing at Teaching and Learningdouble the standard yearly rate ofimprovement (5–6 PATC units) over the Practicescourse of just one month. So, is CSI really a “silver bullet” for readingFor Laura, the rate of change was so good that comprehension? As Kyran and Laura bothit was almost “perversely demoralizing” – she attest, there are certainly many benefits to beexplains that after struggling for 18 months to had from using this resource. From a teacher’smake any significant advances in her students’ perspective, the package provides clearliteracy, she felt disappointed that she’d guidance through exemplar lesson plans and aexpended so much effort up to that point, rich pedagogic framework that acceleratesonly to find a resource that worked so their students’ literacy progress. Moreeffectively in such a short space of time. importantly, it provides 80 texts per grade level all chosen to engage and challenge theirNot only did both Kyran and Laura’s students’ student readership, and to expose them tocomprehension scores improve, but there the content matter and strategic thinkingwere other benefits. Laura’s students’ experiences needed to help them through thebehavior improved, too. Instead of off-task crucial middle years of schooling. CSI is explicitand petty talk, the students spoke out to about instruction, yet flexible to allow foragree or disagree with their peers’ teacher professionalism. Premised on aninterpretations of the texts. Following the increasingly evidenced metacognitivesuccess of Laura’s CSI trial, the school is now approach, it also promotes formativeusing the system right across grade 10, and assessment which is responsive to learners’students are being taught to apply CSI needs and supports their improvement overstrategies more broadly. At Miramar South time as increasingly self-aware readers.School Kyran reported that the 2008 class Importantly, CSI offers opportunities forexperienced higher math scores, as well as growth through its cognitively demandinghigher reading comprehension scores. The texts that can at the same time be taught andmetacognitive and problem-solving strategies, understood at different levels.and the resilience developed by students in Some might question how much the successtheir learning communities, clearly carried of CSI actually relies on the individual teacher,over into the test environment as students and his or her abilities. This is a fair question.gained in resourcefulness. Both Kyran and Laura acknowledge that to an extent, they gained their students’ “buy-in”These are, of course, the success stories of for CSI through the strength of their trustjust two New Zealand schools that used the relationship with them. But it was more thanCSI resource. But there are many others, that. Let’s not forget that as competentincluding many classrooms across the USA. teachers with good student rapport, the twoThere are significant implementations in teachers were nevertheless struggling toNewport News and Prince George County, VA, make a difference in their students’USA, and in St Paul, MN. comprehension rates pre-CSI. Neale Pitches, “Comprehension instruction for digital natives” © 2011 South Pacific Press
  8. 8. Page |8There are three strong challenges toestablished literacy classroom practice that Critical success factors ofwarrant further investigation: the CSI literacy resource 1. CSI seems to be showing that there is great benefit on students all working  Short, engaging digital texts that together on one text – to form a respect and challenge readers learning community, where they  Cooperative learning share thinking, problem-solving, and metacognitive strategies.  Tight adherence to rich, evidence- based pedagogy 2. The notion of “leveled students,  Pre-prepared lesson plans leveled texts” that underpins much literacy instruction is called into  Explicit teaching question and, at least, should be  Modeling reading behaviors varied for elements of the classroom  Metacognitive principles that nurture literacy program where explicit instruction is the goal and students critical self-awareness can be scaffolded into texts that they  Content literacy for all may not be able to read alone. 3. New technologies, such as interactive whiteboards, seem to show promise to engage students more and provide embedded objects to scaffold students into better understanding of texts – especially nonfiction, content- oriented texts that research evidence shows are the stumbling blocks to students’ literacy progress in the middle years of schooling. Neale Pitches, “Comprehension instruction for digital natives” © 2011 South Pacific Press
  9. 9. Page |9 The handbook of reading research: Volume III,Bibliography/Cited sources eds. Michael Kamil, Peter Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr, 403–424.Alton-Lee, A. G. 2005. “Graham Nuthall: Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Memories and legacy; How teachinginfluences learning: Implications for Harvey, Stephanie, and Anne Goudvis. 2000.educational researchers, teachers, teacher Strategies that work: Teaching comprehensioneducators, and policy makers.” Paper to enhance understanding. Portland, ME:presented at the American Educational Stenhouse Publishers.Research Association Annual Meeting,Montreal, Canada. Harvey, Stephanie, and Anne Goudvis. 2007. Strategies that work: Teaching comprehensionBrozo, William G. 2010. “The role of content to enhance understanding, 2nd ed. Portland,literacy in an effective RTI program.” The ME: Stenhouse Publishers.Reading Teacher 64 (2): 147–150. Mullis, I.V.S., Martin, M.O., Gonzalez, E.J., andBrozo, William G., and Kathleen S. Puckett. Kennedy, A.M. 2003. PIRLS 2001 International2009. “Supporting content area literacy with Report: IEA’s Study of Reading Literacytechnology”. In Brozo, 2010. Achievement in Primary Schools. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.Duke, N., and D. Pearson. 2002. “Effectivepractices for developing reading Nuthall, G. A. 2007. The hidden lives ofcomprehension.” In What research has to say learners. Wellington, NZ: NZCER.about reading instruction, eds. A.E. Farstrupand S.J. Samuels 205–242. Newark, DE: Nuthall, G. A., and A. G. Alton-Lee. 1993.International Reading Association. “Predicting learning from student experience of teaching: A theory of student knowledgeGlasswell, Kath, and Michael Ford. 2011. construction in classrooms.” American“Let’s start leveling about leveling.” Language Educational Research Journal 30 (4): 799–840.Arts 88, no. 3 (January): 208–216. Nuthall, G. A., and A. G. Alton-Lee. 1997.Guthrie, John T. 2001. “Contexts for Understanding learning in the classroom:engagement and motivation in reading.” Report to the Ministry of Education.Reading Online 4, no. 8 (March), Understanding Learning and Teaching Projecthttp://www.readingonline.org/articles/handb 3. Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Education.ook/guthrie. OECD. 2010. PISA 2009 results: Learning toGuthrie, John T. 2004. “Classroom practices Learn (Volume III). Paris: OECD.promoting engagement and achievement incomprehension.” Paper presented at Stanovich, Keith E. 1986. Matthew Effects inInternational Reading Association Conference, Reading: Some Consequences of IndividualReno, NV. Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy. Reading Research Quarterly 21 (4), 360–407.Guthrie, John T., and Allan Wigfield. 2000.“Engagement and motivation in reading.” In Neale Pitches, “Comprehension instruction for digital natives” © 2011 South Pacific Press

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