Thursday, July 12, 2012

Preventing Reading Difficulty: Key Work for Principals


Today I taught a dozen children and all learned. This was no small feat. The children had little sight word knowledge, an absence of phonological strategies, difficulty blending sounds of single syllable words, did not know short vowels sounds and in some cases could not recognize any vowels, had no automaticity in writing their name or in identifying letters and demonstrated ways (some were quite clever) to avoid attending to reading tasks. The avoidance struck me as a sign of intelligence as the amount of work it takes to try to read when you cannot decode or identify by sight most of the words is enormous.  Such struggle undermines confidence, reduces will, and often leaves the child (and sometimes his/her teacher) with the belief that "this child can't." It was humbling to see how hard these little ones were willing to work.

If these children were five, I would feel less anxious.  But these children are at least 8 and will begin third grade in the fall.  The expectations of not only reading, but reading grade level text with integrity, is significant.

The positive news is that each child made important progress during the high intensity, small group literacy lessons that incorporate talking, reading, letter/sound/word work, and writing.  All of the children were able to make progress on the very things they initially struggled with and they exited the lesson knowing they could learn the very things they struggled to know.  It baffles me that any child could attend school for three years (and given the mandatory preschool--closer to four or five years) and demonstrate such impoverished literacy knowledge.  When the, come, here, and are represent unknown words and you are 8-years-old living in the United States something is very wrong.

Preventing reading difficulties is doable. Intervening is also doable, and more challenging.  These students' teacher watched as I taught each group and then we debriefed discussing what we noticed and the next steps we would take.  The materials to take those next steps are in place. I'll be returning tomorrow to squeeze in two quick lessons with the same children before working in the classroom next to this one and will be drawing in others from my company to work at this site during the next four weeks.  We will work together with the principal and the staff to help the children build critical skills, confidence, and know-how and if parents are willing, I will work with them as well via a brief workshop.

We will not do enough, though.

When the children return to their sending schools, a nexus of support will be needed.  Although I will describe the children's accomplishments and try to name the nature of the supports they will need to make progress--some of these children will return to schools that have not served them well and my words will certainly not be enough. What the children will need mostly will largely be a matter of great leadership.

So much rests in the principal's hands.


At the elementary level, principals hold in their hands--kids' futures.  We often talk about the importance of the teacher and I don't doubt that for a minute, but we also need to talk about the enormous responsibility that rests in principals' hands. With that in mind, I offer a few things principals can do to lead and support literacy learning at their sites:

1. Silence is not golden. Silence is a killer. The development of reading is connected to the development of oral language. Allowing children to sit 'quietly' with folded hands in classroom after classroom for hours is wrong whether they are 5 or 15.  Learners need to talk, especially when they think they have nothing to say.  Insist on a gregarious literacy that is noisy, physical and joyful. Children should be able to move, at will.

Pictured here are some transformed oil pans and Jeff Williamson, a kindergarten teacher from Newark, NJ (image to the right) who uses these with his students to build requisite literacy knowledge.  It is not only the manipulation of letters that matters here, but all the languaging that accompanies the children's work. The agency that gets built alongside the alphabetic knowledge is critical. Insist that children talk, a lot--often.

Look to see how teachers are scaffolding children's talk. Notice what structures teachers have taught students so that their classroom talk can be fruitful.  Support teachers if having gregarious literacy practices is frightening or new for them.  Look to see if there is any time for children to talk without the overlay of a teacher's agenda.  Both are important types of talk: structured and unstructured.

Sit in and listen to the children--the paper work will keep.  Notice how lateral talk among learners produces different types of learning than the talk directed by the teacher.  Both are vital. Share your observations with the teacher. Put on a researcher's cap.

2. Be an Active Learner & Observe.  Curiosity is prompted by partial knowing.  What we don't know is cause for celebration as it allows us the opportunity to learn and build knowledge with others. The greatest damage I see is in schools where the principal blindly follows rules and implements what he or she does not understand even when the faculty tells the principal, This Doesn't Make Sense.  The level of error is often so high that actual damage is done.  The best advice I was given was to observe in the classroom of a teacher who understood what I was trying to learn.  The partnership that grew out of that act was more important than the specific learning that took place.  I also would advise in larger systems where there are multiple principals, to buddy with another principal you admire and want learn from and with.  In the summer project I am doing now there is a principal who has established a summer school guided literacy room for book loaning and has designed centers for and with teachers.  This type of know-how is so valuable. If you are not knowledgeable about teaching literacies, find a colleague (real and/or virtual) who can help you and get connected

3. Study What Matters & Do So with Others. Routinely study evidence of children's learning that most matter and discuss those findings with others. Make meaning together (you, teachers, students, and parents) as well as plans to intervene and then carry them out, revising as needed. Some years ago I designed a preventing reading difficulties project for a school system and then worked with them full time during the implementation year. We used Marie Clay's Observation Survey tasks as important measures that were set at the highest levels  as a goal aiming for at least 95% of all first graders in the district to meet those benchmarks.  We excluded no one. 97% of the children met or exceeded the benchmarks and the remaining 3% made good progress. One reason that the project was so successful was that principals paid attention to meaningful data. When measuring children's early literacy development, what is meaningful data changes across time. Instead of relying solely on DRA scores which often do not measure important foundational skills, these principals paid attention to observation notes of reading and writing behaviors, letter and sound knowledge, interviews with children, teachers' observations and insights, children's book choices, as well as children's sight word knowledge, writing products, and informal continuous reading records.  These measures mattered in different ways and at different times for the children and both the children and the teachers informed what mattered most. Relying on a single measure is not helpful and can lead to faulty practices occurring as teachers scramble to 'make' children reach the single benchmark.  Because both principals and teachers were attentive to each child and his/her progress, additional/refined resources were added as needed.

4.  Don't mistake surface concerns for root issues. Surface concerns take up a lot of time in poorly managed organizations and talking about them takes up any remaining time. I once worked in an organization where the district's leaders would meet every morning over coffee to discuss 'pressing' issues. When I first joined the group, I showed up with a laptop. I noticed quickly that nary a pen or paper made it to these meetings. The discussion rarely left the surface and all seemed quite content to stay mired in the unimportant.

Root issues are difficult as they often require us to be vulnerable and in such a state allow us to see how we are involved in a problem. For example, at the school level, we sometimes here adults say, These children can't... It is so important for principals to not accept such language as it is often code for:
We don't know if we can adequately teach the children. 
We don't know if we can lead this effort.  
We don't know what to do for our own children. 
Attend to the root issue: Our knowledge. Our confidence. Our commitment.


  1. Mary Ann I loved this post. I am thinking that many of these strategies could be implemented by school librarians (although understanding that many elementary librarians work on a fixed schedule so they see every class at most only once/week and sometimes less than that). But I am thinking that even with that limited amount of time that school librarians can be an important piece in a childs journey towards becoming a lifelong reader. If nothing else hopefully the school librarian has been afforded the funds to make the library space a warm and comfortable place with many enticing books that embrace the cultures and interests of all the students. I would love to hear about other ways we can do more to help all students become readers. Thanks!

    1. I so agree Deb. I think of librarians as teachers. You are also right that at elementary schools (where there are librarians) they often function within a fixed schedule. Although not ideal, the school librarian ought to be at the center of literacy learning. Will post more about prevention as the summer project continues.

    2. Looking forward to learning more!