A New Series on Struggling Readers and Learning to Read

This series will be posted on my TALK blog (http://frantoomeytalk.blogspot.com/)where the emphasis is on early reading (K-3) and understanding why so many children have difficulty learning to read.  These are the kids trapped in the Achievement Gap and kids who are Dyslexic and not provided with early and effective interventions.

There will be a series of posts on who, why, and what can we do to make sure that all kids become successful readers.


“THE (?) Achievment Gap

The “Achievement Gap” in reading has received some attention in the past few years.  It is generally thought of as the gap in reading achievement between children who are economically disadvantaged (aka “poor”) and children who are not.  Most recently the attention has been focused on children who are not meeting grade three reading standards and the proposal that they be “held back” in 3rd grade.  I have repeatedly suggested that “we can’t wait” until 3rd grade to pay attention to children who are not progressing at the expected rate–relative to their grade level standards.  We need to pay attention to progress from preschool on throughout a child’s education.

I’d like to add to that issue other issues I think should be addressed by “The (?) Achievement Gap.”


Why is the standard “grade level reading.”  What happened to the concept of the gap between potential  and achievement.  We sometimes see that schools pay attention to “potential” when they recognize “gifted” children–whether in academic subjects or “arts.”  At the high school level we offer “A.P.” courses.  We recognize some children’s abilities by offering them scholarships or options for how to use some of their school time.  Ideally, we recognized some dimension of “giftedness” in all children  I think that was what “Multiple Intelligences” was supposed to be about.


Don’t all kids have the potential to be achievers–relative to their potential?  So, is there an achievement gap for children who aren’t currently reading at “grade level” but have potential to read at and, equally important, above that level, given the kinds of instruction and opportunity to learn that they need.  Here’s a perspective on another group of children who experience an achievement gap.


Dialogue and Learning: A Long and Contemporary History

From September 6, 2014 Post

On this blog about “Dialogue” many of the posts have been related to school success and reading success, particularly as children grow from infancy through elementary school. In an effort to find patterns relevant to school and literacy success as they relate to dialogue the following format will be used for future posts reviewing classic and current works on dialogue: Reasons, Roles, Rules, Routines and Rewards.

I begin with an “old” classic written by an author whose work I greatly admire: Marion Blank. Her recent work on reading includes: The Reading Remedy: Six Essential Skills, 2006, Jossey Bass.

Each review will include the main points of the reference [in quotes], my comment [in italics], and “Related Ideas” from other historic and current sources.

Marion Blank, Susan A. Rose, Laura J. Berlin

The Language of Learning: The Preschool Years

Grune and Stratton, 1978

“Regardless of differences in orientation, one factor that almost all [preschool] programs share (with the notable exception of Montessori) is the important placed on the verbal exchange that occurs between the teacher and the child.” (p. 1)

Reason: “We have set out to study the language of the preschool that foster higher level intellectual activities.”… (p. 8) ….

…influenced by James Moffett…”Moffett’s model contains three components which, at first glance, are disarmingly simple. First, there are the participants who are speaking and listening to one another (speaker-listener dyad); second, there is the topic or subject which the participants are discussing; and third, there is the level of the discussion.”…. (p. 9)

For example: Preparing a batch of cookies. Some likely teacher questions

What is this? (referring to the flour)

Tell me what we put in the bowl before we added the egg.

Why don’t we eat that part?

What will happen to the cookies when we put them in the oven?

Note diversity of questions…“of greater importance for our purposes is the level of complexity (of the questions). For Instance, a request such as, tell me what we put in the bowl before we added the egg, will almost certainly be more demanding for a young child than a question such as, what is this. It is the differential of the complexity of the demand that we call the level of discussion.”

Blank goes on to describe a scale of complexity—labeled a “perceptual-language distance rubric.” (p. 13)

First there is the material being discussed: perceptual. Second, there is the language that the teacher uses to direct the child’s analysis of the material—language. So the scale consists of 4 levels representing the perceptual element and the language used to “abstract” the information from the material.

Matching Perception

Selective Analysis of Perception

Reordering Perception

Reasoning About Perception

Roles: Who are the participants and how are they related to each other?

In this early work, Blank et. al. was focused on the roles of teacher and learner. They do not expect, given the child’s (cognitive and social) developmental levels, to be able to focus on or modify the level of abstraction for different listeners.

Rules: The teacher sets the rules and directs the discourse in terms of her (his) goals of helping the child to learn to use language more abstractly. At the same time, the children are free to talk about whatever is of immediate interest to them. “Topics of discussion are perceptually based experiences that are within the young child’s level of comprehension. Within this limitation, however, the variability ought to be as great as possible because variability serves both to maintain the children’s interests and to lead them to generalize their use of discourse skills.” (p. 20)

Routines: “to proceed from simple to relatively complex levels.” (p. 21) with the caveat that the teacher’s goals may not be consistent with the child’s ability in any specific instance of discourse.

The authors go on to describe ways to measure a child’s current level of discourse abilities and what to do to scaffold the child to the next level (of abstraction), with examples of dialogues demonstrating the types of language activities that will help the child to grow. This is NOT the more typical (and heavily criticized) I-R-E(initiation, reply-evaluation) sequence. The teacher clearly has in mind to help the children move to a higher level of responding.

RELATED IDEAS: Past and current

Cognitive Taxonomies

Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956, 2000), other hierarchical taxonomies, Higher Order Thinking, Level of Questioning

Attention to level of complexity/abstraction has been a focus in education for a long time—Bloom: back to (1956) and currently (2000+).  Other level of abstraction schemes, including current focus on complex text.

Analyzing Cognitive Complexity, Baxter and Glaser, 1997



PARCC Text Complexity and Cognitive Complexity Measures: Their Role in Assessment Development and in Supporting Claims about Student Proficiency and Readiness



Cognitive Complexity – Depth of Knowledge (DOK)

The Role and Importance of Cognitive Complexity (2012)

The Iowa Core Standards for Literacy and Mathematics are intended to play a central role in defining what teachers teach. That is, teachers are to align their instruction to the Standards. The Standards not only define the topical, procedural, and conceptual knowledge students are to learn, they also define the type of cognitive processes in which students are to engage. This is known as cognitive demand or cognitive complexity.


Webb: Alignment, Depth of Knowledge and Change (2005)


Smarter Balanced  Assessment:  CCSS

Cognitive Complexity

….”The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium has adopted a cognitive Rigor Matrix for its assessment program.  This matrix draws from two widely accepted measures to describe cognitive rigor:  Bloom’s (revised Taxonomy of Educational Objectives and Webb’s Depth-of-Knowledge Levels.  The Cognitive Rigor Matrix has been developed to integrate these two models as a strategy for analyzing instruction, for influencing teacher lesson planning, and for designing assessment items and tasks.  To download the full article describing the development and uses of the Cognitive Rigor Matrix and other support materials, go to”: [page no longer available].


Questioning and focus on level of questioning also have a long and current history.

(Palinsar and Brown, 1986), (Robin Lee Harris Freedman: Open-ended Questioning, 1994), (Frey and Fisher, Rigorous Reading: 5 Access Points for Comprehending Complex Text, 2013)

Thick and Thin Questions: YTube-2012, 2013



Q6. How? How do children learn to read/read to learn? How do we teach them?

There is no single answer for all kids, but I believe that we are all responsible for all kids learning to be successful readers.  There are 4 points of departure for trying to answer the “how” question:

A.  Identifying those who have influence on a school/school district and understanding the decision making process used to develop a reading “program”;

B. Understanding the context (at home, preschool, school and classroom levels) in which the teaching/learning takes place;

C.  Questioning the assessments used; and

D.  Evaluating the model(s) of learning that is/are articulated/communicated, implemented, assessed and fine-tuned.

Decision Makers


Who are the decision makers and what influences their choices?

Based on my reading, research, thinking and observation in schools, I think there are multiple sources that influence decision making about reading “programs”:  published/commercial products, “experts” (researchers, high visibility authors, organizations (IRA, NCTE, CCSS….), professional development sources (including teacher “educators”).  Advocates* and advocacy organizations for particular groups of children also bring expertise and influence (economically disadvantaged students, students who are English Language Learners, students with disabilities).  *Advocates Include state legislators.  See, for example: http://www.nj.com/education/2013/12/nj_early_screening_dyslexia_assembly.html

I’m sure those closest to an individual classroom could suggest others seen as “experts.”

A second (though not in importance) group of decision makers are school-based: superintendents, principals, school “leaders.”  It would be informative to have each school member define who the decision-makers are in their schools and how decisions about teaching reading are made.

The third tier (again—not in importance) of decision makers are classroom teachers and, possibly, support personnel—for example, literacy specialists, special educators, school psychologists.  Each teacher’s beliefs about learning to read as well as his/her expertise influence the development of children’s “learning to read/reading to learn” success.

Fourth (again, certainly not least in importance) are individual children and their families.  Their stories should influence us all.  They are stories of struggle and success.  For example:




Even famous people sometimes struggle with reading.  One example from


“Beverly Cleary was born in McMinnville, Oregon, and, until she was old enough to attend school, lived on    a farm in Yamhill, a town so small it had no library. Her mother arranged with the State Library to have        books sent to Yamhill and acted as librarian in a lodge room upstairs over a bank. There young Beverly               learned to love books. However, when the family moved to Portland, Beverly soon found herself in the              grammar school’s low reading circle, an experience that has given her sympathy for the problems of   struggling readers.

By the third grade she had conquered reading and spent much of her childhood either with books or on her        way to and from the public library….”

For other success stories, read:  Narrowing the Literacy Gap: What Works In High Poverty Schools by Diane M. Barone.


Anyone who has spent time in classrooms, knows that the individual classroom on a day to day basis is its own place, regardless of the program or approach to reading.  We need to understand the dynamics of the individual classroom.  For example a research study

found 4 types of factors influencing success, one of which was Context, defined as…..

Context refers to an individual school’s:

• Demographics

• History

• Culture

• Practices and Norms

• Staffing and Leadership

• Achievement Patterns

• Resources, and

• Expectations

In short, context matters. South Street’s school improvement plan was developed to match their unique context.

See: Becoming More Effective in the Age of Accountability: A High-Poverty School Narrows the Literacy Achievement Gap by Kristin M. Gehsmann and Haley Woodside-Jiron, U. of Vermont


Assessment is both formative and summative (including qualitative research and teacher observation).  If we are going to maximize the likelihood that children will be successful readers by third grade (and beyond), we need to know how they are progressing along the way.  In the elementary school, children’s prekindergarten skills are often (typically?) assessed before they even enter Kindergarten.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the child’s preschool teacher could communicate what s/he knows about the child’s language/literacy development. And to that knowledge base, we would add parents’ knowledge of their child’s language/literacy knowledge and skills.

Along the way, teachers use observation and a variety of informal assessment tools to determine if children in their class are progressing.  Even in kindergarten children are given “report cards” in the form of parent-teacher conferences, written notes sent home, the products of children’s in class work.



Models of Learning and Understanding the reading/learning process.

How clearly can we/do we articulate how “learning” to read happens?  Skillful observers can document what the teacher does on a daily basis and derive the principles of instruction the teacher is using.  But we need to know what the teacher believes s/he does to facilitate learning to read.  I believe that effective teachers can do that!


There is a wealth of information out there on learning in general and learning to read/reading to learn in particular.  And, given the new CCSS for the Language Arts, we need to understand how those standards are understood, applied and assessed in classrooms and schools.  All worth investigating!  More forthcoming….

And so?  So, how can we identify the “best practices” in these 4 domains: Decision-Making, Context, Assessment, and Models of Learning to Read? While what works in one school (or one research report) may not be a one-to-one fit with another school, classroom, or context, reports of “best practices” do give us a place to begin.  We might ask how accessible these reports are to teachers and families.  And, we might ask what roles teachers and parents have in determining and implements a reading program.