Scientifically Based Research — U.S. Department of Education– Pg 7

Implications for Scientific Based Evidence Approach in Reading—Eunice Greer

     MS. NEUMAN: It’s delightful to have Dr. Eunice Greer here today. She has done much work in the state of Illinois and been a director of reading as well as assessment. Today what she is going to be talking about is implications for scientific based evidence approach in reading.

     DR. EUNICE GREER: Good morning.

     It really is a very cool time to be working in reading.

     Leave No Child Behind. No Child. It is a horribly devastating thing, and I’m not exaggerating, to be the seven or eight year old sitting in the room who can not read.

     The next time you are in a classroom I want to challenge you to pick the 5 percent to 15 percent of the children in that room who will not learn to read and figure out how you’re going to tell them that it’s okay. How are you going to tell their parents? It’s not okay. Leave no child behind.

     Russell’s right, we’re fortunate in reading. We are beginning to build and see a converging body of evidence that tells us that we know something about successful strategies, successful elements that need to be taking place in early reading classrooms that will help ensure that all children learn to read.

     We have a converging body of evidence that tells us that children need instruction in five areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension.

     Now, twenty years ago, when someone would say to us, well, how do you teach kids to read, we were left standing there with our hands in our pockets saying, well, a lot of different things work for different kids. We’ve come a long way since then. It’s much more comfortable. I’m much more comfortable standing up here this morning, then I would have been fifteen years ago, saying, well, there’s a lot of stuff that might work, and if one thing doesn’t work, try something else.

     Most of my comments today are drawn from the National Reading Panel Report that was delivered late in the year 2000. The panel sifted through over 100,000 studies and the sieve that they used to sift these studies through to identify the studies that met their criteria for inclusion in their analyses were the studies had to come from a refereed journal, be published in English. They had to focus on reading instruction for children pre-K through grade 12 and they had to use experimental or quasi-experimental research design with control groups or with multiple baseline methods.

     Now, as Valerie alluded to earlier, if we had just gone for straight experimental design, there was not a lot there, and we still have a whole lot of work to do.

     But as the panel looked at the studies that emerged from their sorting and as they read the results, findings began to converge around these five elements of early reading instruction.

     What I want to do today quickly is take you through those five elements and talk briefly about some of the truths and some of the misconceptions.

     Speaking with phonemic awareness. What is phonemic awareness? Well, it’s the ability to notice and think about and work with the individual sounds in spoken words, not written words, in spoken words.

     Before children learn to read, they need to know that words are made up of one or more sounds, and that you can take those apart and change them and that they make different words. They need to be able to work with speech sounds.

     So, if they can do this, if they’re phonemically aware, where are we? What do we know about phonemic awareness? Well, we know that we can teach it. There are systematic instructional practices that we can use to teach kids to become more phonemically aware. Children who are more phonemically aware are better at learning to read and to spell, and it also influences young children’s comprehension.

     Phonemic awareness in the classroom is noisy. It’s not doing worksheets because it’s working with sounds. So, if you go into a classroom and all these little five year olds have their heads down and those big logs in their hands that we call primary pencils, they’re not working on phonemic awareness. They need to be making noise. It’s most effective when teachers work with small groups of kids.

     Now, let’s look at the flip side. What are some of the misconceptions around phonemic awareness? Does it assure success as a reader? No, this is not an endpoint. There are a lot of other things that have to go on before we have a successful reader.

     Is it the same thing as phonics? No, phonics we’ll see in a minute. It is not the same thing as phonics. It’s about spoken sounds.

     It is just for at-risk readers? No, the research tells us that all kids benefit from being more phonemically aware.

     Is it a perpetual element of K-3 instruction? Does it need to go on every day for four years? No, 18-20 hours for most kids. Now let me tell you, if you haven’t been in a building in a while, kindergartners spend more time in the bathroom in a year than 18-20 hours. It’s a finite thing that needs to go for kids.

     Phonics. Phonics teaches kids the relationship between written language and sounds so that they can use it to read and to write words.

     Kids who receive strong instruction in phonics are better at decoding and spelling, K-6.

     Explicit, systematic instruction in phonics is better than sort of random or nonsystematic instruction or no instruction at all.

     What do we mean by “systematic instruction?” It means that we teach children letter sounds and relationships and then we let them practice those on things that they’re reading. We don’t ask them to spend a lot of time reading things that they haven’t learned to recognize the sounds.

     So, if we’re working on “B”s and “A”s and “T”s, we don’t ask kids to read the word: can. We work on words like “bat” and “at.” And, we give them practice using the tools that they are learning, so that they see the efficacy of those tools and they begin to see and discover the routineness and some of the patterns in our language. Phonics instruction is most effective when it’s begun in kindergarten or first grade.

     Now, some of the misconceptions. There’s one best program. There isn’t. When the panel looked at the research on various programs of phonics instruction, there really were no significant differences in the effectiveness of the programs that they looked at.

     Phonics is just for kids who come from low SES backgrounds. No, that’s not true. Phonics is of benefit to all kids.

     Phonics instruction is effective when it’s taught as a supplemental workbook activity? Here, again, no. This is not a workbook activity. This is an activity that involves repeated practice in applying phonic skills to reading and to writing, so that kids have an opportunity to write and read and see how this tool is working.

     Here, again, it’s not an entire reading program. It is not an end. It is a means to an end. We’re working toward comprehension.

     Fluency. Fluency is the most neglected skill or element of early reading instruction. When we say fluency, what we mean is rapid accurate reading with expression.

     Now, when kids can read rapidly and accurately what this does is this frees up their little brains so that they can attend to what the text is about, they can attend to meaning.

     Back in the ’70s two gentlemen, LaBerge and Samuels, did some very nice research. They explained the notion of cognitive capacity. If you’re spending all of your sort of brain energy sounding out words and trying to identify words, you have nothing left to attend to what the text is about.

     So, we want to make kids as fluent as possible so that every ounce of capacity that they have can be put toward the outcome that we’re looking for and that is their ability to comprehend.

     Research tells us that repeated monitored oral reading practice can improve students fluency.

     Now, the best strategy for developing fluency that we’ve seen coming out of the research is to give students many opportunity to read the same passage orally, and these need to be reasonably easy for the kids. They need to be at what we call their independent reading level, so they can read them with about 95 percent accuracy.

     The best way to do this is to begin by providing kids with a fluid model of what this text sounds like, and then give them opportunities to practice reading it orally.

     What are some of the misconceptions? Fluency is the same thing as authenticity. No, authenticity is just saying words right and fast. That’s not reading with expression.

     Fluency is a fixed accomplishment, you either fluent or you’re not. No. You’re fluency varies with the text and with the topic and with the conditions and the expectations for what you read. The same thing applies for young children.

     Sustained silent reading improves fluency. We were a little bit surprised by this finding, but there’s no evidence that sustained silent reading makes kids more fluent readers.

     Now, there are a lot of hypotheses as to why this is the case. There is a lot of research that needs to be done, but sending kids off to read for thirty minutes by themselves and not holding them accountable and not asking them to practice is not associated with gains in fluency.

     Let’s go on: vocabulary. Vocabulary are the words you need to know to communicate. Oral vocabulary refers to the words that we use in speaking or that we recognize when we hear them. Reading vocabulary refers to the words that we recognize in print.

     Students have an oral vocabulary. They have a reading vocabulary. Their oral vocabulary is typically much larger than their reading vocabulary. The larger a student’s reading vocabulary, the easier it is for them to comprehend. The larger their oral vocabulary, the easier it is for them to comprehend and to read. Because when the come to a word they don’t know, they have a whole bank of words to try to match that up with and to associate it with. So, the more words they know, the more likely it is that they’re going to experience success as readers.

     Vocabulary needs to be taught directly and indirectly. Direct instruction in vocabulary is where the teacher introduces the word, discusses it, talks about it, lets kids write in sentences, work with it. Teachers can typically cover about 8-10 words a week in that method. That’s not very many words when you think about how many new words a child is confronted with every week.

     Kids learn most of their words indirectly, through conversation, through listening to adults read and talk and through reading on their own.

     Misconceptions? Students can always rely on context to figure out unknown words. No. Beany Babies are ubiquitous. Could mean beautiful, could mean cheap, could mean really annoying.


     Kids need other strategies to help them with unknown words. They need to know about dictionary skills and reference aids, and they need to know how to use those aids.

     They need to know how to look at a word and its parts: prefixes, suffixes, roots. All of those strategies help them deal with unknown words.

     Students either know a word or they don’t. No. There are really about three levels of word knowing that we talk about. There are unknown words. There are words that you’re acquainted with. You sort of know what they mean. “He went down to the cay to watch the boats.” Well, I sort of know that’s got something to do—but I’m not sure.

     And, then, there are established words that we really know well. They are our old friends. We know their multiple meanings. We know how they are used. We know the affect that they convey. Those are words that are established in our vocabulary.

     Finally, teachers need to teach new vocabulary directly. Obviously not, if a teacher can only cover 8-10 words a week, well, direct instruction of vocabulary words is not going to be the best and only way to go.

     Finally, where are we going? Where is all of this headed for? Text comprehension, that’s where we want to get kids. The other things are means to an end. They are contributing factors. But we always need to remember, our final goal is to get kids who are purposeful and active readers, and all five of the elements of early reading instruction play critical roles in contributing to kids getting there.

     Truths about comprehension: good readers are purposeful and active when they read. They read for a purpose and they’re always thinking and working through the text. Their brains are very active while they are reading.

     There are six strategies that research has shown us that improve kids comprehension, six instructional strategies: teaching kids to monitor their comprehension; teaching them to use graphic and semantic organizers which are maps; sort of organizational pictures of the text content; being able to answer questions about what you’ve read; being able to generate questions about what you’ve read; being able to recognize the story structure –Is it narrative, Is it exposition, Is it chronological, Is it comparison and contrast?

     All of those things are aids to being able to understand the text and being able to summarize a text.

     Explicit teaching of these strategies, directly explaining the strategy, modeling it for the child, giving the child guides to practice with the strategy, giving kids repeated opportunities to apply and use the strategy. These are all effective techniques for teaching kids strategies to use when they are working through text.

     Misconceptions. It’s best to wait until students have mastered the basics to teach comprehension. No, comprehension begins at the get go. We begin with listening and story comprehension, and as soon as they begin to read, we begin to teach them comprehension strategies. We don’t wait until they’re fluent.

     Asking students questions about what they read is effective only as an assessment strategy. No. It is in fact an effective teaching strategy as well.

     Finally, moving really, quickly, research implications. What are some next steps?

     We don’t have all the answers. We need to know a lot more. We need to encourage research that focuses on finding out more about the reading achievement and instructional needs of more diverse student populations, including students with disabilities.

     We need research-based resources infused into the pre-service and in-service professional development systems around our country.

     And, we can’t forget principals.

     Please, ladies and gentlemen: yes, teachers need to know how to teach reading, but those principals in those early elementary buildings need to know about early reading instruction. They really need to be effective leaders. If they are going to be effective leaders of reading instruction, they have to know it. They need their own professional development. They’re not the same as teachers.

     The field needs developmentally appropriate assessments that reflect what we know about early reading instruction. Teachers and principals need professional development around how to collect and use this data to inform instruction.

     Finally, what can you do? Please, in everything that we think about putting out there, we need to support and encourage teachers’ use of research-based practices and research-based assessments.

     We need to reinforce the need to teach all five elements of early reading instruction, and we need to remember that the goal is fluent readers.

     I’ll make a plea for consistency here. I talk to a lot of teachers. If any of you are standing up in front of a roomful of teachers, they are only going to see you once in their lives. Why should they trust you? They don’t trust you. They’re going to leave and go back and do what they did.

     But, if we hit them again and again with the same message, it’s a consistent message, it comes from all of our organizations, it comes from the Hill, the consistency proxies for trust, and they begin to listen to us and change and that’s how we Leave No Child Behind. Thanks.


     MS. NEUMAN: You notice how Eunice’s voice went up when she talked, “and principals.”