Today on the podcast we have a special conversation about the complex nature of education, reading and phonics instruction, and the pitfalls of all-or-nothing thinking.
Jennifer Serravallo is a renowned literacy consultant and the author of New York Times’ bestseller The Reading Strategies Book as well as The Writing Strategies Book; Teaching Reading in Small Groups; Teaching Writing in Small Groups, and Connecting with Students Online, among others.
Jen is joined by Wiley Blevins, an early reading specialist and author with experience teaching elementary school in both the United States and South America. He was Director of Special Projects for Scholastic in New York City, and has written several books on phonics and reading.
Jen and Wiley started their conversation by sharing their observations on the current state of teaching and education.
Below is a transcript of this conversation.
Jen: Wiley, thank you so much for agreeing to have a conversation with me today. I've studied a lot of your work. Most recently your Fresh Look at Phonics. But I also have on my shelf some of your work around nonfiction. And then I also have some of the writing that you've done for children. So it's really an honor to meet you. And I am really grateful that you are taking time to have a conversation with me.
Wiley: It's so great to meet you too, finally.
Jen: So I was thinking we could start off with a quote from the beginning of a Fresh Look at Phonics: "Education for complex reasons, is always particularly vulnerable as a profession to all or nothing thinking and neck bending pendulum swings. The reality is that explicit phonics instruction, when done effectively, is a transitory phase of learning to read, and never keeps students from reading and engaging with high quality trade books."
So I loved that quote, and I wanted to ask you what you're seeing in classrooms today, maybe pandemic teaching aside, that gives you cause for concern? And what should teachers be aiming for instead?
Wiley: Yeah, we're in a big transition time, as you know we're having this national conversation called the science of reading. And there's a lot of debate out there, and it gets very heated on both sides and what have you. And so while I appreciate the conversation in the debate I think researchers have the luxury of talking about this for years, but classroom teachers have to go into the classroom tomorrow, and land the plane. So they need our best advice.
The thing that gets me panicked is there's so much content around phonics from kindergarten or first grade, it's a very short window of opportunity to get it done quickly, efficiently and to do it right. And so I want to have the best resources in place for the teachers I work with. I want them to use them to their maximum potential.
Jen: the concern that you had that things are out of balance, I'm seeing that too. I think in some places, there's just a light touch of phonics, maybe occasionally woven into a guided reading lesson or something like that.
But in other places, sometimes, it feels like there's so much phonics, and a lot of the phonics... One of my big concerns is that the phonics instruction tends to be a lot of whole class, everyone gets the same thing. So as someone who believes a lot in responsive teaching and the power of differentiated instruction, and not wasting kids’ time and giving them what they need. But I think one of the things a lot of teachers are struggling with is how to do that. How to make what they know is important--responsive instruction, differentiated instruction--to make that happen during phonics time, and to do it in a way that's very efficient, so that it doesn't sacrifice things like the read aloud or your content studies or the other parts of the day that are so critical.
Wiley: So a couple things. One, I get asked the question all the time, how much time should I spend on Phonics? And for me, that's not the right question. The right question is what do I do during the time I have on Phonics. And so for me, if you have 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 30, 45, it doesn't matter. As long as the bulk of that time, at least half, is spent applying the skill to reading and writing.
One of the issues I have with a lot of phonics structures I see is it's very isolated, sort of skill and drill kind of work. It's in the application, when the learning sticks. If we don't spend more time applying those skills, we aren't going to get students where they need to be fast enough. Because that's how we get them to mastery quickly. So they can then transfer the skill to all reading and writing. So that's one issue.
Another issue when you're talking about sort of the book based, and they're very random. It's very important to me that we have a phonics scope and sequence and that once we introduce a skill, we hang on to it for a very long time, I have this mantra with the coaches here in New York City, "No more one and done, now one and just begun." Because it's really, if we spend a week on a skill or a couple of days on a skill, it's just the beginning of the exploration. And people don't realize I think how long it takes for some of our children to really master a phonics skill in both reading and spelling.
We can get children to be able to read these words fairly efficiently. But then we have children who can't spell because we haven't extended that learning in the work. So phonics doesn't have enough... It has the decoding in place in many instances, but not enough of the encoding work. So we're not doing the dictation, we're not doing the word really, we're not doing the word sorts and having conversation. So that's an imbalance that I see.
Now in terms of teaching in whole group and small group, this is where phonics gets really difficult. We need phonics to happen on these two tracks. We need all children to be exposed to grade level content, when it comes to phonics.
And the reason I say this is at one point, the thinking was that we would assess our children and place them along the phonics continuum. So what happened in reality, what we saw in some schools here in New York City was that children who were in first grade, for example, had mastered some of the skills from kindergarten were put back in that scope and sequence and moved very slowly. And then when they finished first grade, there was a whole bucket of content that they weren't exposed to, and they went to second grade even further behind.
So what does that mean? That means our whole group lessons have to be more differentiated. I work with teachers, whatever curriculum they're using we look at, when we're doing our blending how do we differentiate that so that our students who aren't there yet, get some value out of that. So that's where I am in my review and repetition cycle. How do we do some differentiation, some enrichment for students who already know that?
But then during small group is where you really hit it. So if there are students who haven't mastered some of those skills, you're finding where those holes are, those deficits, and you're plugging in those with high impact routines. You're doing blending, you're doing dictation, your reading and writing stories that contain those skills.
If you have above level, since we often ignore these children. We can move them further in the scope and sequence and during small group do a couple lessons a week and really accelerate their progress. So for the above level, we can do enrichment during whole group time and acceleration during small group and really move that.
Jen: So I see that teachers have in mind the scope and sequence that you follow through whole class teaching, while still providing multiple points of access during whole class instruction.
Jen: But then your small group time is used to either remediate or accelerate, depending on what you're noticing. And ideally, there's also some assessments built in here so that we know if kids are getting it or not.
Wiley: Yes. And so I created my own assessments, because I think sometimes we get too complex. I need really simple tools that keep me on track, and help me manage what my students are doing. So I created these cumulative assessments that I use. And I can't assess every child every week. So I take just a small group of students, and it's a word list. And there are some words from this week, some words from the previous week, and I go back about five weeks, and it's just a simple word list that my students are reading, they get a check if it's accurate, and then check if it's automatic.
So maybe week one, the skill is at the top of the assessment, week four, it's in the middle. And then week six it's at the... So I'm looking at skill over time. And so if they get lots of checks they're accurate that first week, which they should, because we're working on it, it's fresh in their memory. But five or six weeks later, those checks start to disappear that means the learning is starting to slip away, it's starting to what I call decay.
And that happens a lot in phonics instruction, if we don't do enough repetition, enough work, enough application after that initial introduction. So what that does is in a very short period of time, I can determine if my children have mastery, or if that learning is decaying, and I can jump on it and fix it before it becomes a learning hole.
Jen: Yeah, I totally agree with you and I think it requires a tremendous amount of content knowledge on the part of the teacher as well to be responsive in that way. And to know what you're looking for, and to be able to provide the small group intervention and whether it's to accelerate or to remediate, depending on what you're seeing. So yes, it's the tools. And it's also hopefully professional development to help teachers really understand this well.
I want to go back to the timing I hear you on there's no right number of minutes that I think depending on where you're working, and what kinds of skills that kids are coming in with, and how quickly they're picking up n ew concepts. The amount of time you spend each day is going to vary. But I did think it was really interesting that you said half that time would be an application.
And you're talking about the importance of small group in addition to whole group. So I'm wondering if the other half like what balance of that is small group versus whole group?
Wiley: Yeah, so I'm talking a whole group. Whenever I do whole group, half of that should be an application. So if I'm pulling for a small group, it's still going to be a lot of reading that's going on. And it's still going to be... I might be targeting specific aspects of the skill that the students need work on. So if they have the reading, pretty much in place, but the spelling's really lagging behind, I'm going to do more dictation with the sound boxes and rebuilding the words, I'm going to do word building, which is a very powerful activity with the letter cards and they go from sat to mad, and mad to mat may become very flexible in their knowledge of those skills. So I'm going to be focusing on those things. But those activities can be really great follow up activities to what you read. You can pull out some of those words and start there and build off of that. But I still want them to do reading in both.
Jen: And there's a lot of conversation right now about how all kids should get a certain amount of phonics instruction, but that there's going to be some children who need additional, on top of what's provided in the classroom. What are you seeing as a way that schools are managing this, maybe just talk about the schools in New York City to provide kids the support that they need?
Wiley: Yeah, a lot of it depends on the intensity of the program, and the scope and sequence that's expected. First grade is very intense. You have to master short vowels with blends and digraphs, long vowels, complex vowels are controlled. It's a lot of content. And so for some children, it's just too much, too fast. And so that's where the tier two spot work really comes into play. And if you do both really well, you won't have a lot that have to have tier three interventions, but you will have sought. And so that in and of itself, is a whole different part of the day where you are digging in even more deeply, slowing it down and giving them more practice, more repetition. I find that there isn't for those children enough repetition, in most core programs, enough exposures, to the decoding opportunities, and so on.
Jen: So what does independent reading look like in a classroom that you think is doing things well. That you've got this explicit phonics instruction, you've got a whole group, you've got small group. I've heard you already say that, you want to make sure that the texts that kids are reading are ones that they can be successful with, that makes sense. And decodable texts provide a certain kind of scaffold that you're presenting kids with texts that have the words in them that they've learned to decode. Is that what they're reading during independent reading? Is it a balance of decodable and other things? What's your vision for independent reading?
Wiley: Here's the problem that's happening right now is most of the teachers who are getting phonics materials in their classroom, come with one set of decodable. So they might have one or two books a week, it's not enough for kids to read. And so in how decodable text is solely based on the relationship with the books to the scope and sequence. So teachers and schools are struggling with getting enough books in kids hands.
So during independent reading time, you may guide students to reread some books from previously taught skills, develop fluency, but you can have other books for them to choose from. I mean, sometimes kids just like reading a simple patterned story that's a lot of fun. And that's okay. And I think people are getting really extreme about that, like, "Oh my gosh, they'll develop a horrible habit if you let them choose a very simple, fun little book."
And the reality is once you start teaching phonics as a system, and they start getting skills under their belt, they start weaning themselves from really controlled texts. They start having the confidence to attack other texts, and they start figuring out sound spellings before they were taught. It's generative if you do it right.
I remember very distinctly when I first learned how to read. It was in first grade, Mrs. Worshop, we had the Dick and Jane readers, which were high frequency readers, and she gave us a phonics workbook. And she taught us our letters and sounds. And it felt like a puzzle to me, these strange squiggles and by themselves or in combination, they stand for sounds, and I was very curious about this.
And I remember going to church and I heard all these strange words, thee, thou, doeth, that I'd never heard anyone speak in real life. And so I paid attention to the words and they all had T-H in that. And so I figured out how to pronounce T-H before Mrs. Worshop. That's what you want to start happening. In first grade classroom in some of the schools that I've worked in around mid-year, children are just grabbing books, and they feel confident to attack it.
And they will ask you, if there are certain words they have difficulties with and you can point out a pattern according to use and what have you, and they really start running with it. So we don't hide books for kids. We give them tools to practice those skills and get to fluency. And the more skills they're going to develop, the easier it is for them to tackle tasks that are less and less controlled, because they have more skills under their belt, they're ready to do that challenge.
Jen: I think that's so important what you just said. I think there is among some people a fear that if we don't control the text so much that they're 100% accurate in applying all their phonics skills. And those are the only books that they can read, that we're doing kids a disservice when really there's quite a lot of research around the importance of volume of reading. And I read David Share's Self Teaching Hypothesis paper, what I understood to be exactly what you're describing. That kids will teach themselves as they encounter more words, as long as there's not so many that it's overwhelming.
Some of these early pattern books, or like brown bear, brown bear, or alphabet books, or even really beautiful nonfiction texts that have great photographs in them, and they can read some of the text on the page. And my thinking is, all of those, any of those could make for great independent reading. And teachers can do conferences around comprehension, they could do conferences around reading habits, they can do... It doesn't always have to be just about decoding. Would you agree with that?
Wiley: Yeah, and there's some big misconceptions about decodable texts that I'm hearing. This is here, again, the black and white and sort of the loud voices be extreme. I've heard also people say, "Well, decodable texts need to be 100% controlled for the first two years of schooling." So if you had text that was 100% decodable, it really doesn't make sense for a couple of reasons. Number one, there's no research that says that. There's actually no research to support a percentage. There have been recommendations that the majority of words to give students enough practice, and people have determined how they define majority.
In fact, the two states, California, Texas have defined it as 75% or 80%, because they have stated adoption reading criteria. So that's the guide. But what that means and if you look at their criteria, what they're saying is that these little books, three out of every four words, on average, children should be able to sound out, so they have lots of opportunities to practice their phonics skills. But one out of every four that can't. It's a high frequency word, it's a story word.
And people don't realize that there are other words in these decodables that we have to teach children to handle, to tackle. And so when I hear people say 100% controlled, it doesn't make sense because the decodable texts that's been created now that all schools are using is not 100% controlled. There's no research that says it needs to be. The other thing is that logically, if I were to show you a list of the 200 most frequently used words in English, the most frequent word is which is the, which is irregular, you cannot sound it out. If I go through that list you're going to see was, you're going to does, you're going to they, you're going to see give. There's a whole set of words that children are going to encounter in lots and lots of texts.
In the first two years of school, they have to master those words too, or they won't get to reading fluency. We can't ignore those words. So people who say these extreme things, forget that these words have a high impact in terms of our understanding and accessing what we read, we have to do both. And that's where the research community needs to do better. We need to look more deeply at the types of words in decodable texts. We may never solve the percentage issue, but I think one of the things in decodable texts is there aren't enough of these most frequent words, and children don't have enough opportunities to use them.
Because when publishers are creating them, they're so focused on that 80% controlled that those other words are pulled out. That's why you get the sentences that don't sound like English, you know what I mean? So we need to stop that. We need to be okay with the text being 70% controlled, and sound like English and have those high frequency words that children absolutely need, because they have high impact in terms of their reading.
And there are people who are looking at that. Freddy Hiebert’s work is looking at the kinds of words and the repetition of words and so on. That work needs to continue. So right now we have a tool that isn't there yet. It needs some improvement, some enhancements, and some work on it. But I keep pushing to make that tool better. I have a problem with being so tied to a certain percentage, and ignoring the fact that these have to be stories that make sense. And they have to have the right kinds of words in them.
Jen: Yeah, I don't know, if you've seen the website called Beyond Decodables. Nell Duke was involved in it in some manner. They're aiming for around that same percentage of decodable, but also content rich, and also mimicking more natural language sounds, so it doesn't sound odd and using words that show up in English a lot and…
Wiley: I hope that continues, our children deserve that kind of text. Because think about when you're first learning to read, you're taking your oral language and connecting it to print. So it needs to be tightly connected. Now imagine you're an English learner, and the first books to get aren't English. [crosstalk]. That's a word.
Jen: So I want to shift gears here. And I want to ask you about something that I get questions about constantly, and a common practice in a lot of classrooms is to take running records. So listen to kids read out loud, record what they say. And then to go back and analyze what they've read and figure out what's going on. When they're making mistakes, why? When they're doing a lot of repeating, why? When they're reading correctly, why? And use that as a tool to inform instruction. Running records have sort of become... I think they're a little misunderstood. The analysis of them is a little bit misunderstood.
But I still think there's tremendous value in listening to kids read, recording what they read and analyzing them. So I'm just going to leave it open ended and ask you to just talk about what role does that play and what should we be looking at and looking for in a child's connected text reading?
Wiley: It is an incredibly valuable tool. Where people get tripped up with their running records is the coding about the different cues. And they've gotten so focused on that, that they've forgotten the value and the impact of a teacher really understanding and listening for children's errors and using that information to really target their specific needs. So a running record for me is just listening to a child read, recording your observations and taking that information to fine tune your instruction. They have a valuable place. We can have conversations about what kind of texts will be best for a running record, maybe the texts that are being used now there, there aren't enough words with the skills children have been taught so teachers aren't getting valuable information, that could be an issue that people have concerns about.
So if you're doing a running record with a leveled book, do a running record with a decodable at that same point in the year and see what you see. I like just watching children attack the text and see what they do. I say this all the time, if you give a kindergartner a book, did they put their finger on the first word and start working through or open the book and just start scanning the pictures for every little piece of information. Because they know they can't access the words. That tells me a lot about what they think reading is, and what behaviors they've develop. And I need to act on that information as well. So observing children reading and listening to them is absolutely essential. And one of the key pieces of formative assessment information we need to gather.
Jen: I'm glad to hear you say that, because I worry about all the assessments becoming computerized or having the only assessments that we use the isolated word lists. There's so much that happens when you watch a child read and watch what they work through, watch where their eyes go, watch them repeat themselves and correct themselves and try to puzzle out why they did that, what they were noticing or even ask them, “What made you go back and read that again?”, and listen to their thinking. Because I think that allows us to be responsive and give kids what they need.
Wiley: Yeah, I have a little form that I use that on one side, it just has some observations I make about the behaviors. And I can record some things that I see. And on the other side I have the phonics scope and sequence, and I can circle skills that I seem to be struggling with or record some words that I can analyze later.
Jen: I used to teach in New York City, I had 32 kids in my class. So...
Wiley: That's small for New York.
Jen: That was a capped class. But I had to have quick ways to be able to collect the information, evaluate it, and then move on and turn it into teaching. I think that's the other potential shortfall of a lot of the running records that are happening in classrooms across the country is that they're done with the intent of scoring kids or getting a level or benchmarking rather than using them as real, rich, formative data.
As a literacy focused person one thing I always have in mind is teachers are also teaching math and science and social studies. I used to have teach my third graders how to play the recorder. It's so many different things that we're trying to learn and become good at and be able to respond around. That any tool that helps make that decision making faster, right at your fingertips and be able to respond in the moment I think is a really helpful tool.
Wiley: My first year teaching. I had to teach music and I can't sing so it was painful.
Jen: I can't play the recorder, and neither could my third graders so I'm not very good at teaching it.
Wiley: There's a lot of music appreciation.
Jen: There you go. Something else that I think is a hot topic right now is the challenge with translating research into practice. There's these things that researchers can prove and show in a laboratory setting. I was just reading this piece by Seidenberg that talks about the gaps between the in-classroom research, what actually works with children in a diverse classroom, versus what we can do in a lab.
Shanahan had a piece in the recent ILA about the same challenge of translating, and the need for more classroom based research. But in the meantime, there's people like us who are trying to say, "Well, here's what the research says. Let me go try this in the classroom. Here's what it looks like." What are you seeing as some ways to overcome this hurdle, this divide between research and practice?
Wiley: Yeah, so one of the roles that I've had throughout the years when I've done consulting with publishers is to test out materials in classrooms, here in New York. And so that's been the best test.
And too often materials are created in a sort of a vacuum by people who maybe haven't been in a classroom in a long time, and teachers can sniff that out. And then they have to make some modifications and so on. So that's a serious issue. I think, really strong publishers will not only do some testing of the materials before they publish it, but once it's published to continue testing it and analyzing and revising, I think people don't realize that.
A lot of programs get better and better over time, because there's concentrated effort, a lot of data that comes back in, and the great publishers will use that and make those fine tunings. The other thing about research and about translating is when it gets translated to the classroom, or even to the publishers, it's very surface knowledge understanding. And one of the things I've seen so often in education is people run with that surface knowledge. If you don't have a deep knowledge, you don't understand the limitations of that work, and you start applying in ways that are really problematic.
And then a good idea becomes a bad idea because of the way it's being implemented. And then people just divorce themselves from the whole idea.
Jen: Can you give an example? Is there something that comes to mind?
Wiley: Well, I think decodable texts is a great example that. And people were talking about decodable texts and having the criterion be 80% and what have you. What I saw right away, was publishers being competitive. A publisher would say, "We met the criteria, ours is 80%." Another person would say, "Ours are 95%, we're better, buy ours." And then I look at those stories, and it was gibberish. So it wasn't a better tool.
So they didn't understand that these texts have to... Yeah, they have to have a lot of phonics practice, but they need to make sense. They need to be engaging, they need to be worth reading and rereading and talking about and writing about. They've just thrown up on the criteria. And they've forgotten about the other kinds of... And so I would encounter teachers who were like, "I hate decodable texts, I'm not using those in my classroom.
I'd be like, "Why? I have a great set that I use." And then they would show me theirs. And I was like, "Oh my god." These looked awful. They looked like I drew it in the basement with the lights out. And they don't make sense. So I understand why you hate it. It's a bad tool.
Jen: Yeah, I agree with you. I will end with this. Here's another quote from your opening chapter in your new book on Phonics. "We have a habit in education of taking an idea, falling in love with it and digging in our heels, even when there's evidence that our original idea needs some modification." I very much agree with your sentiment that we need to be listening to new things and revising. What do you see are some of the obstacles to this happening?
Wiley: For me, part of the excitement of being in education is you're always learning. Like, there's nobody that knows everything.
Jen: Totally agree, totally agree.
Wiley: Anyone who acts like it, you don't listen to them. Because there's nobody that knows everything.
I mean, I think it's great that you've dug into the early phonics, and you have so many people who listen to your work that you are continuing that conversation, helping them make that instruction more impactful. When I do my presentations, the last couple of years, I've been starting with a family story. I don't know if you know this, but I come from a very rural community in West Virginia. And I come from what I call a legacy of illiteracy. My grandparents on my father's side, never learned to read or write.
So I grew up seeing, all the obstacles they faced. I grew up seeing my grandmother shame. We'd sit in a restaurant, and she would hold the menu upside down. And she would insist that she'd be the last person to order and I couldn't figure it out. And finally, my sister said, "Don't you get it, she's listening to what we say. And she's ordering what we say. So pick something Grandma likes so she can enjoy her meal."
On my mom's side, my grandmother only went to school to the fifth grade, because you had to go into town. And she didn't think she had fancy enough clothes. So I didn't grow up in a home with books. So what we do to teach children to read, I always describe it as a gift. Because it's a gift that once you give it, it can never be taken away, and will forever transform a child's life. It literally opens up the world of possibility.
I grew up in a home where those doors were shut. And so I think it's incredibly exciting to be able to give that gift to children. But it's a huge responsibility to do it right and to do it well. And the best teachers are always striving to do it better and to know more. And so we need to just keep pushing forward in our understanding. And sometimes that requires us to confront some things that we like, and we've been doing that aren't as effective. And we need to change those practices for the benefit of our students. It's not about us not.
And I think some researchers will really stick their feet in the cement, because their reputations are around that.
So when people are willing to say, "Hey, there's more that I'm learning, and I want to help all the people who follow my work before,” we need to be supportive of that. And so that's what you're doing. That's why I wanted to have this chat with you so that we can continue that conversation because it's just the beginning of a lot of conversations these teachers will have, and they're important conversation
Jennifer Serravallo is the author of New York Times’ bestseller The Reading Strategies Book as well as other popular Heinemann professional books, The Writing Strategies Book; Teaching Reading in Small Groups; and The Literacy Teacher's Playbook, Grades K–2 and Grades 3–6. Her newest titles are Teaching Writing in Small Groups (publishing March of 2021) and Connecting with Students Online, from which she will donate a portion of the proceeds to organizations serving children directly impacted by COVID-19. Her other recent books include Understanding Texts & Readers and A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences as well as the Spanish-language counterparts to her strategies books, El libro de estrategias de lectura and El libro de estrategias de escritura.
Learn more about Jen and her work at heinemann.com/jenniferserravallo/, on Twitter @jserravallo, on Instagram @jenniferserravallo, or by joining The Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook Community.
Wiley Blevins is an early reading specialist who holds a M. Ed. from Harvard. He taught elementary school in both the United States and South America, and was Director of Special Projects for Scholastic in New York City. Wiley has written and edited many phonics and reading materials, and is the author of Phonics from A-Z and Teaching Phonics and Word Study in the Intermediate Grades. He has also coauthored with Alice Boynton Teaching Students to Read Nonfiction, Nonfiction Passages with Graphic Organizers for Independent Practice, and the Navigating Nonfiction program. He lives in New York City. Learn more at WileyBlevins.com