Week 3: Exploring “What Works Clearinghouse”

1.  My first impressions about WWC:

     I was impressed when I started exploring the What Works Clearinghouse website and it’s mission.  In just over ten years, (since 2002,) they have reviewed 10,000 studies in a highly-rigorous manner.  That’s fantastic.  Their overall goal, “To be a resource for informed education decision making,” and ultimately to improve education is laudable.  We need this.  It’s also an amazing achievement that they have covered over 700 publications because of the highly-scientific methods they use.  I’m excited that they review not just practices, programs, and products, but also policies.  I will need information on all of these in the future.  I’m also reassured that this will be a quality resource to use because all of their reports are evidence-based.  The materials appear to be critical and quite transparent, (candid.)  It’s surprising and reassuring, in a way, that many studies they have reviewed have been found to be somewhat lacking in various types of validity, sample sizes, and the like.  What Works Clearinghouse appears to base their reports on a high standard of critical review, and that’s great.


2.  Practice Guides:  An Analysis.

     I read a Practice Guide titled, “Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School.”   The first recommendation, (there were four,) was familiar to me, and it had strong evidence to support it.  My acquaintance with the recommendation:  “Teach a Set of Academic Vocabulary Words Intensively Across Several Days Using a Variety of Instructional Activities,” was a big part of a workshop I took through C.A.L., or The Center for Applied Linguistics.  The workshop speakers also emphasized the importance of focusing on academic vocabulary, (Tier 3 words,) and I try to do this.  The recommendation suggests using as many modalities as possible, (listening, speaking, and writing,) and I have found that to be key with English Language Learners.  Another aspect of the recommendation was to teach word families, such as affixes and cognates.  I’m glad to know that research STRONGLY supports these practices because I have been taught to do these things, have been doing them, and have come to believe in them.

The second recommendation of the four was the only other one to have “strong evidence.”  It was, “Integrate Oral and Written English Language Instruction into Content-Area Teaching.”  Thankfully, that’s sort of the definition of my current teaching position, and most acutely with the secondary and higher-level English Language Learner students.  I often teach patterns and rules of English through the context of assignments that older students bring to me, including writing papers.  For example, I have been taught that it’s a good practice to grab the opportunity of an authentic assignment to teach rules of English, vocabulary, and the rest.  This really works because the student is trying so hard to communicate for a real reason, and they are motivated by the content and the grade.  An English Language Learner will, (I find,) forget his self-consciousness about his accent when he really wants to get his ideas and understandings across.  Also, the recommendation supported the use of graphic organizers.  I find these to be absolutely essential.   For example, when a student is having difficulty communicating the pros and cons of something, I whip out a T-chart, and we brainstorm it out.  So the second recommendation is one I’ve found to be hugely effective with English Language Learners.

I was genuinely surprised at the extent of evidence available to support these strongly-evidenced recommendations, (there were six studies referenced in the report,) and the rigor of their definition of “strong evidence.”  To be labeled as having strong evidence according to WWC, a panel of experts must have found both high internal validity, (high quality causal designs,) AND high external validity, which means multiple studies with high quality causal designs.   In addition, there needs to be a direct relationship between the research and the recommendations, (yes!) consistently positive effects on relevant outcomes, and more.  

    As a result of reading this guide, I will increase my efforts to use short videos and other visuals with my English Language Learners.  This was strongly supported in the second recommendation, and it makes sense.  Also, my students are motivated when they use their laptops or see videos on the Active Board, so this is something I’m happy to increase.


3.  Quick Reviews:

According to a Quick Review of the Report, “Reading and Language Outcomes of a Five-Year Randomized Evaluation of Transitional Bilingual Education,” English immersion had a “substantively important,” or a favorable difference in outcome over transitional bilingual education in English reading and language achievement.  Since this research met WWC evidence standards, I feel comfortable saying that research says English Immersion is at least as effective as Transitional Bilingual Education in English reading and language achievement.


Week 2: Readings in Fluency, Phonics, and Comprehension

A.  Imagine that your principal has asked you to advise her in improving literacy instruction in the target area (phonics, comprehension, fluency).  Identify 3-5 best practices and describe how the research in the article supports this practice.  Identify at least one caveat/common mistake of teachers in the target area and describe what research says about that area.

We can improve our literacy instruction of fluency in three ways.  First, we need to focus more overall time on assisted reading, including reading while listening, in both remediation and regular classroom practice.  Research on choral reading, (Heckelman, 1969,) where both a teacher and student are reading a text, (the student silently and the teacher aloud,) has shown a mean gain of 1.9 years within the timeframe of just a summer remedial program.  This works best in a tutorial or one-on-one approach.  In addition, partner reading has been shown to improve fluency. (Eldredge 1988 and Quinn 1990.)  This technique is where a teacher chooses student pairs each week.  One of the readers is fluent and is the lead reader, while the other is a struggling reader.  The lead reader provides supportive feedback and the students practice until both are fluent.  This was shown to outperform traditional basal group results.

     Finally, we need to train our reading teachers to focus more of their efforts on prosody, or oral expression.  Reading researchers Chomsky in 1978, and T. V. Rasinsky in 1990b, have shown that characteristics of prosody are present when a student is a fluent reader.  The teacher can both model good oral expressiveness, (including stress, pitch, and juncture,) and directly teach it.  Prosody is a part of oral language that children are already enjoying as they construct meaning.   Read and Shreiber (1982) are researchers who showed that children  need prosody to understand speech more than adults do.

Please note an important caveat to these strategies and fluency instruction in general.  It is critical that the teacher has determined that the struggling reader is at least in the transitional stage of Chall’s model.  That is, the student has basic reading skills, can decode, and is between a late pre-primer and late second-grade independent reading level.  It is a common mistake of teachers to apply fluency strategies according to grade level instead of according to independent reading levels.

B.  How did the VOL, (Voices of Literacy,) podcast that you listened to complement your knowledge of the topic?

My understanding of the research on reading fluency was enhanced by listening to Dr. Betsy Baker interview Dr. Mathew Quirk, an Assistant Professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara.  He did a study called, “Motivation and Reading Fluency Among Second Graders,” and found that the more skilled readers his students became, then the more motivated they became to read.  His question was what was the relationship of the student’s motivation to read to reading skills, and which came first.  He found there was a reciprocal or ongoing relationship between the two, and that as his students became more excited about their success, they sought more reading practice.  So, this was bidirectional and both were necessary for progress.  He suggested the results were important for principals and policy makers because the teachers he met were already aware of this.  He said the current culture of high-stakes testing was not motivating young readers, so it was important that principals and policy makers know that motivation has a key role to play in acquiring more reading skills.  I was intrigued and connected this to my recent readings regarding the importance of student enjoyment of connected texts to developing prosody and fluency.  It makes sense that students will experience an increase in their motivation to read as they learn to comprehend text better through a focus on prosody.  So, every exciting “aha” moment that a teacher can create for a student will result in more self-motivated reading practice and higher achievement.

C.  What overarching themes/findings seemed to characterize best practices across fluency, phonics, and comprehension?

I see a continuous thread in the best practices of fluency, phonics, and comprehension of the importance of knowing one’s students thoroughly.  In each of these areas, it is critical to know what motivates the individual student, what their reading stage is, (regardless of grade,) and what their independent reading level is.  For example, implementing best practices while teaching phonics explicitly for short, (approximately fifteen minutes,)  of fun, connected daily lessons in first grade, is only possible when the teacher knows each student’s level of mastery of the alphabetic principle.  To enhance comprehension, regardless of the core reading program chosen, a teacher needs the latitude to alter scope and sequence according to their particular students’ needs and interests.  Finally, before using fluency strategies, a teacher must be certain that their student has basic reading skills mastered.  So, knowledge of one’s students is a key theme.

Another overarching theme across fluency, phonics, and comprehension is they each work best in a deliberate, structured program that is explicit to all, especially the students.  So teachers need to be explicit about what they are doing.  A teacher could say, “We are learning about the letter d and connecting it to our dinosaur research.”  This will build motivation, improve comprehension, and set the stage for fluency.   Within that structure, the teacher has  room to elaborate and give more practice than a core program calls for, when needed.  The structure remains regardless.  Students comprehend texts better with a structure that includes modeling, examples, and guided practice.  So, it’s important that teachers increase anticipation by letting students know the outline of their upcoming, exciting units of study.  Positive, informative feedback will motivate students to press on through phonics lessons that are organized and connected well to authentic literature and units of study.  If an individual student needs remediation in any of the areas of phonics, fluency, or comprehension, they still maintain a sense of overall structure to their learning progress.

Week 1: Blogging on Research

What is my personal relationship to research?

I have not published research before, but my understanding of what it entails started in the late 1980’s.  I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin and worked as a summer secretary with hypertension research doctors in Houston, Texas.  My stepmother was a nurse and was able to help me find work with her hypertension research team working at M.D. Anderson Hospital.  The doctors were both M.D.’s and Ph.D’s, and they did research through Baylor College of Medicine.  While they did see private patients, they also ran ongoing controlled experiments with public volunteers using drug company sponsors.  This was very interesting to me.  Of course I did not understand a lot, but I was impressed by the laborious steps taken to ensure accuracy, anonymity, and validity in each study.  I had learned about the placebo effect and saw that all the studies had to control for it.  It was clear that the studies would take years from start to finish, and that they were overlapping.  My stepmother, Dee, told me that many of the participants struggled to afford medicines for their hypertension and by volunteering, they were hoping for free relief.  They all understood that they might be receiving a placebo, but they did it anyway.

This experience impressed upon me the critical nature of formal research; it could be used to  improve and possibly save lives.  I also wondered about integrity and outside influences, as sometimes the doctors and nurses might be taken to a lavish lunch by Pfizer or other drug companies.   I was curious and observed the researchers closely….as people.  They were not just highly educated and intelligent doctors.  They were enormously curious, hard-working, patient, and doggedly tenacious individuals.  Clearly, formal research was a serious and honorable undertaking.

Over the years, I believe I have often compared “research” to this benchmark life experience, and it often comes up short or just different.  I try to be a critical consumer of educational research and any new information that I come across.  I understand from my life experiences and readings on the nature of research that it is complex.  It may have ideographic or singularly useful results rather than universally, (nomothetical,) applications.  I would like to be a part of impactful research in literacy that can serve the greater good.

What is my informed definition of research?

I believe all good research starts with an important question that is in vital need of answers.  The text, Reading and Understanding Research emphasizes the need to investigate the provenance of the research question to be certain it is “a legitimate object of study.”  It is only after this is accomplished, in my opinion, that a researcher is ready to determine the type of research that is needed.  At base, all research starts with an important question, and requires a rigorous, methodical process of research design, data collection, careful interpretation, peer review, and skilled public reporting of results.  Reporting of any limitations to the research–design, method, or results, should be mandatory.  Duke and Martin describe a multitude of research methods, including traditional experimental and quasi-experimental research.  A curator friend of mine, (she works at the Owens-Thomas House in Savannah,) does historical research and prepares exhibits for modern audiences.  So, there is just an amazing array of research methods, but they all start with a vital question and require rigorous processes that ensure accuracy, validity, and integrity.

An important component of my definition of research is complete transparency.  That is, every aspect of the important question, experiment design, samples, procedures, results, (both predicted and not,) is shared objectively and with integrity.  This is vital.  In order to be valid, the commitment to transparency must include clear results that tie directly to the initial question.  This also serves the larger commitment of a researcher to contribute meaningfully to his or her field.  So, if unexpected results are found, those need to be shared.  Perhaps that data will evolve into further research, or compel a refined design of the initial experiment.  Either way, as a professor once told me, all data is good data.

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