Joined: 20 Mar 2005
Location: Freelton, Ontario, Canada
Posted: Wed Aug 09, 2006 10:53 pm Post subject: Curriculum alignment
Jim, your observation is paradoxically NOT true for the earliest stages of reading in many systems using a "balanced literacy" approach. In such cases, SP-taught children will not perform as well as the "searchlight/three-cueing-system" guessers on the usual reading assessments, which are in fact aligned to the "mixed methods" teaching. Levelled books -- what you call book bands -- are systematically correlated with the non-phonic "cueing systems" and children who use pictures, initial letters, and "meaning" to guess words will outperform the SP-trained children.
Many school systems in North America use the Developmental Reading Assessment, which has a series of little booklets from Kindergarten to fourth grade level. However, the very first booklet (or maybe it is the second -- I have not looked at the booklets in the last few weeks) has words like "caterpillar" in it. The student is, of course, supposed to get the word from looking at the pictures. The test aligns perfectly with what is taught. Many children do learn to read quite adequately this way (though their spelling remains abysmal); however, many children do not. I have observed over many years now that children taught to read with a synthetic approach (we have no exact parallels to your UK programs) do NOT do well on the tests at the earlier stages. If they have not been programmed to "guess" they have no idea at all about "caterpillar" and similar words in Kindergarten text. They can't sound out that word (and many others in the text are similarly misaligned with the code the children have learned), so they are not rated successful. "Sounding out" words is considered undesirable on this test, although it is not strictly forbidden. Children must get at least 95% of the words correct -- which is virtually all of them in the early booklets, all of which are shorter than 100 words.
For years, there were very few "decodable" materials available for beginning readers in these parts. EPS published "Primary Phonics" (not bad, but not memorable either), but there are many more options today, from major publishers as well as Dick's BRI books which are very age-appropriate for young children, and cleverly illustrated with engaging characters and plots. However, SP-taught kids need to be reading fairly well on about a third-grade level to show up as good readers on the Developmental Reading Assessment or the other tests like it. All these tests -- similar to the UK ones, as I understand them -- are "performance assessments" which are scored on a rubric basis (level 1,2,3 etc.) On the DRA, the student does not have to write anything; s/he reads the booklet, retells the story, talks about his or her reading preferences with the tester, etc. At higher grade levels, the students again have to read text selections and respond to them in an open-ended way. They answer essay-type questions about characters, author's purpose, theme, and so forth -- a wide range of responses is acceptable, and these are again scored on a rubric basis. Students who cannot write well may take these tests orally, as they are meant to assess reading, not writing.
One problem I have had with first and second grade teachers is convincing them that kids learning with a synthetic approach were in fact becoming readers -- because the levelled books and comparable assessments do not usually reflect this. Many kids stay stuck at level 2 or 3 of the DRA for two years!! In point of fact, the Level 8 (middle first grade) story is "easier" -- that it, it is almost entirely decodable -- than the levels 4 and 6 stories. When I tell teachers to skip the kid to level 8 and try it they are astounded to find the child reads it easily....after many failed attempts to read "caterpillar" and similar words.
Your UK programs move faster than most of ours, so the children have encountered long vowels, vowel digraphs and so forth in most cases by beginning of Year 1, whereas even our SP-like programs teach the sounds/symbol correspondences at a slower rate. This past year I tried accelerating the first grade kids' learning of the correspondences and found that many did rapidly advance to second-fourth grade level independent reading, usually in about three-four months. Those kids did very well on the DRA.
At the beginning, however, the progress is hard for teachers in a "balanced literacy" environment to see. Unfortunately, tests composed of decodable text matching the code the SP children have learned would not necessarily show up the "mixed methods" guessers. I have been amazed to find several students who could read fourth-fifth grade level text fluently (passed all of Dick's PD's easily), yet could not decode simple nonsense words -- frunk, boofle, glip -- or easily decodable words not in their vocabulary (algid, sacerdotal). In those cases, I tested to see if the students knew any letter/sound correspondences at all -- and was flabbergasted to find one student who knew only 6, and another who knew fewer than 20(no vowels in either case). Some students can get a long way on sight words. All the students did in fact learn to decode, with some explicit instruction, but the older they were the harder they found it. Again, tests did not immediately show their improved reading skills until their decoding surpassed their memorization level.
I think Jenny has pointed out that SP kids do perform very well on virtually any test once they reach a certain point. The challenge is to make sure they are not tested too soon, if the instruments used are based on "mixed methods."
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