Sunday, June 21, 2015


I began a unique teacher education project last August in Maasailand, Kenya. This blog focuses on one of the complex challenges that was evident in the classrooms and a major obstacle to providing quality education in schools across the developing world. Future blogs will talk about other key issues in the quality of education crisis and what I have learned from my first hand experiences in Kenya and Ethiopia. 

Kindergarten Kimuka Primary School, Maasailand, Kenya 

Picture this. You are five or six years old. You could be living in a rural part of Kenya or in any other country in the developing world.  Your mother tells you today is the day you are going to start school. As she gives you the shirt, sweater and skirt that your older sister wore when she started school, she tells you, “You will have a teacher. You will learn. School is very, very important.”

The Way to School

You walk out into the chilly morning air with your mother and follow her as she deftly makes her way around the slippery craters created by last night’s down pour. Once at the road, your Mother points and tells you, “This is the way to go. Follow the road until you see the big house I showed you.” You do as you are told. If you are frightened you do not show it. Your pace is slow but you are serious about reaching your destination and eventually the unfamiliar shoes binding your feet carry you 8 rough kilometers (4.9 miles) to the place called “school”.

The way to School

Your long, throat-parching walk had been exceedingly solitary save for the grazing goats, plodding cows and the occasional motor scooter that, most days, will blanket you in a thick cloud of dust as it zooms by. However, when you arrive at the tall iron school gate you are dazzled by the sea of children on the other side, more children then you have ever seen. Waves of them are flowing towards doors where teachers are stationed outside. Swept up, you land in a bare room with walls the color of milk. The teacher starts speaking in words, many of which, you have not heard before. You take in all the clues your young mind can comprehend. The other students are squeezing their bottoms into the rows of benches. You squish in too. 

The way to school

The teacher makes white marks on the blackish wall. She points at them, speaks, points again, no one knows what to do. The teacher speaks again, points again, you can tell from her face she is waiting for the children to repeat what she says. They finally do. You and the others follow her lead and do this many times. You don’t know it but your teacher wants you to learn the names of colors although they are not the names you have heard at home and there are no colors in sight.

As I write, the vivid image of a five-year old girl is as still fresh in my mind as if it were one of the mornings when my car driver stopped his Toyota in the midst of our jaw-jarring ride to Kimuka Village Primary School in the Rift Valley. On the days that our coordinates converged, the sweater-clad, runny-nosed Kindergartener, making her way to the same destination, stops, looks and recognizes the cheerful man behind the wheel and the Mzungu (Kswahili for white-skinned person) in the backseat. She waits for the signal to climb in.

The way to school

The little girl’s solitary hike to and from school each day, looking like a speck against a vast and rugged landscape, was and still is, incomprehensible to me - the walk is extremely strenuous and rife with serious hazards. The child, so unprotected! My mind is crowded with clashing images of my own children, at that age, blithely hopping on their school bus. My concept of a five-year old comes into question. Then my thoughts lurch and I’m stunned by a bigger picture. I’ve been working with the teachers in this child’s school. I have visited her classroom everyday for weeks now and I know that the hopes of the mother and the obedience and effort of the child are invested in a young woman with an eighth-grade education, equipped to provide little more for her students than good intentions. I know the consequences of that disconnect are enormous. 

The way to school

The way to school

The education that hopes are pinned on in the developing world is the education that is leaving 2.5 million children, who do get to go to school, without being able to read a single word by the end of third grade. (There are 58 million children worldwide who are out of school.) The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is responding to this crisis that is key to a better life and stronger economies, by planning to support up to $1 billion in activities over five years. The “Advanced Basic Education: All Children Reading” contract concentrates on improving student reading for children in grades 1 - 3.

5 year old girl at classroom door

The causes for the failure in basic education are complex and numerous and correction will require some heavy lifting. Governments will have to distribute its funds equitably to all segments of society. Teachers in developing countries will have to be paid a living wage. Beginning reading books written in the many mother-tongue languages will have to be available to all school children. Infrastructures for connectivity will have to be in place. Those are just a few of the challenges. However, a correction that is at hand is providing teachers, preferably at the preparatory level, with the models for teaching students to be thoughtful, competent readers, writers and self-guided learners. College partnerships, online interactive programs, and projects such as the one I brought to Kenya are just a few viable options for connecting and educating school leaders and school teachers.

To read more about the learning crisis in the developing world, I recommend Lant Pritchett’s, powerful book The Rebirth of Education: educating ain’t learning. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The How and Why of Teaching the Reader and the Reading

When it comes to planning reading comprehension instruction that will result in metacognitive, self-guided, (oh well, I’ll use the term) deep readers, it is not uncommon to be stymied by an assortment of barriers. Two related questions teachers grapple with were cited in the research reported in Grant Wiggin's blog series on teaching comprehension:
  • Is there a necessity for emphasizing specific strategies if the goal is reading as an active search for meaning?
  • How can teachers teach strategies without subordinating the content?

This blog will attempt to remove the doubts those questions implyThe conclusions and observations I am about to share with you about explicit strategy instruction and its effect on students' reading comprehension, are based on my experience mediating the literacy learning of primary and intermediate at-risk students. Working with many of my students over multiple years, I was able to observe the cumulative effect of embedding my literature-based program with procedural knowledge. Facilitating reading and writing workshops in classrooms and working with students on all levels of academic ability, provided more grist for the mill.

I first plunged into teaching strategies by reading aloud and thinking aloud to my fourth grade students. I told them I was going to let them in on the things I do inside my head when I read  - things that help me understand and remember. It was my show and tell. After reading, we did a retelling of my responses and we labeled those behaviors (e.g. questioned, predicted, fixed-up confusion, inferred). After following this format for a few days, my normally passive readers were jumping out of their skin. They wanted their predictions, questions and inferences heard too. Those responsive reading behaviors were the prelude to gradually releasing control and the beginning of student-guided book discussions that became the norm.

Once the language around reading strategies was embedded in our conversations, I felt the time was right for launching my first explicit strategy lesson. High on my list of priorities was wanting to clarify what students could do when they were stuck on an inference question. However, I had reservations; I didn't know if they would get it and there was the issue of taking time away from covering content but the train had left the station. My students did get it and to say they were highly engaged is an understatement. That explicit strategy lesson never needed to be retaught. From then on when they were challenged to infer what was not stated, they were aware of what was required of them. Instead of declaring, “It doesn’t say” they moved into problem solving mode using the process they had learned and practiced. 

I realized that as long as I made teaching the reader central to my agenda, it became very natural to move back and forth between conversations about behaviors of learning and the content of the curriculum. Teaching process and product, it turned out, is a symbiotic not a dichotomous paradigm. Content is the indispensable conduit for process instruction. Before, during and after reading, we are mining text for information, ideas, concepts, author’s craft and message. The reading (content) is the focus. While in pursuit of making meaning, we learn where students’ understanding breaks down. I prefer to address those obstacles (teaching the reader) with on-going metacognitive dialogue at the point of use and then present clarifying strategy lessons during a designated time and for designated students. 

If, for example, some of your students demonstrate very poor reading recall and you are confident they are not on overload because of readability, concepts or vocabulary (easy to check), the problem could be inadequate attention to the text. A student who cannot paraphrase one or two sentences immediately after reading them needs strategies for improving his or her engagement while reading. Those strategies can be taught separately and explicitly during a mini-lesson. I start by telling  my students, "When you are reading with purpose, have a pencil in your hand. If you are not paying attention your page will be blank." Then I model a variety of ways to respond to text. Some of those responses are: 
  • Draw what you visualize
  • Draw a stick figure for each character, "collect" or infer describing words for each
  • Build a graphic organizer while you are reading
  • Jot down questions and predictions
  • Answer the questions and check the predictions
  • Chunk information 
If the recall problem is a result of perceiving the words on the page as just so many trees and students never see the forest, they need to be shown how organizing things helps us understand, remember, and locate what we want to find. Then demonstrate the strategy for chunking information using a hierarchy map (main topic, subtopics and details). It is the footprint for a paragraph or a chapter.

So here is a snapshot of  instruction that starts by teaching the reader and moves back to teaching the reading:
  • At a time set aside for explicit strategy instruction, tell the children, “I noticed you are having difficulty remembering what you read and isn’t that a bummer. Nobody wants to have to read everything 2 or 3 times. I can show you a way to fix that.” The students  tune in because the lesson will have an impact on them that they can appreciate.
  • Model the strategy for organizing while thinking aloud. Use manipulatives first, such as assorted blocks and then move to using text that is not challenging.
  • Provide guided practice with the whole group.
  • Students then continue to practice using the strategy with a buddy and being coached as needed.
  • Move back to the reading. Apply the organizing strategy using the text students find challenging to recall.
  • Students evaluate how or if using the strategy was beneficial.
The research has not been conclusive regarding how teaching students to use self-monitoring behaviors and comprehension strategies switch to auto-pilot or if, indeed, they do. However, because of my students' demonstrations of understanding, their metacognitve dialogue and the feedback received from their classroom teachers, I propose that the following teaching behaviors are  key to the transfer and application of strategy learning: 
  • Explicit intention: Don’t keep it a secret. You want students to know how to help themselves when they don’t know. You want them grow their intelligence. Let them know that in addition to all the other neat things they are going to learn, you are going to teach them those things too.
  • Thinking aloud and clarifying demonstrations: Always tell what you are doing and why you are doing it. Make the strategy lessons enjoyable, memorable and engaging. Using concrete objects increases attention and brain activity. Among the materials in my “tool box” are: blocks, Play Doh, puzzle pieces, a bag of dry garbage and fake money for a treasure hunt. These lessons stick. They create the kind of clarity that leads to control and autonomy.
  • Keep the processes of reading in plain sight: The same strategies will resurface over and over, subject to subject. We want students to see that many strategies are being used recursively as we read. Keep the dialectic conversation going between process and product.
  • Non-directive prompts: You’ve taught your students with intentionality, which you shared with them. You’ve supported them in their practice and application. It’s time to stop telling them what to do. Instead of directing students to organize the material they are reading, use an open prompt - “While you are searching your source material today to locate information for your project, what do you plan to do to help yourself understand and remember what you read?”
  • Reading response journals: These are journals where students exercise choice. They select the strategies and the modalities that work for them. The journals reflect their independent reading processes. They provide a lens into each child’s growing repertoire for processing text and meeting challenges that can be viewed by teachers, parents and very importantly, themselves.
It cannot be stated too strongly, incorporating explicit strategy lessons for understanding the Habits of Mind used by people who are highly successful at what they do, are key to cultivating success in reading. More often than not, deficits, particularly in flexibility, thoroughness, accuracy and persistence, are the underlying reason for a wide array of difficulties students face. Children can demonstrate great comprehension when speaking spontaneously about their reading but fail miserably when responding to questions and other tasks because they are impulsive or unable to work through challenges.

We have a history in education of thinking higher-level thinking behaviors belong to the high achievers. It’s important to remember, the behaviors that have been identified over the last 35 years as the essential work of reading (e.g. questioning, inferring, summarizing, synthesizing the message, and fixing up confusion) are naturally occurring mental processes. (With the exception of summarizing. Primary grade children list events, they don’t categorize them.) Walk into a Kindergarten room. The students are asking questions about the stories, asking questions about things they do not understand, inferring and getting the story message. I’ve never met a Kindergartener who didn’t synthesize the message of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

While the explicit teaching of strategies, in this paradigm, is a response to demonstrated need, strong readers should have the benefit of consciously knowing the steps of the strategies they usually use without conscious effort. That way they have a backup when they are challenged by text. They can know what to do when they don’t know. Regardless of the capabilities of the students, the strategy mini-lessons and the weaving of process into content discussions does not in any way interfere with thorough and memorable explorations of books. You can read more in my book Learning For Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners