Kevin Carlson:

This podcast is produced by Benchmark Education.

Kevin Carlson:

The science of reading. You’ve probably read about it in professional journals or online. It refers to a body of research about how students learn to read. But what do our discussions around the science of reading look like? Can we expand them? Is part of the conversation missing? I'm Kevin Carlson and this is Teachers Talk Shop.

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

I like to think of sciences of reading. That would be a plural because we are beneficiaries of a really vast amount of knowledge that's been generated by research over the last 50 years.

Kevin Carlson:

That is Dr. Peter Afflerbach. Peter is a Professor of Reading in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland. He is the author of numerous books and articles on reading, instruction, and assessment, and his research focuses on reading comprehension, strategies and processes, verbal reporting, and mindfulness. Dr. Afflerbach suggests taking a broader view of the science available that can help in the instruction of developing readers. Today's conversation, authentic reading, expanding the science of reading.

Kevin Carlson:

So, Peter, let's start off. What's going on with the science of reading these days?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

The science of reading. Well, I think it's really good that we have a science of reading and we can learn a lot from it. I am worried that the science of reading is being either misrepresented or under-sampled, and it's being used to hold up particular arguments for ways of delivering instruction for kids who are learning how to read. But I think the narrowness in which the science of reading is currently being portrayed is ultimately not good for teachers. It's certainly not good for developing readers.

Kevin Carlson:

Talk some more about that. What is it not telling us about successful reading development?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

Well, I would say about 95 percent of the media items that I've come across in the past year that have science of reading in them, 95 percent are focused on phonics and developing phonemic awareness. And while phonics and phonemic awareness are essential for learning how to be a good reader, they're really just the slice of all that students need, you know, their slice of the big five that include phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and ultimately comprehension, which is why we read in the first place. I like to think of sciences of reading, that would be a plural because we are beneficiaries of a really vast amount of knowledge that's been generated by research over the last 50 years in fields that are affiliated with reading, and I could cite three that I think are of utmost important for any developing reader, and that would be the science of metacognition, the science of motivation and engagement, and then the science of self-efficacy. And briefly, the science of metacognition tells us that if we want our students to be independent and successful, we have to help them learn to begin work through and then complete acts of reading on their own. And if there's not instruction that's doing that, it's difficult for some of our students to learn how to be independent and successful in terms of motivation and engagement.

All accomplished teachers know that the best lesson is not really worth a hill of beans if our students are not motivated to begin the lesson and then don't get engaged while they're in the midst of the lesson. And then finally, self-efficacy. The science of self-efficacy is about how children develop a belief in themselves and whether or not this belief is in the direction of 'I can do it', sort of like The Little Engine That Could, or can, or in the direction of 'I've had so many experiences with reading that have been negative and have involved failure that I don't really believe that I could succeed at reading.' And the research in self-efficacy, for example, demonstrates that students who are not highly self-efficacious or who don't have self-efficacy are often the ones who struggle in reading.

Kevin Carlson:

So how does that translate into instruction?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

Well, an ideal instructional program in reading in elementary school is one that definitely taps into the five pillars of No Child Left Behind, which would be phonics, fluency, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, and comprehension, but that also builds in attention to how do we help kids develop metacognition? How do we help them monitor their comprehension as they go through a text? How do we help kids become motivated? Whether it's beginning with extrinsic motivation, but eventually intrinsic so that we help children develop a love for reading and a want to return to acts of reading. And then how do we help children move through successive reading experiences so that they can develop self-efficacy in reading, so that they come to believe that they can succeed when they read? Those are all really important sciences of reading. Again, the plural is on sciences of reading.

Kevin Carlson:

Let’s talk a little bit about content knowledge… How does content knowledge play into the toolbox of a successful reader?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

Well, content knowledge is another thing that's really at the center of any successful reader, and it has a couple of ways into an act of reading to make it successful. We know that students, in addition to the skills and strategies that they bring to reading, the students have to have at a minimum the appropriate level of content knowledge to interpret and construct meaning from the text that they're reading. And so we need to think about that type of content knowledge as a precursor to good reading. So it's a must have for anybody starting an act of reading. But content knowledge is also in school. It's really the purpose of reading in many cases. We asked kids to read history and social studies texts and to read science texts and to read poems and literature to gain knowledge for themselves in relation to school standards and hopefully in relation to making their lives more rich and meaningful. And so the thing that's really important is not only that we must help students develop a level of content knowledge for entry into any text to be successful, but that we also need to remember that we read to construct meaning and that meaning many cases in school, is content knowledge.

Kevin Carlson:

After the break, how building content knowledge and learning skills and strategies can go hand in hand. Stay with us.

Kevin Carlson:

In Meaningful Reading Assessment from PD Essentials, Peter Afflerbach teams up with literacy expert Adria Klein to examine the link between instruction and assessment and provide a practical blueprint for becoming fluent in meaningful assessment routines. Learn more at www.benchmarkeducation.com/pdessentials. Go teach brilliantly.

Kevin Carlson:

What are some ways that building content knowledge and learning skills and strategies can be intertwined in instruction?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

Well, I'm really glad you used the word intertwined. I'm a big vocabulary fan also, but strategy and skill instruction and content knowledge gain, in the last decade or two, they've sometimes been posed as oppositional. There've been arguments made that students don't really need to learn strategies and skills; it's really about giving them enough content knowledge to understand the text that they're reading. And then on the other side, it might be let's teach these series of generic comprehension strategies, let's say prediction and synthesis in summarization. And like so many things in life, the middle ground to me is the best explanation of what we need to do. So that would be we need to teach strategies and skills. It turns out that the most accomplished readers in any area are very strategic and they're very skillful. So a child who's in second grade or fourth grade or sixth grade, who's able to look at a title and a couple of subheads and read the first paragraph of the text, and if it has illustrations, add that to the mix and then make an accurate prediction about what the text will be about is being strategic. But I would also note that that prediction is going to be based on the content knowledge that the student already has. And to take that another step, content knowledge is the thing that fuels strategy use, we want students to learn through content. We don't want them to just be these people who exhibit the ability to use strategies, but we want them to build meaning or construct meaning, using strategies in a content area. So the ‘intertwined-ness’ of strategy and content knowledge, strategy and skill and content knowledge, I think is a hallmark of a successful reading program.

Kevin Carlson:

Can you speak to how reading researchers address issues of racial and cultural ethnic background when designing studies about content knowledge?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

We have such a diverse population of students in the United States, and these students come from really rich backgrounds, ethnic, cultural, language, and it's really important that we look at this diversity as a source for students to do well in school as opposed to a challenge, albeit the diversity of our students’ backgrounds can be a challenge when we think about the curriculum being fairly set in stone in some districts and states. So the challenge is to how do we sort of leverage what students already bring to school to help them become better at school learning. And in terms of a researcher, there is one of my favorite terms comes from a researcher at the University of Arizona, Luis Moll, who talks about funds of knowledge and funds of knowledge are the things that exist in communities, And the idea there is why not take advantage of the things that students already know about the challenges? How do the things that students already know, fit or not fit with the existing curriculum?

So, an example of doing that would be how do kids use math and how do kids use reading, how do kids use writing in the home, community, religious center that their parents attend, that they attend or that they partake of and to look in the community for how these things matter. So it's not only that we hook up with a child's cognitive background, meaning here's the knowledge that you bring, here's how we're going to honor that knowledge, acknowledge that knowledge, and then have you use it in school.

Kevin Carlson:

And after school, I would think, you know, to the benefit of the society in general.

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

Certainly, and any ways that we can build connections between the life in school and the life outside of school tends to be good for everyone involved.

Kevin Carlson:

Let's shift a little bit and return to the science of reading and the simple view of reading. For people who aren't familiar with it, can you define what the simple view of reading is?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

Yeah, the simple view of reading is the idea that listening comprehension and decoding equal reading comprehension. That's how simple it is. But in its simplicity, we may see some limitations.

Kevin Carlson:

Can you talk about that a little bit, please?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

Yeah, the idea there is, I think, pretty true, and I think it's a great starting point to think about how complex reading is. So, you know, I would say the simple view of reading always leads me to thinking about the complexity of reading. So the simple view of reading is this, it's the idea that when children show up at school, let's say pre-K, kindergarten, first grade, they already have, this is the vast majority of students, they already have extensive experience listening to language. And through listening, they build up quite large listening vocabularies. And that listening vocabulary is a great resource. It's a great potential resource. The idea here is like, how do we tap into that resource? Well, in terms of reading, we have this thing called decoding. And so when children learn phonics and when they learn how to decode words, they can look at these symbols on a page and they decode them and then sound out the word. And as they sound out the word, we hope that there's a nice match for that word in the child's listening vocabulary. And so the decoding, taking print and turning it into sound and then matching that sound counterpart to the printed word to which in the child's listening vocabulary equals comprehension. Right? So that's why it's so simple, but that's also why it's so limited in explaining really the full array of things that a student has to do to develop into a successful and independent reader.

So what the simple view of reading doesn't get at, you know, this is just the first run from a thousand feet up view, would be metacognition, I talked about that earlier. The simple view of reading is silent as to how a child would manage the complex acts of reading. Like how do you take a text that you have a little bit of knowledge for and how do you read it? And then how do you take what you've comprehended, if you hopefully have comprehended it, to answer questions or to apply the knowledge that you gain from reading in a task that your teacher has asked you to partake of? In addition to metacognition, the simple view of reading is silent to things like motivation and engagement. Every teacher knows that a motivated reader is going to be attentive, is going to be giving effort, is going to be concentrating on the task at hand. And that motivation means the job will be well done in relation to the strategies and skills that the reader has.

In addition to that, we go back to self-efficacy and the idea that if you have ten students and five of them are high self-efficacy, they believe in themselves because they've had consistently successful experiences with reading and you compare that with a group of five students who have had a lot of failure experiences with reading. You know that the application of skills and strategies is going to be varied based on that self-efficacy, because the low self-efficacy students don't believe that they can succeed. They've had too many failure experiences. And so when that group of low self-efficacy students starts encountering difficulties, a challenge to decoding or to comprehending a complex sentence or putting sentences together through a paragraph to come up with the main idea, those children are more apt to bail out of the entire act of reading than their counterparts who have had success experiences and know that they can work through difficulties if they attend and if they apply their strategies and skills.

Kevin Carlson:

After the break, Peter digs into the research that expands beyond the simple view of reading. Stay with us.

Kevin Carlson:

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Kevin Carlson:

So talk about the research that is expanding beyond that simple view of reading model.

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

Well, I've mentioned in the sciences of reading things like metacognition, motivation and engagement, self-efficacy, in terms of reading comprehension, we've learned quite a lot in the last two decades about how students as they matriculate through the early grades in elementary school, sometimes as early as third or fourth grade, start getting into disciplinary reading. And in disciplinary reading, we know that comprehension is a result not only of applying strategies and skills, but it's about knowledge of the discipline. And if anyone there is familiar with the idea of helping children learn to read like historians, I think this is a really great, strong example of what the simple view of reading can't address. So we know that historians who are real historians, they read texts and they come up with interpretations of texts and they make judgments about them. If you compare that to history in the content areas in elementary school, it's quite different where we sometimes, or most of the time, ask kids to read to learn and memorize facts about dates and places and people all wrapped up in historic events.

But it turns out if you're reading like an historian, you have to learn new strategies and you have to have a new sort of epistemological stance towards the text that you read. And you're more a detective looking for texts that you believe to be accurate and trustworthy and reliable, and you need strategies and tools to do that. The simple view of reading is silent to that aspect of reading, which in my view is increasingly important for upper elementary school kids, middle school and certainly high school kids. Another aspect of reading that the simple view of reading is silent to would be how do children determine that they're reading something that's factual? How do kids determine something that is an opinion as opposed to a fact? How do children determine that something they're reading is chock full of claims but there's not much evidence to support the claims that an author is making? There's much more nuance and there's much more complex strategies to reading than the simple view of reading would have us believe.

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

So one of the things that fascinates me in the rhetoric around the science of reading is that much of it is around this logic, it's that we really need to pay attention to the mechanics of reading, such as phonics, because it's so clear from test scores that students are not able to read. All right, and I say, OK, well, let me pull it apart. Let me examine that statement or that logic. And when I think about it and examine it, here's what I come up with. The tests that students who are not doing well at are comprehension tests. So what the science of reading and people who use it, in I would say a very narrow way, are saying is that a test of comprehension reveals that students' phonics are not well developed or not being used. And that is a somewhat legitimate inference that we can make from a test score, but when a test is focused on comprehension, there are other things that might be worthy of our attention, like all of the other reading skills and strategies, the ones in addition to phonics and the development of phonemic awareness.

So we can look at a student's test score and say, you know, it might be that this child has just not gotten there in terms of prosody and intonation and rate and accuracy.

So this child needs some help with fluency. And we might look at a comprehension test score and say part of why this child didn't do well might be because the vocabulary that the child brings to acts of reading just is not that well developed. And we also might look at a comprehension score and say, you know, it might be that the student needs more comprehension strategy instruction. And so I can draw a line from a comprehension test score to the need for more comprehension instruction, to the need for more vocabulary instruction and vocabulary learning. I can draw the line back to the child just might not be reading as fluently as necessary, just as well as drawing the line back to the child needs more phonics. So there are many explanations for why a reading test score is what it is. A lack of phonics is one, but I don't see the argument of a lack of phonics being any stronger than those other arguments like the child may need fluency, the child may need vocabulary. The child may actually need comprehension strategies and skills since this is a comprehension test.

And for teachers who are interested in this topic, the sciences of reading or what else do we need to attend to beyond what I would say is the narrowly conceived idea of phonics being at the center of successful reading? I would recommend all professional journals. I think that The Reading Teacher is a wonderful way of thinking about keeping up with important research and instructional approaches. I think Language Arts from the National Council of Teachers of English is a worthwhile journal and I think there are many, many blog sites, information sites on the Internet. Although I would caution, as with the print material, we know that all communications come with one or another sort of inherent bias. So it's important for us to understand that. But there are many, many resources. Last but not least, you know, I would say a comprehensive reading series which takes seriously the idea that there are sciences of reading and take seriously the idea that we need to attend to all of the five indicated important science of reading things- phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension- would be another place where just by examining daily lessons, by looking at lessons as they unfold within a unit and then looking at units across an entire instructional year, you'd see the balance that I think really marks a useful and successful instructional program.

Kevin Carlson:

Thank you very much, Peter.

Dr. Peter Afflerbach:

Sure.

Kevin Carlson:

Thank you to Dr. Peter Afflerbach for the conversation about authentic reading, expanding the science of reading, and thank you for listening to Teachers Talk Shop. For Benchmark Education and Teachers Talk Shop, I'm Kevin Carlson. Thanks for listening