Inspiring Students to Read This Summer

Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - 08:00
  • Kelly Keller


Inspiring Your Students to Read This Summer

Four ways to avoid summer learning loss and why it matters.

The end of the school year is approaching, and students are looking forward to summer vacation. Educators are ready for a break, too, but are also thinking about students losing momentum—and even some skills—during the summer months. How can we encourage kids to continue to read and learn, when we know that some setbacks are statistically probable? 

Sometimes referred to as summer slide, summer learning loss, or summer setback, researchers have been looking at this phenomenon for decades. The National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) attributes these setbacks to long summer vacations that “break the rhythm of continuous instruction and in turn lead to forgetting what was learned in the previous academic school year.” In a 2018 interview with Education Week, Matthew Boulay, NSLA Founder and CEO, talks about these challenges.

Research by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) identifies the cumulative effect of summer learning loss as one of the principal factors—along with nutrition, parental involvement, and child motivation—that are deepening the achievement gaps between students by family income. The problem becomes more pronounced for English language learners, who may lose access to English speaking adults during summer months. 

Here are some ways you can help your students stay sharp over the summer, and make summer reading a fun choice:


Let students know that all forms of reading count. From short books, chapter books, fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, and magazine articles, to ebooks on mobile devices, they should read what interests them. Books on tape build language skills and encourage a love of storytelling, and struggling readers can use audio support as they follow along with a print version.  

Encourage parents to read to their children, or to take them to story time at the local library during the summer months. Reading aloud to children from a very early age has been shown to build language and reading skills. Explain to students and parents that reading will actually make their brains work better.


Tell students about a book that you have enjoyed that has influenced or changed your life in some way. Talk to your students about why people read – e.g., acquiring historical knowledge, entertainment, learning about other people’s experiences and perspectives.  Ask them what they like about reading. Make a class “Why We Read” list and give each student a copy for inspiration and encouragement.

Describe to students the place you most like to read (a cozy chair, perhaps), how you prepare yourself to read (make some tea, check the lighting), and when and how long you schedule your reading time (before breakfast for 30 minutes; after dinner for an hour). Encourage them to PLAN for this time every day, even making it a calendar item or part of a daily to-do list.


Invite students to bring books they liked to class. Have them write a brief description of why they love the book on an index card. Display the books and cards around the classroom and give students time to browse and learn from their peers. Student or parent organizations might organize a class-wide or school-wide book exchange at the end of the school year. 

Ask students to create a personal reading list of four or five titles to complete over the summer, and compile these into a class reading list to post to the school website. If you have a classroom blog or wiki, post thought-provoking passages from books along with the book title and author. Keep your class blog or wiki available to students over the summer so they can share their reactions to books they’re reading. Don’t forget to add updates about your own reading. 

Schools or districts might create a program for middle and high school students to read aloud to and mentor the younger grades by sharing favorite childhood books. Help them create a “hand-me-down” program to share age-appropriate books that older students have outgrown. Ask them to include a note about why they liked the book, to inspire the younger readers.   


Share the location and summer hours of area libraries with parents. Invite a librarian to school to present summer reading ideas and opportunities to students and to parents. Encourage every family to get and use a library card. If your school or district has the budget, open school libraries for students to access over the summer months.

Provide students, and parents of younger students, with book lists that are age appropriate. The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, provides summer reading lists by grade, with titles that have been chosen to keep children engaged in reading throughout the summer. 

Here are a few lists to get you started:

ALSC Summer 2019 reading list - Birth-Preschool 

ALSC Summer 2019 reading list - Grades K-2 

ALSC Summer 2019 reading list - Grades 3-5 

ALSC Summer 2019 reading list - Grades 6-8

Reading Rockets 2019 summer book list - Ages 0-12

Communicate with parents about the importance of setting expectations for reading every day. Encourage them to read aloud, and to take turns reading, pointing to the words so a child can follow along. Give parents some tactics that will enrich the reading experience at home. Provide a list of questions to get a child talking about a book, such as “What might happen next?” “How do you think the character felt?” or “Why do you think something happened?” 


Give students access to the online Reading Assistant program at school or home for extra guided oral reading practice to help build fluency.

Would you like to host a Fast ForWord Summer Reading Boot Camp for students?

Learn how to create an effective summer learning program for your school or district. 


Association for Library Service to Children (ALCS) Summer 2019 Reading Lists

Closing the Achievement Gap by Attacking Summer Learning Loss 

On Summer Loss: National Summer Learning Association 

ED Week: Summer Learning Gaps Worsen in Higher Grades, Just Not the Way You Think

Summer learning loss: What is it, and what can we do about it?

Summer Learning Programs, ELLs and the Achievement Gap

Antidotes to Summer Brain Drain (Part 1): Tips and Tools for Fun Math Skills Practice

Antidotes to Summer Brain Drain (Part 2): 5 Ways to Pull the Plug on Learning Loss


The Reading Brain: How Your Brain Helps You Read, and Why it Matters

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

The reading ready brain

If you’re reading this, you’re probably an accomplished reader. In fact, you’ve most likely forgotten by now how much work it took you to learn to read in the first place. And you probably never think about what is happening in your brain when you’re reading that email from your boss or this month’s book club selection.

And yet, there’s nothing that plays a greater role in learning to read than a reading-ready brain.

As complex a task as reading is, thanks to developments in neuroscience and technology we are now able to target key learning centers in the brain and identify the areas and neural pathways the brain employs for reading. We not only understand why strong readers read well and struggling readers struggle, but we are also able to assist every kind of reader on the journey from early language acquisition to reading and comprehension—a journey that happens in the brain.

We begin to develop the language skills required for reading right from the first gurgles we make as babies. The sounds we encounter in our immediate environment as infants set language acquisition skills in motion, readying the brain for the structure of language-based communication, including reading.

Every time a baby hears speech, the brain is learning the rules of language that generalize, later, to reading.  Even a simple nursery rhyme can help a baby's brain begin to make sound differentiations and create phonemic awareness, an essential building block for reading readiness. By the time a child is ready to read effectively, the brain has done a lot of work coordinating sounds to language, and is fully prepared to coordinate language to reading, and reading to comprehension.

The reading brain can be likened to the real-time collaborative effort of a symphony orchestra, with various parts of the brain working together, like sections of instruments, to maximize our ability to decode the written text in front of us:

  • The temporal lobe is responsible for phonological awareness and decoding/discriminating sounds.
  • The frontal lobe handles speech production, reading fluency, grammatical usage, and comprehension, making it possible to understand simple and complex grammar in our native language.
  • The angular and supramarginal gyrus serve as a "reading integrator" a conductor of sorts, linking the different parts of the brain together to execute the action of reading. These areas of the brain connect the letters c, a, and t to the word cat that we can then read aloud.

Emerging readers can build strong reading skills through focused, repetitive practice, preferably with exercises like those provided by the Fast ForWord program.

Independent research conducted at Stanford and Harvard demonstrated that Fast ForWord creates physical changes in the brain as it builds new connections and strengthens the neural pathways, specifically in the areas of reading. After just eight weeks of use, weak readers developed the brain activity patterns that resemble those of strong readers. And, as brain patterns changed, significant improvements for word reading, decoding, reading comprehension and language functions were also observed.

It’s never too early to set a child on the pathway to becoming a strong reader. And it’s never too late to help a struggling reader strengthen his or her brain to read more successfully and with greater enjoyment.

It’s all about the brain.  Have you hugged your brain today?

Related Reading:

10 Ways to Help Your School-Age Child Develop a “Reading Brain”

Phonemic Awareness as a Predictor of Reading Success


Why Prosody Matters: The Importance of Reading Aloud with Expression

Tuesday, June 13, 2017 - 08:00
  • Logan De Ley

Reading prosody

Reading aloud with expression is a foundational reading skill students should be developing between grades 1 - 5. It is pretty easy to recognize when someone skillfully reads aloud in an expressive manner. However, to effectively teach or assess this skill, a closer examination of its features, development, and relationship to other reading skills is needed.

What is Prosody?

Prosody, the defining feature of expressive reading, comprises all of the variables of timing, phrasing, emphasis, and intonation that speakers use to help convey aspects of meaning and to make their speech lively. One of the challenges of oral reading is adding back the prosodic cues that are largely absent from written language.

Why is Prosody Important?

Researchers have found strong links between oral reading prosody and general reading achievement. For example, after comparing students’ reading prosody in first and second grades with their reading comprehension at the end of third grade, Miller and Schwanenflugel (2008) concluded that, “early acquisition of an adult-like intonation contour predicted better comprehension.” Another study, which included more than 1,750 fourth graders participating in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), found a strong correlation between prosody and overall reading achievement (Daane, Campbell, Grigg, Goodman, & Oranje, 2005).

How Does Prosody Impact Reading Comprehension?

In the context of oral reading, prosody can reflect linguistic features, such as sentence structure, as well as text features, such as punctuation. Skilled readers pick up on these features, and respond to them when reading aloud, as when they pause briefly at relevant commas, pause slightly longer at sentence boundaries, raise their pitch at the end of yes-no questions, and lower their pitch at the end of declarative sentences.

While punctuation provides some cues to prosody, young readers can be misled by it. For instance, they may pause at every comma, even when the grammar of the sentence does not call for pausing (e.g., “He made his usual egg, cheese, and tomato sandwich.”). As young readers move toward adult proficiency, their pauses increasingly respect the grammar of the text rather than doggedly following the punctuation (Miller & Schwanenflugel, 2006).

Prosody can also reflect aspects of meaning. For instance, slight fluctuations in pitch, timing, and emphasis can change a simple question (e.g., “What did you do?”) into an expression of censure.  Learning to read dialog in a manner that reflects the intentions and emotional states of the characters is a great way for adolescent readers to delve deeply into literature. However, younger students may not understand this use of prosody well enough to apply it to oral reading (Cutler & Swinney, 1987). Notably, in the NAEP study, only 10% of fourth graders were judged as reading aloud with this level of expressiveness.

Finally, when thinking about prosody, it is critical to remember the other aspects of reading fluency: word reading accuracy and reading rate. Inefficient word reading is the primary barrier to good prosody for most young readers (Schwanenflugel, Hamilton, Wisenbaker, Kuhn, & Stahl, 2004). Children who are struggling to decode individual words tend to pause too frequently and for too long, so that their timing and phrasing are seriously disrupted. Furthermore, they must put so much effort into decoding that they do not have the mental resources left for constructing meaning and conveying it expressively.

Providing Insight Into a Learner's Reading Ability

Listening to the prosody of a child reading aloud provides parents and educators with a window into many aspects of reading skill. By reading aloud with appropriate timing, phrasing, and end of sentence intonation, younger readers can demonstrate their ability to:

  • read words accurately;

  • read at a reasonable rate;

  • read most words automatically, so that mental resources are available for comprehension;

  • use grammar and punctuation to help construct meaning;

By reading aloud with increasingly adult-like intonation and expressiveness, adolescent readers can demonstrate their ability to:

  • use discourse-level features, such as pronouns and signal words, to recognize relationships across and among the sentences in a text;

  • understand characters and their intentions when reading fiction

  • understand an author’s purpose or attitude.

Ultimately, all of these abilities must be brought to bear to achieve the ultimate goal of reading with comprehension.




Common Core State Standards Initiative (2012). English Language Arts Standards – Reading: Foundational Skills (Grade 1 – Grade 5). National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO): Washington, DC. 

Cutler, A. & Swinney, D. A. (1987). Prosody and the development of comprehension. Journal of Child Language, 14,145-167.

Daane, M.C., Campbell, J.R., Grigg, W.S., Goodman, M.J., and Oranje, A. (2005). Fourth-Grade Students Reading Aloud: NAEP 2002 Special Study of Oral Reading(NCES 2006-469). U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. 

Miller, J. & Schwanenflugel, P. J. (2008). A Longitudinal Study of the Development of Reading Prosody as a Dimension of Oral Reading Fluency in Early Elementary School Children. Reading Research Quarterly, 43, 336-354. 

Miller, J. & Schwanenflugel, P. J. (2006). Prosody of Syntactically Complex Sentences in the Oral Reading of Young Children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 839-843. 

Schwanenflugel, P. J., Hamilton, A. M., Kuhn, M. R., Wisenbaker, J. M., & Stahl, S. A. (2004). Becoming a fluent reader: Reading skill and prosodic features in the oral reading of young readers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 119–129. 

Related Reading:

Building Fluent Readers: How Oral Reading Practice Helps Reading Comprehension

5 Fluency and Comprehension Strategies That Every Reader Can Use

Phonemic Awareness as a Predictor of Reading Success

Tuesday, February 7, 2017 - 08:00
  • Kimberly Vasconcelos, MA, CCC-SLP

phonemic awarenessWhat is the first sound you hear in the word “cat”? Now, change the "c" sound to "m". What’s the word now? These are examples of activities we use to target phonemic awareness. We are building the understanding that every word can be perceived as a sequence of phonemes, or individual sounds. A child’s success with phonemic awareness is the best predictor of later reading success. On the road to reading, phonemic awareness is at the start.

The language to reading connection

As a speech-language pathologist, I’m fascinated by language development. When my son was born, I marveled at every smile, coo, sound, get the picture. Typical language development unfolds from the earliest moments in a child’s life. Babies begin to tune into the sounds of the language(s) they are exposed to. They start babbling in longer and more varied strings of sounds, then begin speaking their first words. As vocabulary grows, children start putting words together, gradually learning the grammar of their language and applying it to express more sophisticated word and sentence structures. Language and the ideas understood and expressed become more complex. Onwards and upwards! What we as parents and educators must know is that language and reading skills are connected.  

The elements of language development--phonology (sounds), vocabulary, grammar and pragmatics (social skills)--come into play as reading skills grow. Among these, phonological skills influence the early learning of letters, sounds and words. Much of the time, but not always, phonological development occurs implicitly as part of language acquisition. Phonological skills are built from the recognition and production of the sounds (phonemes) of a given language and understanding of the rule-based system by which these phonemes are used to create words. A crucial phonological skill for early readers is, you guessed it, phonemic awareness!  

We must teach children phonemic awareness through early literacy experience and direct teaching. In doing so, early readers learn to listen and think about the sounds of their language and recognize the individual sounds that make words. The ability to attend to the words they speak and hear, break them down into individual sounds and put them back together again lays the foundation for understanding the alphabetic principle of written language. Phonemic awareness allows children to more easily make the connection to the reading process of seeing letters and “sounding out” words. Children who experience delays or deficits in speech, language, hearing or auditory processing commonly have difficulty with phonological skills. Therefore, they will likely face greater challenges when it comes to acquiring phonemic awareness - and reading.    

Levels of ability in phonemic awareness

Adams (1990) provided an outline of five levels of phonemic awareness:

  1. Rhyme and alliteration - to hear rhymes and alliteration as measured by knowledge of nursery rhymes

  2. Oddity Tasks - comparing and contrasting the sounds of words for rhyme and alliteration

  3. Blending and splitting syllables

  4. Phonemic segmentation - being able to identify and count the individual sounds in a word

  5. Phoneme manipulation - manipulating sounds by taking away or adding a sound, thereby creating a new word  

So, Mother Goose and her curious Pease Porridge are famous for a reason. Nursery rhymes and alliterations, such as tongue twisters, help children tune into the words, syllables and sounds of language. Phonemic awareness progressively builds from there.

Which road do you choose?

You are going on a road trip. Which road do you choose? The straight and narrow one, heading through no-man’s land? Or, the beautiful, scenic road with interesting places to explore along the way? Either way you may get to your destination, but certainly one will make for a more interesting experience than the other. The road to reading should be an (overall!) enjoyable journey for our children. When we encourage learners through fun, engaging activities that motivate participation and foster success, we inspire them to continue down this road, no matter how long and winding it may be.

A few minutes a day can provide an emphasis on activities that teach phonemic awareness. When planning for these activities, engage children by using materials that are either familiar or interesting to them. In the classroom, this could mean words that are taken from thematic units, stories recently read, or things in the immediate environment. Some children will benefit from multisensory methods to help them see, hear and feel the sounds in words as they identify and manipulate them. Games, rather than drill, are best!

Unlike speaking and listening, reading is a learned skill, one that humans need to be taught, systematically. For many children, phonological awareness (and phonemic awareness) do not develop easily or naturally, and reading demands may continue in school while foundational skills are missing. The Fast ForWordⓇ program provides targeted intervention across a wide range of foundational skills to ensure the brain is reading-ready. One such skill that it trains is the brain's ability to process changes in sounds (phonemes) quickly, which is shown to be weak in children with language impairment, auditory processing disorder, and dyslexia. The patented, unique cross-training in the neuroscience-based Fast ForWord exercises has resulted in significant improvements in phonemic awareness, language skills, and reading abilities.  

To ensure that the road to reading is smooth for your child or your students, make sure they are quickly and efficiently developing phonemic awareness! 


Why Phonological Awareness is Important for Reading and Spelling
Phonemic Awareness: An Early Important Step in Learning to Read
How Now Brown Cow: Phoneme Awareness Activities
Scientific Learning Webinar:  Burns, Martha Ph.D. “Auditory Processing: Its critical link to reading
Dyslexia-How Far We’ve Come!
Adams, Marilyn Jager (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, Inc. [ED 317 950]


The Case Against Timed Readings

Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 08:00
  • Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D

Join Dr. Rasinski on March 11th for a free professional development session, The Role of Automaticity in Reading

As many of you know, I have spent a good deal of my career focusing on reading fluency. Along with other literacy scholars, I have found fluency to be a critical competency for proficient reading – one that many struggling readers, from first through twelfth grades, have not sufficiently mastered.

Yet, despite a growing body of evidence about the importance of fluency in reading, fluency has been dismissed by some scholars and even a number of teachers. I feel that this diminishment of fluency is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of one aspect of fluency – automaticity in word recognition.

The “Automatic” Response
Automaticity refers to the ability to do something with minimal cognitive effort. Think of all the things we do in life that are rather automatic: from swimming, to driving a car, to typing on a keyboard. When we began learning these activities, we had to employ a fair amount of our cognitive resources -- thinking about the leg and arm movements involved in a swim stroke, whether we turned the ignition switch in the car before or after shifting into gear, or even having to examine the specific keys on the keyboard in order to hit the correct one. 

Besides the cognitive energy used, did you also notice you were rather slow at doing the activity at first? This was because employing your cognitive resources requires time and effort. The more time it takes to think through and complete a task, the slower you do it.  

However, have you noticed that if you keep practicing the activity you become faster at it?  This is because you are developing automaticity in the task. 

As you practice the task repeatedly you have to use less and less of your cognitive resources; you don’t have to think through the task.  

With greater automaticity comes greater speed in the accomplishment of the task.

Ties to Fluency
The notion of automaticity is critical to reading fluency. When first beginning to read, youngsters have to use a great deal of their cognitive resources for word decoding; they have not yet developed automaticity in word recognition.

Lack of automaticity has two consequences:

  • First, young readers are generally slower in their reading than more advanced readers. 
  • Second, these students are likely to be less proficient in their comprehension as more advanced readers.

You see, comprehension requires the use of a reader’s cognitive resources (Dick Allington calls it thoughtful reading). If readers have to use too much of their cognitive resources for decoding, they have less available for comprehension. And so, comprehension also suffers.

Faster Reading, Improved Fluency?
Automaticity in word recognition leads to two results: faster reading and improved comprehension.

Since reading speed is an observable consequence of automaticity – and it can be easily and quickly measured – it is used as a method for assessing word recognition automaticity (e.g., DIBELS oral reading fluency).  In my own dissertation study over 30 years ago, I found that automaticity, as measured by reading speed, was strongly associated with reading comprehension and other general measures of reading proficiency in elementary grade students. 

The problem in fluency has been a confusion of automaticity and speed. Increased reading speed and improved reading comprehension are the outcomes of increased word recognition automaticity, but in many iterations of fluency instruction, speed has been viewed as the cause of automaticity (and comprehension).    

We have learned that regular practice in nearly any activity improves automaticity. In reading we have come to learn that practice can take two forms: wide  reading (reading a text once and then moving on to a new text) and what has been called repeated reading, where a student reads a text several times until they achieve a certain level of automaticity, as measured by reading speed.  

Because reading speed is the way that progress is measured in repeated readings, this form of fluency instruction has evolved into timed re-readings for the purpose of increasing reading speed.  Students attempt to make every new reading of an instructional passage faster than the previous one.  

What happens in such instructional scenarios is that students do indeed increase their reading speed; however, word recognition automaticity and comprehension are likely not to improve.

When students read for speed they do not have to pay attention to the meaning of the words or the passage; rather they try to read from the beginning of the passage to the end as quickly as possible.

Working directly to improve students’ reading speed does not necessarily result in improved comprehension or automaticity.

The Case Against “Timed Readings”
I think this reading-speed-oriented approach to fluency instruction confuses the reading process. Yet, it has become a ubiquitous practice in schools throughout the United States. Even our major professional reading organization, the International Literacy Association, has promoted “timed readings” as a way to improve fluency.  Indeed, I have had elementary students in our university reading clinic who, when prompted to read a passage have asked, “Do you want me to read this as fast as I can?”    

I know of no compelling research that has shown that instruction to improve reading speed actually leads to profound and lasting improvements in reading comprehension or overall reading proficiency.

Reading speed is a decent measure of word recognition automaticity, and can be used as a proxy for general reading achievement. However, we should be aiming to increase reading speed in the way that you who are reading this blog and other fluent readers have increased their reading speed – through plenty of authentic and meaningful reading experiences.

I cannot recall a time in my elementary school career where I was asked by a teacher to read as fast as possible. And yet, through my own authentic wide and repeated reading experiences, I have improved my word recognition automaticity, my reading speed, and my reading comprehension. 

A More Authentic Reading Experience
And so, if we keep our aim on improving word recognition automaticity through authentic reading practice for the purpose of improving comprehension, reading speed will follow without any direct instruction or prompting. 

The key is to come up with authentic reading experiences for students.

Wide reading is fairly simple – get students to engage in reading material they find interesting.

Repeated reading can be a bit more of a challenge. However, if we think of life outside of the classroom we can come up with plenty of ways in which adults engage in repeated reading (or rehearsal).

If you know you will have to perform a reading for an audience, then you have a natural and authentic reason to engage in repeated readings – you want to make your reading for the audience meaningful.   

Research by me and my colleagues has found that when students regularly engage in this more authentic form of repeated reading – through  the performance of readers theater scripts, poetry, songs, speeches, and the like – word  recognition automaticity improves, reading speed increases, comprehension improves, and students’ enjoyment of reading is enhanced.

The take-away is this: word recognition automaticity, as measured by reading speed, is critical for reading success. However, it is appropriately taught and promoted through authentic and meaningful wide and repeated reading experiences, NOT through reading experiences that aim primarily to increase reading speed.

Related reading:

Why Dr. Timothy Rasinski Thinks Reading Fluency Should Be "Hot!"

Five Fluency and Comprehension Strategies That Every Reader Can Use


Nearly 20 Years Later, What Have We Learned From Hart and Risley?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015 - 08:00
  • Norene Wiesen

Early language experienceThe 30-Million-Word Gap: How Vocabulary Impacts the Achievement Gap

An Interview with Steven L. Miller, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven L. Miller is a research neuropsychologist with expertise in the assessment and treatment of developmental language and reading impairments, and a co-founder of Scientific Learning. He has extensive experience in organizing clinical studies and conducting longitudinal studies of children and adults with such disabilities.

I chatted with Dr. Miller recently by phone about the famous 1995 language study by Hart and Risley to find out what we’ve learned since then, and why so many learners in our schools are still struggling.

SL: In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published the results of a study finding that 4-year-olds from working-class families and families on welfare had considerably smaller vocabularies than their agemates from professional families. This difference has been called the “30-Million-Word Gap” and “The Great Catastrophe.” Why has this study been so influential in education circles?

SM: The primary reason why the work has been so impactful is that it helped to quantify the challenge that educational systems face when children enter school with vast differences in educational readiness. This work demonstrates so clearly the enormous variation that kids present when they come to our public education system, and that traditional intervention approaches in many cases do not provide adequate advancement for students to “catch-up.”

So many people think children come to school at 4 ½ - 5 ½ years of age as blank slates. This work really points out the fact that there’s a lot of learning and experience that has gone on in the preschool years. And in the case of the Hart and Risley study, some students are millions and millions of words behind in experience when they enter the classroom.

SL: Why does this matter? What are the implications?

SM: Our national Reading First campaign has really dealt with the idea that there are critical subcomponents of reading instruction - that the research has proved are necessary, but not sufficient – for students to become good readers. And one of the best pre-school predictors of who’s going to be a good third-grade reader is their vocabulary development.

Adding to the Hart and Risley findings is research from NICHD funded research programs showing that kindergarten assessments can accurately predict greater than 90% of struggling 3rd grade readers using their kindergarten assessment performance.  As such we can now accurately predict who’s at risk for becoming a struggling 3rd grade reader.  This work led to the tiered intervention models that are positively changing student outcomes in schools across the country

So the question was, do we need different instructional paths for them? Do we expect them to develop academic skills at the same rate despite these early differences?  These aren’t biological restrictions in the students. This isn’t about their ability or potential to learn. This isn’t about whether they can learn to read, or become doctors, lawyers, engineers, or scientists. The answer to that is, yes, they can, but at the same time, if you’re not a good reader by third grade, there’s a high likelihood that you will not graduate high school on time, or possibly at all.  This is not a biological limitation but a consequence of the fact that a lot of academic learning occurs during independent reading after 3rd grade.  Reading is critical because if you can’t read you fall further and further behind.  As we try to maximize the learning that occurs each day in school the consequences of falling behind can be devastating.  We see this is one of the simplest yet strongest findings in public education.  Student attendance predicts learning, missing school or falling behind at school makes catching up difficult because each day we have new learning goals being achieved.  This is why early learning and preschool program effectiveness is so critical to later academic success.

SL: It’s not just the gap in vocabulary size at age four that puts the children from lower-income families at risk, according to Hart and Risley. The gap actually increases over time even after the children are in school. Is the learning trajectory set in early childhood, or do differences in experience continue to widen the gap year after year?

SM: Great question. I believe the evidence is clear that the older students get, the smaller the impact the parents’ vocabulary plays in language development compared to other experiences (e.g., reading). However, children with lower vocabulary skills are often poor readers so they continue to fall further and further behind in academic language and cognitive skills. 

Language, and later reading experience, are two of the largest contributors to brain plasticity in the developing brain.  This is also a large contributor to the way we build our cognitive skills as well as our brain’s reward systems that contribute to our communication patterns. The most interesting part for me, if I’m a teacher, isn’t that I have to simplify my language use to reach students in my class, which is true for every teacher that works with first graders – they don’t talk like a 30-year-old, they talk in a way that uses simpler language structures.  Teachers present and provide language to students as a means of reinforcement and social support within the classroom.  For many impoverished students language was used more often to communicate negation, disapproval or punishment.

The data from the Hart and Risley study was that the average child from a professional family hears six times the number of encouragements for using language for every one discouragement or prohibition. This is critical. If there’s one thing, it’s this idea about using language to encourage vs. discourage further interaction and language use by the student. Saying “no,” saying “be quiet,” saying “knock it off,” those are ways to discourage and we want to use them for very important things as parents – don’t kick, don’t bite, don’t throw.

But when a child asks a question like, "What do I use this for?", professional families are using words of encouragement. "What would we use that for? Why do you want that?" Asking the child things that encourage more talking. Whereas in the middle class families, it’s two encouragements to every one discouragement. In families in economic distress (e.g., receiving welfare), we have almost a one encouragement to every two discouragements ratio. You really have to say to people, think about that for a moment. For that child, language is a way to be punished twice as often as it is to receive positive reinforcement or praise.

It’s not just that there’s a 30-million-word difference between us, but that I had language used twice as often to put me down, to make me feel like less, to make me not want to talk to you, and now I’m going to enter a classroom where the teacher primarily uses language as a way for communication, for grading me, for teaching me.

Then this child comes into a classroom and you think to yourself as a teacher, I know, I’m going to work with this child more, I’m going to ask them to wait a few minutes after class. I want to talk to them. Well that’s like saying, come up here I want to talk to you, and the child averts their gaze, drops their head, maybe shrugs their shoulder, walks up and is completely trying to avoid the oncoming punishment because that’s what talking is to them.

The numbers, if we estimate the frequency over years, are quite significant.  Students received 57,000 – 60,000 discouragements before they came to school, delivered by language. So by 60,000 times, my experience is that talking is not a good experience. 

SL: Are there studies about how much encouragement is required after school starts to counteract this?

SM: Yes. Using language – establishing a safe communication zone, which is what so many great teachers do – has that child eventually saying, "Wow, when I come to this classroom I love it here. I get to talk, to share my ideas, and nobody puts me down."  We learn to disagree in respectful ways.  Many teachers are already sensitive to this and their classrooms reflect a positive language environment.

Many, many teachers will say, "That explains why these kids always seek me out two or three years later to talk to me." They don’t have a lot of other adults in their life where language is used in a positive way. How do they explore the world in a way that they might get a reward or somebody might say to them, "Well, tell me more about that, why do you want to do that?" Who’s going to explore that with them? They go find that first, second, or third grade teacher and they want to hang out after school because they’re looking for that great, positive feeling. Why? Because they may not have it in other places in their world. The challenge is, how does language as the means and the media for safe communication become school-wide vs. teacher specific?

It’s extra work for the teacher to say to the other students in the class, "There’s no bad idea, there’s no bad conversation, nobody in here asks a bad question" – and we all know the teachers that say that. But they also have to enforce it. They have to make sure that kids don’t make fun of other kids.

I’m sure you’re aware from speakers that talk about the emotional elements of not being a good reader that reading out loud for them is a horror in their life. They’ll do anything not to expose that they’re not doing that well in the classroom. It’s a really big task for a teacher. Many teachers look at the Hart and Risley data and think about the 30-million-word gap, but I have to point their attention to the fact that the thing that they’re so gifted at – the tool that they love, which is language – is not really the tool of kindness for most of these kids and establishing that is probably the hardest task that they have.

SL: What are some possible solutions? How can the gap be reduced in early childhood and beyond? And whose job is it?

SM: Whose job is it? It’s going to be everybody’s job because it really is about creating more language tolerance and good language models for kids. However, I don’t think we’re going to mathematically catch them up by trying to find a way to sneak in the three years they’re missing, so to speak. I think the real solution – and I’m biased here – is that this is an area where technology can help.

This is an area where technology can give you experience with language, let you manipulate language, play it back for you in a safe, positive environment. In developing software, we want to have a six affirmation per one discouragement ratio. We want kids to be right the vast majority of the time. We want to make the content adaptive and we want the technology to interact in language with that child as much as that student can gobble up and tolerate. With products like Reading Assistant and Fast ForWord, we had an internal obsession with trying to get more word experiences – and the right word experiences – to kids per unit time than a lot of other software developers.

I also remind people that even in their own work environments – and often school districts will laugh when I tell them – with caller ID you can see that affirmation phone call versus that discouragement phone call coming in. How often do you answer the discouragement line? You let it go to voice mail, right?  And you say, "I’ll take care of that later." That should help them understand that for these kids, that is their exposure before they come to school. Twice as many discouragements for an encouragement in a lower volume environment. And then I say to people, "How many of you have a work environment where you’re encouraging to your colleagues two to six times more often than you’re discouraging?" And it’s the same brain mechanisms.

This really isn’t about genetics or about poverty in the formal sense. This is about a covariant element with poverty. For example, if I’m not making an income that allows me to sustain myself, I might have two or three jobs. I’m probably physically exhausted. I’m not eating right. I’m not sleeping right. These are all normal things that we expect people to do when they’re not generating adequate income to support their family. Do we really become reflective? Do we really ask those W, H questions [who, what, when, where, why, how] when somebody asks us? We’re going to be short and abrupt. We’re going to just make a determination and say, "Did you do something wrong today?" We deal with those basic safety issues and the language encouragement isn’t there.

I’m very encouraged by the research that Craig Ramey at Virginia Tech and others have done where they’ve shown that just educating young moms – even young pregnant moms – about what it means to communicate with their child results in an increase in vocabulary development for the mom, and in vocabulary development for their baby. And when they’ve actually taken brain scans of the babies, these babies when they’re older look more like babies from another income level. They didn’t change the income of the family. They just basically said, "This is how important language is." You want your baby to develop as much as they possibly can, and this is what language can do.

SL: Who should educate the pregnant mother? Should the doctor play a role?

SM: Great questions and we don’t have all the answers. If you remember, a couple of years ago in Georgia they used to give new moms a little pack of information from the governor. So people have taken the research, including the Hart and Risley data, and they have tried to make an impact. And the research from Craig and Sharon Ramey and their colleagues have shown that effective early childhood intervention studies can change the learning and economic outcomes for at-risk populations.  In some communities, the best conduit for educating the community will be a combination of the school district as well as talking to the pastors and the ministers who are going to be talking to their congregations.

We forget that some of the most effective social programs are the ones that support daycare for children. Again, not because we think moms and dads don’t know the language or don’t know the words. It’s really about the idea of providing a fun and supportive opportunity for communication using the best language you have.

You don’t have to know a lot of English. You can speak in whatever language you want to speak.  It’s about developing those cognitive skills. The more we talk, the longer the memory span becomes. The more we talk, the better our attention gets. So we have better memory, better attentional skills, and better processing skills with language. These are the skills, if you’re not practicing them, which are not so good when you show up at school. A teacher who has to work with 20+ students in kindergarten and first grade doesn’t always have an opportunity to go over and spend more time with the kids who, to be honest, are a year or more behind when they start.

SL: What’s the most important takeaway from the Hart and Risley study in your view?

SM: The most important thing is that this gap exists when kids show up at school. Number two is that, from a practical standpoint, we’re not going to fix it by supplementing education trying to recreate the missing vocabulary development. In other words, if the 30 million words equates to x number of hours of experience, we’re not going to catch the kids up because the higher oral language students won’t slow down. That’s what those rates of learning actually mean. Those kids that are ahead aren’t just ahead. They run faster in vocabulary and reading development.

SL: Are you saying that the achievement gap can’t be bridged?

SM: It can be bridged but you have to be more clever about how you’re going to present the information. Again, in my opinion, you’ve got to look at technology.  The kids aren’t just 30 million words behind. The rate at which they acquire and use words is also behind. So you have to look hard for ways to make them faster at acquiring vocabulary than normal. Otherwise they can’t catch up. The idea from Hart and Risley is there’s a hole in vocabulary development and usage, which has an impact on other cognitive and academic skills. But to fill that hole you have to be strategic.  You have to work harder and smarter.

SL: Do you think schools have absorbed that fact yet or are they still trying to solve the problem in the same way?

SM: They’re still trying to solve the problem in a very linear fashion. There are a lot of states that have recommendations. They’ll say, if the child is behind in reading, give them an extra 30 minutes a day. And there are two issues. First of all there’s an opportunity cost because something else is being pushed out of school. You’re already accepting lower performance in a different domain, so you’re going to read more at school if we just drop math or science, as an example. Something fell.

Number two is that you’re not changing the rate at which they acquire new information. So that 30 minutes is going to help – it’s better than nothing – but you’re probably not going to catch up under that model and that is why we have so few kids catch up. So again I’ll go back to my earlier statement: 92% of low-reading third-graders can be predicted in kindergarten. In the fall of kindergarten – 92% of them.  So are we only helping 8% or is that just error in our prediction?

What we’re doing is not a matter of effort. The incorrect answer is teachers need to work harder. The incorrect answer is districts need to work harder. The correct answer is we need to work smarter.

SL: Can you say more about how technology works smarter?

SM: Because we can create learning experiences, driven by the student, that exceed what can happen in a normal classroom or small group environment. In other words, think about five kids at different computers each receiving differentiated individualized instruction.

SL: It’s an individualized learning approach…

SM: …over a short duration that can work systematically on being faster learners, not just providing them with the experience. My comment about technology is really for public education systems.

The part that people misunderstand the most is that a lot of technology that’s presented in the first year to year-and-a-half of life actually predicts negative language growth, not positive, because you need those base skills. And so the best development for kids is really that interaction. You know after a year-and-a-half, two years of age, with adults, with other kids, then technology can play a role once they have those basic skills.

For parents, it’s not about putting a laptop in a crib and coming back two hours later. We want to make sure that people really understand that watching TV with your child and talking about what you’re watching, and letting them respond -- having that interaction the way you might use a book is exactly what you’re trying to do.

Further reading:

Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Hart and Risley)

The Social World of Children Learning to Talk (Hart and Risley)

The Read-Aloud Handbook (Jim Trelease)

Related reading:

As Classrooms Become More Diverse, How Do We Help All Students Grow?

Underachieving Students: Why They Struggle and How Educators Can Help


The Role of Literacy in Deeper Learning

Tuesday, December 9, 2014 - 08:00
  • Norene Wiesen

Deeper LearningDeeper Learning is a relatively new term for a set of educational goals that have always been prized by the best educators. Also known as 21st Century Learning, Deeper Learning values content mastery, communication and collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, the ability to self-direct, giving and receiving feedback in a constructive manner, and a healthy academic mindset.

Real-World Connections

For academic learning to matter in the real world, students need to be able to determine what knowledge and strategies they should apply in familiar and novel situations and to recognize why they have made those choices. They need to be able to reflect on the effectiveness of their chosen approach and revise their understanding of problem and solution where warranted.

Deeper Learning typically engages students with real-world situations in ways that traditional learning might not. This real-world engagement raises the stakes where literacy skills are concerned. Students with stronger literacy skills at all grade levels will be better able to self-direct, relying less on their teachers and more on the resources available to them.

Many of the literacy skills needed for Deeper Learning also align with the Common Core, including (but by no means limited to):

Lower Elementary

  • Asking and answering questions about a text (e.g., who, what, where, etc.)
  • Retelling a story and explaining what it means
  • Recognizing the differing points of view held by different characters
  • Discussing connections between different parts of a text (e.g., a series of events)
  • Writing opinion pieces, informational or explanatory texts, and narratives
  • Strengthening writing by revising and editing

Upper Elementary

  • Analyzing various accounts of an event or topic and identifying similarities and differences
  • Using information from a variety of print and/or digital sources to find answers quickly and efficiently
  • Integrating information from multiple texts on the same topic
  • Effectively using facts, sensory details, definitions, dialogue, description, transitional words, phrases, clauses, etc., in writing
  • Conducting research using a number of sources, recalling relevant information, and drawing on evidence to build and present knowledge
  • Writing regularly for extended time periods

Middle School

  • Citing evidence that strongly supports the analysis of a text
  • Analyzing the way a modern work of fiction draws on traditional stories, myths, etc., to create a story that readers perceive as new
  • Determining an author’s viewpoint and explaining how the author treats conflicting evidence or opinions
  • Assessing arguments for soundness and sufficient evidence
  • Building an argument, supporting it with solid reasons and pertinent evidence, and writing a well-reasoned conclusion
  • Writing an entire composition in a formal style

High School

  • Considering the effect of an author’s choices (e.g., the setting, the way that characters are introduced and developed, etc.) on a text
  • Evaluating the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings
  • Analyzing a text that requires the reader to understand that what is really meant is different from what is directly stated (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement)
  • Developing claims and counterclaims evenhandedly, providing relevant evidence, and pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of both in a way that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, and possible preconceptions
  • Gathering information from a variety of authoritative print and digital sources; assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each source; avoiding overreliance on any single source; and presenting citations following a standard format

Real-World Learning

Today’s students face challenges unknown to previous generations. They must be able to filter an onslaught of information to decide what is relevant and what can be ignored. They have to learn how to communicate using an ever-growing variety of formats and media. Along with traditional essays, reports, and letters, today’s students need to learn how to write effective and appropriate emails, PowerPoint presentations, and video scripts. Self-directed learning might mean that even the youngest students are conducting independent research and learning how to judge the quality and authority of information sources and evidence.

New technologies, along with education trends like Deeper Learning, expand opportunities for students and give them new ways to succeed. But learners are also faced with new ways to fail. The reaches of “literacy” extend farther and deeper than ever before, and the consequences of illiteracy are dire. Every student deserves a toolbox of strong literacy skills to help them rise to meet today’s academic and real-world challenges.

For Further Reading:

Evidence of Deeper Learning Outcomes

Related reading:

Creating Reading Intention to Improve Reading Comprehension Skills in Students

Self-Regulation Strategies for Students With Learning Disabilities



Reading to Learn: Do We Expect Too Much of Fourth Graders?

Monday, November 10, 2014 - 08:00
  • Norene Wiesen

Reading to LearnElementary school teachers are about to get re-schooled in one of the tenets of reading development: that fourth grade marks the turning point between learning to read and reading to learn. A new study in Developmental Science by Dartmouth Associate Professor of Education Donna Coch has revealed that the transition to mature reading skills isn’t as clear-cut as many educators have been taught.

According to the “reading-shift” theory that has dominated teacher education in recent years, students experience a significant transition toward reading automaticity in fourth grade. This shift supposedly gives fourth graders the adult-like ability to read to learn. But Coch’s study, which uses brainwaves to measure the automaticity of different types of processing, doesn’t support the timing behind the theory. Instead, it shows that some aspects of reading automaticity are established before fourth grade while others are still developing past fifth grade.

Specifically, Cook found that phonological processing (“the ability to discriminate and detect differences in phonemes and speech sounds”) and semantic processing (encoding a word’s meaning and making connections between the word and other words with similar meanings) are well established by third grade. However, the brainwave measure of fifth graders’ orthographic processing (using the visual look of a string of letters to quickly understand whether or not those letters make up a word) still resembled that of younger readers more than college students.

If reading automaticity takes years to fully develop, and if we don’t know when the process is complete for most learners (the study did not look at students between 5th grade and college age), what do these results mean for educators and learners?

The takeaway, according to Coch, is that teachers should have realistic expectations of their students’ abilities and not expect them to be reading with full word automaticity in fourth and fifth grade. What makes more sense, says Coch, is for fourth and fifth grade teachers to begin thinking of themselves as reading teachers. That may be a shift for many, but it fits well with the Common Core trend of incorporating reading tasks in subjects beyond ELA. Is your school taking this research into account and changing its approach to teaching upper grade learners?

Related reading:

Teaching Inference as a Reading Strategy: The What, the How, and the Why

Why Prosody Matters: The Importance of Reading Aloud with Expression



Fast ForWord® at Home Scholarship

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 - 08:00
  • Joanne Gouaux

Fast ForWord at Home ScholarshipLike walking, reading is a major life activity. When your child struggles to read, it feels like running on an uphill treadmill. It is exhausting and overwhelming, with no finish line in sight. Lessons keep moving at school as the days, weeks, and months pass. Despite extending their best effort, struggling readers make more mistakes and have to work longer and harder than an average learner their age.

My son showed signs of difficulty with reading and writing in kindergarten. By the end of 1st grade, things were not improving and with the best of intentions, the school suggested that maybe all he needed was more time. That's when I knew I had to take matters into my own hands. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but when I learned about Fast ForWord, it made sense. It was unlike anything we had tried before, and my son embraced the idea of working the exercises on a computer. Double win!

I know many families are facing similar challenges and frustrations. I invite you to take action and apply for the first ever Fast ForWord at Home Scholarship, provided by BrainPro.

It's never too late to explore options at any stage of life, especially in childhood. What may have started as a little trouble can quickly pile up and influence school performance, learning, daily activities, and relationships. With hard work, consistent effort, and the right help, your child can become an independent reader.

Related reading:

Debunking Anecdotes – One Parent’s Journey Through a Maze of Misconceptions About Learning Disabilities

Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Disorder, and the Road to College: Maria’s Story


Dyslexia Legislation is on the Rise. But Why?

Thursday, October 23, 2014 - 08:00
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

dyslexia legislationIn the past few years, more than a dozen states have passed or proposed new laws to raise awareness about dyslexia through increased screening, intervention programs, and teacher training. Delaware, Tennessee, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Kansas, Arkansas, West Virginia, New Jersey, Mississippi, and Kentucky are among the states with notable legislative activity, but there’s a movement in nearly every state to legislate educational approaches to tackling the most common learning disability.

The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity – led by Co-Directors Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz – is one force behind this trend. The center’s Multicultural Dyslexia Awareness Initiative (MDAI) website positions education – and more specifically, dyslexia – as “a civil rights issue” due to the “struggles and marginalization of many dyslexic children.” The mission of the MDAI is to influence policy through the grassroots engagement of educators, legislators, and others. The effort appears to be working, with dyslexia advocacy surging around the country.

Decoding Dyslexia, a “parent-led grassroots movement,” is one example, with a presence in 47 states. Founded in 2012, the movement focuses on raising awareness about dyslexia and changing literacy legislation at the state level.

Then there’s Texas teen Ben Cooper. On behalf of dyslexic learners nationwide, Cooper is lobbying the House of Representatives to adopt HR456, a resolution calling on states and schools “to recognize that dyslexia has significant educational implications that must be addressed.”

In Connecticut, Governor Dannel Malloy has spoken out about his own experience with dyslexia. Malloy is a proponent of universal access to pre-K, in part to ensure early identification of learning disabilities. As Governor, he signed a bill into law that requires future teachers to receive training in dyslexia recognition and intervention.

In Washington, D.C., there’s a new Bipartisan Dyslexia Caucus currently co-chaired by Representatives Julia Brownley (D-California) and Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana). “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia,” a film directed by James Redford, was screened at the 2012 inaugural event.

The rise in legislation is a hopeful development. Dyslexia is the most common learning disability – about one in five students has it – but not all educators know how to recognize it and help learners with dyslexia succeed in school. 

We now know that dyslexia is neurologically based, and schools have access to effective interventions like the Fast ForWord program – which has been proven to positively impact reading ability in dyslexic children and adults. With only 34 percent of 4th graders scoring at or above Proficient on the 2013 NAEP, enacting early dyslexia identification and intervention is a no-brainer.

Related reading:

Dyslexia – How Far We’ve Come!

Remediation vs. Accommodation: Helping Students with Learning Disabilities Succeed





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