I vaguely remember the moment when it hit me in my classroom…It was a couple years into my career as a secondary teacher, poring through half-sheet after half-sheet of reading pop quizzes from my 130 students, marking red “x” after red “x,” thinking to myself “We just talked about this! Why didn’t they pay attention when they were reading!!” and “Where on Earth did he get that answer?!?!”, when a sudden flashback on all of my experiences in education led me to a sudden realization….
Some high school kids can’t read.
Somewhere deep inside I knew it all along. I remember my own brother who struggled with reading all the way through school–the kid could sit for hours reading and have no idea what he read. He could read one sentence aloud, perfectly fluent, but have no clue what the words meant. I knew some kids couldn’t read, but because I didn’t know what to do about it (I was, after all, trained in my area of specialty–American literature), I chose to ignore that it happened. I told myself that if they couldn’t read by high school, they would have to figure out on their own how to fake it the rest of the way through school. I thought giving them audio recordings was the solution to all their problems, and I really thought those teachers in grades below me did the kid a disservice by passing him/her on to me without the necessary reading skills.
I sought to justify their reading difficulties (and often, their failing grades) because I didn’t know 1) their areas of weakness, or 2) how to help fix the problem.
Then, I learned about Response to Intervention (RtI). I’ve written on this blog time and time again about RtI and its benefits, but I’ve only recently started connecting the framework of RtI with the concept of formative assessment. Because I can see how these ideas fit together, I think of them less as educational fads and more as elements of good instruction. And because I see true benefits to combining formative instruction with RtI, I want to make them both as practical as possible for teachers to implement as soon as possible.
Let me make my case for RtI/FA in reading instruction, particularly at the secondary levels: Let’s face it, I am not the only teacher who willingly said, “Ok, they can’t read….Guess they need to figure that out.” I’m probably one of very few who would openly admit to thinking it, though. Like I said, as a secondary teacher, I wasn’t taught to teach reading. But as we move deeper into implementing the Common Core Standards, we all become reading teachers through all grades–we are just teaching reading at grade-level appropriate levels. As a 9th grade teacher, then, I am using 9th grade level texts to teach students how to cite specific evidence to prove what the text says. I am teaching comprehension and analysis of grade level texts. I am teaching reading. Using combined RtI/FA allows us to pinpoint areas of deficiencies, and if (like me) you aren’t familiar with specific interventions for those areas, a quick Google search will help you build an intervention toolbox for the long run.
Because we can 1) Identify the area(s) of weakness, and 2) Find methods to help fix the problem, it is unethical for us to continue to ignore the problem. Even if we are high school teachers steeped in our content.
Let’s talk very briefly about RtI and FA. I want to keep this brief because no matter how little or much you know about the two, the point isn’t to swim in the verbiage, it’s to grasp the main idea and find simple means of implementing these good practices into your own classroom.
- Both RtI and FA are frameworks for thinking.
- Both frameworks are adaptable to any situation.
- Both are cyclical processes.
- Both are elements of good instruction, and FA is something quality teachers do naturally all the time a thousand times a day.
Formative Assessment: Here’s a slightly verbose image to highlight a simple process–
In even simpler terms…
1. We teach something.
2. We assess somehow (exit slips, handout, observations, conference, thumbs up/down, etc.) to see who’s got it, who’s almost got it, and who’s in left field.
3. We do something to move those who have got it forward, to help those who have almost got it, and to really help those in left field.
4. We reassess somehow.
5. We try something else.
And the cycle goes on as we progress toward our learning goals. Good instruction is responsive to student needs–it doesn’t just truck through lesson plan after lesson plan; it is adjustable.
Response to Intervention: RtI is also cyclical, involves the formative assessment process, but quantifies FA with data.
1. We assess all students using a benchmark screener/diagnostic assessment (which will be repeated two more times during the year to see growth over time).
2. We use data from the screener to see who’s got it (on track for the year–approximately 80% of students will fall in this range), who’s almost got it (potentially on track–approximately 15% will be here), and who’s in left field (not on track–approximately 5% of students).
3. We then create customized learning paths for those students in the “struggling” 20%.
4. We teach something to all students, but we also use intervention techniques with the 20% we’ve identified as needing additional assistance (with progressively more assistance for those struggling the most).
5. We use our formative assessment practices with all students. (Teach, assess, change instruction; teach, assess, change instruction)
6. Periodically, we monitor the progress of the “struggling” 20%. Those who have almost got it could be assessed once a month or as needed, and those who are in left field can be assessed more often (up to weekly). Using the data from these progress monitoring assessments, we can figure out if the intervention we have been using with each student has worked, and if it hasn’t, we know we should try something else. We can try additional interventions until we find one that works for a student (as reflected in the progress monitoring and/or teacher professional expertise).
What this means for reading instruction (aka: How the heck do I incorporate this in my classroom?)
Benchmark screeners are a great starting point because they focus on the skills inherent in the common core. They can pinpoint skills (such as analyzing point of view) with which each student is struggling–and how amazing and wonderful would teaching be if we had this kind of information about each and every student? But given financial strain, I know beautiful benchmark screeners such as those by NWEA (MAP) and STAR that do a fantastic job of drilling down to standards-based areas of deficiencies while offering suggestions for intervention strategies for each individual student, are completely out of the question for many districts, but all hope is not lost. Look for benchmark assessments that are packaged with textbook materials and use those. Don’t have any of those? interventioncentral.org and/or rti4success.org have tools that allow you to create your own benchmark assessments for free.
I know, I know, that’s a lot of work, so I’m losing some of you in the verbiage again…
If you don’t have a benchmark tool you can use and you don’t feel like creating one, try using your district’s common assessments. No common assessments? How about creating a learning-target-based (NOT CONTENT BASED!) benchmark tool for your own classroom? (**Let me clarify…we’re looking as assessing reading skills–skills that are applicable in any context with any text; we are not looking to assess content knowledge, such as “Who wrote Grapes of Wrath?”) The key is to start with something that gives you a better picture of each student right away at the beginning of the year–no more waiting until November to finally have solid footing with each student’s strengths and weaknesses.
From there, focus on learning-target-based lessons and target-based grades that will allow you to track individual student progress that is aligned to the skills in the standards. Because you’ve adopted, created, manipulated a screener into place, you already have a working knowledge of students’ areas of strength and weakness. As you plan units based on learning targets, you’ll know which students need more assistance (because the targeted skill is an area of weakness) and which students you may need to push further (because the targeted skill is a strength). Constant formative assessment (that thing we do naturally when we say to ourselves, “Oh, he’s definitely got it!” or “I need to work more individually with her!”) tells us whether the student is advancing in those areas of weakness or if our strategy for working with that student is not working at all.
I hear you…”Wait, Christina, you just multiplied all my work ten-fold!” And here I will argue with you. I don’t believe anymore in nightly homework assignments or grading every piece of paper that comes across a teacher’s desk. In fact, I think the assessment that comes from using a tracking sheet and working your way around the classroom to observe and work individually with students is so much more valuable than the feedback given by an arbitrary 9/10 on an assignment. Imagine how much less grading you would have if you spent less time in front of the classroom lecturing (yeah, I’m calling myself out again for my own practices) and more time working with students on assignments. Do you need to collect a product from an activity when you have already worked with John on a skill and you know he is still developing? Likewise, do you need to “grade” each answer to questions 1-10 that are all focused on citing from a text when you know Sarah has already mastered that skill with the text you’re reading? I say no. When we remove some of the grading factor and make instruction more about the one-to-one exchange of teaching and learning, we make learning more effective for each learner.
Where you go from here…
It’s not as important that you understand every single facet of formative instruction or RtI to improve your instruction. But was is important is that you begin to look at each individual student’s strengths and weakness (skills, not content!), that you notice students who struggle with reading and work individually with those students to build reading skills and track progress over time. It is important that you (I) acknowledge these students and try new strategies to help them–instead of handing over an audio recording and saying good luck. Combining the basic tenets of RtI and FA into our instruction gives us an organized means of paying attention to each student and maximizing each student’s opportunity to learn. And in the era of Common Core, it’s important that we really step up our own game as teachers.
My mindset was TOTALLY unacceptable. I, once again, think of the kids to whom I did a great disservice as I passed them on knowing they couldn’t read.