Episode 28 - Coherence, Consistency, and Curriculum of Reading Instruction with Louise Spear-Swerling, PhD
Louise Spear-Swerling, PhD, is Professor Emerita in the Department of Special Education at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven CT. She prepared both general and special educators to teach reading using Structured Literacy approaches for many years, including supervising a tutoring program that paired teacher candidates with struggling primary-grade readers in public schools. She is the author of The power of RTI and reading profiles: A blueprint for solving reading problems, published by Brookes, and the editor of a forthcoming volume from Guilford Press, Structured Literacy interventions: Teaching students with reading difficulties, K-6. She also is a member of several journal editorial boards, including those for Annals of Dyslexia, Teaching Exceptional Children, and Reading Psychology.
In 2009 Dr. Spear-Swerling served on the working group for the International Dyslexia Association that produced national professional standards for teachers of reading. Her policy work has included several key educational initiatives in Connecticut, such as helping to draft the state’s response-to-intervention guidelines as well as its guidelines on identification of learning disabilities. She continues to consult widely for school districts in Connecticut, mostly on cases involving students with severe or persistent literacy difficulties and ways to improve their achievement.
Danielle Scorrano: Good morning, everyone on the READ Podcast and good morning to my guest for January 2022, Dr. Spear-Swerling.
Dr. Louise Spear-Swerling: Good morning.
DS: Oh my gosh. I'm so excited. We are recording this in December, but for some reason, I feel like we have this new year's January 22 energy. And the reason why is to give our READers some backstory. And we had spoken a few weeks ago, Dr. Spear-Swerling about how I first came to know you. You know, in my research and work at the Windward School and the Windward Institute, there's been a lot of research that I've read that was authored by you. It really started though in my dissertation in fall 2018. I started my literature review and for our listeners and you know, my dissertation is on coaching reading teachers. And I just kept coming time and time again to article after article penned by you, and from teacher prep to teacher knowledge, teacher skills. Later to find out that you're the graduate advisor for our associate director of the Windward Institute, Annie Stutzman, and wow, like, you know, to talk to you as a professor and author, presenter and educator, you are key in policy initiatives in Connecticut. I'm telling you this is new year energy. So thank you for being here.
LS: That's my pleasure. And thank you. Thank you so much for that very kind introduction. It's a pleasure for me to be here.
DS: Thank you. Okay. So let's start with structured literacy. You wrote an article called Structured Literacy and Typical Reading Practices in 2018. It's an article that I often refer to or send to colleagues in the broader education community who have questions about structured literacy. And I know that your work spans much beyond the article. You spent decades across education and this work and you are the expert. So tell us first, what is structured literacy and how is it connected to or different from the Science of Reading from what we hear in current research and current media and current education today?
LS: Sure. So structured literacy is an umbrella term for a family of explicit teaching approaches that are based in current knowledge of what's effective in reading instruction, particularly for students who struggle or are at risk in some way. And it would include a focus on certain component abilities that we know are important in learning to read such as phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, knowledge, um, morphology. Things like that, but also approaches that have certain instructional features such as explicit teaching of important skills, systematic teaching, which means you have an organized sequence, starting with simpler skills and progressing to more complex skills. It would also include features such as providing prompt, targeted feedback to children's errors.
A really important one that I think often doesn't get a lot of attention in the educational community is purposeful selections of instructional examples, tasks. And texts. So those are some of the features of structured literacy. That's some of the most, I'd say some of the most important ones, science of reading is a broader term that refers to scientific research on how children learn to read, why children have difficulty different profiles or patterns of reading difficulties, which is one of the areas that I've been particularly interested in, because I think it's particularly useful research for practitioners. It would also include research on instruction, but science of reading is a much broader term.
DS: I appreciate you saying that because I've often heard people saying, oh, we're going to use the science of reading instruction, or we're going to just use the science of reading in our schools. And I, I appreciate you kind of breaking that down to say, okay, here's the larger research body on the science of reading, here's structured literacy to support those. And then the individual features of structured literacy was one I'm really happy that you highlighted. I want to dive a little bit more into the key components of structured literacy. You talked about explicit, systematic and sequential teaching practice and review, high student teacher interaction, which you said includes this targeted feedback and this careful selection of examples and non-examples texts. Can you elaborate a little bit more on those features, and if you can, where maybe are some of those common pitfalls that people fall into when they're trying to actualize this type of instruction in their classrooms?
LS: Well, so for example, an example of careful selection would be if a teacher is working with children at the very beginning stages of decoding, a word pattern that's commonly taught early on would be a consonant, vowel, consonant, or CVC words. That includes words or it involves words that have a short vowel. So words like man, met words like that. Well, the teacher has to be really careful not to inadvertently select confusing examples. Like a word such as, far looks like consonant, vowel, consonant, but it's actually about r controlled and it's got a different vowel sound. It doesn't have a short vowel sound or a word such as what. it looks like consonant, vowel, consonant, but it's usually it's taught as a phonetically irregular word. So if a school has a good phonics curriculum in place that can kind of help teachers select appropriate examples, but cheap, but teacher knowledge is always important that, you know, both things are really important.
I sometimes heard it claimed that a good teacher can teach, or a knowledgeable, competent teacher can teach well with any curriculum. I don't believe that that's true. Some curriculums make it really hard to teach effectively. On the other hand, good teaching is never just about, you know, robotic teaching of a particular scripted curriculum. So both kinds of features would be really important. And I think you asked me something else, but I forget what it was and something at the end, there was another question.
DS: Yeah, it asks about some common pitfalls. And I like how you talked about the CVC words because you're illuminating something that actually interesting. It's often funny, I'll be talking to my non-teacher reading teacher friends that don't really know anything about the structure of how literacy works. And I'll say that, you know, man and lip are actually different from was and far, and they'll say why, and it's because of the rules that are governed by the English language. So can you tell us a little bit more about that? Why would the lay person, or even someone who hasn’t learned about the rules of language need to know about why would those types of words be different?
LS: That's a really important question because I think that the difficulty of teaching early reading and phonics is often underestimated. People think that if you can read well yourself, and you're warm and fuzzy with little that's enough to be a good, you know, for first grade or kindergarten teacher of reading, but English is worth the graphically a complex language. It's still got a lot of regularity in it. So it's not as it's sometimes claimed that, you know, English is so irregular that there's no point in teaching phonics. That’s really not true. A word that has an AR pattern, one syllable word with an AR the AR is almost always going to say R as the, in far, farm, car, and so on.
But the point is you have to look at the letter pattern. English often can't be decoded well in a letter by letter fashion like some languages like Spanish. In a language like Spanish, the letter a is almost always an art, like in taco, but English doesn't work like that in a, could be, a like in cat, but it could be a like contain, it can be on the sounds you hear in the AR combination. It could be an, uh, like in ago, like when it's a prefix. So, there's patterns. It's not even necessarily that children have to learn formal rules. Although there are some formal rules that are helpful, but what they really need to attend to are patterns in them. And some children will kind of pick that up without a lot of difficulty, and for some children, that aspect of reading comes easily without a lot of systematic instruction, but a pretty high proportion of kids really benefit from the systematic instruction and kids with significant reading difficulties.
You know, almost always require it in order to do well. And in order to teach that an adult, a highly literate adult does not have that knowledge simply by virtue of being a good reader yourself. So teacher prep really needs to teach it, which it often does not. And I would say it's important to be taught, like not only in relation to phonics skills, but also in relation to higher level language skills. For instance, certain types of syntax are, or sentence structure, are more difficult for children. And if the teacher is aware of that, then they're scaffolding that you can do to help the student understand the sentence. You have to have the knowledge about structure of language.
DS: So that's a really important part of good teacher preparation in my and so I appreciate you talking about the language piece. Again, I mean, you know, when I'm hearing this in popular news, you hear about this reading words that it's phonics first, everyone else, and I appreciate you bringing in the language piece of it. In a typical structured literacy lesson with these features, would there be this explicit instruction in language and sentence structures folded in as well?
LS: Yeah. Yes, absolutely. But what you would ideally have that I think unfortunately is not what happens in most schools, but which what you would ideally have is a cordial. General education program. What, what in an RTI model is called tier one instruction would provide explicit systematic teaching of all these important components, phonics sentence structure, anemic awareness, vocabulary, et cetera.
And then you would have differentiation. If you have kids who come in with this aspect of reading comes very easily to them. You've moved them ahead, or those are the kids that might move more quickly to independent reading or project work or something like that. But for the kids who need, you know, who are more at risk you're right with starting with some kind of structure in place and some explicit teaching. Then kids who need more than what they're getting in general that would get the intervention in whatever their weaknesses are. So some children will learn easily when it comes to higher level components of language and with a good general skills in those areas they might do just fine, but they might need a lot more intensity in areas like phonemic awareness and phonics. And that would be, for example, your typical student with dyslexia, other children learn the word level aspect of reading decoding, you know, pretty readily and don't need intervention in that area but might need intervention when it comes to higher level language.
DS: I like how you broke that down. And that was leading me to my next question. You have teachers and more importantly, school leaders that are looking out for programs to support their curriculums. And you did mention a lot of different areas that we, that leaders should be looking at, but is there anything else that you'd like to add about what school leaders should look out for in terms of having a core reading program and then targeted intervention for children that continue to struggle and learning to read?
LS: So I would say leaders should be looking for programs that have a lot of explicit teaching in them, a lot of explicit systematic teaching with a clear sequence of skills for teachers to follow, not just the common core standards, which is a lot of school leaders seem to think, oh, the teachers just go off and follow the common core, but that's especially for a lot of basic skills. It's not at the level of, of day-to-day teaching. Okay. And also the teachers need the materials. There's what I see sometimes in a lot of schools is sort of the attitude. Teachers are just going to whip up all these materials themselves. Well, that would be hard for me to do. And I've been doing this for 40 years and I know structure of language really, really well, and I could do it, but it would be different.
And if you're going to rely on having teachers make up their own materials or download stuff from the web, they're going to be using a lot of things that really aren't very good. And there's going to be a lot of inconsistency among teachers, which is another problem. So, you know, if little Johnny is with teacher A, it's great, but if they happen to be placed in the classroom of teacher B, if it's not so good and then Little Johnny has a great with teacher A then maybe next year, the teacher B is not so good. So if you want to have school staff where everybody is kind of rowing in the same direction and there's a lot, in the boat, and there was a lot of coherence around good practices, then I think that's where having a good, it's not that there's just one good curriculum.
Then there there's different options that school leaders can look at. So it's not just one particular program, but you want a program where there's a lot of explicit teaching not a curriculum that's using say multiple queuing systems or encouraging, guessing at words or things like that. School leaders need to avoid programs that sounds good on the surface to have every student kind of picking their own things, you know, their own books that they want to read and their own project work. So each student is kind of working in a different book or on a different thing, and that sounds positive because you know, the student choice is involved. But the problem with that is it makes explicit teaching really, really difficult.
LS: So you can have some student choice for sure. Like you can let students have choice in their independent reading that they do for homework, or maybe there's a component of the program where students are doing project work. But if the whole program is really built around that, it sounds good, but it's making it really hard to do explicit teaching and systematic teaching. And what I tell school leaders in this situation is you have to realize that when you pick that kind of curriculum, you're picking a curriculum that is not a good fit for your special ed kids and your at risk kids.
So it's much better to have a program in my view, that has, you know, if you have a well-structured program, you can always back off of the structure or accelerate kids who are doing really well. But when you have a program that is much more loosely structured or makes explicit teaching hard, it's, it's difficult or impossible to then impose the structure, you know, later. As I heard somebody say this, I thought was a really good way to put it. They were talking specifically about phonics, but they said you cannot retrofit the funds. If you've got, you know, books that aren't decodable and you've got materials that are not well-organized in terms of word structure, then don't think you're going to be able to kind of plug that in later. It doesn't, it doesn't work.
DS: Those are all amazing points. And I had was thinking about to some of those big caution areas for school leaders and teachers to avoid when choosing curriculum, obviously multiple cueing is the one that keeps ringing in my head. And I appreciate you also talking about student choice and not establishing as much structure as you should have in an explicit reading program. And I keep coming back as well to this cohesion piece. I do a lot of work with the professional development, and I remember a lot of literature and even characteristics supported by Learning First Alliance, when they talk about the elements of professional development, is having this cohesion, not just for curriculum, but through professional development and school leadership ensuring that this is one language across all classrooms and grades. if I'm a school leader, where do I even start to implement this? Let's say, I'm looking at the curriculum we have now. And I see multiple cueing or I see a program that says, have students choose the book they're going to read during reading time, or it lacks that systematic explicit nature. Where do I even start to try? And I don't even know what the word is, because I don't want to say rebuild the system because you can't just rebuild a system from scratch. So what, what changes could I be making in order to invest more in structured literacy practice?
LS: So I would say an important initial step is teacher professional development to make sure that all teachers understand, you know, professional development that is done in a way. That teachers can see is meaningful. Do you know what I mean? So what I find with teachers, even very experienced inservice teachers, will appreciate coursework or professional development that they can see has a direct impact on what you do in the class. If we're going to teach them about the importance of decoding and why multiple cueing systems models of reading are wrong, then it's important to also tie that to what does this mean for what you do with. What kind of feedback should you give when a student is reading in a book and is struggling with a word? You basically don't want to give any feedback that leads them away from looking carefully at the printed word and maybe toward pictures or guessing, or that type of strategy.
So the professional development piece would be really important. Unfortunately, what you might think, well, gee, a teacher who are working in schools, many of them have a master's like shouldn't they know this already? No, actually many of them don't. what I think just like, you know, we've been talking about K to 12 teaching, often lacks coherence teacher prep, really lacks coherence.
So when I was teaching full time I would teach students about multiple cueing models of reading, and we've had scientific research for decades showing that that view of reading is wrong, but I'm not have a colleague down the hall. That's teaching them all about MSV and for the student, it just leads to confusion and or it leads and leads them to think that will, all of this is just a matter of a. That, you know, you know, Dr. Spear swirling has her opinion, but Dr. Jones has heard and there was somehow all equal. So, so I think the professional development piece more often than not is important. And even, even teachers who are, you know, pretty far along in terms of their professional development, that's good, but many of them could benefit from more. So the stuff that I mentioned earlier, the research on reading profiles, my experiences that not many teachers are familiar with that there was a whole line of research on reading comprehension and how kids with different types of underlying difficulties might perform differently depending on the format of the test. Very few teachers I've talked to are familiar with that research. I'm throwing out examples of things that are really important in practical terms. I think for most people, there's always going to be some room for more PD linked to what you do in the classroom.
And even if the curriculum is less than desirable, there's probably some things that teachers could start doing right away.Even though ideally you want a better structured literacy kind of curriculum, they can stop encouraging kids to look at pictures and guess at words. They could give better feedback. They could try to structure the skills that they're teaching in a way that is more logical and consistent with research and more coherent. And then, in an ideal world, you'd maybe have some coaching of teachers. To implement these practices because the coaching piece we know from research, and this is also consistent with my experience is very important that if you're not observing teachers working with kids, there's room for improvement. We don't know what we don't know. Right. We were thinking a certain way. So a knowledgeable coach can be hugely important. And then, um, you know, ideally you would have a good curriculum in place to anchor all of this stuff. I mean, the curriculum is enormous.
DS: I love those pieces and I of course get really excited when you talk about coaching. And I want to ask about your work with supervised teaching and pre-service teacher preparation. The other piece, when you talked about curriculum and teachers hearing different types of things, the one thing you talked about MSV, the multiple cueing system as opposed to explicit teaching of the structure of language and reading. Another thing that I'll hear is let's put in terms of curriculum as well. What's the difference between a decodable text and let's say a leveled reader? How would you explain that? And do you hear that often too? Because I wanted to establish how different they are.
LS: Yes. Yes. So a decodable text is a text that is controlled to certain patterns that children have studied, that they've learned in their reading instruction would usually be most relevant for children that are functioning at early levels of decoding, maybe kindergarten and grade one. And that could include an older struggling reader. So a text like that might be there's one that, um, that we used to use in fields work called the Red Fox. You have checks that says something like the red box cub lives in its den with its mom and dad. So you've got, you know, CVC words like red ox, cob mom, dad, Dan. And then, and you might have picture and pictures can be good because they're kind of motivating and you can use them to enhance comprehension, but in a decodable text the pictures are not used to facilitate.
The early leveled texts are typically predictable. So a predictable example would be, when my kids learned to read, there was one that was very popular called Mrs. Wishy-washy and there was a recurrent, it was about Mrs. Wishy-washy was a farm hand who liked to wash the hands. And so you would have a picture of it and you would have this recurrent predictable texts, like, in went the cow wishy-washy, wishy-washy. It would show him this is wishy-washy with a tub and the cow in the tub being washed.
And then the next page would say in when the pig wishy-washy, wishy-washy. In went the horse wishy-washy, wishy-washy. And so the idea was that the teacher would read the text to the children. And the pictures were used in a way that the child could tell, you know, they would kind of memorize the text because it was the same structure over and over.
And then they would look at the at the picture to guess, are we talking about the cow, the horse, the pig. The thing that's most bad about it is it gives children the wrong message about what's important in reading. Reading is not interpreting pictures, it's decoding the print, and that's a really important fundamental message for kids to understand very early in reading. One of my friends who used to be a paraprofessional for many years, described a child she had and who she was reading with and he was reading predictables and he said to her, look, Mrs. B, I can read with my eyes closed.
DS: Oh, no.
LS: And it was because he had memorized it. Right. And, it's kind of a funny story, but it's also kind of disturbing story because that child learns something we didn't want him to learn. He's not understanding the basic nature of reading, so the predictables have early on and then the level texts are a little bit different, but they are typically not controlled to certain word patterns.
So it's a problem for children who have decoding difficulties especially at the early stages. If you're a teacher, if you're using a good decoding program, then eventually children get to a point where they've learned enough, one syllable word patterns that they can read more, more uncontrolled or natural text but they still need to read text that's at the instructional level. We still don't want to use pictures in a way that enables guessing at words, because it's kind of giving belonged message.
DS: Those are excellent points. And as you're talking, okay. Side note, every READ listener knows that I meet with the guest before we talk. And I'll say this, you know, we met a couple of weeks ago and I had this wild idea. I was like, you know, if I had a lot of money, Dr. Spear-Swerling, would you just become the Dean of a school of education? And now I just wish I had, I was sitting on millions of dollars right now because I mean, I'm learning so much from you in this time that we're, that we're speaking together. And let's just say, 2022 happened and I hit the lotto. Somehow I had this ancient inheritance from ancestry.com. I don't know where it is, but I'm getting the money and the resources for you. And I want to start a teacher preparation program. I'm naming you Dean. So what would be on your wishlist to enacting this program to ensure that all reading teachers are adequately prepared for their classrooms?
LS: So, um, that would be wonderful. That's a wonderful fantasy.
DS: I know.
LS: In addition to being, well-grounded the kinds of research that we've been talking about and the kind of teaching approaches for both general and special educators, so that you have that coherence. I would, one thing I would really like to see better teacher admissions standards. So, here in Connecticut, a few years ago, Connecticut eliminated its basic skills tests for teachers and basic competency test. And I mean, there are some arguments that can be made for doing that, but in my opinion, it's a mistake because good teaching is certainly not only about academic competence, but good. Academic competence is a good start and it's a foundation for what we're expecting teachers to be able to do, things they were never really expected to do in the past in terms of teaching to every student and differentiating and learning all of this structure of language stuff, you know, not to mention all the other things that teachers have to deal with, like COVID and school shootings and all of that.
So in terms of literacy, in order for teachers to learn the content and implement the content and want, they need good basic skills themselves. And I'm not talking about every teacher, you know, it's not just about like SAT scores or that kind of thing, but it's really a mistake, I think, to not start with people who have strong academic competencies. In addition to that, we should do a lot of other things in terms of admission. So it is really important to recruit a diverse teacher workforce, because a lot of teachers are going to be going into school districts where they're working with low income or Black or Brown kids. And we want teachers of color. So I completely support those kinds of recruitment efforts. I think that when you have appropriate admissions standards, it draws the kind of candidates you want. And then we can fund, we can do additional recruitment where we can fund students who are capable, but might not have the means to go into a teacher prep program.
That would be one thing I would do. I think that teacher ed has to have good rigor throughout the program. So one of the things I found in teacher ed, and I think this is pretty rampant in a lot of programs, although I haven't done a formal study, a lot of teacher ed courses, don't test students. Students do plenty of projects to be sure it's not that students are doing requirements, but a lot of course requirements are linked to accreditation demands that involve things like doing lesson plans and diagnostic reports. And for sure those kinds of assignments are really important, but they're not really a substitute for basic content knowledge. So if you're going to become a doctor, well, yeah, doctors have to, you know, doctors in training on how to develop treatment plans and they have to work with actual patients. But before that, they have to know about the circulatory system, neurology and the endocrine system.
And so teachers need teachers of literacy and need that grounding in important components of reading, scientific knowledge about reading, and then also the structure of language piece as a foundation before they start doing lessons and working with students, which is also a really important. That's one of the pieces that is really near and dear to my heart, because I have been so disappointed to see my own state back off what I think, you know, 10 or 20 years ago was the right idea in terms of teacher admissions standards.
DS: What about looking at teacher educators? You had spoken how in your class you'd be talking about one research-based principle then in your other class, you said Dr. Jones would be talking about three cueing systems. So how would you approach hiring teacher educators to ensure that there was a cohesion of the science of reading and structured literacy?
LS: Well, this is a really hard problem. There's a lot of people who've been trying to solve this problem, this teacher ed problem, and it is a really big problem. That kinds of goes back to how people get trained. So the people that are in doctoral programs, certain doctoral programs, they're not reading the same journals. They're not going to the same conferences. These are people that have PhDs so they feel that they have the knowledge and they do have certain kinds of knowledge that are really valuable. But, you know, there can be a fundamental disconnect around things like these multiple cueing systems models of reading, or another big disconnect on certain things that are big disconnects. So there's the MSV thing. There's assessments- certain people who embrace multiple cueing tend to go along with embracing quote, authentic assessment and quote, which means sort of a disdain for curriculum-based measurement, such as DIBELS and AIMS Web, which is a type of assessment that is extremely useful for universal screening of children.
Teacher ed students in those professors classes are not getting that content and even worse, they often get a bias against it. You know, it's not authentic, they don't really understand the idea of difference assessing don't useful for different purposes. Um, another there's another big one.
Another big one is the kind of a negative attitude toward explicit teaching. So this idea that we use a more guided kind of approach and children, it's better for children to have to induce skills and figure it out on their own. That tends to kind of go along with these things, and tend to kind of coalesce together.
I think that the way this plays out in teacher ed is that the professors in these different areas, and it often sorts out as a general ed and special ed type of distinction. Although, you know, there's certain variability, even within each of those fields you, you asked, I think initially about how to how to find somebody, if you were hiring a professor, how would you find the right person with a background that you want?
Well, I had a favorite question in my full-time faculty days. I was on many search committees and one of my favorite questions to ask the people that we're interviewing for professor jobs was whose work has really influenced you? You could tell a lot just by their answer to that question, you know, if they named some icon of whole language, I knew that, okay, this person not going to be a good fit. They could name a lot of different people, you know, they could say, ah, Keith Stanovitch, Isabel Lieberman or, Mark Seidenberg or there's a ton of people that they could mean where I would say, Oh, okay. That's good. That's interesting. Um, but then if they couldn't name any, if there was no person they could name that was kind of a recognized authority, a recognized scientist of reading, then that was a bad sign. Or if they named someone that was really more of a whole language type of figure or a guru in education, as opposed to a reading scientists, then that was, and that was like onto the next.
DS: That's so funny. Well I appreciate you bringing in all those elements and as you were talking, First of all calling all people that have millions of dollars for us, let's just start our own university. But, in these elements that I liked the yes and piece of a strong admissions process, with assessment and rigor in the curriculum and ensuring that you do have teacher educators that are there, that are teaching according to the science. I know a lot of your work with teacher prep, you do a lot of work with coursework and building knowledge, and you've also done a lot of work with supervised teaching. So I know this was something you were really excited about when we spoke a couple of weeks ago. So what is the role of supervised teaching and supporting pre-service and new teachers and teacher prep?
LS: Okay, so that is a great question. It also makes me think of another thing that I would add to my fantasy wishlist, which would be to have really strong cooperating schools and teachers, people that are already implementing these practices. Teacher candidates can go in and see it. You know, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. To see it being implemented is really, really helpful. And then conversely, if you get them, I mean, I have seen this happen with my own students. They can go through a really strong program and then they, if they go into a school that is implementing a lot of non explicit teaching, non SL types of practices, non-structured literacy, then they eventually start doing what their colleagues are doing right after, you know, three, four or five years. Your work as a pre-service teacher kind of fades away and you start doing what's happening in your school. So that would be a really important piece that I would want to have on, on my wishlist. And now I just need you to remind me of what the question was when I went off on this tangent.
DS: No, I love that you talked about cooperating schools. And so then that brings me to supervise teaching.
LS: Oh, yes. Yeah. It was about supervised teaching. So, yes, so I think the supervised teaching is hugely important. It’s also the thing that tends to be more motivating to a lot of teacher candidates, like actually being able to work with kids. I think that, you know, my own program when I was working full time, did a program that was in use in my department that did a good job with this. So students would start in their early courses where they would maybe do observation in classrooms, but they weren't actually working with kids. And then you would have, in the courses that I taught, that was usually their first experience working one-to-one with a student under supervision.
Then, after the courses they took with me and my other colleagues that taught those courses, then there was another course where the whole course was working in a school with a small group of kids. And so, you know, you're kind of upping the ante from one-to-one to being able to manage a small group. And then only after all of those experiences, when they do student teaching, which would be the kind of the culminating experience. So in the courses that I taught during the ones, I know that because of so much experience with them, the beginning of the first half of the semester would be all of this content knowledge that we've talked about, like important components of reading and research on reading development and why children tend to have difficulty in reading if they do for kids who struggle. Then around the midpoint, they would go into a school with a course that would meet twice a week. So we would still meet once a week for a regular class. And then the other class would meet in the field and they would work one-to-one with a student in reading.
I would be there on site for every session. So I would be kind of circling around to observe them and they would start by giving some informal assessments and then they would have about half a dozen tutoring sessions with the student. I would work the school I used to do this in was wonderful. It was the Wintergreen Magnet in Hampden. They were a great school. We would work with the teachers to get kids who had sort of mild difficulties because the format of the class was not really enough to address more serious problems that would come in later versions of the fields work.
This was an initial work with a student to develop lesson plans, engage the student, give appropriate feedback to student errors, revise your instruction depending on what is, and isn't working, that sort of thing. I taught the course for many, many years and I mean, there were students who, you know, they didn't like me and they didn't like my stupid assignments and exams, but almost without exception, they loved the field work. Because they could see, you know, it was motivating to work with kids and it was, it was much more meaningful for me to be able to say, you know, notice when this child had this problem blending, that's been great. That's an example of a kid who's struggling with phonemic awareness and it would help to get that knowledge in a way that is not just talking about it in an academic language. The academic grounding was important, but it really jelled better once they got the practical application and there was practice
I used to also teach a course. That was a math course. That was parallel where we would do the exact same stuff in math. And if you ever want to do a podcast on math, like I'm in, because everything that we've talked about in reading goes double for math and math. Math, as a field, in my opinion is kind of where reading was 20 years ago.
It is totally dominated by constructivism by this idea that kids just learn from osmosis and immersion and hands-on experience. And it’s very problematic for kids who struggle in that. So the two courses were set up in, in parallel, but one was focused on literacy. The other was focused on math.
DS: I’m so happy you talked about math. I'm a math teacher by happenstance. I was always a great math student. I loved it, but I never knew I could teach it until I came to Windward and I was trained to teach math in an explicit way. And it was, Probably one of, I mean, I loved to teach reading, but teaching math is such a magical experience. We had Dr. Paul Riccomini on the podcast in November to talk about math. He's a professor at Penn state. I'm so happy you brought that up. And as you're talking about these field experiences, I was brought back to the classroom and I miss it. So I appreciate you ending that piece.
As we end, this is the January 2022 episode. And I always like to end each episode with the purpose of READ, which seeks to inform the broader community about the greater integration of research, education, and advocacy. So as you look ahead to this next year and beyond, if you'd like to dream big, we've already dreamt big about our new university that starting. What is your hope for you personally, or for the field at large to increasing the intersection of research, education and advocacy in reading education?
LS: So I would really hope to see more of this research get implemented in practice. I think that there are some areas that are sort of less controversial is not quite the right word that I want to use, but the less fraught it, then areas like phonics have been that. It's really, you know, phonics teaching and awareness teaching are really important, but they kind of have a history of argument around them. There's things that should not be controversial, like important, you know, common profiles of reading difficulties that there are kids who don't struggle with the code and their main problem is comprehension. And we want to train teachers to work with those kids too, so it all kind of gels together, right? You need to know about all of it in order to be effective, or the research that I mentioned earlier on reading comprehension and some of this, some of this research has involved tests that are very familiar to teachers like Gray Oral Reading and the Woodcock Johnson and measures like that, I would really encourage anybody who's listening and who's interested look up the work of JAN Keenan, K E E N A N and her colleagues who have done research on tests. That will be very practical for you for your work with children, for doing assessment. So those are some of the areas that you know, in my view, should kind of be low hanging fruit and should be the things that hopefully people would pay would get increased attention in education and better implementation along with all the other things that are really important too, like explicit teaching things like phonemic awareness and phonics and other literacy skills.
I would hope to have more cohesion and we've talked about that a lot today. Having more consistency and coherence in teacher preparation, even though that's a challenging goal to achieve. And in K to 12, I would hope to have better choices of curriculum for children who struggle, particularly in tier one in general education. As I mentioned earlier, if school leaders pick curricula that are more oriented toward explicit teaching, it doesn't mean that you cannot differentiate for kids who learn with ease and can be moved along more quickly into other kinds of work. But the choice of more structured literacy types of curricula will be a much better fit for your kids who are at risk than what is often being done in general education curriculum.
DS: Those are great summarizing points and to echo what you talked about, I liked the assessment piece and Jan Keenan. We will add to the READ webpage under the episode bookmarks on coherence and consistency and curriculum, ending with three C's. I love to something that that's catchy that people can take away. So the three C’s, coherence, consistency, and curriculum, especially for our struggling readers. Dr. Spear-Swerling, it has been an absolute joy. You have, you are the dream. Speaking of all, the things that we've dreamt about you are the dream to speak to. Thank you so much for being on the READ podcast with us today.
LS: It is my pleasure. I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much.
DS: Thank you. And thank you to all our READers for listening and tuning in and learning with me.
In the first episode of 2022, Dr. Louise Spear-Swerling, a leader and trailblazer in reading education, joins the READ Podcast. Speaking from her background and expertise as a professor, teacher educator, author, and researcher, Dr. Spear-Swerling identifies evidence-based practices that support structured literacy and clarifies common pitfalls of implementation. Listeners will understand how curriculum, coherence, and consistency are fundamental to supporting schools and teachers deliver high quality reading instruction for all students.
Top READ Bookmarks
Each episode, host Danielle Scorrano identifies key takeaways or “READ bookmarks.”
What is Structured Literacy?
Structured literacy refers to the set of research-based practices that emphasize explicit, structured, and sequential literacy instruction to support reading development. These practices are essential for students with reading difficulties and diagnosed disabilities and benefit all learners. Key features include:
1. Explicit, systematic, and sequential teaching of reading
2. High engagement between students and teachers
3. Purposeful selection, teacher modeling, and curriculum resources that demonstrate examples and non-examples of skills, strategies, and patterns
4. Practice and review
5. Decodable text
6. Teacher feedback
"Structured literacy is an umbrella term for a family of explicit teaching approaches that are based in current knowledge of what's effective in reading instruction, particularly for students who struggle or who are at risk in some way."
Read more about structured literacy in Dr. Spear-Swerling’s article Structured Literacy and Typical Literacy Practices: Understanding Differences to create Instructional Opportunities (2018)
What should school leaders and teachers consider in effectively implementing explicit, structured reading instruction?
A research-based core reading program should be explicit, sequential, and structured and include the key features of teaching word level reading such as phonics, phonemic awareness, comprehension, and language skills.
Teachers and school leaders should be cautious about programs that encourage students to guess at words, use pictures, or apply strategies of multiple cueing.
Curriculums that also rely on high student choice of reading or leveled readers are not going to be effective for teaching reading.
"I think that the difficulty of teaching early reading and phonics is often underestimated."
2. Consistency from School Leadership
School leadership should maintain the consistent and steadfast commitment to explicit, structured literacy instruction throughout the school, especially when choosing core curriculums, and they should ensure that teachers are supported with materials and resources to implement this instruction.
"Leaders should be looking for programs that have a lot of explicit, systematic teaching with a clear sequence of skills for teachers to follow, not just the common core standards."
3. Coherence in Professional Development
Professional development should encompass research-based principles such as
- sustained duration of professional learning
- the integration of presentation and modeling of content with teacher practice
- high collaboration
- access to coaching and high-quality feedback
"I sometimes hear claims that a knowledgeable, competent teacher can teach well with any curriculum. I don't believe that's entirely true. Some curriculums make it really hard to teach effectively."
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About READ: READ, the Research Education ADvocacy Podcast connects you with prominent researchers, thought leaders, and educators who share their work, insights, and expertise about current research and best practices in fields of education and child development.
Note: All information and insights shared demonstrate the expertise and views of our guests.