A co-authored contribution with
Amanda Ellis, Director, Instructional Development
Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches
Had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches
Had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches
By third grade in most classroom settings, both teachers and students alike know which learners are ‘reading stars’ and which learners are struggling to become such stars. Unfortunately, those without stars ‘upon thars’ frequently become enveloped in a sense of hopelessness and frustration. One young reader, Destiny Grace, has forced us to examine the inherent assumptions behind the valued traits of a ‘good’ reader and the educational practices sometimes found in reading intervention programs. Destiny’s story serves as a case study to help educators at all levels understand that we must work to acquire better reading data, raise our expectations, and strive to introduce strategic interventions that target specific needs.
Destiny Grace is an energetic and dynamic fourth grade learner. Like most 10 year olds, she is imaginative and playful. She engages others with her terrific sense of humor and she possesses a firecracker ability to burst through the ceilings others impose on her as she continues to exceed expectations for those who see beyond her visible differences. She is learning to play the violin and she already knows she wants to be a veterinarian.
Destiny is reader. Because she struggles with her fluency rate in reading and can be slow in completing assignments, she is not a reading ‘star’ by educational standards. Yet.
Destiny is an African American adopted at birth by a Caucasian family. She arrived in her new home weighing 4 pounds and presumed to be addicted to both alcohol and drugs based on the actions and history of her birth mother. Destiny spent her first several weeks of life experiencing the shakes of withdrawal and her adoptive parents were directed to take her to see a doctor who specialized in fetal alcohol syndrome. In that initial visit, based on facial measurements, the specialist reported that Destiny had several features compatible with the diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Destiny was referred for further developmental evaluation, and her parents left with a handful of articles outlining the potential future of a child with an IQ of 50-80 and emotional instability. The literature and notes of the doctors clearly communicated the struggles that could lie ahead; those notions created many assumptions about Destiny’s future that could easily have played out as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fortunately, the family refused to believe the specialists and instead relied on their early experiences with Destiny’s alertness, their beliefs about children, the nurturing of other caring teachers and friends, and the expertise of the family pediatrician.
As Destiny grew, the family pediatrician helped the family understand that Destiny’s nervous system works overtime and she struggles to process her environment. She suffers from an inability to distinguish and prioritize intensity levels – a cricket chirping is as intense as an on-coming truck or a friend asking a question. She has been diagnosed as ADHD and she takes medication to support her efforts to focus on the one thing that is most important in the moment. Typically, experts – in the educational and medical fields alike – initiate their work with Destiny based on her visible differences. It seems the experts that surround Destiny must also work to avoid excessive crowding stimuli or data about Destiny that skew their responses. Apgar scores, history, milestones, development, and appointments with specialists – these things have put Destiny at risk for labels and assumptions about her development and potential that she must overcome daily. Knowledge is a double-edged sword: it can help or hurt. Most educational experts today approach Destiny from the angle of addressing her deficits; her apparent visible differences seem to blind many into categorical thinking.
Destiny the Reader
Amazingly, in spite of all that extra work that she must do to avoid excessive crowding stimuli, Destiny is a reader! Today, Destiny enjoys good stories and has many books by her side at all times. In fact, she keeps some books in the car, some by her bed, and some she carries in her backpack so she can read at any time and in any space. During her last visit to an amusement park, she brought a book along to read during the unavoidable times of waiting for shows or parades to begin. She self-selects a variety of levels of books ranging from easy to hard. The chapter books she enjoys reading would be considered 5th grade level books or above. Destiny’s comprehension levels are high.
When Destiny reads to her parents, which she loves to do often, she makes connections to the text, to keywords in the text, and to her world. She frequently stops to exclaim with enthusiasm, ‘that word is just like the other word we saw!’ or “that’s just like the time that we went to the market place!” Her most recent display of deep understanding of text is to read in an accent – usually British! Destiny’s parents are not surprised that her fluency rates lag behind given her pure delight in making frequent connections. Where others might find her reading habits to be choppy or distracting, her parents find them to be filled with strategies she uses to remain focused on the task at hand.
Destiny’s data over time demonstrate the roller coaster ride she is experiencing as a reader. As early as first grade, Destiny scored green for everything in DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills), yet she scored significantly below grade level for DRA (Diagnostic Reading Assessment). As an early reader, she was on target for the elements of reading, but she was not demonstrating evidence of the ability to read when in small group with her teacher. By the end of 3rd grade, Destiny’s lexile was at 739, approximately half a year above grade level, though her fluency level continued to lag. Destiny did not score well on the state reading test at the end of third grade.
Fourth grade decisions for Destiny’s reading program were based solely on a poor state test score and did not address any other data to create an environment that would best and most appropriately support her learning. She was immediately placed in the lowest reading group that was structured to include additional support from an ESE teacher. Destiny’s lexile plummeted to 503 with a lagging fluency rate and she now incurred new consequences that included lunch detention and study hall for not completing work. By late fall, after having narrowed her opportunities to interact with students who did not share membership in the low group, lunch detention group, or the study hall group, Destiny became isolated and increasingly anxious.
In November, the family hired an outside tutor who administered a series of assessments (running records) to check on her progress. Some curious patterns of consistency, no matter the level emerged:
Words Per Minute
|Level S (mid 3rd)||46||2||98%|
At this point, the tutor dropped down to a Level N to see if the fluency would increase. Her WPM was at a rate of 51 and her accuracy rate was 93% with 3 errors. In short, regardless of the level of text, her fluency, error rate, and accuracy remained somewhat constant. In January, she was reassessed:
Words Per Minute
|Level T (end 3rd)||47||2||98%|
|Level U (beg. 4th)||50||5||96%|
|Level V (mid 4th)||45||0||100%|
|Level W (end 4th)||50||1||99%|
|Level X (beg. 5th)||51||1||99%|
|Level Y (mid 5th)||35||6||96%|
The tutor stopped at Level Y based on the fact that they had been working steadily for an hour, with the added assumption that the ADHD medication was no longer in effect.
Destiny continues to present as a struggling reader at school based on classroom assessments. Over the many conversations Destiny’s parents have experienced with educational experts (classroom teachers, special education teachers, and Response to Intervention Teams) regarding her reading, the choices have seemed clear cut: Destiny could be a reader who was fluent but did not have to think (as there are no rigorous comprehension questions with the reading intervention program she continues to experience), or she could be a thinking reader who reads slowly. Consistently, her parents have wanted the latter; consistently, the system has required the first.
Acquiring Better Reading Data
We are in no way suggesting that fluency is not important; the research base on the importance of fluency is deep and wide and consistent (Rasinski, 2011). Likewise, we are in no way suggesting that Destiny shouldn’t have to be a fluent reader, we believe she already has fluency skills and will be able to develop them fully – it is automaticity with which she struggles.
We are, however, suggesting that educators take a close look with a long view regarding data – accurate reading indicator data about each child as well as data about the responsiveness and preciseness of the system itself. Data patterns have emerged over time regarding the system itself as it seeks to create readers:
- sometimes within the same year, the experts will not agree on the implications of the data regarding Destiny’s ability to read – even when confronted by evidence from multiple sources;
- often times the experts that are requiring Destiny to move to the low reading group have never even listened to her read so all of their decisions are based solely on numbers;
- when the experts ask Destiny to read as a way of “testing” her so they can “place” her appropriately, Destiny simply shuts down and will not share her best thinking;
- assessments often fail to address specific learning targets – visible for instructor and learner; and,
- assessments are rarely offered in alternative formats, even when the alternative would render equally valid and possibly more consistent data.
Destiny can read for her tutors and her parents and a few select teachers who have demonstrated their faith in her as a reader. With consistency, Destiny has proven that she absolutely cannot read for someone who does not demonstrate a clear and evident belief that she will be successful at the task. Her behavior is based in survival, not belligerence.
Most importantly, Destiny’s case study has helped us to see the system is choosing to sacrifice comprehension at the alter of fluency. Speed is most certainly not the only part of fluency that matters (oral language, phonemic awareness, concepts of print, letter-sound association, phonics/structure, analogy, and learning a way to think about words – Cooper and Kiger, 2003); yet, it is the trait most eagerly tracked, likely because fluency is something teachers can readily score and easily record over time. Certainly, it should not come at the expense of comprehension, reasoning, and skill development. We believe the field would better serve learners if educators spent time truly defining quality measures to track and ultimately understand reading comprehension. We suggest the following for data-gathering in reading:
- first and foremost, believe in success for all learners before launching such assessments – assessment must be something educators do with and for learners and not to them. Destiny has many examples of her data spiking to high levels when she is with someone who believes in her;
- develop clear and consistent strategies and tools for better a understanding and gauging of comprehension;
- consistently pair data with targeted, specific feedback. When a learner demonstrates repeated gaps in the same places, then the gaps would require immediate and clear feedback so that the learner would have the ability to address the known gap;
- develop building wide (cross-program) consistency in scoring strategies and data interpretation;
- prioritize the traits of readers that are significant and flex decisions based on the value of the key indicators; and,
- look for multiple trends over time, not just those that are easily measured and decide which measures are worth more weight.
It is both befuddling and frustrating that even when given data, those who make decisions regarding Destiny’s reading instruction either cannot and do not adjust their thinking or they allow some data to “overrun” other evidence. They struggle with believing that it could be possible, and as a result seem unable to take a risk in trying something off the beaten path.
Using better reading interventions
Too often, as in Destiny’s case, struggling readers are still being put in the ‘low’ group in the interest of targeting their specific needs. While this might seem like a good idea, there are a few flaws involved:
- Destiny is not being exposed to a rigorous thinking curriculum. Quite the opposite, reading, laden with boring worksheets, has become pedantic and frustrating and she is missing the pure joy of reading while in school. Today her curriculum is rote – it is even an exact replica of the curriculum she experienced the previous year;
- unlike flexible grouping, a key element in solid intervention plans, ability grouping allows for little if any upward movement – once a child is placed, the placement becomes relatively permanent for the sheer fact that the curriculum, skills, and pacing are so different from group to group that a child who is ready to move would not be able to cross the chasm;
- children placed together in tracks begin to think and behave within the expectations of that ‘caste’ system. As one might predict, Destiny has fewer and fewer friends on the playground and her head hangs low when teachers publicly reward the middle and high group learners. In his 2009 meta-analysis, Hattie states, “Ability grouping . . . may contribute to polarized track-related attitudes . . . with high track students becoming more enthusiastic and low-track students more alienated. . . .” (90); and,
- the research on ability grouping clearly indicates the negative consequences far outweigh any possible benefit and more likely exacerbate existing disparities in equity. Hattie (2009) found “…the results [of ability grouping] show that tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative equity effects” (90).
Educators have a tendency to assume that if a student struggles, it automatically means teachers must slow things down and break things into small, specific parts. In his 2009 book Visible Learning, Hattie reveals the findings that the expectations held for learners in lower level ability groups and the ensuing drill practices and worksheets imposed upon them most often generate abysmal results: “…many low-track classes are deadening, non-educational environments . . . . Ability grouping . . . may contribute to polarized track-related attitudes . . . with high track students becoming more enthusiastic and low-track students more alienated” (90). He goes on to note that learners in lower track ability groups have fewer connections with highly trained, master teachers, and fewer intellectually stimulating challenges. The worksheets that we have seen offered to Destiny (the exact same in 4th grade as they were in 3rd grade) offer low level comprehension expectations and pedantic isolated grammar and vocabulary exercises that would easily become routinely boring for engaged and successful learners. Her worksheets are the paper equivalent to talking louder and slower. With each worksheet, Destiny consistently receives the message that educators don’t believe struggling readers have the capacity to reason and understand.
Placing Destiny in reading intervention initiatives that lower expectations for her is a disservice to her. “When we respond to the individual differences among students by lowering our expectations or providing inferior educational opportunities, we underestimate the capacity for all children to grow intellectually and we fail to provide adequate tools for learning. In these ways we confirm our own predictions . . . we need to both embrace and support pedagogically a vision of possibility regarding the educational achievement of all our children” (Weinstein, p.2).
Destiny requires a thinking curriculum. She may struggle with fluency, but she is a brilliant strategist and creative, playful thinker. She needs challenging questions and activities to hone her thinking skills.
Destiny requires flexible grouping in reading with opportunities to participate in groups aligned with her skills – both success and challenge based. She requires exposure to many leveled books and many successful readers.
It becomes quite an emotional and prickly subject, this notion of aligning actions with words when we say all children can learn, regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, learning styles. Destiny needs teachers who believe in her. If we believe all students can learn, then all students deserve our best shot, our highest expectations. The effects of teacher expectations and student performance are very, very real. Learners prosper in schools that hold high expectations for everyone (Green, 2005).
Destiny Grace can read. And fortunately, she still loves to read today. She is a vibrant learner and she loves to explore language, play with language, and integrate new language skills, but only in safe places. In school, she is experiencing more and more of each of the following:
- separation from quality text and a rich, skill and thinking based curriculum;
- separation from a community of learners who believe in her abilities and support her as a contributing peer and valued friend; and, worst of all,
- detachment from a sense of efficacy in self and safety in school.
The system must find a way to bring her back into the fold with her classmates and ultimately, celebrate her strengths as a reader. If schools are meant to be places to help all learners be successful, then they must work to create safe havens with flexible groupings and targeted, engaging interventions so that
. . . neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies [would know]
whether this one was that one… or that one was this one
or which one was what one… or what one was who.
the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches.
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars and whether
They had one, or not, upon thars.
Dr. Seuss, The Sneetches
Cooper, D., & Kiger, N. (2003). Literacy — Helping children construct meaning (5th ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Green, R. L. (2005). Expectations: How teacher expectations can increase student achievement and assist in closing the achievement gap. Columbus, OH: SRA/McGraw-Hill.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. NY: Routledge.
Rasinski, T. V. (2011). Teaching reading fluency. In T. V. Rasinski, (Ed.) (2011). Rebuilding the foundation: Effective reading instruction for the 21st century (pp. 181- 198). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Suess, Dr. (1961). The Sneetches and other stories. NY: Random House.
Weinstein, R. S. (2002). Reaching higher: The power of expectations in schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.