Author Archives: brendangarland

Blog # 7 (The Final Showdown…of Reading Rates)

In honor of the gravitas of this momentous concluding blog post, I’d like to begin with a fittingly dramatic analogy: Let’s imagine The Avengers have been assigned a new reading teacher (it could happen – they need to read the manual for the flying fortress, the missives of destructive evildoers and the fine print on exorbitant spandex dry cleaning bills), and you are it. You step in front of your pupils on the first day and immediately recognize this is going to be no easy task: Iron Man, though a capable student, seems mostly interested in reading technical manuals, while Captain America only reads 40s era comic books and The Hulk has problems with becoming frustrated while reading (big problems). What do you do?

   (You guys wanna be able to read your own comics, right?)

This is a situation faced every day (in slightly less dramatic fashion) by reading teachers of every level around the country. And instead of the four or five students that a potential Avengers instructor would be faced with, the average reading teacher has a class of 15, 20, 30 or even more students to deal with. Students who come to reading with a variety of skill sets, interests, motivations and personalities, so where to begin indeed?

In my last blog I found the beginnings of an answer to this dilemma in an article by Mara Sapon-Shevin entitled “Ability Differences in the Classroom: Teaching and Learning in Inclusive Classrooms” . In this article, Sapon-Shevin discusses what she terms “purposive heterogeneity” in classrooms, which basically boils down to the idea of treating student differences as a source of strength rather than a weakness in the classroom. Meaning it does not always have to be a source of frustration – what a concept!

Frustrated teacher

                                  (Me, pre-Sapon Shevin article)

Sapon-Shevin talks about how the diversity of a heterogeneous classroom is actually a much better reflection of what students will face in the real world. She also delves into the mutually beneficial aspects of having stronger students work with weaker ones, as well as the idea of having classes work together on large projects entailing many different, individualized assignments suited for the needs of each student. At the post-secondary level, I imagine this might work something like the structured group discussions which many teachers already use in class. These usually entail assigning a different role to each student, for example facilitator, time-keeper, note-taker etc., so that they remain involved in the discussion and move it forward productively. The same could be true of a larger project or assignment, with the difference that the teacher (or possibly the students themselves, depending on how we wanted to work the assignment), would select the various roles of the students based on their relative strengths or weaknesses. In creating a presentation, for example, one student could be assigned to research sources, another to read them, one other to synthesize them and still another to present them to the class. The advantage of this being that each student could remain productively engaged in the tasks they were assigned while none of them would be either left behind because of difficulty,  or left bored because of their relative aptitude in comparison to other students. We might further structure the assignment so that if some students did work faster than others on their portion, they could be assigned to either conduct further research, or possibly aid the slower students with their assignment. This is just a rough sketch of what this kind of assignment might entail, based on my understanding of it, but in any case I think it’s becoming clear that there are a myriad of ways to approach it, which is perhaps one of the best signs of a pedagogy which is adaptable and potentially useful in the class.

After reading the article, I was intrigued by the ideas that Sapon-Shevin proposed, but of course, being the diligent researcher that I am, I was not satisfied with reading just one article and then putting it into practice. I set out therefore to find other articles which would either corroborate or problematize Sapon-Shevin’s. The next source I looked to was a book by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe entitled Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design.

 I immediately recognized that the two authors were grappling with the same questions as I when reading an early passage which said, “…teachers find it increasingly difficult to ignore the diversity of learners who populate their classrooms. Culture, race, language, economics, gender, experience, motivation to achieve, disability, advanced ability, personal interest, learning preference, and presence or absence of an adult support system are just some of the factors that students bring to school with them in almost stunning variety” Whew! Variety indeed, but this is exactly what I had been thinking of. Moreover, as the title of the book suggests, the authors are adding another element to the mix, that of Understanding by Design, or UbD. According to the authors, this is a method primarily based in curriculum design, whereas Differentiated Instruction, or DI, is focused on instruction. The authors claim that these two methods are not only complimentary but reciprocally necessary – we can’t have one without the other. This is because (as any SFSU Reading/Comp professor can and repeatedly will tell you), instruction is not sufficient in the absence of solid course design, and vice versa.

This was an important concept to be reminded of, and so I read on with a keen eye towards understanding the theory of UbD. The authors illustrate the concept by giving example scenarios from  the classroom of “Mr. Axelt,” a teacher on top of his game when it comes to applying the theories of UbD and DI integration. We learn, amongst other things, that Mr Axelt has a thorough plan to teach the US Constitution to his class that accounts for all of his 32 students, that he plans to have them apply learned knowledge gained in differentiated group work, that he adapts assignments and instruction as the unit progresses, regularly reviews progress, discusses with colleagues and lastly views himself as a learner alongside his pupils. Like I said, the man is on top of his game. In all seriousness though, I found this material, and especially the realistic manner in which it was presented to be highly illuminating and helpful in my research.

                             (Mr Axelt, as I imagine him anyways)

By this point, I was seriously considering applying Differentiated Instruction in my classes, as well as its corollary Understanding by Design. Correspondingly, I found two articles that dealt with the use of DI in class, “Lesson Planning Tips for Different Student Levels” by Dorit Sasson, and another article by Carol Ann Tomlinson entitled What is Differentiated Instruction?”.

Both of the articles begin with a definition of DI, which I was pretty familiar with by this point, and then move on to explain its importance as well as how to use it. Sasson’s article focuses on the idea of having students working on the same activity or project while doing different tasks that are suited to their particular needs. Sasson lists some ideas for reading activities that students could do at different levels. This was interesting for me because in reading through these lists, I realized that many of these things were concepts that I had already been applying in the classroom without acknowledging it, and I suspect this may be true for many other teachers as well. We have all, for example, faced the situation where a group of students reads a passage faster than the rest. What do we do in that situation? Asking those students to lay their heads on the desk and take a nap while the others finish is certainly not an option. So, we engage them, ask them questions about the reading or challenge them to go back and find details to deepen their understanding. This is, I think, in a nutshell the same thing that Sasson is describing, the advantage being that we should recognize that we are doing this and will need to do this so that we can plan accordingly.

The Tomlinson article is in many ways a more simplified version of what she describes in her book, though it helped to see the ideas listed in abbreviated form. In it she gives short list of concepts to consider in the areas of Content (reading materials/reading buddies/group work), Process (tiered activities/personal agendas/variation), Products (rubrics/assignments), and Learning Environment (room environment/routines). I feel as though the article, though certainly not as exhaustive as her other work, would work well as a sort of checklist for teachers who are preparing, implementing, or assessing Differentiated Instruction in the classroom.

And so this final blog draws to a close. I will not say that I have reached a conclusive answer to my original question, as the article on Understanding by Design, a concept I was unfamiliar with before but which could prove crucial, showed me that there is more research to be done. I will say however that what I have found so far has been fruitful and I look forward to trying it out in my classes in the future (be they super-powered or otherwise).



Making It Work

The following post is an analysis of the article:

“Ability Differences in the Classroom: teaching and Learning in Inclusive Classrooms” by Mara Sapon-Shevin from Common Bonds: Anti-Bias Teaching in a Diverse Society. Author(s): Byrnes, Deborah A., Ed.; Kiger, Gary, Ed.


I chose this article because it is directly related to the issue which I am dealing with, how to teach to a class full of students with different reading abilities and rates, and also because the author provides a lot of interesting examples, ideas and support for her conclusions about this topic.


The overall purpose of the article is to promote a particular kind of classroom experience, which the author refers to early in the article as a class which is based on the idea of “purposive heterogeneity,” or “full inclusion” as it is also referred to. This is a kind of class that will, according to the author, “…embody the belief that diversity is a positive force in children’s and teachers’ lives and should be embraced, rather than ignored or minimized.”(Sapon-Shevin, pg. 37). 

(It will be noted that the author intending this essay for use in an elementary setting, hence the repeated use of the phrase children; however, in the mind of this reader, much of what is discussed in the essay is equally applicable to higher grade levels).


As the author says, promoting inclusive instruction is a relatively radical idea in an educational climate in which segregating students according to ability remains the norm. This situation is further exasperated by political and institutional forces which are calling for increased standardization of curricula and tests, limiting the range of teacher’s scope within the class and promoting the pedagogical segregation already mentioned. In this climate, the author feels it is important to explain and promote her belief in full inclusion classrooms.  


While this is more of a descriptive rather than a strictly research based essay, the author does cite a number of other researchers and findings in support of her ideas. This reader was particularly shocked to find out about one study cited in the article, which found that, “…homogeneous grouping does not consistently help anyone learn more or better (Massachusetts Advocacy Center, 1990; Thousand, Villa, & Nevin, 2002) .”. The effect was a little like scales falling from the eyes to see that the unquestioned way of conducting education (even in post-secondary education, and especially in FYC), was not so unquestionable after all.


As mentioned though, much of the paper is descriptive, with many of these descriptions and other forms of advice coming form the lived experiences of teachers in the field. The author frequently cites the experiences of teachers in the field, for example Patty Feld, who the author describes as a teacher from a small rural school who employs various full inclusion methods in her classroom to positive results. Despite some inclusions anecdotal evidence, which of course could be subject to professional skepticism, the author never strays to far from citations of published works and research, including her own.

The overall thrust of the article then was to both describe the methods of full inclusion classrooms as well as to demonstrate support, both anecdotal and analytical, for its effectiveness. The author begins by questioning some long held myths regarding inclusive and non-inclusive classrooms, including the supposed merits of the homogeneous classroom, the willingness of students to work with various levels, and the relative ease or difficulty of teaching homogeneous and heterogeneous classes. The author then goes on to describe the various aspects of teaching an inclusive class, including activities, peer-tutoring, multi-level teaching and the adaptation of appropriate materials and subjects. The author then speaks about the social skills necessary to conduct an effective inclusive classroom, and concludes by arguing for the importance of these kinds of classrooms.


In the opinion of this reader, this was a very informative and useful essay. The author was able to achieve a nice balance between describing lived classrooms experiences and citing professional research and works(and this even despite the fact that this was not, strictly speaking, a research essay). The conclusions were well supported through both the citations and the authors eloquent evocations of current pedagogical and political trends in education. Though I am still just beginning to wrap my head around the notion that homogeneous classrooms may in fact be detrimental to students success, I am nevertheless intrigued by this idea and I think the author has a persuasive argument in favor of at least considering heterogeneous classrooms as an alternative. In any case, I think the reality is that we will face heterogeneous classrooms of greater or lesser degree, whether or not they are labeled as such. Keeping this in mind, I am grateful to have come across this article and look forward to implementing some of its ideas in both my continued research on this subject as well as in my own classes in the future.

Variability in Reading Comprehension

When I saw the title of this article up on the iLearn site, bells immediately started going off in my head. As luck would have it, the topic of the article is directly related to the subject which I began to examine in my last blog post, how to teach to a classroom of students with different reading levels. I took this as a fortuitous sign that the stars and planets were aligning behind my chosen topic (OK, it’s not exactly winning the Mega-Millions draw, but grad students have to take what we can get), and dove right into the reading with an eye towards creating this blog post and furthering my research.

Right away I could tell that the article would be beneficial for me, as the author, Catherine Snow, started out with a point that I think I had glossed over in my original conception of the issue I was dealing with: the fact that students have varying sets of skills and contexts that are more or less developed which account for their overall “reading level.” I think that in my original thinking (and I’m sure that many other teachers fall into this reductivist trap as well), I had sort of pegged students as being at a certain reading “level” without giving much thought to what that meant or why that might be. Sort of, “Oh this student is obviously advanced, this one is beginning,” and so forth but without really considering what those differences meant or implied. Yet as Snow states, “Proficient readers bring to the task of reading an array of capabilities and dispositions.” It must fall upon me then as a teacher to recognize what these capabilities and dispositions are. In other words, I can’t stop my thinking at “This student is a beginner” but I have to find out what aspects of their skills and context make them so, and what aspects may in fact be more developed than this.

Snow also brings the concept of sociocultural differences, stating that understanding these is, “…one important in understanding variability in readers. While I mostly agree with this idea, I am also wary of reducing students to members of ethnic, social or economic groups and forgetting about their individual differences. I think Snow might have gone on to address this issue further, though in her defense much of this section(and for that matter the article as a whole), was more of a call for research than a definitive statement on these issues.

Another important point for me that Snow brought up was the idea of inter-individual differences, including vocab and linguistic knowledge, non-linguistic abilities, engagement and motivation, understanding of purpose and goals, discourse knowledge, domain knowledge and cognitive and metacognitive strategy development. I was particularly interested in those differences mentioned here that did not seem to directly pertain to reading, such as engagement, motivation and non-linguistic abilities (these are listed as attention, visualization, inferencing, reasoning, critical analysis and working memory-though I like to think of them simply as good habits of mind). I was interested because again they seem to be factors, like sociocultural ones, that would not directly show up on a standardized test or during the course of an in-class reading, but which can hava a dramatic impact on reading ability nonetheless.

Snow went on to talk about variability in text and activity. One line in particular caught my attention, as it seemed to offer the beginnings of a potential solution to the dilemma I’m addressing in my research (Hallelujah!). This was when Snow said, “…texts that seem too difficult may be read successfully if the topic is sufficiently interesting to the learner.” Translated into “Field of Dreams” terminology, “If you make it interesting, they will read.” I love this idea that students can accept even a challenging text if it is well presented and relevant to them. I imagine even the opposite could be true, that if I wanted to give the less skilled students in the class a bit more attention, I might due this by choosing a lower level text, but one which, due to its interesting subject, could potentially keep the attention of the more highly skilled readers in the class as well. There is also the idea that the upper level readers could help the lower level ones with the reading as well, in either group or pair work.

Lastly I just wanted to touch on two more things Snow mentioned, the first being the crucial idea of keeping long term reading goals in mind during lessons. I think at times we as teachers get too caught up in the day to day, if not minute to minute goings on in the class. We want students to simply be able to get through the task at hand, but forget about the importance of the tasks to come.


Also, Snow ends the article on a final note about context and socio-economics. It would seem that the availability of books plays a big factor in the eventual success or difficulties of students. I wonder if the advent of the internet and ever cheaper computers could help improve this situation. A student with a good connection and knowledge of how to use it may not even need the structure of a library anymore, and this is of course significantly less cost prohibitive. This just goes to show the importance of making sure students are well versed in technology and the internet in our classes.

Teaching Reading to Different Skill Levels/Reading Rates

We all know that it can be a problem, especially with the ever expanding class sizes around us, making our classes effective for all the different skill levels of students we encounter. If we teach towards the most highly skilled students, we risk leaving the less skilled students behind; if we teach for the lowest level students, the others may become bored or frustrated. I believe this problem becomes even more acute when it comes to the question of reading. Talking in class can be a great leveler, whether it be for debates, discussions, sharing of ideas or what have you. After all, everyone knows how to speak and they’ve all had ample practice. Moreover, speaking in class is an area where the teacher can make much more overt efforts to include all students in the conversation and try to increase participation. The same is not true, alas, of reading. Reading is not, unfortunately, a skill that most students are likley to have equal facility with, for the simple reason that some students will not have practiced reading very much. It becomes much more difficult then to set a ace for the class, whether the reading is done silently or out loud.

(You all read at the same pace, right?)


The question I have decided to focus on, then, is how to deal with this situation. How can we effectively deal with a classroom in which some students are racing ahead to the ends of chapters and articles while others are still struggling with the vocabulary on the first page? What kinds of reading should we choose? Should we assign different readings to different students? How do we keep track of these readings and what kinds of questions should we pose about them? For that matter, a related question would be how exactly do we measure the reading skills and rates of students, to be sure we are delaing with skilled or struggling students, and not just unmotivated or disingenuous ones?


As you can see, there are many questions surrounding this topic. Fortunately, my preliminary research indictaes that there are many other people interested in it as well, and that they are willing to provide me with a plethora of answers(or at least suggestions anyways:).


Here are some sources I’ve found so far:


“Ability Differences in the Classroom”  Mara Sapon-Shevin from Common Bonds: Anti-Bias Teaching in a Diverse Society. Author(s): Byrnes, Deborah A., Ed.; Kiger, Gary, Ed.


“Literacy Teaching Practices”

“Lesson Planning Tips for Different Level Students”


“Differentiating Reading Instruction in the Language Arts Classroom”  Janice Christy


“What is Differentiated Instruction?” Carol Ann Tomlinson


More to come as I continue my research…

All you need to know about Reading Theory(but were too afraid to ask)

I’d like to go back and take up the question I asked from my first blog post about Cassazza’s article. My question was basically how much of the various fields related to reading and reading development do we as teachers need to be familiar with. Though I feel that I am still pretty far from a definitive answer, I’d like to tentatively postulate the idea that we only really need to be familiar with those aspects of theory and related fields which have a direct connection with our student population and our goals. While it would be  nice to have a deeper knowledge of many of the throries and fields that swirl around developmental reading like planets around a distant star (and I’m certain that this knowledge could easily classified as the kind of career development which is both beneficial and promoted amongst the majority of professionals in our field), the fact is that, as I mentioned in my first post, this is not always practical or even possible. 


I expect that focusing in on the issues and theories most pertinent to a population of students would change according to the situation a teacher found themselves in, yet nonetheless I believe there are at least some “near universal” concepts which would serve almost any teacher of FYC. One of these for example would be the issue of high school/college transfer and preparation. I notice this is an issue frequently discussed in the readings we have been doing, and for good reason I think, as almost anyone who goes on to teach FYC will eventually come across the dilemma of how to handle this situation. Another area which I’m sure would merit attention would be returning and older students and the very different challenges that they face in going through FYC. Studying the theories, fields and practices related to these two populations alone would undoubtedly give us a great advantage in our classes. Of course these are not comprehensive. If for example, I choose to do extensive work disabled populations, I would need to refocus my research and learning to cover this population.


I suppose the conclusion I’m getting at is that it is really up to the individual teacher( with perhaps guidance from those around them), to make the decision of what is or is not important to them in the wide range of developmental reading and FYC topics. This, coupled with the idea of career long development, I think starts to give an answer to the question that I posed.

To read or not to read?

For this blog post, I would like to discuss Bernardo M. Ferdman’s article Literacy and Cultural Identity. Early in this article, Ferdman brings up the idea of a public service announcement promoting literacy as an example of an issue which seemingly no one could take issue with. Ferdman then spends nearly the rest of his article however problematizing this original assertion. What I would like to now is spend the rest of my blog post on the question of whether Ferdman is right to problematize this issue in the first place, or if we would do better to “de-problematize” it once again. Put simply, let me ask this question:

Are public service announcements promoting literacy a bad thing? 


In reading Ferdman’s article, we could almost come to the conclusion that indeed they are. This has to do with the fact that Ferdman labels literacy as “culturally defined.” Let us step back from this definition for a moment however. In a study conducted in 2003, the US government determined that nearly 20% of the adult population was illiterate, defined as “unable to locate basic information in a text.” The texts involved in the study including basic instruction manuals, works of popular fiction and the like. I like to bring up the study for two reasons. The first is the frightening fact that one in five adults in America can’t read. When we think of how this problem relates to levels of poverty and missed job opportunities, the need for action over philosophizing and waxing rhapsodic over what constitutes literacy becomes apparent. The second reaon I bring it up is because I think it offers a much clearer definition of what literacy is: the ability to read and understand important and common documents around you. I think nearly any industrialized nation could agree with this definition, the more exact examples of countries or oral traditions which Ferdman references in his article notwithstanding. I think moreover that Mr. Ferdman’s tendency to dwell on societies outside of our own shows up a flaw in his logic. the fact is that we all lice in a modern society, and rather than reflect upon how our definition of literacy differs from cultures that use pictographs or oral tradition, we would do much better to take a much simpler and direct definition  literacy and move forward with this to try and help the thousands of people around us who cannot function at its most basically levl, let alone read a ponderous article like the one Feldman has written. 

I hope this works…

A couple questions came up during my reading. The first concerns Mellinee Lesley’s article on critical literacy and developmental reading. My question is, does Mellinee make the case string enough that critical literacy was responsible for the student’s improvement? Or to put this another way, might she have replaced critical literacy with another framework and still achieved equal success? Certainly she makes the case that the students improved, as well as that the skills and drilled based courses being taught before were inadequate. But does this necessarily mean that critical literacy is therefore the developmental reading panacea that she claims it is?


My second question relates to Martha E. Casazza’s article on practice and theory, and it is a more general one. basically my question boils down to how much of the fields Casazza mentions (psychology, reading, student development etc.), and how much of the theories she describes is it necessary for a teacher to be familiar with in order to be effective? I think we’d all agree that it is impossible to have intimate knowledge of all these fields and concepts without years or perhaps a lifetime of schooling behind us. So how much of it do we need to know in order to function in a classroom?