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Sebastian's Discussion Forum

  Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.

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Any e-mail or feedack I receive is a candidate for this discussion forum.  If you write me and do NOT want me to put your comments in this forum, then you need to tell me so. Otherwise, any feedback I get could get posted here.  I will always omit your name and contact information unless you ask me not to.  And I reserve the right to edit anything that I post on this page.  You can send me comments via the Feedback Page, or by e-mail (swren@balancedreading.com).  I think that about covers it.

Hello... I'm a PhD student from the All India Institute of Speech and Hearing, Mysore, India. I am pursuing my research in  emergent literacy. We don't have any tests on emergent literacy in  India, so I'm developing one for my research.  I would be grateful if you could send me some resources on assessment of Phonological STM and RAN.

I recommend you read the research by Torgesen, Stanovich, and Wolf (different articles and books -- I don't think they ever published together) on the topic of the Double Deficit Hypothesis.  (You can also read my article on the topic by going to "D is for Double Deficit".) 

These researchers have published volumes about these two critical components of decoding skill, and they outline much better than I could the problem with phonological processing and with orthographic processing (RAN) for struggling readers.

For example:

Wolf, M., and Bowers, P.G. (1999). The double-deficit hypothesis for the developmental dyslexias. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91(3), 124.

Torgesen, J.K., Wagner, R.K., Rashotte, C.A., Burgess, S.R. and Hecht, S.A. (1997). The contributions of phonological awareness and rapid automatic naming ability to the growth of word reading skills in second to fifth grade children. Scientific Studies of Reading, 1, 161185.

Duane, D.D. (1999). Reading and Attention Disorders: Neurobiological Correlates. Baltimore, MD: York Press.

June 30, 2006

Can you give some examples how can I teach kids to show them how to use chunking in word identification?

"Chunking" is a more efficient strategy for word identification that kids should be adopting in 2nd grade and beyond.  There are certain letters in the English writing system that tend to go together.  It is more efficient for students to process those chunks of letters as a group than to process them individually.  Common chunks like "ING" or "THA" or "EAT" should be very quickly and efficiently processed.

Some of Pat Cunningham's "making words" activities are great for teaching kids to chunk letters in word identification.

Start by giving each student letter cards or letter tiles with the following letters:


Tell the students to arrange the letters to make the word "TAKE."

Then ask them what letters they need to change to make the word "LAKE."

Then tell them to make the word "SAKE."

Then tell them to make the word "SNAKE."

Then change it to "STAKE."

Point out to them that the letters "AKE" are common letters in English. They are used in a lot of different words.  You can demonstrate some more using other letters (SHAKE, FAKE, MAKE, BAKE, etc.)

You can do the same thing with initial letters or medial letters.

Go from STRING to STRONG to STRAW to STREET -- tell them that the letters "STR" are common in English.

Go from RING to BRING to STRING to THING to KING -- tell them that "ING" is a common chunk of letters.

To expand, have them look for common chunks of letters in their book -- letters that often go together.  They might come up with examples like:


Have students create words for pocket charts that contain letter chunks.  Next to "OOK" they would have LOOK, BOOK, TOOK, SHOOK, etc.  When a student comes up with a new one, they can add it to the pocket chart.

June 15, 2006

I have some middle and high school teachers whom I expect will have some questions (in other words, "resistance") regarding the whole idea about older students needing to establish precurser skills in phonics (accuracy, automaticity).  Any advice?

I have advice, but I don't think you'll like it.

When I work with secondary teachers, I tell them that every teacher needs to be at least aware of the cognitive processes involved in learning to read.  Reading is so important, every teacher should at least understand it.  They should be armed with information and skills because they never know what kind of impact they can have or what kind of "teachable moment" will present itself.

However, I also tell secondary teachers -- content-area teachers -- that what I want them doing is focusing on fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension within the content areas.  Every day.  I tell them that I don't expect all secondary, "content-area" teachers to teach basic reading skills, but I do expect them to use effective strategies for teaching advanced reading (and writing) skills.

If a student is in 6th, 8th, 10th grade and still needs basic phonics and word-identification work, it should not fall on the history or science teacher to teach those skills.  I think that's asking a little too much.  (If the history teacher is armed with knowledge, and sees an opportunity to teach those skills to students in need, that's wonderful -- but it is not an expectation I have.)  If a secondary student is struggling with reading at that level -- the basic word-identification, phonics level -- that student should spend one or two elective periods per day working on those skills with reading teachers with advanced training and expertise in that kind of instruction.

In the content areas, teachers should be spending their time teaching fluency (through repeated oral reading of content material EVERY DAY until all students are reading at or beyond a grade-appropriate criterion), vocabulary (using effective research-based strategies), and above all comprehension (at high levels of sophistication).  And, of course, I think they are also supposed to be enhancing relevant background knowledge in whatever domain they are teaching.

And if there is one huge favor secondary teachers can do for their students, it is to teach them to write.  Every day.  Voluminously.  I can't stand getting college-age students who still don't know how to communicate thoughts effectively through writing.  Writing builds reading fluency.  Writing builds comprehension and vocabulary.  Writing and revision and editing builds appreciation for syntax and discourse and rhetoric.  I am just barely cynical enough to believe that teachers do not expect writing from their students every day because they don't want to grade that many papers every day. 

Anyway, like I said, you probably won't like my advice, but there it is.  I know we want to believe that every teacher is a reading teacher, and I do believe that.  But secondary content-area teachers should not be expected to teach basic reading skills.  They should further the literacy development of their students in grade-appropriate ways.  

April 15, 2006

Our school system has invested $60,000 in the Scholastic READ 180 program, and many people feel that the results are disappointing, at best.  Have you had any feedback on this program?  The program services very few students, and many parents have requested the removal of their children from READ 180.  Another issue we face is that the lowest students apparently tested too low to be admitted into the program.  Is READ 180 one of the recommended programs listed by the Federal Government? Thanks,

I have worked with schools that use READ 180 -- I have mixed feelings about it.  It has been shown to be "effective" (i.e. it is listed in the U.S. Dept. of Ed. "What Works Clearinghouse"), and it does focus on some fairly important components of reading.  But it is also very, very expensive, and I don't think it is very flexible.  Hence, it works well for some kids, but not so much for others.

If you really want to try a computer-based program, check out Reading Assistant.  And let me know how it goes.  Reading Assistant is a relatively new product, and we don't know much about it.  I am impressed by the idea of it, though.  Personally, I would use Reading Assistant to let kids repeatedly read passages of text every day until they reach a personalized goal of fluency for that passage.  And I would have the former Read 180 teachers working with the kids who still need instruction in basic decoding skills (the kids who are "too low" to benefit from Reading Assistant).

Of course, I am probably the wrong guy to ask about reading programs. I'm really not a big fan of any of them.  They cost too much, and they do too little.  I would much rather invest that money into building the quality of the teachers.  Good teachers just give you more "bang for your buck."  I'm not saying that schools should do away with programs altogether -- programs are often the source of good, engaging classroom materials.  But schools across the country are spending billions of dollars jumping from one program to another, looking for that magic bullet -- and that is money that should be invested in teacher quality.

If there were no strings attached to the money (and I know there usually are), I would use that $60,000 to buy an effective literacy coach.  I would invest in stipends for teachers to work longer hours and get more professional development.  I would aggressively recruit young, talented teachers.  I would invest in leadership training for the principals... There are just so many better ways to use that money.

So, like I said, I'm probably the wrong guy to ask.  But if you do try Reading Assistant, let me know how it goes.  I have to admit, I am curious about that one.

Good luck.

April 13, 2006

I am a graduate student in the reading program at Marshall University.  I would like to know why you beleive your sight is helpful to teachers and/or parents.  I am currently researching literacy education sights as part of a class.

I think BalancedReading.com is helpful because there are not very many freely-available resources out there that effectively distill complicated information about literacy research into common-sense, understandable language.  Researchers tend to write for researchers, and most teachers are not very comfortable sifting through technical research journals to get research-based information about reading instruction.

The result of this, I believe, is that a lot of charlatans have been allowed to run amok in the world of reading education, portraying themselves as reading and literacy "experts."  They promote ideas and practices that are completely contrary to research evidence, and sadly, they are simply better than most reputable researchers at selling their ideas to educators.

There are a lot of very harmful myths and snake-oil in the world of reading education, and the research community has not been very effective at countering those bogus beliefs and practices and guiding educators toward research-based, effective practices.  I think that BalancedReading.com goes a long way towards dispelling those myths, cutting through the vitriol and rhetoric of the "great debate," and helping educators to access high-quality research evidence they can use to guide their instruction.

Also, BalancedReading.com is one of the few literacy education resource sites that has no advertising sponsorship, and does not exist for the purpose of selling any particular product.  Information and resources on BalancedReading.com, in other words, are unbiased and trustworthy.  They represent the culmination of a large body of convergent research evidence.  Fads and quick fixes have no place on BalancedReading.com.

I created BalancedReading.com about 5 years ago, and it has been a creative outlet for me to share my passion about using research to improve literacy education with the rest of the world.  When I created BalancedReading.com, I hoped that other reading researchers would join in and add to the collection of information, materials, and resources, but so far there has been very little of that.  Overall, however, I think that BalancedReading.com has been a remarkable success.  Currently, the site is getting about 100,000 "hits" per month, which tells me that there is a substantial demand for this kind of understandable, unvarnished research information.

Thanks for your question, and good luck on your project.

April 10, 2006

Sigh.  I get this silly thing every couple of weeks.  I can't believe people actually buy this nonsense.

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt.

I wrote a response to this some time ago.  Check it out here.  

April 3, 2006

What are the problems that facing ESL learners during reading?

To some extent that depends on whether the ESL learner can already read in his or her native language.  There are two components to the act of reading -- decoding and language comprehension (see "S is for Simple View"). 

If a student already understands the mechanics of reading (decoding) in one language, then the challenge of translating those skills to a new language is a challenge of building comprehension skills (vocabulary, syntax, semantics, etc.).  But if a student does NOT already understand the mechanics of text and reading (decoding) in ANY language, then the challenge is both a challenge of decoding AND comprehension.  Trying to tackle both at once may be overwhelming and frustrating.

ESL students, by definition, have limited English language comprehension skills.  This means they have poorer English vocabularies, limited appreciation of English syntax and semantics, and possibly limited background knowledge about relevant subject matter.  Dealing with that is enough of a challenge.  Teachers do not need to add to the challenge by trying to teach the student decoding skills in a language the student does not really understand.

Ideally, students should be taught decoding skills in the language with which they are most comfortable.  If, for example, a student primarily speaks Spanish, the student should be taught to read and decode Spanish text.  That way, when each word is decoded, it connects with vocabulary the student understands, thus reinforcing the connection between written and oral language.  If it is not possible to teach the student in his or her native language (i.e. if there is no teacher available who can teach the child in his or her native tongue), then it is better to focus instruction on developing English comprehension skills first, and THEN focus on teaching decoding skills in English.

March 29, 2006

I would like to suggest http://www.educationatlas.com as a resource for http://www.balancedreading.com/McKenna.html I found educationatlas.com to be a useful education resource and thought your website visitors would benefit from it as well.

Excellent.  Thank you very much.  That is indeed a very impressive site -- very useful for educators.

Michael McKenna wrote the remarkable database of on-line resources several years ago.  Many of the links are out-dated, and there are surely new sites that have come along since he wrote this.  It is tempting to remove it from BalancedReading.com, but people do still use it.

March 24, 2006

I'm trying to get a CWPM percentile table for adolescent and adult readers. The best I have only goes through fifth grade. Do you know where I could locate such a resource?

From 2nd through 8th grade, there is a fairly reliable formula I use -- multiply the student's age by 12 to get a target CWPM (Correct Words Per Minute) -- so a 10 year old, should be reading about 120 words per minute (give or take 10%).  However, past 8th grade, the reading rate necessary for comprehension levels off -- a 14 year old should be reading about 168 words per minute, and that's fast enough for reasonable comprehension into adulthood.  A good reader with practice CAN read faster than that, but it is not necessary for comprehension. 

Keep in mind, too, there is an upper limit.  Reading faster than 350 words per minute (maybe 400 tops with easy text) also undermines comprehension.  The ideal range for adolescent and adult readers is 200 to 350 words per minute.

You might also check out the book Partnering for Fluency -- it has the tables you are looking for.

March 21, 2006

Suggestions for your Book Section:

Unlocking Literacy: Effective Decoding & Spelling Instruction by Marcia K. Henry
Curriculum materials--Patterns for Success (Pro-Ed).
Writing Instruction--Charlotte Morgan, When They Can't Write (Pro-Ed)

I appreciate the suggestions.  I'll check them out when I get a chance.  Thank you.

I enjoyed reading your extremely informative essay (about Fluency).  I agree with most  of what I read, but the essence of how words become sight words was not discussed.  In my opinion, this is the heart of the "reading debate." 
If a student has not learned the body of orthographic knowledge to easily decode, then that child needs explicit instruction in this knowledge and how to use it in decoding.  Along the same lines, children need to be able to segment and blends sounds in order to read and spell. 
I am interested in research about fluency of segmenting and blending and how it affects the ability to read fluently.  If children are unable to read fluently but can segment and blend rapidly and have at least a 2nd grade level of phonics knowledge, then repeated readings would probably assist children in gaining reading fluency.  However, without these essential  elements in place, I believe that repeated readings encourage sight word reading of the logographic type.

You are quite right, I didn't talk about "sight words" very clearly, and I do think that is very, very important.  I wrote an essay a long time ago called "Reading by Sight"  (See S is for Sight Word Reading) that, I hope, addresses your concerns.  As for segmenting fluency, you might want to read some of the more recent work by Ed Kame'enui -- he is taking a long-term, developmental view of fluency, saying that it starts with picture-naming speed, letter-naming speed, and phonological processing speed.  A recent review of fluency intervention studies by Therrien (2004) suggests that all students get some benefit from repeated-reading instruciton, but that the students who get the greatest benefit are those who can sound-out words (i.e. they have reasonable cipher knowledge), but who do so slowly and laboriously.

Therrien, W.J. (2004).  Fluency and Comprehension Gains as a Result of Repeated Reading: A meta-analysis. Remedial and Special Education, 25 (4) 252-261.

One of the leading fluency authors is Tim Rasinski with books like From Phonics To Fluency and The Fluent Reader.  I recommend these highly for your review.

You are quite right -- Tim has distinguished himself as an expert in this field with much useful advice to share.  Thanks for the tip.  I just created a fluency section for the professional books section, so I'll definitely check these out.

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Last Updated 3-21-06