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Delivering literacy instruction that sticks with students and drives them to own their learning is not a matter of chance, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey noted during their Saturday afternoon session at the ASCD Empower17 conference.
Instead, they argued, it is a question of finding "the right approach at the right time for the right kind of learning."
Fisher and Frey's session was based on their book Visible Learning for Literacy, cowritten with education researcher John Hattie. The book leverages Hattie's well-known meta-analysis of research related to student achievement to identify effective approaches to literacy instruction.
Unfortunately, educators currently "do a bunch of stuff that doesn't give [students] a full year of learning," Fisher said.
Indeed, common instructional practices can hamper effective literacy strategies. According Hattie's research, for example, repeated reading improves literacy development—and yet, Fisher noted, teachers often discourage students from rereading books or returning to their texts during discussions.
As a general pedagogical rule, Fisher emphasized, lessons have the best chance of success when they are oriented around clear learning intentions and success criteria. During a lesson, he said, students should be able to answer three questions: "What am I learning today?" "Why am I learning it?" And "How will I know that I have learned it?"
Building in such intentionality and relevance can "make learning come alive for students," Fisher pointed out.
In terms of content, Frey said, students' learning in literacy can be divided into three levels: surface learning (for skill and concept development); deep learning (for making connections, relationships, and schema to organizing skills and concepts); and transfer learning (when students apply knowledge in novel ways and begin to drive their own learning).
Frey stressed that all three of these levels are important, with each leading to the next. If teachers try moving to deep learning without taking the time needed for surface learning, for example, they might end up doing too much of the students' "deeper" work for them.
Rounding out their session, Fisher and Frey, teachers and colleagues at San Diego State University, outlined the instructional approaches shown to be effective for facilitating each of the learning levels.
Strategies to promote surface learning in literacy lessons, Frey said, include leveraging prior knowledge, vocabulary-building techniques (such as mnemonics and word cards), reading comprehension in context, and wide reading on a topic. Reading breadth and volume has a particularly strong correlation to student achievement, she noted, and is often undercut by other instructional priorities. "Students are generally not practicing [reading] enough," Fisher echoed.
Teachers can foster deep learning in literacy through concept mapping and graphic organizing, discussion and questioning, and metacognitive strategies, Fisher said. This level should also involve greater text and task complexity—which, he stressed, is not the same thing as difficulty, noting that complexity speaks to the "thinking, action, or knowledge that is needed to complete the assignment."
Approaches to facilitating transfer learning, finally, include reading across documents, formal discussion (such as debates and Socratic seminars), project-based learning (or problem-based instruction), and extended writing tasks, Frey said.
She noted that transfer learning should be the ultimate goal of instruction, but it should be targeted selectively. To determine the opportunities for this type of learning, she said, teachers should think about competencies and knowledge they want to "rescue" for students amidst all they have to learn.
At all levels, Fisher concluded, teachers need to eschew generic, cookie-cutter strategies and "think through the right approach."
Anthony Rebora is the editor-in-chief of Educational Leadership magazine.
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