Willingham Watching!

UVA’s Dan Willingham looks at knowledge and reading and USA Today looks at Willingham.

2 Replies to “Willingham Watching!”

  1. We can always count on Mr. WIllingham to give us good food for thought. But in the four factors he lists as accounting for much of the gains in his study, I was surprised to see “amount read” not among them. If knowledge is vital to reading, and reading is a great way to increase knowledge, why doesn’t the amount of reading kids do make a difference?

    I ask this question because in my experience, having kids read a lot has made a difference. Recently, my company worked in a large urban district where most of the students were several years below grade level. The district had very low official expectations: students were required to read only 4-6 texts a year and, since teachers focused on classics which were too hard for the kids to read, most kids actually read zero books a year on an independent basis.

    Our solution was to switch to a Reader’s Workshop model, teach kids to pick books at their own level, and raise the number of required to texts to a minimum of 20. Many kids read 35-30, some as many as 50.

    From our perspective, this worked very well. Many kids picked up three years of growth in a single year. Best of all, a significant portion actually came to enjoy reading for the first time in their lives. Kids read in school and out. They kept records of their reading. They read different genres. They gave book talks and wrote book reviews.

    Interestingly, we followed none of Mr. Willingham’s four prescriptions form the Hong Kong study. Instead we focused on reading fluency, inference, differentiation, and the social nature of reading with a large group of other people who like to read.

    I’m not denying the Hong Kong, or Mr. Willingham’s analysis of it, but I do wonder if what shows up in a study often merely reflects a minimal range of methodological options. For example, did anyone in the Hong Kong study teach a rigorous Reader’s Workshop. Knowing what I know about Hong Kong, I’d say probably not. In the future, I’d like to see our researchers look at wider ranges of methodology — particularly when it comes to reading. Reading is so complex, there may be more than one way to be successful.

  2. Does Willingham Workshop?

    This quote from WIllingham’s USA Today interview suggests to me that he would be a natural supporter of the workshop model:

    “School is all about mental challenge, and that is hard work, make no mistake. Still, people do enjoy mental work or, more exactly, people enjoy successful mental work. We get a snap of satisfaction when we solve a problem. But solving a problem that is trivially easy is not fun. Neither is hammering away at a problem with no sense you are making progress.

    So the challenge for a teacher is to find that sweet spot of mental difficulty, and to find it simultaneously for 25 students, each with a different level of preparation. To fight this problem, teachers must engage each student with work that is appropriate for his or her level of preparation.”

    Workshop is the only recognized method with this kind of differentiation built in. The key factor is choice. We teach kids how to choose work at their own level and then move them along as fast as possible through targeted mini-lessons and individual conferencing.

    Reading Willingham, and noting his popularity, I’m surprised that the workshop model doesn’t get more of a direct mention. He describes all of its qualities as being key to keeping kids interested in school but he seems unwilling to name the solution that has been around in one form or another for 30 or so.

    I applaud Willingham’s work, especially his way of summarizing for teachers those elements essential to making school work for kids. But if workshop is a solution with those elements already in place, why not endorse it as such?

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