If you want to remember something, read it out loud

“Read something out loud when you really want to remember it.’ These are the findings from a recent University of Waterloo study that found that “speaking text aloud helps to get words into long-term memory. Dubbed the “production effect,” the study determined that it is the dual action of speaking and hearing oneself that has the most beneficial impact on memory.”

Colin M.  MacLeod, the university professor who co-authored the study with post-doctoral fellow Noah Forrin, found that “When we add an active measure or a production element to a word, that word becomes more distinct in long-term memory, and hence more memorable.”

Their study tested four methods for learning written information: 1) reading silently, 2) hearing someone else read, 3) listening to a recording of oneself reading, and 4) reading out loud.  Results from tests with nearly 100 participants showed that reading information out loud to yourself resulted in the best remembering.

The researchers remind us that there are also other ways to build a good memory such as regular exercise and movement. Also, writing and typing words can enhance overall memory retention.

This research seems relevant to another set of findings in the literature: reading out loud to children helps to advance their reading, writing, and communication skills. This is another reason to read out loud to children – to develop their appreciation for reading out loud, and encourage them as they become proficient readers to read out loud to themselves. This will help them practice becoming good communicators and serve them in good stead when they want to remember what they have read.

Teachers learn how to teach reading in teacher preparation programs ꟷ maybe

One in five elementary school teacher preparation programs in the United States are addressing one or none of the five components that teachers must know to teach reading to children: phonemic awareness, phonics (alphabetics), fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

This is serious business. “Teaching children how to read is “job one” for elementary teachers because reading proficiency underpins all later learning.” (The National Council on Teacher Quality)

Unfortunately, many teachers are not prepared well in their preservice programs to teach reading. The National Council on Teacher Quality’s evaluation of more than 800 undergraduate programs for elementary teacher education determined that less than half (39%) provide instruction in all five essential components of early reading instruction. And, 19% of the programs require literacy coursework that addresses no more than one of the five essential components.

The unhappy conclusion is that “training for reading instruction is not adequate in many teacher preparation programs.”

The Institute of Educational Sciences surveyed 99 teacher preparation programs and more than 2,200 preservice teachers about how much preparation programs focused on the essential components of reading instruction [in 2010]. As summarized in Samantha Durrance’s recent blog, only “25% reported their preparation programs included a strong overall focus on reading instruction.” Interesting too is that teachers-in-training were “twice as likely to report a strong focus on reading instruction in their preservice teaching experiences as in their preservice coursework.” This means that many learned on the job, not in the formal coursework at their colleges/universities.

When I worked for two decades in Oregon, there was such concern about the lack of knowledge of teaching reading that many teachers were encouraged by their schools to gain skills in teaching reading.  Several universities joined forces to collaborate on a jointly offered set of online reading programs. The program still continues between two universities –they share a common curriculum of online literacy courses. Participants take courses at either Portland State University or Southern Oregon University (selecting one as “home” institution but able to take classes at either). This effort began as a grant in 2003 from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, and I was founding Project Director of this effort.

The ReadOregon consortium offers three programs which enable teachers to gain skills in teaching reading: a 24-credit Reading Endorsement program approved by the state licensing board which enables teachers to add the Reading Specialist endorsement to their license; a 12-credit literacy education course of study for general classroom teachers; and a “courses-only” option.

I recall so clearly the in-depth discussions among teachers and school principals of what these programs must encompass to enable teachers to be prepared to teach reading better. They settled on seven thematic areas aligned with the International Reading Association Standards: 1) Literacy Foundations; 2) Literacy Strategies & Methods; 3) Literacy for Diverse Learners; 4) Literacy Assessment; 5) Leadership in School Reading Programs; 6) Literature; and 7) Practicum.

I’m proud that ReadOregon is continuing to prepare teachers of reading, and that many of the colleges and universities in Oregon — and in so many other states — are providing specialty programs in the teaching of reading.

But, I wish all teacher preparation programs were preparing teachers better before they entered the profession. Just a year ago, Kelly Wallace’s CNN report on the art of teaching teachers how to teach reading interviewed an elementary school principal who lays it out there: “Our universities do not teach teachers how to (teach reading) at the undergraduate level. [Teachers] are coming through a traditional track not knowing how to teach reading, just the overall basic components of it . . .  As a principal at a high-needs urban school with 1,260 students, up from 830 six years ago, [I] more than [have my] hands full just trying to keep [my]students and [my]130 teachers on track…faced with narrowing a stunning word deficit: Children living in poverty hear 30 million fewer words by age 4 than children in higher-income households, according to researchers.”

These are big — almost insurmountable — deficits to reverse once children are in school.

Durrance in Are Teachers Prepared to Teach Reading gives us the unhappy bottom line: “Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know. Teacher preparation programs need to make sure their elementary teacher candidates understand how children learn to read, as well as how to help students who struggle with early literacy skills.”

Sometimes people ask me what my favorite work was in Oregon. ReadOregon was and is my favorite. Working with many devoted colleagues, I was doing something that would help prepare teachers to teach reading better. And so many children would reap the benefits.

Is picting replacing words in our digital age – is this the new literacy?

Is technology changing our definition of literacy? That’s the question posed by Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway, university professors studying how much time today’s youth spend with text-based materials vs. image-based materials.(1) They estimate that 90 percent of K-12 classroom time in the U.S. is spent with text-based materials, and 10 percent with image-based materials; but outside the classroom, 90% is spent with image-based materials and 10 percent with text-based materials.

The bottom line from their provocative article, Picting, not Writing, is the Literacy of Today’s Youth (May 8, 2017) hits the literacy question head on: “No question about it: picting is the new literacy. For better — for worse.”

As I read their article, I thought about prehistoric cave-paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphics, wondering if we’re heading back to an older era of communicating through pictures, respawned by new digital tools. Various North American Indian tribes drew or carved pictures into rocks—the pictures stood for an idea or individual word. Similarly, hieroglyphic symbols represented objects, or stood for sounds or groups of sounds—in a system of picture-writing used on ancient Egyptian monuments. Many view such picture-writing systems as precursors to writing.

Norris and Soloway describe the changing world of literacy—through our many digital networks —with picting emerging as a system using visual forms to communicate ideas and expressions:

  • Snapchat is a social media service where people send pictures to one another. Though a note (words) can be added to the picture, it’s an unnecessary add-on. Pictures disappear after 10 seconds of viewing, or 24 hours for a story made up of sequences of pictures. Our professors conclude that Snapchat is like verbal conversations that disappear, only now it’s the pictures that disappear. The population “picting” is huge: some 30 percent of millennials in the U.S. visit the Snapchat app 18 times per day and spend about 30 minutes a day using it, 158 million use Snapchat daily, and the average number of photos shared is 9,000 snaps per second.
  • Facebook is a video-based social networking site where the video content is growing rapidly in popularity.
  • Instagram is a visual platform—a picting site. There are 400 million active users daily/700 million monthly; 80 percent are from outside the U.S.; over half of millennials with access to the Internet use Instagram daily; Instagram is the second-most used social network among 13–17 year olds; and 95 million photos are uploaded per day (up from 70 million last year).
  • YouTube is a visually-oriented social network. In the U.S., it is used by over 180 million people, reaches more 18-34 and 18-19-year olds than any cable network, 81 percent of millennials and 91 percent of Internet users ages 13-17 use YouTube, 58 percent of Gen X and 43 percent of Baby Boomers use YouTube, and 400 hours of new videos are estimated to be uploaded every minute.
  • Pinterest is an image-pinning bulletin board site. It serves some 150 million monthly active users, with 70 million from the U.S.. There are 50 billion+ Pinterest Pins and 1 billion+ Pinterest Boards; and the median age of a user is 40, however, the majority of active pinners are below 40.

Our professors conclude from these amazing statistics that “picting is a real trend — and one that is significantly engaged in by the youth of today.”

That begs their core question for all of us: “Is the trend towards picting, and away from writing, a good thing for today’s youth?”

There’s no easy answer. Reading words and writing words are key to our culture, life, and jobs. We cannot realistically communicate only through visual forms. However, visual forms (e.g., photos, diagrams, videos, emojis, GIFs) often communicate in a way that words cannot, so they play a vital role in literacy — and may grow in importance in a digital age.

The statistics Norris and Soloway have laid out are compelling, the trend lines undeniably headed upward. As we trade more pictures (with few or no words) with one another every minute, hour, and day, let’s think about the impact on our children’s literacy skills especially.

This is a set of developments that will be evolving in this next decade of digital change, as Norris and Soloway conclude, “For better — for worse.”

☹ ‍ 🙂


(1) Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Their sites: www. imlc.io. See their Reinventing Curriculum blog at thejournal.com/rc




What you might not know about readability testing

There’s a lot to know about tests that measure the difficulty of reading passages.

First, these tests have something in common: they count syllables, words, and sentences in reading passages to come up with an average word and sentence length. These core factors then are used to develop a score that indicates how difficult (or easy) it may be for a reader to comprehend a piece of reading. I say, “may,” because this is not an exact science. But “the application of a useful readability test protocol will give a rough indication of a work’s readability.”

Second, these tests are widely used ─ by publishers, schools, businesses, word processing applications, and parents. Publishers use the readability scores to aim publications at their target readers; schools use them to identify appropriate texts for students; and businesses use them to calibrate the reading level for forms, guidelines, and training manuals that must be comprehended by their workers. Most word processing applications have readability tests built-in as an option for document editing. And parents use them to select appropriate reading materials for their children.

Third, there are several tests out there though two seem to dominate the readability marketplace.

Flesch–Kincaid. Two types of readability tests have been created to indicate how difficult a passage in English is to understand: Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level. Both use word length and sentence length to develop their scores but they use different weighting factors. The Army first used the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease nearly 40 years ago to assess the difficulty of its technical manuals. The U.S. Department of Defense uses this now as the standard test of readability for its documents and forms. Some states have adopted the test in specific industries such as automobile insurance policies to ensure that the reading “ceiling” be no higher than ninth-grade level. The test is bundled with many word processing programs and services such as IBM Lotus Symphony, Microsoft Office Word, WordPerfect, and WordPro.

In Flesch-Kincaid, a higher score indicates material that is easier to read; lower score, more difficult to read. Here are some examples of the approximate readability score for well-known publications or audiences (highest score/easiest is 120):

 * Reader’s Digest magazine = about 65
 * Time magazine = about 52
 * Average student writing assignment grade 6 (age 12) = 60–70; reading grade level of 6-7)
 * Harvard Law Review = low 30s
 * Life insurance policies in Florida = 45 or greater
 * Moby Dick (book) = average 57.9
 * Harry Potter books = average 72.83
 * 2000 articles about people in Wikipedia with most readable about sports people and entertainers, least readable about scientists and philosophers with least readable scientists being economists (41.70), psychologists (42.25), chemists (42.81), mathematicians (43.35)

The Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level Formula is used extensively in the field of education. Scores are presented as a grade level (the number of years of education generally required to understand the text) rather than a readability score. This makes it easier for educators, parents, and others to determine the readability level of reading materials for students.

Lexile. A Lexile is a number score for an individual’s reading ability or a text’s readability. It is represented as a number followed by L for Lexile. There are two types of measures: a reader and a text measure. The scale runs from below zero L to above 2000L. There is no specific bottom or top score though scores of zero L (0L) or below are reported as Beginning Reader.

The Lexile framework emerged over more than a decade of work that began in 1989 to develop a better measurement system for reading and writing. The framework uses quantitative methods based on individual words and sentence lengths rather than qualitative analysis of content to produce readability scores. In the U.S., Lexile scores are reported from school-based reading programs and student assessments annually. About half of U.S. students in grades 3-12 receive a Lexile measure annually. Lexile measures have been adopted by nearly half of the states, school districts in all 50 states, and used outside the U.S.

Lexile scores are used to match readers with books and other reading resources. Both readers and books/other reading resources are assigned a score on the Lexile scale. Lower scores indicate easier readability for reading materials and lower reading ability for readers. [This is opposite from Flesch–Kincaid scores in which higher scores equal easier readability.]

Lexile measures for individuals are typically obtained from a reading comprehension assessment or program. These range from basic early literacy skills to the adult level. Text measures are obtained by analyzing the word frequency and sentence length within a book or article using a software program, the Lexile Analyzer. To date, over 60,000 websites, 115,000 fiction and nonfiction books, and 80 million articles have Lexile measures. Over 150 publishers (e.g., Capstone Publishers, Discovery Ed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Pearson PLC, Riverside Publishing, Scholastic Corporation, Simon & Schuster, Workman Publishing Company, and World Book) offer certified Lexile text measures for their materials.

Although there is widespread use of Lexile measures in schools and in publishing, there is no direct correspondence between a Lexile measure and a specific grade level, and there are cautionary views of their use. For example, an evaluation of the Lexile measures in 2001 by the National Center for Educational Statistics “affirmed the value of both sentence length and word frequency” as measures of readability, but the measures do not include factors such as reader knowledge, motivation and interest which also have a major impact on readability.

The Lexile measures, as well as other products and services for reading, math, and writing are created by MetaMetrics®. The North Carolina company focuses on improving education for learners of all ages, developing scientific measures of academic achievement and complementary technologies that link assessment results with real-world instruction. In addition to licensing metrics tools to state departments of education, testing and instructional companies, and publishers, MetaMetrics offers training, resource measurement and customized consulting services. A short video that explains the Lexile is available here: https://lexile.com/pd/video/

Book-Rich Environments Initiative to benefit children

One phrase pulled out of context says so much: “zip codes will not decide our children’s future and fate.”

These words come from Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, in a letter of commendation to the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Education. This week the two federal agencies jointly launched the Book-Rich Environments Initiative with the aim to boost educational outcomes for children living in public and HUD-assisted housing. Smith notes: “Today’s launch … serves as a powerful affirmation … to leveling the playing field so that zip codes will not decide our children’s future and fate.” [1]

The initiative will bring high quality books and other literacy tools to 4 million children and their families living in HUD-assisted housing. Public housing authorities and local library partners throughout the nation have already committed to participating in the initiative, which centers on three components:

  • book distribution—free, high quality, diverse books provided to children and families
  • partnership building—strategic partnerships established between the local public housing authority, local public library, and literacy partners to develop and deliver programming that will improve educational outcomes
  • library engagement—children and families engaged in reading and literacy activities offered by library and literacy partners[2]

Several influential partners are part of the initiative, including the National Book Foundation,[3] the Urban Libraries Council,[4] and the Campaign for Grade Level Reading:[5]

  • Publishers will make large donations of books and the National Book Foundation will expand its free afterschool program, BookUp, which has already donated over 30,000 books to young people. By the end of 2017, the number will expand to 300,000+ books.[6]
  • The Urban Libraries Council will work to ensure that kids and their families have books in their home, books and technology at their neighborhood library, and support needed to become strong readers.[7]
  • The Campaign for Grade Level Reading (CGR), a coalition of 240+ communities in 42 states, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands —and funders, nonprofit partners, business leaders, federal and state government agencies— will participate with CGR’s focus that many more children from low-income families succeed in school and graduate prepared for college, a career, and active citizenship.[8]

Ralph Smith invokes “zip code” in his letter about the new initiative because zip code make a difference in educational opportunity —and has become a recognized shorthand reference to the problem behind the initiative as demonstrated in these examples:

  • A child’s course in life should be determined not by the zip code she’s born in— Megan Slack and Alicia Oken on President Obama’s 2014 announcement of “Promise Zone” locations, an initiative that partners with local communities and businesses to create jobs, expand access to educational opportunities, and spur economic mobility and security
  • Send your kids to a good school, no matter what ZIP code you live in —First Lady Michelle Obama
  • Your zip code should not decide your fate —Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer
  • A student’s zip code should not dictate their educational opportunities—Washington Education School Funding Association
  • Student Success Comes Down to Zip Code— Mark Elgart blog, The Huffington Post
  • A child’s zip code should not dictate the quality of education he or she receives—Congressman Erik Paulsen
  • No child’s future should be determined by their color, economic status, or zip code —Brian L. Pauling, national president of 100 Black Men of America
  • Your ZIP Code Should Not Determine Your Success —Kira Davis, guess blogger in Forbes

How high are the stakes behind the zip code problem driving the Book-Rich Environments Initiative? High, very high.

Two-thirds of children nationwide—and more than 80% of those from low-income families—are not proficient readers by the end of third grade. This has significant consequences for each child, for their communities, and for the nation. If we don’t reverse this problem, we’re not likely to end intergenerational poverty, close the achievement gap, and reduce school dropout rates. And, far fewer of the next generation will be prepared to succeed in a global economy, participate in higher education, or enter military and civilian service.[9]

This is the problem the new initiative is working to combat.

Implementation is moving quickly. The work starts in 35 communities across the country next month. Public housing authorities will partner with local libraries organized by the Urban Libraries Council to host community book distribution events throughout the year. Public housing residents will have access to a diverse set of high quality books secured by the National Book Foundation. These distribution events will also serve as a platform to strengthen and launch new local partnerships with libraries, public housing authorities, and nonprofits, organized by the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, that can also help ensure continued access to high quality literacy resources.[10]

The announcement of the Book-Rich Environments Initiative is an important literacy effort that adds to current efforts to “build bridges between school and home, and improve educational and life outcomes for kids and families in HUD -assisted housing, including joint efforts to address and eliminate chronic absenteeism, find ways to support college students with unmet financial needs, and create more summer opportunities for young people.”[11]

Kudos to this promising literacy initiative for taking on the zip code problem affecting so many children.


[1] http://gradelevelreading.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/GLR-Commends-Sec.-Castro-and-Sec.-King-for-BRE_010517.pdf

[2] http://www.nationalbook.org/2017_book_rich_environments.html#.WHJEKThTGUk


[4]Membership association of North America’s leading public library systems. ULC libraries, located in the U.S. and Canada, as public sector institutions comprise a varied mix of revenue and governance structures and serve communities with populations of differing size – from 30,000 to more than eight million. The libraries serve people of all ages. They are community centers for education and lifelong learning; economic and workforce development; health, wellness and public safety and environmental sustainability. ULC libraries bridge the digital divide by providing public access to technology services (e.g., digital media, mobile applications, e-reading, other modes of enrichment that technology makes possible). See: http://www.urbanlibraries.org/

[5] http://gradelevelreading.net/

[6] http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72434-nbf-launches-the-book-rich-environment-initiative.html

[7] http://military-technologies.net/2017/01/08/u-s-department-of-housing-and-urban-development-department-of-education-and-nonprofit-partners-launch-book-rich-environments-initiative-to-boost-educational-opportunity-for-children-in-public-housin/

[8] CGR focuses on school readiness, quality teaching, chronic absence from school, summer learning, and engaging parents as a child’s first teachers.

[9] http://gradelevelreading.net/

[10] http://military-technologies.net/2017/01/08/u-s-department-of-housing-and-urban-development-department-of-education-and-nonprofit-partners-launch-book-rich-environments-initiative-to-boost-educational-opportunity-for-children-in-public-housin/