Monday, February 23, 2009

Guest Blogger Dan Gurney: UNK, INK's foul relative

This month I am thrilled to turn over my column to my friend Dan Gurney, who is a master Kindergarten teacher and a great enthusiast of non-fiction for kids. Dan is a blogger at Misterkindergarten and MindfulHeart. He is the creator of Soundabet.


INK’s foul relation, UNK

by Dan Gurney

David Schwartz, who is visiting schools in Asia, emailed me to ask if I would fill in for him this month. He thought INK readers would enjoy hearing from me, a public school kindergarten teacher with 30 years of experience.

To the bottom of his email, he appended the following quotation:

“You can almost divide [children’s] nonfiction into two categories: nonfiction that stuffs in facts, as if children were vases to be filled, and nonfiction that ignites the imagination, as if children were indeed fires to be lit.” — Jo Carr

INK readers come here to learn about the second category.

Here, however, I wish to discuss nonfiction that’s so bad, I’m not sure Ms. Carr would stick with only two categories.

I want to talk about INK’s foulest relation, UNK.

UNK, is the acronym for Uninteresting Nonsense for Kids. The first thing you need to know about UNK is that he is crowding INK right out of my kindergarten day.

I searched the INK website to see if anyone had already blogged about UNK and was surprised to see that so far he’s escaped notice.

UNK, of course, doesn’t saunter onto websites or into classrooms using his real name. He’s got an alias: DIBELS. Let me introduce you to UNK, I mean, DIBELS.

DIBELS—a reading assessment system in widespread use across America—is making learning to read more stressful and less meaningful. It is changing the kindergarten language arts curriculum for the worse. And it’s stealing untold hours that could otherwise have been spent reading interesting nonfiction.

What is DIBELS?

DIBELS is the acronym for a collection of reading assessments given three times a year to kindergarten students called Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy. Kindergarten DIBELS uses timed tests to measure four discrete skills:

  • initial sound fluency,
  • letter naming fluency,
  • phoneme segmentation fluency, and
  • the ability to quickly decode nonsense words.

What Makes DIBELS Stressful?

Ask any kindergarten teacher with a DIBELS-issued stopwatch hanging from her neck what she thinks of DIBELS. She’ll likely roll her eyes in exasperation, sigh with frustration, and say something like this, “DIBELS is stressing me out. It’s meaningless. It doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know. And it’s demeaning. It presumes that I’m not competent to make instructional decisions.”

In its full implementation, DIBELS tests are given three times a year, fall, winter, and spring. These tests are designed to ferret out kids headed for reading trouble. DIBELS computers classify students into three categories: “Benchmark,” “Strategic,” and “Intensive” which mean, respectively, “OK,” “Borderline,” and “You’re in for it.”

Students who are classified as “Intensive” undergo “Progress Monitoring,” DIBELS-speak for on-going, preferably weekly, DIBELS testing. DIBELS scores are uploaded to a national computer which generates individual student charts and saves the scores to an enormous and growing national database. If the DIBELS computer deems any student’s progress to be inadequate, the computer will prompt the teacher to apply new instructional activities.

Scrutiny like this might have been just the ticket for banks and investment firms on Wall Street. But for kindergarten classrooms?


Careful monitoring might make sense if what was being monitored was meaningful. But it’s not. It’s nonsense. Literally nonsense. If this sounds like hyperbole, consider this: DIBELS calls their final test in kindergarten “Nonsense Word Fluency.”

Not that I’m against nonsense. When nonsense is used to lighten us up, to help us take ourselves less seriously, I’m all for it. But DIBELS nonsense has a different purpose: to sort and classify kindergarten students into high and low achievers, to record that information in a nationwide database, and to urge teachers to apply instructional strategies to see that low achievers get higher scores. Serious nonsense.

On this test, kindergarten students are expected to demonstrate fluency in reading consonant-vowel-consonant nonsense words like “sim” “lut” “vaj” and “cun.” Student progress is thus measured. Sadly, some of UNK’s “nonsense” words are actual words. “Wan” is one example. If a precocious, imaginative, or curious student should pause to ask her examiner why a real word is inserted among the nonsense words, her fluency score would plummet.

Because teachers are likely to teach the skills upon which their performance will be evaluated, DIBELS influences the way reading is taught in ways that may contribute to the emergence of a generation of students who may well resent reading as difficult and meaningless work. (DIBELS officially insists that their scores should not to be used in teacher evaluations, but I cannot imagine whom they think they are kidding.)

It Doesn’t Make Sense

Slipping in almost unseen is an important premise of DIBELS: that utter nonsense is appropriate for five year-old children in their first year of formal education.

When I began teaching in the 1970s, a kindergarten teacher’s job was to teach manners, develop social skills, generate generosity, and, yes, to ignite imaginations. We read books—interesting nonfiction books—to inform, to entertain, and to inspire sustained investigation.

If we were feeling ambitious, and we thought the kids were ready, we might introduce the ABCs at a leisurely one-letter-per-week pace. Kindergarten teachers liked to think more about how to get schools ready for children than how to get children ready for school.

Back then, we educators waited, patiently, wisely, compassionately, until late in second grade before we expected students to master letter sounds.

It never occurred to me that someday I would be told to teach very, very young children—many with lagging listening and speaking skills—to read nonsense quickly.


Anonymous said...

Anyone who uses any assessment information in the manner described here should extend their own learning about educational assessment and its purposes. And anyone who groups all teachers who use a particular assessment into the description given here needs to visit our classrooms where multiple means of assessment are used to help plan for effective instruction with purposeful activities for students.

The practice of reading nonsense words is discouraged as a learning activity. If there are teachers using reading nonsense words as practice, those teachers should be exposed to recent research on effective teaching and learning strategies. The fault seen by the author is not with the test itself, but with certain individuals' use of the test results.

Anonymous said...

First of all, Mr. Schwartz ignores the fact that beginning in first grade, students are also asked to read connected (real) text and to give a retelling. It's not all about nonsense, as he would have the reader believe.

Additionally, Mr. Schwartz should read the research. The skills tested by DIBELS are precisely those that are children need to master in kindergarten and first grade if they are to reach performance standards as established by many state DOEs. Furthermore, there is plentiful research that establishing these skills early in kindergarten and first grade are highly correlated with proficient reading on various achievement tests in third grade and beyond.
No sensible person would suggest that these are the only skills to teach in kindergarten and first grade. Of course there needs to be ample time spent in shared and interactive reading and writing, exploration of math, science, and social studies concepts, acquisition of vocabulary, and the development of appropriate social skills. In the classroom with a highly competent teacher, all of these are possible.

Finally, it's time Mr.Schwartz realize that the world has changed. Literacy demands of young people graduating high school (whether or not they go on to college) are much higher than they were when Mr. Schwartz began teaching. It would be a disservice to today's kindergarteners to ignore this fact. If we are going to prepare these children properly, it must begin from their first day of school. Of course these youngsters need to be engaged and they learn through playing, but this is not an either-or situation. What we have to do is to look at HOW we are structuring the daily activities of our youngest students.

I would challenge Mr.Schwartz to find a single second grade teacher who'd agree that children don't really need to know all the letter sounds before coming to second grade!