October 21, 2002
Loyola University,Chicago
ELPS 499
Independent Study – Research Paper
Rabbi Dr. Harvey Well

Reprinted here with permission.

STATEMENT OF PROBLEM

A critical question that faces educators today is how to set up an effective program for reading in their classrooms and schools. Multiple considerations have to be taken into account when looking at this topic, including assessing various grouping strategies, analyzing different reading skills and techniques, and working to heighten teacher motivation and attitudes towards reading.

Grouping Arrangements

Much research has focused on the question of how student performance is affected by the different types of classroom grouping arrangements utilized by educators today. These arrangements include:

  • Clustering: grouping together all of the gifted students from a specific grade while heterogeneously dividing the remaining students in that grade (Drasler, 2000),
  • Ability grouping (“tracking”): students of like ability in one grade level are grouped together,
  • Cooperative learning: a set of instructional strategies in heterogeneous settings employing small teams of pupils to promote peer interaction and cooperation (Sharan, 1980), and
  • Cross-graded classes (the “Joplin Plan”): inter-class divisions based on ability for specific classes.

Researchers have approached grouping arrangements from a number of different angles. Some looked at the benefits of clustering or ability grouping for gifted students, assuming that focusing attention on academic abilities would promote accelerated learning for these students, while others looked at the potential negative effects for unidentified (average to weak) students in a homogeneous setting, fearing that these students would suffer from the absence of their academically superior peers in their classroom.

Some wanted to see how the various strategies in cooperative learning have impacted students in a heterogeneous class setting. Did the stronger students benefit by having the opportunity to serve as teachers to their peers while working in a group setting, or did they suffer from the weaker level of instruction that is necessary for the non-gifted students in their class? Did the presence of stronger students enhance or inhibit the progress of those weaker students who were exposed to a level of learning that is higher than their abilities warranted?

Some focused on grouping students for specific subjects. The Joplin Plan revolves around the idea that students should be grouped heterogeneously for most of their day, with cross-school divisions occurring for specific subjects, such as math and reading. Such an arrangement would expose students to all of the benefits of peer interaction and social development while allowing for the accelerated skills of some students to be honed in specific subjects for a portion of the school day. Another, similar strategy advocated by researchers follows along the Joplin Plan’s basic concept but recommends cross-class, rather than cross-school divisions.

Reading Strategies and Techniques

Researchers have also directed much time and energy in trying to determine appropriate strategies for reading instruction. It is assumed that once the inhibiting factors of and key strategies for successful reading were identified, students would find reading to be less challenging and more enjoyable. This would in turn improve their skills as readers and foster additional growth through reading.

Researchers have approached reading strategies and techniques in two ways. There were some studies that attempted to understand the nature of reading itself and how it is that we, as learners, adapt to it. One primary question that they attempted to address was how to view reading, was it an independent activity or an aspect of a larger language arts discipline.

Teacher attitudes towards reading were also observed and assessed. Did teachers play a meaningful role in getting their students to read? Were they able to engender a “culture of reading” in which reading was perceived by students to be a fun and enjoyable experience? Could they utilize assignments that would promote growth and development in this crucial area?

PURPOSE OF THE STUDY

The purpose of this study is to discuss the researchers’ findings in greater detail and determine which method(s) of student grouping are best for a successful reading program in a Jewish Day School setting. As part of that process, I will highlight some practical strategies for teachers to help promote students’ success within their reading groups.

I have chosen this research topic as an addendum to my administrative practicum, for which I have implemented a Hebrew kriyah (reading) program at the Cheder (Religious School) at Congregation Adas Yehuda V’Shoshana in Northbrook, IL, where I serve as the principal. In this program, students from grades 4 – 5 (Bet – Gimmel) and grades 6 – 7 (Dalet – Hey) have been combined and re-divided for reading instruction based on their reading ability rather than their actual grade level.

Recommendations for this type of division were initially presented to me by members of the teaching staff, who felt that the current disparity in students’ reading abilities within each individual class prevented them from reaching their goal of student fluidity and comfort in reading Hebrew words and prayers. By dividing the students homogeneously and allowing for more personalized instruction, the teachers felt that our overall chances of success in this crucial area would be greatly enhanced. As is noted below, the available research has supported the teachers’ recommendation.

I would like to point out that the focus of the reading program in our Hebrew school differs in one key area from those in most schools in this country. We are attempting to teach students to read Hebrew, a language that is different from their primary tongue. As such, part of my focus in this paper will be to identify techniques within the reading process that will help facilitate meaning and interest in our students. Without being able to foster a student affinity for the material, I believe that we will be less successful in our objective of developing skills for and promoting interest in reading our Hebrew script.

REVIEW OF LITERATURE

I have summarized five different research efforts regarding reading groups.

(1) Gentry and Kettle (1998) approached their research with an eye towards maximizing the academic gains of the gifted student. They found it to be most beneficial for “talented” children to be placed in homogeneous groups. They pointed to a study completed by Rogers (1991) that highlighted the benefits of full-time grouping for these students. Rogers noted both the marked academic achievement made by students in a homogeneous environment, in addition to the moderate improvement in students’ attitudes towards the subjects in which homogeneous groupings are utilized.

Gentry and Kettle also downplayed the benefits of mixed-ability cooperative learning, saying that research has yet to prove that gifted students experience any significant academic gains from such an arrangement. If anything, they argued, cooperative learning arrangements tend to facilitate the formation of groups with significant disparity between the strongest and weakest students. Such situations are to be avoided, as the strongest students spend much of their group time teaching the weakest member(s) of their group, thereby creating a situation of frustration for the gifted student. The average students, on the other hand, find limited opportunities for participation and contribution, adding to their frustration as well. They maintained that mixed-ability cooperative learning would be beneficial only for the purpose of fostering increased social interaction and developing social skills.

Gentry and Kettle further defended ability grouping programs against those critics who have expressed concern over the potential negative effects to the self-esteem and motivation of non-gifted students. They referred to the work of Kulik (1992), who found that all achievement groups benefited from homogeneous groupings, assuming that the curriculum was appropriately adjusted to the aptitude levels of each specific group. Kulik, in fact, went so far as to warn schools against eliminating ability grouping programs. He feared that the benefits in so doing would be significantly outweighed by the adverse results.

(2) Another important component that needs to be assessed when making the decision of how to group classes is the impact that such grouping has on teachers’ attitudes towards their students. Nelson (1992) made reference to Harp’s study (1989) on teacher attitudes, in which he concluded that there is a strong correlation between groups of students who are stronger academically and the quality of the instruction received by those students. Teachers tend to be more stimulating and creative when focusing their attention and energy on gifted students. Eder (1983) further points out that teachers tend to give non-verbal signs to their students indicating their high expectations of and strong desire to teach the gifted students and, conversely, their resigned, defeatist attitude when educating lower groups.

(3) On the other side of the equation are researchers who strongly criticize homogeneous divisions within education. Slavin (1986) contends that ability grouping serves to create an elitist academic framework that is undemocratic in nature and inconsistent with the American mold of education. In contrast to the findings of Rogers, Slavin found there to be no significant academic benefit to be gained from ability grouping, even for talented students. Instead, he recommended the use of regrouping either a single class or the entire school (Joplin Plan) for reading and mathematics, for reasons that we will mention below.

This regrouping, he pointed out, should be based on each student’s ability in the specific skill that is being taught, not on his or her IQ, or overall achievement level. This might mean regrouping the students multiple times during the day, depending on their abilities in reading and math. It might also mean that students who are, for instance, strong in certain areas of math and weaker in others, would need to be regrouped one or more times during the school year for math alone.

The main rationale for Slavin’s rejection of homogeneous groupings stems from his belief that all students need interaction with peers, challenging exposure to higher level thinking, recognition of their contributions, and equal access to quality instruction, all of which come with a heterogeneous education.

Slavin does not object to some amount of homogeneity in a student’s school day. Particularly in the areas of reading and mathematics, where reducing heterogeneity is highly beneficial, has ability grouping proven to be the method of choice for all students. This gives students the opportunity to benefit from some focused instruction that caters to their specific needs while still developing within them all of the social skills and democratic values that are so important to their development as individuals.

(4) Hall, Raming, et al (1979), point out the additional strain that the Joplin Plan could have on the teachers and administrators, particularly at the beginning of the school year when assessments are still being finalized. They also feel that the Joplin Plan has some limitations in that it would be unwise to group very weak fifth graders with strong first graders. In some instances, students might have to be placed in a group that is really inappropriate for him from an academic point of view but meets his social and emotional needs as an individual.

Hall, Raming, et al further point out that homogeneous groupings are hard to implement properly as students and their abilities often do not fit neatly into predetermined categories. There are many variables that contribute to a student’s success in a particular subject matter. As such, it is practically impossible to implement any grouping arrangement that would hold up to the multifaceted nature of each lesson, let alone the entire curriculum. They go on to state that ability grouping engenders labeling and weakens the self-esteem of the weaker students.

(5) Drasler (2000) added to the sentiment expressed by Hall, Raming, et al, by noting the discrepancy in peer support between high and low ability students. High ability students tend to encourage one another to perform at higher levels, thereby promoting greater success within such groups. Weaker students, on the other hand, tend to be more indifferent about the learning that is going on around them. They demand less from their peers in cooperative learning assignments, making the presence of high ability students in each group essential for its success. Drasler concluded her study by stating that cooperative learning groups tend to be extremely beneficial for students of average or weak ability but tend to have a limited impact on gifted students.

I will now summarize those research efforts regarding the skills and techniques that are essential in promoting quality reading instruction.

(1) Hall (1976) viewed reading from a constructivist vantage point, arguing that the ideal way to teach reading would be to utilize children’s previous knowledge and experiences as a springboard for further learning. She called her approach “Language Experience Reading” (LER). Language, she argued, provides the forum for people to express themselves and to communicate with others. However, without the substantive, experiential component of the language experience, language would be dry and without meaning. She felt that language and reading should not be taught in a rigid format that focuses on rules and structure but should rather be couched within a framework of creativity and personal expression. Reading must be assigned with a stress on finding meaning, not with isolated, phonics driven, tactics.

To this end, Hall laid down five principles for instructing remedial readers. They are:

  1. Learning begins with the known. Teachers should tap into their students’ pre-existing reservoirs of knowledge and experiences and build their lessons out from there. Often, teachers complicate matters for students by introducing new academic concepts as they attempt to improve reading instruction. They thereby remove any sense of connectedness that the students might have otherwise felt for the material.
  2. Learning proceeds from the concrete to the abstract. Students must adequately grasp and relate to the basic framework of the lesson before they can build on it.
  3. Learning demands active participation. We cannot expect to teach and have the information miraculously wash over and transform our students. The lessons should be inclusive and integrating, stimulating the students to probe and develop further.
  4. Learning should be goal directed. Students sense the direction of their learning; goals keep them focused and motivated.
  5. Learning is an individual matter. We should not try to impose our interpretations of reading groups on the students. Students need the freedom to arrive at their own conclusions and to extract their own sense of meaning from the reading.

(2) Knuth and Jones (1991) echo the above sentiment. They point out that successful readers are able to utilize constructivist methodology to help them extract meaning. These readers rely on previous experiences and past knowledge to help them navigate through the reading at hand. To them, reading is a process, where strategies and organizational patterns assist them in reaching their goals. They can see the forest from the trees. They also possess the confidence to know that even if things are unclear for the moment, they will eventually figure things out.

Poor readers, on the other hand, tend to get lost in the details. They hope to simply survive the actual reading and do not allow themselves the luxury of attempting to truly understand the content matter. There is little strategic planning when they read. They further lack the necessary confidence that they will eventually make sense of the words. According to Knuth and Jones, it is our job as teachers to ensure that all students are given the necessary tools and skills to help make reading a productive and enjoyable endeavor.

I have included a chart that further spells out the differences between successful and poor readers.

Characteristics of Poor ReadersCharacteristics of Successful Readers
Think understanding occurs form “getting the words right,” rereading.Understand that they must take responsibility for constructing meaning using their prior knowledge.
Use strategies such as rote memorization, rehearsal, simple categorization.Develop a repertoire of reading strategies, and organizational patterns.
Are poor strategy users:
• They do not think strategically about how to read something or solve a problem.
• They do not have an accurate sense of when they have good comprehension readiness for assessment.
Are good strategy users:
• They think strategically, plan, monitor their comprehension, and revise their strategies.
• They have strategies for what to do when they do not know what to do.
Have relatively low self-esteem.Have self-confidence that they are effective learners; see themselves as agents able to actualize their potential.
See success and failure as the result of luck or teacher bias.See success as the result of hard work and efficient thinking.

(3) Another suggested strategy for improved reading (from Successforall.net) is to implement partner reading in the classroom. Students read the story silently, then read it orally with a partner. During the oral reading, partners take turns reading the story aloud, alternating paragraphs. While the partner is reading, the listener follows along, correcting any errors the reader may make. Partner reading gives students a great deal of oral reading practice, and enables the teacher to assess student fluency.

(4) Hall, Raming, et al stress the need for administrators and teachers to engender a culture that emphasizes the significance of reading. They need to set a vision and goal for reading that includes various assignments and programs, such as “Reading Across the Curriculum”. Students must be taught that reading is both exciting and meaningful and will serve as the basis for further knowledge and growth.

Interestingly, Hall, Raming, et al also point out that girls tend to be more advanced and willing readers than their male counterparts. Three reasons were identified to help explain this phenomenon. First, girls mature faster and are thus able to apply the required amount of focus and discipline that reading requires. Second, they are encouraged to read more; our culture considers reading to be more of a feminine act. Third, there are more female role models as readers (teachers and mothers). Again we see that when reading is expected and stressed, students, will generally respond to the challenge.

CONCLUSIONS

Grouping Arrangements and Positive Techniques

Based on Slavin’s rationale, I feel comfortable with the implementation of reading groups as a regular part of our curriculum in the religious school. Our students gain the best of both educational approaches. They begin their day with their reading groups, praying together and working on that day’s lesson. This lasts for forty-five minutes. The students spend their remaining hour in heterogeneous, same grade groupings with their peers. During that time, teachers focus on other areas of the curriculum, including the study of festival laws and observances, Jewish history, and current events.

Our kriyah program is designed to challenge the children to grow in their reading ability while simultaneously fostering within them a desire to become more avid readers on their own. The teachers practice the tefilla (daily prayers) with their students, developing a sense of connectedness and relevancy to the religious services that they attend on Sabbath and holidays. Students then practice their reading on their own, working in pairs to sharpen their skills in a non-confrontational setting.

While our kriyah program is designed to sharpen the students’ ability to read the words rather than to fully understand and explain them, reading for meaning is stressed whenever possible. Teachers regularly ask their students to identify familiar words and their meaning. Teachers also ask for the root of the word to be identified, in order to sensitize the students to each word’s construct and to its meaning within the context of the passage or prayer.

I believe that through the implementation of this program, our students have further seen that reading is the single most essential part of our program. We have set a standard and now the students are responding. They, too, strive for fluency and are excited about the program.

The teachers in our school have reported tremendous satisfaction and success with the program to date. They feel that the homogeneous nature of the classes, coupled with the sense of focus that the reading groups engender in our students, have allowed the children to achieve previously unrealistic goals. In the future I plan to implement contests and additional programs that will further promote reading. In this manner, we will reach new heights in our goal of promoting fluidity and comfort in the crucial area of reading Hebrew.

Resources

Burns, Paul C., Roe, Betty, D., Ross, Elinoe P., Teaching Reading in Today’s Elementary Schools, Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Drasler, Christie Lynn, The Effects of Clustering (High Ability) Gifted Education Students in Heterogeneous Cooperative Learning Structures and Analytical Thinking, 2000.

Eder, Donna (1983), “Ability Grouping and Students’ Academic Self Concepts: A Case Study”, Elementary School Journal, 84(2): 149-61.

Gentry, Marcia, Kettle, Karen (1998) Distinguishing Myths From Realities: NRC/GT Research, http://www.sp.uconn.edu/~nrcgt/news/winter98/wintr983.html

Hall, Mary Anne, Teaching Reading as a Language Experience, Bell & Howell, 1976.

Hall, Mary Anne, Raming, Christopher, Ribovich, Jerilyn, Van Nostrand, D., Reading and the Elementary School Child, New York, 1979.

Harp, Bill (1989), “What Do We Know Now About Ability Grouping?” Reading Teacher, 42(6): 430-31.

Hollifield, John,”Ability Grouping in Elementary Schools”, http://ericae.net/edo/ED290542.htm

Knuth, R.A., Jones, B.F. (1991) “What Does Research Say About Reading?” http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/stw_esys/str_read.htm

Kulik, J.A. (1992), The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut.

Kulik, J.A. (1993), “An Analysis of the Research on Ability Grouping”, NRC/GT Newsletter, 8-4.

Nelson, Carol (1994), “Organizing for Effective Reading Instruction”, ERIC Digest, http://www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed369034.html

NMSA Research Summary #6: Homogeneous Grouping, hhttp://www.nmsa.org/research/ressum6.htm

Sharan, S. (1980), “Cooperative Learning in Small Groups: Recent Methods and Effects on Achievement, Attitudes and Ethnic Relations”, Review of Educational Research, 50(2): 241-271

Slavin, R. E. (1990) “Cooperative Learning and the Gifted: Who Benefits?” Journal for the Education of the Gifted.

Slavin, R. E. (1991) “Synthesis of Research on Cooperative Learning”, Educational Leadership, 48(5): 71-77.

Success For All Foundation (2000) Reading Wings, http://www.successforall.net/curriculum/readwings.html