Michael Pressley


Hi I’m Michael Pressley from the University of Notre Dame. P R E S S L E Y.

Well done as a psychologist I see cognition everywhere in uh reading uh from the acquisition of letters and sounds which involves memory and perceptual discriminations and differentiations uh to high order comprehension which requires calling on prior prior knowledge and integrating new ideas as prior knowledge and making inferences. So basically I I sort of see a cas case of cognitive processes, uh in and I do think of reading as principally a kind of activity.

Well it’s certainly the case that people read with one another in the sense that they talk about and interpret text, and it’s a very natural thing in a classroom to have groups of kids reading uh something and talking about it and sharing views and responding. Uh that that’s a very very social aspect to it. Uh I think some of the people are sort of more interested in social political issues actually see that they recognize that there’s much in print that people need to get if they’re going to get empowered and up much for for for much of the world the motivation to learn how to read is sociatially social and political is that there’s power associated with it that there’s a well of information there that they usually have to have if they’re going to function in the world.

Um the linguists get very much in the into the languages per say so so for instance in something like phonemic awareness a cogno psychologist is going to be thinking about the discriminations that people are making. And uh where where a linguist actually thinks about those discriminations in categories as perhaps universal categories are not universal categories. Um I do have trouble separating out the two. There’s no doubt about that. Uh um because if you look in cogno psychology there’s interest in in things like vocabulary learning as there is uh in lexical development among the psycho-linguists. Uh with respect to text comprehension there’s lots of interest among cogno-psychologist and of course you know since Chopsky there’s been tremendous interest in in understanding of uh complex language like text in terms of of syntactic models and generative models. Um I I do see a lot of overlap there and have a hard time making a distinction.

Ok with respect to the role of language I think one of the most telling pieces of data is the kids are most linguistically advanced when they arrive at the kindergarten door are the ones who are going to do the best in reading. Uh it’s absolutely essential every every component of reading depends of language development. So kids who haven’t had uh a whole lot of language exposure during the preschool years are not ready to you know make the kind of basic perceptual discriminations you have to do to hook letters and sounds together and then blend them. Those sounds to make words. Kids who haven’t had much language exposure don’t have as well developed vocabularies and they’re also lacking in other world knowledge that uh that gets conveyed through language. Um the kids who have not had much exposure to storybook reading and that, there’s lots of concepts of print that they don’t have that their classmates have. So this is uh an immersion in language in the first uh few years of life seems to be pretty important, pretty essential and uh if you don’t have it you’re gonna be far behind.

Ok when one of the most telling ways you can assess uh an accomplished reader is to have them think aloud while they read. And what you note when they think aloud is they’re very active. They use all the strategies that are considered good strategies. They predict, they relate things to their prior knowledge, uh they ask themselves questions is they get confused they look back and read and summarize to themselves. They’re very very active. They’re also very interpretive. Sometimes they’re affectively interpretive. People rarely read text and uh simply say well it doesn’t really mean anything to me. I mean it it in the last few days as I’ve been reading the paper with respect to the the Bush Gore situation it’s very hard to read a a single article without having something of a affective reaction and those affective reactions can be very powerful. In in during the schooling years um affect is also very important and sadly one of the things we find out is that that kids who have difficulty with reading often have affective reactions that interfere with subsequent performance. I mean after all reading’s very important in school. If you’re not doing well at it this is an unhappy traumatic experience and kids often start thinking that they are failures um that is um this is a kind of horrible activity and it undermines their long term motivation to read or to even try to learn to read. Um so these affective variables are very very important uh and affect is always going you know good readers have plenty of affect when they read.

Well we usually do not come to text without a goal. Almost always I’m reading a text to find particular information. I’m uh reading a text perhaps to prepare to give a lecture tomorrow or to write. Some text I just read for the fun of it. The more purposeful my reading the more focused it is on particular information, the more it is a pleasure read uh the less that I’m really concerned about leaving that with an information load and and more and very very concerned with just entertaining myself and making sure that this is a reading that does that. So so goals are quite quite important and and often one of the things that we find out with kids is that they don’t understand that reading should differ as a function of what their goal is. They don’t understand that sometimes it’s quite ok to skim and other times close reading is what is called for.

Well you you always read text for meaning. And for a really good reader this is often pretty automatic. You read the text and you relate it to your prior knowledge, you construct new understandings, perhaps you modify your prior knowledge. For young kids uh especially those who are working hard at word recognition, what we often, what we sometimes find uh is that they’ll read the words and they won’t understand a thing that they’ve read. That that there just isn’t there’s so much energy is being being put into recognizing the words that no energy gets put into understanding what’s said. But comprehension, meaning making, um involves not just reading the words and listening to yourself read, but also uh relating uh the words to one another in a sentence and then relating them to larger understandings that you have.

Cogno-strategy instruction is simply teaching uh people who are not very accomplished at a task like reading how to do it the way accomplished people do it. Now most of my work is in strategy instruction, it’s been comprehension strategy instruction, we know that good readers predict, they make images, they self question. Uh they check their understanding, they go back and reread when they’re confused, they summarize, uh they make interpretations. We know those are things that good readers do. As it turns out that we can teach those processes uh to children in the elementary schools and what happens is that these kids understand the text and they learn more completely, and we use it more. There, for all of the important processes in literacy, including word recognition and composition, there’s important strategic packages that have been put together and and kids have proven to be very very uh easily taught to use these approaches. And when they do uh their their reading and writing skills improve.

Um the the easy answer, the one that everybody expects me to give when I’m asked what what do you need to in a to teach kids to comprehend is to teach comprehension strategies. But the bottom line is comprehension doesn’t go anywhere if word recognition skills are not high. If the kids have not developed substantial vocabulary, if they don’t have good knowledge of the world, uh uh uh those competencies are very very important. So if you want to develop a good comprehender you basically need years and years of very solid uh reading instruction as well, you need to get the kids not only able to recognize words, but to do so fluently. Because the the less effort that has to be put into word recognition the more mental capacity that’s left to comprehend things. Um with respect to those comprehension strategies uh I think the great lesson that has been learned uh is that it takes a while to develop them, even with fine instruction. And starting with one strategy or two strategies and teaching that over the course of a school year or a semester is not a bad start, that in fact to develop the kind of repertoire and flexible use of repertoire that you need to be a good comprehender often is gonna take years.

First thing that you need to do with a struggling reader is to figure out where the kid’s at. And if there is one motivational principle that comes through analysis after analysis it is to make demands on the kid that are just a little bit beyond where they are right now. So the first thing is find out where they are right now and then be providing instruction that pushes the kid along a little bit. Uh there isn’t any anyone formula because different struggling readers are gonna be at different points of development uh they’re going to be struggling with different problems. But in general what you want to do is find out where the kid is at and give them slightly challenging tasks. Too challenging tasks frustrate them, too easy tasks they are not learning anything.

Uh with respect to uh assessment I generally don’t like any of the standardized assessments. Basically teachers don’t seem to find these very helpful. Uh I think the very best thing a teacher can do is to early in the year um explore with each of each of her readers what they are reading and what they can read. And if the kid is just reading very easy stuff give him a little more difficult. See how far the kid can go. If the kid is uh uh is reading very very difficult materials and struggling bring it down a bit. Play with that and as part of that teachers tend to find out quite a bit about what the kids actually need. In fact one of the things we know about good teachers from from my work and other work is that in fact they understand very well the competencies and needs of their particular students. You come to that understanding by interacting uh with the kids with a variety of of reasonably great appropriate tasks. Uh you never get it from a standardized test, you I just don’t see that happening very often.

Uh not in recent years.

Yeah it’s it’s not just the language barrier it’s very often well a a cultural barrier. Uh with part of it being that uh interactional styles of of kids from a different culture are often quite different from the interactional styles of kids with the native culture. And and that complicates things. Um I I do run a teacher education program where we have a fair number of teachers in a 100% Hispanic schools, uh they feel they get better at it as they get to know the population better. And I and I think that’s a a huge part of it is that you need to get your get yourself immersed in the culture and try to understand it as much as you can. Uh it is not an easy it is not an easy issues at all. Um and I I think it is a mistake just to couch it cognitive or linguistic terms. It really is a social or cultural uh problem. Um is it insolvable, no. Because we we know plenty of examples of accomplished teachers who who get good at it. But I think a lot of the getting good at it is is the immersion in the culture.

If a person cannot understand the communications coming in for any reason, so even in a a kid who’s the same a first language as the teacher. If the teacher uses vocabulary and syntax that are well beyond the kid, the kid won’t get it. We we know that uh communications need to be well matched, especially to young kids. So it’s it’s a very typical situation and an understandable one. When you have someone who is not too familiar with with the second language will be providing directions that are not very skillful, are not very well matched not not nuanced at all. That uh they’re not gonna get very much of a response. And sort of sadly we’ve created a myth, well that represents something about mental inferiority. And this myth, it goes back a long ways. I mean if if you go back to the turn of the century the people arriving in Ellis Island they were given intelligence tests in English and would do very poorly on them and there were people who were quite willing to interpret those as evidence of genetic inferiority. Uh we’ve gotta educate people to understand that you only come to a conclusion of mental inferiority when you when you’ve got a situation where the people have a fighting chance to be able to understand what what’s going on and to be able to communicate with you in a way that you’ll understand . And quite often that isn’t the case. Uh the explanation that you know that this this this is uh this kind of very insensitive explanation is that people don’t perform well are stupid is one that we want to get out of people as part of teacher education and professional development. Uh and it’s racism, it’s classism, it’s all kinds of isms. Um and it and and careful thinkers don’t go down that path and we want to develop teachers who are careful thinkers.

The word level issues in comprehension are first of all the kids have to learn to recognize words and they need to learn how to recognize them fluently because they they they unless they can uh recognize words very efficiently they’re they’re not going to have enough mental capacity to comprehend. Beyond that is is also the vocabulary. Um and and vocabulary is uh uh a kind of difficult issue because there’s so many words kids have to learn. But the evidence is pretty clear that the more attention there is on making certain kids do learn vocabulary, the better their comprehension. So so word recognition and lexical development in the in the sense of learning the meanings of lots of words are sort of the two sides of of the word level processes.

Well the when you listen to a good readers they do predict and they summarize, they make up mental images, all of those processes are ones that people can turn off. So a good reader can just skim or they can just mindlessly read word by word if they wish to do so. So now if for a skill reader those are very controllable. For a younger readers uh they they many of them just don’t lear don’t use these these processes. Or they use them only under direction. And what you have to do is get the kids to understand not only that strategies are out there but they need to choose to use them and and find out how to use them and practice them and use them flexibly. Uh but you know the classic comprehension strategies and and the classic word recognition and composition strategies too all are heavily controllable and uh we we we need to get kids to understand that controlling their cognition, their thinking, their reading and writing, is is something that a a smart person does.

Well I think the most important reality with respect to a reading and writing interventions is that these are all long term interventions. Uh there are no quick fixes. With respect to reading at the word level or comprehending at a much higher level it takes a long time to learn the kinds of strategic processes that we’ve discussed today, and it takes an even longer time to learn when to apply them and how to use them flexibly. And that’s that’s an absolute reality. A myth is that you know if if if you put it in two lessons and the basil reader uh the kid should get it, it’s been covered, you know you can check it off the state curriculum demands, um that just doesn’t work. Exposure, simple exposure alone does not work. It takes long term exposure and practice in using um using these types of procedures and processes.

Well scaffolding is a term that Wood, Bruner and Ross came up with in the middle 1970’s uh which basically is is more knowledgeable others. Adults, peers, uh supporting uh uh uh struggling learner, an emerging learner. Uh the idea is that you want the kid to do as much on their own as they possibly can, but you also want to provide support in the form of hints or questions or orienting cues, uh that will permit the kid to make progress when they’re confronting a task that’s just beyond them. Again a part of scaffolding is very motivational, you want to be able to get kids working on tasks that are a little bit beyond them which are interesting to them. But you also want to make sure that they don’t fail and the way you do that is by by providing lots of external support. The metaphor of the scaffold of course is is like a scaffold in a building that’s being constructed. It’s only there for as long as you need to have the building held up by it. Once the the building is able to go on it’s own, you let go. And that’s the same with scaffolding. Um in the classroom what we’re doing though is always upping the ante. We’re moving onto more new and challenging tasks and materials and so there’s more opportunities in the future to scaffold again.

Well my uh my colleges and I have spent a great deal of time studying exemplary first grades in particular. And what you find there is a very complex world. Um there is what is striking about this world is there’s almost continuous instruction. There’s uh a lot of that instruction is in the form of scaffolding uh the kids are given tasks that are well matched to them, uh different kids are working on different tasks and are having different demands put on them depending on their interests and their abilities. Um literature is prominent, writing is prominent, but also word recognition is prominent. There is a balancing of sort of the skills instruction that’s skills first enthusiasts uh love so much and a balancing of whole language elements, composition, reading of authentic texts. So these are busy first grades. We’ve made less progress at the upper elementary grades, although we have made some. And one of the things that we will see in and usually in a 4th or a5th or 6th grade classroom is some focus on something and in literacy. So the class will define itself as a writing community or they’ll define define themselves as an interpretive community. Uh and sadly sometimes you have people who are defining themselves like as a class that does well on the standardized test. All of these kinds of definitions lead to curricular decisions that uh and and we have seen many many such classrooms where people have made wise decisions about what should be in the center of their curriculum and there’s real progress. Although it’s a different kind of progress depending on what kind of decision they made with respect to what kind of classroom they were gonna have.

Well my program was very unusual in that they uh the teacher education program at Notre Dame requires 2 years of of serving as a teacher of record at a school. And uh as such the teachers get an opportunity to work with all the demands of of a teacher at the grade level that they are at. Uh as such they get to deliver a real reading program um and have to struggle with that and they do struggle with that, it’s very challenging for them to do that. Um I think at the end of 2 years most of our teachers have a pretty good idea of all the demands on them and and various ways they can meet those demands as a function of actually having done it and then interacting with classmates over the internet and other ways who are also struggling. Um I’m I’m not at all enthused about traditional teacher education where they’re sort of limited um immersion in the setting uh I I think that you learn it by doing it, um and it helps if you have a lot of support as you do in the Notre Dame program. Um so my my feeling is that uh I want our kids to to leave with kind of a complete understanding of what schooling is about and the way that happens is they actually work in a a functional school. Yeah they take courses but I I just don’t have much confidence in courses relative to the immersion experience.

Well a mature reader does all the processes that we’ve been talking about this morning. A a mature reader is read a lot, is highly fluent uh in word recognition, they have an extensive vocabulary in most instances, they have a huge world knowledge. All of which can be used to relate and understand what they’re encountering. They also tend to be very active and they set goals and they’re gonna be active in different ways depending on what the particular reading goal is that they um that they are confronting. But something else that I we haven’t talked about but but is very critical is that they choose to read. That they they actually in in nothing happens unless you pick up a magazine or a book and you actually choose to read and and that’s a huge difference and it does make a difference. There’s a wonderful study that my friend Keith Stanovich did a few years back where he uh he watched in airports which people chose to read and which ones didn’t and he gave them kind of a simple world knowledge test, and guess what? Those who chose to read while they’re sitting there waiting in the gate uh knew more about the world than those who didn’t choose to read. So I I I think that’s an aspect that that’s very critical.

Those private theories are very difficult to penetrate sometimes, especially if you have a teacher who’s been at it for a while. Uh one of the one of the things that researchers are guilty of is that they don’t communicate very well to the professional community. I think the reading professional community is better at at communicating than some other professional communities but it’s still not as good as it as it could be. Um that said I’m I’m heartened that with every passing year I’m seeing better and better communications from pa from groups like the International Reading Association and there’s lots and lots of individual author putting together books to convey different kinds of stuff that they they have going for them. And and we are seeing transformations. I think one of the most interesting examples is actually for those of you in the western states you got started here you’ve got Allen Keen and and Zimmerman’s book on mosaic thought a few years ago. Uh um that has done a great deal to get teachers interesting in teaching comprehension in their classrooms. It uh presented comprehension instructional theory in a way that was sensible to teachers and attractive and it got them doing some things. I I think a lot of whether you’re going to get much happening in schools is consistent with research depends on people creating such products.

Well they need to be aware of them. And in the teacher ed program that we run at Notre Dame that we give them the tasks standards, we give them the developmental standards as well as the content area standards. That said uh the standards are uh pretty broad frames and and constructing an understanding of them is going to be very personal. And we see that in the in the summit of portfolio our kids put together. They they basically have to show us they met the standards and and they can decide for themselves how they do that and and basically every kid meets every standard differently. Um I am struck that there is not much data base supporting standards based education and I I think until we get it it’s gonna be it’s it’s going to be hard to make strong statements. In the short term though I do think they need to get the standards in front of them uh in front of the teachers who are going through uh teacher education, you need to get them in front of the faculty and people need to reflect on on just how these things can be actualized.

I think we know less about how the brain functions than many people believe. I do think we know a lot about cognition and we know a lot about cognition without knowing precisely where it happens and how it happens in this physical subrate substrate that is our brain. Um I I do think having a working knowledge of cognition and and some principles in in particular are very important. One of them that we’ve hit on is is previous language experience is just key to virtually every type of reading process. You you you need to have that background. If the language development is not there there’s not going ot be much that you can work with. Um an another one that’s very important is that we do have limited capacity. There’s only so much we can attend to at once. And and that’s why it’s so very important to get each and every one of the the cognitive components of reading fluent um it it is not enough just to learn the decoding rules and let kids struggle sounding them out, they have got to get good at it and fast at it. Uh similarly with comprehension instruction, one of the reasons that you work so long and hard with comprehension instruction is that uh it is hard to do at first, it takes a long time to get easy and flexible with it. So I think that uh the principles you need to get down is are not just cognitive processes per say, but also the idea that these things have to be done very efficiently or the whole system just kind of falls apart. And to get them to that levels requires lots of practice and lots of schooling and and it’s not just the school’s responsibility, it’s a home responsibility. OK?

Uh I cannot help but be struck by what a difference it is when we’re in an effective classroom versus an ineffective classroom. The the and it it’s always the same driving force, it’s the teacher. Uh and some teachers are very very good at what they do and others are not. And it seems to me just essential that we have to get those who are very very good their behaviors occurring in many many more classrooms. And offensive as it might be to unions to single out some teachers for more attentions, and leadership roles based on on their effectiveness, we’ve got to do it. I think we also have to think very hard about uh what we do when there are when we are confronted with people who simply don’t be able to develop as effective teachers do. And I take a harder line, I I I think that if you can’t perform at this job that you shouldn’t be doing it because it has such a large impact. Um I also think that we may want to change the way we think about uh recruitment into teaching. That we may want to start thinking about how can we figure out which of these people are going to become effective teachers and not and and permit only those who can to come into the program. Um the teacher ed program I run at Notre Dame we get many more applicants than we do have we have positions. And uh things like grades count some, but they don’t account as much as the interview, they don’t account as much as letters that say you know this kid has worked in a tutoring program and has been great has been very effective has great kid skill has begun to understand the reading processes you know basic math processes. Um we we we need to be thinking really hard what are the indicators that allow us to draft well. Uh and and get people into this field who could be more successful than perhaps many other could be. Um and and in doing that I mean some people scream that I’m a leadist that I’m you know all kinds of other things as well, but there’s just too much at stake. And I have having spent much of my career in exemplary classrooms uh it’s a different world and it’s a world that we really do want to create for more kids.

Uh the surest way to know you’re in an effective classroom is when you walk in look around and you’ll see that 90% or more of the kids are engaged in something meaningfully academic. It’s not going to be cutting and pasting or drawing, they are going to actually going to be reading or writing. That’s that’s your tip off. Now how does the teacher get to that? The teacher usually gets to that through instruction that is very well focused on the particular needs of the kids. Teacher also has a very good classroom management scheme. It’s so good that you don’t even know there’s any classroom management going on. Uh and in a in and one of the things that I think is incredible is that many many times we lead teachers to believe that their classroom management should be very silent that that’s the way to keep control of a classroom. And in fact our experience has been the less noticeable the class management the better the classroom. We see many many times where classroom management has been quite quite apparent and nothing happens, the kids are just running around. Uh it takes along time to get really good at this. One of the things we’ve picked up with our really good teachers is they’re always accessing. Ok is this thing that I’m doing with my kids now working? And they only keep in their repertoire of teaching tricks and behaviors and activities those things that work. And it is it is sort of a determination to have to be a teacher who who is effective that seems to be real real important.