More about Tool Skills

In my last blog, about fluency, I said I would continue the discussion about tool skills by presenting the tool skills for a particular subject.  So here is a list of tool skills necessary to decode fluently.  Those of you who have used ABeCeDarian already will be very familiar with this list.

1. Students need to be able to segment a word into individual speech sounds.  For example, students need to understand that the word “mop” is comprised of the individual sounds /m/ /o/ /p/. This is the skill is the foundation of writing systems such as English that use an alphabet, that is characters that represent not whole words or syllables, but smaller sound units generally comprising a single mouth gesture.

2. Students need to be able to blend isolated speech sounds into syllables and words.  For example, students need to be able to take the string of isolated speech sounds /m/ /o/ and /p/ and recognize that they are the sounds that make up the word “mop.” This is the skill that allows people to rapidly acquire a large store of words that they can decode automatically.

3. Students need to know the major letter/sound correspondences.  For example, they need to know that we write the /m/ sound with “m” and the /p/ sound with “p.”  This so-called “code knowledge” is also essential to the rapid acquisition of a large store of rapidly decoded words.

4. Students need to know how to combine the skills of phoneme blending with their code-knowledge to sound out words and they need to get in the habit of using this strategy when they encounter words that they do not automatically recognize. Slight variations of the strategy need to be taught as well to deal with the situation in which a word has an uncommon spelling for a sound or when the student is trying to read a multi-syllable word.

5. Students need sufficient practice reading words to be able to retrieve them from memory almost instantaneously without overtly sounding them out.

Where did this list of tool skills come from?  The starting point is research.  But research findings are often too general to be distilled into a precise list of tool skills.  For example, research quite definitively underscores the importance of “phonemic awareness,” that is a broad ability to identify and manipulate speech sounds. There isn't, however, much research about the specific contributions of sound segmenting and sound blending, in particular, nor much research to help us weigh the relative importance of all the different aspects of phonemic awareness.

Much educational research in education yields various kinds of associations that suggest that students with one particular quality generally succeed (or fail) at a particular task.  But research findings of this type, while interesting and suggestive, do not specify what actually causes success.  Failure to understand this distinction has littered curriculums and district standards with inefficient goals.

This difficulty is well-illustrated by the practice of teaching letter-names in kindergarten. There is a very strong correlation between a student’s knowledge of letter names in kindergarten and her reading skills later in elementary school.  That is, students who know a lot of letter names at the beginning of kindergarten are usually good readers by the end of second grade, and students who don’t know many letter names tend to be relatively poor readers by the end of second grade.  Because of this correlation, many schools require kindergartners to learn the letter names.  But the research looking at the association between the teaching of letter names and student reading performance is not especially strong.  That is, teaching letter names does not seem to produce superior reading performance.  The explanation for these seemingly conflicting results is that the knowledge of letter names probably is a signal that the student has had a variety of experiences with printed words and word sounds that help prepare her to learn how to read.  It isn’t just knowledge of the letter names per se, but the various other bits of word knowledge that the student acquired while learning letter names.  When the letter name instruction is distilled into classroom instruction, therefore, the other associated things aren’t present.  And on careful analysis what is functional, what actually helps students decode words accurately, is not knowledge of letter names, but knowledge of the sounds the letters commonly represent.  I know this because if I teach letter names to students without also teaching letter sounds, the new knowledge doesn't translate into greater word reading.  But if I teach letter sounds (along with sound segmenting and sound blending), students soon learn to read and spell words.

So research is the starting point.  But to refine the general lessons of research into a set of tool skills useful to teachers and students, one requires in addition a commitment to identify functional subskills and develop activities that help students rapidly develop them. One might think that such a commitment is an ordinary characteristic of curriculum design and of the typical teacher's approach to her subject, but that hasn't been my experience. A very large number of the lessons that I have seen, whether they have come from established publishers or were the handiwork of a single teacher, have lacked this orientation.

I remember, for instance, conducting a workshop for some kindergarten teachers and I asked what they did for literacy instruction in their classrooms.  One said, "In my classroom, each student gets to play King and Queen for a week."  I asked her to explain some more. She went on to say that she picked and boy and a girl whose names began with the letter "a," and they get to wear and crown with the letter A on it, and the class paid special attention that week to words that began with the letter "a."  A different letter of the alphabet was featured in this way each week.  While this activity does ask students to pay some attention to letters, it is an extremely indirect way to do so, and doesn't clearly show the students the steps necessary to learn how to read.

Published and well-established curriculum materials can also suffer the same defect.  I'm a big fan of the upper level math textbooks written by Harold Jacobs, who began writing textbooks in the 1970's. Although he doesn't use the term "tool skills" explicitly, it is clear as one goes through his lessons that he had a keen understanding of how to break of the complex skills involved in learning algebra and geometry into smaller parts so that his students never had to make conceptual leaps that they were not prepared for.  As I work in my private tutoring practice with math students using a variety of more modern materials, it is striking how little most of these lessons break down the complex tasks they are presenting into smaller subskills.

The moral of this story for parents and teachers, I think, is to make sure that the teaching materials that you use make a serious attempt to identify the relevant tool skills and to make clear how the activities and sequence of the curriculum develop these skills. Because educational research remains incomplete, there will always be room for some disagreement about the exact tool skills that comprise different subjects.  Nonetheless, If we as teachers are committed to identifying as best we can the subskills necessary to master what we are teaching, I think we will find quite a bit of inefficient teaching that we can eliminate.

I would love to hear from you about what you think of the decoding tool skills I have listed and whether you find them useful to think about in your own teaching.

Over the coming months, I will return to the question of tool skills and propose a list of tool skills for other subjects.  Also, I want to explore various aspects of developing good practice routines.  Even when one has properly identified a tool skill, there are often a dizzying number of different ways of providing practice for the skill, and an equally dizzying number of debates about which practice techniques are best.

Until next time,

Happy Teaching!