5 Highlights from the IRA 2014 Conference in New Orleans

guest post by Trisha Beck DeOre

The French Quarter, New Orleans, during the 2014 IRA conference | photo courtesy Trisha Beck DeOre

The French Quarter, New Orleans, during the 2014 IRA conference | photo courtesy Trisha Beck DeOre

This past weekend, the International Reading Association held its 59th annual conference in New Orleans. The Crescent City proved an exciting backdrop and offered a metaphor for the richness, diversity, and resilience of students, as well as the increasingly complex world they must learn to “read,” or navigate today. The conference goals are always twofold: to help teachers, administrators, and publishers improve reading achievement and to promote a lifelong love of reading.

1. Today’s Children Are Reading Less—Even for Fun.

Based on recent studies, IRA’s goals are more important than ever. This week, Common Sense Media published a report on the state of children, teens, and reading. The data indicates that reading comprehension is stagnant among teens. In addition, “several studies show a substantial drop in how often children and youth read for fun.”

View from a Canal Street hotel during this week’s IRA conference | photo courtesy Trisha Beck DeOre

View from a Canal Street hotel during the conference | photo courtesy Trisha Beck DeOre

With the declines in reading and the politicization of education reform, it was refreshing to see speakers at IRA focusing on the basics. We need to better understand why and how we read, and how to make the reading process transparent and engaging.

2. Attitudes Surrounding Common Core Are Increasingly Complex.

Common Core was again a dominant theme at IRA. The standards have come under heavy scrutiny this year, and education leaders were cognizant of the criticism, as well as the wide gaps in professional development for CCSS among ELA teachers. The 2014 conference sessions revealed a nuanced response to CCSS and a focus on practical teaching advice.

3. Close Reading Gains Support—Even at the Youngest Grades.

photo courtesy Trisha Beck DeOre

photo courtesy Trisha Beck DeOre

A discussion of reading and CCSS almost inevitably includes close reading, although not everyone is comfortable teaching it or agrees that it’s developmentally appropriate, particularly at K–2. “How many lessons can you really have on Make Way for Ducklings?” a salesperson asked as we discussed Pearson’s new Common Core program, ReadyGEN.

Education expert and literacy advocate Pam Allyn is a strong proponent of close reading, even for K–2. At her IRA session, “The Act and Art of Close Reading,” she noted that we should teach close reading because it is natural, effective, and gets at why and how good books affect us. Allyn argued that young children are naturally drawn to reread favorite books. They are trying to understand the world, and with each subsequent reading, they become better readers as they build stamina and engage more deeply with the text. For K–2 students, Allyn urged teachers to use photos, picture books, and short texts, and to encourage students to support their conclusions with details from the words they read (or hear) and the pictures they see. Even students not yet able to read can participate.

4. New Research on Literacy Teaching Reveals Important Gaps.

In the roundtable session, “Research into Practice: What’s New in Literacy Teaching?” educational experts Peter Afflerbach and Elfrieda “Freddy” Hiebert (TextProject), among others, offered new insights into literacy education. Afflerbach noted that, unlike adults, “students cannot opt out of what they’re not good at,” so motivation, particularly in assessment, is critical. Conversely, students will actively engage with highly challenging texts and tasks if they find the work interesting.

While discussing text complexity, Hiebert noted that readability is a for-profit business in the United States, and it is an incomplete measure of text complexity. Readability measures, such as Lexile, focus mainly on syntax, leaving out other indicators, including vocabulary demands, figurative language, text length, and text features. Readability measures are particularly problematic at lower levels, and scores should not be accepted uncritically.

5. Great Children’s Literature Is Still the Key Motivator.

As the discourse surrounding CCSS grows more politicized, some states are threatening to abandon Common Core or rebrand the standards for their states. In response, even the biggest educational publishers on the exhibit floor this year seemed cautious and subdued. The slick tech booths were quieter. Yet the trade book booths were buzzing as excited teachers clutched copies of Brian Floca’s Locomotive or Peter Sís’s The Pilot and the Little Prince and crowded into long, winding lines, eager to meet the authors who still make it all worthwhile.

Trisha Beck DeOre is a senior editor and curriculum developer at Nieman Inc.

2 thoughts on “5 Highlights from the IRA 2014 Conference in New Orleans

    1. Trisha

      Absolutely. Hiebert noted that, to get readability scores lower, publishers often end up chopping sentences and cutting text (i.e., to make the syntax less complex). As transitions and other text is cut, however, clues to meaning are lost. The resulting sentences may be less complex on their own, but they force students to infer so much more, which actually makes the text as a whole more complex! It’s like reading Hemingway; the text only seems simple.


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