Learning science — and English

In California’s wine country, elementary schoolers are learning science and developing English proficiency at the same time, reports Ed Week. The Exploratorium, a San Francisco science museum, has partnered with the Sonoma school district.

A pilot project was launched in 2008 at El Verano Elementary, which has the highest poverty rate and the highest number of English Language Learners. With a federal Investing in Innovation grant, the project has expanded to all five of the district’s elementary schools.

Victoria Silberman’s 1st graders sit on a brightly colored carpet, staring attentively at the whiteboard.

“Where have you seen worms?” asks Ms. Silberman.

In my backyard, in the garden, in the dirt, her pupils respond. She writes those words on the board.

“What do worms need?” she asks.

Dirt. Shelter. Water. Food.

On a recent day, pupils first learn the words to talk about the long brown-and-gray earthworms slithering in Petri dishes on their desks before they’re allowed to observe them. Seeing, hearing, and discussing the science helps them with the vocabulary to label drawings in their science journals and talk about what they and their partners find examining the worms when the full class reconvenes.

Most schools don’t teach content in English till students test as proficient. Often, ELLs are pulled  out of science or social studies lessons to learn English skills in isolation, says Lynn Rankin, who runs the project for the museum. They fall farther and farther behind.

“There seems to be the misperception that children have to have a certain level of language proficiency to understand science, but we have a different view,” Rankin added. “Science provides a perfect opportunity for language development,” she said, “because students want to make sense of their experiences and communicate their ideas. Science instead provides a context for learning language.”

Students are more interested in science, teachers say. The state tests science in fifth grade: 59 percent of the school’s fifth graders test as “proficient,” up from 37 percent in 2008. Scores also are rising on the state’s English-language-proficiency tests.

Under pressure to raise reading and math scores, many elementary schools spend little time on science. Forty percent of California elementary teachers spent 60 minutes or less on science instruction a week, reports WestEd. In addition, 85 percent of teachers “received no science professional development within the past three years.”

Vocabulary is destiny

Words are the new black,” writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. “With Common Core State Standards emphasizing the importance of academic vocabulary and the release of new NAEP results raising awareness that vocabulary mirrors reading comprehension levels (no surprise to readers of this blog) vocabulary is hot.”

“Students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens,” writes Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch in a   Wall Street Journal op-ed. Content provides the context that drives vocabulary growth, writes Hirsch.

“If a child reads that ‘annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,’ he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.”

Children don’t build vocabulary by memorizing word lists, writes Pondiscio. They need to be “exposed to increasingly complex words in context.” It takes time.

This is the reason we want kids to read or be read to a lot.  It exposes them to rich language; it’s not about practicing the “skill” of reading, which is not a skill at all. Even the simplest texts tend to have more rare and unique words than even the richest spoken language (the language of children’s books is more linguistically rich and complex than the conversation of even college graduates).  And this is why we want kids to learn a lot across a wide range of range of subjects:  the broader your knowledge base, the more likely you are to be able to contextualize and understand new words, as in Hirsch’s Egypt example above.  Knowledge acts as a mental dragnet.  The wider and stronger your net, the more vocabulary gets scooped up.  More content equals more context equals more fertile ground for vocabulary growth to occur.

A student’s vocabulary size in grade 12 correlates strongly with “the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income,”  Hirsch writes in an upcoming City Journal article. Vocabulary is destiny.

Common Core State Standards cannot mandate but strongly recommend “a coherent, content-rich curriculum, writes Pondiscio. Content knowledge gives students a context for what they read, which enables them to learn new vocabulary.

Here’s a letter from a former inner-city high school teacher, who says his students “could not read anything, because nearly every sentence had at least one word they had never seen before.” And they didn’t have the background knowledge to figure out what unfamiliar words meant.

 

Teacher: ‘Cold reading’ is boring, shallow

Common Core Standards’ recommended English lessons are shallow and boring, writes teacher Jeremiah Chaffee on Answer Sheet.  Along with colleagues at his upstate New York high school, he spent a day on an “exemplar” lesson that calls for “cold reading” the Gettysburg Address. Teachers are told not to introduce the speech or discuss the Civil War, he writes.

Students are not asked to connect what they read yesterday to what they are reading today, or what they read in English to what they read in science.

The exemplar, in fact, forbids teachers from asking students if they have ever been to a funeral because such questions rely “on individual experience and opinion,” and answering them “will not move students closer to understanding the Gettysburg Address.”

. . .  it is impossible to have any deep understanding of Lincoln’s speech without thinking about the context of the speech: a memorial service.

Teachers are told to read the speech aloud, pronouncing the words clearly, but not dramatizing it.

That’s not good teaching, writes Chaffee, a 13-year veteran. He thinks Common Core’s stress on just-the-words reading is designed to prepare students for tests.

David Coleman, who co-wrote the English Language Arts standards, demonstrates a close-reading lesson on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail here via EngageNY on Vimeo.  Is this good teaching?