Test reading early — and stop by third grade

Federal rules require reading and math tests in third through eighth grade. That’s way too late to start, writes Robert Pondiscio in U.S. News. It would make more sense to stop reading tests in third grade.

Schools should be held accountable for teaching decoding skills in the early grades, he writes. “A struggling reader in first grade has a 90 percent chance of still struggling in fourth grade; a struggling third grade reader has only a one-in-four chance to catch up by high school.”

By third grade, what matters is comprehension. A reading comprehension test is a “de facto test of background knowledge and vocabulary acquired in school and out,” Pondiscio writes.

People think of reading as a transferable skill, like riding a bike, he writes. “Once you learn how to read, you can read anything – a novel, the sports page, or a memo from your boss – with relative ease and understanding” — they believe. But that’s not how reading works.

Broadly stated, there are two distinct parts to learning to read. The first is “decoding.” We teach small children that letters make sounds, and how to blend those sounds together so c-a-t becomes “cat.” Decoding is definitely a skill and a transferable one.

But the second part, reading comprehension, is much trickier. You certainly need to be able to decode to read, but reading with understanding and subtlety is intimately intertwined with background knowledge and vocabulary. In order to understand a story about a basketball game, for example, you need to know something about basketball.

Good readers almost certainly know “at least a little about a lot of different things.”

Instead of wasting time “trying to teach the ersatz ‘skill’ of reading comprehension,” teachers should build strong readers by teaching history, science, art, music, etc.  (I’d throw in literature.) The more students understand the world, the more they’ll be able to make sense of what they read.

How to raise kids who love to read

Raising Kids Who ReadIn his new book, Raising Kids Who Read, Daniel Willingham explains the “difference between teaching kids to read and teaching them to love reading,” writes Cory Turner on NPR.

A University of Virginia psychology professor, Willingham wants his children to share his love of reading. “If the goal is to become a good citizen or the goal is to make a lot of money, I can think of more direct ways to reach those goals than to read during your leisure time.”

He advises parents to play games that help toddlers hear speech sounds. “Rhyming games, reading aloud books that have a lot of rhyme in them and other types of wordplay, like alliteration. That’s helpful.”

Then it’s time for Dr. Seuss and banana-fana-fo-fana.

 If you had a child named Billy. You could say, “Daddy’s name is Cory. What if we took the first sound in Billy’s name, and my name is now Bory?” That kind of stuff is comic gold for kids.

If parents read, their children see themselves as being part of a “family of readers,” says Willingham.

Cubby, on the 1950s' Mickey Mouse Club, was my first crush.

Cubby, on the 1950s’ Mickey Mouse Club, was my first crush.

But “it’s not enough that the child like reading,” he says. Parents need to limit access to digital devices that provide instant, varied and effortless entertainment. It’s not that attention spans are shrinking, he says. “What’s changed is our attitudes and beliefs. And our attitudes and beliefs are, ‘Bored is not a normal state of affairs. I really should never be bored’.”

I’m so old that I remember when my family got our first TV.  My sister and I — probably both still in nursery school — were allowed to watch for 30 minutes a day. We chose The Mickey Mouse Club over Howdy Doody. By the time we were too old for Micky, we were enthusiastic readers.

In his advice for schools, Willingham stresses that teaching decoding skills is only the first step to reading. To understand what they read, students need to build vocabulary and background knowledge.

Many schools go heavy on reading skills but ignore knowledge, notes Karin Chenoweth. Students don’t enjoy reading things they can’t understand.

For a New York Times parenting blog, Willingham talked to Jessica Lahey about what not to worry about in teaching young children to read.

Arizona: Know basic civics to earn a diploma

Arizona students will need to pass a civics test — the same one given to would-be citizens — to earn a high school diploma.

Stephanie Parra, a member of the Phoenix Union High School District governing board, said the requirement will waste time and money, reports NPR. “Having students memorize and regurgitate facts is not going to get to the goal of what we want to accomplish here, which is retaining the importance and value of what American civics education should be,” Parra said.

Translation: Knowledge is useless.

In Model Citizens, Robert Pondiscio calls the requirement “a no-brainer in more ways than one.”

The naturalization test requires very basic knowledge:

What are the first ten amendments to the Constitution called?
Name two rights in the Declaration of Independence.
Why do some states have more representatives than others?
Who is the governor of your state now?
How old do citizens have to be to vote for President?
Who is the President of the United States?

Applicants for citizenship — and now Arizona 12th graders — need only get 60 percent of the questions right.

In 2010, the pass rate among those seeking naturalization was 97.5 percent according to a Xavier University study. Yet more than one in three native-born citizens fail when asked to show even that rock-bottom, basic level of civic knowledge. Raise the bar to seven out of ten for a passing and 50 percent fail.

. . . Serious People in Education cluck at the citizenship test. It’s just trivial pursuit, they say. It’s no substitute for deep engagement in civics and citizenship.

“If you graduate from a U.S. high school without being able to name one of your senators, any war fought in the 1900s, or the name of a single American Indian tribe, something has gone seriously wrong,” responds Pondiscio.

I had to memorize the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution as part of a test on the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions to collect my junior high diploma. (Those who failed were allowed to retake the test multiple times.) I think I could do the Preamble today, nearly 50 years later.  “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity . . . “

Stanford player promotes reading

Wayne Lyons will read the quarterback when he covers pass receivers for the Stanford Cardinal in Tuesday’s Foster Farms Bowl. He’s into reading, reports Elliott Almond for the San Jose Mercury News.  A Fort Lauderdale native, the 22-year-old architectural design major started a virtual book club to encourage his high school friends and team mates to read.

Stanford football safety Wayne Lyons, photographed in the Stanford Business Library, started a book club to keep his high school team mates eligible. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group)

Stanford football safety Wayne Lyons, photographed in the Stanford Business Library, started a book club to keep his high school team mates eligible. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group)

Lyons believed 20 minutes a day of reading would help classmates build knowledge that would make them better students — and eligible to play football.

He encouraged students to read and write about their book in a text or on Facebook.

An honors student and class president at Dillard High, Lyons took community college classes in high school and became class valedictorian.

His friend and teammate Wilkervens Tamar, who’d left middle school with a 1.0 grade-point average, graduated No. 3 in his class, earned a Bill Gates Millennium scholarship and attends Georgia Tech.

After seeing how excited some of his classmates got about reading, Lyons expanded the project to reach younger students with a mentoring program he called P.A.R.T.Y. — Pick Up Anything and Read To Yourself. He also matched upperclassmen with middle school kids so the younger ones would know what to expect upon entering Dillard.

Lyons once told his mother, “I feel bad for a lot of these kids. They don’t have study habits. They’re doomed before they even get into high school. I’ve got to get them reading, because that’s the start.”

His mother, Gwen Bush, a computer science teacher, taught her children to read fluently before they started kindergarten.

Lyons plans to graduate in June, but has another season of academic eligibility. He may return to Stanford or go on to the NFL.

Core reading in the classroom

Common Core standards have transformed reading instruction in Reno’s Washoe County, writes Emily Hanford as part of an NPR series.

Books for independent reading are sorting by difficulty.

Books for independent reading are sorted by difficulty.

English teachers used to teach “skills and strategies.” They’d tell students what they were going to read, introduce the vocabulary, ask about their personal experiences with the topic, then give them a text at their reading level.

Angela Orr, who was a high school history teacher, was told to excerpt primary sources for top students, define all the hard words for “medium” kids and rewrite it in simplified form for struggling readers.

Under the Core, students are reading more complex texts at grade level, regardless of their reading level.

“Instead of using a text as a springboard into kids’ personal experiences,” the new standards demand that “students stick to the material, reading it carefully and citing evidence for all that they say or write.”

The new standards also call for “building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.”

That’s a big change,  says Aaron Grossman, a teacher trainer who used to teach elementary and middle school.  “Social studies and science just weren’t being taught,” he says. “In the effort to teach kids reading skills, we had kind of forgotten about the importance of a lot of other stuff.”

Linnea Wolters, who teaches low-income fifth graders, was shocked by a sample lesson on “The New Colossus,” the poem by Emma Lazarus engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. She assumed it was too difficult for her students.

Instead of introducing the sonnet, she had students read it on their own, then read it out loud herself.

After everyone had read the sonnet at least twice, Wolters guided the class through a series of “text-dependent questions and tasks.” The first asked students to figure out the poem’s rhyme scheme and to assign a different letter to each set of rhyming words.

A girl who’d been diagnosed with a learning disability was the first to see the rhyming pattern.

Two boys who don’t speak English at home and struggle with reading were the first to figure out that the poem was about the Statue of Liberty.

Wolters asked the boys if they had any evidence to support their idea. They pointed to the sonnet and said, “It says it’s a woman with a torch.”

“What do you think of Ezekial and Salvadore’s ideas?” Wolters asked the class. The other students weren’t sure. “Why don’t you see if you can find more evidence?” she asked them.

And that got the class going.

“All of a sudden I’ve got kids popping off with, ‘She’s in a harbor!’ and ‘There’s two cities!’ ” Wolters says.

Wolters was amazed to see her students so excited. High achievers are less enthusiastic about close reading, she tells Hanford. They’re used to reading quickly, answering a few comprehension questions and moving on.

In a Washington, D.C. school, fifth graders are struggling to understand a reading on the settling of the west, writes Cory Turner. The teachers asks if the Native American tribes are “nomadic.”

“On page 6, paragraph 2,” (Khalil Sommerville) says, “the first sentence: ‘The Haida and Tlingit of the Northwest built permanent wooden homes called longhouses.’ ”

Khalil flags the word “permanent.” In other words, not nomadic. After an attaboy for Khalil, Ms. Wertheimer asks about the Sioux.

Destiny Brown volunteers: “Page 6, on the first paragraph, at the end it says ‘They lived in tents called tipis.’ “

Here’s more from Turner on leveled reading and the question of how much struggle is helpful and how much is too much.

“Close reading” can be fun or awful, writes Larry Ferlazzo in Ed Week.

Imagine trying to figure out a modern art painting, says Christopher Lehman, author of Falling in Love with Close Reading.  “It involves looking at something again and again, studying details, and being curious.”

Teachers are using the new standards to create lesson plans, writes Lucy Boyd in Education Next. A seventh-grade English teacher at an Uncommon Schools charter, she worked with her co-teacher to decide how to teach to the Core. For example, they paired literature units with nonfiction readings, such as Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave and Walter Dean Myers’s The Glory Field.

Easy A’s in teacher prep

Education majors earn high grades, but aren’t prepared for the classroom, concludes Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them, a National Council on Teacher Quality report.

NCTQ looked at more than 500 colleges and universities producing nearly half of the nation’s new teachers: 44 percent of teacher candidates graduate with honors, compared to 30 percent of all undergraduates.

“Teaching is one of the most difficult and demanding jobs there is,” said Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ. “Yet for reasons that are hard to fathom, it appears to be one of the easiest majors both to get into and then to complete.”

NCTQ compared course assignments for 1,161 courses, both education and non-education (including business, psychology, history, nursing, economics and biology) across 33 institutions.

Education students’ grades were based primarily on broad, subjective assignments. Students didn’t need to show mastery of particular knowledge or skills. They only had to express an opinion.

Esther Cepeda, a Washington Post columnist, trained to teach secondary school “with concentrations in special and exceptional education and English-language learners — students requiring specialized knowledge and skills — and a sub-focus in math.” Throughout her 10 graduate courses, there were tedious “mini-lessons” and “group work” that “usually required only talking about our feelings,” she writes.

Instead of endless chapters of required reading, lengthy research papers and nail-biter exams, there was a lot of coloring, cutting and pasting, watching syrupy videos about how to be culturally adept and reflecting about, yes, our feelings.

Trained on fluffy assignments, teachers have brought the feelings-first approach to the classroom, writes Cepeda.

Anyone who has checked out a child’s homework or projects in the past few years has seen a shift from research, content testing and skill acquisition to subjective, opinion or feeling-based interpretive “work.” For instance, if a student in a history class was learning about people who sheltered Jews in their homes during the Holocaust, the student might be asked to write five paragraphs about a time he or she had to keep a secret.

Raise admissions criteria for teacher education and demand more of would-be teachers, writes Cepeda.

Reading tests hurt teaching

Testing “makes clear that every student matters,”, writes Fordham’s Andy Smarick.

Robert Pondiscio agrees. But reading tests “do more harm than good” by encouraging ineffective teaching practices, he writes in Prospect.

Reading comprehension is not a skill or a body of content that can be taught. The annual reading tests we administer to children through eighth grade are de facto tests of background knowledge and vocabulary. Moreover, they are not “instructionally sensitive.” Success or failure can have little to do with what is taught.

. . . a substantial body of research has consistently shown that reading comprehension relies on the reader knowing at least something about the topic he or she is reading about (and sometimes quite a lot). The effects of prior knowledge can be profound: Students who are ostensibly “poor” readers can suddenly comprehend quite well when reading about a subject they know a lot about — even outperforming “good” readers who lack background knowledge the “poor” readers possess.

Reading tests, however, treat reading comprehension as a broad, generalized skill.

Even the best schools find it much easier to raise math scores than reading scores, writes Pondiscio. That’s because math is learned primarily at school, while reading comprehension reflects the sum of children’s “experiences, interests, and knowledge, both in and out school.”

Text passages on reading tests don’t draw on what’s taught in school. New York’s Core-aligned fifth-grade reading test featured passages about BMX bike racing and sailing. The sixth-grade test featured a poem about “pit ponies,” horse and donkeys used in mines, and a passage on loggerhead turtles.

Some kids will have the background knowledge to understand these passages. Others will be clueless. And it will have little to do with the teacher’s competence.

Tests, not standards, “drive classroom practice,” writes Pondiscio.  Neither new nor old reading tests encourage teachers to build students’ knowledge so they can understand what they read.

He suggests making reading tests low stakes for teachers, testing decoding up to grade four and then using subject-matter tests or “curriculum-based tests with reading passages based on topics taught in school.” If fifth graders are learning about New York state history and astronomy, test them on readings about state history and astronomy. But that would require a common curriculum.

Why do teachers hate Common Core?

What is it teachers truly hate about the Common Core? asks Shawna on The Picture Book Teacher’s Edition.
The Picture Book Teacher's Edition common core

In Why I Want to Give Up Teaching Elizabeth A. Natalie complains that, “In English, emphasis on technology and nonfiction reading makes it more important for students to prepare an electronic presentation on how to make a paper airplane than to learn about moral dilemmas from Natalie Babbitt’s beloved novel Tuck Everlasting.”

Her worth as a teacher will be based on how well her students do on the new Core-aligned exams.

Shawna also links to Robert Pondiscio’s column, What’s Right About Common Core.

It makes sense to have students read more nonfiction, writes Pondiscio. Reading in different genres — “recipes, instructions on how to put something together, a contract, medical news, political views, sales ads and disclaimers, and reasons for or against something” — is a key to functioning in the world.

Pondiscio also says “Broad general knowledge of the world correlates with reading comprehension — the more you know, the more you take from reading.”

Common Core aims to achieve a “knowledge-rich curriculum,” but it’s school districts’ job to develop a curriculum for teachers to teach. “Has your district given you quality content?” asks Shawna.

Do I hate the Common Core Standards or the curriculum (or lack of) my district has given me?”

Do I hate the Common Core Standards, or the data that my district, the state, and the government are requiring me to track?

Do I hate the Common Core Standards, or the fact that I have to teach areas and content in which I am not used to or uncomfortable teaching?

Great teachers “take the standards, the curriculum and what they know is right and they just teach,” concludes Shawna. “They are having meaningful discussions about fiction books, they are using technical vocabulary when reading nonfiction texts, they are talking through different strategies for solving one math problem, and they are showing what they know in their writing and answers.”

What’s wrong with close reading

Common Core’s push for “close reading” goes awry when it ignores the reader’s background knowledge, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham on RealClearEducation.

As I’ve seen it described, close reading has three critical features. First, we assume we will spend a good deal of time with a text. We will not simply read, but reread, and likely reread again. The first reading may be devoted to straightforward comprehension, but further readings will uncover other layers of meaning, allusions, techniques of authorship, and so on.

Second, the extended time spent on a text will be devoted mostly to the author’s words. We will pay close attention to the particular words used, to the structure of the argument, and so on.

Third, we will view a text as being self-contained. We will only draw conclusions that are defensible via the author’s words. In fact, we will read the text as though we know nothing about the subject at hand; the author’s words will be not only necessary for our interpretation, we’ll consider them sufficient.

That last part is crazy, writes Willingham. “Pretending that one’s knowledge is not relevant to interpreting a text conflicts with how writers write and with how readers read,

Researchers Eli Gottlieb and Sam Wineburg showed the importance of background knowledge when they asked clergy, scientists and historians to read George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789.

Clergy and scientists focused on Washington’s invoking the “providence of Almighty God,” and other religious phrasing, with clergy applauding the Christian tone, and scientists upset by it.

Historians, in contrast, focused on what the document did not say; it did not mention Jesus, nor salvation, nor Christianity. They saw the document as Washington’s self-conscious attempt to craft a statement that would be acceptable to the diversity of religions practiced in the United States, and in so doing send a message of religious tolerance and separation of church and state. That Washington knew his audience may be adduced from the fact that clergy at the time protested the lack of overt Christian references.

No amount of close reading restricted to the text would lead present-day students to this interpretation.

Reading in a knowledge vacuum makes no sense, Willingham concludes.

‘Curious’ in a google-it world

Ian Leslie plays with his baby daughter.

Ian Leslie plays with his baby daughter.

In a wired world, it’s easy to access information. That can discourage “true curiosity,” writes Ian Leslie in Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It 

Leslie criticizes Sir Ken Robinson’s wildly popular TED talk on how schools squash creativity, notes Philip Delves Broughton in a Wall Street Journal review of the book . Sir Ken wants children to master “learning skills” rather than knowledge.

This is dangerous nonsense, Mr. Leslie asserts, an insidious argument for workforce training dressed up as respect for the individuality of the child. “It’s a philosophy that has made its way deep into the educational mainstream,” writes Mr. Leslie. “It can be found wherever you see an approving reference to students ‘taking control of their own learning’ or a teacher criticized for spending too much time on instruction instead of allowing children to express themselves. A report published on the website of a British teaching union states plainly, ‘A 21st century curriculum cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core.’ “

Children’s “natural appetite for learning” needs to be “fed with knowledge by teachers and adults who know something of the world,” argues Leslie.

“Diversive curiosity, the attraction to everything novel,” is easily satisfied, writes Broughton. “Epistemic curiosity, a deeper desire to understand a subject from top to bottom, may lead to a lifetime’s study and even profound discovery.”

The sheer abundance of information at our disposal risks turning us into a society of glib know-it-alls, ignorant of our own ignorance.

. . . Mr. Leslie cites a question recently posted on the social-news and discussion site Reddit: “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about today?” The most popular answer was this: “I possess a device in my pocket that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”

Knowledge makes us smarter, Leslie writes. “People who know more about a subject have a kind of X-ray vision; they can zero in on a problem’s underlying fundamentals, rather than using up their brain’s processing power on getting to grips with the information in which the problem comes wrapped.”