Without literate teachers, pre-K will flop

Highly literate pre-K teachers can help disadvantaged kids develop vocabulary and pre-reading skills, writes Connor Williams on The 74. But many preschool teachers aren’t well educated. How will we hire and train early educators who can close language gaps?

“We know the child’s word-gap risk increases his/her lifelong academic, social and income disparities,” e-mailed Elizabeth A. Gilbert, Director of the University of Massachusetts’ Learn at Work Early Childhood Educator Program. “The low-literacy early childhood educator’s word gap is one of the results of such disparity.”

It’s not enough to be great with kids, or have loads of charisma. Early educators need to build emotional connections with children, yes, and that can help students develop social skills and perseverance. But they also need to help students develop linguistically.

Preschool teachers are paid more like babysitters than teachers. If that doesn’t change, it will be impossible to hire highly literate pre-k teachers. It’s very clear that low-quality preschool and pre-K doesn’t improve children’s odds of success in school.

 

Closing the ‘word gap’ — is it enough?

Home visitor reads a book with a mother and her 18-month-son in Providence, Rhode Island.

By the age of three, the children of educated, middle-class parents have heard millions more words — often encouraging, informative, vocabulary-building words — than the children of poorly educated, low-income parents, according to the Hart-Risley study.

Closing the “word gap” is the goal of various campaigns, including the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative,  writes Amy Rothschild, a preschool teacher, in The Atlantic.

Providence, Rhode Island is trying to prepare every child for school by sending Providence Talks educators into homes to encourage parents to talk, sing and play with their children. 

But some — “social justice” folks — think focusing on closing the word gap ignores larger issues, such as poverty.

Pediatricians encourage reading and provide free children's books through Reach Out and Read.

Pediatricians encourage reading and provide free children’s books through Reach Out and Read.

“If the problem facing low-income children of color is simply a question of parents saying more words and longer words, it would be much easier to fix than poverty and access to education for adults,” said Oscar Barbarin, a child psychologist who chairs the African American Studies department at the University of Maryland. “It’d be much easier to fix than the sense of alienation that poor and ethnic minority groups feel from mainstream society.”

He thinks the “number one thing” that would help children is to “give parents a stable job with a livable wage.”

Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician who works with low-income families, is a big fan of Reach Out and Read, which gives children’s books to low-income parents and encourages family reading. However, “there’s so much a book and a pep talk from me can’t do,” she writes in the Huffington Post. “They can’t teach a parent to read. They can’t make it so that a parent is home at bedtime, instead of working the evening cleaning shift while an older sibling or neighbor watches the child. They can’t get rid of the toxic stress that pervades every family interaction.”

Helping stressed, low-income parents do a better job of parenting will not solve every problem. But I think it’s more effective than ignoring parents — or assuming they’re too stressed, ignorant and “toxic” to do any better — and trying to maximize small children’s time early childhood education programs. The stable, middle-class job for every parent is . . . not going to happen.

Teaching with comic books


Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani American; Spider-Man, aka Miles Morales, is a Black Hispanic teen; and Faith is a plus-size crime fighter. 

Comic books and graphic novels can engage students in history and current events, says Tim Smyth, a Pennsylvania social studies teacher.

“Comics are a gateway drug to literacy,” said Art Spiegelman, creator of the graphic Maus books on his parents’ experiences as Polish Jews who survived Auschwitz. That inspired Smyth to think how he could teach social studies using comics.

His students can identify with “a female Thor (who is also fighting breast cancer), a black Captain America, a gay Iceman, a strong (and now fully dressed) Wonder Woman and Batgirl, a Korean-American Hulk” and more traditional characters, Smyth writes.

Spider-Woman’s storyline focuses on her pregnancy and whether she will need to abandon her superhero role. It brings up the point that male superheroes never have to struggle with the question — can I have a career and a family?

Recently, his class discussed the March issue of “Spider-Man” in which superhero Miles Morales says he doesn’t want to be “the black Spider-Man.” He just wants to be Spider-Man.

Loving Latin as a way to teach vocabulary

First-graders are learning about “de-” at Hatton Community Learning Center in Akron, Ohio. Photo: Dustin Franz, Education Week

Learning Latin and Greek roots — starting in early elementary school — can help children build vocabulary, reports Liana Heitin for Education Week. Teachers can turn learning language into a game.

With students gone for the day, 6th grade teachers Joy Ford and Ryan Rusk sat in a classroom discussing the Latin root temp.

After determining that “contemporary” and “temporary” share the root, which refers to time, the two Woodlawn Elementary teachers then turned to the word “temptation.”

“I’m tempted to eat this chocolate,” said Ford. “That doesn’t have to do with time.”

“But if I’m tempted, I want it now,” responded Rusk. “So could it?”

At the Virginia elementary school, K-6 teachers meet weekly to learn how to use Greek and Latin roots to build vocabulary, writes Heitin.

Learning one root can enable students to “unlock” more than 100 words, said Joanna Newton, the reading specialist at Woodlawn. It’s a lot faster — and more liberating — than memorizing vocabulary lists.

Chris Schmidt, a 3rd-5th grade gifted education teacher in North Carolina’s Buncombe County district, uses a program called Caesar’s English, writes Heitin. His students enjoy trying to “break the code.”

Spanish-speaking students should be whizzes at picking up Latin.

In seventh grade, I learned Greek and Latin words in Ms. Ericksen’s Vocabulary Reading class. I still remember the excitement of realizing that “bio” means life and “graph” is writing, so “biography is writing about someone’s life. And “auto” means self, so you get “autograph” and “autobiography” and . . .

I still think about things like the “temp” in “temptation” and the “temp” in “temporary.” (The first derives from the Latin temptare “to feel, try out, attempt to influence, test,” according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, while the second comes from the Latin tempus, which means “time, season.” )

U.S. grads are weak in math

U.S. college graduates lack numeracy skills compared to graduates in other countries, concludes the 2013-14 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies.

Overall, U.S. adults met the international average in reading skills and fell below average in math, according to PIAAC. Americans did worse in math than adults in Japan, Finland, Estonia, Cyprus, Canada . . . it’s a long list. 

U.S. high school graduates knew as much math as high school dropouts in other countries, writes Jenny Anderson in Quartz.

In “problem solving in technology-rich environments,” also known as digital literacy, Americans were dead last.

“This is not a high-level test of math or critical-thinking skills,” Stephen Provasnik, a research scientist at the National Center on Education Statistics, said. PIAAC measures “basic workplace skills.”

If they can’t read, they can’t do well in college

The new SAT, which demands sophisticated literacy skills — even in math — could “penalize students who have not been exposed to a lot of reading,” educators told the New York Times.

College instructors must teach students how to read academic books, writes Amelia Leighton Gamel.

College instructors must learn to teach reading, writes Amelia Leighton Gamel.

It’s not unfair to require high-level reading ability to get into higher-level education, responds Timothy Shanahan, who founded the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The SAT is supposed to predict college success. Poor reading is an excellent predictor of college failure.

On a recent visit to a Montana middle school, Shanahan taught several lessons which required students to read their math and science textbooks. It was a new experience, the seventh and eighth graders admitted. The teachers were good at explaining things, so the students never learned to work their way through a textbook on their own.

These students won’t be prepared for college if they can’t make sense of what they read and apply it, writes Shanahan.

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He grew up in a working-class community and wasn’t on the college-prep track in high school, he writes. But he found a list of books that college-bound students should read and tackled them. “I’m not claiming that I got as much out of reading Moby Dick or Microbe Hunters on my own at 16 as I would have under the tutelage of a good teacher (or as I have upon rereading them as an adult), but trying to understand such touchstone texts pays dividends,” he writes.

Reading challenging books will prepare students to succeed in college, writes Shanahan.  If “college entry is going to become biased against those not prepared for college . . . I think it’s about time.”

Simon Newman, president of Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, is under fire for suggesting giving tuition refunds to likely-to-fail students who leave early in their first semester. “You think of the students as cuddly bunnies,” he wrote in an email to a faculty member.  “You just have to drown the bunnies.” Or, perhaps, “put a Glock to their heads.”

So, why did Mount St. Mary’s admit these no-hope “bunnies” in the first place?

To learn words, learn about the world

First grader Noah Bayu, left, writes a sentence incorporating vocabulary words as his classmates, Madelis Salvador Lopez, right, and Josue Nava-Lanza, center, look on at the Center City Public Charter School’s Brightwood Campus, in Washington. The school is moving vocabulary instruction into thematic units.
First grader Noah Bayu, left, writes a sentence using vocabulary words as Madelis Salvador Lopez, right, and Josue Nava-Lanza, center, look on at the Center City Public Charter School’s Brightwood Campus, in Washington. Photo: Swikar Patel/Education Week

“Learning about the world” is a great way to learn words, reports Liana Heitin in an Ed Week story about Common Core teaching.  In Washington D.C., Center City Charter School is moving vocabulary instruction into thematic units.

On a rainy day this spring, kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Masi led her students through a picture book about colonial towns and families. The lesson was peppered with words that seemed far above 5-year-olds’ heads: “miller,” “sheer,” “linen,” “spindle,” “carder.”

. . . “The spinners and the weavers use materials like cotton and wool to make “garments,” she pointed out.

“Garment” is a “tier two” vocabulary word, which means it’s not so common that kids will pick it up on their own, but not so esoteric they won’t need it. These words need to be explicitly taught, advise the standards.

Center City now teaches vocabulary within topics, using the Core Knowledge curriculum.

“I initially saw it and was like, ‘You want me to teach 6-year-olds about colonial independence and Mesopotamia?’ But it’s been so much fun,” said Adrienne Williams, a 1st grade teacher at Center City.

She now has pupils read and listen to multiple texts about a single topic that use similar tier-two words. For instance, in a unit on habitats, the class read a book on the world’s rarest animals and two books on endangered species, watched the “Rainforest Rap”video by the World Wildlife Fund, and used the Brainpop Jr. online videos and lessons on the topic.

Students heard words such as “predator,” “survive,” “adaptations,” “coexist,” and “temperate” in context.

Young readers need “familiarity with a broad range of subjects,” writes Robert Pondiscio.

A child, for example, may read that “annual flooding in the Nile Delta made Egypt ideal for agriculture.” If she’s doing a unit on ancient Egypt, she has the background knowledge to contextualize the unfamiliar word “annual.” If she knows nothing of Egypt and the Nile, or has no idea what agriculture or a delta is, then “annual” is just one more word in a stew of non-comprehension.

I’ve been reporting for a story on educating English Learners to meet Common Core standards, which require much more language mastery, even in math. Successful programs teach English in context through science, social studies, math, literature, etc.

U.S. millennials: Schooled but not skilled

America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future is depressing and alarming, writes Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio.

Many Americans 16 to 34 years old “lack the skills required for higher-level employment and meaningful engagement in our democracy,” concludes the Educational Testing Service (ETS) report. 

Young Americans have more years of schooling than any previous generation, writes Irwin S. Kirch, director of the ETS’s Center for Global Assessment, in the preface. The U.S. has the highest proportion of millennials who are college graduates of the 22 countries studied.

Yet, the educated and the uneducated “demonstrate relatively weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology rich environments compared to their international peers,” Kirch writes.

U.S. millennials outscore only their peers in Italy and Spain in literacy. They rank last in numeracy.

It’s not that the U.S. has more low-income or immigrant students, notes Pondiscio. When our wealthiest students are compared to their wealthiest, our best-educated, our native-born, our immigrants, the U.S. falls short.

One of the comforting lies we have told ourselves in recent years is that, while we might have problems, our top performers are still the equal of the best in the world. Alas, the score for U.S. millennials at our ninetieth percentile was statistically higher than the best in just a single country: Spain.

These are “the people who will work, earn, support families, create jobs, make policy, take leadership positions, and be entrusted generally with protecting, defending, and continuing our democracy,” Pondiscio concludes.

As commencement speakers put it, they’re the hope of the future. A slim hope.

Literature, non-fiction, lady or tiger?

Under the Common Core, students are supposed spend half their reading time on non-fiction in elementary school, 70 percent in high school. English teachers aren’t happy about the shift from literature. Susan Pimentel, a lead writer of Common Core standards, defends the stress on non-fiction in a Hechinger Report interview.

The “literacy” part of the English Language and Literacy standards includes reading in social studies, science, and technical subjects, says Pimentel. Seventy percent of reading in all classes should be non-fiction.

It’s really important that in science and history classes, students have access to important primary texts and that they be able to figure out what the speaker is trying to say. In English, there should also be great literary non-fiction, so students can uncover the meaning and understand the author’s perspective.

In talking to college professors and employers, Common Core writers discovered a “four-year gap” between high school graduates’ skills and the demands of college and careers, says Pimentel.

A New York City teacher is using literature to teach computer science, writes Emmanuel Felton on the Hechinger Report. 

“Literary texts are informational texts,” says Lev Fruchter, who teaches at a school for gifted students.

He’s developed a computer science curriculum, STORYCODE.  Fruchter uses works like Moby Dick, where characters talk about science, and “what if” science fiction. However,  he says “implicit” STEM stories are the most powerful.

Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 short story The Lady, or the Tiger?  helps students understand binary choices.

In the original story, a king discovers that his daughter is having an affair. To punish the princess’s lover, the King puts him in an arena with two doors. Behind one door is a woman the king thinks is an appropriate mate for the lover, behind the other is a tiger. Meanwhile, the princess learns from the tiger keeper which door is which, but the question is whether the jealous princess will lead her lover to his death or into the arms of another woman.

In coding terms, this is a 1-bit story, with the solution either being 0 if she chooses to send him to his death or 1 if she sends him to the other woman.

But Fruchter likes to add more layers. Fruchter adds that the lover knows about the princess’s jealousy and has to decide whether or not to trust her. It is now a 2-bit story with four possible versions. Fruchter then adds in that the tiger keeper is in love with the princess, thus introducing the possibility that the tiger keeper lies to the princess, making it a 3-bit story with eight possible outcomes.

Each students writes a version of the story, then retells it in code. For example 110 “could translate to the tiger keeper telling the princess the truth, the princess telling her lover the truth, but her lover doesn’t believe her.”

Smarter babies, word by word

Building a baby’s brain starts at birth, the Thirty Million Words Project tells brand-new mothers.

Hours after giving birth to her first child, Bionka Burkhalter agreed to listen to two women talk about the importance of talking to Josiah. The 21-year-old single mother, who has a GED, “heard about tuning into his cues and responding when he cries, and about giving him a chance to communicate back to her, even if just through eye contact,” reports Sara Neufeld on the Hechinger Report.

xx talks to newborn Josiah

Bionka Burkhalter talks to newborn Josiah, after hearing a Thirty Million Words presentation. (Photo: Julienne Schaer)

“Obviously, language can in itself be a key part of building a child’s brain, but the parent relationship really is the basis for all of child development,” said founder Dana Suskind, 46, a widowed mother of three school-age kids and a pediatric surgeon.

A long-term study will compare the effects of six months of home visits: Some mothers will get advice on communicating with their babies while the control group will hear about nutrition.

Suskind’s team will follow 200 Chicago children to measure their kindergarten readiness.

 Parents will be taught to weave back-and-forth conversation into daily activities, from diaper changing to cooking dinner, and to explain to children why they are being asked to do things, rather than just directing them. They’ll be urged to go on a “technology diet,” since children need human interaction; their brains don’t build connections with televisions and computers. And they’ll be prompted to praise their children’s efforts rather than the outcomes of their actions so they won’t be discouraged from taking chances when something doesn’t work out. (“I love how hard you worked on that!” would be preferable to “You’re so smart!”)

“The ultimate answer is the whole society understanding how important parents are in their children’s development,” Suskind said. In low-income communities, “they’ve been told the opposite, that they’re not powerful.”