Finland: Girls read well, but not boys


Finnish boys don’t read significantly better than U.S. boys, according to the international PISA exam.

For all those sick of hearing about how great Finnish schools are, here’s a fun fact from the new Brown Center Report: Finnish girls do well in reading, but boys do not. The gender gap is “an astonishing 62 points,” writes Tom Loveless. That’s twice the U.S. gap.

Finnish girls scored 556, and boys scored 494.  To put this gap in perspective, consider that Finland’s renowned superiority on PISA tests is completely dependent on Finnish girls.  Finland’s boys’ score of 494 is about the same as the international average of 496, and not much above the OECD average for males (478).  The reading performance of Finnish boys is not statistically significantly different from boys in the U.S. (482) or from the average U.S. student, both boys and girls (498).

. . . Consider that the 62 point gender gap in Finland is only 14 points smaller than the U.S. black-white gap (76 points) and 21 points larger than the white-Hispanic gap (41 points) on the same test.

Finland’s PISA success has been cited by advocates of various policies such as “teacher recruitment, amount of homework, curriculum standards, the role of play in children’s learning, school accountability, or high stakes assessments,” writes Loveless.

Advocates pound the table while arguing that these policies are obviously beneficial.  “Just look at Finland,” they say.  Have you ever read a warning that even if those policies contribute to Finland’s high PISA scores—which the advocates assume but serious policy scholars know to be unproven—the policies also may be having a negative effect on the 50 percent of Finland’s school population that happens to be male?

Usually, critics care whether a policy hurts some social groups, even it benefits others, he writes.

Where is the reading gender gap relatively small? Japan and South Korea.

Boys are catching up in reading

Girls do better than boys at reading, especially as they get older, but the gap is narrowing, writes Tom Loveless in the 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education.

It’s not just the U.S. “Across the globe, in countries with different educational systems, different popular cultures, different child rearing practices, and different conceptions of gender roles,” girls read better than boys, writes Loveless. 

However, gender gaps are closing, he writes. “On an international assessment of adults conducted in 2012, reading scores for men and women were statistically indistinguishable up to age 35.” After that age, men had higher scores in reading.

Still, women are much more likely than men to be avid readers.  Of those who said they read a book a week, 59 percent were women and 41 percent were men. By age 55, the ratio was 63 percent to 37 percent. “Two-thirds of respondents who said they never read books were men,” notes Loveless.

The report also found that fourth grade reading scores improved more in states with strong implementation of Common Core standards than in non-Core states. Last year’s report found an edge in eighth-grade math for strong Core states. However, the differences are quite small and may be due to other factors.

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.

Can’t learn or don’t care?

David Rose founded CAST (Center for Applied Technology) to help learning disabled students understand their lessons. The most pervasive learning disability is emotional, the neuropsychologist tells Hechinger’s Chris Berdik. “We’ve seen that technology can do a lot of stuff to support students, but the real driver is do they actually want to learn something,” says Rose.

CAST has developed Udio, an online reading curriculum aimed at middle-school students who read poorly — and hate doing it.

Rather than the usual “See Spot run” fare of remedial reading, Udio starts by finding kids something they really want to read. Students choose from tons of online articles donated by Sports Illustrated for Kids, NASA, and Yahoo News, among many others, organized by topic. Some articles simply inform, such as a story on bat research or a profile of an extreme athlete, while others cover controversial issues, such as genetically modified food or doctor-assisted suicide. Every article is presented with supports that students can use if they need them, including text-to-speech that will read the article out loud (the kids wear headphones) while highlighting each word, and audible, one-click word translations for English-language learners.

. . . The program prompts students to display what they felt about each article by clicking words like annoying, calming, sad or curious, and then it shows them what their classmates thought about the same articles. Students also make Web-based presentations about the topics that most interest them, using a mix of writing, recorded speech, images and design elements to summarize, draw inferences and make arguments supported by evidence from the reading. They can visit each other’s projects to comment and debate, which they eagerly do.

The goal is to persuade students that reading is something they might want to do, something that is meaningful to them.

In pilots, remedial readers panicked at multiple-choice quizzes to test comprehension.  “These kids have had trouble with tests all through school,” Rose says. “It made the reading feel more like, ‘Oh, this is something I have to do. The teacher gave me this test that, once again, will show that I couldn’t learn anything.’ ”

So Udio tests comprehension by asking readers to solve a puzzle. “Passages from the text appear with blanks and a choice of key words students can choose to make the passage whole again.”

How to parent like a German


Photo by Metro Centric

Parenting like a German means giving kids more freedom, Sara Zaske writes in Time.

The first time I went to a playground in Berlin, I freaked. All the German parents were huddled together, drinking coffee, not paying attention to their children who were hanging off a wooden dragon 20 feet above a sand pit. Where were the piles of soft padded foam? The liability notices? The personal injury lawyers?

Despite the stereotypes, Germans are mellow parents, she writes. “Most grade school kids walk without their parents to school and around their neighborhoods. Some even take the subway alone.” It’s not called “free-range parenting.” It’s normal.

Kindergarten is considered a time for play and social learning. Children are learn to read in first grade, but “academics aren’t pushed very hard.”  A half day of instruction includes two outdoor recesses.

German children play outside every day. If it’s cold, they bundle up.

Starting first grade is marked by a big party called Einschulung.

 In Berlin, Einschulung is a huge celebration at the school—on a Saturday!—that includes getting a Zuckertute—a giant child-sized cone filled with everything from pencils to watches to candy. Then there’s another party afterwards with your family and friends. Einschulung is something children look forward to for years. It signals a major life change, and hopefully, an enthusiasm for learning.

There’s another big party when a child turns 14.

Teachers give low grade to PARCC exam

PARCC — the biggest Common Core testing consortium — has put sample test questions online.

Teacher Peter Greene, who blogs at Curmudgucation, found lots of problems with the practice test for high school English.

To start with, PARCC must be taken on a computer. It’s “a massive pain in the patoot,” writes Greene.

 The reading selection is in its own little window and I have to scroll the reading within that window. The two questions run further down the page, so when I’m looking at the second question, the window with the selection in it is halfway off the screen, so to look back to the reading I have to scroll up in the main window and then scroll up and down in the selection window and then take a minute to punch myself in the brain in frustration.

Teachers will have to prep students to handle the format.

Questions focus very heavily on finding things in the text that support answers. The first question asks which three out of seven terms in the text on DNA testing in agriculture “help clarify” the meaning of  “DNA fingerprint.”

If I already understand the term, none of them help (what helped you learn how to write your name today?), and if I don’t understand the term, apparently there is only one path to understanding. If I decide that I have to factor in the context in which the phrase is used, I’m back to scrolling in the little window . . . I count at least four possible answers here, but only three are allowed. Three of them are the only answers to use “genetics” in the answer.

I tried the practice reading test for grades 3-5. I picked the meaning of “master” with no trouble. Which sentence — out of four choices — helped me do so? None of them.

When the high school test moves on to literature, it demands that poetry has one meaning only, complains Greene.

Reading the text closely is a waste of time, he writes. He can do better by reading the questions and answers closely, then using the text “as a set of clues about which answer to pick.” 

Another section features Abigail Adams’ letter to John Adams calling for women’s rights. Questions focus on “her use of ‘tyrant’ based entirely on context,” Greene writes. “Because no conversation between Abigail and John Adams mentioning tyranny in 1776 could possibly be informed by any historical or personal context.”

In short, he concludes PARCC is “unnecessarily complicated, heavily favoring students who have prior background knowledge, and absolutely demanding that test prep be done with students.”

PARCC won’t produce reliable results, writes Michael Mazenko, a Colorado teacher. He tried the seventh-grade reading test, which contains passages from The Count of Monte Cristo.  That’s too hard for seventh graders, Mazenko writes.

And, like Greene, he thinks the computerized format strongly favors the most computer-savvy students.

A dad opts in to Core testing

Greg Harris, an education writer and parent, is opting in to Common Core testing, he writes on Education Post.

Core teaching  will “promote the 21st century skills needed to navigate and thrive in a complicated world,” he believes.

In addition to practicing addition and subtraction, his first grader created his own word problems and math exercises, writes Harris. He drew his “problem-solving process with crayons.”

His older son’s homework, which is aligned with Ohio’s Core reading standards, includes:

Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says and when drawing inferences from the text.
Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).

When his son read Caddie Woodlawn, “he wasn’t asked to memorize passages, respond to fill-in-the blank questions, or answer true or false questions,’ writes Harris. Instead, he analyzed what he read and wrote responses to questions. He was expected to “break down chapters by their main themes and cite supporting evidence from the text to back up his main ideas.”

The PARCC tests my kids will take this year will determine their absorption of this way of learning. Teachers teach to the tests far less, but rather impart skills that will help their pupils learn to write and write well, conduct analysis and solve problems.

Students will struggle at first, but they’ll “rise to the challenge,” Harris writes.

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.”

Core kindergarten: It’s not that hard

Common Core isn’t too hard for kindergarteners, argues Robert Pondiscio in Education Next.  

The Core’s call for kids to learn fundamental literacy skills will push out play-based learning, argues a report, titled Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose.  That could harm children.

There’s nothing new about expecting kindergartens to learn the alphabet or know that print is read from left to right, says Pondiscio. The report complains about only one Common Core expectation: By the end of kindergarten, children should be able to “[r]ead emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.”

That means kids about to enter first grade should be able to read “I am Sam and I am an ant,” writes Pondiscio. We’re not talking Proust.

 Most kids can already read simple texts by the end of kindergarten. And those who struggle early tend to continue to struggle—both in school and in life. The authors are absolutely correct that telling stories, reading from picture books, singing songs, reciting poems, activity centers, and imaginative play all help build literacy skills. That’s why none of those are discouraged by Common Core.

The report suggests the Core forces kindergarten teachers to turn their classrooms into “joyless grinding mills” with all work and no play. That’s silly, writes Pondiscio. “Nothing in Common Core—not one blessed thing—precludes schools and teachers from creating safe, warm, nurturing classrooms that are play-based, engaging, and cognitively enriching.”

If kindergarten teachers don’t know how to use songs, stories, games and activities to introduce children to early reading skills, teacher education programs should show them how, he writes.

Most parents teach these skills at home. Their kids are far beyond “I am Sam” by the end of kindergarten. Other children need to be taught in school.