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.

Reading aloud linked to frequent reading

Only 31 percent of school-age children read for fun on most days, according to a new Scholastic report. That’s down from 37 percent four years ago. 

Frequent readers aged six to 11 are more likely to say their parents read aloud with them, even after they could read to themselves, notes the New York Times. Restrictions on online time also correlated with frequent reading for pleasure.

For children ages 12 to 17, “one of the largest predictors was whether they had time to read on their own during the school day.”

Children say reading aloud is a special bonding time with parents, said Kristen Harmeling, who worked on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ report urging parent to read to their children from birth.

Of course, children who love to read are generally immersed in households with lots of books and parents who like to read. So while parents who read to their children later in elementary school may encourage those children to become frequent readers on their own, such behavior can also result from “a whole constellation of other things that goes on in those families,” said Timothy Shanahan, professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a past president of the International Reading Association.

There is not yet strong research that connects reading aloud at older ages to improved reading comprehension. But some literacy experts said that when parents or teachers read aloud to children even after they can read themselves, the children can hear more complex words or stories than they might tackle themselves.

Other literacy experts say reading to children — or talking with them — helps develop background knowledge. “A two-minute conversation about something on television or something in a magazine or something that you’re reading yourself can also have some of the same positive effects as reading aloud,” said Catherine Snow, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

I disliked reading aloud — it’s so slow — and was pleased when my daughter learned to read books on her own. (She could read at the age of three and read fluently at four.)  However, we spent a lot of time discussing what she was reading, doing and thinking about, as well as talking about the larger world.

Here’s more on the Scholastic survey and kids picking the books they want to read, which may not be very challenging.

Core PE: Now with less exercise

Common Core has come to gym class, reports Madeleine Cummings in Slate. That can mean anything from “word walls” to worksheets. Will there be less time for exercise?

Many P.E. teachers have little training in the new standards or in how to teach academics, she writes. They’re under pressure to help raise test scores. “Who needs exercise when gym class can serve as yet another 45-minute opportunity for teachers to shoehorn in vocabulary and multiplication drills?”

“Timmy Dhakaia, a senior at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School, says she and her classmates now spend so much gym time on written exercises and tests that they don’t always have time for, well, gym,” writes Cummings. After a yoga session, students fill out a worksheet on which parts of the body each pose strengthened. It takes time.

At a Maryland elementary school, teacher Judy Schmid has her bowling students score games manually. They learn Core math skills while counting pins, calculating their scores and playing number games. It takes time.

A “text” can be anything, advises Martha James-Hassan, who directs physical education programs at Towson University.

 Instead of asking students to read articles or write essays in gym, she suggests students learn what the lines signify on the gymnasium floor, or compare ingredients on a nutrition label. Talking about a sports controversy at the beginning of class is another technique for sparking discussion and helping students learn how to frame arguments, both skills valued by the Common Core.

“But even these more creative suggestions sacrifice students’ physical activity,” writes Cummings.

The family that dines together . . .

The family that dines together gets along fine together, reports The Week.

As Bruce Feiler writes in his book, The Secrets of Happy Families:

A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem.

. . . a University of Michigan report . . . discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.

Knowing family history predicts a child’s emotional well-being, according to an Emory study. Children who know the family stories — including “natural ups and downs” —  are more confident and more convinced they can “control their world,” says Feiler.

Beyond decoding, kids need content

A high-poverty Baltimore school raised third-grade reading scores dramatically, writes Education Trust’s Karin Chenoweth in The Importance of Teaching Content. She wonder what had worked — and why fifth-grade scores weren’t going up too.

Dedicated teachers had worked hard to teach kids “the phonemes (the sounds found in the English language) and phonics (the sounds mapped to letters and combinations of letters) so that the kids could decode words and read fluently.”

A student “read a folk tale set in China, fluently and with expression,” she recalls. But the assistant principal said the school wasn’t teaching students anything about China.

Third-grade reading tests usually consist of very simple stories and text, making them primarily tests of decoding — which was what that school was teaching impressively well. By fourth and fifth grade, however, reading tests have more complex stories and texts that require more sophisticated vocabularies and considerable amounts of background knowledge. Kids can no longer figure out most of the words from the context of the stories; they need to actually know the words and the concepts they represent.

If schools aren’t teaching kids an awful lot of content — that is, history, science, literature, and the arts — the same kids who do well on third-grade tests can fail later tests — not because they can’t decode the words on the tests, but because they cannot understand the words once they’ve decoded them. And they can’t understand them because the words haven’t been taught.

Children with educated parents come to school with background knowledge and rich vocabularies, she writes. Others need to be taught so they can understand the world around them — not just to pass fifth-grade reading tests. 

In Seven Myths of Education, teacher Daisy Christodoulou describes her struggles to teach in a high-poverty school in England. She’d been trained to set up discussions and group projects and encourage problem solving — but not to teach content systematically.

Then she discovered cognitive science research “demonstrating that people need a large store of knowledge in order to think creatively, have deep discussions, and solve problems,” writes Chenoweth.

Christodoulou’s seven myths are:

- Facts prevent understanding
– Teacher-led instruction is passive
– The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
– You can always just look it up
-We should teach transferable skills
– Projects and activities are the best way to learn
– Teaching knowledge is indoctrination.

E.D. Hirsch calls the book a “game changer.”

Here’s a review and an interview with Christodoulou.

Read to children from birth, doctors advise

This coming Tuesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics will announce a new policy: Doctors will now advise parents to read to their children from birth.

The reason? Exposure to vocabulary has a great effect on brain development, according to research. Children who are exposed to a large vocabulary tend to fare better academically than children who are not–and the latter come predominantly from lower-income families.

Thus, by urging parents to read to the babies from day one, the AAP hopes to help reduce academic disparities.

Now, reading to children from day one onward is a good idea–not only because it could boost their academic performance, but also because it’s the way to some interesting conversations and ideas. From a Boston.com article:

Reading aloud is also a way to pass the time for parents who find endless baby talk tiresome. “It’s an easy way of talking that doesn’t involve talking about the plants outside,” said Erin Autry Montgomery, a mother of a 6-month-old boy in Austin, Texas.

But is it really necessary to begin at birth? Daniel Willingham advises waiting a bit:

First, “from birth” is too early. It’s too early because parents of newborns really do have other, more pressing things to think about such as sleeping, and figuring out how family routines change with the new family member. It’s also too early because a newborn probably is not getting that much out of being read to. Newborn can’t really see much of a book — their vision is 20/500, and they don’t see blues very well until around age 3 months. And babies are much more social at a few months of age. My fear is that parents of newborns will either ignore the advice given their other concerns, or try to follow it, find it unrewarding, and drop it. The American Academy of Pediatrics might do better to direct members to recommend read-alouds beginning when children are to get the set of immunizations delivered at 4 months of age.

The problem I see is this. What are the consequences–for the poor and wealthy alike–of reading to your children primarily in order to boost their academics? Will this be good reading?

Some who didn’t previously read to their kids might follow the advice with gusto. Some might treat it as a chore. “OK, it’s time to read an informational text together. You’ve got to do your vocabulary building.” The kids will hate it.

Willingham sees a way through this: give parents some basic advice on how to read; that will both increase the chances that the parents will follow the advice in the first place, and also make it more enjoyable. He offers a few suggestions from his forthcoming book:

  • Read aloud at the same time each day, to help make it a habit.
  • Read a little slower than you think you need to. Even simple stories are challenging for children.
  • Don’t demand perfect behavior from your child.
  • Use a dramatic voice. Ham it up. Your child is not judging your acting ability.

I would add another: get used to listening to audio recordings of poems and stories. The better your ear for these things, the better you yourself will read aloud.

Willingham also suggests providing books. After suggesting that Scholastic help out, he heard back from Scholastic that it was going to donate 500,000 books. Will they be good books? That remains to be seen.

On its own, the pediatricians’ advice might not do much. But in combination with a few other efforts, it might spur some reading.


[Thanks to Joanne for pointing out Dan Willingham’s piece.]

Is this a good Core lesson?

NPR highlights a “good Common Core lesson” designed for the first day of ninth-grade English.

Students review the day’s standards: citing textual evidence and determining meaning of words in context, and how they contribute to tone.

Then they read a short story, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves. It’s a magical realist coming-of-age tale.

It meets the Core’s call for complexity and contemporaneity (written in 2007), says Kate Gerson, a former teacher and EngageNY research fellow. It also is in the “canon” because author Karen Russell was a Pulitzer finalist. And she’s young and female, checking the diversity box.

The teacher reads a short excerpt aloud. Then students read to themselves, drawing boxes around unfamiliar words and writing definitions on Post-It notes.

Teachers are told to “get out of the students’ way” and let them struggle through on their own. Eventually students will pair up to “tease out the meaning” of words such as “lycanthropic, couth and kempt.”

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, (Gershon) said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

Students finish the day with a “quick write.” They “use evidence from the text to relate the story’s epigraph to its first paragraph.”

Commenter Ajax in Charlotte is unimpressed. “Introducing the state standards and then having kids read silently, circle unfamiliar vocab words, and complete one short answer question is not exactly the most world-shattering, paradigm-shifting lesson plan I have ever seen.”

Doesn’t it sound boring?

“Underlying this lesson is a misunderstanding of intellectual work, writes Diana Senechal. It assumes that “if the teacher is explaining the literature, the students are doing no work.”

Thinking should be the essential work of the classroom. Students can and should look up words at home; in class, they come together to hear the teacher and each other, to pose questions, and to test out ideas. Of course, this can vary: there may well be days when the teacher has students write or work with unfamiliar vocabulary. But it takes discipline and concentration to listen, think, and speak in a whole-class discussion–and the classroom is the best place for such work and leisure.

. . . Can the Common Core really claim to prepare students for college and career when it equates “hard work” exclusively with visible physical activity–such as annotating a text in class? What about the hard work of listening to the teacher and forming a question or challenge?

The lesson also misrepresents teaching, writes Senechal. In the Common Core caricature, “the teacher stood at the front of the room and yakked, while the students passively took in plot points and didn’t learn to read.”

For many years, teachers have been told to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.”

I started ninth-grade English in 1966.  It was a Level 1 class, so everyone read the assignments at home, figured out the new words and came to class ready to discuss the ideas. Our teachers rarely lectured for more than a few minutes, as I recall. (It has been awhile.)  They asked questions and guided class discussions. We did all our writing at home too.

New SAT vacates ‘obscure’ words

A sneak peek at the new SAT, due in 2016, includes sample questions.

After reading part of a 1974 speech by Rep. Barbara Jordan during the Nixon impeachment hearings, test takers must “describe Jordan’s stance and the main rhetorical effect of a part of the passage,” reports AP.

Another sample question asks test takers to calculate what it would cost an American traveling in India to convert dollars to rupees. Another question requires students to use the findings of a political survey to answer questions.

Instead of “obscure words,” the new test will focus on “high utility” words tested in context, reports the New York Times.

For example, a question based on a passage about an artist who “vacated” from a tradition of landscape painting, asks whether it would be better to substitute the word “evacuated,” “departed” or “retired,” or to leave the sentence unchanged. (The right answer is “departed.”)

The new SAT won’t reward students who memorize vocabulary words, reports Time.

Here is an example of a old-style SAT question that students will not be seeing:

There is no doubt that Larry is a genuine ——- : he excels at telling stories that fascinate his listeners.
(A) braggart
(B) dilettante
(C) pilferer
(D) prevaricator
(E) raconteur

Instead, students will be asked to figure out the meaning of a word from the context:

[. . .] The coming decades will likely see more intense clustering of jobs, innovation, and productivity in a smaller number of bigger cities and city-regions. Some regions could end up bloated beyond the capacity of their infrastructure, while others struggle, their promise stymied by inadequate human or other resources.

As used in line 55, “intense” most nearly means
A) emotional.
B) concentrated.
C) brilliant.
D) determined.

Testing words in context penalizes the studious and helps the privileged, responds Ann Althouse. Working-class achievers can “study lists of difficult vocabulary words and tricks about how to figure out the meaning,” but will find it harder to study words in context. The children of educated, articulate parents learn vocabulary through conversation. “The way words appear in context is, for them, deeply ingrained, easy, and natural.”

She wonders if the goal is “to disadvantage the overachieving, drudge-like student.”

Overachieving drudges as in Asian-Americans?

When pre-k is too late

New York City is adding prekindergarten seats to public schools, but pre-k may come too late to change the trajectory of disadvantaged children,writes Ginia Bellafante in a New York Times blog.

Last year, when I was visiting a public school in Sunset Park in Brooklyn for teenagers with boundless difficulties, my host, a poet who teaches at various city schools, mentioned a student who had become pregnant. Hoping to start a library for the child soon to arrive, the poet told the young woman embarking on motherhood that she would like to give her some books — books of the kind her own grandchildren growing up in a very different Brooklyn had by the dozens. The offer was met skeptically. “I already have one,” the girl said.

A young, single mother “who thinks one book is enough” isn’t likely to expand her child’s vocabulary or knowledge of the world through talking, reading or exposition, writes Bellafante. “We should concentrate our energies on helping the most vulnerable parents and children beginning at, or before, birth,” she concludes.

The left is squeamish about telling poor people how to behave, Bellafante concedes. “No one wants to live in a world in which social workers are marching through apartments mandating the use of colorful, laminated place mats emblazoned with pictures of tiny kangaroos and the periodic table.”

But perhaps paternalism can be sold as “compassion,” she concludes.

The Harlem Children’s Zone includes a Baby College, a parenting workshop for expectant parents and those raising a child up to three years old. There’s an intensive preschool program to prepare three- and four-year-olds for kindergarten. It’s not clear the “pipeline” concept is effective enough to justify the costs.