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.

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.” )

Don’t write vexatiously, she moaned

When I was in high school, Mr. G, the head of the English department, popped in to class one day to tell us not to use “interesting” in our writing. It’s too vague, he said. Use “specific” language to show the reader why something is interesting.

He also said to use “said” in quotations rather than distracting synonyms. Someone asked about variety. He said readers should pay attention to what’s said, not how it was said.

On my own, I read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. “Avoid fancy words,” it advises. “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

Now, in hopes of encouraging livelier writing, English teachers are banning words such as “good,” “bad,” “fun” and “said,” reports James Hagerty in the Wall Street Journal.

“We call them dead words,” said (or declared) Leilen Shelton, a middle school teacher in Costa Mesa, Calif. She and many others strive to purge pupils’ compositions of words deemed vague or dull.

. . . Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, ” ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

The Powell River Board of Education in British Columbia lists 397 alternatives to “said” on its site, writes Hagerty. They include “emitted,” “beseeched,” “continued,” “sniveled,” and “spewed.”

One student, banned from using “big,” substituted “anti-microscopic,” reports the Journal.

Asked to edit famous authors, sixth-grader Josie Dougherty modified the famous closing words of James Joyce’s Ulysses: “….yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Josie suggested: “…yes I hollered yes I will Definitely.”

Josie and brother Josh, a ninth grader, tackled Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Hemingway refers to cars “going very fast.”

Josie wrote “going at a superior speed,” while Josh chose “lightning speeds.”

The kids told the reporter they were miffed that writers get to violate the “dead words” rules, just because they’re dead themselves.

Are Some English Teachers Encouraging Bad Writing? asks Anthony Rebora on Ed Week‘s Teaching Now.

Affirmative!

Test prep for 5-year-olds

Test-prep-for-5-year-olds-is-a-real-thing, writes Phyllis Doerr, a New Jersey kindergarten teacher, in the Washington Post‘s Answer Sheet.

For the vocabulary test, the teachers says a word from the “nursery rhyme” unit, then reads a sentence with the word.  If word is used correctly and the sentence makes sense, students are supposed to circle a smiley face. If the word is used incorrectly, they should circle a frown.

“This task requires abstract thinking, a skill that kindergartners have not yet developed,” writes Doerr.

The practice started with “market” from from the nursery rhyme “To Market, To Market.” “Who can tell me what a market is?” she asked.

One boy answered, “I like oranges.”

“Okay, Luke is on the right track. Who can add to that?”

. . . Another student chimed in: “We can get oranges and apples and lots of other types of food at the market.” “Excellent! Everyone understands market?” A few nodded.

. . . Next, I read the sentence: “‘I like to play basketball at the market.’ Now, does that sentence make sense?”

Students — those paying attention –nodded their heads.

“Girls and boys, look at me and listen,” I said. ” I want you to really think about this. Would you go to a market and play basketball?” At this point everyone seemed to wake up. Finally! I was getting somewhere! “YES!” they cried out in unison.

Of course! It would be a total blast to play basketball in the market!

Teaching vocabulary is valuable, but testing is meaningless and wastes time, concludes Doerr.

Is it so difficult for five-year-olds to understand whether a sentence makes sense? Does a no-stakes vocabulary test have to be stressful?

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.

Nimbi: Mysterious, ephemeral and on the test

New York’s Core-aligned tests are too hard, teachers are complaining.

One version of the sixth-grade test asked students to answer questions based on a Smithsonian article, Nimbus Clouds: Mysterious, Ephemeral and Now Indoors, on a Dutch artist who creates and photographs indoor clouds.

Berndnaut Smilde’s favorite picture uses the architecture of the D’Aspremont-Lynden Castle in Rekem, Belgium. “The contrast between the original castle and its former use as a military hospital and mental institution is still visible” the artist writes. “You could say the spaces function as a plinth for the work.”

Nimbus D’Aspremont. © Berndnaut Smilde.

Others complained of a sixth-grade passage from That Spot by Jack London, which included “beaten curs,” “absconders of justice,” surmise, “savve our cabin,” and “let’s maroon him,” writes Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post column.

One version of the eighth-grade test required 13-year-olds to read a New York Times‘ story, Can a playground be too safe?  with vocabulary such as “bowdlerized, habituation techniques, counterintuitive, orthodoxy, circuitous, risk averse culture, and litigious,” writes Strauss.

The story quotes a journal article by Norwegian scientists on why kids love risky play:

Paradoxically, we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.

Without seeing the questions, it’s hard to tell whether the test is unreasonably difficult. Is it possible to infer meaning from context? Or to ignore the “hard words” and still get the meaning?

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.