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.

New SAT will be ‘totally awesome’

The New SAT will be “like totally awesome,” dude, predicts Jay P. Greene. No more “bogus vocab words that only brainiacs use in literature, poetry, and other useless stuff.

“The SAT will focus on words that students will use consistently in college and beyond,”  says College Board.

Yeah, like “bong” and “extended unemployment benefits.”

And the new SAT will be all equal and stuff.  It’s no fair when people get an edge cuz they know more things.  We can’t have that.  So the new math test won’t have no pre-calculus stuff that nobody but some foreign kids know how to do anymore.  Don’t we have computers for that stuff?  The new test will just cover “linear equations, functions, and proportions,” man.  Maybe I can get extra points for writing a little note on the math problems about how they make me feel.

And there’s no penalty for guessing anymore.

Here are some new SAT questions, via Cora Frazier in the New Yorker.

1. Reading comprehension. Consider the following passage by a nineteenth-century female writer:

Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed that, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.

How would you title the above passage to generate the most “likes”?

(a) haters make you stronger, God forgives

(b) Hey, friends, I’ve written about some stuff that’s been going on with me lately, which is why I’ve been out of touch and not on social media so much or too responsive to your posts, and it would be really great to get some feedback from you intelligent people on this. A lot on my mind & greatly appreciated (etc.)

(c) 10 Reasons You Are Never Getting Married

(d) Cats Dressed Up Fancy

7. You have one remaining pair of clean underwear, besides the pair you are currently wearing. You have an additional pair of underwear that doesn’t cover your entire butt and says “Thursday.” How many days can you go without doing laundry?

Satire? Yes.

Common Core-ification of the SAT

In The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul, College Board president David Coleman tells the New York Times what the exam will look like in a few years.

Coleman gave me what he said was a simplistic example of the kind of question that might be on this part of the exam. Students would read an excerpt from a 1974 speech by Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas, in which she said the impeachment of Nixon would divide people into two parties. Students would then answer a question like: “What does Jordan mean by the word ‘party’?” and would select from several possible choices. This sort of vocabulary question would replace the more esoteric version on the current SAT. . . . The Barbara Jordan vocabulary question would have a follow-up — “How do you know your answer is correct?” — to which students would respond by identifying lines in the passage that supported their answer.

All this sounds a lot like the emphasis in Common Core standards, which Coleman helped write.

The math section will focus on problem solving and data analysis, linear equations and the “passport to advanced math,” which will test “the student’s familiarity with complex equations and their applications in science and social science.”

The SAT revisions are a  big mistake, writes Peter Wood on Minding the Campus.

David Coleman, head of the College Board, is also the chief architect of the Common Core K-12 State Standards, which are now mired in controversy across the country.  Coleman’s initiative in revising the SAT should be seen first of all as a rescue mission.  As the Common Core flounders, he is throwing it an SAT life preserver.

The exam will be “dumbed down” to serve a “social justice” agenda, writes Susan Berry on Breitbart.

Rick Hess is “unwowed.” It’s supposed to be a more rigorous test, but the vocabulary expectations will be “dumbed down,” Hess writes. 

The College Board announced the new test would put an end to the “tricks” that had made test prep so effective, advantaging students whose families could afford it. . . .  I’d bet that within twelve months, the prep folks will have devised strategies to help coach “close reading” and otherwise adjusted to the new test.

Eliminating the mandatory essay is supposed to promote fairness and test validity, writes Hess. Not so long ago,  the essay was introduced to promote fairness and test validity.

Finally, he worries about “the Common Core’ification of the SAT.”  By revising the SAT to match Common Core standards, College Board risks politicizing the exam  and disadvantages students in non-Core states.

It’s the parents, stupid

Sitting in a waiting area at Penn Station, Robert Pondiscio heard the word “Crimea.”

I look up and see this woman reading a Magic Tree House book to her little boy. In about 90 seconds she mentions Florence Nightingale, Crimea, and Egypt. The word “wound” comes up and the child asks, “What’s a wound?” Mom explains it’s “an injury. Like a cut or a broken bone.”

. . . Educated, affluent parents build language and background knowledge without even knowing they’re doing it.

That kind of parenting is known as “concerted cultivation.” It’s very powerful. Can pre-k close that gap?

We’re on a family vacation with all four kids, spouses, friends and the two grandkids. Yesterday, the 4 1/2-year-old asked her mother for a snack, then said, “Mom, why are you hesitating?”

SAT goes back to 1600

By 2016, the SAT will drop the required essay, bringing a perfect score back to 1600, simplify vocabulary, cover fewer math topics and more closely resemble what students learn in high school, College Board has announced. Students won’t lose quarter points for wrong answers on multiple-choice questions, a policy designed to penalize random guessing.

Khan Academy will provide free test-prep tutorials online, reports the Washington Post.

“It is time for an admissions assessment that makes it clear that the road to success is not last-minute tricks or cramming, but the learning students do over years,” said David Coleman, the College Board’s president.

Students will be able to finish the exam in three hours, if they skip the optional essay section, which will take 50 minutes. (To avoid exhaustion, students can take the SAT II composition test on another day.)

The math section will tighten its focus on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics leading into advanced math. Calculators, now permitted throughout the math section, will be barred in some portions to help gauge math fluency.

The section now called “critical reading” will be merged with multiple-choice writing questions to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Questions known as “sentence completion,” which in part assess vocabulary, will be dropped. Analysis of passages in science, history and social studies will be expanded.

And each version of the test will include a passage from documents crucial to the nation’s founding, or core civic texts from sources such as President Abraham Lincoln or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The vocabulary will focus on “words that are widely used in college and career.” For example, “synthesis” is used in college, said Coleman.

Carol Jago, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, who serves on a College Board advisory panel, said the test revisions would “reward students who take high school seriously, who are real readers, who write well.” She said she was loath to drop from the exam a word such as “egalitarian,” which appears in one College Board practice test. But she said: “Maybe we can live without ‘phlegmatic.’ ”

The essay never caught on with college admissions officers, reports the New York Times.  Writing quickly, with no time for research or revision, isn’t a college skill.  

The new SAT will be more like the ACT, which has been attracting more students. However, the ACT includes a science section, while the SAT will have only a science reading passage.

“Obscure” words give us powers of description, clarity and insight, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper. “Words enable us to explain, and an infinitely complex world requires an expansive vocabulary so we can be clear and precise.”

Core math demands more English

Under Common Core standards, math will require more English fluency, writes Pat Wingert on the Hechinger Report.

At Laurel Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, 90 percent of students get a subsidized lunch and 60 percent aren’t yet fluent in English. Yet 83 percent scored at proficient or higher on a recent state language-arts exam, and 91 percent scored that high on the math test.

Laurel Street kids can excel in math while still learning to read and speak English, said fourth-grade math teacher Angel Chavarin. This year, teachers worry the new standards require more sophisticated vocabularies.

“The language demands of the Common Core are enormous,” said Ben Sanders of the California Office to Reform Education. “This is absolutely going to be a big challenge to English learners.”

Common Core emphasizes complex word problems and requires students to explain in writing how they solved the problem, writes Wingert.

Third-grade teacher Alejandra Monroy, who was born in Chile, started a lesson on “repeated addition” with a vocabulary lesson.

“There are very important words you need to know,” she told her class. “If you’re doing a multiplication problem — 3 x 4 = 12 — the numbers `3’ and ‘4’ are the FACTORS and the ‘12’ is the PRODUCT. All the numbers and symbols together—3 x 4 =12—is a “MULTIPLICATION SENTENCE.”

“What is this?” Monroy asked, pointing to the equation.

“A multiplication sentence,” the class echoed back.

Next, Monroy stressed that repeated addition involves “patterns,” in this case, 4+4+4 = 12

We need to know that a pattern is a regular or repeated sequence,” she said. “A pattern can be something like red/blue/red/blue, right? A sequence that repeats. When you count by skipping numbers—2-4-6—you’re doing a PATTERN.”

Laurel Street’s district uses a structured curriculum adapted from Singapore Math by a local teacher.

 To determine if the changes they’re making are on the right track, Laurel Street teachers monitor their kids’ performance in class and on weekly assessments that grade-level teams create together. Each student’s score is then added to a spreadsheet and scrutinized by the principal, all the teachers and even parents and students.

If one class gets better scores than the others, teachers don’t hesitate to compare notes and incorporate the most effective strategies into their own lesson plans, said fifth-grade teacher Rebecca Harris. It’s about collaboration, not competition, she said. “We learn from each other.”

“We do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t work,” says Principal Frank Lozier.

Closing the ‘word gap’

Providence Talks hopes to close the “word gap” between rich and poor, reports NPR. The project is funded by a $5 million, three-year grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Providence will distribute small recording devices — essentially word pedometers — that tuck into the vest of a child’s clothing. These will automatically record and calculate the number of words spoken and the number of times a parent and child quickly ask and answer each other’s questions.

The LENA Foundation in Colorado developed the device, which makes it easy to track verbal interactions. Parents will get coaching in how develop their children’s language skills.

The children of low-income, less-educated parents may be six months behind in language development by the age of two, a Stanford study estimates. By the time they start kindergarten at 5, they score more than two years behind.

The Providence experiment was inspired by Three Million Words in Chicago, another gap-closing effort.

Aneisha Newell says that program taught her to talk to her young daughter in new ways. She says she never realized bath time — with colors and shapes of bubbles and toys to describe — could be a teachable moment. She ended up breaking the program’s record for the most words spoken.

And then there was the moment her daughter — not yet 3 years old — used the word ‘ridiculous’ correctly.

University of Chicago Professor Dana Suskind, who started 30 Million Words, said sitting in front of the TV doesn’t develop language. It takes interaction between the caregiver and the child.

“We can’t just have people saying 30 million times ‘stop it!’ It’s got to be much more,” she says.

The parent should “tune in” to what the child is looking at, talk about it and ask questions that can create a sort of “serve and return” between parent and child.

In Chicago, adults and children spoke and interacted more after receiving feedback from the LENA recordings and home visits, reports The Atlantic. Suskind is advising Providence Talks.

“Close the word gap, advocates say, and you might close the achievement gap and maybe even disrupt the cycle of poverty,” concludes The Atlantic. 

I like the idea of working directly with parents rather than trying to create preschools to do — a few hours a day — what parents aren’t doing at home. I’d make videos modeling parent-child conversations — and throw in a little coaching on how to get a child to “use your words.”