Underneath the word gap

A child’s limited vocabulary reflects limited knowledge about the world, writes Esther Quintero on the Shanker Blog.

Children raised in welfare families learn far fewer words by the start of kindergarten than working-class or middle-class children, research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley showed.

Teaching vocabulary alone isn’t enough, writes Quintero. “We must focus on teaching children about a wide range of interesting ‘stuff’.”  In The Word Gap, Quintero looks at how to expand children’s vocabularies and general knowledge.

Here’s her animation on why words are the tip of the iceberg and what lies underneath.

Pre-K won’t close achievement gap

Universal pre-K won’t solve the vocabulary gap (or inequality), writes Kay Hymowitz in Time. There’s no substitute for stable, nurturing families.

Two-year-olds from high-income families know many more words than two-year-olds from low-income families, according to a new study that confirms earlier research. Language Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K, reported the New York Times on the front page.

The idea that pre-K can compensate for family break down is “the preschool fairy tale,” writes Hymowitz.

It’s true that good preschools raise the math and reading scores of disadvantaged kids. The problem is that the gains are almost always temporary.  Study after study of every kind of program since Head Start first came on line in the 1960’s to recent state wide programs in Georgia and Oklahoma has concluded that, with the lonely exception of third grade boys’ math scores in Tulsa, cognitive gains “fade out” by third grade, probably because subpar schools and an unsupportive environment at home were unable to help pre-K kids take advantage of those gain.

Researchers now argue that preschool has the potential to create lasting benefits in students’ “soft skills” such as  attentiveness and self-control.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, one of early childhood education’s most prominent advocates, has argued that because soft skills are vital to labor market and life success, under some conditions preschools have actually been able to reduce welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, and crime rates, while also improving educational outcomes and earnings. At least one study has estimated that the resulting higher tax revenues, lower imprisonment and welfare costs have created a return of nearly 13 dollars for every preschool dollar spent.

. . . Heckman’s findings are based on several small, model programs from the 1960’s. The most famous and influential of them, the Perry Preschool in Ypsalanti, Michigan, involved only 58 children.  It takes a heavy dose of wishful thinking to assume that states are any more capable of creating a large system of Perry quality preschools than they have been of designing networks of high quality K-12 schools.

Even if that were possible, it would close the achievement gap, she writes. Perry graduates did better than the control group, but much worse than children from middle or working-class families.  And “these mediocre gains were not passed on to the next generation.”

The first two children of Perry grads (there’s no data on later siblings) were just as likely as the children of non Perry-ites to go on welfare, drop out of school, and to get arrested; their earnings were also similarly anemic.

In other words, the graduates of the best preschool designed for low income kids we’ve ever had in the United States  grew up to become low skilled, low income single parents, less costly to society than others without their early educational advantage, but equally likely to raise children who would cycle back into poverty.

“It’s parents, not formal education, that makes the difference for young children’s readiness for school and success once they get there,” Hymowitz concludes.

If Mama ain’t functional, ain’t nobody functional.

Poor kids, good teachers

Teachers can make a difference for low-income students, writes Eric Jensen in Ed Week.

Jensen, the author of Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, just finished a study of 12 high-poverty schools. Half scored in the top quartile in their state; the other half were in the lowest quartile. The demographics were the same for the high and low performers. The values were similar.

When I offered statements such as, “I believe in my kids,” both school staffs said, “I strongly agree.” So, what was different?

It’s not poverty that makes the difference; it was the teachers. The difference was that the high-performing teachers actually “walked the walk.” First, the classroom and school climate was MUCH better at the high-performers. Secondly, the teachers at the high-performing schools didn’t complain about kids not “being smart” or being unmotivated. They made it a priority and built engagement, learning, thinking and memory skills every day. In short, they didn’t make excuses; they just rolled up their sleeves and built better student brains.

His list of “what we have learned (so far) to boost student achievement in high-poverty schools” includes:

High expectations are not enough. Help students set crazy high goals, and then actively point out to them how their daily actions connect to their long-term goals.

The most important cognitive skills to build are: 1) reasoning, 2) working memory, and 3) vocabulary usage.

Increase feedback on the learning and zero it in on the specifics of effort used, strategies applied or attitude engaged.

A positive attitude is “priceless,” if it leads to action, Jensen adds. If it doesn’t, it’s “useless.”

Too much homework?

Doing his middle-school daughter’s homework for a week was exhausting, Karl Taro Greenfeld writes in The Atlantic. Most nights it took thee hours. His daughter, who attends a “lab” school for gifted students, is becoming “a sleep-deprived teen zombie,” he complains.

Well-educated parents lead the complaints about too much homework, responds Robert Pondiscio. Their kids probably would do just fine with “a humane 30 to 60 minutes a night”  of homework. Poor Students Need Homework, however, if they are to have any chance to succeed in school.

For the low-income kids of color that I have worked with, thoughtful, well-crafted homework, especially in reading, remains an essential gap-closing tool.

The homework debate should focus on what kind of homework is assigned for what purpose, Pondiscio writes. Quantity is less important than quality.

Using homework merely to cover material there was no time for in class is less helpful, for example, than “distributed practice”: reinforcing and reviewing essential skills and knowledge teachers want students to perfect or keep in long-term memory.  Independent reading is also important.  There are many more rare and unique words even in relatively simple texts than in the conversation of college graduates.  Reading widely and with stamina is an important way to build verbal proficiency and background knowledge, important keys to mature reading comprehension.  And all of this is far more important for disadvantaged kids than for Greenfeld’s children, already big winners in the Cognitive Dream House Sweepstakes.

How much homework do kids actually do?  Six percent of students say they spend more than three hours a night on homework, according to a 2007 Metlife study. Fifty-five percent spent less than one hour a night.[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]

Metlife Survey of the American Teacher

Blacks say they spend 6.3 hours a week on homework, Latinos report 6.4 and whites 6.8 hours. Asians average 10.3 hours.

Learning with dinosaurs

Cover edit 3What are the best educational videos available for streaming? Mike Petrilli is making a list.

He’s been watching a BBC series, Walking with Dinosaurs with his sons, who are 5 and 3. Thanks to the series (narrated by Kenneth Branagh!), the five-year-old “has a rudimentary understanding of evolution (paving the way for many scientific and theological conversations in the years ahead) and has absorbed key vocabulary to boot (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, Cretaceous, Jurassic, etc.).”

A five-year-old’s curiosity knows no bounds, Petrilli writes.

As E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has argued for a quarter-century, the early elementary years are the ideal time to introduce children to the wonders of history (natural and otherwise), geography, literature, art, music, and more.

By providing a solid grounding in the core domains of human civilization, we are providing two wonderful gifts for our children: A store of knowledge that will help them better understand the complexities of our universe as they grow older; and a rich vocabulary that will make them strong, confident readers in these early, formative years.

Petrilli hopes to identify the best streaming videos available to teach core content to early elementary-school children.

Will 1st graders be lost in the ziggurat?

New York’s first-grade curriculum module on Early World Civilizations is troubling Chris Cerrone of Schools Matter @the Chalk Face. The vocabulary includes priests, religion, ziggurat, caravan, chariots, pyramid, archaeologist, hieroglyphs, sarcophagus, afterlife, prophet, etc.

Nearly all the Chalk Face commenters believe the unit is not “developmentally appropriate” for first graders, writes Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist. Some cited Piaget’s stages of development, arguing little kids can’t learn abstract ideas. Others cited their experience teaching first grade.

Willingham doesn’t think much of Piaget’s theories. And the experience argument cuts both ways:

 . . . if we adopt a proof-of-the-pudding-is-in-the-eating criterion, lessons on ancient civilizations are fine because they are in use and children are learning. The material shown above is part of the Core Knowledge sequence, around for more than a decade and used by over a thousand schools. (NB: I’m on the Board of the Core Knowledge Foundation.)

. . . Another curriculum has had first-graders learn about ancient civilizations not for a decade, but for about a century: Montessori. (NB again: my children experienced these lessons at their school, and my wife teaches them–she’s an early elementary Montessori teacher.)

Montessori schools teach the “Five Great Lessons” at the beginning of first, second and third grades on: the history of the universe and earth, the coming of life, the origins of human beings, the history of signs and writing and the story of numbers and mathematics.

“Our understanding of any new concept is always incomplete,” Willingham argues.

For example, how do children learn that some people they hear about (Peter Pan) are made up and never lived, whereas others (the Pharaohs) were real? Not by an inevitable process of neurological maturation that makes their brain “ready” for this information, whereupon  they master it quickly. They learn it bit by bit, in fits and starts, sometimes seeming to get it, other times not.

And you can’t always wait until children are “ready.” Think about mathematics. Children are born understanding numerosity, but they understand it on a logarithmic scale–the difference between five and ten is larger than the difference between 70 and 75. To understand elementary mathematics they must learn to think of numbers of a linear scale. In this case, teachers have to undo Nature. And if you wait until the child is “developmentally ready” to understand numbers this way, you’ll never teach them mathematics. It will never happen.

Developmental psychology  provides some help in thinking about how children learn, Willingham concludes, but isn’t a good guide to what children can learn.

I just spent two days in Disneyland with Julia, 4, and Lily, 2. A major fan of Peter Pan, Julia thinks “fairy dust” enabled us to fly back to northern California. (I suggested the plane had been sprinkled with aerodynamics.) She also watches Little Einsteins, which teaches music terms. On the drive from the airport, she told her grandfather he was driving presto and should instead drive moderato.

An ‘enormity’ is not a ‘travesty’

The 10 Words That You’ve Probably Been Misusing start with “travesty,” which is not a tragedy or unfortunate event, writes Tyler Vendetti on Hello Giggles.  It’s actually a mockery or parody.Cover edit 3

“Enormity” refers to extreme evil, not extreme size, asserts Vendetti.

“Terrific” means “causing terror” rather than awesome or fantastic.

I’d say the meanings of both words have expanded over time to include huge and awesome.

Other frequently misused words are “ironic,” “peruse,” “bemused,”  “compelled,” “nauseous,” “conversate,” and “redundant,” writes Vendetti.

I’ve always had trouble remembering that “bemused” means “confused,” but I solve it by not using it. I can’t say “peruse” shows up much in daily conversation either.  I never use “conversate,” because it’s not a word. “Converse” is.

Writing is thinking

Education Realist is teaching Book Club/PSAT, aka “Asian summer school” to a class of straight-A students. Writing is thinking, she tells them.

 “See, when you say you don’t know what to write, you are actually saying…..”

“I don’t know what to think.”

“Bingo.”

“Crap.”

“Indeed. How many of you google other essays and, please god, don’t copy them directly but take the ideas and rewrite them?” A few hands go up. “Yeah. DON’T DO THAT.”

“But I have no idea what to write.”

“Okay. So when you say you want to become a better writer, you are actually expressing the need to…”

“Become a better thinker?”

Her students want to know what their teacher wants them to say. She tells them to say what what’s on their own minds.

“But what if there’s nothing there?”

“. . .  if you don’t know what to think, then I’d rather you write articulately and carefully about why you don’t know what to think, instead of making something up.”

“And that will help my vocabulary?”

Only, if they learn to think about the meaning of words, she replies.

I agree. Clear writing requires clear thinking.

Uncommon curriculum

Closing the vocabulary gap would help close the opportunity gap, argues Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, a guest on the Bridging Differences blog. Children from low-income families start kindergarten with an enormous vocabulary deficit, he writes. Preschools and elementary schools can build children’s vocabulary by teaching them history, science, art, music, literature and geography.

Yes, to little kids. (You know, the ones who are curious about EVERYTHING. Who can learn a TON just by listening to a good read-aloud story.)

E.D. Hirsch has argued for 30 years that the key to building students’ vocabularies, and thus their ability to read and learn, is content knowledge. Once a child learns to decode, her “comprehension” ability mainly comes down to the store of knowledge she’s got in her head. If she can sound out words but can’t read a passage about dinosaurs, it’s not because she hasn’t been taught “comprehension skills”—it’s probably because she’s never been taught anything about dinosaurs.

Yet our preschools and elementary schools systematically reject this obvious approach because they deem it not “developmentally appropriate.” Furthermore, they say, why teach all those “facts” when kids can just Google them?

High-poverty schools make it worse if they delay teaching social studies and science — usually untested — until fourth or fifth grade to spend more time teaching reading in the early grades. This is “nuts,” writes Petrilli. “Teaching content is teaching reading.”

Building vocabulary doesn’t require a common curriculum, responds Deborah Meier. She’s all for teaching “stuff.” But there are many ways to do that, she writes.

As with our first language we need to rely on building vocabulary by: (1) having a more diverse student body (racial and class integration); (2) having a lot of adults around to interact with and smaller class sizes (like good private schools do); (3) engaging in studies that require collaboration between students and students, and students and adults—including adult-written texts; (4) encouraging reading in settings that are designed to naturally arouse interest—motivate—or that answer questions youngsters really want to know; and (5) remembering that vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and spelling are most efficiently learned the same way we learn everything else that matters.

We learn to drive by driving and to cook by cooking, which means allowing 6- to 12-year-olds to read (and listen to) repetitive and engaging books which do not present too much of a “cognitive” or empathy challenge.

Progressive preschools don’t think knowing facts is “developmentally inappropriate,” Meier writes. But they believe direct instruction isn’t needed to ”

kick in this love of reading, of hobbies, of facts, of curiosity, of indefatigable and repetitive practice in subjects and skills” kids are fascinated by. “Our job is to extend” kids’ curiosity, she concludes. Too often, schools kill it.

Preschool for all — or for the poor?

President Obama wants to spend $75 billion over 10 years on Preschool for All, partnering with states to provide “high-quality” preschool to 4-year-olds from families under 200 percent of the poverty level.

“The path to college begins in preschool,” writes Lisa Hansel on the Core Knowledge Blog. Closing achievement gaps in elementary or middle school is very, very difficult, she writes, citing Chrys Dougherty in ACT’s College and Career Readiness: The Importance of Early Learning.

“Large numbers of disadvantaged students enter kindergarten behind in early reading and mathematics skills, oral language development, vocabulary, and general knowledge,” writes Dougherty.

One study found that kindergarteners’ general knowledge of the world was a better predictor of those students’ eighth-grade reading ability than were early reading skills. This is consistent with research showing that reading comprehension, particularly in the upper grades, depends heavily on students’ vocabulary and background knowledge….

What makes a program high quality? It’s not cheap. Successful preschool programs in Boston and New Jersey hire well-educated teachers and pay them well, reports the Christian Science Monitor.  In addition:

They are full-day programs open to all students of a certain age group, regardless of family income.
They offer curricula linked to system-wide educational standards.
School districts monitor preschool teacher and student improvement on an ongoing basis.

In Boston, preschoolers made significantly greater gains in vocabulary, math and “executive function,” which includes working memory and paying attention to a task. The gains could be seen in third-grade test scores.

New Jersey offers high-quality pre-K in 31 low-income districts. The gains “are still visible in language, math, and science scores in fourth and fifth grades,” reports the Monitor.

“Everyone should applaud programs that are generating big gains for children who desperately need to be ready for school,” said Grover Whitehurst, director of Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy. However, we don’t know what factors lead to success, he says. The federal government should not require preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, for example.

High-quality preschool costs $8,000 a year per child, estimates the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers. The group suppors universal preschool rather than targeting help to disadvantaged students.  

In essence, taxpayers would fund pre-K through 12th grade for all students. (And the most effective programs work better if kids have two years of preschool.) Children who aren’t learning vocabulary, general knowledge or self-control at home can benefit from preschool. Most kids don’t need it.