Educating Hispanic students

How Can Schools Best Educate Hispanic Students? On Education Next, Harvard Education Professor Nonie Lesaux calls for teaching higher-order literacy skills, while Juan Rangel, president of Chicago’s UNO Charter School Network, stresses civic responsibility and good citizenship.

It’s not enough to teach basic conversational and reading skills, writes Lesaux. Students learning English — and their classmates — need to be “in strong and supportive language- and content-rich classrooms” that build academic vocabulary and knowledge.

Schools have done a good job teaching most students the basic skills necessary to be proficient readers in the early grades, decoding and comprehending the conversational language that conveys ideas and topics in beginner books.

But in higher grades, many Hispanic students don’t have the vocabulary and knowledge to comprehend the “academic language of print,” learn academic concepts and “generate ideas and questions,” Lesaux writes.

Immigrants are chasing the American dream, but public schools no longer teach them how to become Americans, Rangel writes. “A quality public school that emphasizes civic responsibility and good citizenship” will . . .  ”transition immigrant families into the American way of life, into making American values, culture, norms, and language their own.”

Schools in the UNO network are 95 percent Hispanic in enrollment and 93 percent low-income, but are “classic American schools,” writes Rangel. Instead of special programs, immigrant students — and others — need  ”a great teacher, a core curriculum, a disciplined school culture, and strong accountability.” UNO uses Structured English Language Immersion for its students rather than bilingual classes and offers a longer school day and year.

 

P.E. goes academic

Gym Class Isn’t Just Fun and Games Anymore, reports the New York Times. In addition to teaching health and fitness, P.E. teachers are trying to add reading, ‘riting and rithmetic to their classes.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On a recent afternoon, the third graders in Sharon Patelsky’s class reviewed words like “acronym,” “clockwise” and “descending,” as well as math concepts like greater than, less than and place values.

During gym class.

Ms. Patelsky, the physical education teacher at Everglades Elementary School here, instructed the students to count by fours as they touched their elbows to their knees during a warm-up. They added up dots on pairs of dice before sprinting to round mats imprinted with mathematical symbols. And while in push-up position, they balanced on one arm and used the other (“Alternate!” Ms. Patelsky urged. “That’s one of your vocabulary words”) to stack oversize Lego blocks in columns labeled “ones,” “tens” and “hundreds.”

P.E. teachers worry their jobs will be cut if they’re not seen as critical to a school’s core mission — and test scores, a Palm Beach County administrator tells the Times.

Across the country, P.E. teachers now post vocabulary lists on gym walls, ask students to test Newton’s Laws of Motion as they toss balls, and give quizzes on parts of the skeleton or food groups.

At Deep Creek Elementary School in Chesapeake, Va., children count in different languages during warm-up exercises and hop on letter mats to spell out words during gym class.

The District of Columbia has added 50 questions about health and physical education to its end-of-year standardized tests.

More academics can mean less exercise.

In Kristina Rodgers’s gym class at Indian Pines Elementary School in Lake Worth, Fla., students spent as much time pondering pictures of broccoli and blocks of cheese to stick into pockets on a food chart as they did hopping or running.

Taking the “physical” out of physical education won’t help all those boys getting antsy in class. Kids need time to move.

From ‘cat’ to ‘platypus’

Students who start kindergarten with small vocabularies don’t learn many words in school,  according to new studies. Students from low-income families were the least likely to be taught challenging words.

Few kindergarten teachers provide formal, structured lessons on vocabulary, researchers found. Some teachers discussed only two words a day and others as many as 20.  Most words were chosen from stories teachers read aloud, which means ”

they had little connection to other words being taught at the same time.”

“Essentially, what we found was a very haphazard approach to vocabulary instruction,” (University of Michigan Professor Susan) Neuman said.”The ‘challenging’ vocabulary choices were not based on frequency, not based on the supporting academic words children need to know like ‘during’ and ‘after,’ not content-rich words, like ‘predict.’ Why would you choose to emphasize the word ‘platypus’? It makes no sense.”

Reading materials developed in the early 1990s focused on phonics, so kids read about fat cats who sat on mats. Now the stress is on teaching more hard words, says Timothy Shanahan, director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“If the next story has a platypus in it, that’s a hard word; we might as well teach it. … We’ve managed to get publishers off ‘cat,’ but they’ve swung over to ‘platypus.’ “

A wealth of words

Vocabulary is (academic and economic) destiny, writes Core Knowledge founder E. D. Hirsch, Jr. in City Journal.  Teaching “a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts” enables students to build a large vocabulary, while “acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.”

Countries that use a “coherent, content-based curriculum to teach language” show the highest verbal achievement and narrow the gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children, Hirsch argues. Korea, Finland, Japan and Canada combine excellence with equity.

In those countries’ classrooms, opportunities for a student to make correct meaning-guesses and build vocabulary occur frequently because the schools follow definite content standards that build knowledge grade by grade, thus offering constant opportunities to learn new words in contexts that have been made familiar.

France slipped on the equity index when its elementary schools abandoned a specific sequential curriculum to follow the American roll-your-own model, Hirsch writes. But French preschools remain excellent.

Nearly every child in France attends a free public preschool—an école maternelle—and some attend for three years, starting at age two. The preschools are academically oriented from the start. Each grade has a set curriculum and definite academic goals, and the teachers, selected from a pool of highly qualified applicants, have been carefully trained.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the French conducted an experiment with 2,000 students to determine whether sending children to preschool at age two was worth the public expense. The results were remarkable. After seven years of elementary school, disadvantaged students who had started preschool at age two had fully caught up with their more advantaged peers, while those who had started at three didn’t do quite as well, and those who had started at four trailed still further behind. A good preschool, it turned out, had highly egalitarian effects.

U.S. schools have adopted “how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge,” writes Hirsch. “These tools typically include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself flexibly to the world of the unknowable future.”

 In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.” These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary. The increasingly desperate pursuit of this empty, formalistic misconception of reading explains why our schools’ intense focus on reading skills has produced students who, by grade 12, can’t read well enough to flourish at college or take a good job.

Hirsch recommends French-style preschools, classroom instruction based on immersing students in a field of knowledge and “a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool.” He hopes Common Core State Standards for language arts will move U.S. schools in this direction.

From Core Knowledge to civics

After five years writing the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio is moving on. He’ll help “launch a new organization to advocate for civic education, to renew and revitalize the civic purpose of education.”

He says some guy named E.D. Hirsch will take over the blog for now.

Pondiscio will remain focused on “the content of our children’s education–what teachers teach and children learn.”

With the advent of Common Core State Standards, much of the energy around school improvement is now squarely focused where it belongs: inside the classroom.  Does this mean K-12 education is now safe for content?  That curriculum is the most favored reform lever?  Not hardly.  CCSS implicitly rescues literacy from its status as a content-free, skills-driven intellectual wasteland, but questionable, ineffective literacy practices are the seven-headed Hydra of Greek mythology—cut off one head and two more grow in its place.

I choose to be optimistic.  The essential point made by E.D. Hirsch for nearly 30 years – literacy is a function of background knowledge – is settled science. For the first time in the reform era, American education is having a deep and fruitful conversation about what gets taught.  The understanding that the more kids know across knowledge domains, the more likely they are to read, write, listen and speak with comprehension and confidence, is enshrined in the Common Core ELA standards.

But the fight “will never be over,” he writes. “Education has a peculiar talent for endlessly re-litigating disputes, regardless of the weight of evidence, and relabeling old ideas as new and innovative.”

Also on the CK Blog, check out Jessica Lahey’s Epistle to the Romans on teaching Latin.

Latin students learn more, Lahey writes. But the best part “lies in the evolution of our language, the stories revealed through etymology, the history of our culture articulated through the words we preserve and the words we discard.”

 As Robert’s post points out, a big vocabulary does not come from sheer memorization. Anyone who has ever been subjected to an 11th-hour SAT prep course knows that. It comes from a deeper understanding of word origins and repeated exposure to novel words through reading. If I know that the Latin acer means “sharp,” I can deduce that “acid” has a sharp taste, an “acute” angle is sharp, “acrid” is a sharp smell, and an “acerbic” person has a sharp wit.

I am all for the memorization of vocabulary; in fact, my school teaches vocabulary using a lovely series called Vocabulary fromClassical Roots and my students memorize their share of vocabulary lists. However, if we want our students to achieve true depth and breadth of vocabulary, it’s worth spending some time among the Romans. A working knowledge of Latin is worth more than the weight of its word roots. It is an exercise in reverse-engineering our own language in order to understand how all the parts fit together to create a whole.

I learned Greek and Latin roots in a seventh-grade class called Vocabulary Reading. Etymology really is fun.

Vocabulary is destiny

Words are the new black,” writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. “With Common Core State Standards emphasizing the importance of academic vocabulary and the release of new NAEP results raising awareness that vocabulary mirrors reading comprehension levels (no surprise to readers of this blog) vocabulary is hot.”

“Students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens,” writes Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch in a   Wall Street Journal op-ed. Content provides the context that drives vocabulary growth, writes Hirsch.

“If a child reads that ‘annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,’ he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.”

Children don’t build vocabulary by memorizing word lists, writes Pondiscio. They need to be “exposed to increasingly complex words in context.” It takes time.

This is the reason we want kids to read or be read to a lot.  It exposes them to rich language; it’s not about practicing the “skill” of reading, which is not a skill at all. Even the simplest texts tend to have more rare and unique words than even the richest spoken language (the language of children’s books is more linguistically rich and complex than the conversation of even college graduates).  And this is why we want kids to learn a lot across a wide range of range of subjects:  the broader your knowledge base, the more likely you are to be able to contextualize and understand new words, as in Hirsch’s Egypt example above.  Knowledge acts as a mental dragnet.  The wider and stronger your net, the more vocabulary gets scooped up.  More content equals more context equals more fertile ground for vocabulary growth to occur.

A student’s vocabulary size in grade 12 correlates strongly with “the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income,”  Hirsch writes in an upcoming City Journal article. Vocabulary is destiny.

Common Core State Standards cannot mandate but strongly recommend “a coherent, content-rich curriculum, writes Pondiscio. Content knowledge gives students a context for what they read, which enables them to learn new vocabulary.

Here’s a letter from a former inner-city high school teacher, who says his students “could not read anything, because nearly every sentence had at least one word they had never seen before.” And they didn’t have the background knowledge to figure out what unfamiliar words meant.

 

Shakespeare’s words

A professor explains why Shakespeare is great in a chapter of a novel on WitNit. It starts with a student’s question:

“Shakespeare represents the view of the classic white-male eurocentric patriarchy, one that’s hundreds of years old, in a dated vocabulary that’s hard to understand. What’s his relevance today? I mean, what could Shakespeare possibly have to say to me, a Black-Hispanic lesbian?”

The professor gets “Mzzzz Powers” to admit that it’s useful to be able to distinguish between a “chair” and a “stool.” It’s better to have a larger vocabulary than a smaller vocabulary.

Mzzz Powers, suppose you and I walked into a garden, and while I was a novice in gardening, you were an expert gardener who had a command of the technical language and knowledge of botany and gardening. Would our experience of a particular garden be any different?”

. . . “We would not be seeing the same garden at all. I would merely see pretty flowers, maybe some trees and grass. I may be able to tell the difference between a rose and a tulip, but that is all. I would see the mere surface of the garden. It’s mere appearance. But you, Mzzz Powers…You would see an entirely different garden. You would be able to penetrate its depths. You would be able to recognize not only the different flowers?the carnations and snap dragons and pansies and hyacinths and lilies?you would also recognize the relative health of each of those flowers. You would recognize any pests or diseased plants. You would be able to spot where each plant and flower was in its life cycle. By their arrangement and care, you would know their past. In some cases, whether or not they were recently planted. You would know how much the person who tends the garden knows about his or her occupation. You would also know the difference between annuals and perennials. And this knowledge would allow you to see not only the present garden, but the future of that garden.

. . .  a true and rich vocabulary opens one to higher levels of perceptual and conceptual awareness. A specific vocabulary rewards you with a greater awareness, and the possibility of a deep causal awareness. The ability to distinguish true causes and their array of effects. And, were you so inclined, you would naturally begin seeing the world in terms of the garden. You would begin constructing metaphors and similes, perhaps even analogies, connecting life to that garden through an array of subtle similarities.”

The average person has a vocabulary of 3,000 words, the professor says. The King James Bible uses 4,300 words. John Milton “was a genius who mastered and crafted meaning out of a vocabulary of almost eight thousand words, more than almost all living writers.”  Then there’s Shakespeare.

When a gardener reads Shakespeare, she says that Shakespeare must have been a gardener, because he not only displays the technical terminology of botany and gardening and herbology, he demonstrates the kind of knowledge that comes from working in or studying closely a sophisticated English garden. When a lawyer reads Shakespeare, she tells us that Shakespeare must have had a legal education because he not only displays an astonishing range and accuracy with his use of legal terms, be he also commands an understanding of the history and philosophy of law. And you can point to other professions: actor, soldier, physician, courtier, historian, politician.”

. . .  ”In his plays, he explores the range and depth of human emotions and experience. He explores love, but not just the young romantic love of Romeo and Juliet. He explores love between siblings, and parent and child, and comrades in arms, young love, middle-aged love, old love. Love between the low and the low, the low and the high, the high and the high, false love, true love, jaded love, betrayed love, self-love, love of good and love of indulgence. Like turning a diamond in the light, he explores every facet of love and hate and envy and greed and lust and jealousy and innocence and sweetness and revenge, and a hundred subtle emotional and intellectual states . . .

Shakespeare uses a vocabulary of more than 22,000 words, says the professor.  ”And you wonder why you find reading him challenging, and you dare to wonder if Shakespeare has anything to teach you?”

NAEP: Vocabulary gap is wide

A wide vocabulary gap separates low-income and middle-class students (and blacks and Hispanics from whites and Asians), according to a National Assessment of Educational Progress report. Vocabulary is closely linked to reading comprehension.

The word “permeated” was a trouble spot for a lot of 8th graders, with nearly half failing to correctly identify its meaning in a nostalgic passage about eating a “mint snowball” at a small-town drugstore. And “puzzled” was apparently puzzling for 49 percent of 4th graders, who misidentified its meaning in a passage from the story “Ducklings Come Home to Boston.”

Fewer than half of fourth-grade readers recognized “barren,” “detected,” “eerie,” “flourish” or “prestigious” when used in a reading passage.

The sample questions include this one aimed at eighth graders:

On page 1, the author says that her great-grandfather concocted something on the stove. This means that he

A. mixed things together in a new way
B. cooked ingredients at a high heat
C. kept his cooking methods secret
D. preferred to work in the kitchen

Between half and three quarters of students knew the meaning of “concocted.”

“Urbane” stumped most students in eighth and 12th grade. Most 12th graders also didn’t know the meaning of “delusion.”

Viscous?

Every student had a container with an unknown liquid and a chart listing various characteristics: bubbly? foamy? translucent? transparent? viscous? The teacher tried to walk the first graders through the science lesson.

I picked up the girl I’m tutoring, who can read “Sim hit the big fig” — with help on the Sim/Sam issue — but doesn’t know what a fig is. I said it was a purple fruit, but didn’t discuss its viscosity.

When I was in first grade, I learned to distinguish a maple leaf from an oak leaf. That was pretty much the whole science curriculum until we hit fifth grade, which featured the duck-billed platypus.

Old school: Teach word roots, math facts and …

Kids Should Learn Cursive (and Math Facts, and Word Roots), writes Annie Murphy Paul in Time. New researchsupports the effectiveness of “old school” methods such as “memorizing math facts, reading aloud, practicing handwriting, and teaching argumentation,” she writes.

Suzanne Kail, an English teacher at an Ohio high school was required to teach Latin and Greek word roots, she writes in English Journal, though she abhorred “rote memorization.”

Students learned that “sta” means “put in place or stand,” as in “statue” or “station.”  They learned that “cess” means “to move or withdraw,” which let them understand “recess.”

Her three classes competed against each other to come up with the longest list of words derived from the roots they were learning. Kail’s students started using these terms in their writing, and many of them told her that their study of word roots helped them answer questions on the SAT and on Ohio’s state graduation exam. (Research confirms that instruction in word roots allows students to learn new vocabulary and figure out the meaning of words in context more easily.)

For her part, Kail reports that she no longer sees rote memorization as “inherently evil.” Although committing the word roots to memory was a necessary first step, she notes, “the key was taking that old-school method and encouraging students to use their knowledge to practice higher-level thinking skills.”

I learned Latin and Greek word roots in seventh grade. It was lots of fun.

Drilling math facts, like the multiplication table, “is a prerequisite for doing more complex, and more interesting, kinds of math,” Paul writes.

Other valuable old-school skills:

 Handwriting. Research shows that forming letters by hand, as opposed to typing them into a computer, not only helps young children develop their fine motor skills but also improves their ability to recognize letters — a capacity that, in turn, predicts reading ability at age five. . . .

Argumentation. In a public sphere filled with vehemently expressed opinion, the ability to make a reasoned argument is more important than ever. . . .

Reading aloud. Many studies have shown that when students are read to frequently by a teacher, their vocabulary and their grasp of syntax and sentence structure improves.

I’d add memorizing and reciting poetry as a valuable old-school skill. What are some others?