Thursday, June 24, 2010

Readings: Keeping It In Perspective

I ... followed a golden rule that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views that I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.

Charles Darwin, 1958, quoted in Wiggins and McTighe's "Understanding By Design," 2005 p. 96.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Readings: The Vocabulary Window

University of Chicago psychologist Janellen Huttenlocher has found that the frequency with which normal parents speak to and around their child during the child's second year significantly affects the size of the child's vocabulary for the rest of his or her life. The more words a child hears during this sensitive period, whether it's "cat" or "existentialism," the stronger the basic language connections.

From "A User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain. John J. Ratey, M.D. 2001.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Importance of a Book-Filled Home

During my elementary school years, my bedroom was abutted by two walk-in closets. One of these was filled with clothes and other closet-type things. The other was chock-full of books. Our living room downstairs had bookshelves with perhaps a thousand books, but there was enough overflow that the book closet upstairs was piled high with reading material. I spent countless hours in that room, exploring these compelling, sometimes strange and often inscrutable texts.

It seems that I was predisposed to reading from day one, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that being surrounded as I was by books had a lot to do with my future literacy and might even account for the years I've spent in graduate school.

Salon's Laura Miller writes a compelling survey of recent evidence of the effects of a book-filled home on future literacy development. The impetus for the article was the release of a study by the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility with the following abstract:

Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. It holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and Apartheid; and most strongly in China. Data are from representative national samples in 27 nations, with over 70,000 cases, analyzed using multi-level linear and probit models with multiple imputation of missing data.

If you didn't find something like that compelling, you wouldn't have read this far. And you'll be happy to know that this study is only the latest in a long line of research into the importance of the print climate in a child's home. In "The Read-Aloud Handbook," Jim Trelease devotes an entire chapter to "The Print Climate in the Home, School, and Library." He cites a handful of studies going back to 1983 that connect the number of books in a child's home to that child's motivation to read and future success in school:

Lesley Mandel Morrow, "Home and School Correlates of Early Interest in Literature," Journal of Educational Research, vol. 76, March/April 1983, pp. 221-30.

Susan B. Neuman and Donna Celano, "Access to Print in Low-Income and Middle-Income Communities: An Ecological Study of Four Neighborhoods," Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 1, January/February/March 2001, pp. 8-26.

Susan B. Neuman, Donna Celano, Albert N. Greco, and Pamela Shue, Access for All: Closing the Book Gap for Children in Early Education (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2001).

Nell K. Duke, "For the Rich It's Richer: Print Experiences and Environments Offers to Children in Very Low- and Very High-Socioeconomic Status First-Grade," American Educational Research Journal, vol. 37, no. 2, Summer 2000, pp. 441-78.

That's all for today. But as I've written before, the more I learn about how reading works, the luckier I feel.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Chapter Title and Quotes of the Week

In my endeavor to design a course of study for my test-takers, I cracked open my heretofore pristine copy of "Understanding By Design" by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. It is a compelling -- if a bit intimidating -- text designed to inform the way teachers design curricula and other learning activities.

Chapter 2 is titled, rather awesomely, "Understanding Understanding." And if that isn't enough to draw you in, the authors feature these two quotations as hooks:

"The most characteristic thing about mental life, over and beyond the fact that one apprehends the events of the world around one, is that one constantly goes beyond the information given." Jerome Bruner, Beyond the Information Given, 1957, p. 218

"Education: That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding." Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1881-1906

The first quote will be useful in my current project, as inferential reasoning is one of skills this test purports to assess. Perhaps I will have them use the context clues (another name for inferential reasoning) to figure out the meaning of apprehend.

The second quote, like all of the definitions in The Devil's Dictionary, delights me to no end.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Teaching Students How To Use Context Clues

[Note: I am being vexed by formatting issues in Blogger. Please forgive the sudden font size changes.]

I have switched from teaching 1st graders basic reading skills to working with high school seniors who are trying to pass a reading exam which is required for graduation. Like most such tests, vocabulary questions play a leading role. We all know that one must use context clues to ascertain the meaning of an unfamiliar word, but how often do we think through exactly how that is done?

I recently ran across a line in my copy of Wiggins and McTighe's "Understanding by Design" that resonated with me in regard to how we teach a skill that we perform intuitively, like using context clues. In a different context, the authors write that when we achieve understanding, "something that once required a chain of reasoning to grasp hold of no longer does: We just 'see it.'"

Well, if I am to help my students start "seeing" context, I must first understand the chain of reasoning that lies behind that skill and devise a way to show my students how to apply it. I decided to try and find out if anyone had done this before.

My first impulse was to go to, which I featured in these pages a year ago. The first resource I found is this worksheet contributed by Robert Lucas and designed to make explicit the thought process students should use when confronted with a new word. It isn't exactly what I was looking for, but it might be a useful way to give learners plenty of "at bats" with using context. Here is the simple process Lucas has his students use:

Sentence in the story:
My guess for what this word means:
Why I think my guess makes sense:
What the dictionary says:
Was the guess right or wrong?:

Quite simple, to be sure, but it would help impress upon the students that the sentences containing the "mystery word" often will hold the key to deciphering its meaning. Also, it compels them to explain their rationale for their guess and provides an opportunity for metacognition at the end. All in all, I think it would be a decent way to introduce this strategy.

Unfortunately, that was the only context clue-specific resource yielded by Curriki. I have read about the use of "signal words," which are words that reveal the relationship between different parts of a sentence. Come to think of it, these are basically prepositions or prepositional phrases.

For example, signal words for comparison include also, both, than, too, resembling, akin to, etc. There are also signal words for contrast, definition, and examples.

Update 6/9/10: I posted a request for context clue teaching ideas to my Twitter list and BOTTURArodrigo, an ESL and Reading teacher in Sao Paolo, Brazil, kindly responded. His term "glue words" is a clever rebranding of the "signal words" concept. He says, "I like to use 'the glue is the clue.' [Students] infer the meaning my using words like 'and' or 'but.'"

BONUS QUESTION: What grammatical role does "for example" play in a sentence? Is it a prepositional phrase? Since I am saddled with a degree in the humanities, I have absolutely no idea. English geeks, can you help?

Update 6/9/10: See the comments below for an answer to the bonus question.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Replay: 826 Valencia

[Originally Posted on April 7, 2009]

"What we really need is just more people, more bodies, more one-on-one attention, more hours, more expertise from people that have skills in English and can work with these students one-on-one."

This is what Dave Eggers kept hearing from his friends who were teachers. They could see that their efforts during the school day were not sufficient- they felt like they were fighting a losing battle.

But Eggers, whose novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize, realized his life was full of the kinds of people ("writers, editors, journalists, graduate students, assistant professors") who could help improve the literacy skills of students outside of school hours.

In the TED Talk featured below, Eggers tells the story of 826 Valencia, the tutoring center that arose from this insight. Eggers is not an educator, but he seems to have understood intuitively what educators know about the importance of building community, connecting with families, providing one-on-one attention, creating real products, and bringing together learners with various levels of expertise.

Check out Dave's talk, and let us know what you think!

Further Reading

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Learning To Walk: Update

I'm blogging in fits and starts lately, but it's for a good cause. My Internet was down on Monday and Tuesday, and I've been observing some grade school reading and writing classes. I'm sure next week will bring another outpouring of what I've learned.

I am also still in the process of reading and rereading The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease and Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf.

Back in September, I posted a powerful passage from Johnson and Louis's Literacy Through Literature that likened learning to read to learning to walk. In Proust and the Squid, author Maryanne Wolf includes a quote from Penelope Fitzgerald that reminded me of the Johnson and Louis passage:
Twice in your life you know you are approved of by everyone -- When you learn to walk and when you learn to read.
I am positively obsessed with giving my students the key to that kind of approval. Soon, I will tell you a bit about a sixth grader I'm working with who reads at a second grade level. This student is so sweet and earnest, and has devised ingenious strategies to make up for a lack of reading skill. I am determined to figure out how to help. Stay tuned and I'll tell you how I did it.