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.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why I Love This Job

Yesterday was one of my most frustrating days at our after-school literacy program. Everyone was just a bit more squirrelly than normal, and I might have been a bit too tired. But this note from a 3rd grade student who left the program put me on cloud nine.

I would love to think I actually taught this child how to learn, but I have to remain humble. In all honesty, his parents probably forced him to write it. But I have it hanging up on my wall nonetheless.

Clippings: 1.21.10

New research is shedding light on Broca's area, a center of reading activity in the brain.

Braille is being replaced by technology that many consider far superior.

Grow Up With Books offers Netflix-style children's book rentals.

Researchers in the UK argue that "textisms" such as LOL might bolster phonemic awareness, and thus general reading ability.

Numerous studies are decrying the death of recess in American primary schools.

Babelhut discusses the literacy benefits of learning to cook.

And lists their 100 Best Education Blogs of 2009.

(Illustration by Flickr user Labguest. Thanks!)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Media Use By Young Americans Rises Sharply

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) just published Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds, the third in a series of "large-scale, nationally representative surveys" about how young people use various forms of media. According to KFF, it is "among the largest and most comprehensive publicly available sources of information about media use among American youth." The survey reveals that 8-18 year-olds devote more than seven hours a day to various types of entertainment media, and that much of that time is spent using more than one type of media.

This short documentary produced by KFF provides a glimpse of the study's findings.

An article in the New York Times (If Your Kids Are Awake, They're Probably Online) reports that the study's authors, "who had concluded in 2005 that use could not possibly grow further," were "stunned" by the results.

I would encourage anyone with interest in these matters to read the study or the press release themselves. Below, I will paste some of the findings that caught my eye.

Mobile Media Usage
"over the past five years, there has been a huge increase in ownership [of mobile devices] among 8- to 18-year-olds: from 39% to 66% for cell phones, and from 18% to 76% for iPods and other MP3 players."

"...young people now spend more time listening to music, playing games, and watching TV on their cell phones (a total of :49 daily) than they spend talking on them (:33)."

Media in the Home
"About two-thirds (64%) of young people say the TV is usually on during meals, and just under half (45%) say the TV is left on 'most of the time' in their home..." "Seven in ten (71%) have a TV in their bedroom."

"The amount of time young people spend with media has grown to where it's even more than a full-time work week." -Drew Altman, Ph.D., President and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Effect on Grades
"About half (47%) of heavy media users say they usually get fair or poor grades (mostly Cs or lower), compared to about a quarter (23%) of light users. These differences may or may not be influenced by their media use patterns."

Types of Media Consumption
"Time spent with every medium other than movies and print increased over the past five years: :47 a day increase for music/audio, :38 for TV content, :27 for computers, and :24 for video games. TV remains the dominant type of media content consumed, at 4:29 a day, followed by music/audio at 2:31, computers at 1:29, video games at 1:13, print at :38, and movies at :25 a day."

"Over the past 5 years, time spent reading books remained steady at about :25 a day, but time with magazines and newspapers dropped (from :14 to :09 for magazines, and from :06 to :03 for newspapers). The proportion of young people who read a newspaper in a typical day dropped from 42% in 1999 to 23% in 2009. On the other hand, young people now spend an average of :02 a day reading magazines or newspapers online"

"7th-12th graders report spending an average of 1:35 a day sending or receiving texts. (Time spent texting is not counted as media use in this study.)"

"practically every waking minute -except for time in school - using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device..."

I am sure I'll write more about this as I get deeper into the study, but for now I'll leave you with a quote from the above-mentioned New York Times article:

Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston who directs the Center on Media and Child Health, said that with media use so ubiquitous, it was time to stop arguing over whether it was good or bad and accept it as part of children’s environment, “like the air they breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

James Geary: The Power of Metaphor

Why did so many people take out mortages based on the assumption that housing prices would continue to climb? Professional aphorist James Geary argues that it may be due to the fact that "climb" in that sense is an "agent metaphor." Agent metaphors, which imply the deliberate action of a living thing pursuing a goal, are very seductive to the human mind.

If you are a lover of metaphor, you will love Geary's short TED talk, posted below.

And, a bonus metaphor from one of The Greats, John Prine:
Some humans ain't human. Some people ain't kind.
You open up their hearts and here's what you'll find:
A few frozen pizzas; some ice cubes with hair;
A broken popsicle; you don't want to go there.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Clippings: 1.14.10

A National Literacy Trust (UK) survey
showed that students' online technology use "drives their enthusiasm" for other kinds of writing.

Literacy Toolbox is a great place to find literacy games and activities. For example, here's a list of online literacy games for pre-readers.

ProProfs provides a free online flashcard-maker. Not perfect, but pretty cool.

The Economist reports that the Harry Potter books have been an economic stimulus package all by themselves. (Hat tip to Jen Robinson's Book Page and Omnivoracious.)

SEDL provides an interactive Cognitive Framework for learning to read. This is a stellar graphic - it would be perfect if people could embed it (hint).

And finally, the video of the week: Everything's Amazing And Nobody's Happy by comedian Louis C K.

(Picture courtesy of Flickr user Archigeek. Thanks!)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Notes: Dr. Ginger Campbell Interviews Dr. Maryanne Wolf

As I mentioned the other day, I'm immersed (now in my second reading) in Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. The author, Dr. Maryanne Wolf is the director of The Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University.

Anyone who loves reading or is passionate about helping others learn to read will find this book riveting. Among other things, Wolf sets out to tell us about the development of different writing systems over time, how the human brain "rearranges itself" to make reading possible, and what happens in the brains of those who have difficulty learning to read.

A search for interviews of Dr. Wolf led me to the Brain Science Podcast, which is conducted by Dr. Ginger Campbell, an emergency physician who has been blogging about brain science since 2006. I first listened to Podcast #24 which, over the course of about an hour, concentrates on some of the main ideas of Proust and the Squid. I would recommend it for those who do not intend to read the book or who need a refresher.

This morning, I listened to Campbell's interview of Wolf. Both are quite engaging (Wolf's voice reminds me, in a way that reveals how much of a geek I am, of Barbara Kingsolver's voice).

As I said, if you have any interest in reading, you will find this compelling. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the interview. All are from Dr. Wolf.

“Language is what prepares a child to read.”

“Nothing is better in the very beginning than the simple act of reading and speaking to your child. That does not take money; it simply takes time and love.”

“Reading is a long, beautiful process that has many parts and can be arrested in many phases of development" "…it begins literally on the lap of the beloved who is first reading to us and we’re catching by hook and by crook all kinds of information from that loved one’s voice…”

Regarding children experiencing "word poverty," who upon arrival at Kindergarten have heard millions fewer words than their peers: “… that means their brain is literally processing language at a different level with a different level of sophistication and we who are determined to educate all our children to reach their potential have to be so serious about what those differences are at the Kindergarten door.”

Regarding the ever-more-common attempts to make children learn to read at early ages (3-5, say): “On the backs of three-year-olds are being visited the anxieties of parents.” These attempts are “pedagogically and physiologically premature and unnecessary.”

Dr. Wolf also refers to this article by Niel Swinney in the Boston Globe of October 28, 2007. The article, called "Rush, Little Baby" is about the aforementioned attempts by parents to hurry up the process of learning to read.

Also, Dr. Wolf makes reference to the book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper. She mentioned it in the context of her fears that the Digital Age is robbing us of the experience of deep, meaningful, enjoyable reading.

That's all for now, though I will certainly write about and refer to this fantastic book more in the future. I wholeheartedly recommend the summary and the interview by Dr. Ginger Campbell. In fact, a perusal of the Brain Science Podcast site is likely to yield something of interest to nearly "anyone with a brain," as she puts it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Photograb Letter Recognition Game - Medium Difficulty

A month ago, I posted a game that I created using Photograb, a very cool game-design tool available for free from ShuffleBrain. It's intended to let people make games using pictures on their Facebook or Flickr pages, but I thought it might be a good way to teach letters and words.

I set out this morning to create a very easy Alphabet game. As I mentioned the other day, I've been reading Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf. She tells me that the ability to recognize and name a letter is a very good predictor of future reading success. I thought a game like this might help burn these letter images into the brains of my young students.

As I said, this was supposed to be easy, but it is even moderately difficult to me. I'll try a very basic one later. For now, enjoy! (And a BIG thank you to ShuffleBrain for allowing me to embed this game!!)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Game: Erase The Face - CrossWord Edition

All Ages
10-20 Minutes
Best in Small Groups

A month ago I told you about "Erase The Face," a variation of Hangman that my students love. It's a great game, but I found that my more-advanced students guessed the words too quickly, negating much of the benefit for them and for the younger students.

So, I invented a new version. I got the idea while doing last Tuesday's NYT crossword and I am calling it "Erase The Face - CrossWord Edition" until I think of a better name.

All you need is a writing utensil and a surface. Since I'm working with small groups of students, I use my whiteboard. This could easily be done with paper and pencil, of course.

First, you need to make your grid. I have found that grids containing six or seven words can be constructed
in five minutes or so. I try to use high-frequency words, or "sight words." I use a list in the back of "Word Matters" by Pinnell and Fountas, but you can find all kinds of lists online. Pick a long word to start, and then build off of that.

On the board, draw your grid, a box for wrong answers, a "Word Bank," the alphabet, and any kind of face you like. I started writing the alphabet on the board because it greatly reduced the amount of time it took my
students to guess a letter.

One by one, students guess letters. If they guess a letter that is in your grid, fill in the boxes. If not, write the letter in the Wrong Answers box and erase part of the face. If you want to really get them going, make them erase their own facial features at the same time. For example, erase the nose and say, "Everybody erase your nose!" Guaranteed giggles all around.

When a student completes a word, make sure everyone can see it and then write it into the Word Bank. I do this to make sure everyone gets a good impression of the word. Also, some students might have trouble seeing through all of the boxes or reading vertically, so this will help them get something out of it.

The game ends when the grid is filled in or when the face is erased, whichever comes first. I have played this game a hundred times and I have never let the students lose. What would be the point of that?

I think this game has a lot going for it. It is a great way to reinforce vocabulary. I use it in conjunction with my "Word Wall," which has the 100 most frequently-used words Velcroed to it. My students have spent hours studying this board as a result. You could do this for new vocabulary from a textbook or a story just as easily.

Furthermore, I think that this game teaches some
essential word-solving skills. The students really want to know what that word is, and as they try to figure it out they are compelled to imagine what sounds and letter would fit with the ones already guessed. It's kind of like sounding out words in reverse.

The CrossWord Edition of this game is an attempt at differentiation. I can incorporate words of varying difficulties, and I have found that I can get students of many different reading levels (including adults) engaged simultaneously.

I would welcome suggested variations. Also, if you can think of a catchier name, feel free to suggest it in the comments.

Update 1/19/10: After trying it a few more times, I've decided to use 4-5 words in a puzzle instead for 6-8. If you have older students or especially engaged ones, you can use more, but I've found that I lose them towards the end.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Phoneme Breakdown - Woodchuck Twister

Here's a breakdown of the phonemes present in a popular tongue twister. I am not a linguist, speech language pathologist, or anything else with an 'ist' on the end, so this should be considered a rather crude analysis. Still, I thought it might help me be more intentional about what sounds I'm strengthening in my classroom.

I am still learning about the phonetic alphabet. For this post, I am using this English phoneme chart. I am open to information and advice about how I might refine my knowledge. In this post, I will use my best approximation of the symbol on the chart and also provide a word that exemplifies the sound I'm referring to. /e/ means 'e as in pet', for example. The number behind the phoneme show us how many times it appeared in the passage.

OK, we'll start with a classic:

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

/h/ 'hat': 1
/au/ 'cow': 1
/m/ 'man': 1
/^/ 'luck' : 5
/tf/ 'chop': 5
/w/ 'wet': 4
/u/ 'good': 6
/d/ 'door': 6
/k/ 'cat': 6
/ago/ 'ago': 2
/I/ 'pit': 1
/f/ 'fan': 1

So there you have it! I don't expect this be a revelation to you, but I think that if we had many rhymes and tongue twisters broken down in this way, we would know where to turn when we encounter students struggling with certain sounds.