Saturday, January 5, 2013

Insanity is Repeating the Same Failed Tactics Over and Over Again

According to a post a Joanne Jacobs, Ohio now requires all third graders to read on grade level by the end of the year. Children who can't pass a test are held back, and repeat third grade. Since I'm usually in favor of requiring competency and creating consequences, you'd think I'd be in favor of this, right?

I'm not. I can't see how this policy will help kids. The research on reading seems to suggest that, once a student has learned enough phonics to sound out words, the most important factors in reading are vocabulary and background knowledge. Basically, it doesn't do you any good to sound out a word, or a series of words, unless you can understand them.

These days, public school K-3 tends to focus on decoding and reading simple words, not on building vocabulary and content knowledge. Basically, we've increased the focus on language arts, and we're ignoring the subjects that we're supposed to apply language arts to: literature, art, music, geography, history, science......

In the early grades, kids develop background knowledge and vocabulary when we talk to them, read interesting books to them, take them on field trips, and even show them educational programs. (My kids recently watched the National Geographic special on Treasures of Afghanistan, for instance. Now they won't STOP telling me about the standing Buddhas and the giant reclining Buddha.)

Elementary curricula have de-emphasized this background knowledge in recent years. It's not such a big deal for the more privileged kids. Their parents will take them to museums, read books to them, attend art festivals and go out to the orchard to pick apples. They enter school with a huge advantage in vocabulary and experiences, and their parents will keep giving them new words and things to think about. When they see "Afghanistan" in a text book, they'll remember where and what it is, because they already know something about it.

The problem with Ohio's policy is it will fall heaviest on the poor. These kids won't be reading at grade level because they don't have the vocabulary and experience to comprehend grade level texts. Then, when we hold them back, they'll get more empty phonics and decoding practice, and they'll still get no exposure to subject area knowledge, and they'll stagnate.

Third grade is too late, and repeating third grade won't help. If Ohio is serious about teaching kids to read, it needs to teach them about everything else. Read children the Little House books before they can read them on their own. They'll learn a lot about life as a pioneer. Read to them from National Geographic. Teach them about mummies and Greek myths and Napoleon and Spanish Doubloons at the bottom of the sea, take them to the museum and the theater and, most of all, the LIBRARY. Without basic vocabulary and background knowledge, reading is a chore. And hours spent teaching kids to 'make connections' as they read won't do any good unless the kids have some facts and ideas to connect.

The Ohio plan is a disaster, and I have a feeling the kids who suffer most will be the ones from families that have the fewest resources to help them develop subject area and cultural knowledge.


Happy Elf Mom said...

Hi! I think you may be on to something. Although my daughter is learning to read and that is how she learns new vocabulary. She now knows what a "mutt" and a "cap" are. (We always, I suppose, have said "hat" in the past.)

Deirdre Mundy said...

Well, you need a certain minimum vocabulary to use context clues to use new vocab. Imagine a child who replaces every word she doesn't know with 'watermelon' (A trick my grandmother used as a child.)

In "The Castle of Llyr" (One of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles.. I read it in 4th grade) there's a sentence that reads "The livid Queen staggered for an instant, then turned and fled screaming from the Great Hall." A child who only had basic vocabulary would probably read "The Watermelon Queen Watermeloned for an Watermelon , then turned and fled screaming from the Great Hall." There really aren't enough context clues to tell what the missing words mean. She could be angry, sad, cackling, purple, well dressed... she could have leaped, lunged, fallen, spun around, waved her arms, or cursed. And for what? a length of time, or an object or a reason, who can tell?

Your kids already have enough of a working vocabulary to make a difference, and the background knowledge to understand what they're reading well enough to learn from the texts.

Many children have such a dearth of knowledge that they're left with too many blanks and no way to fill them in... and an extra year of emphasis on "21 century skills" instead of content is not going to help.....