The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Invisible Components of Reading

   The essay  I offer today is one I wrote for the elementary section of the National Council of Teachers of English a few years ago.  Because that was a limited audience I have decided to post it here for all those teachers involved in teaching reading at any level.

Although the components of reading I’m thinking about aren’t really invisible, they are largely ignored in teaching reading in classrooms because children have begun to learn them on their own long before they come to school. Below I will identify six such components that teachers should give some attention to as they work with students to further develop reading competence. The children most in need of this kind of support are those living in poverty or not having English as their native language.

  1. Listening /Speaking Vocabulary—Children begin learning words in their first year of life and their vocabulary grows as they interact with adults and other children in their pre-school years. Research done in the mid-twentieth century indicates that between the ages of 3 and 8, healthy, well cared for children learn approximately 20 new words a day. Even more interesting is recent research that counted the number of words exchanged between pre-school children and their primary caregivers and found that socio-economic factors made a huge difference. Based on extrapolations from observations made in the homes of children between 7 months and 3 years of age, children in welfare families and their caregivers exchanged an average of 10 million words by the age of 4; working class children 30 million; and professional class children more than 50 million. There were also significant differences in the content of exchanges in families at different economic levels, ranging from commands such as, “Pick up your toys,” to discussion questions such as, “What should we do this afternoon?” Just think what these differences in oral vocabulary mean when a child begins formal reading instruction in school.
  2. Intonation Patterns of Spoken Language–Although we rarely notice them, there are defined patterns of rising and falling tones and word emphasis within every spoken sentence. Think about this one: “Have you washed your hands?” It can have three different meanings depending on whether the speaker emphasizes “you,” “washed,” or “hands.” Yet, nothing on a written page suggests those differences. If literate adults were to read sentences as written, they would give every word the same voice tone and emphasis, stripping away meaning. Unfortunately, when children work hard decoding a text word-by-word, that they do just that and, as a result, don’t understand what they’re reading.
  3. Sentence structure—By the time children enter school, their basic oral grammar is fairly well developed and acceptable by the standards of their cultural or regional dialect. We may not like the grammar some students use, but it’s fine at home. Although young children can’t say whether a word is a “noun” “verb,” or “adjective,” and some may not use standard word endings, they do know how to sequence words in a sentence. No child says, “ Dog I my fed.”   Their knowledge of sentence structure helps children get at least some meaning from sentences with unknown words, such as, “Don’t step on that echinoderm!”
  4. Literary Forms and Conventions—Children who are familiar with fairy tales, poems, fables, and sayings find it much easier to read new examples of those literary forms. When beginning a new fairy tale, for example, most children already know what to expect from the hero, heroine and villain. They are also familiar with patterns of threes in characters’ tasks and the obstacles in their paths. Stock phrases such as “Once upon a time” and “ They lived happily ever after,” are read effortlessly even though those phrases are not a part of a real child’s world.
  5. Reasoning—Unfortunately, too much of today’s reading instruction emphasizes following rules and memorizing procedures. And because that is what is taught, children think that’s what they are supposed to do. If teachers emphasized thinking more and formulas less, children encountering unknown words would do a better job of figuring them out on their own. Take, for example, the sentence, “ The cowboy jumped onto his cayuse and galloped away.” When reading silently a young reader who knows something about cowboys from television shows or being read to can easily deduce that a “cayeuse” is some kind of horse and that “galloped “ is what horses do, and just go on reading.
  6. Background knowledge—Indisputably, this invisible component is the one that most strongly affects understanding after children have aquired ease in identifying words. When young children know people outside their family, places beyond their neighborhood, and things other than the content of their homes, their ability to read increases exponentially. To take a simple—and common—example, I have not met many young readers who could not read the words “tyrannosaurus rex’’ in context. Because so many children have seen pictures and heard information about this dinosaur in and out of school, they can not only read its name but also some words about its habitat and behavior. The more children know of the world in general and its contents in particular, the better equipped they are to read with understanding and master the various academic subjects covered in school.

Given the importance of these invisible components of reading, the question for teachers   is how can they be incorporated into the school literacy program without turning them into formal lessons or repeating the experiences children already have in their homes and outside them.

First and foremost, I advocate that teachers read aloud regularly to students of any age from materials they are not likely to read on their own. I would aim for a healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction–including pieces from newspapers and magazines– to introduce unfamiliar places, people and things. As teachers read, they should pause from time to time to explain unfamiliar words, show pictures, and allow students to ask questions,

Another good strategy is to incorporate more oral use of standard written language into the curriculum, in the form of poems, songs, chants, and games that children learn and voice in chorus. Other appealing formats for children to practice written language in oral formats are puppet shows, role playing, and the re-enactment of stories.

Finally, I suggest using all manner of visual materials regularly to increase students’ background knowledge, help explain new words, and make challenging reading material more understandable. If they don’t know what a word is, don’t give a dictionary definition, show them a picture.

Before signing off, I want to mention one more invisible component of reading not directly supported by research: children’s beliefs about their relationship to books. When it comes to developing reading competence, nothing is more powerful than believing “Books are full of wonderful things. I bet I will like this one, and I’m sure I can read it!”


A Prayer for Teachers

I found the prayer below on the home page of Oregon Grassroots Education Movement (OGEM) yesterday.  It was posted by a member and friend, Pat Eck, who gave me permission to re-post it here.  Originally, the prayer was given by Pastor Reverend Don Frueh of the Parkrose Community Church of Christ on 9/6/15.  I don’t know its origin 

God of Love – Thank you for every teacher who notices a child’s special gift. Thank you for teachers who are listeners and gentle guides. Thank you for teachers who expect much and love enough to demand more. Thank you for the special teacher each one of us remembers.

God of Mercy – Sustain teachers who give everything they have and feel abandoned when society expects too much. Strengthen teachers who assume the blame for so many problems beyond their control. Help exhausted teachers rest.

God of Strength – Encourage teachers to care and inspire them to nourish. Motivate teachers to keep on learning for the fun of it and to make learning fun for children.

We wonder at teachers who know how to quiet a class of five-year-olds or help fourth graders be empathetic. We admire teachers who enjoy middle school writers, or teach physics or math or civics. We cannot even imagine how to help every single student achieve the progress they need.

Bless the people who are expected to accomplish these miracles and who know how to comfort children when miracles don’t happen.

God of Justice – help our nation find a way to steward our vast wealth to support teachers in their special calling, wherever they teach and whatever the race or religion or gender or wealth of the children.

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A Good Day for Washington State’s Real Public schools

The following piece was written by Wayne Au, an associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell and an editor for the social justice education magazine, Rethinking Schools. He was also a plaintiff in the charter school legal challenge, along with organizations including the Washington Education Association and the League of Women Voters.  It was posted previously by both Valerie Strauss in “The Answer Sheet” and Diane Ravitch in her blog.  I am re-posting Au’s piece here to let readers know that there is at least one U.S. state with a sane and just  judiciary. However, be aware that I cut out one paragraph that described the Charter school law in detail because it did not seem necesary to understanding the court decision.

Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, was a good day for me. Late that afternoon the Washington State Supreme Court issued an earth-shattering ruling for corporate education reformers: By a 6-3 decision, they determined that Washington State’s charter school law was unconstitutional. This felt like a personal victory because I was heavily involved in the fight against charter schools in Washington State. In the lead up to the 2012 election season, where Washington voters would decide on the legality of charter schools here through popular vote on Initiative 1240 (I-1240), I was a very vocal opponent of the initiative and voiced my concerns about charter schools in newspaper editorials, policy analyses, educational research, and public forums.

Washington State citizens narrowly passed I-1240 by a 50.69 percent majority vote (winning by roughly 41,000 of the over 3,000,000 votes cast), making charter schools law here. In response to the new charter law, I was asked to join a group of individuals and organizations as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of I-1240, where, in addition to lending my name to the suit, I provided expert advice and research in support of the legal arguments.

When the Washington State Supreme Court announced its decision overturning I-1240 as unconstitutional, I was elated. As an educational scholar-activist trying to defend public education from the forces of privatization, rarely have I felt like my personal efforts have contributed so concretely to such an important victory. At the heart of the Washington State’s Supreme Court ruling was the idea that charter schools, as defined by the law, were not actually “public schools.” The key issue is this: Washington State’s constitution has a provision that only “common schools” receive tax dollars allocated for public education. The law in Washington State is structured so that charter schools are governed at both the school level and state level by an appointed board, not an elected one. As such, charter schools in Washington State would receive public monies without any guarantee of accountability to any democratically elected, public body. The Washington State Supreme Court decided that this lack of public oversight of charter schools meant that they did not meet the definition of “common schools” and therefore are not eligible to receive public monies made available for public schools.

Conservative and free-market education reformers are furious about this decision. The Washington Policy Center (whose tagline is “Improving Lives Through Market Solutions”), the CEOs of both the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Washington State Charter Schools Association, and several politicians have called on the Washington State Legislature to “correct” the law by changing the funding structure so charter schools would receive tax dollars through a specific fund not associated with public schools.

These calls to shift the charter school funding in Washington State as the solution to making charter schools constitutional here point to a key issue in the agenda of charter supporters and free-market education reformers. Rather than change the governance structures of the charter schools to have publicly elected oversight of public tax dollars, as teacher Peter Greene has suggested at his Curmudgucation blog, charter supporters seek to redefine “public schools” as schools that have public money but without public accountability and regulation.

Calls to redefine what counts as “public schools” from charter supporters in Washington State should come as no surprise, considering that a good portion of the language regarding charter governance comes directly from model legislation provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. ALEC is perhaps more widely known for promoting a broad privatization agenda, “stand-your-ground” gun laws, and anti-democratic voter registration laws, amongst others. ALEC also has a privatization agenda for public education, including the promotion of charter schools generally, promotion of corporate charters and virtual schools specifically, private school vouchers, anti-union measures, “parent trigger” laws to flip public schools into privately managed charter schools, increasing testing, reducing (or eliminating when possible) the power of democratically elected local school boards, and limiting the power of public school districts.

ALEC’s influence on Washington State’s charter law is unmistakable. Most immediately visible is the inclusion of its own “trigger” provision, allowing a small majority of teachers or parents to sign a petition and flip a regular public school into a charter school. Additionally, and more pertinent to the Washington State Supreme Court ruling, ALEC’s fingerprints are all over the charter school governance structure outlined in I-1240.

ALEC advocates that charter schools be governed by appointed boards with little-to-no accountability or oversight by the public because this establishes a chain of logic central to privatization: Once we agree that public tax dollars can follow the child into educational institutions not governed by the public, then we have accepted the basic premise for voucher programs that use our tax dollars to pay for private schools. This has been a major goal of ALEC and other free-market conservatives who seek to dismantle public education and profit off of our kids.

Washington State’s charter school law has other issues, such as the fact that it was promoted by a few wealthy individuals and their affiliated philanthropies. However, in this moment, what’s most important is that the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision is a major rebuke of the privatization agenda. Overturning I-1240 establishes that here in Washington state (and in the backyard of the charter-promoting Gates Foundation, no less), without public oversight, charter schools are not “common schools” and hence are not really “public schools” eligible for public funding—an argument many of us made from the beginning.

Calls by charter supporters to save charter schools in Washington State fall particularly flat in our specific context. Not only has our state legislature failed to fund the class-size reduction initiative passed by voters, but the Washington State Supreme Court has found our state legislature is in contempt of court for not fully funding public education here. In this context the hypocrisy of demanding the state legislature convene a special session to save Washington’s charter schools is glaring. There are fewer than 10 charter schools serving a total of almost 1,300 children in Washington state. While the timing of the Washington State Supreme Court’s decision is terrible for those families and children enrolled in our charter schools, our state has yet to meet their legal obligation to fully fund the education of 1 million children currently enrolled in our actual public schools.

Just as supporters of publicly financed charter schools understand the profound implications of the Washington State Supreme Court ruling, public school supporters also need to pay close attention. As Washington State’s Supreme Court has said: If a school is not controlled by a public body, then it should not have access to public funds. The logic is simple and compelling, and opponents of public school privatization in this country need to spread that message far and wide.

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Let’s Start the School Year Vigorously!

Since today is the first day of school for many teachers, I decided to give some practical suggestions about bringing more vigor into the classroom this year.  Because the suggestions came off the top of my head–which is rather bumpy–they are neither detailed nor organized.  They are meant just to give you the general idea of what vigorous learning can be.

A week or so ago I posted an  essay in which I condemned rigor in the classroom and hailed vigor as essential for motivating students and producing lasting learning. However, in that essay I used mostly dictionary definitions and metaphors to make my case and gave only sketchy examples of vigorous learning activities. This time I want to be more factual and descriptive in letting readers know what I mean when I call for vigor in our schools.

Educational vigor is not defined by grade levels, curricula, materials, or test scores, but rather by the kinds of work students are able to do on their own. Although the majority of teachers who champion vigorous learning work in traditional schools and follow the set curricula and grading practices, they differentiate materials, instructional modes, assignments, and assistance to fit the needs of students. They bring vigor into their classrooms by giving students more choices for work and for how the classroom operates. They assess student growth by examining their daily performance rather than by test results. To illustrate what I mean, I have listed several examples of vigorous school learning activities below. The letters following each example stand for the school levels I think are appropriate for their use: E for elementary school, M for middle school, and H for high school.   Your sharp eyes may see ways that an example can be used at a level I have not indicated.

A word of caution, however: the listed activities are not meant to be done in isolation. They are parts of planned units in which a teacher may introduce materials to be studied, skills to be acquired, and even information to be memorized before letting students bring their own skills and imagination to bear. Vigor lies in what the students do with those materials, skills, and information to make them their own lasting knowledge and abilities.

*Interview senior citizens about their community, education, first job, home chores, as a child to contribute to a class book about life at a particular time and place (M,H)

*Design a scale blueprint of your dream house using a teacher designated cost per foot and total amount for the whole house; create an advertisement to sell your house (M, H)

*Write weekly messages to your teacher giving feedback on lessons, homework, testing, etc. (M, H)

*Keep a journal as if you were a character in a novel or short story that you are reading. Make it reflect the character’s thoughts and feelings about events and other characters’ actions. (M, H)

*Write five math problems for a classroom test, based on the math work you have been doing. The teacher will choose one problem from each student for the test, but may ask for editing. (E, M, H)

*Write a letter to a newspaper used in the classroom whenever you have a strong reaction to an article or other newspaper feature. (E, M, H)

*Write and illustrate a fiction or non-fiction book for younger children.  Read your book aloud to your class; revise it as necessary, and then read it to the age group for which it was intended. (E, M, H)

*Keep a personal expense account for one month. Then create a budget for the following month and see if you can do better (M, H)

*Make a video advertising an imaginary product or promoting a good cause. Present it to your class for feedback (M, H)

*Create a poster advertising a coming school event (E, M, H)

*Turn a short story you have read into a comic strip or a puppet show (E, M)

*Write a poem modeled on one you have studied in class (E, M, H)

*Write a fictional story based on a historical event (M, H)

*Compile a book of drawings of animals you’ve studied with names and a few facts (E)

*Give an oral book report aimed at persuading your classmates to read the same book (E,M)

*Create a monthly vocabulary game to which each student contributes a sentence containing a word learned that month. Students earn points by guessing word meanings correctly (E, M, H)

P.S. Since I was an elementary grade teacher and, later, a high school English teacher, you didn’t see much about math or science in these examples. Sorry.

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Schools Are Better Than You Think They Are, Natalie Wexler

For a long time I’ve  made it a practice to send a “Letter to the editor” of a newspaper whenever I see an article about education that pleases or irritates me. In the past, most of my letters got published, but not recently. Do the newspapers think my comments are trivial or poorly written? Or are they just tired of me? I decided to post my most recent–and unpublished– letter to the New York Times for your opinions. Let me know what you think.

To give you some background, I was responding to an Op-Ed, “What Kids Really Need to Know”, by  Natalie Wexler, published on August 27.  In it she argues that E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s “Core Knowledge Curriculum,”  is the best tool for educating children, and it should replace the current emphasis on improving reading skills.  To my mind, Wexler is setting up a “straw man.”  In the schools I visit teachers have not gone wild on reading skills, ignored the need for background knowledge, or stopped teaching social studies and science. They don’t need a curriculum based on a series of informational topics.

But enough of my defensiveness; here’s my letter to the Times.

To the Editor:

In her OP-Ed Natalie Wexler is correct when she says that students need background knowledge as well as skills in their education.  But she is wrong in assuming that those two components of reading are detached from each other and that a knowledge based curriculum is necessary. When teachers choose high quality books for reading instruction, read aloud to their classes regularly, and encourage students to read widely on their own, skills and knowledge grow exponentially and in tandem.

It really doesn’t matter if the class time for science and social studies is limited in elementary school classrooms, as long as some of the materials  available contain information about one or the other, presented in a compelling  and age-appropriate way. A good education is like a healthy diet: high quality food, presented attractively, in reasonable quantities,  and available every day.

Sincerely yours,

Joanne Yatvin

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