The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The Invisible Components of Reading

Today’s post is a revision of an article I wrote for teachers several years ago.  I post it again now because I think it’s important for parents, grandparents, and critics of schools to also understand how reading, writing, and  vocabulary are learned beyond the traditional components of  classroom teaching.

We all know that young children learn many things on their own without any help from adults, such as walking, talking, scribbling with crayons and playing with toys. But what most of us don’t realize is that children also learn without formal instruction the basics of some skills that are considered part of the education process. Although the components I list below aren’t really invisible, they go largely unnoticed because children begin to learn them incidentally at home and continue learning them through their outside environments. Today I will identify six such components that parents and teachers should be aware of and support as children proceed through their maturation and school grades.

1. Listening /Speaking Vocabulary—Children begin learning words in their first year of life. Their oral vocabulary grows quickly as they interact with adults and older children in their pre-school years. Research done in the mid-twentieth century indicates that between the ages of 3 and 8, ordinary 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 make a huge difference. Based on extrapolations from observations made in the homes of children between 7 months and 3 years of age, children in low-income families  exchanged an average of 10 million words with family members by the age of 4; those in working class families, 30 million; and professional class children, more than 50 million. There were also significant differences in the content of their exchanges, ranging from commands such as, “Pick up your toys,” to discussion questions such as, “What should we do this afternoon?” Just think what those differences in oral vocabulary can mean when a child begins formal reading instruction in school.

2. Intonation Patterns of Speech--Although we rarely notice, spoken Language has defined patterns of rising and falling tones and word emphasis within every sentence. Think about this sentence: “Have you washed your hands?” It can have three different meanings depending on intonation and whether you stress “you,” “washed,” or “hands.” Yet, nothing on a written page suggests those patterns. If we were to read a text as written, we would give every word the same voice tone and emphasis, stripping away any meaning. Unfortunately, many struggling readers work so hard decoding word-by-word that they do just that and, as a result, may not understand what they have read.

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. Although young children can’t say whether a word is a “noun”, “verb,” or “adjective,” and may not use the standard word endings, they do know how to sequence words in a sentence. No child says, “ Dog I my fed.”  This knowledge helps children to make sense of sentences in which there are unknown words such as, “Don’t step on that echinoderm!”

4. Literary Forms and Conventions—When children are familiar with fairy tales, poems, fables, and sayings they find it much easier to read new examples of those literary forms. In beginning to read a new fairy tale, for example, such children already know what to expect from the hero, heroine, villain, and secondary characters.  They are also familiar with patterns of threes in tasks, obstacles, or contenders, and stock phrases such as “Once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after,” even though those phrases are not a part of the everyday world.

5. Reasoning—Unfortunately, too much of current reading instruction emphasizes following rules and memorizing procedures. And because they are what is taught, children think that’s what they are supposed to do. If teachers emphasized thinking more and formulae less, children encountering unknown words could do a better job of reading them. Take, for example, the sentence, “ The cowboy jumped onto his cayuse and galloped away.” Instead of trying to sound-out the word “cayuse”, a reasoning young reader can easily deduce that it is some kind of horse and just go on reading.

6. Background Knowledge—Indisputably, this invisible component contributes the most to reading competence. When children know people beyond their family and friends, 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 met few first graders who could not read the words “tyrannosaurus rex’’ in context, even though they present decoding problems. Because most young children have seen pictures and heard information about this dinosaur, they can read not only its name but also words referring to its habitat and behavior. The more young children know of the world in general and its contents in particular, the better equipped they are to read new material with understanding and to master the various academic subjects covered in school.

Given the potency of these invisible components of reading, the question for us to consider is how can they be incorporated in the school literacy program without making them into formal lessons or unnecessarily repeating the experiences children already have in their natural environments.

First and foremost, I advocate that parents and teachers should read aloud regularly to children 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– that introduce children to unfamiliar places, people, animals and language styles. As adults read aloud, they should pause from time to time to explain unfamiliar words and allow children to ask questions.

Another powerful strategy is to incorporate more oral use of different language forms into the school curriculum, such as poems, songs, chants, and games that children can learn and recite in chorus. Other appealing and helpful experiences for children to expand their knowledge of written language are participation in various forms of oral language arts, such as puppet shows, role-playing, and the re-enactment of stories they have read.

Finally, I suggest using all manner of visual materials—at home as well as in school–such as photos, videos, cartoons and artwork, to help explain new words and make challenging reading materials more understandable.

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 could be more powerful than believing “Books are so full of wonderful things. I bet I will like this one, and I’m sure I can read it!”




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One Way for Schools to Save Money and Better Serve Students

One of the things we rarely—if ever—hear about is the cost of testing in both money and school time. In today’s blog I will give significant information about both costs as reported in a research study done by the American Federation of Teachers. The title of the report is “Testing More, Teaching Less; What America’s Obsession with Student Testing Costs in Money and Lost Instructional Time”

 In 2013 the American Federation of Teachers initiated a study of two medium size urban school districts, using the psuedodyms of “Midwestern School District” and “Eastern School District” to determine the costs of school testing and lost instructional time in a single year. To carry out the study the AFT gathered information on the assessment inventory and testing calendar from both districts. They also used the information from previous studies to compare their results to the practices in other states.

Some interesting results revealed that the District of Columbia spent the most on tests: $114 per student and New York, where test scoring is done locally spent $7 per student. Over all standardized testing cost the United States $1.7 billion a year.

Looking at the situation in the two school districts selected, researchers found that the time students spent taking tests ranged from 20 to 50 hours per year. In addition, students  would spend 60 to more than 110 hours per year in test prep in high-stakes testing grades. When the cost of lost instructional time (at $6.15 per hour, equivalent to the per-student cost of adding one hour to the school day), the estimated annual testing cost per pupil ranged from $700 to more than $1,000 per pupil in different grades. 

If student testing were abandoned altogether, one school district in this study could add from 20 to 40 minutes of instruction to each school day for most grades. The other school district would be able to add almost an entire class period to the school day for grades 6-11. In addition, in most grades, more than $100 per test-taker could be reallocated to purchase instructional programs, technology or to buy better tests. Just cutting testing time and costs in half would yield significant gains to the instructional day, and free up enough dollars in the budget to pay for tests that are better aligned to the school program and produce useful information for teachers, students and parents.

In my opinion the estimated savings in money and instructional time should be a game changer. In these times of ever shrinking school funding school districts ought to spend what they have on meeting the needs of students rather than on high stakes testing. When selecting any test a district should take the trouble to estimate what various commercial tests will cost per student and how much class time will be lost, and then go for the best economic choice.

Although selecting a test that seems to be of high quality and to fit well with school programs is a worthy objective, we must recognize that all commercial tests are designed on the premise of “One size fits all”.  We must also understand that to a great extent high stakes testing imposed upon school districts by the federal government is actually a sham and a punishment. It does not render a fair judgment on a school’s quality, improve teaching or learning, better serve students, or make our country do better on international tests. Although schools must play this game—for now—there is no reason why they should not choose the tactics that give them the best chance of winning it.

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ESSA Doesn’t Taste As Sweet As We Hoped

You may remember reading something in this blog about the ESSA requirements for all states, which had to be submitted and approved this year. Well, the time is up and Oregon has submitted its plan described in an “Oregonian” article by Betsy Hammond: Oregon plans broader, more nuanced rating system for schools. I will summarize the article below and add my opinions—as usual.

Just last month Oregon submitted its new plan for evaluating its schools to the federal Department of Education. Using the results from the current school year, a school’s performance will be judged on many factors, most of them the same ones used when NCLB was the law of the land: reading, writing and math test results and score improvement over time.  In addition states must now report on student performance in science, social studies, technical education, and the arts, even though those subjects will not be tested.

Several other factors will also be considered as important in school effectiveness: the amount of student absenteeism, high school graduation rates, and the percentage of high school freshman who have earned six credits by the start of their sophomore year.  That final item is included because it has been identified by researchers as the strongest factor in determining whether or not a student will graduate on time.

Finally, school districts must also submit the performance measures for racial and ethnic groups, low-income students, students with disabilities and students learning English as a second language.

Of all the federal requirements one has been singled out as a positive change in the process of improving school performance. Instead of a state working directly with individual schools that have serious problems,  school districts will take over the role of assisting them.

As I read through the list of ESSA requirements I didn’t see any real improvement over those of NCLB, the previous federal law under which all schools and states were judged. In fact, it seemed clear that the federal government was asking for a lot more data than before and targeting new areas. Also, I saw no benefit for individual schools or their districts.  They will still be pressured to improve their numbers on tests, attendance, and graduation, and they will again get little assistance.

On a personal level I am still skeptical about the interpretation of the data submitted and its usefulness. It’s not enough to know that a school has a high rate of absenteeism or a low rate of timely graduations. Also, low test scores do not necessarily indicate “a failing school.” You have to see why such things are happening and how they can be fixed.

In the end, I am still convinced that most school problems are the result of insufficient funding,  the pools of family poverty, the unrealistic expectations of the Common Core State Standards, and the emphasis on classroom “rigor” that has taken all the joy out of teaching and learning.  I would like to see more sanity and local control in the management of schools, and the federal government returning its attention to the areas where it has has some knowledge and experience.

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