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Many years ago, when I was a student in England, Europeans typically looked with envy at the American students. They stood out in any crowd because they were so tall and slim. Now several decades later, all that has changed and changed dramatically.
Two historians John Komlos and Benjamin Lauderdale have recently come out with a paper showing that while Americans were the "tallest in the world between colonial times and the middle of the 20th century,...we have now â€œbecome shorter (and fatter) than Western and Northern Europeans. In fact, the U.S. population is currently at the bottom end of the height distribution in advanced industrial countries."
Height is a significant barometer of the health of a population.
Basically it reflects "how well the human organism thrives in its socioeconomic environment." Normally, there is a strong association between income and height--but amazingly, even high-status Americans are falling short in that "rich Americans are shorter than rich Western Europeans and poor white Americans are shorter than poor Western Europeans."
It is not possible at this point to determine the cause for this troubling finding. Naturally, people are focusing on our reliance on fast food which offers the double whammy of a high calorie-low nutrition diet.
But the problems seem to go beyond just food. Overall, the U.S. is showing many signs that we are failing our children. A recent UNICEF report compared child well-being in 21 rich countries on a number of measures including health and safety, family and peer relationships and such things as whether children eat fruit and are physically active. The country on top--the tiny Netherlands. Where did we place? Well, the U.S. ended up in 20th place, below Poland, Portugal and Hungary.
Findings such as these should represent a clarion call to action. If our children are to thrive and it we are to succeed as a nation, it is vital that we address these issues--and that we do so as soon as possible.
If you are interested in reading the full article, the reference is John Komlos & Benjamin E. Lauderdale (2007) Underperformance in Affluence: The Remarkable Relative Decline in U.S. Heights in the Second Half of the 20th Century. Social Science Quarterly 88 (2), 283â€“305.
"Itâ€™s boring!" If children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) have a mantra, this is it. And were they to list the activities deserving of this mantra, reading would be at or near the top. In their eyes, it is the epitome of BORING. As a result, it is something they avoid and something they do very poorly. It matters little that it happens to be one of the most vital skills they can learn. Both for their welfare and for that of the nation, it is essential to bridge this chasm between what they need to do and what they are willing to do. But how?
Many have sought the answer in the realm of motivation: The hope is that the children would willingly read were the material sufficiently appealing. It would be fantastic if this "Pied Piper approach" worked. Unfortunately, it doesnâ€™t. (Given the outcome of that story, perhaps that is not all bad.) In any event, in an era of high tech, phenomenal, sophisticated, quick-paced, glitzy stimulation, reading cannot compete--when the choice is based on "pleasing power."
The answer must come from a different realm. One that holds promise can be summed up in a single word-COMPETENCE.
Competence-the ability to do things in a smooth, effective manner-is unbelievably empowering. High tech devices may offer fun, but they do not provide the pride and confidence that come from having total mastery of a central skill. Mark Twain even went so far as to say, "Competence--that is the life that is best worth living."
Competence is particularly relevant to reading and ADD. As parents know, the problem is not simply that the children do not like to read or write. They also perform those activities in a far from stellar manner. Among their many difficulties are illegible handwriting, misreading words, error-laden spelling, and weak or non-existent punctuation.
The symptoms are so characteristic of children with ADD that they seem immutable. What we have generally overlooked, however, is the extent to which those symptoms have been fostered by the instructional programs the children are offered. Although it never was the intention, programs designed to help the children often work in an opposite manner.
While the idea of good intentions going awry is disturbing, it should be not surprising. Problems of this type exist in many fields. Medicine, for example, recognizes what are called "iatrogenic diseases." In Greek, iatros means physician and so iatrogenic is a term for diseases that are caused by the treatments doctors provide. Though it is not widely discussed, it is by no means rare. Current estimates are that iatrogenic disease is the third leading cause of death in our country.
Education has no comparable term, but a good candidate might be "scholigenic disorder"--meaning school-induced failure. We can see how this disorder might work by examining the way the two major systems of reading instruction impact childrenâ€™s learning. The most powerful system is phonics--which teaches the sounds of words; the second, less influential but still prevalent, method is whole language--which concentrates on the meaning of texts such as stories and "journals."
While there is a range of phonics programs, all rely on teaching children to "sound out" unfamiliar words by assigning a sound to each letter. This technique has been so deeply ingrained in us that it seems the natural thing to do. Even parents who have never had an education course immediately say to a child who is confronting a troublesome word, "Well, let's sound it out. What sound does this letter make?"
Adults may feel certain that the instructions are helpful, but the same cannot be said of the children. Their reaction is far more likely to be, "Oh no, not that torture again."
As fate would have it, sounding out is not the extent of the problem. Even if you are willing to sound out any word that comes across your path, you wonâ€™t be able to. The vast majority of English words cannot be decoded by applying a sound to each letter. Try it with words such as bear, home, knife and see what happens. To enable children to read all the words they'll come across, they are asked to memorize rules--rules such as the "silent e" rule and the "double vowel" rule. The number of rules is impressive--almost 600 just to handle the words up to third grade reading.
For children with ADD, that is a recipe for disaster. Sounding out is difficult, memorization is even more difficult. Yet, these are the techniques they are given to use. Predictably, they don't use them. Their well-known impulsivity collides with the slow, deliberate analysis that the techniques require.
A common way children short-circuit the process is by guessing, based on the first one or two letters of a word (so that sweet might be read as short, water as wait, and so on). Teachers rightly interpret the resulting errors as signs that the techniques were not applied. So either via requests (e.g., "Now letâ€™s sound that out") or questions (e.g., "Does that make sense?, What is the rule here?"), they try to get the techniques into play.
While under the teacherâ€™s watchful eye, the children generally comply, reinforcing her belief that the system works. But once the adult moves away, the childrenâ€™s inclinations take over, shoving the techniques back to various nooks and crannies in the brain. In brief, current phonics instruction is predicated on the children using techniques from which they recoil when they are on their own--leaving them bereft of ways to cope. Everything is in place for the "scholigenic disorder" to flourish.
If we consider whole language, we find that the situation is not all that different--even though superficially it seems to be. Central to that method is "invented spelling" where children are permitted, even encouraged, to write words in whichever way seems right to them (such as U for you, KOM for come, EGUL for eagle). The idea is that adult-imposed demands for accurate spelling constrain children, thereby interfering with their willingness and ability to express their ideas on paper.
At first glance, this technique would seem to be ideal. Instead of imposing demands that the children will not follow, the children are free to follow their impulses. Hence, there is no conflict between what the adults require and what the children do. The benign atmosphere is said to yield even more benefits. We are assured that when children are permitted to use their own natural patterns, those same patterns will steadily lead them to advance towards more mature forms. In other words, the childrenâ€™s invented spelling will, without adult intrusion, transition into conventional (accurate) spelling.
As many a parent of a child with ADD can attest, the promised results do not occur. Instead, inaccurate, inconsistent spelling continues and even expands as new, complex vocabulary enters the scene. Things can get to such a point that even on a single page, a child may write the same word in several different ways (e.g., nite, night, knite, nihgt).
Given what we know about ADD, this is only to be expected. Admittedly, the children savor the freedom of not having to attend to details. But that in no way leads them to use this opportunity to strive for accuracy. They feel no call to abandon the less rigorous patterns they have been permitted to use. So they continue to write words in an inconsistent manner, choosing whatever combinations come to mind at a particular moment.
While the techniques of phonics and whole language seem diametrically opposed, at their core, they share a key similarity. Both assume that their instruction will lead children to develop a skill that is vital to effective reading--even though the systems themselves do nothing to directly foster that skill.
The skill in question is instant word recognition. It is the ability to look at a word and immediately know what it "says." This is the skill you are currently using. Itâ€™s what allows you to read this--and all other pages--effortlessly, without going through any conscious deliberation.
Once it takes hold, the skill of Instant word recognition is amazing. It enables you to "see" as totally distinct words that are almost identical. For example, consider the following pairs: kindle- kindly, sliver-silver, grid-gird, present-percent, value valve, slave-salve, stain-satin, quite-quiet, adult-audit, start-stare. Even though the words in each pair are similar in almost every possible way, it is instantly "obvious" to good readers that they are totally different. Word recognition skills are so powerful in experienced readers that they actually find it faster to identify whole words than single letters.
Both phonics and whole language acknowledge that instant word recognition is essential. They maintain, however, that it will occur as a natural outcome of the activities they have children do. In some cases, this does happen. As with any skill, there are children who independently and automatically extend what they have been taught. Jerome Bruner, a noted psychologist, termed this "the ability to go beyond the information given." Ironically, these talented children who require minimal instruction are often cited as proof that the system works.
For many, if not most, children, instant word recognition does not occur automatically as a by-product of some other, unrelated process such as "sounding out." It develops only through instruction specifically targeted to fostering an array of visually-based skills that includes scanning, sequencing, and memory.
Given their importance, you might be wondering why these basic skills have been ignored. The answer is to be found in our educational history. Back in the early 1900â€™s when reading problems were garnering attention, there was a pioneering figure--Dr. Samuel Orton. He maintained that visual problems (including reversals such as seeing b for d, or saw for was) were central to severe reading problems. Gradually, his idea was
discounted as people realized that many children, not simply those with problems, showed signs of those difficulties. The idea took hold that visual immaturities were a normal part of reading development--a valid notion. But that was not all. Since they were judged a normal part of behavior, it was assumed that the children will "pick them up" on their own--an invalid notion. Nevertheless, that idea took hold and a critical skill required for reading was cast aside, thereby opening the way for a "scholigenic disorder"
Clearly, the educational system needs to change. At the same time, it is unrealistic to expect that to happen quickly. In the meanwhile, what can be done? My answer is to place my faith in families. In my work over many decades, I have consistently been impressed by the dedication parents show for their childrenâ€™s welfare. Their commitment is amazing. If some of the considerable time they spend with their children on school assignments is used to introduce new and better techniques, powerful change can take place.
To see what can be done, it's instructive to consider ways in which the necessary visual skills can be developed. These skills require high levels of accuracy--a difficult feat for children with ADD. However, its mastery is attainable by (a) using small amounts of material that the child can handle with relative ease and (b) requiring perfect performance on this limited, simple material. Essentially, these two features allow children to develop new habits--in place of large chunks of material executed haphazardly, there are now tiny amounts of material executed exquisitely. As the childâ€™s skills improve, the amount of work is slowly and systematically increased.
Key components for fostering instant word recognition are:
Select a book your child can read relatively easily. That means the error rate should be 10% or lessâ€”so that out of 50 words, there would be no more than five errors. This step is vital because your child has to be near-accuracy in order to develop full-accuracy.
1. Reading: Ask your child to read a connected set of three to five sentences. Correct any errors your child makes by telling him or her the correct word(s). Then your child re-reads the material. This pattern is repeated until your child reads the set of sentences with 100% accuracy.
2. Instructions to your child: Tell your child that (a) he or she is going to write one of the sentences (b) all the writing is going to be carried out from memory and (c) the price for error is highâ€”any error, even if it is made on the last word, means re-starting from the beginning of the sentence. Provide a pencil and lined paper. If your child has handwriting problems, feel free to use a computer.
3. Writing single words: Show the sentence you have selected, point to the first word (so that your child sees a correct model), have your child say it, cover it and you ask your child to write it. If at all possible, discourage letter naming where your child names the letters in the words as an aid to writing. Unbelievable as it may seem, letter naming interferes with developing the visual skills that permit instant word recognition.
4. When correct: If the writing is correct (including punctuation and capitalization), move on to the next word. Before each word, you continue to show your child the word to be written. At no point, do you provide hints to your child about what is needed (so that you do NOT say, "Remember, you need to use a capital letter," or "This word has two eâ€™s"). You continue on in this manner until the sentence has been completed.
5. When not correct: If there is an error, including errors in punctuation and capitalization, immediately stop your child, say an error has been made--but do not point out the error. Then take the paper away, provide fresh paper and start again from the first word. Before each word, you continue to show your child the model of the correct word--but you provide no hints for dealing with points of difficulty and you continue to remove the word before your child writes it.
6. Writing a complete sentence: Once the single sentence is completed one word at a time, your child re-writes the same sentence. This time, however, he or she does not see the visual model. You simply dictate the words of the entire sentence. If there is an error, you stop and repeat Steps 3-5. Then return to Step 6.
7. Moving on: It may take about three to four weeks for your child to handle a single sentence with total accuracy. One this level is attained, you expand the work one sentence at a time until your child is able to write four to five sentences with total accuracy,
8. Frequency: this activity should be carried out three to four times a week in sessions lasting 15-20 minutes. With this schedule, generally, within about two months, there is dramatic improvement in a childâ€™s performance.
It may be hard to believe that children with ADD are capable of the diligence and accuracy that the activities require. But with the right structure, amazing things happen. The children begin to "see" the printed word in a new light and with that perception, "scholigenic disorder" is replaced with "scholigenic success." And as we all know, success is never "BORING!"
In teaching children to read, the main focus is decoding. That is, teaching them how to put sounds on letters, so that they can look at cluster of letters and identify the words they represent.
While not receiving nearly the same level of attention, there is another critical skill children must master. That skill is fluency. That term refers to the fact that true reading requires not simply decoding, but decoding at a steady pace. If that is not happening, and a child steadily requires lots of time to figure out most of the words, the reading is basically ineffective.
According the National Reading Panel (http://www.nationalreadingpanel.org), fluency is the ability to read text with speed, accuracy and proper expression. The key characteristics of fluency are the ability to
â€¢ recognize words automatically and accurately
â€¢ read aloud at a smooth, steady rate
â€¢ read with the right expression or â€œfeelingâ€
If a child takes to reading like a duck to water, the issue of fluency does not ever seem to arise. As is so often does with natural talent, it just â€œhappens.â€ But a high percentage of children are not that fortunate. For them, reading remains a slow, plodding affair that becomes increasingly tense and painful. The good news is that there are techniques to help a child master this vital skill.
The bad news is that typically the techniques cannot be implemented in the classroom since they require lots of practice carried out under adult supervision. Specifically, the child has to read aloud for sustained periods (e.g., ten-to-fifteen minutes at a time) while receiving steady guidance and feedback from an adult. The group situation in the classroom simply does not provide the possibility for individual children to have this kind of experience.
But there is a place where these opportunities do exist. That place is the home. There is no place better for nurturing this vital skill. And the time involved is not very great. You can get fabulous results through three sessions a week with each session lasting about 20-30 minutes.
One of the best methods to use is "guided repeated oral reading." The first step in the process involves selecting the right material. It's best to avoid short, isolated segments (like those in magazines or workbooks) and instead choose books so that each session builds on the ideas that went before. It is good if the books are not narratives (stories) but rather those that convey information, such as you find in biographies (e.g., Ben Franklin), books on famous events (e.g., the Titanic); science (e.g., dinosaurs).
Then much like Goldilocks, the content has to be "just right"--it cannot be too easy (since that would not teach your child anything) and it cannot be too hard (since that would overwhelm your child with error and frustration). Operationally, "just right" content is slightly above your childâ€™s level. This will generally be material where he or she has a ten percent error rate (that is, the mistakes are fewer than one out of 10 words) or material that he or she reads accurately, but slowly.
With the material selected, you start by reading a segment (generally a paragraph) aloud to your child while he or she looks at the text. Then your child reads the same segment back to you--with the goal being errorless reading. If there is an error, you immediately stop your child and offer a correction. Then you have him or her go back to the beginning of the paragraph and start again. Similarly, if your child is reading at an excessively slow rate, you have him or her repeat the paragraph until the speed is more appropriate. In other words, you are setting a high--but attainable--standard.
The importance of smooth, errorless reading cannot be overestimated. Typically children who have fluency problems have fallen into a pattern of reading with unacceptably high rates of error. As the material gets more complex, those errors prevent comprehension and reading becomes increasingly frustrating and confusing. By helping to turn this pattern around, you are laying the foundation for successful reading for years to come.
How many segments should you do in a session? A good starting formula is to aim for about three. When this is going smoothly, you can extend it to five or six. Also as your childâ€™s reading skill improves, you should move to more complex books.
How long should this method be maintained? Your childâ€™s performance determines the answer to that question. Typically, if you do the program regularly, you will see significant improvement within six to eight weeks. And your end goal should be having your child attain fluency with material about one grade above his or her class level. That way, any material he or she has to deal with in class is "easy." Typically when parents hear that they can expect their child to read a year above grade level, they stare in disbelief. But, as you will see if you try this method, guided repeated oral reading is a fabulous tool if you set up a plan for using it in a steady, systematic way.
Years ago, a popular detective series on both radio and TV had a somber lead character by the name of Sargeant Friday. Central to Sargeantâ€™s persona was the one-liner that he used in all his interrogations "All we want are the facts."
In light of a recent report from the Civitas think-tank in England, students would be well-advised to adopt that line as their new mantra. The report states that in an effort to revamp ideas to "promote fashionable causes" politicians are eliminating facts and figures from history, geography and science.
As examples, they cite the way science is becoming a forum for debating issues such as global warming, genetically modified crops and nuclear power. Critics of the new approach also claim that this approach, which was designed to make science more popular, has actually backfired since fewer students want to study higher level science than in years previously.
It's tempting to bemoan the decline of standards and talk about how much better everything was in "the good old days." But that is neither sensible nor accurate. There are huge advantages in modernizing and molding the curriculum so that students see their studies as domains relevant to their lives. At the same time, the elimination of facts in the curriculum is a serious concern. Without solid facts, discussions of issues are essentially empty.
The problems are by no means confined to England. A staple of the Jay Leno TV show is his questioning passersby--so as to expose their massive lack of information about almost anything and everything. His job is not hard to do--given that more than a fifth of the American population thinks that the sun goes around the earth and a comparable number think that it takes the earth one day to go around the sun.
While there are lots of reasons to advocate for the teaching of â€œthe facts,â€ for those interested in fostering reading, that goal is absolutely critical. It's almost impossible to read books on any key issue if you do not have a fund of information that makes the ideas meaningful.
The problem is complex and any solution will have to consider a variety of factors. The age of the students is one of these factors. Ideally, as with most things in education, the groundwork should be laid in the early yearsâ€”well before the child has to deal with material that requires lots of â€œfact knowledge.â€ There is plenty of time to do that since information based material is usually not required till about fourth grade. So the early primary grades offer allow lots of time to build the base that is needed.
Unfortunately, this generally does not happen in school. The early primary grades offer children relatively few opportunities to expand their fund of information about the world. In those years, the books that the children read tend to be simple stories (narratives about animals or people) where almost no significant information is provided or required.
So what is a parent to do? Happily, you have a wonderful resource in the bedtime reading you do with your child. Since you, and not your child, are doing the reading, the language can be fairly complex. Young children can follow intricate language that they hear--years before they can deal with that same language in print. Fortunately, there is an enormous range of well-designed books that you can offer to build up your childâ€™s knowledge of "facts." They cover biographies, historical events, scientific developments, ancient civilizations and on and on. The key is to select well-written books that hold your childâ€™s interest. If you want some specific guidance, the reference librarian at your local library is a wonderful resource.
And for the best outcome, it's important to avoid turning the experience into a test where you question your child about the reading. When not besieged by questions, children are far more relaxed. And with relaxation, the children are likely to begin to ask you questions. Like Sargeant Friday, they are going to want "the facts."
Children love jokes. They love telling them and they love hearing them. And jokes are wonderful. With their twists on words, they not only provide fun, they also improve language skills.
In case your child is not familiar with some of the ones below, you might try the following:
What does a tree do when he is ready to go home?
What did one tooth say to the other tooth?
The dentist is taking me out today!
What did one ear say to the other ear?
Between us we have brains!
Why did the one-handed man cross the road?
To get to the second-hand shop!
What did the cowboy say when his dog left?
How do you make a band stand?
Hide all their chairs!
Why do golfers take an extra pair of socks?
In case they get a hole in one!
How did the farmer fix his jeans?
With a cabbage patch!
What did the mother broom say to the baby broom?
Go to sweep, dear.
What do you call a fossil that doesn't ever want to work?
What has 5 eyes and is lying on the water?
Where do the pianists go for vacation?
What do the blanket say to the bed?
You are under cover
What do the little people ride?
A mini van
What is snake's favorite subject?
Hiss - tory
Of the many benefits of reading, one is its power to expand the sphere of humor. For example, consider a one-liner like the following:
Police were called to a daycare where a three-year-old was resisting a rest.
With this sort of material, print--rather than speech--is the perfect medium.
If you would like to SEE some more of this ilk, just read on. (And, if you would like to get serious about this material, you can see how much time it takes you to spot the key word in each sentence.)
Seven days without a pun makes one weak.
When a clock is hungry it goes back four seconds.
There was once a cross-eyed teacher who couldn't control his pupils.
Two peanuts were walking in a tough neighborhood and one of them was a-salted.
What did the grape say when it got stepped on? Nothing - but it let out a little whine.
Old doctors never die they just lose their patience.
A bicycle can't stand alone; it is two tired.
Those who jump off a Paris bridge are in Seine.
I get my large circumference from too much pi.
The roundest knight at king Arthur's round table was Sir Cumference.
When the smog lifts in Los Angeles, U C L A.
For years now, E. D. Hirsch and his colleagues have been at the vanguard in trying to revamp the teaching of reading. They want to have it move beyond the almost exclusive focus on "sounding out" and incorporate what he terms "cultural literacy." By this, he is referring to the knowledge that members of a society share about the world--such as the American Revolution, the Ten Commandments, Thomas Edison and so on. Without this knowledge, it becomes impossible to understand the ideas being discussed on the printed page.
In some ways, this view turns the usual focus of reading on its head. The common idea, expressed succinctly by none other than Dr. Seuss himself is that "The more that you read, the more things you will know." In other words, reading is correctly seen as critical to expanding one's knowledge.
But what Professor Hirsch has highlighted is the chicken-egg nature of the situation.
Specifically he is focusing on the knowledge that a person must bring to the printed page if he or she is understand the material and thereby be able to use the page to extend his or her knowledge. For example, imagine a passage describing some â€œlegislation passed by Congress.â€ Even if a person can read every word perfectly, the passage will be meaningless if there is no familiarity with the specific concepts being discussed. In other words, true understanding does not take place unless a person already knows something about what is being talked, or written, about.
All this seems eminently reasonable. However, we typically fail to appreciate just how sensitive we are to a lack of knowledge. Difficulty with even a few terms can devastate the comprehension process.
To get a flavor of what the experience is like, you might find it useful to read the following excerpt from a book designed for about fourth grade level. Hence the content should be a breeze--except it has been altered in one respect. Specifically, seven of the original concepts have been replaced with nonsense words, with the result that 12% of the passage contains unfamiliar references. Here it is.
Smith had made a promise. But could Turboland keep it?
By 1961 some jabots had reached a few hundred kiloms up into the surrounding belt. But the glerf was almost a quarter of a million kiloms away!
A trip to the glerf and back would take eight yims. By 1961 only one Turbian had even been up in a jabot-and for only fifteen stashes!
Just aiming for the glerf was a problem in itself. A jabot couldn't be aimed at where the glerf was in the belt because the glerf moves about 50,000 kiloms each day. Scientists would have to aim at an empty spot in the belt where the glerf was going to be by the time the jabot got there. It would take some very careful figuring out. If there was a mistake, the jabot would go off into the belt forever!
Now let's look at the original text:
Kennedy had made a promise. But could America keep it?
By 1961 some rockets had flown a few hundred miles up into space. But the moon was almost a quarter of a million miles away!
A trip to the moon and back would take eight days. By 1961 only one American had even been up in space-and for only fifteen minutes!
Just aiming for the moon was a problem in itself. A rocket couldn't be aimed at where the moon was in the sky because the moon moves about 50,000 miles each day. Scientists would have to aim at an empty spot in space where the moon was going to be by the time the spacecraft got there. It would take some very careful figuring out. If there was a mistake, the spacecraft would go off into space forever!
Now it all makes sense-but only because you knew the words that are critical to meaning. The consequences of a limited knowledge base, of weaknesses in cultural literacy, are profound. A small percentage of unfamiliar ideas can wreck the chances of effective comprehension.
So what is to be done? Hirsch has written a raft of books (such as The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know). These are aimed at defining the kind of information that children need to learn to become competent and knowledgeable citizens. He divides the information into different areas such as The Bible, World History, English Literature, and Earth Sciences. Then within each, he offers central concepts relevant to the area.
The teaching of these concepts is one thing; their effective teaching is quite another. When the presentation of these ideas is solely via reading or speaking, they can easily be dry and boring. The "learning" then can end up as a list of facts--much like the tedious memorization of words that students endure in trying to bone up for exams like the SAT.
There is a better way. Videos offer a wonderful route for expanding your child's knowledge base because they simultaneously enhance motivation and information. For children across the primary and high school years, there are great films on key topics--films that make real and immediate topics that otherwise seem dry and distant. A few examples are the American Revolution (such as The Crossing), World War II (Hope and Glory), biology (March of the Penguins) and American politics (All the President's Men). These films do not substitute for reading and discussion. However, they lay the foundation that enables the children to, literally, see the key issues in a clear, exciting light. Ironically, films are often judged to be the enemy of books. But when used effectively, they are one of the most powerful allies for fostering literacy.
Time magazine, a few months ago, had, as a lead story, How to Build a Student for the 21st Century. It started as follows: Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century ...and is, of course, utterly bewildered by what he sees. Airports, hospitals, shopping mallsâ€”every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when he finally walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. "This is a school," he declares. "We used to have these back in 1906. Only now the blackboards are green."
The children in those classrooms who spot Rip might well envy him. He is only a century out of synch; by contrast, their life is dominated by a system of reading system that is even more out of date. It stems from the 19th century.
The problem is not simply that the system is antiquated; it is extraordinarily ineffective. Government figures consistently show approximately 40 percent of bright, capable children have trouble in learning to read. Yet, despite its epidemic proportions, this crisis, for the most part, is "off the radar screen."
To the degree that it is recognized, the call has been to "go back to basics." This advice rests on a firm, but unfounded, belief that way back in our history, schools regularly achieved effective literacy and that the current failure is based on having deviated from the practices of those older days.
Admittedly, for a couple of periods in our history, some other forms of reading instructions were briefly attempted. One was whole word teaching (where children were to learn whole words rather than sounds); another was whole language teaching (where children were to read whole books right from the start). These efforts were even more unsuccessful than the phonics instruction they were designed to replace and their tenure was brief. So for almost the entire history of our country, traditional phonics has held sway. Hence, the call to "go back to basics" is essentially a plea to continue doing what we have been doing for generations.
The reasons why the instruction doesn't work are easy to identify if you spend some time examining what children are offered. Major holes pervade the system. To take but one example, let's consider a group of words that permeate our language. These are the "little words" such as was, who, he, they, of, what, were, do. For phonics instructors, these words are "renegades" that fail to "obey" the rules. If the words chose to be reasonable, was might be spelled as wuz, who as hoo, he as hee, they as thay, of as uv and so on. So minimal time is spent teaching them.
The lack of attention is justified by telling children that these words have no meaning; indeed, they are often encouraged to skip over them. If we follow that advice, it means that the sentence you just read would be experienced as: lack attention justify tell children words meaning encourage skip. Were your agenda to be a lack of comprehension, you would be well on your way.
Not only are the words deemed to be meaningless, they are also deemed to be rare--that is, their total number is minute relative to the range of all other words. After all, why spend time on things that are so exceptional?
Except not these exceptions. In fact, about 100 of these little words make up 50% or more of any page of print--regardless of whether the book is for a first grader or a college student. This small, seemingly insignificant set of words actually forms the backbone of language. Without them, we simply cannot create meaningful sentences. Thatâ€™s why they represent practically every other word we read--or write. Failure to provide children with adequate training in this realm seriously compromises their chances for success. Comparable difficulties exist in other essential aspects of reading.
It was understandable that educators a couple of centuries back failed to take account of the many skills underlying literacy. The knowledge base was simply not there. Nowadays, there is no such excuse. The advances in cognitive science, linguistics and related realms provide a gold mine of resources. Yet for the most part, they have been ignored as children continue to be confronted with out-of-date programs that breed unconscionable rates of failure. For the health of our children and our nation, it is time for reading instruction to enter the 21st century.
Benjamin Ffanklin seemed to write on anything and everything. So it's not surprising to find that he had lots of thoughts on education and the path to knowledge. And his power to convey those ideas was amazing. Here, in just 15 words, he has pinpointed some central truths of teaching and learning.
Tell me....And I Forget,
Teach me.....And I Learn,
Involve Me.....And I Remember.
Of course, he has lots more to say such as:.
Hide not your talents, they for use were made. What's a sun-dial in the shade?
An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.
A slip of the foot you may soon recover, but a slip of the tongue you may never get over.
Genius without education is like silver in the mine.
If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.
Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.
If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are rotten, either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing.
Experience is a dear teacher, but fools will learn at no other.
It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them
Write injuries in dust, benefits in marble.
I recently received the following letter from a parent:
I have been using your Phonics Plus Five method with my 6 year old daughter. Thank you for creating such a great program. I love it.
So far, we have made it through the Boarding program. When we got to the end, she could read all the words, but she could spell only about half of them correctly. Since you provide a set of review activities, I assume this is normal. But the review does not seem to be enough. Her spelling is still not as secure as I would like. She can spell them fine if I give her the letters out of order and she has to arrange them in the right order, but she cannot pull them out of midair, so to speak. What should I do?
And here is my answer:
This is a great question and it gets to the heart of a set of key skills that children must developâ€”the skills involving visual memory. When the review activities in the program are not sufficient, the best technique to use is what I call "One Hour Recall."
Hereâ€™s how it works. Take the review sentences from the guide that are relevant to the level you have been working at. In this case, it will be the Boarding level. Each day, take a set of two different sentences and write them clearly, each on a separate page. Show your daughter one sentence and have her read it. Following that, point to the first word and have her say it. Then cover the word, provide lined paper, and say, "Now write it." (By the way, discourage the labeling of letters if she is doing that. Though it is widely used, labeling of letters can actually interfere with the development of visual memory ).
If the spelling is correct, move on and have your daughter finish the sentence, repeating the process with each word. But if there is an error, cross out whatever she has written (making sure to blacken out the words). Then on a new line or with fresh paper, start the sentence again from the first word. Do this as often as is required--till your child writes the entire sentence correctly.
Repeat the process with the second sentence.
Then move to the ONE HOUR RECALL. For this, about an hour later, say "One of the sentences you wrote today was ......(and tell her the sentence)." Then add, "Now I want you to write it again--but this time, I won't show you the words." Following that, dictate the sentence to your child --a word or two at a time. If she makes one or no errors, say "Great.That's all we have to do today." But if she makes two or more errors, immediately stop the writing and repeat the work above (of writing out the two sentences in the way indicated).
If this repetition is needed, do not repeat the one hour recall that day. In other words, you do the one hour recall at most only one time a session. (And don't be stressed about it being exactly one hour later. It's fine if you leave 30 minutes or more between the original writing and the recall.)
Complete all the review sentences for the Boarding level in this way. This work tends to be "boring" but the activity requires only a few minutes each session. Also you might find that offering a favorite reward does a lot for your child's effort and spirit.
The one-hour recall process generally sets in place the visual memory that is needed for effective reading and writing. Usually, it is not required past the Boarding and the Runway levels. In other words, it takes some time to get established, but once established, the memory skills are never lost.
Finally when you do start the next level, make sure that in all work where writing of sentences is required (as in Write In To Read), you cover the models so that your daughter is doing the writing from memory.