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Reading, and reading problems, get lots of attention. But writing, and writing problems, which are equally important receive far less time and effort. The consequences of this neglect are serious—as many discover once they leave college and try to move up the career ladder. Skilled writing is an enormous advantage for both academic and job success. It is also in enormously short supply.
To deal with the problem, schools have placed one technique into center stage. It goes by the name of “journal writing.”
A product of the whole language movement, daily or near daily, journal writing occurs in the primary grades in schools throughout the nation. The idea is that children’s interest in writing would be increased and their skills would be enhanced if they were to write about their own experiences—experiences that were meaningful to them.
Practice with this type of writing occurs even in the earliest years such as kindergarten. There, children will be encouraged to draw a picture of something in their lives and then put down whatever words they can to go along with it. (For those who are familiar with invented spelling, it’s easy to see the compatibility between the two systems. The topic can be anything that comes to the child’s mind and the spelling can also be anything that comes to mind.) The seeming lack of constraint is thought to be a boon to the child’s expression and confidence.
As many a parent knows, it frequently doesn’t work. Many children, dreading the daily assignment, begin to rely on simple repetitive formulas that they hope will allow them to get by. Often, for example, not knowing what else to do, a child will write about his pet. The end product, repeated with slight variations from day to day, is something like “I have a pet. His name is Charley. I like him. We play together.” After a few days, the teacher will respond with a message such as “I love hearing about your pet but I would love to hear about something else. Can you think of something else in your life that really is important to you.” The child has been anticipating—with butterflies in his stomach—the moment when this message would come. It always recurs after a certain number of repetitions on the same theme. All the child can do is hope he can get away with his ploy for as many days as possible.
The irony is that even when a child writes journal entries well, they do little or nothing for the writing skills that he or she will need both in higher grades in school and in jobs in adult life. Why is that the case?
Well, think about it for a moment. What is the essence of journal writing? What is its message? The answer is that it is a form of personal diary writing where a written record is made that reports on something meaningful that happened to the writer over the course of a day or other period. But for whom is a diary written? Or put another way, who is supposed to read a dairy?
Generally it is only for the writer. It is the self-expression of someone who wants to get his or her ideas down—just because that expression leads to a better sense of well-being or release. They are not designed to be read by anyone else. So when a teacher reviews, edits and comments on them, it is basically an invasion of privacy. And when the teacher, seeing the repetition, requests new content, he or she is essentially making an inappropriate demand. It is a violation of a diary writer’s rights.
From a purely pragmatic view, the practice is also mired in difficulty. The demands of journal or diary writing have little or no similarity to the major set of demands that individuals face in the later school years or in their careers. The type of writing that is required is termed “expository writing.” Basically in this form, the writer is “exposing” or “illuminating” a theme about a subject of importance in the society—whether it is the causes of the Civil War in a middle school class; a critique of the United Nations in a high school class or an analysis of business practices of competing organizations in a job setting. Journal writing offers little if anything in the way of training for this type of writing.
None of this should be interpreted to mean that I am against a child keeping a diary. If a child independently selects that activity, it’s great. Any reasonable activity that a child ELECTS to do should be encouraged. But journal writing in school does not fit this category. It is not an activity that the child has chosen to do. It is an IMPOSED activity that uses up time and fails to teach what the children need to learn.
So what is a parent to do? It is, of course, neither feasible nor realistic for parents to create the writing curriculum that schools have failed to create. But there are a number of things you can do that are manageable and have enormous payoff.
It is well known that artists learn a tremendous amount about their craft from (intentionally) copying other artists. The same is true of writing. Imitating the construction of well-formed ideas is invaluable. So here is one activity to try with children from about third grade on.
Take a newspaper that the child can read. It might be something as esoteric as the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times or it might be something like New for You http://www.news-for-you.com/ --an excellent paper for young children. First have the child read an article--or a good percentage of an article. Then take a few minutes to discuss the ideas with him or her and use the time to go over any points that are unclear. Following that, select one of the paragraphs. At the outset, it should be a relatively short paragraph of no more that three to four sentences.
Ask the child to read the paragraph again. Then cover it and ask him or her to “recreate” the set of ideas. This need not be a word for word recreation–but all the key ideas need to be included in well-formed sentences.
If, in the middle of the writing, the child needs to go back and look at the paragraph, allow that to happen. However, when it does, the child has to start the writing again—from scratch. In order for these writing skills to develop, it is essential that the child be able to mentally hold and manipulate a set of ideas. If you allow him or her to deal with one sentence at a time, a key element in effective expository writing will be eliminated.
If you do this activity twice weekly for a sustained period of time (e.g., six months), you will begin to see major changes in your child’s writing abilities. Of course, the atmosphere has to be supportive. If it ends up as a yelling bout or with lots of preaching, it will just add to a child's negative feelings about writing. But if you can put the time aside and commit yourself to this, the effects are amazing. Not only do your child’s writing skills flourish, but the regular interactions lead to interesting, illuminating exchanges which enhances your relationship with your child.
Former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer is the chairman of "Ed in '08"--a project that received $60 million to try to make education a prominent issue in the race for the White House. In a recent radio interview, he acknowledged that, even though it is of central importance to our children and to the nation, it has been difficult to get candidates to talk about education. It keeps being pushed into the background by issues of the economy, health care and the war.
But the project has lots of valuable things to say about ways to fix our schools and strengthen the economy. Those who want to keep up with the state of education today can turn to http://www.edin08.com/
A few weeks ago, a familiar scene played itself in my office.
It started when a mother brought her six year old son to see me because he had not made any progress in reading during this school year and she was, understandably, distraught.
I began some preliminary testing. In the one-to-one situation, it was not easy, but at least it was possible to keep his attention to the task at hand. However, if at any point, I did not attend directly to him (for example, when I turned to the mom to get some information), he bounded out of his seat in an instant. Then he raced over to one or another of the toys in the room. It would not be amiss to characterize his behavior as much like “a jack in the box.”
The implications for classroom learning were obvious. Since classrooms cannot provide steady one-to-one supervision, it was clear why he was not learning in school. Almost certainly, he was rarely, if ever, attending to what was going on.
But of even greater significance were the implications for daily life. I asked the mother if his behavior made it difficult for things at home. Immediately tears started flowing as she said, “It’s impossible. We can’t take him places because he won’t listen to anything we say. I can’t talk on the phone because he constantly interrupts. We can never have a meal together because he is bouncing up and down….” The list went on and on.
I replied that, despite this behavior, we could actually get him to read. But it would be far better if, simultaneously, we spent some time getting his behavior under control. I added that certain relatively simple techniques were available that were particularly effective with young children.
She responded with a look that said. “This is too good to be true.” Her skepticism was totally understandable. If techniques were available, why wasn’t everyone using them?
I replied to her unasked question by telling her that most parents find it very difficult to implement the techniques. "Is this because the techniques are harsh and punitive? Not at all. There are no punishments, no threats, no time-outs.
But there are significant changes in the nature of the interaction between the child and the parent—changes that require that the parent to consciously adopt behaviors that are quite different from those they traditionally use. Change is always hard and somehow, in this realm, it seems particularly hard."
But the mother was desperate and nothing is more powerful than desperation for greasing the path to change. So with her request to proceed, I outlined the main points. She listened attentively.
About two months later, the mother and child returned. Difficult as it may be to believe, the boy behaved as if he were a different child. His movements were slower and more directed; he was able to stay in his seat with no difficulty. The mother’s face was beaming. She reported that they had just been on vacation with her extended family and on several occasions they complimented her on how well behaved her youngster was,
So what are the key ingredients to this formula that made such a difference? Basically, they involve two major groupings:
behaviors you want the child to stop (such as ending a game) and
behaviors you want your child to start (such as getting undressed).
Here are the main point for each. (For ease of writing, I refer to the hypothetical child as “he” but the guidelines apply equally well to “she.”)
1. Stopping a behavior. First, never give directions from a distance. Instead get within “touching distance” of your child and say, as briefly and simply as possible, what you have to say (e.g., “please put the toy down.”). If he seems to ignore you, without saying a word and without getting angry, simply take the child’s hands and wait. Ignore anything he has to say—whether they be complaints, questions or entreaties. If, after 3 or so minutes, he fails to start carrying out the direction, repeat it and wait again. At this point you probably won’t have to do anything further—but just in case, move him so that he is in a position to start the action (e.g., positioning his hands so they are holding the toy and in position to put it down). At no point, do you say anything else. When the action is carried out, say something simple like “Good” or Thank you” and act as if this was just what was expected. At the same time, say nothing further. Specifically guard against the strong pull to “take advantage” of the situation by delivering a moral lesson (via statements such as “Look how easy that was. If you had done it right away, we would not have wasted all this time…” etc). If you want to get a child to tune out, just start preaching. It can destroy all the effort you just put into the situation.
2. Starting a behavior. Once again, never give directions from a distance. Once within “touching distance” say what you have to say (e.g., “please go up the stairs.”). Make sure to stick to one direction at a time and do not bunch a set of directions together. So do not say “Go upstairs, and get undressed and then take your bath.” Once one direction is completed, you can move on to the next. If your child continues to do something else, again take his hands and wait—making sure to show no anger or annoyance. But if he is simply doing nothing, then stay close behind and just wait. If nothing happens after 3 or so minutes, place your hands on his shoulders and press lightly in the direction in which you want him to move. Essentially you are positioning him to start the action. When the action is carried out, again say something simple and continue on as if nothing special has happened.
At this point, you may be wondering what makes the techniques so difficult for parents to adopt? In some ways, the answer is the same as it is for the questions, “why is it so difficult for people to diet?" or "why is it so difficult for people stop smoking?” The rules for changing those behaviors are clear and simple. But they require a major commitment to change and the willingness to alter old patterns and replace them with new ones.
In the case of parent-child interaction, one source of difficulty is the paucity of language. Our culture has accustomed us to talking, and explaining, and reasoning ad infinitum with our children. That becomes an ingrained habit that is hard to relinquish. But of even greater significance is the discipline required to do this on a regular basis. It takes both physical and mental effort to make sure that with each request, you are up, close to your child and ready to carry out the routine. It is so much easier to call out your request from the next room. But that calling out is useless and actually counterproductive in terms of the goals you hope to achieve.
Further, it's easy to be misled by the improvement you will see. Generally there will be significant gains within three to four weeks. That often is taken to mean that all is well and you can return to your old ways. Alas, that is not the case. Typically, even when your child seems calm and in control, you have to maintain this pattern for about six additional months. At that point, the new interaction patterns are reasonably secure and you can start, step-by-step, to be more relaxed about the discipline.
As a psychologist, I find that an even more intriguing question is “Why is the physical contact so effective?” It appears to play at least two roles.
First, children who are active and impulsive find it exacting to control their behavior. When the adult is nearby and imposes the control, much like the governor in an engine, it regulates the flow of what is occurring. Then over time, with continued practice, the child can take over the job on his own.
Second, physical contact presents a situation that is far easier to “read” than one involving verbal directions. When there is distance and the control is verbal, the child always face the tantalizing pull that tells him “Keep doing what you are doing. No one is close enough to stop you.” or “She may not mean what she is saying. Wait till she starts yelling.” When you are nearby, all that changes. Your message is clear, unambiguous and effective.
Whatever the source, the physical contact represents a magic touch that can do wonders for enhancing your child's behavior and adding tranquility to family life.
High school graduates are not the only ones waiting for college acceptance letters. Increasingly, the older generation is in the same boat. At California State University, Sacramento, for example, the number of students between the ages of 50 and 64 grew by 76 percent from 1986 to 2006.
Across the state, the number of California college students between the ages of 50 and 64 rose 61 percent between 1986 and 2006. Among people ages 40 to 49, enrollment increased 32 percent. Overall enrollment climbed 33 percent during the same two decades.
There are lots of reasons for this new development. Often, baby boomers return to school for economic necessity. Some are single parents; others want to become skilled with computers and other technology that has invaded the workplace. They also enroll because they choose new careers after years on the job, possibly less physically taxing ones.
Regardless of the reasons, this is an exciting development. After World War II, the wave of college students that were created by the GI Bill had a tremendous effect on the society. It would be wonderful if the new wave of schooling for aging baby boomers led to similar outcomes.
As those who follow the education scene know well, literacy testing takes up a huge amount of time, effort and money. Tom Sticht, an international consultant in education, in reviewing the field has termed the situation "The Debacle of Testing Literacy Ability." He summarizes the state of affairs as follows:
"Despite extensive use of standardized tests by the 50 states, 30-year reading trend data show minimal if any improvement for 9-, 13-, or 17-year-old children since the early 1970s...Further, the testing of adult literacy in 1992 and again in 2003 shows little or no improvement in literacy at the lowest levels and a decline at the highest levels."
"To date, then, the great literacy testing debacle has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, threatened teachers and administrators, subjected children to hours of drill and practice in test taking rather than engaging in learning important content and skills, and cast aspersions on the literacy skills of America's workforce, thus advertising to the world that the U. S. workforce is incompetent. This cannot be good for the health and welfare of the nation or its international competitiveness in the global economy.
Even if we could get literacy testing right - which we have not done up to now - there is no way we can test ourselves out of the serious educational problems that afflict our K-12 and adult literacy education systems. There is a word for the obsessive repetition of utterly foolish, unreasonable, and failed practices: insanity."
If you would like to read his full statement, you can find it at http://ednews.org/articles/25499/1/The-great-literacy-testing-debacle-in-the-United-States/Page1.html
As a four year old, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was reported to "play faultlessly and with the greatest delicacy" Behavior like that makes musical talent intriguing and mysterious.
Given that certain families produce abundant numbers of musicians, scientists have long suspected that talent in this realm music might have genetic roots. Now research indicates that they may be right. Scientists in Finland say they’ve found approximate locations in our genome where genes affecting musical talent may lie. The findings suggest not only that musical ability is partly genetic but it may share evolutionary roots with language.
The study of 234 Finns from 15 families—all with at least some musicians—was published in the April 18 advance online issue of the Journal of Medical Genetics.
As part of the research, each participant also took three tests of musical aptitude. The researchers reported finding “significant evidence” for an association between that ability and a small region of Chromosome 4. The patch of DNA in question encompassed about 50 genes. Of particular interest was one gene that interacts with molecules that govern the development of brain cells and their interconnections. Mutations in the gene are also indirectly linked to defects in time and pitch processing. There’s also evidence such mutations may be connected to the dyslexia.
Interestingly, a second separate group reported in the April 16 advance online issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that children with language syntax deficits also have musical difficulties .
These studies, while too small to be definitive, are good starting points for further mapping, isolation, and description of genes that may help us account for the Mozarts of the world--and at the same time, the children who struggle with the printed page.
At the heart of the No Child Left Behind law is a $6 billion program called Reading First. In a front page story this past week, the Washington Post offered the disheartening news that that "students enrolled in the program are not reading any better than those who don't participate." Guided by the idea that comprehension is the ultimate goal in reading, the study focused on reading comprehension, rather than other aspects of reading such as whether kids grasp phonics.
The assessment was carried out by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), a part of the Department of Education. It was based on the performance of students in 12 states who were in grades one to three during the 2004-5 and 2005-6 school years. In presenting the findings, Russ Whitehurst, director of the IES, said, "It's possible that, in implementing Reading First, there is a greater emphasis on decoding skills and not enough emphasis, or maybe not correctly structured emphasis, on reading comprehension."
If anything, Whitehurst understated the problem. The history of reading instruction shows that comprehension receives almost no serious attention in the curriculum. For example, back in 1998, a prestigious government sponsored study was carried out, aimed at "promoting optimal literacy instruction." It was titled Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. If you turn to that material, you will find the index to contain over 200 references to phonology and related sound analysis activities, but only about 60 references to anything concerned with comprehension.
One of the keys to comprehension is what is termed “the main idea.” That refers to the ability to take the varied and numerous details in a story and extract the unifying theme that holds them together. Hard as it may be to believe, teachers are offered almost no systematic instruction for fostering this vital aspect of reading. For the most part, the problem is shifted on to the children by asking them “what was the main idea.” It might be phrased in different words –such as “what was the story about?” Regardless of the words used, what is happening is not teaching, but testing. The children are being asked to come up with the right answer—without having received any instruction in how to get to that answer.
For many, the question becomes one that is feared and avoided. Sometimes, as intelligent beings are wont to do, the children come up with clever defenses. One fourth grader proudly reported the strategy he had devised. “The main idea? I don’t have a clue. But it doesn’t matter. Most of the questions are on details. So I can still get an 80 or 90% score without ever understanding the main idea.”
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are effective, albeit ignored, methods that can be extremely effective. Given the history of bureaucracies, schools are likely to take years before they implement the necessary procedures. However, parents who are committed to their children’s success do not have the luxury of waiting.
One of the most effective methods is to use the powerful technique of modeling. Here, the adult formulates a well-organized main idea about a particular piece of material that the child has read. At the outset, it should involve no more than three or four points. That summary serves as a model for the end product that the child needs to achieve.
You involve the child in the process step by step. Specifically, with the summary in hand, you offer the first point contained in the summary—pausing to allow the child to complete the idea. If the child cannot offer the information, you provide it for him or her. You then ask the child to restate the complete idea. You continue in this manner for the next two or three points—until the summary is complete. Then you ask the child to restate the entire summary. He or she need not use the identical words, but the key ideas should be present. If they are not, you repeat the process –from the start.
Initially, it may take a number of sessions before the child can restate summaries smoothly and easily. But if you regularly engage your child in the process, within a few weeks, you should begin to see major improvements in your child’s ability in this vital, but for so long, neglected sphere of reading.