Learning by Listening: Why It’s the Best Way to Do the CCSS in the Early Grades

by Alice Wiggins
January 29th, 2013

In my last post I drew attention to John Merrow’s visit to a school in Queens, N.Y., using the new Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program. Today I’d like to start with a chunk of the transcript from Merrow’s video:

JOHN MERROW: In balanced literacy, comprehension is a skill, something to be practiced, like a jump-shot or dance steps…. Not so here. In this reading program at a school in Queens, N.Y., the emphasis is on content, the knowledge kids acquire.

TEACHER: Pick your favorite planet. And you’re going to look back into your reading notebook and you’re going to have to write two facts about that planet.

JOHN MERROW: PS-96 uses a curriculum called Core Knowledge developed by a nonprofit organization led by education reformer E. D. Hirsch, Jr….

STUDENT: Saturn is the second biggest planet. Saturn has thousands of rings.

JOHN MERROW: Core Knowledge is an outlier used by just over 1 percent of elementary schools. That’s only 800 schools. Because it’s such a small program now, the final cost has not been determined. Organizers say it will be less than basal readers….

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER, Principal, Public School 96: When I initially came to PS-96, we were not a Core Knowledge school. We basically used basal readers and some sort of— and balanced literacy. Through the basal readers, it was a lot of fictional, fictional studies, fictional texts.

JOHN MERROW: But principal Barrett-Walker wasn’t a fan of basal readers and their emphasis on fiction. She felt her students needed to know the same things that children in affluent neighborhoods were learning.

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER: I felt that some of the students who were here didn’t have enough prior knowledge.

JOHN MERROW: Prior knowledge means?

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER: Knowledge that they need to have to, I feel, function in society, to have conversation, just to help them exist and understanding who they are as far as their relationship to the rest of the world.

Core Knowledge can be challenging. So you do have to do a lot of training, because informational text is very complex. Now, how do you tear it down so that young children in kindergarten and first grade can understand about Egyptian civilizations?

JOHN MERROW: Content is king in the Core Knowledge approach. Books are organized by subjects like mythology, Mozart and the Westward Expansion, topics that some say are over the heads of the young readers…. Apparently, nobody told these first-graders.

STUDENT: My favorite book is solar system—actually, a nature book, “The Skeleton.”

JOHN MERROW: Oh, “The Skeleton.”

And how about you?

STUDENT: An archaeologist book because it’s teaching me more than archaeology.

JOHN MERROW: The arrival of the Common Core doesn’t faze principal Barrett-Walker.

JOYCE BARRETT-WALKER: When I look at what the expectations are coming in with the Common Core learning standards, it seems that we’re where we need to be right now.

P.S. 96 is where it needs to be, and its young students are on the path to college. Schools using the Core Knowledge Sequence: Content and Skill Guidelines for PreK–8, and especially those that adopt the new CKLA program, will address all of the CCSS. Core Knowledge is very closely aligned to the CCSS in mathematics and English language arts & literacy. In English language arts & literacy especially, the CCSS and Core Knowledge call for many of the same practices. Other programs could be written to align just as well, but they would have to start from the same shared foundation that supports both Core Knowledge and the CCSS: cognitive science research on reading comprehension.

In my last post I briefly described some of that research, focusing the importance of knowledge for reading comprehension. Now I’d like to mention one more research finding that is critical for the early grades: Until the end of middle school (on average), students’ have better listening comprehension than reading comprehension. In the very early grades this is obvious—children are just learning to read. But the fact that reading comprehension takes so many years to outstrip listening comprehension is not obvious at all. Typical 5th, 6th, and 7th graders read well: Why would they still learn more from listening than reading? Because they still do not have enough prior knowledge to draw the full meaning from the text. In class, when teachers are reading aloud, they support comprehension. They pause to define new vocabulary, to explain an idea or event, to ask questions that gauge students’ understanding, or to answer questions as needed. They also read with good fluency and proper intonation, which also aid comprehension.

I have worked with hundreds of teachers on reading aloud in class, especially in the very early grades when listening, looking, and talking are students’ main tools for learning. Very often teachers have an initial concern that the read-aloud will make students passive (and will quickly lead to behavior problems). But a read-aloud should be quite the opposite. Fiction or nonfiction, a high-quality text offers many words and ideas that students are curious about.  And wonderful conversations, and even short research projects, ensue. (Even so, I have to admit that I also value the listening skills children develop over time when their teachers do lots of read-alouds from engaging texts. Really listening to another person, attending to another’s point of view and feelings—isn’t that terrifically valuable in and of itself?)

Don’t take it from me. Here’s an excerpt of a communication that arrived in my inbox last week from some educators in New York who are now using the CKLA Listening and Learning program. A network support team member in the Jefferson-Lewis-Hamilton-Herkimer-Oneida BOCES (those not familiar with New York can think of BOCES as consortia of school districts) emailed me the following reflections on their early experiences using CKLA:

Teachers expressed amazement at the content knowledge their students have been developing. One teacher shared an anecdote in which one of her second graders wondered aloud if Marian Anderson had ever met Rosa Parks, since Rosa would probably have stood up for Marian when she was denied hotel accommodations after a performance.

Teachers expressed great satisfaction with the degree to which students have begun answering in complete sentences and offering support for their thinking. Because this is explicitly requested by the teachers as part of the read alouds, students have come to understand and prepare to meet this expectation on their own….Several teachers shared anecdotes of very young children using very sophisticated vocabulary correctly. There were smiles around the room.

Every educator who finds the time to study both the CCSS and the underlying research; who comes to understand the importance of content knowledge in history, civics, science, and the arts; and who experiments in class with reading aloud interesting fiction and nonfiction texts so as to spark conversations and investigations can experience that same satisfaction.

We’re celebrating each CCSS victory and are happy to have created materials that generate responses such as this and provide a means of leveraging developmentally-appropriate best practices to implement Common Core in the early grades.

Through decades of hard work, cognitive scientists have assembled a new understanding of how listening and reading comprehension work: they depend on prior knowledge. It’s time for all of us in education to embrace that research, and adopt new educational programs that build students’ knowledge.

Stay tuned: Later this week, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., will take a deeper look at the research on learning by listening.

John Merrow’s Crystal Ball

by Alice Wiggins
January 24th, 2013

Last year, John Merrow showed us what early grades classrooms will look like once teachers become experts in the new Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts. He’s long been known as an insightful journalist, so maybe it should not be a surprise that he so quickly grasped the most essential difference between business as usual and the Common Core.

Unlike ELA practices typically used in the early grades today (which our nation’s hard-working teachers have been taught in their preparation programs and required by their school districts to use), the practices that will become typical in the Common Core era are actually based on cognitive science. The first hint is in the standards’ long title: Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. It’s ridiculously long for a title—but it’s incredibly short as a summary of all the most critical points.

Common: shared, as in shared by enough educators for them to be able to collaborate in developing and refining lesson plans—and shared across schools so those unlucky students who must change schools often are not always lost in class.

Core: essential yet also expandable; states can add a bit (if they must) and teachers will have time to go deeper in response to students’ needs and interests.

State: not federal.

Standards: not curriculum (though for the sake of teacher training, materials development, assessment, and mobile students, states should consider developing curricula too).

English Language Arts: artful use of the English language will become far easier to find once the new writing, speaking, listening, and language standards are honored in spirit and practice.

Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects: broad literacy, true literacy; a literate adult has wide-ranging knowledge of these subjects and is therefore able to read any text intended for the public.

This lengthy title will take on even more meaning with a quick review of two amazing findings from cognitive science. Both relate to literacy, and they really explain why the new standards emphasize literacy in specific subjects. The first finding is that, once students are fluent decoders, reading comprehension strategies do help—but students don’t need to spend much time learning or practicing them. Some research shows that just 6 lessons in comprehension strategies (like answering questions and summarizing) are as effective as 50 such lessons. This is great news: we have something effective to build on and it does not need to take much  instructional time. That means we have plenty of time to devote to something that helps more, which brings me to the second finding: knowledge matters. A lot.

One way to study this that has been replicated several times is to take a topic, say baseball, and then get a group of kids, say 12-year-olds, and assess them to find out (1) who is and is not a strong reader, and (2) who does and does not know much about baseball. Then make four groups: strong reader, high knowledge of baseball; strong reader, low knowledge of baseball; weak reader, high knowledge of baseball; weak reader, low knowledge of baseball. Now we’re ready to find out how much knowledge matters: give the kids a text about a baseball game and give them a miniature replica of the diamond, players, etc. Then see who really understands the text by having them show you what happened in the game. Which group does best? The strong readers with a high knowledge of baseball, of course. But the real question is between the strong readers with low knowledge of baseball and the weak readers with high knowledge of baseball. Okay, I gave away the answer at the beginning: it’s the knowledge that really matters. Weak readers with high knowledge of baseball comprehend the baseball text better than the strong readers with low knowledge of baseball. This is spectacular because it gives us a clear path to high achievement: to increase reading comprehension, we need to increase knowledge—and that can be done orally and visually, as well as through text.

Back to the future. Fortunately, when Merrow looked into his crystal ball he had his camera crew standing by to capture the astounding scene: 6-year-olds talking about their favorite books on the solar system and archeology. Take a look (or read the transcript). The first part of the video captures the reading classroom of today. But then, about 6 minutes in, the future is there for all to see in an elementary school in Queens, NY. This is one of 10 NYC schools that piloted the new Core Knowledge Language Arts program. Grades K–3 of that program will be available—for free—this summer, and samples will be available in February. We’ll be sure to let you know when the future arrives.

Wrapping Up the Week of the Young Child

by Alice Wiggins
April 26th, 2009

The week has ended and observation of the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s Week of the Young Child is drawing to a close.  I hope you found at least on nugget to take away from my “top 5 for improving early childhood education”

5.  Clear and specific early childhood standards

4.  Alignment of PreK schooling & standards with K-8 schooling & standard

3.  Recognition that quality is comprised of both process and structure (what teachers DO and what teachers HAVE)

2.  Access for all children in need

1.  The importance of play and intentionality in the preschool classroom

I hope that you noted the interrelationships between these items as well.  We tend to talk about them as specific entities, but preschool access isn’t beneficial if it isn’t high-quality. Although clear and specific standards may be a measure of quality, they are nothing with out teacher intentionality in their implementation. Teacher intentionality is most effective when interactions with children are high-quality, and, OK, I can see I have the vicious circle thing going. 

Keep your eye on the prize…the child.

In Support of Intentional Play

by Alice Wiggins
April 24th, 2009

Last month, the Alliance for Childhood released a report titled “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.“  They had me with the first sentence: “The argument of this report, that child-initiated play must be restored to kindergarten will be dismissed and even ridiculed in some quarters.”  

I let out a cheer that startled my co-workers.

I am a huge fan of play in the early childhood classroom (preschool through grade 3).  The research is clear.  Through play, children develop a host of important skills and knowledge including social skills (for negotiating and cooperating with peers), language (particularly in dramatic play, which studies show fosters children in using more complete and complex language), literacy (as they interact with literacy materials in the play environment), as well as math and science (as they interact with manipulatives including blocks, puzzles, and toy vehicles).

For those of you who didn’t let out a supportive cheer at news of this report, I’d like to clarify two things that I spend a great deal of time communicating to teachers during professional development.  “Free play” doesn’t mean “free for all” and “child-initiated” doesn’t mean “teacher-free.”

Free play is distinguished from “structured” play by its opportunity to engage the imagination and its lack of rules (as in game rules, not behavior and classroom management rules).  To reap the greatest benefits from free play, teachers need to be intentional about the activities and materials available during this portion of the day.  Unfortunately, many teachers provision their centers with things like dolls and dishes, blocks, and a sensory table (sand and water table) but don’t rotate or supplement these provisions regularly.  Day after day children can play house, build towers, and dig in the sand. The teachers are happy. The kids are happy. What else is there to do? Well, consider how the learning opportunities change if one day instead of a housekeeping center, there’s an airport setup; instead of a sand table, there’s an archaeological dig; and instead of 120 unit blocks, there are 120 unit blocks, a level, a tape measure, a book of home plans, and a construction hat. Consider further, how learning opportunities change if a week later the airport is replaced by a cruise ship complete with ball gowns and a captain’s buffet, and the sensory table is filled with balls of different sizes and a variety of containers with different sized openings.   Or if the construction tools are replaced by plastic animals and vegetation. With intentionality, teachers can create play opportunities that reinforce specific skills and knowledge. This involves a planning on the part of the teacher, but enhances children’s opportunities to learn during free play.

With regard to my second clarification, “child-initiated” doesn’t mean “teacher-free.” The research is also clear about the role of teacher-child interactions in supporting children’s acquisition of knowledge. Adults support children’s learning by allowing children to demonstrate existing skills, and by scaffolding children in support of attaining more complex skills. By assuming a role in the play and minimizing directive behavior, adults can extend children’s opportunities to learn.  For instance, by assuming a role during dramatic play, teachers can model language and actions for children without telling them what they should say or do. Children take the imaginative lead and teachers follow. By asking children about their work products in ways that require brainstorming, reflection or analysis, adults can extend children’s learning. For instance, “How do you think we can build the opening large enough for the animals to fit through?” Teacher-child interaction during play requires restraint on the part of the teacher to ensure that children are initiating and teachers are facilitating.

PreK: Access for All? Or For All At-Risk Children?

by Alice Wiggins
April 24th, 2009

A Washington Post reader last October asked education columnist Jay Mathews to “start a discussion on the advantages (real and imagined) of pre-kindergarten.”  The writer cited evidence that the effects of pre-k wear off and expressed concerns attempting to serve middle-class and at-risk kids with the same program might be “a sure recipe for a new middle-class benefit that shortchanges the poor.”

In response, Sara Mead of the New America Foundation laid out a case for universal pre-k (UPK) largely based on research demonstrating that all children, not just low-SES kids, would benefit.  “It’s true,” she wrote, “that the high-quality, randomized controlled trials that demonstrated long-term benefits to participation in high-quality pre-k programs focused on low-income students.”

But data from more recent evaluations of pre-k programs suggests that these programs also have benefits for middle-class children. For example, a Georgetown University study that looked at children in Oklahoma’s universal pre-k program found that all groups of students participating in the program, including middle class kids, made learning gains as a result, compared to students who didn’t. But the greatest gains were for low-income and otherwise at-risk students. Other studies looking at state pre-k programs have found similar results.

Mathews’ correspondent observed that the middle class has to be included to build the political momentum to get a program passed.  Mead cited research that shows a lot of working- and middle-class families can’t afford pre-k either.  And she’s especially persuasive when she notes “the simple fact that we don’t restrict children’s access to K-12 education based on their parents’ incomes.”

In the end, the question of universal pre-k vs low-income pre-k is a political question.  But the benefit of preschool for low-SES children can no longer be seriously disputed.  There is no doubt that access to high-quality preschool programs helps. But the key phrase in that sentence is not access, but high-quality.  Universal access to low-quality preschool would be a high-cost, low-value proposition.  Data from the National Association for the Education of Young Children shows most programs in the United States are rated mediocre, and fewer than 10% meet national accreditation standards:

Across the nation child care fees average $4,000 to $10,000 per year, exceeding the cost of public universities in most states. Yet, nationally only 1 in 7 children who are financially eligible for child care subsidies is being served, and only 41% of 3 and 4 year old children living in poverty are enrolled in preschool, compared to 58% of those whose families have higher incomes.

Cracking the nut of ensuring high-quality is a work in progress.  What we do know is that it is dependent on what teachers do in the classroom, not just what they have in the classroom.            

In the end, I’m agnostic on universal PreK.  It certainly would do no harm, and much good.  But we must find a way to guarantee every low-income child a place in a high-quality preschool. If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap, it’s not going to happen without a robust program that captures all of our most vulnerable, at-risk children.

Align PreK and Elementary Ed Standards

by Alice Wiggins
April 22nd, 2009

So far this week, I’ve discussed two ways to improve U.S. early childhood education—changing the way we evaluate preschools (and preschool teachers) and establishing clear and specific preschool learning standards.  The third item on my wish list is aligning preschool and elementary school standards.

Creating a seamless PreK to elementary school system is also the No. 1 item on the “to do” list of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE).  In a paper titled Promoting Quality in PreK-Grade 3 Classrooms by Dr. Mariana Haynes, NASBE’s research director, argued for aligning not just standards, but curricula, assessment and teaching practices for Pre-K through grade three, to reflect what research tells us about learning environments on children’s developmental outcomes.  “This is an important foundational step to creating the infrastructure for a coherent, evidence-based early learning system,” Haynes wrote. “States may want to examine how to create incentives for school districts and early education providers to partner in building a seamless prekindergarten through grade three system,” she concluded.

A New America Foundation report by Kristie Kauerz also makes a strong argument for advancing the alignment of PK through grade 3. Lack of availability of high-quality preschool for all children (we’ll talk about this later this week!) coupled with the absence of alignment between PK and subsequent grades results in classes that include some children who have the background knowledge and academic gains for preschool and some children who do not. As a result, Kauerz notes “teacher must focus on those children who do not have the relevant and necessary cognitive or social skills, thereby being forced to slow and level down the curriculum and pedagogy in order not to leave behind less well prepared children.”  The result?  Children who arrived well prepared are often hindered in their continued progress.

Kauerz goes on to cite a study of elementary school in California that “analyzed why some schools score substantially better on the state’s academic performance index than other schools with similar students. Practices found to be associated with higher performance included school-wide instructional consistency within grades, curricular alignment from grade-to-grade, and classroom instruction guided by state academic standards (Williams, Kirst, & Haertel, 2005).”

It’s safe to say that one unambiguous victory of the standards-based education movement has been a general rise in expectations, especially in schools serving low-SES children.  Clear and specific preschool learning standards would ensure that children transition more smoothly to kindergarten bringing with them social skills and foundational skills and knowledge for ongoing educational achievement.  Aligning those standards with a state’s existing K-8 standards would be better still.

What Makes a Good Preschool Good?

by Alice Wiggins
April 21st, 2009

If you were looking for the ideal preschool for your son or daughter, what would you look for?  You’d probably expect your child’s preschool to hire well-trained, qualified teachers, have small class sizes and maintain a low teacher-student ratio.  If so, your list might look a lot like the benchmarks of National Institute for Early Education Research (NIERR), whose mission is to support early childhood education initiatives “by providing objective, nonpartisan information based on research.”

NIERR publishes an annual yearbook that determines if a state’s pre-K programs meet ten benchmarks considered to be “minimum standards for educationally effective preschool programs.”  The criteria include teachers with a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in early childhood education; a comprehensive curriculum that covers domains of language/literacy, math, science, socioemotional skills, cognitive development, and other  areas; and a maximum class size that is less than or equal to 20 children, with a child-to-teacher ratio of 10:1 or lower.

There’s only one problem: none of the items on NIERR’S checklist, while important, appear to be the difference makers in student outcomes according to a study in the May/June 2008 issue of Child Development by Andrew J. Mashburn of the University of Virginia and others.

Findings indicate that despite their relevance to discussions of program development and quality, none of the minimum standards recommended by NIEER, or the nine-item NIEER quality index, were consistently associated with measures of academic, language, and social development during pre-K, among a large sample of 4-year-old children who attended state funded programs.

 But let’s get back to your hypothetical preschool.  If you’re like most parents, you would probably want your child to have a teacher who is nice to your child.  Someone who creates a warm, nurturing environment and shows affection and respect.  In that, your list would actually be a step ahead of NIERR’s benchmarks.  The Mashburn study would back you up.  It found preschool children benefit most when they experience instructionally and emotionally supportive interactions with their teachers.

“High-quality instructional interactions occur when teachers provide children with feedback about their ideas, comment in ways that extend and expand their skills, and frequently use discussions and activities to promote complex thinking. For example, teachers who provide high instructional support ask ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions to children to explain their thinking, relate concepts to children’s lives, and provide additional information to children to expand their understanding,”  Mashburn said

Thus the second of my list of five ideas to improve early childhood education:  If we want effective high quality preschools, we’re going to change the way we look at and evaluate early childhood education.  We need to recognize that preschool quality is a function of both process AND structure.   As Mashburn’s study concluded:

Results indicate that in state-funded pre-K programs serving 4-year olds, requiring teachers to have a college education or degrees in ECE and mandating small class sizes and child-to-teacher ratios may not be sufficient to ensure that children are learning in classrooms. Rather, these results confirm that for young children, learning occurs via interactions, and high-quality emotional and instructional interactions are the mechanisms through which pre-K programs transmit academic, language, and social competencies to children…Thus, we argue that program policies and regulations aimed at improving the effectiveness of children’s exposure to pre-K should focus more directly on improving interactions that children experience in classrooms.

In other words, success is not merely a function of what teachers have (a degree, a small number of students, etc.) but what teachers do.

Improving Preschool Education: Clear and Specific Standards

by Alice Wiggins
April 20th, 2009

Explicitly defining what very young children should know and be able to do is a very touchy issue. An Australian education group recently suggested that preschoolers should be made aware of different jobs and careers. Sounds reasonable but the idea from Principals Australia was roundly lampooned in the local media as “career counseling” for toddlers.  The belief the preschool should be all free play and socialization still runs very deep.  However, the National Research Council report called Eager to Learn: Educating our Preschoolers notes these opportunities for learning:

Good teachers acknowledge and encourage children’s efforts, model and demonstrate, create challenges and support children in extending their capabilities, and provide specific directions or instruction. All of these teaching strategies can be used in the context of play and structured activities. Effective teachers also organize the classroom environment and plan ways to pursue educational goals for each child as opportunities arise in child-initiated activities and in activities planned and initiated by the teacher.

This week, I’ll describe five specific ideas to improve preschool education in the U.S.  The first is the establishment of clear and specific early childhood learning standards. There are several practical benefits to explicitly specifying what children should know and be able to do. Research clearly documents the positive benefits of a preschool education guided by standards for all children, regardless of socioeconomic level and family background.

It also safeguards all children against the likelihood of lower expectations and watered-down curricula.  Early childhood education is not immune from the accountability pressures that now characterize K-12 education in the U.S. Clear and explicit early childhood standards make sense not just as a mere accountability measure, but as an early intervention to address the achievement gap. With a significant investment in preschool education anticipated under the Obama administration, specific standards are a way to ensure that early childhood care and education programs are actually delivering on their promise–to ensure children arrive in elementary school ready to learn. Nowhere is this more important than for low-SES children.

Standards come in two basic flavors: specific and squishy. Or if you prefer, content and process. This is true in K-12 standards, and it’s also true of preschool standards. A typical state standard might state that preschoolers should be able to “apply knowledge of whole numbers.” Fine, but what does that look like? The Core Knowledge Preschool Sequence clearly states that preschoolers should be able to recite the number sequence from one to ten; demonstrate one-to-one correspondence with concrete objects (laying out a plate for every member of the family at mealtime, for example); construct a collection of objects so that it has the same number of objects as another group; count groups of objects with up to 6 objects per group; given an oral number, create a group with the correct number of objects, up to 6.  Before a child comes to kindergarten he or she should also be able to name and write numerals up to six, arrange and write them in order, and be able to tell which is greater or less.

By knowing more specifically what the goals and skills are, teachers can plan activities to meet those goals (think about the difficulty in planning activities to meet squishy goals). Additionally, teachers are better able to assess where children are with a skill or goal if it is specifically defined. How can I assess whether a child can apply knowledge of whole numbers? I can easily assess if children can count to six, write numbers, or arrange them in order.