“Putting Real Food on the Plate”

by Lisa Hansel
September 2nd, 2015

“I am in the medical field and while I ‘hated’ learning anatomy, I am not sure you would want me to treat you unless I had it memorized,” writes LSC from Seattle. That’s just one of the hundreds of comments in response to a terrific op-ed by Natalie Wexler in the New York Times.

Wexler begins by addressing a growing blame-the-tests myth:

Standardized tests are commonly blamed for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and math. That’s one reason Congress is considering changes in the law that could lead states to put less emphasis on test scores. But even if we abolished standardized tests tomorrow, a majority of elementary schools would continue to pay scant attention to subjects like history and science.

Consider this: In 1977, 25 years before No Child Left Behind ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, elementary school teachers spent only about 50 minutes a day on science and social studies combined. True, in 2012, they spent even less time on those subjects — but only by about 10 minutes.

The root cause of today’s narrow elementary curriculum isn’t testing, although that has exacerbated the trend. It’s a longstanding pedagogical notion that the best way to teach kids reading comprehension is by giving them skills — strategies like “finding the main idea” — rather than instilling knowledge about things like the Civil War or human biology.

While I found the supportive comments by professionals in medicine, higher education, and other fields heartening, what really grabbed me were the comments from teachers. The vast majority see the futility of trying to cultivate skills with “a book about zebras one day and a story about wizards the next,” as Wexler writes—and they’re hungry for a more balanced, substantive approach.

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Wexler’s article generated over 200 online comments, most of which showed strong support for teaching skills as a facet of teaching essential academic knowledge (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Here are some of the comments that jumped out:

You see this in much science teaching, too, where a great deal of time is spent on “the scientific method” – a simplified version, and often taught in a rote manner with mantras of “hypothesis, experiment, conclusion” — but little time is spent mastering the great systematic body of knowledge about how the material world works. Geology — evolution of our earth, recognizing different types of rocks, reading the landscape. Biology — a basic knowledge of the different categories and types of living things, evolution, anatomy, genetics. I could go on — but the point is, knowing how the world works, in and of itself, is important. Ignorance can lead to disaster, as voters and as individuals.

Yes, teach us HOW we learn — but also teach us WHAT we’ve learned, and what we still don’t know. Otherwise, it’s like teaching us how to use a knife and fork — but never putting any real food on the plate.
— Kathy Wendorff, Wisconsin

Thank you! This might be the best column about education that I have ever read in the NY Times. As a public school teacher for almost 15 years, it is obvious that knowledge is the key ingredient. In theory, the Common Core places greater importance on knowledge- which is good. Unfortunately, everything else that most teachers, students, and parents encounter sends a very different message. In NYS, the state tests, teacher evaluation rubrics, and talking points of school administrators (as well as politicians and most media reports- including those in the Times) almost always emphasize the need for skills (especially so-called “21st Century skills”) and downplay, or even openly belittle knowledge as outdated, boring facts that require “rote memorization”. As a liberal who believes that improving educational achievement for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds is one of the most important issues facing our nation, I am truly thankful for this column which will hopefully help chip away at the skills over knowledge myth that prevents us from really making progress in achieving better education for all.
—J. Adams, Upstate NY

I was at a staff meeting about 5 years ago when the English K-12 Coordinator pronounced: “Facts are dead. There’s NO reason to learn facts.” At another curriculum planning session … another supervisor peered over my shoulder as I was typing & said, “Why do they need to learn Shakespeare anyway?” … This may surprise ‘reformers,’ but many teachers have been teaching based on their own expertise, despite all the mindless manic ‘solutions.’ I teach Shakespeare & facts no matter what. And main idea too.
—dcl, New Jersey

As a teacher who has been struggling to teach abstract concepts like “Find the Main Idea” to fourth graders, I really appreciate this essay…. Standard reading textbooks, as the article points out, flit from one unrelated subject to another, and for many children, it all feels like so many abstract and irrelevant exercises. A thoughtfully crafted sequence of readings on a related theme of interest to children would not only give students a mastery over a body of knowledge, but also make learning skills like “find the main idea” much more relevant and meaningful.
—Ann, Kempton, PA

As a teacher of 5 years, I was told to only teach skills and was reprimanded for not doing so. This is a bigger conversation that needs to enlighten how entire districts and states see curriculum.
—Samantha, DC

Yes, the problem is that no amount of skill based learning can replace content and background information…. Students need historical and cultural knowledge (actual content) to be able to fully understand what they are reading. How can they get “the main idea” if they don’t understand what the ideas are in the first place because they don’t know the meaning of words or the allusion to a particular mythical or historical event? Content must come first! As a teacher with over 30 years of experience, I am amused by the many “innovative” skills and methodologies: KWL chars, TPCAST, SOAPSTONE, Essential questions and more “exciting” ways of teaching and learning, yet what good are these if you don’t know what you’re reading, writing, and speaking about?
—Sara, Cincinnati

As a teacher in Florida, I can verify the accuracy of this. My students spend two whole months taking tests in a school year of 180 days. There are huge gaps in their content knowledge — and they have no context for the little knowledge they do have.
—L Owen, Florida

It cheered me to read this article. Next week, I head back to school to work with a faculty which is half vehemently against the Core, half more or less just going with the flow. A 3rd grade teacher last May was heard by anyone with ears to hear that “those tests are so unfair! I never taught my kids ANY of that stuff that was on that test!” Well, unwittingly, she hit the nail on the head. She didn’t teach knowledge: she is a skills enthusiast.
— Emmett Hoops, Saranac Lake, NY

Joy Hakim’s Science Stories: Proof that Informative Can Be Engaging

by Lisa Hansel
August 27th, 2015

Kiana Hernandez is a young woman who opted out of a standardized test last spring. She had her reasons, as the Mother Jones article about her details, but that’s not what interests me about her story. What grabbed me is the reading instruction she received—or endured:

She’d failed the Florida reading test every year since sixth grade and had been placed in remedial classes where she was drilled on basic skills, like reading paragraphs to find the topic sentence and then filling in the right bubbles on a practice test. She didn’t get to read whole books like her peers in the regular class or practice her writing, analysis, and debating—skills she would need for the political science degree she dreamed of, or for the school board candidacy that she envisioned.

I am not against testing—I think it is critical to closing the achievement gap. But I am opposed to the stakes being so high that otherwise-reasonable people put kids’ scores above their education. And I’m opposed to expecting students to take tests for which they have not been prepared. Hernandez has been cheated, as have millions of other needy students.

As one teacher quoted in the article put it, giving low-income students “random passages” to “practice picking the correct multiple-choice” answer is “very separate and unequal.”

This is the Core Knowledge blog, so you know what students need. Let’s jump to a great new resource.

A terrific author for the middle grades, Joy Hakim, has just published an eBook: Reading Science Stories. It’s a marvelous resource for English, history, and science teachers looking for narrative nonfiction—or perhaps a starting place for collaborating on an interdisciplinary project.

Here’s the beginning of one of my favorite chapters, “A Boy with Something on His Mind”:

Fifteen-year-old Albert Einstein is miserable. He is trying to finish high school in Germany, but he hates the school; it’s a strict, rigid place. To make things worse, his parents have moved to Italy. They think he should stay behind until his schooling is completed. It isn’t long, though, before he is on his way over the Alps, heading south to join them. Why does he leave Germany? Today, no one is quite sure, but a letter from the school offers a powerful clue: “Your presence in the class is disruptive and affects the other students.”

What are the Einsteins to do with their son? He is a high school dropout who has arrived without warning.

In Milan, Italy, Albert’s father owns a factory that builds parts for machines—called dynamos—which take energy from coal, oil, or mountain streams and convert it into electrical power. A dynamo can turn the lights on in a village. It is 1895, and electric lights are a new thing—and so is all the electrical technology that is fueling the Industrial Revolution.

Albert is going to take the world way beyond the Industrial Revolution. He will bring about a new scientific age. But no one knows that now. His parents keep urging him to get serious about school. Hanging around the factory may be fun and a terrific way to learn about the exciting electrical machinery, but it isn’t enough in the fast-changing world at the end of the nineteenth century. His father suggests that Albert forget his “philosophical nonsense.” He needs a degree.

While everyone in the family is worrying about his future, young Einstein’s mind is somewhere else. There is a question that won’t leave his head. “What would the world look like if I could sit on a beam of light?” he keeps asking himself.

It becomes an obsession, trying to hang on to the light beam. And, because light travels through space at 299,792.5 kilometers per second (or 186,282 miles per second), it also means that in less than a second, Albert will leave the Earth and its atmosphere. What are time and space and matter like out in the vastness of the universe? No one can help him answer that, because no one knows what happens at the speed of light.

Einstein may not realize it, but he is thinking about the scientific question of his age: Why does light—which is electromagnetic radiation—behave the way it does? Light doesn’t seem to follow the same laws of motion—Isaac Newton’s laws—that guide a baseball when you pitch it. Most people at the end of the nineteenth century don’t know that this incompatibility is creating a kind of crisis in scientific thinking. Newton’s laws of motion work wonderfully well in our everyday world. Electromagnetic laws, established by James Clerk Maxwell, work wonderfully well, too. But electromagnetism is leading science beyond the everyday. It is opening the whole universe to consideration. And physicists have found that where there is an overlap between Newton’s science and electromagnetic science, there seems to be an incongruity. Isaac Newton’s laws and James Clerk Maxwell’s laws can’t both be right—at least not completely right. Hardly anyone is bothered by this, except for a few physicists and a 15-year-old thinker.

Hungry for more? Hakim has all of chapter one, “Take a Number,” and ordering information on her website.

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Kiana Hernandez didn’t need to drill strategies with random texts. She needed rich, informative texts that would build her knowledge and vocabulary while she practiced essential skills. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

 

I’m Afraid of Personalized Learning

by Lisa Hansel
August 18th, 2015

There. I’ve admitted it. I’m afraid of personalized learning. Of course, I’m fascinated by it too. But the allure only adds to my fear—there’s a small chance that personalized learning could radically improve education and a large chance that it’ll produce the next flood of snake oil.

Writing about DC’s foray into personalized learning, Natalie Wexler sums up the benefits nicely:

In any given classroom, some kids grasp the material easily while others struggle. Under the prevailing model, teachers have generally taught to the middle, with the inevitable result that some kids are bored and others are lost. The personalized learning movement aims to engage and challenge all students, wherever they may be.

Wexler also notes many possible pitfalls, including students not pushing themselves or being off task, teachers being unable to support all students at different learning stations, and the lack of opportunities for whole-class discussions.

All of these challenges could be addressed—giving us a small chance that personalized learning could work at scale—but will they be? I doubt it.

One hurdle is that there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on what personalized learning is. Some people seem to be talking about personalized pathways to mastering a well-rounded curriculum; others seem to be talking about personalized pathways and personalized content.

Here’s a typically jumbled description of personalized learning from “creative learning strategist” Barbara Bray:

A personalized learning environment is more competency-based where students progress at their own pace instead of by grade levels. No more “mandated” seat time. The learner has their own learning path with multiple strategies to meet their different learning styles…. Learners are co-designers of the curriculum with the teachers. Teachers are co-learners with the learners. The teacher doesn’t have to be the hardest working person in the classroom; the learners need to be. They want to learn because they chose the topic and understand what they need to learn. They want to succeed so they try harder. They succeed because they designed their learning goals.

Moving at your own pace is alluring—especially if students who are behind are assisted with accelerating their pace. The risk is that the very notion of being “behind” evaporates, leaving us with students aging out of public schooling before they become college, career, or citizenship ready. But some combination of individual pacing, year-round options, and benchmarks for predicting on-time graduation could be very powerful.

Personalized content, in contrast, strikes me as irresponsible and dangerous. While it might be the path to engagement, it might also be the path to widening the achievement gap and locking even more people out of our democracy. Young people don’t know what they need to learn. They don’t know that comprehension—and therefore everything else—depends on broad knowledge and an enormous vocabulary.

If allowed to choose my own content in elementary school, I would have become an expert in princesses and dogs. Fortunately, most of my elementary and middle years were in a school that had English, math, science, history, French, Latin, and PE every day. By high school, not coincidentally, my interests were as broad as my elementary curriculum had been.

Personal choice of some content could be layered on top of a rich, pre-established curriculum. But the school must remain responsible for steering students toward worthwhile studies. As a recent article by Daniel Willingham notes:

Researchers have long known that going to school boosts IQ…. Schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know, both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.

This view of schooling carries two implications. If the benefit of schooling comes from the content learned, then it’s important to get a better understanding of what content will be most valuable to students later on in their lives. The answers may seem intuitive, but they’re also subjective and complex. A student may not use plane geometry, solid geometry, or trigonometry, but studying them may improve her ability to mentally visualize spatial relationships among objects, and that may prove useful for decades in a variety of tasks….

The aforementioned research [on long-term retention] also implies that the sequence of learning is as important as content. Revisiting subjects can protect against forgetting, and sustained study over several years can help make certain knowledge permanent. Thus, when thinking about what expect students to learn, it’s not enough that content be “covered.” Evidence suggests that a student must use such content in his or her thinking over several years in order to remember it for a lifetime….

Education-policy debates tend to focus on structural issues—things like teacher quality, licensure requirements, and laws governing charter schools. But research on human memory indicates that academic content and the way it is sequenced—i.e., curriculum—are vital determinants of educational outcomes, and they’re aspects that receive insufficient attention.

For personalized learning to work, advocates will have to become far more careful about what students are learning and how they are able to revisit and build on their knowledge over several years.

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Personalized pacing (with safeguards) and personalized content are very different things (image courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Math and Science Increase Wages–Even Without College

by Lisa Hansel
July 31st, 2015

In my last post, I mentioned a couple of reports showing huge disparities in the courses offered by high schools, with especially serious problems in access to advanced math, chemistry, and physics. I think such inequities are an embarrassment to the very idea of America. But I’ve met people who disagree. They see alternative courses in things like forensics and general science to be a practical means of engaging kids who aren’t going to college in the sciences.

I could argue endlessly about who might go to college if such inequities did not exist, but let’s skip that. Let’s just focus on this idea of different courses for those who are not going. Do they benefit from advanced math and science courses—traditional, rigorous, college-prep courses? Yes.

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A broad, rigorous education—with advanced math and science—is critical, even for those who do not want to go to college. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

They benefit not only from the inherent value of better understanding their universe, but in wages and job satisfaction, as a new report from the National School Boards Association shows. The report defines non-college goers as those who had not enrolled in college (two or four year) by age 26. These days, that’s just 12% of high school graduates. The results were striking:

What students do in high school is as important for non-college goers as it is for college goers. For on-time graduates who did not go to college, we found that they did much better in the labor market if they had completed high-level math and science courses; earned higher grades; completed multiple vocational courses focusing on a specific labor market area (occupational concentration); and obtained a professional certification or license. While each of these factors had a positive effect most of the time, they were especially powerful in combination. Compared to their peers who lacked any of these characteristics, the “high credentialed” non-college goers were:

• More likely to have a full-time job.
• Less likely to be unemployed.
• Less likely to be unemployed for more than six months.
• More likely to work for an employer that offers medical insurance.
• More likely to have a retirement fund.
• More likely to supervise other employees.
• Less likely to receive public assistance.

At 26, these high-credentialed non-college goers were also doing well compared with their college-going peers (though other data on college completers still show that earning a college degree is the best route—the problem is that so many college goers get trapped in remedial courses and never graduate). Here are a few of the highlights:

26-year-olds who reported they…

No college; low credentials

No college; high credentials

College goers

Had a full-time job (at least 35 hrs/wk)

46%

80%

70%

Hourly wage at most recent job

$10.28

$19.71

$16.71

Current employer offers medical insurance

43%

90%

75%

Had a retirement plan in 2012

8%

39%

46% 

Organizations like Achieve have long claimed that college and career both require the same rigorous, academic K–12 education. While some dispute the idea, evidence continues to mount. Equalizing opportunity to learn—to acquire academic knowledge—is morally, economically, and civically the right thing to do.

 

In Defense of Facts

by Lisa Hansel
July 16th, 2015

One of my favorite blogs is by Katie Ashford, the director of inclusion at Michaela Community School in London (where another favorite blogger, Joe Kirby, is head of English). Ashford believes all children are capable of tackling rigorous content, and she mixes a strong research base with practical advice. In a recent post, she does the unthinkable: she defends rote memorization.

As much as I disliked memorizing in school, now I’m glad I put in the effort. Math facts, historical dates, poems, quotes—these things rattling around in my head actually make my day-to-day life easier and more interesting. But in talking about education, I rarely admit that I value memorization. I fear feeding those who wrongly assume that the Core Knowledge Sequence really is a list of facts to be memorized, rather than a scaffold for building a rich, engaging curriculum.

So I’m delighted to see Ashford making the case, and Michaela’s students proving the point:

Although I’ve always believed that a knowledge-rich curriculum could lead to great things, I had never seen it in action until I came to work at this school….

Not only do pupils genuinely enjoy knowing loads of stuff, … rote learning has proved to be incredibly useful when they come across new knowledge. They are able to make connections and inferences that someone who lacks such knowledge would simply not be able to make.

Here is one of my favourite examples of this:

I was reading through a biography of Percy Shelley with … one of my year 7 classes and my tutor group. Many of the pupils in this class have reading ages far below their chronological age. More than half the class have Special Educational Needs….

In the biography, we came across this piece of information:

Shelley began writing his poem in 1817, soon after the announcement that the British Museum was to acquire a large fragment of a 13BC statue of Rameses II from Egypt.”

I explained that Rameses II was a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh.

Within seconds, a forest of hands shot up. Slightly baffled, I asked one of the pupils to tell me what was wrong.

“Miss, how could Rameses II be a Pharaoh in 13BC when Egyptian civilisation ended in 31BC? Miss, that doesn’t make sense.”

I was stumped and couldn’t answer for this. It later transpired that there had been a typo in the printed version of the biography. Instead of 13BC, the date should have said 1213BC. Because I lacked knowledge of the date of the end of Egyptian civilisation (which the pupils had learned in Mr Porter’s History lesson), I would never have been able to spot the mistake. In fact, I would have had a completely incorrect understanding of Rameses II and the statue, which was over a thousand years older than I had believed it was….

My pupils, by contrast, had been empowered by their knowledge. Consequently, they were in a far stronger position to critically analyse the text they had been given than I was.

Rote learning is perceived to be a dull, mindless activity that leads to little other than parrot-like recall, but this simply is not the case. On the contrary, mastering lists of important dates is essential for critical thinking to take place.

Ramses II stone head. British Museum, London, UK

Ramses II, in the British Museum, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Life Is a High-Stakes Reading Test

by Lisa Hansel
July 2nd, 2015

Life is a high-stakes reading test. Those who pass gain entry to the best humanity has to offer—great literature, active and effective citizenship, fascinating dinner debates, meaningful connections with people across time and space, jobs that are both interesting and high paying, genuine capacity for self-directed learning, etc.

The key to passing is broad knowledge.

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Knowledge enables comprehension and creates opportunities (photo courtesy of Shutterstock).

That fact is the driver behind the Common Core standards’ requirement that K–12 schooling include dramatically more nonfiction reading, reaching 70% by twelfth grade. I’ve never understood the backlash against this mandate. There is no call for 70% of the reading assigned in English courses to be nonfiction. If students are taking English, history, and science, then two-thirds of their reading should already be nonfiction. Add in some biographies of artists and musicians (in art and music classes) and the 70% requirement is easily met. High schools with solid electives would likely have most students reading 80% nonfiction.

Nonetheless, many English teachers seem to be trying to draw far more nonfiction into their courses. Why? Do they not know that the 70% requirement applies to the whole day? Do they know that their colleagues in other disciplines are not assigning enough reading, so they are trying to fill the gap? Do they fear that whatever their colleagues are doing, they must do more to prepare for the high-stakes tests (since accountability policies unfairly attribute reading scores to ELA teachers alone)? Do they simply not know what their colleagues are assigning because they don’t have time to collaborate?

If only schools would see the 70% mandate as a call for collaboration: English and history teachers could pair great novels and poetry with studies of particular time periods, giving students an understanding of the author’s worldview. English and science teachers could pair science-fiction stories with analyses of the accuracy and potential of the scientific ideas they contain.

If a recent New York Times article is at all representative, such pairings are rare. Working alone, some English teachers seem to be struggling to effectively incorporate nonfiction. One assigned the G.I. Bill along with The Odyssey, which might inspire an interesting discussion, but would likely be based more on opinion than expertise. Others have turned to short pieces on banal topics like cell phones and cheerleading. These anecdotes indicate that teachers are trying to build some set of nonfiction comprehension skills—under the mistaken belief that they could be applied to any nonfiction text—instead of building the knowledge that would make comprehension effortless.

Faith in comprehension strategies is so strong that some teachers don’t seem to have broadening students’ horizons as a goal at all. As the Times reported:

At Midwood High School in Brooklyn … some teachers had taught the same books each year, no matter which grade they were teaching, so some students were being assigned the same books over and over again.

But there was one glimmer of hope in the article:

At Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, the eighth graders began the year by reading a novel in verse about a Vietnamese girl whose family flees the country at the end of the war, along with texts on the history of Vietnam and the experiences of refugees from various countries.

The students were more excited about a unit on women’s rights, focused on speeches by Shirley Chisholm and Sojourner Truth, and a 2006 letter by Venus Williams criticizing Wimbledon for paying female winners less than men.

These two examples are promising because they reveal a dedication to building knowledge of important topics. But they are not as coherent as I’d like. Refugees and women’s rights are very broad themes; there’s a risk of exposure to a great deal and retention of very little. Focusing on a narrower topic, such as the Vietnam War or Sojourner Truth, might give students a more meaningful opportunity to build vocabulary and knowledge. Indeed, the need for background knowledge is likely why students found the unit on women’s rights—a familiar topic anchored with a sports star—more interesting than the unit on Vietnam and refugees.

Knowledge increases curiosity, enables comprehension and other forms of critical thinking, and ensures students pass life’s most important high-stakes tests.

Knowledge For Literacy

by Guest Blogger
May 18th, 2015

By Marilyn Jager Adams

Marilyn Jager Adams, a visiting scholar in the Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Department of Brown University, is internationally regarded for her research and applied work in cognition and education, including the seminal text Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. This post, which originally appeared on the Shanker Blogis adapted from Literacy Ladders, an anthology of articles on early childhood literacy learning.

Liteacy Ladders Cover

The very purpose and promise of schooling is to prepare students for responsible adult lives—to be civically minded and informed, to pursue higher education, and to find gainful work that allows them to grow and contribute to society. To accomplish this, students must be given ample support and practice in reading, interpreting, and writing about texts as complex as those that characterize life beyond high school. But here lies our great dilemma. Increasing the sophistication of assigned texts, all by itself, is unlikely to do much good. After all, we know that many students are unable to understand such rigorous texts, and nobody learns from texts that they cannot understand.

What this means is that we, as educators, need figure out how to help raise our students’ language and literacy skills to levels that enable them to understand and gain from complex texts. Working with the Albert Shanker Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, and Core Knowledge Foundation, I recently helped produce an anthology of research essays — Literacy Ladders — that addresses this challenge. Below are a couple of the key takeaways.

Comprehension Depends on Knowledge

The overarching theme of these essays is that if we wish to advance our students’ literacy, we must devote ourselves to increasing the breadth and depth of their domain knowledge.

Through language, novel concepts are communicated in the form of novel combinations of familiar concepts. That is, new concepts and the meanings of new words can be verbally explained only in terms of known words. Sometimes a new word can be adequately explained by comparing and contrasting it with familiar concepts (e.g., a mayfly looks like a giant mosquito but it is harmless). Otherwise, we must define the word by decomposing it into familiar concepts and then piecing together the whole. Either way, the usefulness of the effort depends on the familiarity of the supporting concepts we offer.

Yet the role of prior knowledge runs far deeper. The core definition of a word is only a tiny fragment of the meaning that makes it useful in understanding language. Neuroimaging confirms that the full meaning of a familiar word extends broadly through the mind, including associations to every trace that your experience with that word or its concept has left in your memory. For instance, your full knowledge of the word “apple” extends to the traces in your memory of the many apples in your life and how they have looked, felt, tasted, smelled, or sounded (e.g., when you bit into, dropped, or sliced them); of where you were and what else and who else was there with each apple; of picking apples, peeling apples, and bobbing for apples; of cider, apple pie, caramel apples, and Waldorf salads; of apple trees, teachers’ apples, and poison apples; of “rotten apples,” “apple-cheeked,” “apple a day,” and the “Big Apple;” of Adam and Eve, William Tell, George Washington, Steve Jobs, the Beatles, and so on. The more strongly or frequently any such association has been tied to the apples in your life, the more strongly it dominates your overall concept of an apple. But all of your experiences, be they direct or linguistic, are there — waiting to be activated and used in making sense of “apple” the next time you see or hear the word.

When you encounter “apple” in conversation or text, it will automatically activate its entire, extended complex of associations in your mind, and the same thing happens when you encounter each successive word in the sentence. As the associations tied to each ensuing word in the sentence become activated, subsets of knowledge from different words that overlap effectively become “superactivated.”*

Alternatively, consider what happens if — whether due to vocabulary or reading difficulties — you cannot recognize a word at all. What you lose is not just the meaning of that particular word, but also the work it was supposed to do in providing context and precise meanings for the other words around it. In between — to the extent that you recognize the word but have scant knowledge of its meaning and usage — your understanding is commensurately impoverished.

In other words, knowledge is the medium of understanding and therefore of reading with understanding.

Topical Units Can Help

Research demonstrates that, for comprehension, relevant knowledge is even more important than general reading ability. When high- and low-knowledge groups are divided into good and poor readers, those with little knowledge relevant to the text at hand perform relatively poorly, regardless of how well they read in general. In contrast — and this is important — the performance of the poor readers with higher background knowledge is generally better than that of the good readers with less background knowledge, and nearly as good as the good readers with lots of background knowledge.

Prior knowledge about a topic is like mental velcro. The relevant knowledge gives the words of the text places to stick and make sense, thereby supporting comprehension and propelling the reading process forward. In one study, scientists monitored readers’ eye movements while reading about topics that were more versus less familiar to them. Given texts about less familiar topics, people’s reading slowed down and the progress of their eye movements was marked with more pausing and rereading. In other words, not only do readers with less topic-relevant background knowledge gain less from reading about that topic, less-knowledgeable readers must also expend more time and effort to arrive at what limited understanding they do gain.**

What does information have to do with text complexity? They are closely related in two important ways. On one hand, texts that are more complex in vocabulary and syntax also tend to be more presumptuous of readers’ background knowledge. On the other, texts that strive to present more precise argument or more specific information on a topic are unavoidably more complex in vocabulary and syntax. In order for students to become comfortable and competent with these sorts of texts, they must first develop a supportive understanding of the broader topic under discussion. And that’s where topical units come in.

In a topical reading unit, all texts are about some aspect of a single main concept. Topical readings provide a natural and highly productive way of revisiting and extending learning. Across readings, as the books build interlaced networks of knowledge, the similarities, contrasts, and usages of the words gain clarity. In tandem, the stories gain plot and excitement, and the informational texts gain structure and provoke wonder. Further, as the knowledge network is enriched, the mind is ever better prepared to understand the language of each new sentence.***

The deeper domain knowledge that topical units help students acquire is of inestimable importance in itself, but topical units also bring a number of other benefits. Direct benefits include increases in reading fluency, accelerated vocabulary growth, and improvements in the spelling, style, organization, and ideas in students’ writing. Because topical units offer a means of scaffolding texts, they allow students to rapidly work their way up to engage productively with texts that would otherwise be beyond their reach. In turn, experience in understanding more sophisticated texts brings additional benefits. For example, an expert oceanographer can be expected to penetrate an advanced text in oceanography with ease. However, people who have engaged deeply with complex information in any scientific field —  experts in biogenetics, mineralogy, physics, or marine biology, for example — could be expected to be able to understand the same text far better than a person without any specialized knowledge (even if with significantly more effort than the oceanographer). The advantage of the oceanographer is due to the fact that knowledge is domain specific.****

The advantage of the other well-read scientists is due to the fact that the modes of thought and analysis that deep knowledge affords are part of the literate mind and can be applied across known andunknown domains.

Can advanced texts really be made accessible to less proficient readers in this way? Yes. As a concrete example, no text on dinosaurs would get through a readability formula for second-graders. However, having built up their vocabulary and domain knowledge in an area of interest, many second-graders are able to read and understand remarkably sophisticated texts about dinosaurs with great satisfaction. Gradually and seamlessly, students build the knowledge networks that prepare them to tackle texts of increasingly greater depth and complexity.

__________

* For an educator-friendly review of the neural connections from letters to meaning, see: M. J. Adams, “The Relation between Alphabetic Basics, Word Recognition and Reading,” in What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction, 4th edition, eds. S. J. Samuels and A. E. Farstrup (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2011), 4–24.

** For a summary of the studies in the preceding two paragraphs, see Willingham’s “How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking.” p. 42 in Literacy Ladders.

*** Be warned: Some reading programs mistake what might better be called “thematic units” for topical units. As a quick rule of thumb, if it is a topical unit, then the word or words naming the same core concept should appear frequently in every text. Note: Superficial treatments and texts about different concepts labeled with the same word don’t count.

**** E. D. Hirsch, “Beyond Comprehension: We Have yet to Adopt a Common Core Curriculum that Builds Knowledge Grade by Grade–But We Need To,” p. 54 in the Literacy Ladders.

From Dull to Vibrant: How Core Knowledge Provided an Excellent Platform for Student Writing

by Guest Blogger
April 30th, 2015

By Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds has been teaching for over ten years in grades K-2; she currently teaches second grade at Diedrichsen Elementary School in Sparks, Nevada. Diedrichsen is located in a middle- to lower-socioeconomic neighborhood, with 44% of students being of low-SES background. The student exemplars presented in this article are from a student that is in the lower 30% of Reynolds’s class. All of her students, except two special education students, are able to accomplish these writing tasks with very similar outcomes.

Not long ago, I dreaded my second grade students’ writing. I agonized over helping them have something meaningful to say, elaborating on their ideas, and adding information and details. Despite my best efforts, their writings were often flat, repetitive, and rigid.

Today, I truly look forward to my students’ writing activities—especially their final products.

Here are three excerpts from a recent assignment in which my students wrote as if they were participants in early America’s Westward Expansion:

My family and I are heading to San Francisco. I am getting there on the Oregon Trail in a wagon. I am going so I can mine some gold and have a better life.

We faced many hardships on our journey. We sometimes broke a wheel going across the dirt. We faced the cold at night. We faced the heat in the desert. We faced danger in the Snake River. We faced ruts in the dirt on the trail.

We felt tired from the long trip and can’t wait to meet new people.

My students’ writing changed when I began teaching Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA). At first, I did not see the potential for their writing, but as I tried different strategies and organizational tools, their writing transformed, becoming reflective and thorough. When students are given an opportunity to build knowledge and a way to organize what they’ve learned, their writing thrives. They are motivated to share their newly formed thoughts and ideas. Having taught second grade for six years, I’ve found some of their finished projects quite amazing.

In my class, we use a four-step process to produce great writing:

1. Build Background Knowledge. First, I begin our writing projects by building my students’ knowledge and vocabulary through listening to and discussing CKLA’s read-alouds. The read-alouds are grouped by topic; each topic takes two to three weeks and has ten or so read-alouds. My students have learned about fascinating domains like Greek Myths, Cycles in Nature, and Immigration. At the conclusion of each read-aloud, my students answer comprehension questions and discuss key details from the story with their peers, as CKLA suggests. We use this time to clarify misconceptions and deepen understanding. Listening and speaking about the content really helps them gain knowledge and grasp concepts.

2. Transition Oral to Written: Students then participate in some sort of writing exercise, such as whole group or individual brainstorming to list key ideas and details, individual or group note-taking, summarizing, or illustrating a scene or idea—anything that helps them take the content they’ve heard and write it out. This helps them solidify their understanding. We do this with almost every read-aloud. Sometimes it’s independent, sometimes it’s in small cooperative groups, and sometimes it’s whole group.

3. Organize Information: Once we finished all or most of the read-alouds for a given topic, I provide my students with a graphic organizer to help them organize and build their writing piece. Throughout CKLA’s domains, we use a variety of different forms of writing such as narrative, informational, argumentative/opinion, reflective, or a friendly letter.

4. Publish: Once the graphic organized is filled out, they begin a rough draft. What they bring to each part of their story is truly amazing and individualized. Although you will see some of the same ideas, no two stories are alike. They each carry their own voice and their own selection of details. After completing a draft, they edit their writing independently for mechanics and grammar, and have a peer edit it for a second time. After self-editing and peer-editing is complete, I conference with them individually to offer ideas for revisions and sometimes further editing. At long last, they rewrite their rough draft into a final copy and finish with an illustration.

For the domain on Westward Expansion, which has nine read-alouds, I chose to use the CKLA activity of creating quilt squares and ultimately a final quilt. This engaged the students in writing every day about key ideas. After each read-aloud, I began by having them brainstorm a list of key ideas and details from the read-aloud. Then they filled in their individual quilt square template (which is provided in the CKLA Westward Expansion Anthology’s workbook pages).

DR8

Here’s a sample from one of my students. The front of the quilt square has key details and phrases, as well as an illustration of the story.

DR2

The back of the quilt square has a summary of the story’s main ideas and details.

DR1

Once they are assembled, student’s individual quilt squares help them create a writing piece that conceptualizes their leaning.

DR4

Here is the final quilt that I made alongside my students. (It’s much easier to read because I did mine in black ink instead of pencil.) As they completed their squares, I did the same. We enjoyed sharing our pieces as we completed them. Once all squares were completed, I put my quilt together as an example for them to follow. We glued them onto a 24” X 24” colored piece of chart paper, and we talked about making a 3 X 3 array on each side being careful to line up the right fronts and backs.

DR6

DR5

For this particular domain on Westward Expansion, I chose to have them write a narrative piece about traveling west with their families and what they may encounter on their journey.  The graphic organizer I used, shown below, breaks down each part of their story into smaller pieces, so that students are not overwhelmed by the breadth of the information they need to cover or hindered in trying to organize all of it. I give my students one prompt and topic sentence a day to work on from “sloppy copy” to final copy. The activity takes about 30-45 minutes a day as I have them use their new knowledge (and often background knowledge developed in prior domains) to develop each part of the story. Since they’ve also been writing and summarizing information every day on the same topic, they have a nice repertoire of information to pull from.

DR Directions for journey west Narrative

 

Voilà! A beautiful and meaningful masterpiece…written by a second grader!

DRS1

DRS2

 

DRS4

DRS3

DRS5

An appraisal of Core Knowledge Language Arts

by Guest Blogger
April 21st, 2015

By Ilene Shafran

Ilene Shafran is a 2nd-grade teacher at PS 34 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This appraisal was originally published as a Teacher to Teacher column in the New York Teacher, the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers, and was posted on the UFT website. The opinion expressed in the column is the author’s own and should not be construed as an endorsement by the union.

As a 24-year veteran of teaching in elementary school, I have seen literacy programs come and go. Each new program that claims to be “Common Core-aligned” always seems to fall short of experienced teachers’ expectations. So when I finally had the opportunity to try out and pilot a Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum that I felt had potential, I jumped at the chance.

The program, which is called Core Knowledge Language Arts, is the recommended New York State ELA curriculum for elementary schools. All the materials are available on the EngageNY website. I admit that when you first look at this program, it seems overwhelming and daunting. But I have found that the advantages of getting to know this curriculum on an intimate level far outweigh the risks of being lost in a sea of learning objectives.

Any longtime teacher will tell you that there is no magic, all-encompassing curriculum that is perfect right out of the box. As educators, we know that ELA curriculum needs to be adapted to meet the needs and demands of our students, whether they are struggling readers or high-achieving students. Good teaching means we adapt and differentiate the best that we can with the resources we have available to us.

When I piloted Core Knowledge Language Arts at my school last year, I was generally familiar with the components and basic premise of this program from my work as a New York City Common Core Fellows member, who for two years evaluated different types of Common Core-aligned curriculum options.

The program has two main components: First, there are 10 to 12 domains, or units, depending on the grade, that are heavily content-based (in social studies, history and science) and focus on vast academic vocabulary, background knowledge, critical thinking skills and class discussions. Then, there is a second component that focuses on reading skills, allowing teachers to meet reading foundational standards. Students have their own readers and skill workbooks to practice these important skills. The program is designed to meet students where they are and help them grow as readers.

So far, teachers at my school see our students engaged in the content as well as the vocabulary. Students participate in turn-and-talk discussions about real-world events and form opinions about real-world learning.

There are a few challenges with the program. Each lesson begins with a list of core content objectives as well as language arts objectives. Teacher teams need to come together and make instructional decisions on which ones to focus on in the classroom. Collaboration and sharing of ideas are essential for getting through these extensive lesson plans. Individual teachers also need to determine the needs of their students and choose the objectives that will be most effective in meeting their needs.

The lessons are rigorous, and questioning is extensive. Lessons are delivered in 60-minute blocks of time (60 minutes for listening and learning and 60 minutes for skills). In addition, teachers need to plan for independent reading and guided reading times. There is a lot of oral discussion, which is good for developing critical thinking and lends itself well to developing writing activities; however, the writing extensions included in the daily lessons are hit-or-miss. Some activities have perfect writing activities and some lack writing tie-ins altogether, so teachers will need to develop their own writing activities.

The listening-and-learning strand is primarily focused on teacher read-aloud and questioning, which means teachers will need to develop more interactive discussion through accountable talk. It is always a challenge to engage all of our students in discussions. This program lends itself to think/pair/share discussions with rich questioning and discussion topics.

Because of the large volume of vocabulary taught in each lesson, teachers also need to provide additional instructional opportunities to reinforce the new vocabulary. The skills strand is designed to meet students at their current reading level and support their growth throughout the school year.

In my 2nd-grade classroom, my students are eager to learn and discuss some grown-up topics thanks to this curriculum. It is allowing me and my fellow teachers to meet the demands of the Common Core — not in terms of testing, but in terms of meeting the high expectations we have for all of our students.

Reading Comprehension: There’s No Workaround for Knowledge

by Guest Blogger
April 13th, 2015

By Greg Ashman

Greg Ashman is a teacher in Australia. Supported by his school (but not necessarily representing its views), he has developed a love of educational research. Ashman is  now pursuing a PhD. This post originally appeared on his blog, Filling the Pail.

To mark the recent cricket world cup, I thought it might be a good idea to quote a section from a BBC report on the semi-final match between Australia and India:

“…Australia failed to fully capitalise on the second-wicket stand of 182 between Smith and Finch, as Michael Clarke’s men were stunted by the off-breaks of Ravichandran Ashwin and a curious collective failure against back-of-a-length bowling.”

If you are reading this then you are probably an educated person. I suspect that you can decode all of the words in that quote with ease. However, I am uncertain as to whether you will have comprehended it. This will depend, I suggest, on how much you know about cricket.

What if you read through it slowly, asking yourself questions about the quote as you go along? If you struggled with the quote then try this. Does it help?

shutterstock_59517607

Watching a match or reading about it, knowledge is essential to comprehension (cricket photo courtesy of Shutterstock). 

Strategies such as self-questioning do clearly lead to greater comprehension. There is little doubt about this. And interestingly, the most effective way to teach such strategies appears to be with explicit instruction, even if they do seems to resolve down to just two strategies; questioning and summarising. However, if you don’t know what an “off-break” is then you may still struggle with the cricket quote, regardless of how many times you stop to ask yourself questions.

This might not matter a great deal. I am sure that many people pass through life knowing little of cricket and caring even less. But what if the passage was about a political situation; one that affected the reader? Perhaps the reader, if well-informed, would want to use her democratic rights to protest. Yet when she reads the relevant report in the New York Times, on the BBC website or after following a Twitter link, she finds that she cannot comprehend the relevant texts because they are full of the equivalents of ‘off-breaks’ and ‘back-of-a-length’ bowling.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Instead of simply teaching comprehension strategies, we could also ensure that students leave school in possession of the bodies of knowledge that are likely to be needed to understand common sources of information; knowledge that is historical, political, scientific and literary. This is the argument of E. D. Hirsch. It is difficult to fault scientifically or logically; background knowledge clearly does aid comprehension.

Hirsch goes further. He argues that children from the most deprived backgrounds are the ones who are most likely to move schools frequently. These children will suffer if they end up learning about the Ancient Egyptians three times but never hear of Apartheid. And so this leads to the logic of a common curriculum, shared across schools; not a particularly radical notion in those countries with a national curriculum like the UK or Australia. Unfortunately, the idea has created the opportunity for people to misunderstand Hirsch. The charge is that he is trying to impose his view of a white, middle-class, male, European, Judeo-Christian culture on diverse groups of people.

This is far from Hirsch’s aim. He references the New York Times and asks what knowledge is required in order to comprehend it. So Hirsch takes an empirical line. If you have a beef with anyone for trying to define culture then you need to take it up with the New York Times or BBC journalists. Hirsch is not the guilty party.

But what of relevance?

Is it appropriate to teach children from diverse backgrounds about Shakespeare? He is dead, white, male and European. Perhaps a different playwright might be more contemporary and relevant? Perhaps. But if the newspapers are full of inferences and allusions that require a passing familiarity with Shakespeare then these students will be disadvantaged. And such knowledge may serve the revolutionary and the subversive well. As Sun Tzu advises us; know your enemies and know yourself.

However, I think I can sympathise with Hirsch’s critics. It seems unfair that the inequities of the past would define what we teach our students today. Teachers tend to be idealists, after all. Perhaps we can get around the requirement for background knowledge if we teach transferable comprehensions strategies. This way, when our students don’t understand a text they can apply one of these strategies and thus understand it. We would then be free to reset the clock and select content that best suited our personal views about what is most relevant to our students. We would be free from the tyranny of culture as it actually exists.

And reading comprehension strategies are promising in this regard. They clearly have some effect. There is strong evidence for this.

Although they also seem a bit dull. Would your students rather learn about the Ancient Egyptians or a strategy for asking themselves questions whilst reading prose? And what if reading scores don’t improve much? Then we’ll need more of this strategy instruction and less of other things; music or art or science.

This would be an error. It seems that instruction in reading comprehension strategies provides a boost but it is a limited one. A short course will do as much good as a long one and so these strategies probably shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the curriculum. Rather, they should be perhaps revisited from time-to-time in the context of something else; a unit on government, perhaps.

The reality is that we cannot develop a workaround for background knowledge. Perhaps we need to embrace this reality and start to celebrate the beauty that lies in knowing about our world. This might have the added benefit of raising reading comprehension levels.