‘Unlocking the Gate’ to ELA Achievement in Spokane

by Guest Blogger
June 10th, 2014

By Heather Awbery

Heather Awbery is the principal of Balboa Elementary School in Spokane, Wash. This post originally appeared on Amplify Viewpoints.

 

She was always a quiet student, and for a long time we questioned her ability to comprehend what we were teaching her in class. She seemed to be really struggling, and in first grade she qualified for Special Education Services. As she entered second grade in September, she continued to perform behind her same-age peers in English Language Arts and other subjects.

September was also the time we began piloting Core Knowledge Language Arts in our kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms. It took a little while for our teachers to feel comfortable and confident using it, but they quickly got the hang of it, and by October, they were coming in and showing me some of the earliest assessments, as opposed to those we use in the district right now. They were seeing immediate results and were just starting to fall in love with CKLA. They were talking about it in their lunchtime conversations.

Parents were calling us and saying, “What’s going on over there? All my kid asked for for Christmas was books on the War of 1812,” or “my first-grader is talking about Westward expansion at the dinner table.”

We’re all blown away by what these kids know and are retaining as far as deep rich content. Our librarian has figured out what she needs to order for next year that she didn’t have this year; she can’t keep certain books on the shelves, and that’s all stemming from CKLA.

Sometimes I equate it to crackers: We may have had Saltines for a long time and enjoyed them until the Ritz came around, and they’re golden and good for all. CKLA is really leveling the playing field in the classroom. No matter what a student’s background or socioeconomic status, CKLA really levels the playing field. It lets kids grow independently and also enables a classroom to grow collectively.

Most boxed curricula come and they’re written for the average student—not low or high, but average. In everything I’ve seen so far with CKLA, it has rich and deep content and rich strands. Those in the middle are stretched further than they normally would be. We’re seeing significant improvement for all of our kids.

In March, one of our classrooms had 90 percent of the kids meeting the district standards for the May cutoff—so they were meeting May expectations in March. This is what our teachers are finding super exciting.

Some of our highest achieving students really struggled with CKLA’s listening and learning strand in the beginning. They were used to just kind of being exceptional with what we had given them in the past. They had to stretch themselves a bit more. The curriculum is built such that it’s right above the middle with rigorous content, so higher-end learners are getting what they need as well.

And as for that second-grade girl I mentioned? The quiet one who was placed in special education? Recently her teachers visited one of our kindergarten teachers with five examples of a student’s stellar work, asking her to guess which of her previous students they belonged to. The teacher couldn’t figure it out, and when they told her it was this kiddo who had had so many challenges showing us what knowledge and skills she had in the past, she couldn’t believe it. The great news is that this student was exited out of special ed this spring and is performing well alongside her second-grade classmates.

The listening and learning strand of CKLA was huge for her because it started to build her confidence and unlocked the gate that was closed. She was always very quiet but always wanting to give answers—very deep, rich answers. Her comprehension is better than her decodability, and CKLA helped her build up the skills she needed, and we saw her writing improve 100 percent and her learning improve 100 percent.

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Children Are Curious and Capable—and Teachers Should Be Too

by Guest Blogger
September 26th, 2013

By Heidi Cole

Heidi Cole, a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches second grade at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy—a public charter school in Forest City, North Carolina.

For the past seven years of my 13-year teaching career, I have educated second graders using the Core Knowledge curriculum. With confidence, I can say that I have not only “taught” my students about ancient China, the War of 1812, Westward Expansion, and the Civil War, but my students have truly “learned” something about these topics. Before moving to a Core Knowledge school, I would never have believed that children would be capable of learning about these sophisticated topics at such a young age, much less enjoy doing so. However, through the use of Core Knowledge’s Listening & Learning strand, which is part of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, my students brighten as history comes to life during our literacy block.

The texts featured in the program are designed to enrich the vocabulary of our students and build their comprehension as they delve into domains typically reserved for middle and high school students. Seven- and eight-year-old children listen attentively to stories about immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island in the early 1900s, and then respond to questions in which they showcase their knowledge about the push and pull factors which lured these foreigners to a “land of opportunity.”

Each year parents comment on how much they are learning at home from their second grader. Long gone are the days when the children shrug when asked what they learned that day in school. It has been replaced with students begging for trips to see the Statue of Liberty, or asking if the family can travel to Baltimore just so they can witness the site where Francis Scott Key crafted the words to our National Anthem.

My school is in rural western North Carolina, but I have yet to receive any backlash from parents or community members, even when we study difficult issues like slavery. While slavery is certainly a delicate issue for any child to absorb, it is vital in the role of helping young children understand the dynamic of our country during the Civil War era. During our study of this topic, my students embrace the stories of hardship faced by slaves in the South. The result is empathy, followed by a desire to learn more, and the hope of a slavery-free world. Hearing the stories of slavery through the eyes of a child such as Minty (Harriet Tubman) helps children make important connections. We are able to have discussions about the horror of families being torn apart forever, and the dehumanization of African Americans during this time. The Core Knowledge Listening & Learning Civil War domain does an outstanding job of exposing second graders to this sensitive topic, while fostering concern for those impacted throughout history.

After learning about slavery this past school year, my students composed some of their best persuasive writing pieces. As the example below shows, they successfully wrote to a plantation owner from the perspective of a southern abolitionist. Such wonderful writing would not have been possible without true understanding of how this issue impacted the lives of others.

Awareness of slavery also helps prepare students with the necessary background needed to later understand the Civil Rights domain. During our study of Civil Rights, my students conjure up knowledge about the sensitivity of slavery, allowing them to better recognize why inequality had its firmest grasp in the southern states. Because many of my students lack exposure to culturally diverse experiences, this classroom exposure is crucial because it fosters an opportunity to develop connections to our history. Providing such strong background knowledge at a young age will enable these learners to develop a deep level of understanding about our country’s history and its government.

For too long now, educators have underestimated what children are capable of learning and content has been watered down. In a time when many elementary schools are denying students access to geography, history, and science, Core Knowledge provides a refreshing approach to education. How wonderful that during our literacy time, children hear stories about Confucius, rather than a fictional wise man. How great that students learn about the building of the transcontinental railroad, instead of reading a random story about trains.

If children are capable of learning such material, why deny them the opportunity to do so? If we are going to take valuable time in school to teach children how to read, why not also provide an opportunity to better understand their world? By the time my students enter fifth and sixth grades, they may not remember every detail of ancient China’s history, or the battles fought during the Civil War, but they will certainly possess enough background knowledge at that point to take their learning to a whole new level.

 

What’s the Difference Between Great Lessons and a Great Education?

by Lisa Hansel
July 11th, 2013

As many have hoped, the Common Core standards are giving educators across the country a platform for sharing lesson plans. While some online instructional collaboration was happening before the Common Core, we clearly see the benefits of common standards: a common language aimed at common goals has opened the door to a massive increase in teachers learning from each other.

Of course, teachers are not the only ones uploading resources; the whole landscape of educational materials is changing. Sean Cavanagh of Education Week, writes, “The menu of products available to educators today includes not only textbooks and digital products offered at a cost, but also a growing number of ‘open educational resources’ developed or supported by nonprofit groups, universities, philanthropies, individual teachers, and entire states.”

What does this mean for teachers? One teacher Cavanagh spoke with has a compelling answer:

Mr. Lemon, a math teacher at American Fork Junior High School, south of Salt Lake City, worked on a team that helped design open resources in that subject. Today, he uses the state’s open resources to guide his 9th graders through “mathematical tasks,” core daily lessons. He said he still turns back to materials produced by commercial publishers, mostly to give students extra practice and increase their “procedural fluency.”

Open resources give teachers more power—and more responsibility, Mr. Lemon said. Teachers are obligated to vet open materials and figure out whether they make sense for lessons, rather than relying on textbooks for guidance, he said. States and districts would be wise, he said, to back professional development to help them figure that out.

I think Mr. Lemon is absolutely right—and I would extend his point further. Teachers have to make sure the materials suit their lessons; they also have to make sure their lessons form coherent units and courses, and contribute to a coherent prek–12 education.

That’s why I find growing efforts for teachers to share their curricula even more exciting than the websites for sharing materials and lesson plans. Better Lesson, for example, isn’t just offering a massive database of resources—it has a “Plan Your Curriculum” option that invites teachers to “upload, organize, and share with fellow educators, down the hall or across the globe.”

Having great lessons is essential, but great lessons do not automatically create a great education. Knowledge and skills must build within an across grades, so all those great lessons need to be organized into a coherent, spiraling curriculum.

Coordination within schools and across schools—especially in the transitions (i.e., elementary to middle school) and in areas of high student mobility—is essential to prevent gaps and repetitions. Students shouldn’t end up practicing persuasive letter writing two years in a row but never write a science lab report. They shouldn’t do two close readings of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address but never read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Some structure for organizing lessons month to month and grade to grade is obviously necessary. With the Common Core, most schools now have a shared language and shared goals. Why should curriculum development remain a task that each teacher or school tackles in isolation? Just as lessons get better through being shared, critiqued, and revised, so could content maps and curricula. And just as teachers both upload lessons and revamp the lessons and materials they download, schools could both contribute to a shared curriculum and customize their particular curriculum. Nothing about sharing has to result in rigidity. Between the free-for-all of each teacher selecting his own content and the restrictiveness of a mandated, scripted curriculum, there is a fruitful middle ground in which students get a coherent education from teachers who have embraced both the power and the responsibility this new resource landscape provides.

I hope educators seize this moment to use their collective wisdom to not only develop great lessons, but to develop several paths to a great education. The Common Core standards provide a strong scaffold—could it lead to five or five dozen truly world-class curricula that have been developed (and are continuously enhanced) by tens of thousands of teachers?

There is no guarantee that will happen, but it is possible.

A quick example makes the importance of trying quite clear. As readers of this blog know, before the end of the summer kindergarten – third grade Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program will be online for free. Preschool will be online for free soon thereafter, with everything coming well in advance of when it needs to be taught. All of us at the Foundation are excited to see CKLA spreading as teachers are already downloading the sample units we’ve had online for the past several months.

And yet, I can’t help worrying just a bit. In March, when I helped with the final edits of CKLA’s Listening & Learning strand for third grade, I wrote about how carefully constructed the domains are:

In Classification of Animals, I learned about vertebrates, which then carried into The Human Body. In The Human Body, I also learned about vision and hearing, which then carried into Light and Sound. Light and Sound, in turn, prepared me for Astronomy by telling me a bit about the sun and light waves. I won’t get into the details, but as you can imagine, The Viking Age, Native Americans, and European Exploration wove together often.

The grouping of read-alouds into focused domains and the intentional sequencing of the domains are both really important for building knowledge and vocabulary…. By staying focused on a domain for two to three weeks, students get the multiple exposures they need to grasp and start using new words. And then, by having later domains build on previous ones, students get additional exposures that reinforce and refine the words and concepts learned previously.

This goes to the heart of why a string of great lessons may or may not result in a great education. And it highlights how right Mr. Lemon is when he says the new landscape of educational resources increases teachers’ power and responsibility.

Let’s look at the domains in the Listening & Learning strand in kindergarten:

1. Nursery Rhymes and Fables

2. The Five Senses

3. Stories

4. Plants

5. Farms

6. Native Americans

7. Kings and Queens

8. Seasons and Weather

9. Columbus and the Pilgrims

10. Colonial Towns and Townspeople

11. Taking Care of the Earth

12. Presidents and American Symbols

Each domain takes two to three weeks to teach, so a couple of questions arise frequently: Why does the Columbus and the Pilgrims domain come so late in the year? Wouldn’t it be better to teach that domain on Columbus Day?

Teachers certainly could preview the domain on Columbus Day, but if you study the list of domains, you’ll see why it comes so late in the year. We don’t want students to memorize a few isolated facts about Columbus; we want them to learn a great deal about Columbus and understand his place in history from multiple perspectives. That’s doable, even with kindergartners, but careful attention must be paid to slowly building up all the prerequisite knowledge.The information needed to really grasp Columbus and the Pilgrims starts with the Plants domain. That leads directly to Farms and Native Americans. Now children have a good foundation for understanding what Columbus encounters when he gets to the “New World.” But from what perspective is this land Columbus stumbles into either new or a different world? Students find out in the Kings and Queens domain.

Okay, you get the picture. Great lessons matter. Great lessons in a thoughtful, coherent, grade-by-grade, spiraling curriculum make for a great education.

This Is What Equal Opportunity Looks Like

by Lisa Hansel
May 21st, 2013

A few days ago, Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy wrote about supporting the Common Core State Standards—and doing whatever it takes to implement them well—simply because they reflect real-world standards. Institutions of higher education and employers have high standards. For many children from disadvantaged homes, rigorous schooling offers the only hope for being well prepared. Tucker recalled:

Years ago, I was running a focus group in Rochester, New York. I was asking parents how they felt about standards. An African-American single mother living on welfare said, “My boy is in middle school in the city. He is getting A’s just for filling in the colors in a coloring book. The kids in the suburbs have to work really hard for their A’s. When my child graduates, all he will be good for is working the checkout counter at the grocery store. I want my child to have the same opportunities they have. I want him to have to do as well in school as they have to do to earn an A.”

Tucker points out that instead of shying away from the Common Core, we ought to accept it as one necessary step in a total overhaul of our educational approach. “We will have to do what the top-performers everywhere have done: radically change our school finance systems, academic standards, curriculum, instructional practices and tests and exams. Not least important, we will have to make big changes in teacher compensation, the way we structure teachers’ careers, the standards for getting into teachers colleges, the curriculum in our teachers colleges, our teacher licensure standards and the way we support new teachers.”

All true. I argue that the place to start is standards and curriculum. The standards provide the goals and the curriculum provides the specific content. With those as the foundation, we can rebuild the rest of our educational infrastructure—especially teacher preparation.

Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) is a comprehensive reading, writing, speaking, listening, and knowledge-building curriculum for preschool through third grade that could be used to strengthen the elementary grades.

Teachers are excited about it because it develops decoding and encoding skills while also engaging students in listening to and discussing rich teacher read-alouds. Fiction and nonfiction, the read-alouds have a mix of fables, science, and history, including tales from around the world, ancient civilizations, the human body, and astronomy.

To really understand it, you have to see it. Take a look at this video featuring two schools that participated in the pilot of CKLA in New York City: P.S. 96Q and P.S. 104Q.

In the video, Alice Wiggins, Core Knowledge’s executive vice president, explains that one great benefit of CKLA is the carefully organized content: Children “are pulling knowledge from what they learned earlier in the school year and even in prior years because of the way the program spirals.”

Hope Wygand, a teacher, has seen this in action. In her hands, CKLA builds knowledge and excitement:

In second grade, I know I have to teach ancient Greek myths because in third grade, they are going to do ancient Roman myths. So it all builds….

When you can start a lesson and the children already know what you are talking about, they are so much more interested because they already have an investment in it—and they want to show you what they know.

But don’t just take it from me. See for yourself.

 

TTBOMK, Paying Attention Is MIA. NISM?

by Lisa Hansel
May 15th, 2013

Translation: To the best of my knowledge, paying attention is missing in action. Need I say more?

I don’t need to say more about the problem, so let’s get right into what to do. Many thanks to Dan Willingham for drawing attention to, as he put it, “the 21st century skill students really lack”:

It’s unlikely that they are incapable of paying attention, but rather that they are quick to deem things not worth the effort.

We might wonder if patience would not come easier to a student who had had the experience of sustaining attention in the face of boredom, and then later finding that patience was rewarded….

Students today have so many options that being mildly bored can be successfully avoided most of the time.

Most students are able to avoid being mildly bored, but the result may be that they become boring people. I doubt it is possible to learn a great deal about the world—to make “the inside of your head … an interesting place to spend the rest of your life”—without enduring some boredom. Many great books pull you in slowly—it’s only after 50 or so pages that you’re hooked. Likewise, many academic subjects only become fascinating when you’re far enough in for contradictory details to emerge and for questions that once seemed clear to become debatable. I was one of those teenagers who thought that learning about raindrops as prisms would ruin the rainbow. It didn’t. The textbook diagram was dry, but the next rainbow was more vibrant. Suddenly, I was glad that I had diligently studied that textbook, not merely crammed for the test.

Paying attention and then being unexpectedly rewarded for it is an experience many of us have had—but we can’t just assume all students will be so fortunate. As Willingham wrote, “If we are concerned that students today are too quick to allow their attention to be yanked to the brightest object (or to willfully redirect it once their very low threshold of boredom is surpassed), we need to consider ways that we can bring home to them the potential reward of sustained attention.”

Willingham mentioned a Harvard art professor, Jennifer Roberts, who “asks her students to select a painting from a Boston museum, on which they are to write an in-depth research paper. Then the student must go the museum and study the painting. For three hours.”

Some boredom is assured, but would be painting be ruined or enhanced? Roberts explains that it is enhanced as students see more details. Willingham notes that students’ patience is rewarded, revealing the value of persisting and paying attention.

I think there is one more element here—the quality of the work being studied. Students were not to spend three hours gazing upon any painting; it had to be one in a Boston museum.  This assures that they are looking at the original work, and that the work itself has been judged by several experts to be worthy of preservation.

We should indeed encourage students to pay attention—and we must also hold ourselves accountable for giving them things worthy of their attention.

That said, how do we help more students learn to value paying attention and persisting through initial boredom? I hope Willingham will answer that question with rigorous research. Meanwhile, I’ll offer a common sense approach: start early and build slowly.

Just that happens in Core Knowledge Language Arts and Will Fitzhugh’s Page Per Year Plan.

In Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA)—a knowledge-building reading, writing, speaking, and listening program for preschool through third grade—teachers slowly develop students’ ability to pay attention by reading aloud. Importantly, the read-alouds start short and grow longer over the course of the school year and across school years. The read-alouds also provide information worth learning and are grouped by domain so that students have time to grasp concepts and acquire new vocabulary. Even better, the domains themselves are carefully sequenced, with early studies of topics like plants and farms providing a foundation for later studies of pilgrims and ecology. Squirmy young children quickly grow into attentive students as they realize that these fiction and nonfiction read-alouds contain interesting stories and answer questions about the world.

Fitzhugh is the founder of the Concord Review, a scholarly history journal with well-researched essays by high school students. Fitzhugh often laments that the traditional history term paper is quickly becoming a relic. He hopes to reinstate the term paper through his Page Per Year Plan:

Each first grader would be required to write a one-page paper on a subject other than herself or himself, with at least one source.

A page would be added each year to the required academic writing, such that, for example, fifth graders would have to write a five-page paper, ninth graders would have to write a nine-page research paper, with sources, and so on, until each senior could be asked to prepare a 12-page academic research paper, with endnotes and bibliography, on some historical topic.

This would gradually prepare students for future academic writing tasks, and each senior could graduate from high school knowing more about some important topic than anyone else in the class, and he/she may also have read at least one nonfiction (history) book before college. This should reduce the need for remedial instruction in writing (and perhaps in remedial reading as well) at the college level.

I believe there’s one more benefit: sustained attention. Year by year, students would have to put forth a little more effort, take a little more time, and grasp a little bit more deeply the learning that results from researching and writing about a topic. I’d bet that those Harvard students who dutifully studied a painting for three hours (as well as wrote a research paper on it) were prepared for the task with similarly rigorous studies throughout their K – 12 years.

Today’s typical 12th grader would likely struggle to write a 12-page history paper. YKWIM? (Translation: You know what I mean?) But a 12th grader who had already written 11 other history papers would likely succeed beautifully. Fitzhugh has been touting his Page Per Year Plan for more than a decade. Maybe it’s time we listened.

NVNG! (Translation: Nothing ventured, nothing gained!)

 

Why Is There So Much Listening in the Core Knowledge’s Reading Program?

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 31st, 2013

Earlier this week my colleague Alice Wiggins noted the strong alignment between the new Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program and the Common Core State Standards for ELA & Literacy. Drawing on decades of cognitive science research, I made the case for a totally new approach to reading instruction in The Knowledge Deficit. It is heartening not only to see CKLA come to life, but for it to do so just as the nation is ushering new standards that support stronger, more research-based reading instruction.

I would hazard the guess that, because of its deep foundations in linguistic and cognitive science, CKLA has no peer among early literacy programs. Whenever students in CKLA have been accurately paired with a control group using another program, the CKLA students came out ahead on reading tests. The CKLA program is designed to optimize the use of time by students and teachers alike.

There is every reason to expect the superiority of CKLA to become more pronounced as students stay in the program and continue on through the elementary grades. Why? Because with each passing year, CKLA students will know more, have larger vocabularies, and be able to comprehend better what they read.

To explain the science behind Core Knowledge’s generous use of listening in its reading program, it’s necessary to distinguish decoding from reading.  Let’s call decoding the sounding out of words from written marks, and let’s strictly reserve the term “reading” for understanding what those words mean.  Using the term “reading” to mean comprehension is common usage anyway.  The whole education field, and much of the general public, has been mired in the overlap between these two senses of the word “reading”—decoding and comprehension. But “comprehension” is just too cumbersome a term to keep inserting. We really need only two distinct terms: “decoding” and “reading,” where the second term always means “understanding what one has decoded.” Please tolerate this preliminary defining of terms. It’s essential for gaining clarity about what’s needed in a good literacy program.

The proof that decoding is not comprehension is easy:  One of the best ways of testing decoding fluency and accuracy is to present nonsense words, such as those Lewis Carroll famously wrote:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

A second grader should be able to sound that out acceptably, but none should be able to say confidently what it means.

What about the connection between listening and reading? Shouldn’t we make a careful distinction there? Less distinction than one might think. If decoding goes with sounding out and therefore with “hearing,” then “reading” goes with “listening.” Let’s take the term “listening” to mean comprehension too.

And this brings us to the nub: in the early grades, when the immensely difficult task of learning to decode is paramount, there is not much time left in the language arts block to improve general knowledge and verbal comprehension—especially for disadvantaged students who enter school with subpar knowledge and vocabulary. That’s why CKLA divides decoding and knowledge building into separate segments of the school day. CKLA is comprised of two strands: a Skills strand that teaches all the skills and mechanics of decoding and writing (or encoding), and a Listening and Learning strand that builds background knowledge, especially in history, science, and the arts. It’s the Listening and Learning strand that is really unique. Most reading programs are aware of the research showing that background knowledge is essential to comprehension, but then—misunderstanding the implications of that research—they think texts must stick with familiar topics like friends and pets. CKLA is carefully designed to expand students’ background knowledge, enabling them to read about their world, past and present, fiction and nonfiction.

CKLA’s main vehicle for building knowledge, as you may have guessed from “Listening and Learning,” is read-alouds. Why? Many years ago, the researcher Thomas Sticht discovered the important fact that reading does not catch up with listening until late middle school or early high school.

Source: T. G. Sticht and J. James, “Listening and reading,” in P. Pearson, ed., Handbook of Research on Reading. New York: Longmans, 1984. (1984)

It would be quite remarkable if this were not the case. In the early grades, so much of the “channel capacity” of the mind is taken up with the arduous process of learning and applying decoding that there is little mental space left over to process new or difficult meanings. Decoding in the early years is a barrier to progress through the written word. Hence the ideal structure for an early literacy program is to foster progress in decoding by the most efficient means, and to foster knowledge and vocabulary by the most efficient means. For knowledge, the most efficient means is through listening (along with heavy doses of watching, questioning, etc. as described in Alice’s post). Another finding of Sticht and his colleagues is that early listening ability predicts reading ability many years later. Learning to listen at a high level is closely connected to learning to read at a high level.

Some educators may think that listening is too passive an activity. It can be physically passive, but it is anything but mentally passive, as shown by brain scans that Dr. Bennett Shaywitz of Yale (and others) have done while people are listening. These scans prove that listening is very active indeed—which is unsurprising, since all language comprehension is a highly active process involving active predictions, inferences, and guesses. Listening can be downright tiring.

Another connection between listening and reading is the now-established fact that reading is itself a form of listening. The old debate about whether silent reading has an active, internal auditory component is over.  Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently.  We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening. Gaining expertise in listening thus transfers rather directly to expertise in reading. And since in the early years students learn through listening much faster and more extensively than through reading, systematic listening is the fastest route to progress in reading during the early years.

Want still more information on listening, reading, and learning? See “Why Listening and Learning Are Critical to Reading Comprehension.”

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.

A Good School Washed Away in the Storm

by Robert Pondiscio
November 7th, 2012

P.S. 333, the Goldie Maple School, is a Core Knowledge Official School in New York City.  It started the year with an enrollment of 578 children.  This morning, fewer than 30 showed up for the first scheduled day of class since hurricane Sandy punished the city eight days ago.

The school sits less than two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in the Arverne section on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, a neighborhood that lay defenseless against the storm.  Hundreds of homes in the Rockaways were damaged or destroyed when a 12-foot storm surge submerged the slender spit of land in seawater and sand.   P.S. 333 was too badly damaged to occupy when New York City schools reopened this week–one of 79 schools in 44 buildings deemed unsafe.  The school’s temporary home, at least this week, is I.S. 126 in Long Island City, a school named after the late teacher’s union leader Albert Shanker, who taught and organized his colleagues there.

A school bus picked up the students for what turned out to be an hour and a half ride to the other side of the borough.  Only a handful made the trip.  P.S. 333’s principal, Angela Logan, was not surprised.  She can’t even estimate how many of her school’s families have left the neighborhood, for now or for good.  “When you look around, you don’t see people outside.  There’s no reason to come outside.  The stores are all gone.  There was a lot of looting and there’s a curfew in place,” she says.

I found Logan and her staff this morning in the third floor library of their temporary home.  They were not teaching.  They were working the phones, trying to find their students. “My teachers are calling right now to find out where are they and if they’re planning on coming to the relocation site.”  But even this temporary home is only temporarily theirs.  “They gave us this site this week,” she said.  “Next week we’re going to be at an elementary school and a middle school.”

It is unclear when their own building will be ready for use again.  The storm surge flooded the school’s basement destroying its boiler.  Water damaged the first floor. Power may be weeks away from being restored.  “The only thing I was told is that the boiler is definitely shot.  They’re thinking about putting a temporary generator and temporary boiler outside so it can power the building.  But they don’t know when they can do that,” Logan says.

P.S. 333 occupies a special place in the universe of Core Knowledge schools and the hearts of our staff.  It was one of the ten New York City pilot schools that road tested the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program.  I’ve regularly brought visitors who are interested in the curriculum to observe K-2 classes there.  Thanks in part to the stellar results posted by teachers at Goldie Maple, CKLA is now being made available to schools statewide.  Indeed, the pilot was so successful that P.S. 333 continued to use the program even after the demonstration ended.  Their materials are still in the school in undamaged classrooms in the upper floors, but Logan and her staff are not able or even allowed to retrieve them.  “The Department of Ed said we’ll just purchase you new materials.  I guess for them that’s just easier,” she fumed.  “They have no idea we’re a Core Knowledge school.  I don’t need Dr. Seuss books.  I need the Romans and Greek books.”

Even that concern seems small right now.  With the loss of instructional time, the lack of continuity, and the disruption wrought by Sandy, Logan fears it will be a lost school year for many of her children, most of whom can ill afford it.  “How do you hold them accountable to sit there and learn when [the children are thinking] ‘I don’t have a house. When I go back home it’s freezing cold?’ Those kids are going to suffer,” she says.  Even after the all-clear is given and the school safe to occupy, there’s no way to know how many students will return. Some, perhaps most of the low-income families served by Logan’s school, will simply melt into the neighborhoods to which they’ve moved.  The scale of the dislocation is immense:  P.S. 333 is one of 11 schools in the Rockaways put out of commission by Sandy, and the smallest of them.  “No one’s talking about that right now.  What’s the reality for the kids that were on that Peninsula?”  She doesn’t know.

Logan is openly frustrated with city officials trying to give the impression that things are getting back to normal in New York City’s schools.  “You want to make it look good, but you’re not thinking about these kids,” she says.  That said, New York City is relocating more schools than Oklahoma City or Portland, Oregon has in total.

As Logan is speaking, a mother and small child wander toward us from the far end of the unfamiliar hallway that Al Shanker once roamed.  They look lost and bewildered.  “Look at the babies who’ve come,” she says.  “Some parents this morning were worried because their kids didn’t have their school uniforms.  They were washed away.  I’m like, ‘As long as you’re OK and your family’s OK.’  I just feel bad.”  Logan mumbles under her breath. “To think that’s something you’d think about right now.” She’s incredulous.  Close to tears.  “I just don’t know what to say.”

“You try to keep going, you try to move on,” Logan says.  “But this is crazy.”

 

 

“We’re Where We Need to Be Right Now”

by Robert Pondiscio
May 15th, 2012

John Merrow of Learning Matters filed an important ten-minute piece for the PBS Newshour last night, looking at elementary reading programs.  Merrow and his producer Cat McGrath visited three different schools in and around New York City: one that teaches with basal readers, another with “balanced literacy,” and one of the New York City schools that is piloting the Core  Knowledge Language Arts curriculum.

The piece is well worth the ten-minutes it takes to watch it (a transcript is available here) and it nicely underscores a the differences between the Core Knowledge approach and the others, particularly in the over-reliance on reading strategies in balanced literacy and basals.  That could pose a problem as reading instruction shifts to comply with Common Core State Standards:

AMANDA BLATTER, principal, Public School 109: We now have level libraries that are nonfiction in all of our classrooms. So the curriculum in reading and writing is now aligning to the Common Core standards.

JOHN MERROW: Just like the students using basal textbooks, these first-graders are learning reading strategies.

AMANDA BLATTER: We’re teaching comprehension strategies such as main idea, author’s purpose, inferencing, cause and effect.

JOHN MERROW: In balanced literacy, comprehension is a skill, something to be practiced, like a jump-shot or dance steps.

It’s unfair to harp on a single soundbite in a TV interview, but the idea that you can be “aligned to Common Core standards” simply by adding nonfiction to a strategies-driven, read-what-you-like approach to literacy is a broad misinterpretation of what CCSS is all about.   The Standards are largely silent on the works of literature and knowledge domains children are expected to learn, but quite clear that there “must be a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.”

“Building knowledge systematically in English language arts is like giving children various pieces of a puzzle in each grade that, over time, will form one big picture. At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students. Within a grade level, there should be an adequate number of titles on a single topic that would allow children to study that topic for a sustained period. The knowledge children have learned about particular topics in early grade levels should then be expanded and developed in subsequent grade levels to ensure an increasingly deeper understanding of these topics. Children in the upper elementary grades will generally be expected to read these texts independently and reflect on them in writing. However, children in the early grades (particularly K–2) should participate in rich, structured conversations with an adult in response to the written texts that are read aloud, orally comparing and contrasting as well as analyzing and synthesizing, in the manner called for by the Standards.”  (p. 23 CCSS ELA Standards)

“When I look at what the expectations are coming in with the Common Core learning standards,” says Joyce Barrett-Walker, the principal of PS 96, the Core Knowledge school featured in the piece. “It seems that we’re where we need to be right now.”

Basals and balanced literacy?  Not so much “What is clear is that basal readers used in three-quarters of our elementary schools will have to make significant adjustments to comply with the emerging Core standards,” Merrow concludes.