Mere Facts, Mere Knowledge, Mere College Readiness

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
February 25th, 2013

Is teaching many domains in English language arts more important to college and career readiness than teaching many words?

Research on teaching vocabulary has determined better and worse ways of conducting explicit instruction.  Word lists and isolated definitions, while they may seem efficient, are among the least effective methods, while explicit explanations of words in context are the most effective. Ideally, according to one distinguished researcher, students can learn up to 400 new words in a school year by explicit methods (2+ words a day for 180 days under ideal circumstances). Others offer a more modest estimate, around 200 words per school year.

Yet the minimal count of words you need to be college and career ready is estimated to be 12,000 to 30,000, depending on the mode of counting. The explicit method of instruction at its best yields 5,200 words between kindergarten and 12th grade. Yet even marginal high school students need to know twice that many—meaning that most of their word learning must occur incidentally in the course of understanding the gist of spoken and written language.

Nonetheless, I would agree with advocates of explicit word study that, done strategically as an integrated and not-very-time-consuming part of a lesson, explicit instruction can help unlock enough of the gist of a passage to speed up the incidental learning of words. But then the question arises: what sort of words should we pause over in order to make the best use of class time and help the student make the fastest progress?

Experts in explicit word study have identified three main categories of words called Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3, in order of frequency of occurrence in written English. The current expert view is that teachers should focus on Tier 2 words. Tier 1 words are so usual that students are likely to learn them on their own. Tier 3 words, on the other hand, are so rare that focusing on them does not offer much advancement for general reading ability. So under current thinking, the following sorts of Tier 2 words are the ones teachers should spend most class time on:  reputation, disruption, hovers, stifling, obstacle, descendants, maximum, standards, barren, desolate—words that are moderately frequent, because used in multiple written contexts. That’s not true of domain-specific Tier 3 words like, valence, bildungsroman, Renaissance, metabolism, Gettysburg, photosynthesis,  stochastic, ionic, simile, dew point, polygon, Madison, monotheism, kinetic, Dalton, Fourier, Magna Carta, Impressionism, helium, fiscal, TR, and Shiite. 

But I’m not persuaded by this rationale. Although Tier 2 words are to be found in multiple contexts, they do not constitute a big percentage of the totality of different words in the English vocabulary. That distinction belongs to the words of Tier 3, which are domain specific. If you want to reach the magic number of 25,000 thousand or so, it’s best to spend your time learning domain-specific Tier 3 words. After all, there’s a bit of inconsistency in the expert advice to teachers to spend most of students’ explicit-word-study time on Tier 2 words after having said that Tier 1 words can be ignored on the grounds that they are used so frequently that most people have learned them incidentally. That sensible principle recedes when it comes to their doctrine about Tier 2 words, which we are advised to focus on precisely because they are relatively frequent and are used in multiple written contexts. Some serious research needs to be undertaken to determine whether, in a good, coherent knowledge-based curriculum most Tier 2 words aren’t also learned incidentally as a matter of course, just like most Tier 1 words, as the overall math would suggest. (This research has not been conducted, despite the confident advice about studying domain-general Tier 2 words. Indeed there is some counter evidence in the studies by John Guthrie indicating the superiority of domain-specific instruction in ELA.)

To support the emphasis on Tier 2 words many educators assume that there exists such a thing as general “reading skill,” which will be the key to college and career readiness. But cognitive scientists instruct us that it’s an oversimplification to suppose that there is such a thing as a domain-general reading skill that can be fostered by the explicit study of domain-general, Tier 2 words. On the contrary, the latest cognitive science tells us that reading skills, like most skills, are “domain specific.”  Granted, there are important domain-general aspects of reading that include automatic, unconscious procedures like decoding skill, eye movements, strategic meaning searches, and knowledge of domain-general words. It is reasonable, indeed essential, to ensure that students gain such domain-general knowledge. But few experts advise that students be explicitly trained in eye-movement patterns, at least not very extensively. For most students that skill develops unconsciously without continuous instruction.  The same is true of most domain-general word learning—which occurs unconsciously, bit by bit, through multiple exposures to a word in different contexts. Domain general skills like decoding, once mastered, are continually practiced and unconsciously improved precisely because, being domain general, they occur frequently.

There’s a clear analogy with skill in sports. Most sports demand domain-general athletic abilities like hand-eye coordination.  Nonetheless being skilled specifically in golf does not directly transfer to being skilled in tennis or even in croquet. Each sport has domain-specific skills that must be explicitly mastered. Similarly, being skilled in reading about golf does not readily transfer to being skilled in reading about tennis. The golf passages will of course contain domain-general words like but, however, pretty, and willing, but the critical words will be birdie, bogie, and par, and knowing them won’t help you read a tennis story with set point, fault, and ace.

Why do you suppose school reading tests typically offer ten or so passages? If reading were a domain-general skill, one passage would suffice. (If I want to know if you can ride a bike, I won’t bring ten bikes for you to ride. One will suffice.) But reading tests always contain several passages because a reliable reading test has to sample your ability to read in several different domains. Reading tests are essentially tests of how many different domains you have knowledge of and vocabulary for. To be a literate adult—one who could read a newspaper front to back—you must have knowledge in a very broad range of domains.

If we wish our students to perform well on a reading test, we ought to abandon the disparagement of “mere facts.”  Nothing contributes more to a student’s reading abilities than wide knowledge of multiple domains, automatically accompanied by knowledge of many domain-specific, Tier 3 words. In sum, nothing contributes more to college and career readiness than broad general knowledge over multiple domains.

The best way to teach “English language arts” then is systematically to teach substantive domains of knowledge along with their inherently related vocabularies. In fact the whole issue needs to be broadened by a return to real classes in history, science, and the arts in elementary grades, as the best way to gain proficiency in reading. This larger principle transcends the currently debated topic of fictional vs. non-fictional genres. Much good fiction is a repository of domain knowledge—not just of human nature and ethical principles, but also of historical and factual knowledge, including such things as Mississippi river-boating in Huckleberry Finn, and whaling in Moby Dick, as well as the forms and techniques of literature, like simile and metaphor, prefixes and suffixes, which are just as “informational” as chemical valences. What is needed for college and career readiness is extensive general knowledge over multiple domains, coherently delivered—with lots of Tier 3 words.

When this is done well, with gradually increasing sophistication grade by grade, Tiers 1 and 2 will mostly take care of themselves.

An Unclaimed Lottery Ticket

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 17th, 2013

Inspired by Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality and Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence, which lay out in disheartening detail the growing inequality of income and opportunity in the United States, I have a new article in City Journal: “A Wealth of Words.” I hope you’ll find time for the whole article, but here’s my CliffsNotes version.

With the decline of the middle class, the aristocracy of family so deplored by Jefferson seems upon us; the counter-aristocracy of merit that long defined America as the land of opportunity has receded. But there is a road back to the City upon a Hill.

There’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.

The correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research. Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter. And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.

The sociologist Donald Hayes, following the lead of the great literacy scholar Jeanne Chall, found that publishers, under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies.

If vocabulary is related to achieved intelligence and to economic success, our schools need to figure out how to encourage vocabulary growth. They should understand, for starters, that word-learning occurs slowly and through a largely unconscious process. Consider the word “excrescence.” Few know the word; fewer still encounter it in their everyday lives. Maybe you do know it, but imagine that you don’t.

Now suppose I gave it to you in a sentence: “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of the plane’s cabin.” That single exposure to the word is probably insufficient for you to grasp its meaning, though if you know something about aerospace engineering, you’ll be likelier to make a good approximation. Here’s an encounter in another context: “Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.” Perhaps now you have a vague understanding of the word. A third meaningful encounter will allow you to check your understanding or refine your sense of the meaning: “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.” By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of the word, and one more encounter in a familiar context should verify your understanding: “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.”

You’ve probably figured out that the word “excrescence” means “an outgrowth.” That’s an accelerated, artificial example of how word-learning occurs. Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

The context for an unfamiliar word isn’t just the other words surrounding it in a text but also the situation referred to by those words. Familiarity with the relevant subject matter ensures that a student’s unconscious meaning-guesses are likely to be right.

So the fastest way to gain a large vocabulary through schooling is to follow a systematic curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts, thereby enabling the student to make correct meaning-guesses unconsciously. There are so many words to be learned by 12th grade—between 25,000 and 60,000—that a large vocabulary results not from memorizing word lists but from systematically acquiring knowledge about the social and natural worlds.

The idea is to immerse students in a domain long enough to make them familiar with the context—and thus able to learn words faster. For the purposes of teaching vocabulary, a “domain” could be defined as a sphere of knowledge in which concepts and words are repeated over the course of two or three weeks. Such repetition happens automatically in a classroom unit on, say, plants and photosynthesis.

I would make three practical recommendations to improve American students’ vocabularies, and hence their economic potential: better preschools; classroom instruction based on domain immersion; and a specific, cumulative curriculum sequence across the grades, starting in preschool. Of these, the last is the most important but also the toughest to achieve politically. But the new Common Core State Standards for language arts, now adopted by more than 40 states, may offer a ray of hope (see “The Curriculum Reformation”). One statement in the new standards reads: “By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” A second encouraging passage: “The Common Core Standards do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum.”

These two statements are big steps forward from the failed how-to approaches of the recent past. My hope is that some influential district superintendent will require a specific grade-by-grade knowledge sequence. The striking success of one major urban district could transform practice throughout the nation.

Miss Lahey’s Epistle to the Romans

by Guest Blogger
December 28th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

When Robert Pondiscio wrote “How to Get a Big Vocabulary,” I knew it was just a matter of time before I my defenses would weaken, and I would have to start spouting off about the beauty of language, Latin, etymology, and classical roots. I can’t help it. I get excited about these things. I teach Latin, English, and writing, and my happy place lies at the nexus of these subjects.

Just when I thought it was safe to take a break from grading my students’ writing assessments and see what’s happening on the internet, Core Knowledge blog reader John Webster had the nerve to ask specifically for a Latin teacher’s opinion on the value of Latin, and Robert had the unmitigated gall to publicly provoke me into a response to John’s comment.

@Robert (comment 30). Here in Minnesota, I know of several public schools that offer – require – Latin. They’re called charter schools, and all of them are also Core Knowledge schools. Yet another reason why some alleged supporters of Core Knowledge who oppose all charter schools are in no practical sense real friends of Core Knowledge. My two kids, 9th and 7th grades, study Latin and do the obligatory grumbling about having to learn a “dead” language. I rely on the authority of teachers I respect that Latin helps in developing literacy and vocabulary skills, but I’ve never read anything addressed to laypeople why this is so. Anyone know of any articles/essays that explain the value of Latin, or can any Latin teachers in the CK blog audience explain this value in a practical, meat-and-potatoes way?  Comment by John Webster — December 27, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

Before I get all in a twist about the word “value” as it relates to anything I teach, (Latin valere, to be strong, vigorous, in good health, to have force) let me begin with the low-hanging statistical fruit, all thanks to Bolchazy-Carducci, the publishers of the textbook, Latin for the New Millennium:

1. Studies performed by the Educational Testing Services show that students of Latin outperform all other students on the verbal portion of the SAT.

2. In the District of Columbia, elementary school students who studied Latin developed reading skills that were five months ahead of those who studied no foreign language and four months ahead of those who studied French or Spanish. Two years earlier, the same students had been excluded from foreign language classes because of substandard reading performance.

3. In Philadelphia, students in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades received 15 to 20 minutes of daily instruction in Latin for one year. The performance of the Latin students was one full year higher on the Vocabulary Subtest of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) than the performance of matched control students who had not studied Latin. 

4. Sixth-grade students in Indianapolis who studied Latin for 30 minutes each day for five months advanced nine months in their math problem solving abilities. In addition, the students exhibited the following advances in other areas:

·      Eight months in world knowledge
·      One year in reading
·      Thirteen months in language
·      Four months in spelling
·      Five months in science
·      Seven months in social studies

But the fun part – the “value” – in learning Latin has nothing to do with these statistics or test scores. It lies in the evolution of our language, the stories revealed through etymology, the history of our culture articulated through the words we preserve and the words we discard.

As Robert’s post points out, a big vocabulary does not come from sheer memorization. Anyone who has ever been subjected to an 11th-hour SAT prep course knows that. It comes from a deeper understanding of word origins and repeated exposure to novel words through reading. If I know that the Latin acer means “sharp,” I can deduce that “acid” has a sharp taste, an “acute” angle is sharp, “acrid” is a sharp smell, and an “acerbic” person has a sharp wit.

I am all for the memorization of vocabulary; in fact, my school teaches vocabulary using a lovely series called Vocabulary fromClassical Roots and my students memorize their share of vocabulary lists. However, if we want our students to achieve true depth and breadth of vocabulary, it’s worth spending some time among the Romans. A working knowledge of Latin is worth more than the weight of its word roots. It is an exercise in reverse-engineering our own language in order to understand how all the parts fit together to create a whole.

And as for the greatly exaggerated rumors of Latin’s death? Latin teachers squall and writhe in horror when confronted with this rumor as evidence of Latin’s obsolescence, but I couldn’t care less. In arguing for the relevance and necessity for the continued study of Latin, I call on Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer at The Guardian.

“The  most frequent charge laid against the door of Latin – aside from the absurd accusation of elitism – is that it is useless. Why not learn Mandarin, people ask, or Russian or French? For me the pleasure of Latin is precisely because – aside from the points sketched above - it is “useless.” Latin doesn’t help to turn out factory-made mini-consumers fit for a globalised 21st-century society. It helps create curious, intellectually rigorous kids with a rich interior world, people who have the tools to see our world as it really is because they have encountered and imaginatively experienced another that is so like and so very unlike our own.”

I couldn’t agree more. My students can “amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant” with the best of them, but they can do even better than that. They can tell their friends Amy and Amanda where their names come from. They understand how amare meandered north and became amour. They can become enamored, have inamorata, wax rhapsodic about their first paramour. They will know what Catullus meant when he lamented that odi et amo, and take solace in Virgil’s observation that omnia vincit amor.

Latin is alive and well in my classroom, thank goodness. My mother likes to remind me that she was the one who forced me to take Latin in seventh grade, and like John Webster’s kids, I moaned and groaned about having to study a dead and hopelessly irrelevant language. But thank goodness for my mother’s stubborn insistence. My students are  far more accomplished readers, writers and students of the world for their years spent among the Romans.

 

How to Get a Big Vocabulary

by Robert Pondiscio
December 20th, 2012

Many of us remember studying word lists to prepare for SAT tests.  But if you have a big vocabulary, it is highly unlikely you developed it through memorization.  Consider that a 12th-grade student who scored well enough on the verbal portion of the SAT to get into a selective college has a vocabulary somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 words.  Do the math:  acquiring such a sizable vocabulary by rote would mean learning 10-20 new words every day until freshman orientation, assuming you came home from the delivery room having learned your first few dozen words.

Clearly that’s not what happens.  If you are verbally dexterous, the odds are good that you grew up in a language-rich home with parents who talked and read to you a lot. Over the years, you also probably learned and read a lot across a wide variety of subjects.

With Common Core State Standards emphasizing the importance of academic vocabulary and the release of new NAEP results raising awareness that vocabulary mirrors reading comprehension levels (no surprise to readers of this blog) vocabulary is hot.  Words are the new black.  E.D. Hirsch entered the fray with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal the other day noting that NAEP confirms that “students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens.” He points out for the 24,587th time in a public forum (plus or minus 4) what should have years ago become a hardcore, non-negotiable, fundamental understanding among every person drawing breath and a paycheck in education:  the content kids learn in school matters.  A lot.  Content provides the context that drives vocabulary growth. Says Hirsch:

“If a child reads that ‘annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,’ he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.”

The key word there is “intuit.”  Therein lies the secret to building verbal kids.  You hear an unfamiliar word, intuit what it means, and confirm and refine your understanding with each future encounter with the word until you eventually own it and it becomes part of your working vocabulary. That’s how it works.  Not by memorizing lots of words, but by being exposed to increasingly complex words in context, and coming to understand through repeated exposure what those words mean.  It’s not complicated, but it’s very, very time consuming.  It is the work of years and years of exposure to rich language and text.  But if you don’t know the context, you don’t learn the new words.  In Hirsch’s example, “annual” and “fertile” are just two more bits of stuff that go over your head if you know nothing of Egypt, the Nile, farming, etc.  Without the common knowledge, everything grinds to a screeching halt.

This is the reason we want kids to read or be read to a lot.  It exposes them to rich language; it’s not about practicing the “skill” of reading, which is not a skill at all. Even the simplest texts tend to have more rare and unique words than even the richest spoken language (the language of children’s books is more linguistically rich and complex than the conversation of even college graduates).  And this is why we want kids to learn a lot across a wide range of range of subjects:  the broader your knowledge base, the more likely you are to be able to contextualize and understand new words, as in Hirsch’s Egypt example above.  Knowledge acts as a mental dragnet.  The wider and stronger your net, the more vocabulary gets scooped up.  More content equals more context equals more fertile ground for vocabulary growth to occur.

The idea that verbal proficiency, reading comprehension, and a broad, content-rich curriculum are inextricably linked is at the very heart of the Core Knowledge movement—an awareness that has gradually sunk in over decades and been enshrined in Common Core State Standards.  In an upcoming article in City Journal, on which his Journal op-ed was based, Hirsch notes the stakes for vocabulary acquisition couldn’t be any higher.  There is “a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income.”  The correlation between vocabulary size and life chances are “as firm as any correlations in educational research,” Hirsch writes.

Connect the dots:  Reading comprehension correlates with vocabulary level.  Vocabulary level correlates with life outcomes.  Those old Reader’s Digest quizzes had it right: It really does pay to increase your word power.  Vocabulary is destiny.  Ed reformers, heed Hirsch:

“The most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class and help the poor is to focus on the question: ‘Is this policy likely to translate into a large increase in the vocabularies of 12th-graders?’ When questions of fairness and inequality come up in discussions, parents would do well to ask whether it’s fair of schools to send young people into a world where they suffer from vocabulary inequality.”

So how do we get kids where we need them to be?  There is no substitute for reading widely.  We are unlikely to build a strong vocabulary without regular exposure to the sophisticated language of print.  And not just any print, but print of increasing complexity and breadth across subject matter.  This is really no longer “nice to do” but essential.  Job One.

All I want for Christmas is for Common Core critics, rather that retailing scare stories that CCSS will replace literature with readings of government reports on agriculture and insulation regulations in English class, to temper their criticism even a little bit with an acknowledgement that maybe a coherent, content-rich curriculum (which CCSS does not, cannot mandate but strongly recommends) might not be the worst thing to happen to our schools.

 

 

 

Demographics Isn’t Destiny. Vocabulary is Destiny.

by Robert Pondiscio
October 8th, 2012

There’s a must-read piece in the New York Times by Ginia Bellafante about language, poverty and academic achievement.  The article is ostensibly about the controversy over admissions to New York City’s specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant High and Bronx Science.  But Bellafante wisely traces the problem back to its origins and the systemic advantage of growing up in a hyper-verbal upscale Manhattan home.

“It is difficult to overstate the advantages arrogated to a child whose parent proceeds in a near constant mode of annotation. Reflexively, the affluent, ambitious parent is always talking, pointing out, explaining: Mommy is looking for her laptop; let’s put on your rain boots; that’s a pigeon, a sand dune, skyscraper, a pomegranate. The child, in essence, exists in continuous receipt of dictation.”

Low-income homes?  Not so much.  Bellafante describes a conversation with the founder of the Ascend Learning Charter School network, which serves largely low-income black children in Brooklyn.  “I asked him what he considered the greatest challenge on the first day of kindergarten each year,” Bellafante writes.  “He answered, without a second’s hesitation: ‘Word deficit.’”  She cites the now-familiar (hopefully) Hart and Risley study that demonstrated profound deficits in the number of words heard by children growing up in poverty in the first years of life.  She also cites E.D. Hirsch’s observation that “there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success” [my emphasis].

In short, demographics is not destiny.  But vocabulary just might be.

Note that Hirsch cited “general knowledge AND vocabulary.”  Before we convert early childhood education into extended vocabulary enhancement exercises with word lists to be memorized, it’s essential to understand how big vocabularies are created.  We don’t learn words through memorization, but by repeated exposure to unfamiliar words in context, and general knowledge is context. My Core Knowledge colleague Alice Wiggins uses the example of the unfamiliar word “excrescence.”   You probably don’t know what it means, so here it is in a sentence:

 “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of plane’s cabin.”

Not helping?  Here’s another:

“Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.”

After two exposures, you might have a vague understanding of the word.  Another sentence enables you to check your understanding, or refine your definition.

 “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.”

By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of what an excrescence is.  One more sentence should verify it.

 “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.

I never gave you the definition, or asked you to look it up.  But you figured the word excrescence means an abnormal projection or outgrowth.

This is an accelerated example of how we acquire new words:  by intuitively guessing new meanings as we understand the overall gist of what we are hearing or reading.  But critically, think of all the words and knowledge you already had that enabled you to learn the new word.  You know about engineers and strokes and warts.  You didn’t have to stop and wonder what “fuel efficiency” and “aerospace” and “self-conscious” mean.  You’re already rich in knowledge and vocabulary and you just got a little richer.  A child without that background knowledge hearing the same sentences would not learn the knew word and would fall a little further behind his more verbal peers.  Thank or blame the insidious “Matthew Effect.”  Bellafante’s excellent piece makes the same point implicitly with its description of the three-year-old child who understands what an upholsterer does and that the piece of furniture in his apartment is called an “ottoman.”

“All of this would seem to argue for a system in which we spent ever more of our energies and money on early, preschool education rather than less,” concludes Bellafante.

Yes, but let’s be VERY clear:  What is needed to close the verbal gap is not just preschool.  Not even “high quality” preschool.  What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.

 

Black and White and Red All Over

by Guest Blogger
August 13th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

I can be very, very stubborn. I am sure my parents, husband, sister, sons, friends, in-laws…pretty much anyone who knows me well can attest to this. When something or someone I love is criticized, my first instinct is to suit up for battle, stare the enemy down until he or she bends to my will while I bash them into submission with my keyboard.

So when my beloved red ink, the ink of choice for teachers everywhere, was implicated as a weapon of teacher cruelty and cause of students’ suffering, I dug in my heels.

So much so that when one of my former students was given her first full-time post as a teacher this year, I searched and searched for the perfect fountain pen, and then, to complete the gift, provided a couple of bottles of lovely red ink.

She sent a lovely thank you note – in red ink, of course – because she has to use all of that ink somewhere. It won’t, she reported, be used at school, because teachers at her new school are not allowed to correct student work in red ink.

I had no idea. Despite my love of researching and reading all things educational, I’d somehow managed to miss this entire controversy.

I looked around, and asked some teacher tweeps and Facebook friends about the situation, and yes, it’s a thing. Apparently, the red ink controversy rears its head every decade or so.  My first reaction was to mock the entire “controversy.” I know, I know -hello haters, I see your ire rising – but many of the early comments I got back from teachers and psychologists egged me on.

From a middle school teacher: “Gosh, heaven forbid we express any sort of disapproval!!”

From an adolescent psychologist: “That is nuts. How much should we coddle kids?”

From a writer and teacher: “Why…. because it hurts kids’ feeeeeelings? Pardon me while I barf.”

From an education writer: “Oh. God. No. I remember sitting through a PD about this and how dispiriting it supposedly was for students to get papers back marked up with red ink. We read a piece about a group of teachers receiving training in this, which concluded with the newly enlightened and chastened teachers dropping their red pens in the trash as they marched out the door. Gag me.”

From a professor: “… boy can I tell which students have never seen red ink before. They also happen to be the same ones who have a nervous breakdown or have their parents call me when they get anything less than an A. One of them actually told me, ‘I don’t like it that you give edits in red ink. It makes me feel like I’m not perfect.’

And again, from that same professor: Two years ago, one of my students told me he preferred red-ink edits. He said it made him pay attention, and it made him see those edits as corrections and learning moments rather than just notes that he might’ve perceived as optional or not important.

As you can see, the overwhelming reaction to the complaints about red ink was a strangled, gagging sound.

But then, a teaching miracle occurred. One of my former students offered up evidence. Actual, real, live evidence. This is sheer heaven for for me, particularly because this former student has become a teacher himself. It turns out that NPR, among other news outfits, covered the red ink controversy a while back. Guy Raz interviewed Abraham Rutchcick on All Things Considered about an article Rutchick published on the subject in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

I listened to the NPR piece, then located the original article. According to Rutchick’s article, “The Pen is Mightier Than the Word: Object Priming of Evaluative Standards:”

Because red pens are closely associated with error-marking and poor performance, the use of red pens when correcting student work can activate these concepts. People using red pens to complete a word-stem task completed more words related to errors and poor performance than did people using black pens (Study 1), suggesting relatively greater accessibility of these concepts. Moreover, people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors (Study 2) and awarded lower grades (Study 3) than people using blue pens. Thus, despite teachers’ efforts to free themselves from extraneous influences when grading, the very act of picking up a red pen can bias their evaluations.

I was torn. I love my red ink. I have a large bottle of it at school, all sorts of red pens in felt-tip, rollerball, ball-point, and some fancy artists’ felt tips I bought for a small fortune in an art supply store in Paris a couple of years ago. I save those for extra-special editing.

I can’t imagine parting with my lovely collection just because a few students might be a little irked by the color. Besides, I have this lovely letter from a former student, decorated with comments I’d written on her papers over the year I taught her, and it just makes me so happy when I look at it. She saved those papers, valued those comments, and used them to become a better writer. How bad could red ink really be?

To seal the deal, I offer up the concluding questions from the NPR interview:

RAZ: Professor Rutchick, you are a psychology professor at Cal State Northridge, right?
Prof. RUTCHICK: I am.
RAZ: And when you grade papers, what color pen do you use?
Prof. RUTCHICK: I use a red pen, actually. It’s – I have to override somehow my urge to be nice and kind.

See! Even the author of the study that reveals the catastrophic psychic harm red ink can do to students is keeping his red pens!

Just when I was determined to hold on to that red pen until someone pried it out of my cold, dead, fingers, a discussion heated up on my Facebook page:

From an editor at a major publishing house: As an editor I was always taught to use pencil, not pen, because authors might balk at the permanence of pen (as if the edits were a mandate and not a suggestion). Now I use Track Changes! I do know of one editor who objected to using red (pen or pencil) for its even more dictatorial connotations–he didn’t want an author flashing back to some horrible childhood experience. Also, I remember a teacher once writing “awkward” in the margin of a junior high writing assignment, and it took me years to get over!

And from my always-logical mother-in-law, Kate, a writer and former law professor: I had no trouble requesting “accommodations” from my students, but only when it made sense. Pissing people off over the color of ink I used just didn’t seem worth it, either personally or pedagogically. [...] The red-ink phobia wasn’t my imagination; I regularly heard students complain about teachers who “bled all over their papers.” I’d rather have a student focus on the content of my comments than on the color of my ink.

There it was: “I’d rather have a student focus on the content of my comments than on the color of my ink.”

I may be stubborn, but I am also a sucker for a reasoned, evidence-based argument. And, as I have been engaged in my own “Classroom Happiness Project” thanks to Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project and Happiness at Home, I had to recognize the possibility that I might be making my own students uncomfortable rather than sacrifice my precious red ink. Gretchen writes about how important it is to “acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings” in her book The Happiness Project, so I am.

This year, I will be correcting my students’ papers in…drumroll…forest green. It’s my favorite color, and if there’s any possibility that my comments will be more readily heard in green rather than red, I’m willing to retire the red ink.

So if anyone out there needs to dye some clothes or whip up a batch of fake blood for Halloween, I happen to know where you can get about a half-gallon of quality red ink, cheap.

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.

Reading and Language Growth: What It Takes

by Robert Pondiscio
March 14th, 2012

Note:  This piece also appears on the Washington Post’s education blog, The Answer Sheet.

For several years, I taught 5th grade in the lowest performing elementary school in New York City’s lowest performing school district.   Four out of five of my students scored below grade level—often far below grade level—on their state tests.  You could easily look at the test scores of my students and conclude, “these kids can’t read.”

In fact, I never had a single student who couldn’t “read.”  Put a piece of text in front of them and they could all (some with greater fluency than others certainly) verbalize the words in front of them, or “decode.”  What they couldn’t seem to do consistently and competently was to discuss or answer questions about their reading.  They “read it” but they didn’t “get it.”  They could decode, but not comprehend.

Separating decoding and comprehension is critical to any discussion of reading.  Decoding is a skill that can–and must–be taught in the early grades.  Students taught with an explicit, systematic phonics approach in the early grades should be able to master all the decoding skills they need.  Decoding is a prerequisite skill but it’s not reading.   We’re readers only when we understand the words we decode, and comprehension is not a skill, despite our persistent attempts to teach and test it like one.  “We tend to teach comprehension as a series of ‘reading strategies’ that can be practiced and mastered. Unfortunately it really doesn’t work that way,” University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has written on this blog. “The mainspring of comprehension is prior knowledge—the stuff readers already know that enables them to create understanding as they read.”

This week, the Core Knowledge Foundation, where I work, announced the results of an intriguing pilot program that sees reading for the complicated, cumulative process it is.  Children in ten New York City schools learned to read with the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program, a comprehensive literacy curriculum emphasizing phonics, coherent content knowledge, and oral and written language development across a wide range of subjects.  CKLA has two distinct instructional components: a “skills” strand that teaches decoding; and a “listening and learning” strand that builds background knowledge and vocabulary, primarily through readalouds. Students in ten demographically similar control schools received more traditional reading instruction—the kind of balanced literacy, content-agnostic, comprehension skills-and-strategies approach I was trained to use with my South Bronx 5th graders.  The CKLA students showed significantly higher reading achievement from kindergarten to 2nd grade than the control group in nearly all measures.

Gratifying stuff, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The primary takeaway from the research, tailored for our 140-character age, was “new study finds nonfiction curriculum enhances reading comprehension skills.”  That’s part of the story.  Yes, there is more nonfiction in Core Knowledge than is typically taught in the early grades, but fiction and poetry are equally represented.  If there’s a secret sauce in the curriculum, it probably has as much to do with its emphasis on building background knowledge orally.

Oral language precedes written language; we learn to speak and listen long before we can read and write.  Freed from the cognitive work of decoding, children can more readily understand a story with sophisticated vocabulary when it’s read out loud than if they had read it on their own. This oral language advantage persists for years. A child’s ability to take in information through reading typically doesn’t catch up to his or her ability to do so by listening until the 8th grade.  Teachers generally understand this, which is why class readalouds are a staple of elementary school classrooms.  But this oral comprehension advantage can also be used to build background knowledge in a systematic, coherent way over many years. Readalouds are more than just an opportunity for a class to enjoy a great story together.  Content-rich, nonfiction readalouds, often in narrative form, are a central feature of the CKLA program and a powerful way to build a child’s store of vocabulary and knowledge–critical components of mature reading comprehension.

This is critical for children from low-income homes and especially those where English is a second language.  They usually come to school on Day One with smaller vocabularies and less background knowledge of the world than more advantaged kids, who tend to hear more rich and complex language at home and enjoy more opportunities for language and knowledge enrichment.  If this gap remains unaddressed in school, then demographics becomes, if not destiny, then a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If we wait until a child can read independently to build background knowledge and vocabulary, we are almost certainly cementing their knowledge and language deficits permanently in place.  If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.

Finally, another important issue to keep in mind is time.  The greatest casualty of the education reform era has been patience.  We expect two to three years language growth per year to catch disadvantaged children up.  The inevitable result is quick fixes that overpromise and underdeliver.  Today’s miracle becomes tomorrow’s scandal with depressing regularity.  To understand the nature of language growth and the critical role of knowledge to is to understand that there can be no quick fixes.  The only way to raise achievement and to narrow gaps is through a slow and steady investment in the vocabulary and knowledge that are the prerequisites of language growth and competence.

This patient, coherent investment in background knowledge—so critical to success yet so often missing from language arts instruction—needs to be nurtured and grown for the entirety of a child’s time in school.  It can work.  It is working.  The New York City pilot study is an encouraging first step.  We’re getting kids in the game.  With care and patience, we can keep them there.

Follow me on Twitter: @rpondiscio

Meet the Children Where They Are…and Keep Them There

by Robert Pondiscio
February 27th, 2012

A lot of people whose opinions I respect don’t care much for Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Some of my friends view the standards as an abuse of power or coercive.  Some think them no better or even worse than their existing state standards.  Others bemoan the lack of specificity.

Say what you will about CCSS, but there are three big ideas embedded within the English Language Arts standards that deserve to be at the very heart of literacy instruction in U.S. classrooms, with or with or without standards themselves:

1. Students should read as much nonfiction as fiction.

2. Schools should ensure all children—and especially disadvantaged children—build coherent background knowledge that is essential to mature reading comprehension.

3. Success in reading comprehension depends less on “personal response” and more on close reading of text.

In an astonishing commentary in Education Week, Joanne Yatvin, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English (!) reads the Common Core ELA Standards and pronounces herself “truly alarmed” and “aghast at the vision of the dreariness and harshness of the classrooms they aim to create.”  Why?  Precisely because of the three ideas enumerated above.

I’m alarmed and aghast that anyone can fail to connect building background knowledge with language growth, or long-term success in reading comprehension.  Not for nothing are the standards titled “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, K-5.”

Yatvin’s bill of particulars boils down to a complaint that all that subject matter content is too hard, too soon and too boring for children. The standards “overestimate the intellectual, physiological, and emotional development of young children,” she writes. Her smoking gun is within the publisher’s criteria that accompanies the standards:

In kindergarten-grade 2, the most notable shifts in the standards when compared to state standards include a focus on reading informational text and building a coherent knowledge within and across grades; a more in-depth approach to vocabulary development; and a requirement that students encounter sufficiently complex text through reading, writing, listening, and speaking.  By underscoring what matters most in the standards, the criteria illustrate what shifts must take place in the next generation of curricula, including paring away elements that distract from or are at odds with the Common Core State Standards.

“This is a pretty strong dose of academia for children just beginning their schooling, with not even a ‘spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down,” she writes, forgetting that the teachers are free to dispense as many spoonfuls of C6H12O6  as they see fit to enable the prescription to enter the digestive tract.

News flash: It’s precisely the lack of coherent background knowledge—the kind of taken-for-granted knowledge of the world, and the gains in vocabulary that accompany it—that is holding back reading comprehension and language growth among our most disadvantaged children.  This is something that CCSS nails, emphatically and correctly.  If you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.

“For young children, the focus on academic vocabulary seems strange,” continues Yatvin, apparently believing teachers are expected to read directly from the Common Core Standards during story time on the rug.  “At this time in their development, would it not be more sensible for children to learn words connected to their everyday lives and their interests rather than to things and experiences as yet unknown?” she ask.

Well, no.  It would not be more sensible. Most of the words we acquire we learn not through memorization or direct instruction, but in context.  So while it certainly it makes sense to connect words to kids “everyday lives and experiences” it’s something very close to educational malpractice not to make a concerted effort to expand a child’s knowledge base beyond their immediate experiences.  If there is anything that ensures a low-level of academic achievement it is the idea that kids can only learn from their direct experiences. Matthew Effect, anyone? It is incredibly condescending even to suggest that if a child cannot personally relate to a story or topic, they can’t possibly be interested or successful.

Yet Yatvin also doesn’t much care for the “significant increase in nonfiction materials at all grade levels” and CCSS’s call for “a mix of 50 percent literary and 50 percent informational text, including reading in [English/language arts], science, social studies, and the arts.”

“The fact that fiction now dominates the elementary curriculum is not the result of educators’ decisions about what is best for children, but a reflection of children’s developmental stages, their interests, and their limited experience in the fields of science, geography, history, and technology. It is one thing for a child to read The Little Engine That Could for the pleasure of the story and quite another for her to comprehend the inner workings of a locomotive.”

Wait.  Children have limited knowledge in science, geography, history and technology, so we shouldn’t muddy their minds with such marginalia?  The story is ripe with opportunities to build background knowledge, not about (strawman alert!) “the inner workings of a locomotive,” but colors, mountains, trains and transportation, to name but a few.  There are no shortage of age appropriate, richly illustrated nonfiction picture books that would go a long way toward building prior knowledge on these and many other topics that are a natural extension of The Little Engine That Could.

I’m all for reading for the pleasure of the story.  But start building background knowledge of the world beyond a child’s immediate surroundings today, and you geometrically expand the number of stories a child can read for pleasure tomorrow.  Weirdly, Yatvin gets this.  She just seems reluctant to teach it:

“Reading any text requires more than decoding, fluency, and inferring meaning from context; the reader must form mental images of things mentioned based on previous experience or imagination. Although illustrations in many nonfiction books help considerably, there is a limit to how many unfamiliar things can be adequately illustrated in a book for young children.”

Right.  Which is exactly why we need to expand a child’s base of knowledge, not view it as too high a hurdle to clear.

“Ultimately, the authors show their contempt for teachers’ competence, the use of supplementary materials, and children’s experiences,” Yatvin claims.  But she shows her contempt for children in her assumption that if it’s not a part of a child’s everyday experience they couldn’t possibly be interested or expected to appreciate or understand it.

By placing subject matter content at the very heart of English Language Arts instruction from the first days of school, the authors of the Common Core Standards got it absolutely right.  In order to read, write, speak and listen with comprehension, children need more content, not less.   We learn new words by understanding the context in which we hear unfamiliar words.   Every reading teacher has encouraged a struggling reader to “activate your prior knowledge” when reading a difficult passage; or to “use your context clues” when stumped by an unfamiliar word.  Where – where exactly – do we expect that prior knowledge and context to come from if building it is not a primary function of language arts instruction?

Are there problems with Common Core Standards? Certainly. But there are far more problems with a view of literacy and teaching that boils down to “meet the children where they are…and keep them there.”

Nonfiction Read Alouds: A Lost Opportunity?

by Robert Pondiscio
February 17th, 2012

Part of my required reading is the daily Accomplished Teacher SmartBrief, a summary of education news.  Yesterday’s email carried the subject line, “Are there benefits to reading aloud?”

This is roughly akin to a newsletter for doctors headlined, “Are there benefits to quitting smoking and exercise?”  I’d be mighty surprised to learn there are still teachers who need to be sold on the benefits of reading aloud to students.  But the SmartBrief headline links to a smart Edweek piece from Donalyn Miller, a 6th grade language arts teacher in Texas, on the benefits of read alouds, including “building community,” “exposing kids to new authors and genres,” and “supporting developing readers.”

“Reading aloud removes roadblocks to comprehension like unfamiliar vocabulary and contextualizes words developing readers do not know. Listening to a fluent reader gives students a reading role model for their own oral reading skills, too. Since listening comprehension is higher than reading comprehension, you can read books that are a higher reading level than your students can read alone.”

She’s completely correct on all of these points, but further explication is worthwhile.  If anything, Miller undersells the value of reading aloud.  When students listen to a readaloud, cognitive bandwidth that might ordinarily be devoted to decoding is redirected toward the vocabulary and content of the reading.  We learn vocabulary primarily in context, not by memorization. Thus readalouds build language proficiency by exposing kids to sophisticated language well above their independent  reading level.

But I’d wager most teachers leave untapped a lot of the potential of readalouds.  Pop quiz:  how many of the last ten books you read to your class were nonfiction?   You probably answered either “zero” or “one.”  That’s a lost opportunity.  The same principles that make it worthwhile to read fiction aloud are even more true for nonfiction. Plus, nonfiction often has rich, domain-specific vocabulary.  You’re more likely to hear words like “orbit,” “zenith,” “solar,” or “celestial,” in a book on astronomy.  Readalouds not only grow vocabulary, they are the best way to build critical background knowledge, which is essential for later reading comprehension.

Read alouds also have value well past the primary grades.  It’s fairly obvious that oral language competence precedes written language proficiency (we learn to speak and listen long before we can read and write).  What’s less well known is a fact my colleague Alice Wiggins likes to point out: reading comprehension typically doesn’t catch up until about 8th grade.  This means that a strong case can be made for read alouds to building knowledge, vocabulary, and fluency through and including middle school.

Miller’s piece touts “World Read Aloud Day” on March 7, 2012 and suggests every day should be read aloud day.  Agreed.  But read alouds should be for more than just stories and poems.  Tellingly, Miller suggests ten books for upper elementary students to hear out loud. The only one that’s not fiction and poetry is a memoir by Hatchet author Gary Paulsen.

Building knowledge and vocabulary remain the royal road to reading comprehension.  Reading to students across subject areas–not just stories and poems–just might be the most underutilized strategy in the teacher’s tool kit.

Fine Word – ‘Legitimate’

by Guest Blogger
January 31st, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

I love words. I love that words have history, and ancestors, and family trees. I love that geography, culture, economics, and historical events give birth to words and shape their evolution over time.

I never wanted to be a Latin teacher, but I suppose it was inevitable. After I accepted my current job as an English and Latin teacher, my aunt revealed that my grandmother had wanted to be a Latin teacher more than anything in the world, but she could not, due to marriage, family obligations, and money. She became the first female (and, as I understand from my family, the youngest) court stenographer for the Kentucky Supreme Court. Her father had to go to work with her, she was so young. She deserved to do whatever she wanted to do. And so it’s fitting – and more than an honor – to fulfill her posthumous dream. It’s in my blood, I suppose.

I find it fascinating that denied the opportunity to teach others about her love of words, she spent her entire career recording spoken English, condensing its sounds into squiggles and lines. She used to hone her shorthand skills by transcribing entire soap opera episodes and telephone conversations on. Ask her what my father ate for lunch during a mid-day phone call in 1972, and she could have flipped right to the combination of squiggles for “soup, a pickle, and a Heineken.”

I like to think she would have enjoyed my classes; particularly the time I spent on etymology, the study of word origins. I teach one vocabulary/etymology word a day at the very beginning of class when I teach my cultural literacy item of the day. Today’s word? Spurious. A great word, one that my grandmother would have loved.

‘Spurious’ describes something that is false, or inauthentic, but it comes from the Latin spurius, meaning “bastard” or “illegitimate.” Spurius was related to all sorts of lovely words such as spurcitia, meaning “filthiness” or “dirt,” and spurcare, “to make dirty” or “to defile.” The Romans thought highly of their illegitimate children, clearly. They even turned spurius into a proper name for all those illegitimate offspring roaming around ancient Rome. If your name was Spurius, you were likely illegitimate.

Which segues nicely into my cultural literacy item of the day. I got to thinking: If the Roman naming convention had continued into the Elizabethan era, and Shakespeare had known about it, and he’d named Gloucester’s illegitimate son Spurius instead of Edmund, the first speech in Act II of King Lear would be even more awesome than it already is.

Edmund (a.k.a Spurius) was the illegitimate son of Gloucester, close advisor to Lear. Gloucester lavishes all of his love on the legitimate son, Edgar, which drives Edmund nuts. He hates being a bastard because it renders him less than – more base - than his bookish brother Edgar. Anger drives him to deceit in the form of a tragic plot against his brother that leads to Oedipus-style eye removal, nakedness, and rampant baseness among all concerned. The fact that Edmund is, in fact, the spurious (illegitimate) son causes him to become spurious (false) and deceive his father. See that? That’s just lovely, if you ask me.

I recommend this PBS performance of King Lear, as the Edmund is a hottie and does this extremely appealing L- and T- thing with his tongue on the word “legitimate” that causes giggles among the middle school girls. Oh, not me. I would never. Not in English class, anyway.

Act I, Scene 2

The Earl of Gloucester’s castle

Enter [Edmund, the bastard] alone, with a letter [the one he's going to use to trick his father, Gloucester, into disavowing his good and true son, Edgar]

Edmund (Spurius, the bad-boy hottie I mentioned)

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I                      335
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,                       340
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality                                  345
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund                      350
As to th’ legitimate. Fine word- ‘legitimate’!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th’ legitimate. I grow; I prosper.
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!                                       355

The girls may adore the hunky, bad-boy Edmund, but despite my dorky enthusiasm for the nickname, they absolutely refuse to call him Spurius. My love for the symmetry of it all was loudly and eagerly trumped by the fact that ‘Edmund’ sounds a lot like ‘Edward,’ the vapid vampire guy from Twilight - or, as I like to call it, “That book I won’t give you independent reading credit for, so don’t even bother to ask me.”

Did I mention that my preferred word for the time of day between daylight and nighttime is not, in fact ’twilight,’ but gloaming, from the Old English glomung, a derivative of glom, from…aw, crap. Crappity-crap-crap.

From glom, Old English for ’twilight.’

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.