Tuesday, December 10, 2013
I'm a fourth grade special education teacher in NYC. Our school has acquired a new reading/writing program and has discontinued a grammar program we've used for several years. In the new program the grammar component is virtually non-existent. On a gut level I feel that students are struggling with test questions, even math ones, due to lack of practice/knowledge of grammar. They simply don't understand what the questions are asking. I was wondering what your opinion/research shows as far as the relationship between grammar instruction and reading comprehension. Do you have any preference as far as grammar programs/teaching methodologies go?
Great question. There is a lot of evidence showing the importance of grammar in reading comprehension. Studies over the years have shown a clear relationship between syntactic or grammatical sophistication and reading comprehension; that is, as students learn to employ more complex sentences in their oral and written language, their ability to make sense of what they read increases, too.
Also, readability measures are able to predict how well students will predict particular texts on the basis of only two variables: vocabulary sophistication and grammatical complexity. At least for the Lexile formula, grammar is much more heavily weighted than vocabulary. This means that the text factor that is most predictive of comprehensibility is how complicated the sentences are grammatically.
There are also experimental studies that show that there are ways that grammar can be taught formally that improve reading comprehension. For example, teaching students to combine sentences seems to improve how well students understand what they read. Clearly, it makes sense to guide students to understand how sentences work.
Studies of metacognition and theories of reading comprehension suggest the importance of students having a language of grammar (knowing the difference between a noun and a verb for example), and common sense would suggest that it makes sense to help students to unpack sentences that confuse them.
That doesn’t necessarily justify a lot of grammar worksheets and the like, but it does argue for teaching students about sentences as they meet them. For example, look at the following sentence from Nikki Giovanni:
“The women of Montgomery, both young and older, would come in with their fancy holiday dresses that needed adjustments or their Sunday suits and blouses that needed just a touch—a flower or some velvet trimming or something to make the ladies look festive.”
It is a long sentence (44 words), and it has lots of embedding (witness the author’s use of 2 commas and an em-dash). I surmise many students would struggle to make sense of this sentence primarily because of the complex grammar. How would you deal with this?
First, I would have the students read this page from Giovanni’s Rosa and one of the questions I would ask would be, “What did the women of Montgomery do?” Perhaps I’d find that the students weren’t as perplexed as I assumed in which case I’d move on. But let’s imagine that they couldn’t answer my question... then I’d show them how to break this sentence down.
For example, I would point out that the phrase between the commas, “both young and older,” adds an idea but that I want to set it aside for now. That would simplify the sentence a bit:
“The women of Montgomery would come in with their fancy holiday dresses that needed adjustments or their Sunday suits and blouses that needed just a touch – a flower or some velvet trimming or something to make the ladies look festive.”
Even with such a simple change, I bet more kids would understand it better, but maybe not. Let’s go further:
As with the commas, the word “that” (which shows up twice here) signals the inclusion of a separate or additional idea, and as a reader that is another point of attack that I can use in trying to interpret this sentence. And the word “or” is another good place to separate these additional ideas.
Let’s slice the sentence at the first “that” and the first “or:”
“The women of Montgomery would come in with their fancy holiday dresses”
“that needed adjustments”
3. or their Sunday suits and blouses that needed just a touch–a flower or some velvet trimming or something to make the ladies look festive.
Obviously, we could keep breaking this one down, but again, many kids would get it at this point: The women were bringing in their fancy dresses… Which women? The young and the old. Which fancy dresses? The ones that needed adjustments. What other kinds of outfits did they bring in? Sunday suits and blouses. Which suits and blouses? The ones that needed just a touch—something that would make them look festive.
The point of this kind of exchange would not be to teach grammar per se, but to help students to untangle complex grammar so that they could independently make sense of what they read. Frankly, few of our children know what to do when they confront this kind of text complexity. Kids who know something about sentences and parts of speech will be at an advantage, but they still will not necessarily be able to interpret a sentence from that alone. This kind of scaffolded analysis is aimed at both untangling the meaning of this sentence and in giving students some tools for unpacking such sentences when they are on their own.
Your reading program should provide some instruction in grammar, and it should provide you with some support in providing students with instruction in parts of speech, sentence combining, and/or the kinds of scaffolding demonstrated here. It is pure romanticism that assumes that children will just figure this kind of thing out without any explicit instruction (and it is even more foolish to assume that English language learners will intuit these things without more direct support).
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
My friends at the Thomas Fordham Institute asked that I weigh in on the controversy over the close reading lessons being touted by School Achievement Partners. I wrote a blog for their site and have included a link to it here. You might be interested in my assessment of those lessons and on some of their claims about close reading. Here it is:
Commentary on Gettysburg Address Close Reading Lessons
Since I was posting that article, I thought it would be a good time to provide a couple of other links. This fall, I had an article in American Educator about how Common Core is changing reading lessons:
American Educator article on Reading Lessons and Common Core
I also published an article in Educational Leadership on the emphasis on informational text in the classroom.
Educational Leadership Article on Informational Text
I hope you find these links useful. I appreciate the generosity of the Thomas Fordham Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, and the ASCD for making these available to you.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
The Christmas Carol
This is the time of year when we are most likely to open our hearts-- and our pocketbooks-- to the needs of others. And, as Dickens’ suggests, it would be wise to use our charities to combat ignorance above all. How will we reduce poverty, pain, suffering, or illness without education?
Each year, I scrutinize Charity Navigator to identify national and international charitable agencies that put books into the hands of children and that aim to improve children’s literacy and language. There are terrific local organizations that engage in such work as well, but the best of the agencies with broader reach are listed below. If you are looking for a way to include children’s reading in your beneficence these are all great candidates: they all are ranked as being 3- or 4-star charities by Charity Navigator, and they all spend at least 80% of contributions on the programs that they support.
I hope you’ll be generous.
Reach Out and Read. http://www.reachoutandread.org/ Reach Out and Read serves more than 4 million children each year. It reaches out to them through a network of thousands of doctors and nurses who provide books and promote early literacy and school readiness in all 50 states. Each year, medical providers at the nearly 5,000 Reach Out and Read program sites nationwide distribute 6.5 million books to children and invaluable literacy advice to parents. [I donate to this one every year and serve on its board of directors.]
Children’s Literacy Initiative. http://www.cli.org/ Children’s Literacy Initiative is a non-profit that works with teachers to transform instruction so that children can become powerful readers, writers and thinkers. CLI develops collaborative networks of schools we as training sites for local teachers, sustaining quality teaching and increasing student achievement.
Room to Read. http://www.roomtoread.org/ Room to Read is an international organization that focuses on literacy and gender equality in education throughout Asia and Africa. They aim to develop literacy skills and a habit of reading among primary school children, and to support girls to complete secondary school with the life skills they’ll need to succeed in school and beyond.
Reading Alliance. http://www.readalliance.org/ Reading Alliance trains establishes partnerships with schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods and trains high school students to provide reading tutoring to children in those schools. Especially aimed at building early language and literacy skills.
United Through Reading. http://www.unitedthroughreading.org United Through Reading promote the read-aloud experience for separated military families. It offers deployed parents the opportunity to be video-recorded reading storybooks to their children to ease the stress of separation and cultivate a love of reading. At nearly 200 recording locations worldwide, Marines, Soldiers and Sailors, National Guard, Reservists and Airmen, can read to their children from units on ships, in tents in Afghanistan, on bases and installations around the world and at 70 USO centers worldwide. Over one and a half million military parents, spouses and children have benefited from the program since its inception.
Books for Africa. http://www.booksforafrica.org/ Books For Africa collects, sorts, ships, and distributes books to students of all ages in Africa. It is the largest shipper of donated text and library books to the African continent, shipping over 28 million books to 49 different countries since 1988. Last year, they shipped 2.2 million books to 22 African countries.
First Book. http://www.firstbook.org First Book provides new books to children in need. It has distributed more than 100 million free and low cost books in thousands of communities. It works with schools and other organizations that serve disadvantaged populations (70% or more poverty kids).
Jumpstart. http://www.jstart.org/ Jumpstart is a national early education organization that recruits and trains college students and community Corps members to serve preschool children in low-income neighborhoods. Its curriculum helps children develop the language and literacy skills they need to be ready for kindergarten, setting them on a path to close the achievement gap before it is too late.
Reading is Fundamental. http://www.rif.org/ Reading is Fundamental delivers free books and literacy resources to the children and families who need them most. They work in partnership with schools to help make reading a fun and beneficial part of everyday life. RIF's highest priority is reaching underserved children from birth to age 8.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Yesterday I spoke at the Michigan Association for Media in Education--in other words, the school librarians. They wanted me to overview the Common Core Standards for the English Language Arts in terms of what school librarians need to know and how they might help their teachers and students to accomplish the core. Even though this talk covers much of the same ground that a similar talk would for English teachers, I thought there was a enough new here to make it worth posting. You might want to send it along to your friends who are school librarians. Their work is important and they could help a lot I decided.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
A colleague sent me this link from the Washington Post. He is especially interested in history and he wrote to me about this lesson plan. Needless to say, he was horrified, and wanted me to explain how Common Core could promote such anti-historical thinking (an instructional approach that seems like an affront to historians and history teachers everywhere).
Here was my answer:
The problem here is that different disciplines conceptualize close reading differently. In literature/English, the idea is to give a close analysis of the language and rhetoric of this kind of text (and the lesson in the link you sent me illustrates that quite well). Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.
However, historians read very differently than literary critics—they would be interested in the sources of this speech (what led to it, what shaped it), and what it's implications were (how did the Gettysburg Address change the world?).
As such, a literary reading might look at this text on its own, but the historian would want to compare this with earlier speeches (most likely Pericles' Oration) and relevant documents (the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps even some secondary documents about how the Declaration was thought about by Americans in the 1860s)… Etc. Close reading in one tradition examines the language within the document without concern for its external connections, and in the other close reading requires the connection of a document with its context, etc.
I personally have no problem with the literary analysis of the Gettysburg Address in an English class, as long as kids do a historical reading of it in a history class. (This dual treatment is not required for all historical documents, but for one this important, it seems appropriate).
A great book about Lincoln's little speech is the one that Garry Wills wrote many years ago; in that book he provides a chapter that could have emerged from the kind of assignment emphasized in the Washington Post article… but all the rest of the chapters focused on what led to the speech and what the outcomes of the speech have been. I think that is the right balance for most historical documents; a lot more historical close reading than rhetorical close reading. Please don't just notice my championing of the historical approach to such texts; I'm defending the literary reading, too.
When Cyndie Shanahan and I studied mathematicians, historians, and chemists, we found that they all had a specialized conception of close reading; each quite different from what a literary or rhetorical analysis usually provides. I want students to learn to do them all. That means I like the lesson described in the link above, and yet, I see not just what it does, but what it doesn't.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
What is the biggest educational change promoted by the Common Core?
There are so many choices: kids will be reading more challenging texts; close reading will revolutionize the reading lessons; high school English, science, and social studies teachers will teach disciplinary literacy; there will be greater attention to argument, multiple text, informational text, and writing from sources, and so on?
So which is the biggest change? Perhaps one that you haven’t even thought of…
Past standards were long lists of skills, knowledge, and strategies; lists so endless that they were less standards than curriculum guides. Until CCSS, the typical standards looked like a scope and sequence chart rather than a list of outcomes.
In fact, the lists were so long that most of the young people who have become teachers since 1991 have no idea what the difference is between standards and curricula. When you have such complete lists of outcomes, you end up with an extensive list of lessons rather than learning goals.
Standards are goals; they are the outcomes that we want our children to accomplish. Standards tell you what the point is, but they really don’t tell you what needs to be taught.
Example: the standards require that students be able to write/compose high quality narratives, expositions, and arguments. However, the standards do not expressly require schools to teach students to use manuscript hand, cursive writing, or keyboarding.
That has some critics in a tizzy, but it is as it should be. The standard tells you the outcome that must be accomplished, but not everything that a student may need to learn to reach the goal is specified. That's where the teacher comes in… what do we need to teach to accomplish these standards? That is up to us.
Just try to teach kids to compose without making it possible for them to express their ideas in printed, written, or typed words… that wouldn’t make any sense, and I assume most schools and publishers will eventually figure out the reason for this "omission" and kids will still be taught to put their words on paper (even though CCSS doesn’t even mention it).
The same can be said about teaching students to comprehend text. The standards don't require you to teach comprehension strategies, but research suggests that if you do you will be more likely to get the students to the standard.
The standards say teach students to summarize… but they don’t specify all of the possible subskills, pre-skills, or types of texts that students should be able to summarize. Try teaching summarization by just having students practice summarizing and you won’t be likely succeed.
So the big change? The CCSS takes us back to a time when the educational goals were separated from the curriculum, which puts teachers back in charge of the curriculum.
Now if we could just get teachers to see tests as something separate from goals and curriculum.