Showing posts with label Kindergarten. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kindergarten. Show all posts

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Response to the Joyful Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland

Reader Question:  The Atlantic Atlantic Article just published an article about the mistake American educators make by teaching reading in kindergarten. Shouldn’t we do what the Finns do: let kids learn to read when they want to and end up with high achievement?

Shanahan Response:
            This article is from the “Whistle a Happy Tune” School of Philosophy. It links one cultural input with one achievement output and assumes both a causal connection (not teaching reading in kindergarten will result in higher achievement) and that if this cultural input were adopted elsewhere, the same outcome would result there, too. It sure is fun to think about how easily we could remake our society. This is the third or fourth such article that I have read about Finland in Atlantic and the tone has been pretty consistent—it is a feel good fantasy, that might help us ward off the blues as the days grow shorter and the verdant earth seems to die yet again (may it keep us warm until "April, that cruelest month").

            The problem with this dream, however, is that cultural change doesn’t work that way.

            The U.S. is not a relatively simple society, small in geography and population, and low in diversity. All kinds of diversity. Few of the 5.5 million Finns (fewer than live in the Chicago area) differ in race, ethnicity, language, income, or religion. It is estimated that there are 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. (twice the total population in Finland) and those aspiring-Yanks tend to differ from the “average American profile” in many ways. Finland takes few immigrants and those they let in have to have to have a secure middle-class income (ours, of course, often have only what they carry).

            The comparison of Finland with the U.S. would be like comparing Scarsdale, Winnetka, Piedmont City, and University Park with the U.S. We’d all be amazed at how wonderful things are in those relatively wealthy communities and how little the schools there have to do to teach reading successfully to most kids.

            What are the most pertinent differences between the Finns' situation and that of the U.S.?

            First, they teach the Finnish language. Finnish is reputedly the easiest language to learn to read (something I was writing about in the 1970s). The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is highly consistent, making it especially easy and quick to learn to decode. Because the country is so small, there are not dialectical differences to complicate things. All things being equal, a Finnish child can learn to read Finnish much faster than an American child can learn to read English. (Funny that point wasn’t even mentioned in the article).

            Second, most Finnish parents have college degrees or advanced degrees. If we can generalize from U.S. research such children will have better health, nutrition, ability to concentrate, IQs, vocabulary, will have more adults available in the home to provide care, and will be more likely to be reading or to have learned a lot of prereading skills before they enter school. Given the religious beliefs of most Finns, it would be the rare child who enters school without a big head start on literacy achievement. Most homes subscribe to newspapers, have many books available, have a well-stocked public library close by, and bedtime stories are the norm.

            In fact, according to a study conducted by the Finnish government, more than one-third of children enter school already reading. That sure takes the pressure off those supposedly high-skilled Finnish teachers.  (Another point not mentioned in the Atlantic article).

            I’ve got to admit I would love to live in a community in which everyone was well educated and had a substantial income. No doubt about it, the children and grandchildren would thrive. However, I live in a community where the majority of adults have not completed high school, libraries may be across gang territory, and mom and dad may not know how to speak English yet. Even when they do, they may be speaking a dialect far removed from the one teachers are using. Under our circumstances, starting early to learn to read a challenging language is a really good idea. (If our population was particularly diabetic, I would support higher than usual insulin injections. But then, I'm just a wild and crazy guy.)

             Another problem with the Atlantic article is that it characterizes the typical U.S. kindergarten as teaching literacy with worksheets. I don't support such instruction, but it does happen--in some cases. The silly dichotomy between play and academic is something made up by U.S. psychologists in the 1890s and it hangs on with those who have never taught a child to read in their lives. Successful early literacy teaching is much more interactive and hands on (and, perhaps, even play-based) than the weird characterization in the Atlantic.

            The Atlantic article requoted one of my least favorite claims: "'But there isn’t any solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,' Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University, explained in a video published by the advocacy group Defending the Early Years."

          You can make that claim… as long as you don’t know the research. I chaired the National Early Literacy Panel. Unlike Dr. Carlsson-Paige, we had to look at the studies. We found long-term benefits from early learning. But that inconvenient fact screws up the narrative: Finland is great, we are idiots, and teaching your children to read will make a mess of their idyllic lives. Sure, and I have some swampland in Florida that I can let you have for cheap. Really.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Would you rather have $50,000 or $25,000? Explaining the impact of full-day kindergarten

             Lots of interest, all of a sudden, in full-day kindergarten… I’ve had several questions about that scheme during the past few days. I’m not sure why, but it is well worth discussing yet again.

            What I’ve been asked has varied, but it always seems to come back to, “Is full-day kindergarten better than half-day kindergarten?” I get why that is being asked, and I’m too polite to sneer openly, but what a silly question.

            Should we set your salary at $50,000 or $25,000? Could I pour you a half-glass of wine (or, if the waiter were optimistic, a half-full glass)? Would you prefer to win the first half of the game or the whole game? 

            There have been two sizeable meta-analyses of the whole-day/full-day controversy—one with an educational thrust and the other from the health care side of the house. Both have reached the same conclusions: Full-day kindergarten provides students with stronger academic preparation in reading, language, and mathematics. Full-day kindergarten provides students with stronger social-emotional support (yes, the full-dayers develop greater self-confidence).

            But both research reviews also conclude that these pluses usually fade by age 8. Providing 5-year-olds with more teaching early on is advantageous in producing good first-graders, but it is unlikely to improve high school graduation rates. At least the way we do it now.

            How can I be so blithe in my allegiance to such a short-term positive?

            Frankly, I think we expect too much of early interventions. It shows a real misunderstanding of the power and value of teaching.

            Many years ago I used the metaphor comparing teaching with insulin therapy and vaccines. We usually argue the merits of early interventions as being the latter. We tell policymakers that if they invest more in the early years, there won’t be educational or social needs later.

            But education is not a vaccine. If we teach something and it provides an advantage, that advantage will go away if we then teach that something to someone else.

           Back in the 1970s, Dolores Durkin taught preschoolers to read. She then tracked their progress. When these early readers entered kindergarten, they spent the year working on letter names. Not surprisingly, by the end of the year, their classmates who had spent the year studying this aspect of literacy partially caught up. A couple more years of that and the benefits of early learning were dissipated.

            I started asking would you rather have $25,000 or $50,000. That’s silly, too, but imagine if my answer were: $25,000 because in 3 or 4 years the advantage would be gone. You would have spent all that money and there’d likely be no material difference between the groups.

            Full-day kindergarten can be a good investment. But only if we save and invest the benefits to be derived from it. (Imagine if with your extra $25,000 you had invested some of that; then there would clearly be an ongoing benefit of the extra dough.

            In education that would mean continuing to build on those early gains. Full-day kindergartners need first-grade curricula and instruction aimed at taking them from where they are (as a result of the full-day teaching) and then accelerating these children forward again.  

            What we do instead as a result of early interventions (full-day kindergarten, parent programs, Reading Recovery, etc.)? Typically, we throw these children back into the mix, providing them the same instruction they would have received had there been no intervention. And, we invest in various programs aimed at trying to “catch up” the children who did not receive that early intervention (which is why programs like Head Start can appear to be ineffective).

            Build quality on quality, use instruction to accelerate children forward continually, and you will see the long-term benefits of full-day kindergarten and other effective early interventions.
Cooper, H., Allen, A.B., Patall, E.A., and Dent, A.L. (2010). Effects on full-day kindergarten on academic achievement and social development. Review of Educational Research, 80(1), 34-70. 
Durkin, D. (1974-1975). A six year study of children who learned to read in school at the age of four.  Reading Research Quarterly,10(1), 9-61. 
Hahn, R.A., Rammohan, V., Truman, B.I., Milstein, B., Johnson, R.L. et al. (2014). Effects of full- day kindergarten on the long-term health prospects of children in low-income and racial/ethnic-minority populations: A community guide systematic review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 46(3), 312-323.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

How Much Time on Comprehension and Phonics

My vacation is over and it is good to be back. The following letter came in while I was gone and I'm happy to answer it.

I am a 2nd year Kindergarten teacher, and I have really known nothing else but Common Core.  I feel as though my understanding of the standards is good.  My teaching style is workshop-based, with an equal amount of time spent on foundational skills as comprehension. I teach all five areas of literacy (phonics, phonemic awareness, oral language, fluency, comprehension) in our half-day program.  My colleagues are veteran teachers, who teach mostly foundational skills with foundational skill-based centers.  My Kindergarten colleagues frown on the workshop approach, although it is used in other grade levels (2-8).  Our school and district has always been high-performing and considered exceptional.  Our common assessments are all foundational skills, and our benchmarking assessment is all foundational skills.  Because I teach in the workshop model, they continually tell me how 'I just don't understand Kindergarten' and I am shorting my kids on foundational skills.  I am beginning to think that my efforts to pay equal time to comprehension are fruitless on an immediate basis, as they are not being assessed or valued.  However, I personally feel that not teaching comprehension on a deep level has been a major mistake in the past.  I want to learn and be a great teacher, but I just don't understand what I see to be the inequity in teaching/assessing/valuing comprehension.  What are your thoughts on the comprehension standards for Kindergarten?  How much time should be spent on comprehension vs. foundational skills in K, and why does it seem like comprehension is an afterthought with many early elementary teachers?

This is an interesting question. The biggest decisions teachers make have to do with how much time to spend on literacy and language and how to divide this time up among the components of literacy. I have long emphasized 2-3 hours of literacy instruction per day in grades K-5 (if you are teaching in a half-day kindergarten, then 90 minutes per day).

To divide instruction appropriately, it is critical to determine what components to include. 

Decoding is very important and needs to be mastered during these early years (preK through grade 2 or 3). Decoding includes phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, sight vocabulary, and phonics (and spelling).

Oral reading fluency is very important, though in kindergarten what needs to be emphasized will depend on whether the children are engaged in conventional reading or not. Oral reading fluency requires students to read text so that it sounds like text. If they can read, then reading texts aloud with repetition is essential. If students can’t yet read, they need to engage in activities like finger-point reading (in which they listen to texts being read and try to follow along by pointing to the words as they are being read).

Oral language includes vocabulary building, extended conversation (with multiple turns), listening comprehension (reading to children), and similar kinds of activities.

Reading comprehension refers to participating in reading text and answering questions and learning strategies for thinking about text. As with oral reading fluency, this one can only be taught if the students can read text. If they can’t read, then you can’t teach reading comprehension. (Listening comprehension is not reading comprehension, talking about pictures is not reading comprehension. Those have a place—in building oral language.) When kids are not yet reading, I would not count comprehension as a component; when they are, it deserves a full share of time.

And one more component that you do not mention: writing. It is critical that students be engaged in trying to express their ideas through written language. Initially, this might be done through dictation, but very quickly should shift to kids trying to do their own technology.

I would argue for dividing the total amount of literacy and language time equally across those five components (or four, if the students aren’t yet reading). Before they are reading, I would devote about a quarter of the instructional time to oral language development (including listening comprehension), a quarter to decoding, a quarter to oral reading fluency, and a quarter to writing. Once children are reading, then the time shifts so that each component gets 20% of the time.

Thus, in a full-day kindergarten in which teachers are spending 2 hours per day on literacy and language, early in the year—before many children are capable of reading text—students would spend about 30 minutes per day working with letters and letter sounds; about 30 minutes engaging in finger-point reading, echo reading, and such; about 30 minutes being read to, talking about text, expanding vocabulary and about 30 minutes writing. Later in the year, when significant numbers of students can read text, then there is a bit of time shift: the foundational skills (phonics and fluency) would drop back to a combined 50 minutes per day, reading comprehension, writing, and oral language would each come in at about 25 minutes. My preference would be that teachers would teach literacy and language for 3 hours per day at kindergarten (not two hours), and if that were the case, even more time would be available for all of these skills and abilities.

When you say that you spend equal times on reading comprehension and the foundational skills (phonological awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency), I think you are making a big mistake. That is not enough time for kids to develop those foundational skills in my opinion, and I think you'll slow their growth in reading. If your colleagues are devoting all of the time to foundational skills (because those are benchmarked), they may be doing long term damage; foundational skills are necessary, but insufficient to make students capable readers. 

A final word… these overall times are not a good description of a school day. When I say, there should be 30 or 48 or 60 minutes devoted to a particular aspect of literacy, that does not mean that teachers should teach phonics from 9:00AM-9:30AM. The reason I say that is that young children need lots of changes of activities and they need opportunities to move. I might read to kids with discussion for 10 or 15 minutes (covering half of my language time), but then could follow that up with a 10-minute writing activity, or a 15-minute phonics activity—or even an activity focused on some other aspect of the curriculum such as science or math. The point is that it is important to keep the day varied and engaging and the amounts of time can be accomplished in a variety of ways.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Sight Words for Kindergarten? Yes, But Not Too Many

Here is a letter I received this week:
Dr. Shanahan,
I’m writing you out of sheer frustration in doing my own research on the topic of Kindergarten Sight words – perhaps it’s because the answer I’m looking for just isn’t there??

I’m on the hunt for some solid research and have not been successful in finding it (I’m usually pretty good in doing so!) My K teachers are in disagreement about the teaching of sight vocabulary – and it’s a driving force for some angst right now in their team. I just printed the executive summary of the report of the natl early literacy panel…yet as I skim through I see nothing regarding sight word acquisition.

At this point, we have some that believe it’s NOT developmentally appropriate to teach sight words…..others are very skills=based and driven to do so, especially with the 1st grade goal of mastery of 100 high frequency words by Oct 1 of first grade. There are currently 60 high frequency words being measured/hopefully mastered by the end of K in our data books for that level.

Could you provide some insight about this? Specific research for me to back it - - How many? Which ones?

Instructional Coach

Dear Coach:

Thanks for your letter. Research and experience tell me that sight word instruction is helpful to young children who are learning to read. However, the research is not terribly specific as to how many words should be taught or when so anything I say on that will have to come entirely from experience and the wisdom of others.

I have no qualms in saying that it IS developmentally appropriate to teach sight words to kindergarteners (or even preschoolers). If it weren't developmentally appropriate, then young children simply would not learn the words (but they do). I’ve watched hundreds of Kindergarten teachers teaching words and have reviewed lots of research on the teaching of print to young children, and see no evidence that this cannot be done profitably and well.

Based on its seminal research review (Prevention of Reading Difficulties) the National Research Council issued an implementation guide for schools, a marvelous little book, Starting Our Right: A Guide to Promoting Children’s Reading Success that I used when I was director of reading in Chicago. It suggests that by the end of kindergarten, children should recognize some words by sight including a few very common ones (the, I, my, you, is, are). Unfortunately, it isn't specific as to how many, but this authoritative guide makes it absolutely clear that sight word teaching is appropriate in kindergarten.

However, 60 words sounds high to me (as does the idea that everyone will know the most frequent 100 words by Oct 1 of grade 1). That sounds ambitious (which is good), but I suspect that there will be a lot of failure with it. I’ve always told my teachers that by the end of grade 1 the students should know all of the 100 most frequent words — and a 300-500 other easy-to-decode words as well. Typically, the first 100 high frequency aren’t mastered by most kids until Thanksgiving or so (and that is with considerable effort).

I would suggest a much more modest goal for the end of kindergarten (perhaps 20 words or so, with at least 10 of those being high frequency words). I think your teachers are frustrated not because they are teaching the wrong stuff, but because the standard is set too high to be practical.

They also may be struggling with this teaching if they aren’t well-versed in how to do that. Too often sight word teaching becomes a drill-sequence that is unnecessarily tedious. Try things like having the children dictate language experience stories, and do lots of reading and rereading (including choral reading) with these. Then start pulling words out of these stories and help the children to examine these outside of the context of the story. That kind of teaching goes much faster and will be less stressful for everybody.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Amount of Preschool and Kindergarten Literacy Instruction?

I just received this request for information from a friend:
The question being posed is, "how many minutes of literacy instruction is
recommended for early childhood, ages such as preschool and kindergarten?"

The amount recommended in our district for grades 1-8 is 120 minutes, so we obviously need to rethink our message to the early childhood program. I'm not sure if you are familiar with or if this is relevant, but the early childhood program (preschool - kindergarten) uses Creative Curriculum, which incorporates center choices with whole group reading and writing instruction.

Thank you in advance for your advice!

My response:

There are no data that I am aware of on that issue, so anything I can tell you will be conjecture.

When I answer this question (and I do with some regularity), my first response to is ask a question back: “how long are the preschoolers and kindergartners there?” The answer to that usually varies from half day to full day. Because literacy and language aren’t the only issues that need to be addressed in instruction, it is important that literacy be a good curricular neighbor (not crowding everyone else unnecessarily).

If it is a whole day situation, then I would argue for the full 2 hours that you are spending in grades 1-8, and if it is half day, then about 1 hour will have to do it.

What should go into that 1-2 hours? Your curriculum does a good job of supporting teachers in some of these categories, and you might consider supplementing where it does not. We don’t provide children with much oral language stimulation in grades 1-8 (except incidentally across the day), but with young children some direct attention to oral language instruction and stimulation is appropriate as part of the literacy time.

In 2 hours, I would expect some code work (with letters and sounds), some fluency work (like pretend reading, choral reading, fingerpoint reading), some listening comprehension (or reading comprehension if the kids have started reading), some language work (including vocabulary), and some writing time. For a smaller amount of time, I would teach the same things (just not as much of them, but I wouldn’t leave any of them out).

Your curriculum presents letters and sounds whole group, and that is iffy. While juggling times with small groups can be tricky, the studies of code instruction have only been done with small groups at these age levels. This means it will take more than two hours to deliver two real hours of instruction and experience.

Finally, 2 hours does not necessarily mean a block of time. This does not have to be done from 9-11AM; with young kids, short time spans for activities is necessary and these various activities can be interspersed through the day. A little harder to keep track of whether you have hit the time goal, but a lot more sensible to deliver.