Loose Ends in the Waning Days of Summer

  • 10 August, 2014

It's the time of year, when parents and kids are stocking up on school supplies and teachers are decorating bulletin boards and scrambling through professional development days while poring over their new class lists. For me, it is a good time to say a last word on some disparate issues.

Teach Your Baby to Read
Awhile back, an entry here focused on the “Teach Your Baby to Read” program. I criticized those programs for fostering a mis-definition of reading as word memorization and said it was not likely to be effective. I pointed out the need for research. That turned out to be a controversial blog and it generated lots of response. Most critics were parents, two of whom even offered to bring their toddlers to me to see that they were reading.
It is hard to invest in something that doesn’t work; it creates “cognitive dissonance.” That’s just a fancy way of saying that people look hard for reasons to like those things that they have already bought into. Buy a new car and you start reading more car ads than before because you look for evidence that confirms your good judgment.
This week, Susan Neuman and her colleagues published, in the Journal of Educational Psychology, a randomized control trial of studies on baby literacy programs. Their conclusion: “Our results indicated that babies did not learn to read.” The programs had no impact on measures of early literacy and language. Nevertheless, the parents who delivered the programs were sure they were working. Cognitive dissonance strikes again.
Teaching Vocabulary to English Learners
My recent blogs on academic vocabulary elicited this request: “I love that you are addressing this topic! Any advice for those of us working with large populations of ELL students?”
It's a good question. Research suggests vocabulary learning supports reading comprehension, and this impact is greater with ELLs than native speakers. ELL students are less likely to know English words, so teaching words would have a particularly powerful impact for them. 
One thing that is different for ELL kids is that it is not just academic vocabulary that they lack. If we only teach book language or the words that aren’t usually heard in oral discourse, then ELL kids may be left out. It is essential that ELLs be assessed to determine their language status. If their language development is similar to that of their English classmates, then emphasizing academic vocabulary with them makes great sense.
More likely, however, their language will lag behind. In such cases, providing them with additional instruction in vocabulary would make sense. But this instruction should focus on oral language—not written. Claude Goldenberg has promoted the idea of having a daily period devoted to English language instruction for ELLs and that makes great sense to me. Give these kids a chance to close the gap with their English-speaking peers.
I would also argue that it is important to do more than teach word meanings. That has value, of course, but so do listening comprehension and grammar lessons. Language includes more than words.
My Daughters 
There have been many responses to my blogs about teaching my daughters to read. The most chastening was from my eldest who claims I attributed the anecdotes to the wrong daughters. That may be the case, as since they were little, I often would call them by the wrong names. I always told them they were lucky that we didn’t have a dog (who knows they might have come to think Fido was their name).
I also heard from someone who wanted to know the impact of teaching the girls on their later school performance. E., the oldest, who entered school reading at a third-grade level, was chagrined to find that the kindergarten teacher would spend the year teaching letter names and sounds (she enjoyed the inflatable letter people). They let her attend first-grade part-time that year which didn’t help much since those kids could read either. She loved the freedom of being able to leave kindergarten for first-grade and, to her thinking, it was a good year. She later skipped a grade to try to get a closer match (I wish we hadn’t done that, but it was the only choice given the teaching available to her at the time—not the case in all schools).
M., the youngest who was slow at language learning, entered kindergarten with more modest accomplishments (she was reading at about a grade 1 level). Her advantages were less obvious, but I suspect more valuable. There was a very real chance that M. would have struggled with reading when she entered school. Instead, her biggest weakness was a modest strength. I have long believed that if I hadn’t taught E. to read, she would have learned at school quickly and easily anyway. M., on the other hand, may have languished with the wrong teacher or program, and she may have played catch up in language from then on. Her reading levels might have been less remarkable initially, but her reading success was guaranteed.
Both girls did well in school, and one has a degree in law and the other in engineering. 


See what others have to say about this topic.

Elle Jun 15, 2017 11:53 AM


Tim, I'm guessing E. (the one who argued about your characterization of her reading history) has the law degree, and M., who was slower in learning to read, has a degree in engineering. Am I correct?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 15, 2017 11:53 AM



You got it. You can recognize a lawyer at 50 yards.

Luz Garcia Jun 15, 2017 11:54 AM


Mr Shanahan,

I'm new to your blog and have only been following for a few days. I agree with you saying that "It is essential that ELLs be assessed to determine their language status". I am a Dual Language Teacher and work daily with each of my ELLs according to their academic and language levels. I often hear teachers group ELLs into a particular level or status. When in reality each of them could be at a different place in their language development. It is especially important to identify those ELLs who are at the language level of their English classmates to continue working with them in vocabulary to avoid those gaps. At the same time, identifying those that are at a lower language level will help in deciding what strengths those students have and what skills they are still lacking. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 15, 2017 11:54 AM


Thanks. That will help you determine what strengths exist, but also the degree of support (e.g., explanation, translation, support, guidance, scaffolding) they might need.

W.P.G. Jun 15, 2017 11:55 AM


Did you end up seeing the toddlers who had been taught to read?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 15, 2017 11:55 AM


I have seen videos of some of them, and in my judgment they are not reading.


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Loose Ends in the Waning Days of Summer


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.