Posts Tagged building vocabulary
Published by EducationNews.org — Doesn’t anyone worry that pre-school can teach kids to hate school earlier?
Early childhood education has become this year’s education-fix obsession. From the President of the United States to the President of the Rhode Island Senate, we’re now pinning our hopes for improved academic achievement on more for schooling low-income, urban kids. Specifically little kids.
The data on pre-school is far from clear. Head Start, a signature program from the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, promised to improve reading readiness among low-income pre-schoolers. But evidence shows the academic gains disappearing by grade 3.
Families are the kids’ first teachers and strongest connections, so the bang for the buck likely lies in working directly with them. And I would argue the places where kids play and learn about the world is actually little kids’ second teacher. More on that in a moment.
The dangers of doing nothing for kids from struggling families are all too real. Research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, immortalized in their work The 30 million word gap by age 3, demonstrates how low-income urban children’s vocabularies put them at a huge academic disadvantage compared with their middle-class peers. Later researchers such as Ruby Payne and Eric Jensen confirmed not only the scale of the gap itself, but also significant differences in the kinds of words low-income kids hear — fewer words of praise, more direct orders, and fewer open-ended questions soliciting their thoughts and efforts to formulate answers.
Sadly, pundits and pols still believe that the solution is early-childhood “education.” Read: classrooms. This gives me the willies. Picture 3 and 4-year olds with more “seat time.” Doesn’t anyone worry that pre-school can teach kids to hate school earlier?
Vocabulary is intelligence, says the wise E.D. Hirsch.
The size of a kid’s vocabulary is the size of her intellectual world. Vocabulary and experience are the foundation for more information, skills and intelligence. Children have different natural gifts, to be sure, but any of those innate abilities are enhanced by rich experiences and opportunities to talk about them.
Here’s what’s missing from the conversation, though. For a gajillian years evolution has wired children to absorb and process information at an incredible rate. They explore, put stuff in their mouths, pull up grass, make mud pies, splash water, stalk the cat. Sometimes the cat retaliates, or an obstacle causes a fall, or the stick house keeps collapsing even after much effort. That’s little-kid learning. I call it downloading the software of reality. Learning about the nature of physical reality depends on a place. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just rich with possibilities. The place teaches them — be it raw nature, a farm, an inventive playground, park or even a kid-friendly city apartment. Anywhere but school, which is not a place they can make their own.
School-based instruction is not a memorable way to acquire words. Better to have a wealth of experience to which vocabulary can attach. Especially with electronic distractions, kids suffer mainly from a poverty of positive experiences that ignite and feed their own hard-wired, voracious appetites for learning. Low-income kids don’t need school, but more access to cool places — whether as part of paid daycare or as public services to families.
Impressive experiences will find verbal expression.
At this year’s Child-Friendly Cities conference, keynote Jens Troelsen gushed about growing up in a veritable heaven, his family’s farm. Adults were within earshot, but his real teachers were the stream, the animals, the bales of hay to make structures. Yes, this was in Denmark, where Stranger Danger and safety obsession had yet to paralyze parenting. But his point was that he and his friends learned a ton, chatting up a storm as they negotiated games and projects. They shared vocabulary.
At public forest kindergartens in Europe and elsewhere (including New Hampshire) kids hang outside all year round. A movie about one shows children managing fierce cold with sledding, huddling around kid-made fires, building with hammers and nails, and scurrying around like little animals. Adults oversee proper use of tools and read to them daily. Otherwise the children amuse themselves, capitalizing on the enormous capacity to learn that has evolved since the dawn of humans. As such, they are brilliantly prepared for school later on.
Home-visiting programs could help parents turn their apartment into a Waldorf-inspired “learning environment.” Any kitchen can be arranged to have a play kitchen in it with access to the non-breakable muffin pans and pie tins. Kids like to play at being adults. Cast off clothing and shoes are a blast. Blankets make club houses. Parents would have to ease up on Disney characters and passive entertainment, but they should anyway.
This is a case of school getting in the way of learning.
Rather than subsidize yet another institution, provide Mom with information, support groups or even classes on how to provide spaces where kids learn on their own. Put minimalist shelters and trained play leaders in the parks for a lot less money than supporting another institution. But let the kids explore — something, somewhere. Spend resources helping the parents any way we can, but especially help them foster rich and brain-building experience. Forget premature school.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.
Published by EducationNews.org — There are times when school gets in the way of learning.
From the President of the United States to the President of the Rhode Island Senate, early-childhood education is shaping up to be one of this year’s ed obsessions.
We’ve been here before, of course. Head Start, a signature program from the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, was designed to improve reading readiness among low-income pre-schoolers. Unfortunately decades of evidence show the academic gains disappearing by grade 3. There might be lots of reasons for this, including sending those kids to crummy K-3 schools. But my take-away is that early schooling didn’t build a good foundation for more school. Low-income kids mainly suffer a poverty of positive experiences that ignite their own innate appetites for learning.
But a source of critical concern is the vast disparity between the vocabularies of low-income children and their middle-class peers, immortalized by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in The 30 milion word gap by age 3. Urban children’s vocabularies put them at a huge academic disadvantage. Later researchers such as Ruby Payne and Eric Jensen confirmed not only the scale of the gap itself, but also significant differences in the kinds of words low-income kids hear — fewer words of praise, more direct orders, and fewer open-ended questions soliciting their thoughts or efforts to formulate answers.
As the sage E.D. Hirsch says: vocabulary is intelligence. The size of a kid’s vocabulary is indicative of the size of her intellectual world, the foundation on which to build more information, skills and intelligence. Children have different gifts, to be sure, but those gifts are enhanced by rich experiences and opportunities to talk about them.
Sadly, pundits and pols still believe that the solution is early-childhood “education.” Read: classrooms. The idea of starting children ever earlier in classrooms gives me the willies.
Learning, yes. Academics, not so much.
At this year’s Child-Friendly Cities conference, keynote Jens Troelsen began his remarks by saying that he not only grew up in a veritable heaven, but that he was exceedingly popular, since everyone wanted to play at his house. He grew up on a farm. There was a stream to dam up or float boats, animals to play with, bales of hay to make structures. Of course, that was in Denmark, where Stranger Danger and obsession with safety have yet to paralyze parenting. His point was that he and his friends were learning a ton, chatting up a storm as they negotiated games and projects, while having a blast. The rhythms of farm life teach much science, without explicit instruction. Troelsen twinkles as he talks about it.
For a more citified version, I recommend visiting urban Waldorf-inspired “learning environments,” which look nothing like whiteboard-plastered classrooms. The wealth of toys for imaginary play are free of Disney characters, passive entertainment and cheap plastic. The play areas mimic houses with kitchens, dining rooms, doll bedrooms, clothing closets. Kids like to play at being adults. And they like exploring sand and water, or making collections of rocks, bones, or whatever’s intriguing. On a school visit I watched distinctly urban kids dash and scream, perhaps a bit more than the adults liked. After being cooped up indoors with electronics, they were thrilled to have many choices as to what to do, and others to do it with. The teacher’s job included monitoring children’s vocabularies with fun story-telling assessments, to ensure they were acquiring words at an accelerated rate. They had techniques for helping those falling behind and worked with parents on game-like activities to do at home. None of it felt academic. Rich and brain-building, but not premature school.
Even more daring and exhilarating are the forest kindergartens of Europe and elsewhere (including New Hampshire). Four to seven-year olds hang outside all year round. A movie about a Swiss school shows them managing fierce cold with sledding, huddling around kid-made fires, and generally scurrying around like little animals out in nature. Again, teachers support learning from a slight distance to oversee proper use of tools, and read to them daily. A doctor interviewed in the film says he’s never had to treat a kid for ADD who’d attended such a kindergarten. They know how to amuse themselves exploring the world, with great concentration, and as such are well-prepared for school later on.
The young brain is hard-wired to suck up information.
Memorable experiences build synapses that should have trunks like oaks and branches that resemble well-fed crabapple trees. Such experiences invite discussion and whet appetites for learning.
To my mind, what the three kinds of early-childhood experiences mentioned above have in common are charm and beauty. Raw nature, cultivated farms, and even cultivated learning spaces are sensual, visual, physical, living places. There, kids can thrive, learning to handle autonomy and calculating risks for themselves.
But well-meaning minds are stuck in the sterility of “early-childhood education.” There are times when school gets in the way of learning.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.
Published by EducationNews.org — You’ll know kids mastered a subject if they have the vocabulary to talk about it intelligently.
In the tedium of tests, testing, test scores, and so-called accountability, the point of education is lost. Tests are not the point. Learning is. Testing is merely the read on the dipstick into a kid’s tank of knowledge. Tests assess How Much learning has taken place.
E.D. Hirsch is an education thinker I greatly admire, largely because he’s comfortable with specifics about what actual knowledge is. He’s so specific — very refreshing among squabbling education reformers — that he assembled teams of experts to create the Core Knowledge Curriculum.
The simple idea embedded in Hirsch’s large canon of writings is this: knowing more words makes a kid smarter. How? Consider his 2006 example that has haunted me since I first ran across it:
Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.
As a confident reader, I can tell you what every one of those words means. But as a sports idiot, I read the sentence without comprehension. Which is to say I can’t really read it. Any baseball nut can tell you exactly what the sentence means because their understanding of the sport provides the context that give baseball meanings to “sacrifice,” “knock” and “run.”
Reading comprehension is all about understanding the context.
Hirsch unpacks the above sentence by describing a bit about the landscape of baseball to help, say, a British reader understand how those words might be bent to mean what they do. Frankly, I learned details about America’s favorite pastime that I never knew before. (Sports bore me to death. Sorry.)
Likewise, if I knew nothing about the Egyptians, on a test I might think the “mummies” were the moms. If the above sentence appeared in a reading comprehension test, I would have failed.
The SAT and even the GRE tests are essentially vocabulary tests. Whatever subjects you know well, you know by the vocabulary used to discuss them. If you don’t know what “binomial probability” means, then surely you haven’t a clue as to how to do the related math.
Build new contexts; build vocabulary.
Not surprisingly, the Core Curriculum leans heavily on classic literature and actual history, geography, and civics — as opposed to hard-to-define social studies. Designed for students pre-K through 8th grade, the Curriculum systematically teaches the sort of knowledge that was far more common in my day. Yes, modern works have been woven in, and in interesting ways. But the spine is, well, good old Western Civilization built out to be more inclusive and contemporary, but not dumbed-down. Rigorous literature and primary historical sources have chewy syntax and unfamiliar words. Challenging language requires more effort, but the payoff is that with teacher guidance, children enter new worlds that expand their horizons. Each new context, like baseball, has words or word-meanings all its own.
Contrast classical literature with the vapid, politically-correct writings found in the Basal readers developed by textbook companies whose goal is to market their wares. Textbook companies have long lists of rules that govern what goes into their sanitized texts, rules designed to reduce offense to easily-offended public School Committees. One rule is to avoid everything written before 1970 — too many white male protagonists and authors, among many other sins. (For infuriating details on corporate educational publishers and why public school kids read such dreck, read Diane Ravitch’s painful but brilliant book, The Language Police.)
Classics are inevitably offensive because their values come out of other times, places and cultures. But it is precisely by taking a child into those other contexts that broaden their horizons and their historical, cultural and linguistic foundations.
Instead of actually reading broadly, kids learn “reading skills.”
Hirsch says, “The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose maneuvers that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students’ achievement in reading. It is true that students benefit from learning and practicing reading comprehension skills, but a key point has gotten lost: More training in these skills is not necessarily better.”
Today’s new teachers have been taught to waste a lot of time on explicitly teaching the sorts of skills readers naturally pick up. Students have lessons in “reading strategies,” like predicting, summarizing, questioning, clarifying and identifying the main idea. By all means give the kids the vocabulary for what they are doing when they discuss Charlotte’s Web. Name “summarizing” when that’s what they’re doing. But Charlotte’s world is vastly more important and interesting — the farm, the critters, and the agricultural cycle that would normally turn Wilbur into food. Help kids build vocabulary for all of it, the book and their approach to it.
We’ve grown so crazed with assessments that we’ve forgotten what on earth it is we’re trying to measure. By all means measure. I love data. Measure words. You’ll know kids mastered a subject if they have the vocabulary to talk about it intelligently. If we immerse students in real contexts that expand knowledge and build vocabulary, kids will have a shot at an education.
And, God help us, they’ll get better test scores.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.