Reading: Stage 0

13Oct09

In all the hoopla over the newly mandated Reading Street and EnvisionMath curricula, parent and teacher reaction, and the subsequent flexibility guidelines, several important ideas are getting lost. It seems like parents and administrators are citing research, talking about numbers, and talking past each other, and I think it’s important to back the conversation up a bit and establish some common ground.

Here’s the first idea that is important: the path to literacy and reading begins at birth. Babies come into the world programmed to listen to speech sounds, words, and phrases, and learn what they mean. By the time a child has a few words, she or he comprehends most everything in their environment. Babies and toddlers see printed materials through board books, signs, traffic signs.

The first five to six years of life are spent building a vast vocabulary store, not just of labels, but of actions, descriptions, emotions, colors, number concepts, and more. Neurologically speaking, young children are primed to soak up more information in their first 6 years of life than we can imagine. They are learning about the world, the people and creatures in the world. More importantly, they learn that something symbolic, like a random-sounding combination of phonemes (e.g. d-o-g) represents a concrete thing (e.g. the furry animal with four legs and a tail that barks). There are a number of ways that youngsters learn vocabulary, through reading books with caregivers, through talking with caregivers, but most importantly, through play opportunities. The stages of play include cause-effect (0-12 months), functional (12 months-2 years), solitary-symbolic (2-3 years), associative-symbolic (3-4 years), and collaborative-symbolic (4 years and beyond). Given some adult guidance and scaffolding, age- and developmentally-appropriate materials, children are playing collaboratively and imaginatively by ages 3, 4 and 5. Now they are using their vast store of vocabulary to make friends, ask for help, join in a game, recount an experience, and tell how they are feeling. They are, if all goes well, negotiating for a favorite toy, bargaining for a lollipop, and taking turns on the swings. One  might think: what does this have to do with literacy and reading?? Here’s my response: everything!! From early on, given a secure attachment to a caregiver, opportunities for developmentally appropriate play, and exposure to children’s literature, children are paving the way towards print recognition, sound-symbol correspondence and rich vocabulary development.

But here’s some alarming news from a report entitled Disparities in Early Learning and Development: Lessons from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Birth Cohort (ECLS-B) (Halle, Forry, Hair, Perper, Wandner, Wessel, and Vick, 2009). The report’s key findings were that “Disparities in child outcomes are evident at 9 months and grow larger by 24 months of age; these disparities exist across cognitive, behavioral, social-emotional and health outcomes; the most consistent and prominent of these risk factors are low income and low maternal education; and, the more risk factors a child has, the wider the disparity.”

So, we have these children with lots of delays due to all kinds of socio-economic factors. They’re not just delayed cognitively and behind with their vocabulary. They have, due to a variety of factors, difficulty with impulse control, limited attention span for focused work, and (by age 4) significant attachment issues. They have not learned how to play cooperatively, take turns or negotiate with peers. And what is happening to them under NCLB, and specifically in Durham (now) with the new Reading Street mandate? They are being brought into Kindergarten at age 5, 6, and 7, and they are expected to sit for 150 minutes of “guided reading.” They are expected to know how to engage with a teacher, identify letters, numbers and sound out words. And, in some cases, many of them do. But what happens if they can eek by with good sound-symbol correspondence skills until second grade when the vocabulary is more interesting and there are more exceptions to the rules than there are spelling rules?

I have a good friend, who we’ll call Hannah. Hannah works in the public schools as a guidance counselor, and before she was a guidance counselor she helped out as a substitute teacher in a school with a high number of children from reduced socio-economic backgrounds. She recently shared an anecdote with me about trying to help a child read a passage in a second grade class. The passage involved a wagon, and Hannah remembered going over the story again and again with the child, and she finally realized that the child did not know what a wagon is. Hannah drew him a picture of a wagon and explained what a wagon does, and then they read the passage again and the child began to understand.

One of my colleagues, now a medical resident at UNC Chapel Hill Hospital, worked for 2 years in New Orleans as a teacher of severely behaviorally impaired adolescents with Teach for America. I asked her for an opinion on scripted curricula, and she told me that she believed that the scripted curricula that she used with her students taught them a set facts through rote memorization. The curriculum that she used brought her kids’ test scores and literacy skills beyond their baseline; however, she stated that this type of curriculum did not teach rich vocabulary or critical thinking skills, and that it only addressed some of the educational needs of the mediocre students. It “left behind” the learning-challenged children to the left of the bell curve, and it did not challenge the children with academic gifts and strengths.

There is a growing body of research that suggests that a more effective method for closing the achievement gap is to adopt a rigorous core curriculum and remediate (through EC services and evidence-based remediation such as Reading Recovery) for students who need extra help. Children who are capable of higher achievement, despite their socio-economic status, end up flat-lining with a curriculum like reading street because it is not interesting enough and it does not have enough authentic literature to hold their attention. There are also lots of data to support having more opportunities for physical exercise and outdoor play, with statistically significant differences in cognitive development, critical thinking skills, and overall wellness.

In 1959, the UN issued a Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Article 7, paragraph 3 states, “The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavor to promote the enjoyment of this right…” Hmmmm…..Play and recreation as a basic human right. That’s a new concept for some administrators. Joan Almon (Coordinator of the U.S. branch of the Alliance for Childhood), in The Vital Role of Play in Early Childhood Education (2007), states that, “creative play is a central activity in the lives of healthy children.”

All this by way of saying:

1. Scrap the Reading Street mandate. Identify teachers and schools that need extra support and continuing education and hold everyone accountable for results. Leave the teachers that are doing so much with very little alone!

2. Scrap the push-down approach to academics in Kindergarten. There are successful teachers in DPS who have play-based kindergartens that allow for movement, multi-sensory learning, and authentic literature. Those kids develop sound-symbol correspondence and number concepts, but they also love books, love school, and know how to play with their friends.

3. Screen children for vocabulary deficits in Pre-K and K, and refer them to language-based classrooms, EC and Speech Pathology services. Vocabulary is the main problem with comprehension. Decoding is not reading.

4. If we hope to work towards reducing these early childhood risk factors, we may find as a community that we want to move towards universal preschool. However, the term universal preschool means different things to different people. What we are advocating for is a model that incorporates authentic experiences, hands-on learning,  small teacher-student ratios, exposure to developmentally appropriate literature, targeted at developing social skills and vocabulary. This is a whole other blog entry, but worth mentioning here in brief.

I asked my son’s preschool teacher (teaching preschool for over 25 years now) what is the most meaningful way to develop critical thinking skills in the early childhood years, and she responded very simply, “Let them play together.”

We are a growing group of informed, empowered parents who are advocating for a broader, bolder approach to education for all DPS children. Join our yahoo! list serve concernedparentsdps@yahoo.com, for more information.

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One Response to “Reading: Stage 0”

  1. AMEN Sister!


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