Monday, September 29, 2014

Pre-Reading Pre-Tirade

Following my previous post on Teaching Parents to Help Stop the Summer Slide, I did some web-sleuthing on the subject of "picture walking".  It turns out to be one of a set of practices described as "pre-reading".  At first, I thought "pre-reading" would refer to activities kids could do before they learned to read, but no -- it turns out "pre-reading" refers to activities you're supposed to do with kids before they read a book, even after they've (allegedly) learned to read.  (WHY?  Just read the book!)

The only way to make sense of "pre-reading" activities is to place them in the world of Whole Language, where the goal is not to sound out the words on the page but to guess what the words might be from context.  If you're into word-guessing, it makes sense to have a discussion about the book first --- with any luck, you could increase the rate of correct guesses.

In retrospect, there's a smoking gun in the article:  this is a mother describing the progress made by her 8-year-old daughter in learning to read:
“English is such a funny language — it’s frustrating to learn to read. But she can use the pictures to figure out words. When she can figure out a big word like ‘restaurant,’ she says ‘I can do this.’”
Why should anyone have to look at a picture to decode "restaurant"?  It's not even that difficult phonetically (like, for instance, "through".)  And what will this kid do when she gets to books with no pictures?

I found an interesting article about pre-reading techniques called  Pre-reading or Not? Although the author thinks there's a place for pre-reading, he gives a solid list of objections to the practice, with these headers:
1.  Pre-reading takes too much time away from reading.
2.  Boring!
3.  Pre-reading commonly focuses on the wrong information.
4. Previews can ruin the reading experience.
5.  Previews are rarely purposeful.
Ayup.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Teaching Parents to be Lousy Reading Teachers

(For former regular readers, it's been a difficult year in FedUpLand.  We'll see whether I do more blogging this year -- stay tuned!)

In today's NYTimes, Teaching Parents to Help Stop the Summer Slide, about a summer program that claims to teach parents how to teach their kids to read.  This has annoyed me to the point that I'm compelled to blog about it.

In the program, parents are taught to do the "picture-walk" with their kids -- that is, before you even attempt to read a book, first look at all the pictures and guess what the book is about.  Ugh.  I feel sorry for all the authors who have carefully designed their books so that the story -- yes, including the pictures -- will have dramatic tension and surprise.  Their hard work is completely negated by this clueless way of teaching reading. 

These methods are apparently designed by people who never read for pleasure, so I find myself making arguments from a skill that is not taught -- watching a movie.  Would anyone first look at all the available still shots from the movie, and guess what the movie is about?  Of course not -- it would be a tedious waste of time and remove all pleasure from the act of watching the movie.  So why would you do this to a new reader?

On a purely practical level, young children usually have a  short span of focus and attention.  Why waste 10 to 15 minutes having a discussion about what might be in the book?  The child might only have a few focused minutes left to spend on actually reading.

The special skill parents are being taught this week is how to determine whether a book is appropriate for their child:
To gauge level, the child reads the first two pages of a book on her own; if she stops frequently, that book is too hard, and if she races through without stopping, it’s too easy.
How about asking the child, "is this a book you'd like to read?" If the child has no interest in the book, the book is inappropriate. 
Then the parents learn various ways to ask the child open-ended questions before, during and after reading. 
Again, a terrific way to remove pleasure from the act of reading.  How could you possibly get immersed in a story if someone is constantly interrupting you with questions?

This article is another example of how the "progressive vs. traditional" debate doesn't even apply.  A progressive would be looking for ways to make reading interesting and enjoyable for the kids; a traditionalist would emphasize phonics and sounding words out.  The current fashionable approach does none of these things. 

It's like they're trying to teach kids how to read without actually teaching kids how to read.  Instead, they're trying to inculcate what they mistakenly believe to be habits that surround reading.

P.S.  There's only one comment to the article so far, and it's a head-scratcher.  It's from a "Dr. LZC" (let me guess -- doctorate in education?):
For immigrant parents also stressing that it's not their job to teach phonics, decoding, or pronunciation (with native language support to answer questions) is also helpful since this can be an area of both confusion for the child and anxiety for families.
What she's really saying is that she doesn't want immigrant parents teaching their kids how to read.  Why the hell not?   


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter!


I decided on chocolate icing for this year's lamb cake.  There's a long tradition of cigarette-smoking lamb cakes, and some controversy over their meaning.  My favorite explanation is that smoking is one of those luxuries you might have given up for Lent; once Easter comes, Lent is over, and everybody can light up again, even the lamb!

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Swing of the Pendulum

In the NYTimes today, Parental Involvement is Overrated.  I liked this article, not because I think it's intelligent or well-written (I don't), but because, with any luck, it's an early sign that the parental-involvement pendulum is starting to swing back.  That's good news for me.  As regular readers will know, I resent the schools' ham-handed attempts to get me involved, from homework assignments my child can't possibly do on her own to pointless parent-teacher conferences.

As to the article itself, what a mess.  The writers performed a longitudinal study, going back to the 1980s, of surveys of parent involvement.  Schools have changed enormously over the past 30 years, not least in the requirements made of parents.  You can't make a meaningful comparison of parental behavior in 1980 and parental behavior today without taking these changes into account.  Besides, surveys are notorious in their ability to bring out whatever the subjects think the survey-taker wants to hear.  They're rarely an accurate measure.  (Alfie Kohn points out, for instance, that children and their parents report different amounts of time spent on homework;  it's not clear that either report is accurate.)

The writers don't even mention an important form of parent involvement that's become very common; parent re-teaching and tutoring.  These efforts have become a normal part of childhood, from the middle class on up the economic scale.  Parents don't trust the schools to ensure their child has learned the material, so they find their own resources.   It's terribly inefficient, but we're stuck with it.  As I remarked to my employer at the after-school math club where I've been teaching, wouldn't it be great if we could get this done during the school day?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Dismissing a Child's Complaint

Jessica Lahey, a fertile source of blog posts, has a column in the New York Times:

My Son calls School a Waste of Time

A parent writes in saying that her son calls school "too easy" and says it's a waste of his time.  What to do?  Here's the opening of Ms. Lahey's reply:
In my experience, two things could be going on here.
Your son could be a typical young adolescent, whining about the irritating and less than thrilling details of middle school life.
Why does anyone think it's OK to write this way about kids?  It used to be normal to speak this way about women ("oh, those little ladies, complaining about the right to vote!"), but feminists, quite rightly, put a big dent in it. We need a similar campaign for kids.  It's outrageous to propose as the first option that the child's complaints should be belittled and ignored.

Lahey goes on to give really terrible advice:
If, however, he really does yearn for more intellectual and educational challenge, congratulations. You have a motivated kid on your hands. Assuming he is completing the work he is being assigned and meeting the expectations of his teachers, you can go ahead and start talking with him about how to move toward a solution.
This is a familiar catch-22 to gifted kids and their parents; teachers won't allow a child to be considered "gifted" unless he's performing well on the work he's being given now.  The teachers are confusing "gifted" with "good student."  Many gifted kids are not good students, because, like this boy, they find schoolwork pointless and aren't interested in getting a good grade on work that they detest.  It's obnoxious to tell a child he has to perform correctly on tasks that he finds pointless before he'll have a chance to do something he might find meaningful.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Going to School Teaches You How to Go to School

Two interesting articles in the Atlantic:

My Daughter's Homework is Killing Me, in which a father attempts to do his 8th-grade daughter's homework for a week.

and

My Insane Homework Load Taught me How to Game the System, in which a high school student realizes that the objective of high school is not to become a good learner, but a good student. 

I liked this comment (from dantes342, on My Insane Homework Load):
I've got two high school juniors, each taking a couple of the de rigeur AP courses. The workload is insane, they're hitting the books from when they get home in the afternoon until 10-11 at night and always at least one full weekend day. It's just sadistic.
College GPA requirements are in the realm of fantasy, as is described in the piece.
It's not about a failure of students to buckle down and structure their time. It's about a broken system running on hysteria and disregard for actual learning, and it breeds gaming the system and cheating just to stay afloat.
I see a lot of this in the "good" school district of Upper Tax Bracket.  This is how our kids are overworked and undereducated.