Choppy waters in 4th grade reading — Why?

Picture your child in a long race. You’ve been running alongside him ─ pacing him ─ for the first few years, while he’s growing trillions more nerve cell connections (synapses) than you have in your own adult brain. You’re helping nurture his learning in so many ways, including learning to talk and read. He’s steadily progressing in learning to identify words ─ and over time, to interpret their meaning in longer reading passages. By the time he approaches the fourth grade, he likely doesn’t need or even want you to pace him in the reading department anymore because he can ─ and is ─ reading on his own.

So, you think he’s prepared at 9 or 10 years old when his teachers start to present a curriculum that focuses on more specialized learning. The task now is to start transitioning from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” This is a difficult transition for many children. A term was coined for this transition nearly 30 years ago─ the “fourth grade slump.”[1]

When I hear the word, “slump,” that doesn’t sound so bad. It implies there might be a dip in learning for a time ─ it might be temporary. But the words and phrases many use to describe the slump that can occur around ages 9-10 sound much more ominous: ‘this is education’s Bermuda triangle,’ ‘educators are wringing their hands over this puzzling phenomenon,’[2] ‘the fourth-grade slump is a time when some children, faced with increasingly complex schoolwork, start to lose interest in reading.’[3] For many children, the dip in achievement will not be temporary–it starts a downward spiral throughout the school years. Many children end up in high school as poor readers ─ and poor at math, social studies, science, literature, and other subjects ─ because reading is so key to advanced learning.

What is happening in the fourth grade to account for this “Bermuda Triangle”? There are four main factors thought to be stirring up these choppy waters:

  • The reading is harder. Students have to use their reading skills now to acquire new knowledge from increasingly difficult words and texts. They’re shifting from reading relatively easy, familiar words and passages to reading more advanced materials. Children who struggled with reading in the early grades enter a jeopardy zone. Unless they receive help, understanding and encouragement, including at home, they’ll have trouble keeping up. They’ll grow more frustrated and eventually, many give up.
  • Size (of vocabulary) counts. When faced with reading more difficult texts, students with stronger vocabularies read more easily ─ and in turn, typically read more and develop even larger vocabularies. Students with weaker vocabularies experience the opposite ─ they struggle, and in turn, typically read less ─ as a result, they lose ground in adding needed new vocabulary.
  • Knowing about things (prior knowledge) counts. Children generally struggle to read (understand) content that is unfamiliar. Those who know more ─ who bring prior knowledge on a range of subjects ─ struggle less than those who don’t. Think about topics a child may understand a lot about─ like dinosaurs, going fishing, cooking, or soccer. If the child encounters reading passages that use the vocabulary and concepts of these topics, they’re likely to read them more easily. If they encounter reading passages on topics they know little or nothing about, it is just plain more difficult.
  • Fitting in with the peer group. Research tells us that sometime in preadolescence, [4]children become strongly influenced by their peers ─ they may rely on them for information more than the adults in their lives, including their parents or teachers. If the school culture is not a positive one for learning, many children will try to fit in with their peers ─ and give up on trying to learn.

These are some harsh factors coming down on fourth graders ─ reading for comprehension, acquiring new and more difficult vocabulary, facing more complicated new subjects, and wanting to fit in with their peers.

So what helps children swim well through the fourth grade waters, especially those in trouble?

Not surprising, the first recommendation from researchers is ‘don’t wait until the fourth grade to see if the slump is going to set in.’ Provide good reading instruction in the early grades. And include attention to vocabulary-building to ensure that children are armed with a strong arsenal of words for the more difficult reading that is coming.

Schools can help too by providing a curriculum in the early grades that provides students with background knowledge useful in understanding the more difficult content coming in the later grades. And schools can work at creating a positive culture for learning so that students know it’s cool to be learning.

Even with a schoolwide approach that works on “boosting vocabulary and background knowledge gaps for younger students while developing a positive peer culture in which learning comes first…,”[5] many students will still be struggling.

Now what? More life-saving strategies are clearly needed. Unfortunately, recent research is finding that “…classroom teachers may not be employing the strategies that can get these students back on track. Despite the difficulties that students have with [reading], teachers in grades four to 12 typically do not instruct students in the reading comprehension process … Unfortunately many upper elementary, middle school and high school teachers presume that their students have mastered [the] ….fundamentals.”[6]

What are some of these effective strategies?[7]

  • Students who struggle can increase their reading comprehension by doing three things: 1) reading the paragraph, 2) asking questions about the main idea and the details, and 3) putting the main ideas and the details into their own words.
  • Putting the information they pull from the reading passages into a “visual map.” A visual map helps structure information, making it easier for students to make sense of what they have read.
  • Marking sections in the text that are confusing or important by using a pencil, sticky note, or other marks such as symbols like question marks (?) or exclamation marks (!).
  • Underlining or circling key words and phrases they don’t understand or that keep occurring in a text.
  • Writing a short summary of each paragraph or section of the text in the margin or on a sticky note.

There is not a ‘one-size fits all’ when it comes to learning. Different techniques work for different children. But the challenge is the same for all children: “The ability to comprehend and produce spoken and written [text] is critical for academic success and literacy development.”[8]

So, how many U.S. fourth graders are swimming in these choppy waters? How many are in danger of heading into the downward slide?

The Nation’s Report Card (National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP) tells us that two-thirds of our children are not swimming all that well. NAEP starts testing in grade four (students are also tested in grades eight and twelve). The results from the most recent assessment of fourth graders in reading (2015) is sobering ─ only about one-third (36%) performed at or above the Proficient achievement level in reading. Two-thirds (64%) did not.

These numbers sure look like an educational “Bermuda Triangle.” Rather than wring our hands though, we should be throwing them the life rafts they need ─ preparing them well in reading in the early years and using the many proven strategies to help them through the choppy waters of the fourth grade.


[1] Term coined by Jeanne S. Chall (1921-1999), Harvard Graduate School of Education psychologist, writer and literacy researcher for over 50 years.

[2]’t-Wait-Until-4th-Grade-to-Address-the-Slump.aspx: Research Says… / Don’t Wait Until 4th Grade to Address the Slump. Bryan Goodwin

[3] Science Daily. Speech-language pathologists can help kids who struggle to read May 25, 2016 Source: University of the Pacific Summary: Classroom teachers may not employ the strategies that can help students master complex written language, according to speech-language pathology researchers. Journal Reference: 1.Jeannene M. Ward-Lonergan, Jill K. Duthie. Intervention to Improve Expository Reading Comprehension Skills in Older Children and Adolescents with Language Disorders. Topics in Language Disorders, 2016; 36 (1): 52 DOI: 10.1097/TLD.0000000000000079

[4] Preadolescence is generally defined as the period from 9–14 years.

[5]’t-Wait-Until-4th-Grade-to-Address-the-Slump.aspx: Research Says… / Don’t Wait Until 4th Grade to Address the Slump. Bryan Goodwin

[6]Science Daily

[7] Info drawn from Science Daily

[8] Science Daily

Sign Language for Babies & Young Children

I’m on a plane reading the airline’s March 2016 magazine. On page 82, there’s a picture of a mom practicing sign language with her son. Accompanying the picture is a half-page marketing story from Smart Coos, a new Orleans-based company with a goal to “become the trusted, go-to destination for all-things-language for children.”[1] The company is providing services and tools to raise a child that speaks more than one language. The languages they’re offering are Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, French, English ─ and Interactive Baby Sign Language. They’re encouraging Sign Language for children too young to start early language classes.

This ad has piqued my interest in what appears to be the growing practice of teaching sign language to babies and young children. Three questions come to mind:

  • What is baby and early child sign language?
  • Is this a growing practice and where do you learn about this?
  • What is the evidence behind this ─ are the claims to teach babies and young children sign language borne out by research?

What is baby and early child sign language? Wikipedia offers a good overview: [2]: “Baby sign is the use of manual signing allowing infants and toddlers to communicate emotions, desires, and objects prior to language development.[3] With guidance and encouragement, signing develops from a natural stage in infants’ development known as gesture. These gestures are taught in conjunction with speech to hearing children, and are not the same as a sign language. Some common benefits that have been found through the use of baby sign programs include an increased parent-child bond and communication, decreased frustration, and improved self-esteem for both the parent and child. However, along with positive results, researchers have found that baby sign neither benefits nor harms the language development of infants. Promotional products and ease of information access have increased the attention that baby sign receives, making it pertinent that caregivers become educated before making the decision to use baby sign.”[4]

Is this a growing practice and where do you go to learn about this? To answer the last part of the question first, a Google search will identify a substantial marketplace of folks who can help you teach babies and young children sign language.[5] Many are businesses; i.e., they sell services and tools to help parents and others teach signing to babies and young children. The services and tools include flashcards, games, instructional books, DVD’s, classes, workshops, and seminars. The cost of these services and tools is varied ─ and some are free. The target audience is parents but many reach out to school teachers and daycare centers as well. Most sites offer information on when (the age) you can expect to see babies/children signing back, examples (anecdotes) of children and parents engaged in signing, and evidence (research) for the benefits of early signing. Some sites offer a Frequently Asked Questions section, that includes questions on the potential “cons” of early signing ─ one of which is the concern that children might be unmotivated to move to verbal language if they’re already using signs to communicate. Generally, these sites debunk this as myth, indicating early signing may actually accelerate the development of verbal language.

A Google search will also identify several key leaders who have been studying baby signing and advocating for its expanding practice for decades. In the 1980s, an American Sign Language interpreter, Dr. Joseph Garcia, noticed that the children of his deaf friends were communicating with their parents at six months old using sign language and they had substantial vocabularies at nine months old. This was surprising to Garcia since most children don’t start saying their first few words until 12 months and still have a small vocabulary at two years. Garcia began using sign language to teach the children of hearing parents and later started his own company to teach baby sign language. Garcia is a leading expert in the baby sign language revolution. He has published three books: Toddler Talk (1994), SIGN with your BABY (1999), and Complete Guide To Baby Sign Language (© 2016.[6]

Also in the 1980s, professors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwin at the University of California-San Diego began to study baby sign language through a series of National Institute of Health grants. Over the next 20 years, Acredolo and Goodwyn conducted the first comprehensive baby sign language research. Through a series of studies, they showed several benefits including: less frustration and a closer bond; a larger speaking vocabulary; 12 IQ point advantage. They have also advocated for baby sign language as a mainstream practice and started a company to promote signing.[7]

Through the 2000’s acceptance and use of baby sign language has continued to grow. In 2006, PBS began running the “Signing Time” series which spawned further awareness of the practice of baby sign language. Today, signing is used by millions of families and has become an integral part of the program in many early childcare centers. The American Academy of Pediatricians in its latest edition of its guide to infant care has also endorsed Baby Sign Language (Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality, 3rd edition) and the topic continues to gain attention.

What is the evidence behind this ─ are the claims to teach babies and young children sign language borne out by research? Despite the growing number of advocates for baby signing, there still appear to be questions about the evidence base behind the practice. Wikipedia explains that “Due to promotional products, easy access to baby sign tutorial videos, and representations in popular culture, parental attempts at signing with their baby may be more focused on the social fad instead of an intention to potentially enhance their child’s communication skills.” Wikipedia questions whether the information available on the Internet about baby signing is reliable and describes two research studies that shed light especially on the “evidence” questions:

  • A 2012 study by Nelson, White, and Grewe identified 33 websites promoting baby signing and benefits associated with this practice. The researchers found that “over 90% of the information [at the websites] was referring to opinion articles or promotional products encouraging parents to sign, with little to no evidence of real research.” They concluded that “although the websites claim that using baby sign will reduce tantrums, increase infant’s self-esteem, satisfaction, feelings of accomplishment, increase parent-child bonding, and decrease frustration, the sites do not provide enough research-based evidence to support these claims.
  • A 2014 study by Fitzpatrick, Thibert, Grandpierre, and Johnston evaluated websites to answer the question─“Does baby sign encourage developmental, social, cognitive, and language skills while achieving a greater bond between parent and child?” The researchers were asking this question to “allow parents, caregivers, childhood educators and clinicians to make informed decisions about the amount of emphasis to place on baby sign.” The study found 1747 articles at the many websites they examined, “with only 10 articles providing research regarding infant’s developmental outcome in connection to baby sign.” They concluded from these 10 articles that ‘baby sign as used by the commercially advertised product authored by [one of these sites] does not benefit language production or parent-child relationships; however, there was also no evidence from these articles that baby sign is in any way harmful to infants.’

An important take-away from these studies is that the many websites out there claiming “research-based information” may be more “opinion-based.” Therefore, folks “looking for information regarding the pros and cons of using baby sign should ensure they are accessing sites backed by research and not opinion.”

Bottom Line: Knowing that baby and early child signing is a growing practice but there may not be a solid evidence base behind this practice, what’s the bottom line? Whenever I see research findings like these (strong benefits have not been proven but there is no evidence that the practice is harmful), it seems like a “common sense” approach is in order. I especially like the answer given by Dr. Jay L. Hoecker at the Mayo Clinic website in response to the question, “Is baby sign language worthwhile?”[8]

He indicates that “baby sign language—when babies use modified gestures from American Sign Language—can be an effective communication tool. Teaching and practicing baby sign language also can be fun and give you and your child an opportunity to bond.”

He notes that there is “limited research … that baby sign language might give a typically developing child a way to communicate several months earlier than those who only use vocal communication. This might help ease frustration between ages 8 months and 2 years — when children begin to know what they want, need and feel but don’t necessarily have the verbal skills to express themselves. Children who have developmental delays might benefit, too. Further research is needed, however, to determine if baby sign language promotes advanced language, literacy or cognition.”

He offers advice on the teaching of signing: “To begin teaching your child baby sign language, familiarize yourself with signs through books, websites or other sources. To get the most out of your baby sign language experience, Dr. Hoecker offers the following four tips ─ concluding that “as you teach baby sign language, it’s important to continue talking to your child. Spoken communication is an important part of your child’s speech development.”

  • Set realistic expectations. Feel free to start signing with your child at any age — but remember that most children aren’t able to communicate with baby sign language until about age 8 months.
  • Keep signs simple. Start with signs to describe routine requests, activities and objects in your child’s life — such as more, drink, eat, mother and father. Choose signs that are of most interest to your child. In addition to using formal signs, encourage meaningful gestures, such as pointing and the hand movements that accompany nursery rhymes.
  • Make it interactive. Try holding your baby on your lap, with his or her back to your stomach. Embrace your baby’s arms and hands to make signs. Use signs while communicating with your baby. To give signs context, try signing while bathing, diapering, feeding or reading to your baby. Acknowledge and encourage your child when he or she uses gestures or signs to communicate.
  • Stay patient. Don’t get discouraged if your child uses signs incorrectly or doesn’t start using them right away. The goal is improved communication and reduced frustration — not perfection. However, avoid accepting indiscriminate movements as signs.




[3] Wherever there is underlining in quotes in this blog, these are mine and added for emphasis.


[5] Examples:; ;;;





Behind doors 1, 2 or 3──which toys promote infants’ literacy development?

Behind doors #1, 2 and 3, you can select three types of toys for your infant. Which door do you select to promote literacy development ── and why? Findings of a Northern Arizona University study examining the type of toys used by infants during play and the quantity and quality of parent-child communication using the toys provides some surprising answers.[1]

In the study, 26 parents and their 10-16 month old infants were given three sets of toys to play with:

  1. Books── five different board books[2].
  2. Traditional toys ── farm animal puzzle, shape-sorter, set of blocks.
  3. Electronic toys ── baby laptop, talking farm, baby cell phone.

Audio recording equipment in the families’ homes recorded the language between parent and infant as they interacted with the toys over a three-day period ──during two 15-minute play sessions for each toy set. This scenario enabled families to play with all of the toys in each set.

What were the researchers looking at during these interactions? Throughout each minute of the play sessions, researchers measured the number of adult words used, the child’s vocalizations, the conversational turns[3], the parent’s verbal responses to the child’s utterances, and the types of words produced by parents.

Why would a study like this be important? We know from a growing body of research that early language development creates the foundation to support a child’s success through school, children who know more words at age two enter kindergarten better prepared than others, and infants develop larger vocabularies by the types of interaction with their caregivers. We know too that “size matters” ── the size of a child’s vocabulary. More than a decade ago, Hart and Risley[4] studied families from various socio-economic backgrounds to assess the ways in which daily exchanges between parents and their child shape language and vocabulary development. The findings revealed major disparities between the number of words spoken and the types of messages conveyed. After four years, these differences in parent-child interactions added up to significant discrepancies. Children from high-income families were being exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. And follow-up studies showed that these differences in language and interaction experiences have lasting effects on a child’s performance later in life. This has become known as the 30 million word gap.

This knowledge informed the study to determine if the type of toys used during play affects a child’s language development?

What then did the researchers find when they analyzed the data collected by the recording devices?

The researchers found that there were indeed significant differences in the language interactions between parent and infant playing with books versus traditional toys versus electronic toys. During play with electronic toys, there were fewer adult words, fewer conversational turns, fewer parental responses, and fewer productions of content-specific words than during play with books or traditional toys. Children vocalized less during play with electronic toys than play with books. Parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys than play with books and use of content-specific words was lower during play with traditional toys.[5]

  • Book play averaged 66.89 words per minute.
  • Traditional toy play averaged 55.5 words per minute.
  • Electronic toy play averaged 39.62 words per minute.

The researchers conclude that “to promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. Traditional toys may be a valuable alternative for parent-infant play time if book reading is not a preferred activity.”[6]

Many folks are looking at this study now and adding their perspectives – see two recent blogs: When It Comes to Infant Language Development, Not All Toys Are Created Equal (Aaron Loewenbeg) and Electronic versus Traditional Toys: What They Mean for Infant Playtime (Ann at “The Thoughtful Parent”).[7]

Loewenberg notes, “When children are engaged with electronic toys, such as a baby laptop or talking farm, parents may get the mistaken impression that the toy is helping the child more than their parents can. Or, given the demands and stress of juggling work and household duties, parents may feel no choice but to leave their infants and toddlers alone with these toys for periods of time. But there’s no evidence that children in the 10-16 month age range are able to learn vocabulary by using media without a parent or other adult talking with them about what they are seeing and playing with.”[8] Loewenberg also points out that the study size was small and not very diverse. “The study had a small sample size of just 26 parents and almost all of them were white and college-educated. Hopefully, similar research will be done in the future with a more demographically diverse set of participants.”[9] But these limitations aside, he concludes, “… it’s hard to dismiss research that shows such clear benefits of traditional toys over fancier (and more expensive) electronic items. So my advice to parents of very young children looking to purchase a toy to help their infant’s language development would be this: Be skeptical of a toy company’s grand claims about the educational benefits of their high-tech product since they rarely have research to back it up. Instead, opt for a low-tech toy or book that both parent and child can engage with together.”[10]

Ann at “The Thoughtful Parent” reminds us that, “Electronic toys …are pretty much ubiquitous. Young children are very attracted to them. So what is a parent to do? Electronic toys can be helpful if used sparingly. We all need a few minutes to do dishes or cook a meal and these toys can be good distractions for a few minutes. It’s good, however, to keep in mind that you as a parent are the best “toy” for your infant. Talking to him/her over toys and books is the best way for her/him to learn language and interaction skills … and narrating to your child what you are doing as you go about your daily routine.” [11]

My takeaway: when the “game show of life” has us standing before door #1 (books), #2 (traditional toys) and #3 (electronic toys), I’m selecting door #1 first for the infant in my care because vocabulary development matters and engaging infants through effective communication is a high-stakes ── 30 million word ──pay-off.


[1] Sosa AV. Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play with the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication. JAMA Pediatrics. 2015. Dec 23

[2] Board books: designed to survive the wear and tear of infants’ mouths and hands and offer opportunity to share with a child on a caregiver’s lap. The best ones tell a simple story with few or no words, allowing readers to invent their own. Illustrations are crisp and clear, with limited images on each page.

[3] In conversation, turns include the pauses, silences, moments of potential transition when the momentum may be taken up by either party.

[4] “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. (2003). American Educator. Spring.

[5] Sosa study

[6] Sosa study.

[7] and






Should your child enroll in a dual language program?

Your child has the option to enroll in a dual language program in your school district. Will this option be beneficial for your child’s literacy development? And why has this question become part of a national and local policy debate?

My son was five years old when we moved to a community piloting a dual language immersion program in the local public school district. The option was for first graders to voluntarily enroll in the French or Spanish program (programs in Japanese and Chinese would be added in subsequent years). Students would be learning in both English and a second language throughout the school day; the curriculum would be the same as in other classrooms, but students would have the opportunity to learn how to read, write, listen, and speak in two languages.

I liked the idea that my son could begin Spanish in the first grade, and stay with it through elementary, middle and high school (International High School was on the drawing board). When families signed up, the school let us know it might be confusing in the early years for our children to be learning in a second language, but we should not pull out of the program if this occurred. So we signed up for Spanish and my son stayed with it throughout the International High School. By third grade, the teachers told us if our children were dropped into a Spanish-speaking country, they would understand the local language even though they might not be able to speak it well. Over the years, as more native Spanish-speaking children (English Language Learners or ELLs[1]) moved to our town, the school district put them in the dual language program so they could further develop their Spanish skills and learn English. This is how my son learned a lot of his “street” Spanish —the kids happily taught one another the slang and swear words they were not learning in class from the teachers.

I have long wondered if my view that my son’s education was greatly enhanced because he participated in the 12 year language program is supported by research. So it was with great interest that I recently read several papers[2] produced by Ed Central at the New America Foundation on research, policies, and practices of dual language programs in U.S. public schools —and learned about efforts underway to inform a growing national and local debate— should school districts (and communities) continue dual language learning programs and grow more of them—or close them down?

Like so many public policy debates, there’s typically a “good” and “bad news” story. In this debate, the good news is that dual language programs are increasingly prevalent in school districts throughout the U.S. The bad news is, despite the trend toward expansion based on research showing significant, multiple benefits of these programs, many school districts are looking at these programs as “luxuries” that can be eliminated as schools face budget shortfalls.

Who wins and who loses in this situation? Consider the following three points.

First, the context. Dual language learners[3] are the fastest-growing group of U.S. school children—an estimated 7- 9 million are now under the age of eight. The 2015 Census data projections tell us that these numbers nearly double the most recent count of K-12 English language learners in the 2011-2012 school year (4.4 million). About 90 percent of the dual language learners are U.S. citizens who will be entering the nation’s workforce in the coming decade. School systems, therefore, play the key role in providing the educational supports for this group, and their literacy development and biculturalism is both a local and national priority. “Overall, 40 percent of immigrant families in the U.S. come from Mexico, but the remaining 60 percent come from all over the globe—including the Caribbean (7 percent), Latin America (13 percent), and Asia (19 percent).” While nearly three-fourths of the English language learners speak Spanish, another 149 languages are spoken among these groups. This tremendous diversity creates significant challenges for schools whose role is to instruct and assess dual language learners in languages other than English. And while schools in many states (e.g., California, New York, Texas) have long been supporting these students’ development, multilingual students have been arriving in large numbers to many more schools throughout the U.S. For example, the number of English language learners grew by over 600 percent in South Carolina and 306 percent in Kentucky during the first decade of the century.[4]

The demographic facts are compelling.

It’s not a choice ─ whether to educate dual language learners;

rather, the choice is how best to educate this diverse group of learners.

That said, do dual language programs in fact help children learn? There is substantial research showing multiple benefits for children who acquire a second language. The Springfield Public Schools (Oregon)[5] describes the following seven benefits as the district institutes a new dual language immersion program in Spanish:

  1. Children more easily learn a foreign language than adults and typically end up with a better understanding of their native language.
  2. English learners have an opportunity to make more progress on grade-level instruction — reducing the number who fall behind.
  3. Early foreign language learning increases achievement as measured by standardized testing.
  4. Young bilingual children show more critical thinking skills, greater sensitivity to language, and stronger communication and listening skills.
  5. Children develop a sense of appreciation for other cultures.
  6. Proficiency in a second language gives students a head start in language requirements for college.
  7. Proficiency in a second language gives students a head start for many jobs.

Ed Central’s summary of the research[6] informs us that “the benefits of bilingualism are countless and lifelong. Students who speak two languages have a longer attention span and stronger executive functioning. Increasing evidence suggests that bilingualism permanently alters neurological structures and slows down the decline in cognitive functioning, memory, and executive functioning as we age. Dual immersion programs also offer a host of non-academic benefits to all students. Finally, learning another language can increase tolerance, respect, and appreciation for other people and cultures.”

The research further informs us that “dual immersion programs, when designed and implemented correctly, are also the most effective way to teach English language learners. Multiple studies have confirmed . . . that dual immersion programs were most effective at closing the achievement gap between native English speakers and non-native speakers by eighth grade. Building home language proficiency in the early grades while simultaneously learning English can lead to higher academic success, especially when it comes to literacy. In immersion programs, English language learners’ native language is treated as a strength, not a deficit to overcome, which can positively affect student confidence and long-term socioemotional well-being.”[7]

“In Portland, Oregon, where dual immersion programs now reach almost ten percent of the student population, a new study just found that students enrolled in dual immersion outscored their peers in reading by an entire school year in eighth grade. In California, where Proposition 227 eliminated bilingual instruction options for most schools, there is continuing growth in dual immersion programs under a waiver program. Cities like San Francisco are now educating over 5,000 students in Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, and Korean, and demand exceeds the number of seats in the programs. In New York City, council members . . . are teaming up to rapidly expand dual immersion programs, with 39 new programs this school year. They hope to eventually provide second-language instruction to all NYC students, and use dual immersion programs as an integration tool.”[8]

Research shows that dual language immersion programs serve children for whom English

is their native language + children whose native language is not English, 

giving both groups the opportunity to become fluent in a second language.

It also helps students better understand their native language and strengthens literacy,

communication and critical thinking — key skills for their academic and lifelong success.

Who wouldn’t want this for all our children?

What then is the public debate about? Communities throughout the U.S. are expanding their dual language immersion programs in response to the research showing multiple benefits for children who acquire a second language. Yet the case for starting and continuing these programs bolstered by this compelling research is not “always enough to sustain them in tough budget fights.”[9] There is still the widespread perception that dual language immersion programs are “luxuries” schools can afford to cut.

Ed Central offers us a case in point — the public debate in the Fairfax County Schools (Virginia) where a budget task force has recommended that all the dual immersion programs be eliminated next year in order to save an estimated $1.9 million. The debate is pitting needed budget cuts against preferred educational services needed by many students.

The Fairfax County School’s English language learner population is now the eighth-largest among school districts in the nation; and there are large numbers of students speaking various languages at home (e.g., Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Urdu, Amharic, Telugu, and Farsi or Persian). The County Schools has addressed this diversity by implementing 16 dual language immersion programs at the elementary school level, where students spend half of their day learning science and math in one of five target languages: Spanish, French, Japanese, Korean, and German.[10]

“With its growing ethnic and linguistic diversity — and considerable local resources — Fairfax County should be a model for dual immersion education. These programs provide the best education possible for ELLs, can attract upper- and middle-class parents in order to support socioeconomic diversity in the schools, and provide all students the cognitive and socioemotional benefits inherent in the ‘bilingual advantage’. Instead, there is a very real possibility that students will see their access to multilingualism cut short in June 2016.” Advocates for dual language programs can only conclude that “As districts across the country embrace dual immersion to promote academic achievement and equity, it’s an embarrassment that a county as diverse as Fairfax would even consider eliminating them. Dual immersion programs should not be considered luxury programs we can afford to lose, but the ideal way to educate children for the challenges of the twenty-first century.”[11]

The policy debate is both a local and national issue:

competing demands for scarce educational resources — 

who gets the preferred educational programs and why/why not?  

With these three factors in mind — our nation’s rapidly changing demography, findings from research, and policy considerations — let me return to the original question. Your child has the option to enroll in a dual language program in your school district. Will this option be beneficial for your child’s literacy development?

Answer this question for your own child and perhaps in doing so you will help to answer the questions of the national and local policy debate.

[1]As defined by the U.S. Department of Education, English Language Learners (ELLs) are individuals who, due to any of the following reasons has sufficient difficulty speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language to be denied the opportunity to learn successfully in classrooms where the language of instruction is English or to participate fully in the larger U.S. society: (a) was not born in the U.S. or has a native language other than English; (b) comes from environments where a language other than English is dominant; or (c) is an American Indian or Alaska Native and comes from environments where a language other than English has had a significant impact on the individual’s level of English language proficiency.

[2] See Ed Central, New America Foundation at <>. New America Foundation is a public policy institute that addresses the next generation of challenges facing the U.S. Ed Central is written by staffers on New America’s Education Policy Program. DLL (dual language learners) is one area of focus.

[3] See The Office of Head Start defines dual language learners (DLL) as children who acquire two or more languages simultaneously, and learn a second language while continuing to develop their first language. The term “dual language learners” encompasses other terms frequently used, such as Limited English Proficient (LEP), bilingual, English language learners (ELL), English learners, and children who speak a Language Other Than English (LOTE)” (OHS 2009).

[4] Data from Dual Language Learners Reader Post #2: Who are Dual Language Learners? at and Investing in What Works: San Antonio’s Success With English Language Learners at


[6] Dual Immersion Programs: Expanding and Endangered at

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


Blog for mom on her 99th birthday ─ why I wrote a “how-to” book for children

My fifth children’s picture book (How 7 Fish & 2 Ponds Landed in the Z House Backyard) came out a few weeks ago. Shortly after, the book landed gift-wrapped in a big box of gifts headed to mom for her ninety-ninth birthday. Yep, 99! After she read the new book, she remarked on the phone with surprise, “It’s a how-to book.” I agreed.

I’ve been mulling over her comment for the last few days. With full intention, I did write a how-to book, hoping a child would get the gist of how a pond can be built. And hoping too that a child would get ideas like ─ ‘o look, the boy really likes fish and he wants to learn how to build a pond.’ And ‘look at all that dirt they had to dig up.’ And ‘look at the different colors fish come in.’ And ‘wow, fish can grow big just like children do and what happens when they get so big that they don’t fit in their home anymore?’ In that sense, I was also writing an “informational storybook”─ a book that uses a story to convey information.[1]

And I hoped too that children would get that they can dream up an idea and then try to realize it like Noah did in the book. All of this dreaming things up – creativity, thinking and planning ─ can start early. It must start early.

Reading for information is a critically important tool in the child’s literacy development toolbox. Children need to learn early that asking questions is great ─ and learning by watching others do something is great─ and that reading is a main way they are going to acquire information vital to their lives.

21st century children are facing huge challenges in literacy – not only learning to read and how to apply reading in many formats ─but how to retrieve information from rapidly changing technology tools to access knowledge. How to question computers and pull out credible information are “survival skills” in their lives. “The amount of information available doubles every couple of years; some futurists predict that in two decades, available information will double every two to three months. It is no surprise that instructional books constitute approximately one-half of the books in most libraries’ juvenile collections. Instructional books help satisfy natural inquisitiveness and spark new curiosity.”[2]

Nonfiction informational books are central to literacy development. These types of books include the “how-to” books ─ as well as the related “how does this work” books.[3] “A child uses informational and non-fiction books to assemble what he knows, what he feels, what he sees, as well as to collect new facts.” [4]

Here’s what distinguishes information books from other types of books (or “genres”) out there.[5]

Info books for children …

  • Have a main purpose to provide in-depth explanation of fact-based material.
  • Are literature and considered trade books.
  • Are nonfiction but not textbooks or reference books.
  • Inform by attention to facts and capitalizing on children’s wonder at all that is out there.
  • When most effective, suggest a wealth of information, stimulating a wish to know more.

Info books for children …

  • Include the “how-to” books.
  • Contain interesting details and lesser-known facts.
  • Use expository language (writing that explains, describes, informs).
  • Are organized using a logical presentation of information.
  • Include photographs or illustrations to provide authenticity.
  • When the main purpose is to inform but contain entertaining elements of fiction are called informational stories ─ informational storybooks use a storyline to convey information.

Children benefit from info books in many ways …

  • Experience “authentic learning” as they investigate their own questions/topics of interest.
  • Inquire and solve problems ─ and foster critical thinking skills.
  • See connections and interrelationships among content and concepts.
  • Learn about faraway places, past times, and new ideas and concepts.
  • Begin to view the world as changing and evolving.
  • Acquire new vocabulary and broader background knowledge.

It’s not too early for young readers to know that there are many categories of books out there to provide different types of information. Trips to the library, for example, should underscore the many categories of books including story books and informational books available to them. The latter will include categories such as history; understanding peoples and cultures; nature; the arts; discovering how things work; and the how-to books.

Schools, of course, play the major role in guiding children to develop their reading and information retrieval skills using reading and critical thinking. Children begin the earliest grades now (including pre-school) using an array of technology tools because they must become familiar with them early to master their uses. They will have to know what “information retrieval” processes are and how and when to use them. Their vocabulary will need to include terms such as key word search, queries, web search engines, FAQ (frequently asked questions), tutorial, user guide, database, and apps. Without this level of literacy (reading and information literacy), they’re not going to be able to fill in words within a search box to access online applications for school, employment, and do their taxes someday.

A sample lesson plan from two teachers posted at Scholastic[6] underscores the types of lesson plans teachers are encouraged to incorporate in the early grades.[7] The lesson is aimed at pre-kindergarten through grades 1 and 2. The aim for the lesson is that “students will be able to identify nonfiction how-to books, discuss the ways how-to books are used, apply their knowledge and create a how-to book of their own.” One of the recommended activities is that the teacher will “ask parents to place focus on nonfiction procedural books that they use and will be using at home.” Scholastic offers some wonderful titles of books in the how-to category for teachers putting together these lesson plans.[8] Of course, parents can pick up these books and many other books in the nonfiction informational category too in order to help their children learn about the ways of acquiring new information.

Here’s the bottom line. Living in the 21st century is a journey increasingly in acquiring and processing new knowledge as things change around us. Reading early to develop these skills is key. So let’s help all our children develop their reading skills; teach them that there are many types of books out there and that they represent how knowledge is divided up ─ and that one of their important missions in life is to acquire knowledge. When young learners acquire the tools of reading and information retrieval ─ and understand that the knowledge they need is shaped into categories accessible through these tools – they can advance their journey as a learner, learning from autobiographies, poetry and how-to books alike. At an early age, children can and should do key word searches ─ type them in a box or speak them into a voice recognition system in their smart phone, tablet or computer; or tell the librarian at the library what the topic is they’re interested in – even if they don’t have technology tools right now ─ so they can watch the librarian start the information retrieval process and know that they soon will be doing this for themselves …

Pond.Front cover.21764715_High Resolution Front Cover_4728367_1 (2)


[1] Another Z House book that falls somewhere between informational storybook and how-to is How the Dog Came to Live at the Z House. It tells the story of a boy’s getting his first dog but also describes the many steps to adopting a dog through the local animal shelter.

[2] Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[3] Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[4] Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[5] Drawn from: Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[6] Scholastic (NASDAQ: SCHL) was founded in 1920 as a single classroom magazine. Today, Scholastic books and educational materials are in tens of thousands of schools and tens of millions of homes worldwide.

[7] Lesson Plan How-To Books by Alexandra Savvas, Naomi Randolph

[8] Scholastic publishes several books that fit into a lesson plan where the teacher (or parent) could follow up to make these items in class as follow-up activity. Examples: Tomatoes to Ketchup by Inez Snyder; Milk to Ice Cream by Inez Snyder; Wax to Crayons by Inez Snyder; Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie De Paola; Benny Bakes A Cake by Eve Rice; Building A House by Byron Barton; Bruno, The Tailor by Lars Klinting; Beans to Chocolate by Inez Snyder.