Add fake news to the list of challenges for children: telling fact from fiction

There’s a growing unhappy fact of life — fake news. Most of us get that some of the magazines winking at us from the shelves next to the grocery check-out counter with their unbelievable headlines and pictures (e.g., three-headed Martians) are just that, unbelievable. But increasingly, there are fake news reports pommeling us from a host of media outlets — television and radio, print, Facebook, Twitter, and speeches by policymakers. It’s getting more difficult to tell fact from fiction because most of us are not conditioned to question everything we see and hear — and we don’t have good tools to verify information. Now fact-checking tickertapes on some television news channels are telling us what is true or false with colored check marks; and there are fact-checking websites to visit if we take the time.

I don’t want to play the “true or false” game around today’s news. And I don’t want our children to play this game either — especially as they face the challenges of learning fact from fiction as evolving readers.

How big a problem is this for children?

According to Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history at Stanford University, it is a big problem — the majority of children in middle and even high school find it difficult to tell fake from real news.[1] “The ability to determine what is reliable and not reliable — that is the new basic skill in our society,” he explains [2]

Wineburg reminds us that until recently editors and librarians played a key role in helping us sort the reliable from unreliable. But now, anyone who sits at a screen — most of us from very early ages — will take on this role.

Is this realistic for children? As early readers, they will be exposed to fanciful stories −like the story about Lyle the Crocodile who walks on his hind legs, dances, ice skates and shops at a department store in the city.[3] They will also be exposed to informative (nonfiction) texts about crocodiles. And over time, young readers will learn to tell the difference between fantasy and factual texts.[4]

Between the ages of three to five, children are beginning to understand the difference between make-up and reality.[5] But there are many situations in which children as old as twelve may still have difficulty telling the difference between fantasy and reality.

In the Stanford University study of more than 7,800 middle and high schoolers across twelve states, for example, researchers found that students “struggled to distinguish ads from articles, neutral sources from biased ones, and fake accounts from real ones.” Students were asked to look at information represented in tweets, comments and articles —and most students failed to effectively evaluate the credibility of that information. The researchers found the students were “getting duped again and again.” Here are some telling examples from the study:

  • Most middle schoolers could identify a traditional ad but more than 80 percent believed “sponsored content” (a paid story) was a real news story. It wasn’t clear if students even knew what sponsored content was.
  • If the text looked well-presented and polished, the students believed the site was “neutral and authoritative.” Most students were not critical readers− they did not look for supporting evidence or citations.
  • Most of the high school students accepted photographs as fact[6] — they didn’t ask where a photograph came from or question its truthfulness.
  • Many high school students couldn’t tell if a news source was real or fake on Facebook — they believed they were all the same.
  • Even at the college level, most students didn’t suspect potential bias in a tweet from an activist group. To check for bias they would have needed to question if the tweet was based on a poll conducted by a professional polling firm, which might make it a good source; or have clicked on the link within the tweet before evaluating the accuracy of information. Students did not perform these checking functions. The researchers noted that most Stanford students could not identify the difference between a mainstream and fringe source of information.

Three of Wineburg’s conclusions should especially alarm us:

  1. School classrooms are not prepared to help teach children how to assess the truthfulness of information.
  2. “What we see is a rash of fake news going on that people pass on without thinking … and we really can’t blame young people because we’ve never taught them to do otherwise.”
  3. “If the children are the future, the future might be very ill-informed.”

The good news is there are some solutions — we can teach Internet users and especially children — to become detectives, to become fact checkers. And this can start with young children.

  • Parents and caretakers can teach children the difference between reality and fantasy. They can help them learn that the fantasy characters on their tablets and television screens are not real and there are not monsters and ghosts lurking in the closet or under the bed – the serious nighttime fears of so many children.[7]
  • Teachers can help children determine fact from fiction[8] as children are learning to read different types of books. For example, nonfiction often includes picture captions, tables of contents, glossaries, indexes and headings — and while all types of books typically include pictures, a nonfiction book is more likely to use photographs instead of illustrations.
  • Parents, psychologists, counselors, and educators can help children and teenagers to think critically and learn to separate reality from fantasy, fact from fiction and propaganda – in movies, YouTube videos, and video games. While teenagers may well understand the difference between fantasy and reality, they may still absorb or become attached to ideas presented in films, television programs, music, and statements from celebrities that have little or no basis in reality; and they may lack sufficient experience and knowledge to sort propaganda from fact.
  • Parents and teachers can teach children of all ages to question information that comes to them through our many media sources. Our children can learn to become detectives and fact checkers, clicking on links to determine the source of the information, and making judgement calls about the accuracy of the information.

If we don’t take this challenge seriously— develop techniques to separate fact from fiction — we will all be living increasingly in fantasy “screen world.” Fact-checking is the name of the new game to play with our children.

check-mark

_________________

[1] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/11/23/503129818/study-finds-students-have-dismaying-inability-to-tell-fake-news-from-real

[2] NPR Podcast of study: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/11/23/503129818/study-finds-students-have-dismaying-inability-to-tell-fake-news-from-real

[3] Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber

[4] “Young Children Learn to Distinguish Between Fact and Fiction,” Research at University of Texas at Austin Finds. (Nov. 27, 2006). University of Texas at Austin. http://www.utexas.edu/news/2006/11/27/psychology/

[5] http://www.utexas.edu/news/2006/11/27/psychology/

[6]E.g., students were shown a picture of deformed daises growing in a rocky field, with accompanying news story the daises were deformed due to radiation spill. This was not true but the students did not question the photograph nor, therefore, the made-up news story.

[7]Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences found understanding the difference between fantasy and reality helps children overcome nighttime fears. Widen and Russell of Boston University, in “Fantasy vs. Reality: Young Children’s Understanding of Fear” suggests “that preschoolers more readily associate fantastic, nonrealistic creatures [such as ghosts and monsters] with fear.” When adults such as parents, teachers or mental health professionals teach a child to tell the difference between fact and fiction, children can more easily overcome irrational fear.

[8] Irony is, this source is “sponsored content” from The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, an online newspaper and former print newspaper. The newspaper was founded in 1863 as weekly Seattle Gazette, and long one of the city’s two daily newspapers, until it became an online-only publication in 2009. The Education section included sponsored link “Teaching Fiction and Nonfiction in Kindergarten Education by Demand Media” by Shelley Frost:  http://education.seattlepi.com/teaching-fiction-nonfiction-kindergarten-3704.html

 

 

 

When your cat tells you it’s time and she means it … a tribute to BJ

I’m not writing about literacy today. I’m writing about BJ the cat, the subject of my first children’s book, “How BJ Diana Came to Live at the Z House.” It’s been a few weeks. I couldn’t bring myself to write this tribute until now.

The eighth grader who lived down the street found the tiny black kitten in the fields by the high school 22 years ago. She brought the cat to her mother’s home and named the little cat, Bonnie Jean ─ Marilyn Monroe’s real name. They called her BJ.

I knew none of this until I met the cat. There’s quite a story ─ covered in the book that I hope you will read. But today is about the end of her life — the last three days of her life.

She had been slowing down for months. Her kidney disease had been progressing. There were months of supplementing her diet with baby food to quell the vomiting. And for months, a ravenous appetite, as if she couldn’t pull enough sustenance out of her food. And so much water drinking ─ from bowls placed strategically throughout the townhouse: third floor bathroom, next to her food bowl, and by the front door. She especially liked to lap warm water from the shower stall floor after I ran the hot water for her.

Now she wasn’t interested in eating. The doctor told me this was a sign to look for. She started napping behind the curtains in my bedroom. And tucking herself against the wall in the corner of the bedroom.

Following one especially long stint of sitting on my stomach and gazing intently at me one night while I watched television in bed, she folded her small body under the crook of my left arm and didn’t move all night. She was warm–but not a comfortable warm. And she was moving slowly when she woke.

That was the day I noticed she was not vocalizing. She was moving back and forth between two new spots I never saw her in before ─the back of my bedroom closet behind the laundry hamper, and next to a metal file cabinet in the back of the closet in my son’s old bedroom.

It was night time when I searched for her and opened the door to my son’s closet. She answered a quiet soft sound to tell me she was there. But she wasn’t coming out.

We never had a family pet die naturally. Euthanasia seemed the better way to help our pets when their diseases took hold. But I planned to let BJ go naturally. I had been coming home from work at the end of each day wondering if she would be alive or dead.

In a consult with the veterinarian, he advised me to rethink the plan. When the kidneys stop working, she’s going to feel nauseous, he said. And this is painful. She’s already retreating; this is the herd reaction, to protect herself. You probably have only a week, he said. Don’t let it go too long.

I thought we would have more time. I thought we would have a full week.

But she spent two nights in the closets. It was two nights since she left her place next to me, where she had slept for so many years. She was telling me it was time. She quietly, so quietly, made the most awful decision for me. I had to agree.

She was 5 lbs. the last time we went to the doctor weeks earlier to have her sharp nails trimmed. She was down then more than 1 lb. from two months earlier. And after her nights in the closet, not eating, she must have been down more. She felt light and limp.

The last night she’s tucked into the closet in my son’s old room. For a moment I wonder why she doesn’t want to be near me but I know this is not about me. This is about taking control of her waning life according to cat rules, herd rules.

There’s no complaining, no loud crying which she has done for so many months earlier, unwilling or unable to sleep well at night ─ impelled to hunt fur mousies–carrying them around the house, crying plaintively and yowling at them and at her aging predicament perhaps. Then, you would have thought we lived with lions.

She lost her hearing two years ago. I could yell her name behind her head and she would not turn around. So I knew it was quiet inside her head.

This last night, I kneel by the closet where she’s resting. Slide open the door enough to see her and confess to her that my heart is broken. I don’t want her to be old and sick. She’s awake and listening. I share the plan with her. In the morning Noah’s coming over and we’ll give you a sedative – a pill crushed into honey – and press it along the inside of your mouth a couple of hours before we drive to the doctor’s. I don’t want it to be too dark for you tonight ─or for me ─ so I’m putting the light on in the hall so you can find your way if you want to move around. I’m putting a little bowl with baby food and water outside the closet if you get hungry. Then I apologize for crying because I don’t want to scare her. And ask if there’s anything I can do to help her. She doesn’t answer. So I tell her I love her and will come check on her during the night, which I do every hour.

The pillow she always sleeps on next to me is empty. This is the Tony Little pillow with the microballs in it that I purchased from the Home Shopping Channel because my neck was hurting so much. After I purchased the pillow ─ that really helped my neck by the way ─ BJ immediately started sleeping on it. So I gave it to her and purchased another for myself. For years, her Tony Little pillow has sat next to mine on the bed.

While she rests in the closet that night I tuck her pillow into the cat carrier so she will be comfortable on the last trip. While we wait, I write some words to try to remember this night.

The diminishing cat at 22 is readying herself to pass

She cannot keep up with the herd running inside her

She is safer behind the laundry basket in the closet

I cannot help her through this waning she tells me

It is best to be still she tells me quietly

At dawn we press the honey sedative against her gum and she is calm, so calm. After a while we drive to the veterinarians.

It is 8 a.m. when the assistant ushers us into the examining room. Usually the cat would be straining to get out of her carrier. She is so still now. Her favorite veterinarian, the woman, is with us today. I gave her the BJ picture book for her children years ago, so she knows her early story.

There’s the next sedative shot – and the cat doesn’t stir really. We have already slid the Tony Little pillow, with her nestled into it, out of the carrier and she is exposed on the examining table. Black fur on a stark white pillow.

The doctor kindly assures us BJ isn’t feeling anything as the little electric razor shaves away fur on one paw where the IV will be attached for the final dose.

I take the little piece of fur to add to the fur pieces saved from other pets – Mister Boogie, Dolly and Pepper.

Then in goes the final fluid to take her away from us.

The doctor asks what we want to do with her body.  We want her ashes.

Then she asks about the pillow─ do we want the pillow to take home? We decide to keep the pillow with her body.

The doctor lifts the Tony Little pillow with little BJ gone now, and leaves the examining room as I wonder where her precious cat spirit has gone.

We leave with the empty carrier case, knowing it was time because the cat told us it was time.

To our beloved little BJ:  We learned many important lessons from living with you for 22 years. Especially, if you don’t like the home you’re living in or the situation you’re in, get out and find something better. And when your vulnerable time comes and you can’t keep up with the herd, find a safe place and wait for those who love you to help you. You will always live safely and with great love at the Z house.

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Paperback – July 19, 2012

How many homes does a cat need? A bold black cat sets her sights on moving into the Z house, where Mom Z and her son, Noah live. Mysteries unfold as the Z family tries to get to the bottom of the young cat’s puzzling behavior.

Pre-K to K-3 transitions: what can states do?

Two new reports are out on the role of pre-K programs (pre-kindergarten) and K-3 (kindergarten through grade 3).[1] Not surprisingly, the news is these programs are important to children at both stages of development ─ and there is not a level playing field, depending on which state you live in.

Both pre-K and K-3 programs play a vital role in laying a solid foundation for children’s early development. If children participate in quality pre-K and proceed to a lesser quality K-3, they’re at risk of losing the gains they have made. Likewise, transitioning from quality pre-K benefits children in K-3.

What can a state do to ensure a strong transition process between pre-K and K-3? The new reports from Education Commission of the States (ECS) aim to answer this question. The reports identify 20 factors to consider in determining quality – and they provide a profile of each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia so you can look at the situation in your own locale.

The reports have consolidated the information into four categories they suggest we pay particular attention to:

  1. Transition from pre-K to kindergarten: Some one-third of the states (37% or 18 states plus the District of Columbia) provide guidance in the pre-K to kindergarten transition process. Examples of “guidance” include written transition plans, engaging families in the process, providing teacher/school meetings, and providing assessment data such as readiness for kindergarten.
  2. Preparation of teachers: Some form of teacher preparation and/or professional development in reading is required for educators in K-3 in nearly three-fourths of states (73% or 37 states). Examples include training for the teaching of reading, using reading assessment results, and providing interventions to children based on assessment information.
  3. Involvement of parents: Nearly half of states (43% or 21 states plus D.C.) require some level of parental involvement in the promotion and retention process.[2]
  4. Children’s social-emotional learning:[3] Nearly three-fourths of states (73% or 36 states plus D.C.) focus on social-emotional learning in K-3.Examples of this type of learning are social-emotional assessments conducted when children enter kindergarten, a state’s definition of school readiness, and a state’s requirements for teachers and/or teacher training.

If the data provided in these four categories truly indicate whether we have an effective “trapeze” in place from pre-K to K-3, children residing in many states are likely facing significant challenges in their transitions.

I wanted to get a better sense of the differences among some of the states on the 20 factors to consider in determining quality so randomly selected three to compare ─ Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. Although the information is not 100% complete among the factors since the ECS study relied on the availability of each state’s information, you can begin to draw your own conclusions.

Comparison of Oregon, Tennessee & Washington on 20 Factors

Basic Requirements

Does the state require full-day kindergarten?

  • OR: No, full-day kindergarten is not required.
  • TN: Yes, full-day kindergarten is required.
  • WA: Yes, full-day kindergarten is required to be implemented statewide by 2017-2018.

 How many hours are required for grades K-3?  

  • OR: 450 hours per year for half-day kindergarten (~2.5 hours/day). 900 hours per year for full-day kindergarten and grades 1-8 (~5 hours/day).
  • TN: 4 hours per day for kindergarten (~720 hours/year). 6.5 hours per day for grades 1-12 (~1,170 hours/year).
  • WA: 1000 hours per year for full-day kindergarten and grades 1-3 (~5.5 hours/day).

 What are the teacher-to-student ratio requirements for grades K-3?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: 1:25 maximum for grades K-3 (Goal of 1:20 average).
  • WA: By 2017-2018, average class ratios should be 1:17 for average general education class in K-3 and 1:15 for high poverty K-3 class.

 School Readiness & Transitions

 Are kindergarten entrance assessments required?

  • OR: Statewide kindergarten assessment is required to be administered to all enrolled kindergarten students.
  • TN: Districts must develop/implement comprehensive developmental assessment program for kindergarten children.
  • WA: WA Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (WAKIDS) is required at beginning of school year for all state funded all-day kindergarten programs.

 What are states required to do with the results of the kindergarten entrance assessment?

  • OR: Results of the KEA are required to be included in statewide longitudinal data system.
  • TN: The results of the developmental assessment may be used in developing instructional programs.
  • WA: WAKIDS is used to support development of individual children, early learning provider and parental involvement and to inform instruction.

 Are there programs in place to guide pre-kindergarten to kindergarten transition process?

  • OR: Grant program-Early Learning Kindergarten Readiness Partnership and Innovation Program: Priority given to those applications that foster kindergarten readiness by forming partnerships between early learning, child care providers and/or elementary schools.
  • TN: In their application for funding, local education agencies are required to include plan for ensuring coordination between pre-kindergarten classrooms and elementary schools to ensure  elementary grade instruction builds upon pre-k classroom experiences.
  • WA: Schools receiving program support for all-day kindergarten must demonstrate connections with early learning community providers and must participate in kindergarten readiness activities with early learning providers and parents.

 Does the state have a statutory definition of school readiness?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.

 What do states use their definition of school readiness to inform?

  • OR: While term “school readiness” is not explicitly defined, the concept is used in a number of state programs including: Early Learning Kindergarten Readiness Partnership and Innovation Program, the Oregon Early Reading Program, and the Statewide Education plan for “plan” students.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.

 What are the re-classification procedures for English Language Learner students?

  • OR: Students are reclassified based on English proficiency assessment scores and consistent progress.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Students are reclassified after meeting superintendent-established exit criteria on state language proficiency exam.

Assessment, Intervention & Retention

 Are assessments required in grades K-3?

  • OR: The Early Success Reading Initiative includes screening and continuously monitoring reading progress of all children K-3 with research-based assessment systems.
  • TN: Assessments in reading/language arts, math, science and social studies are required in grade three.
  • WA: Second grade reading assessments are required.

 What do the results of K-3 assessments inform?

  • OR: Administrators and teachers are able to collect, interpret and use student data to guide instructional decisions, implement a school wide reading action plan, and provide strategies for student groups and structured interaction with parents. The results of the KEA are required to be included in the statewide longitudinal data system.
  • TN: State-mandated tests are prohibited earlier than grade three.
  • WA: Assessment results are used to provide information to parents, teachers, and school administrators. Assessments and diagnostic tools are made available at each grade level to inform instructional strategies and interventions.

 Are there interventions available beginning in kindergarten?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Interventions are available in third grade.
  • WA: K-4 interventions are available in any school where more than 40% of tested students are not proficient. For all other schools, third grade and fourth grade interventions are available.

 What are the interventions available for students in grades K-3?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Interventions include summer programs and before and after school programs.

 Is there a third grade retention policy?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Third grade retention is required, with good cause exemptions.
  • WA: Third grade retention is required with good cause exemptions

 Instructional Quality

 What are the requirements for teacher training or professional development in reading?

  • OR: Teacher Preparation: The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission must adopt rules that require approved educator preparation programs to demonstrate that candidates receive training in how to provide instruction that enables student to meet or exceed third-grade reading standards.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Professional development: opportunities in reading instruction and early literacy for teachers of kindergarten through fourth grade students made available, subject to funds appropriated. Grant Program: Primary grade reading grant program exists to enhance teachers’ skills in assisting students in beginning reading.

What ELL training or professional development is required of general classroom teachers?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Teacher preparation programs in Washington must ensure that pre-service teachers develop the following competencies to support English language development: theories of language acquisition, including academic language development; using multiple instruction strategies, including the principles of second language acquisition, to address student academic language ability levels and cultural and linguistic backgrounds; and student cultural identity.

Family Engagement

What are the requirements for teacher training or professional development in reading?

  • OR: Teacher Preparation: The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission must adopt rules that require approved educator preparation programs to demonstrate that candidates receive training in how to provide instruction that enables student to meet or exceed third-grade reading standards.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Professional development: opportunities in reading instruction and early literacy for teachers of kindergarten through fourth grade students made available, subject to funds appropriated. Grant Program: Primary grade reading grant program exists to enhance teachers’ skills in assisting students in beginning reading.

What ELL training or professional development is required of general classroom teachers?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Teacher preparation programs in WA must ensure  pre-service teachers develop following competencies to support English language development: theories of language acquisition, including academic language development; using multiple instruction strategies, including the principles of second language acquisition, to address student academic language ability levels and cultural and linguistic backgrounds; and student cultural identity.

Social-Emotional Learning

Where is social-emotional development emphasized in the state’s statute or rules and regulations?

  • OR: Social-emotional development is included as area of school readiness measured in kindergarten entrance assessment
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations
  • WA: Social-emotional growth is supported by use of Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills.

Here’s what I’d like to see the schools in my state ─ and the state policies to support these ─ have in place after studying this information:

  • Full-day kindergarten
  • High number of hours required for K-3 instruction
  • Low teacher-to student ratio in the early grades so children have more attention from the teacher
  • Assess children’s readiness to enter kindergarten, including social-emotional factors related to school readiness and progress ─ to identify where early intervention can help children catch up
  • Linked K-3 to pre-K programs so they can align what they’re providing to children and work together on smooth transition processes
  • Schools have a definition of school readiness and these do not differ substantially within the state (there should be an equal playing field)
  • Assess progress early (grade 2 rather than 3) to identify needed interventions earlier
  • Decision whether to promote a child to the next grade based on best assessment data
  • Teachers in early grades trained in reading
  • Schools engage families in the education of their children

To learn more about your own state, check out the K-3 Quality State Profiles at http://www.ecs.org/k-3-quality-state-profiles/ and  think about what you would like to see in place to help children transition well from pre-K to K-3.

________________

[1] 50-State Comparison: K-3 Quality and Companion Report by Alyssa Auck, Education Commission of the States, July 18, 2016: http://www.ecs.org/50-state-comparison-k-3-quality/

[2] Promotion is moving up a grade; retention is staying at same grade level.

[3]Committee for Children (http://www.cfchildren.org/second-step/social-emotional-learning), the attributes of social-emotional learning are: 1) recognizing emotions in oneself and others; 2) managing strong emotions; 3) having empathy for others; 4) controlling impulses; 5) communicating clearly and assertively; 6) maintaining cooperative relationships; 7) making responsible decisions; 8) solving problems effectively. Social-emotional learning is increasingly a component in the school curricula, schools are helping young learners harness their energy and potential by teaching them to listen, pay attention, control their behavior, and get along with others..

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. http://www.readtosucceedbuffalo.org/documents/30%20Million%20Word%20Gap.pdf

[5] Sosa study

[6] Sosa study.

[7] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/ and http://www.thoughtfulparent.com/

[8] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/

[9] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/

[10] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/

[11] http://www.thoughtfulparent.com/

 

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 < http://www.edcentral.org/dlls/>. 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 https://www.desiredresults.us/dll/dual.html: 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  http://www.edcentral.org/dllreader2/ and Investing in What Works: San Antonio’s Success With English Language Learners at http://educationpost.org/investing-in-what-works-san-antonios-success-with-english-language-learners/

[5] http://www.springfield.k12.or.us/dualimmersion

[6] Dual Immersion Programs: Expanding and Endangered at http://www.edcentral.org/ffxdual/

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11]Ibid.