Book-Rich Environments Initiative to benefit children

One phrase pulled out of context says so much: “zip codes will not decide our children’s future and fate.”

These words come from Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, in a letter of commendation to the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Education. This week the two federal agencies jointly launched the Book-Rich Environments Initiative with the aim to boost educational outcomes for children living in public and HUD-assisted housing. Smith notes: “Today’s launch … serves as a powerful affirmation … to leveling the playing field so that zip codes will not decide our children’s future and fate.” [1]

The initiative will bring high quality books and other literacy tools to 4 million children and their families living in HUD-assisted housing. Public housing authorities and local library partners throughout the nation have already committed to participating in the initiative, which centers on three components:

  • book distribution—free, high quality, diverse books provided to children and families
  • partnership building—strategic partnerships established between the local public housing authority, local public library, and literacy partners to develop and deliver programming that will improve educational outcomes
  • library engagement—children and families engaged in reading and literacy activities offered by library and literacy partners[2]

Several influential partners are part of the initiative, including the National Book Foundation,[3] the Urban Libraries Council,[4] and the Campaign for Grade Level Reading:[5]

  • Publishers will make large donations of books and the National Book Foundation will expand its free afterschool program, BookUp, which has already donated over 30,000 books to young people. By the end of 2017, the number will expand to 300,000+ books.[6]
  • The Urban Libraries Council will work to ensure that kids and their families have books in their home, books and technology at their neighborhood library, and support needed to become strong readers.[7]
  • The Campaign for Grade Level Reading (CGR), a coalition of 240+ communities in 42 states, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands —and funders, nonprofit partners, business leaders, federal and state government agencies— will participate with CGR’s focus that many more children from low-income families succeed in school and graduate prepared for college, a career, and active citizenship.[8]

Ralph Smith invokes “zip code” in his letter about the new initiative because zip code make a difference in educational opportunity —and has become a recognized shorthand reference to the problem behind the initiative as demonstrated in these examples:

  • A child’s course in life should be determined not by the zip code she’s born in— Megan Slack and Alicia Oken on President Obama’s 2014 announcement of “Promise Zone” locations, an initiative that partners with local communities and businesses to create jobs, expand access to educational opportunities, and spur economic mobility and security
  • Send your kids to a good school, no matter what ZIP code you live in —First Lady Michelle Obama
  • Your zip code should not decide your fate —Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer
  • A student’s zip code should not dictate their educational opportunities—Washington Education School Funding Association
  • Student Success Comes Down to Zip Code— Mark Elgart blog, The Huffington Post
  • A child’s zip code should not dictate the quality of education he or she receives—Congressman Erik Paulsen
  • No child’s future should be determined by their color, economic status, or zip code —Brian L. Pauling, national president of 100 Black Men of America
  • Your ZIP Code Should Not Determine Your Success —Kira Davis, guess blogger in Forbes

How high are the stakes behind the zip code problem driving the Book-Rich Environments Initiative? High, very high.

Two-thirds of children nationwide—and more than 80% of those from low-income families—are not proficient readers by the end of third grade. This has significant consequences for each child, for their communities, and for the nation. If we don’t reverse this problem, we’re not likely to end intergenerational poverty, close the achievement gap, and reduce school dropout rates. And, far fewer of the next generation will be prepared to succeed in a global economy, participate in higher education, or enter military and civilian service.[9]

This is the problem the new initiative is working to combat.

Implementation is moving quickly. The work starts in 35 communities across the country next month. Public housing authorities will partner with local libraries organized by the Urban Libraries Council to host community book distribution events throughout the year. Public housing residents will have access to a diverse set of high quality books secured by the National Book Foundation. These distribution events will also serve as a platform to strengthen and launch new local partnerships with libraries, public housing authorities, and nonprofits, organized by the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, that can also help ensure continued access to high quality literacy resources.[10]

The announcement of the Book-Rich Environments Initiative is an important literacy effort that adds to current efforts to “build bridges between school and home, and improve educational and life outcomes for kids and families in HUD -assisted housing, including joint efforts to address and eliminate chronic absenteeism, find ways to support college students with unmet financial needs, and create more summer opportunities for young people.”[11]

Kudos to this promising literacy initiative for taking on the zip code problem affecting so many children.

_____________

[1] http://gradelevelreading.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/GLR-Commends-Sec.-Castro-and-Sec.-King-for-BRE_010517.pdf

[2] http://www.nationalbook.org/2017_book_rich_environments.html#.WHJEKThTGUk

[3]http://www.nationalbook.org/

[4]Membership association of North America’s leading public library systems. ULC libraries, located in the U.S. and Canada, as public sector institutions comprise a varied mix of revenue and governance structures and serve communities with populations of differing size – from 30,000 to more than eight million. The libraries serve people of all ages. They are community centers for education and lifelong learning; economic and workforce development; health, wellness and public safety and environmental sustainability. ULC libraries bridge the digital divide by providing public access to technology services (e.g., digital media, mobile applications, e-reading, other modes of enrichment that technology makes possible). See: http://www.urbanlibraries.org/

[5] http://gradelevelreading.net/

[6] http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72434-nbf-launches-the-book-rich-environment-initiative.html

[7] http://military-technologies.net/2017/01/08/u-s-department-of-housing-and-urban-development-department-of-education-and-nonprofit-partners-launch-book-rich-environments-initiative-to-boost-educational-opportunity-for-children-in-public-housin/

[8] CGR focuses on school readiness, quality teaching, chronic absence from school, summer learning, and engaging parents as a child’s first teachers.

[9] http://gradelevelreading.net/

[10] http://military-technologies.net/2017/01/08/u-s-department-of-housing-and-urban-development-department-of-education-and-nonprofit-partners-launch-book-rich-environments-initiative-to-boost-educational-opportunity-for-children-in-public-housin/

[11]http://military-technologies.net/2017/01/08/u-s-department-of-housing-and-urban-development-department-of-education-and-nonprofit-partners-launch-book-rich-environments-initiative-to-boost-educational-opportunity-for-children-in-public-housin/

 

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

 

 

 

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..

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.

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

[2]http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr11/vol68/num07/Don’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. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm: 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] http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr11/vol68/num07/Don’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 https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm

[7] Info drawn from Science Daily   https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm

[8] Science Daily   https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm

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.

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[1] http://be.smartcoos.com/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_sign_language

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

[4]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_sign_language

[5] Examples: http://www.babysignlanguage.com; ; http://www.signbabies.com/;  http://www.start-american-sign-language.com/image-files/xlogo2.png.pagespeed.ic.8MZ5pSW-dn.png;  https://prezi.com/7_jf4qnn2bum/baby-sign-language/

[6] http://www.drjosephgarcia.com/

[7] https://prezi.com/7_jf4qnn2bum/baby-sign-language/

[8] http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/expert-answers/baby-sign-language/faq-20057980