Posts tagged ‘reading’

On the Other Side

So, I made a mistake. I do that pretty often, actually. But as I always say, mistakes are just another way of learning. The full story is for a different post; for now, let’s just say I let myself get into a situation where I had to read a book of a student’s choice in order to determine whether he’d actually read it or was just bluffing through his assignment. It was a very painful experience.


Now, I am a person who can appreciate diverse genres. But with all due respect to Matt Christopher, I no longer understand why kids are so into him. My past understanding was that the students liked sports, he writes prolifically about sports, so it’s a great match! But goodness, that was the dryest hundred-page kids’ novel I ever had to force myself to stay awake through. It was 90% play-by-play game descriptions – and all for a team that doesn’t even exist! They didn’t even use especially rich vocabulary; the thing read like a sportscast. The “deep” part of the plot occurred in brief dialogues between games. There was a bit of plot and character development, but on a much lower maturity level than the technical reading level of the book. Usually I’m more hard-pressed to find the opposite – mature content at a low reading level. But I digress, I didn’t come here to badmouth a popular author. Anyone who gets my kids reading deserves their publishing contract (though, arguably, the problem here was that the sports-fan student lost interest before finishing the reading)

About eighty pages in, I had a lightbulb moment. Here I was, reading about a topic I had no interest in, in a foreign language purporting to be English, and it was pure torture. I, the queen of context clues, still don’t know what a “buttonhook” is, and they must have done it twenty times in that book! Well, it’s some kind of football play, and not very important to the plot, but basically I skimmed through a lot of the action without fully grasping the finer points of what was going on, despite figuring out more than I ever wanted to know about football, because it just didn’t matter to me. And it suddenly hit me that this is what our students have to do DAILY.

That explains a lot.

Now, I still maintain that some things in life are boring and difficult, and it doesn’t hurt to get used to that. And I also know that there are ways we teachers can (and do! Well, most of us…) try to minimize the torture. But there’s nothing like switching sides for a real kicker.

I have always empathized with my students, but it does help to have the feeling driven home afresh every now and then. So, if you’re not a sports-lover, go ahead and pick up a Matt Christopher book. You might regret it, but you also might learn something!

And just so you don’t think I’m down on Matt Christopher because I don’t do football, I really enjoyed this book, also football themed:

January 20, 2012 at 2:04 am Leave a comment

Friday Finds: Overcoming Dyslexia

This one is getting a little old, but remains one of my all-time favorites. It is a must-read for all teachers and for parents of struggling students. Also recommended for the general public.

Dyslexia (a specific brand of reading difficulty) is one of the most important and misunderstood conditions in special education. In this book, Sally Shaywitz, M.D., covers  everything you want to know about it – and she does it concisely in plain English. Overcoming Dyslexia is an easy, interesting read even if you have never thought about dyslexia before. It’s written for real people and includes illustrative stories and visual aids.

The book is very thorough and solidly research-based. Published in 2005, it’s missing the latest research, and I hope they revise it soon to incorporate the latest finds. However, there have been no contradictory findings that I am aware of – only new insights that would add to the previous understanding, without invalidating it. Shaywitz, a noted expert in the field, explains the neurological mechanisms involved in reading and what goes wrong when reading isn’t working out. On a practical level, she describes proven ways to identify and remediate dyslexia.

What I like best about this book, besides its easy readability, is that Shaywitz addresses the broad picture, not just the diagnosis and clinical treatment of dyslexia. She discusses how to find the right school and plan an intervention program, how to minimize the emotional fallout of having a learning disorder, and what parents can do by-the-way to improve their child’s reading.

Apropos to its content and target audience, the book also comes in an audio format.

November 11, 2011 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Wednesday Whatsits: What’s the ELA?

(Apologies to the rest of the universe, as this post is kind of NY-centric. I really don’t know what goes on elsewhere.)

Year after year, I run into at least a handful of students, teachers, and parents in a tizzy about the ELAs. They’re not sure what they are, why they matter, or what to do about them, but they hope I know. And is my kid going to have to take a science ELA?

For starters, please calm down. ELA stands for just “English Language Arts,” and yes, there will be a test.

What is it?

In New York State, the ELA test is given to students in grades 3-8 every Spring. It is a pretty standard language arts test, which includes short reading and listening passages, multiple choice questions, and written responses. Some grades also have a short proofreading exercise. It’s usually given in two sessions on two consecutive days.

Does it matter?

It might. Depending on your school, the results might be used for class placement decisions or to screen for academic risks. Some intervention programs use the results to determine which students should receive government-funded enrichment. School-wide averages may also be used to flag those in need of extra help. In my school, promotion decisions are never based solely on state tests, but it’s up to the schools to decide how much weight to give it.

What should we do about it?

Not much, in my opinion. The New York ELA test seems to address standard skills directly enough that you don’t need to waste much time and energy on test prep. My focus in test preparation is just to let students know what to expect so they don’t get confused and intimidated when opening the test booklet. What this looks like:

  • At the beginning of the year and throughout: Read the state standards so you know what students are expected to know. It won’t tell you exactly what to teach but will give you a general idea of what skill areas to look at.
  • All year: Give a couple of test-style multiple choice questions on each reading assignment. Weave in strategies such as reading all the choices and using the process of elimination.
  •  All year: Integrate language-arts words into your vocabulary, and make sure that students understand them. Use phrases like “character traits” and “theme,” for example.
  • All year: Consider accommodations. The day of the test is too late to arrange for extra time, directions read aloud, or such. Notice when kids are struggling in regular classroom tests and alert your school’s special needs coordinator.
  • Before the test: Do a couple of sample essays with your students. The test essays follow very specific formats, so you can easily coach your students on what is expected of them (more on that in some future post if desired)
  • About a week before the test: Print out a sample test and spend a period or so familiarizing your students with the directions and layout, which change very little (if at all) from year to year.

Note that until the month of the test if not later, my recommendations don’t really change your teaching much at all. Beyond that, there’s nothing you can really do to cram language skills.

What about the math ELA?

Now that you know ELA stands for English Language Arts, you can figure that there is no math, science, or history ELA. Trick question, but one that I’m asked all the time! However, there are state assessments in other subjects, my recommendations for those are similar though I don’t care for the tests as much, and this post is long enough without going into it! Until next time, then!

November 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm 2 comments

Your Baby Can Read – But Should He?

You have probably seen the ads for this program blinking all over the web in recent years, perhaps especially if you frequent baby-related sites. You may even have been offered a “FREE trial!!!” After seeing that enough times, you might have considered signing up – after all, what do you have to lose? Quite a lot, in fact. Read on.

1. Wasted Time: As the “teach your baby to read” people will be eager to tell you, the first couple of years are a critical window of opportunity for brain development. Toddlers are extremely busy people – mine certainly is. She has a lot to learn. But reading isn’t on her list for another few years. At this stage, it’s much more important for her to play. Playing in age-appropriate ways will help her develop gross and fine motor skills, social skills, and a sense of how stuff works. More on that in future posts.

2. Missing Socialization: Arguably the most important thing for a baby to learn during their “window of opportunity” is how to get along with all those other people in the world. Research shows there are no shortcuts for this. No program will ever substitute for old-fashioned quality time with Mom, Dad, or just about anyone else.

3. Too Much TV: The abovementioned only account for part of the reason the AAP recommends minimal screen time for babies. Besides the missed opportunities, screen time may even be inherently harmful. We might never know for sure, but my gut (and some good empirical studies) tells me this can’t be what G-d had in mind when He made our brains.

4. Wrong Window: Evidence strongly suggests that reading readiness is, at least for many children, a stage of brain development that goes beyond simply learning the skills. If we wait five or six years (approximately, and allowing for individual variations), reading is likely to come more easily, more naturally, and through the right parts of the brain.

5. Burnout: Still not convinced that there’s really much to lose? Studies have shown that children who learn academic skills before the normal developmental time frame are more likely to get sick and tired of them when their peers are just getting fired up. Remember how excited you were to read your first book? Well, I don’t either. But remember how excited your child or student was? Can you visualize that same excitement in someone who’s known how to read since before they were toilet trained?

I could probably go on. Maybe I will sometime. But for now, the above reasons are enough to make me wait. There is no known advantage in knowing how to read a handful of basic words before preschool. Meanwhile, we have other learning to take care of, much of which will actually help pave the way for reading in the not-so-distant future.

Interested in REALLY helping your child get a head start in learning? Follow this blog or like it on Facebook and you’ll be the first to know when that post goes up!

October 23, 2011 at 6:05 am Leave a comment


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