The Knowledge Gap Book Review

It’s no secret that I’m an education nerd. I’m drawn to all things literacy and curriculum. Over my last ten years in education I have seen a lot of different theories, standards, and curriculum come and go with no real answers about how to improve the knowledge gap.

The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System- And How to Fix It, by Natalie Wexler, examines the struggles American schools face, how it affects students, and possible solutions.

As a reader, it usually takes me twice as long to get through a nonfiction education book because I need to take breaks. The writing styles of these texts are dry and I find myself taking social media breaks. However, I have to admit, Wexler did an absolutely incredible job making the content flow. I think a lot of that has to do with her breaking up the reading with real life examples from different classrooms, and history of curriculum in America. The change up in content definitely kept me engaged longer and allowed me to draw my own conclusions between the historical facts/accounts and the classroom examples.

While the title doesn’t mention literacy, this whole book truly dives into the deep end of reading and writing. As Wexler points out, reading and math tend to be the focal points in elementary classrooms because of state tests. Even though teachers may have science and social studies scheduled for once a week, it’s rare that those lessons happen because teachers feel the need to constantly hit on reading skills.

One of the main ideas is that using balanced literacy, leveled readers, and guided reading are not helping students improve their reading comprehension skills. The Reading Wars are discussed briefly, with both sides being explained. However, it is crystal clear that phonics based explicit instruction will help the majority of all students learn to read, including those who are English Language Learners, classified with a learning disability, etc. As a reading teacher I was doing a happy dance with the evidence supporting phonics instruction.

Of course, one can’t discuss balanced literacy without mentioning Lucy Calkins. Wexler makes a fantastic argument against the literacy guru that there are indeed flaws in this reading model (and writer’s workshop, too). Readers even “saw” examples in the sections where Wexler observed classrooms using this concept.

But, if balanced literacy is not helping students, then what will?

The author’s #1 point in the 263 pages, is that in order to improve reading comprehension, students need to have more background knowledge, which can only be accomplished by exposing early elementary students to science and history. Yes, some students have social studies where they learn about members in the community, but they need world and US history.

Students have a thirst for knowledge and want to be challenged. Obviously we don’t want students feeling overwhelmed and shutting down, but the classroom teacher is there to guide students. Students can handle advanced vocabulary if they are seeing it in content-rich curriculum. The point of the Common Core was to have American students build on their knowledge from year to year, which a content-rich curriculum does.

Wexler also mentions Daniel Willingham. For my loyal readers you know that I LOVE this man and his book Raising Kids Who ReadIn The Knowledge Gap, Willingham is referenced for his contributions to education and the cognitive psychology. Yay!

Finally, Wexler’s last point was about teaching writing. I will admit during college and student teaching I was always told to teach that writing is a process. I have never used Lucy Calkin’s writing units, but would instead make up my own assignments/tasks with fellow colleagues. The author mentions Judith Hochman, who experimented with a teaching method that started with sentences and taught mechanics at the same time, and has seen great success. Not only has this approach been proven to improve student writing, it has also increased reading comprehension and the ability to critique information they are learning. Hochman and Wexler authored The Writing Revolution, which offers a road map for educators.

WOW!

I have so many parts underlined and marked in this book that there is no way I can share them all in a blog post. However, I would love to share my favorite line.

“…the transformation from a focus on comprehension skills and reading levels to one on content and knowledge is beginning to take hold.” (Wexler 259).

Education is changing. The Common Core sparked that change and caused a lot of educators to look at their teaching methods. As the education world continues to evolve, we need to remember that even though we live in a digital age where students can Google anything, we still need to be providing students with information. Knowledge rich curriculum makes sense for today’s readers. If we want to see changes in our students we have to start looking at the elementary school classrooms.

I recommend this amazing book for superintendents, principals, curriculum supervisors, teachers and anyone thinking about entering the world of education.

To purchase the book click here.

 

We Need to Talk…About Dyslexia

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month.

When I first started teaching, I’m not even sure I knew what dyslexia was. I took all the required college courses to teach secondary English, I did all of my practicum and student teaching, but dyslexia was never discussed.

I heard of Orton-Gillingham during my second or third year of teaching because one of the teachers in my building used it with her resource students. She knew I was going for my Reading Specialist certification and mentioned that I should take her place when she retires. At the time, I figured I’d be totally prepared to teach those kids because I would be a specialist.

Well, I was definitely wrong.

I live in NJ and have taught in public and charter schools in the state. We have amazing schools.

I have never had professional development through a school that included dyslexia.

I have never worked with a special education teacher to address dyslexic students in my gen. ed classroom.

I have a masters degree in Curriculum/Reading and a NJ and MI Reading Specialist certification, but I was never taught how to help students with dyslexia.

This is a problem.

For the last year and a half I have dived into the world of dyslexia. I started my Orton-Gillingham training online through Orton Gillingham Online Academy, which has been amazing. I can work at my own pace, ask questions in the Facebook group, and have access to incredible materials.

Over the summer I attended webinars through Learning Ally that focused on supporting dyslexic students in the classroom.

As an educator, I’m being open minded. I’m realizing that even at the middle school level we need to be addressing dyslexia in our schools. We need to realize that phonics and learning to read don’t stop in elementary school. We need to stop being afraid to say ‘dyslexia’. We need to train our teachers on what dyslexia looks like and how to help our dyslexic students.

But how do we do that?

By bringing awareness. Dyslexia is not just letters getting jumbled up when a person is reading. It is so, so much more. We need to talk about it. We need educate our teachers about it. We need to stop being afraid of it.

 

Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do- Book Review

A few weeks ago I posted about reading resources for parents and mentioned Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do by Daniel T. Willingham. I purchased the e-book version because I was too excited to wait for Amazon to deliver a paper copy, which was a blessing because I read it on my phone and Kindle over the last few weeks. It took me much longer to read than I anticipated because I couldn’t stop highlighting and writing notes.

Since I started teaching I’ve been on a quest to find a book to help parents (and teachers) address reading concerns and I believe I have finally found it! This book is truly one of a kind. Willingham’s writing voice is superb. He speaks to the reader as a fellow parent/educator with a calm demeanor. He never makes the reader feel incompetent nor does he command or belittle the reader.

One of my favorite ideas from this book is to start now. The introduction states this and it is repeated many times throughout the text. I love that Willingham doesn’t make parents or teachers feel that it’s too late. Many feel that by the time a child is in middle school it’s too late to improve reading skills and motivation, but Willingham constantly denies this with realistic, supportive ideas for adults.

The book starts off with a great explanation of general reading information including: the role of sound, the role of knowledge in comprehension, and motivation. As an educator, I loved his clear explanations of phonics and the role of sounds in reading. I was one of the those children who struggled with phonics, which resulted in my reading struggles and repeating kindergarten. I think if my parents had read the excerpt below during my struggle period it would have helped them understand.

“If reading is a code between written symbols and speech sounds, it’s going to be hard to learn the code if you can’t hear those sounds. Lots of research indicates that this reasonable supposition is right. Children who have trouble learning to read often have difficulty hearing individual speech sounds. At the other end of the spectrum, children who more or less teach themselves to read turn out to hear them easily. This relationship between the ability to hear speech sounds and reading is not unique to learning to read English— you see it across languages. So we have our first clue about how we can help kids become good readers: help them with this auditory challenge.” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (pp. 12-13). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

Part one of the text examines reading in birth-preschool age children. My interests the last few months have been on this age group because of my daughter and the two classes I’m teaching, Mommy & Me Literacy and Children & Literacy. The author’s main points in this section are to create a love of reading and to prepare children for decoding. He gives great ideas/suggestions for parents, educators, and child care providers. One of my favorites he mentioned was using word games to help students with speech sounds.

“Here are some examples of word games that help children to hear individual speech sounds: Some children’s songs and rhymes center on word play, for example, The Name Game (“ Dan, Dan, bo-Ban, banana-fana fo-Fan, fee fi-mo-Man. Dan!”) and Apples and Bananas (“ I like to eat, eat, eat, eeples and baneenees”). Classic nursery rhymes use much of this sort of word play. So do Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and other children’s authors. Sing songs they know, replacing the initial letter of each word with the letter of your choice, for example, “Mary had a little lamb” becomes “Bary bad a bittle bamb.” Find excuses for alliteration: “Great golly! Gobs of grapes!” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 33). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

Before a child can read, he or she must be able to recognize letters, which Willingham discusses. One of the easiest ways parents can help children with letter recognition is what Willingham calls “letters in the wild”. Caregivers should interact with children daily with letters they see on billboards, logos, etc. “If you prompt interest in letters in these daily interactions, it’s that much more likely your child will show interest in letters during read-alouds.” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 36). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

Part two of the book addresses kindergarten-second grade. I really liked how Willingham starts off this section by discussing the different reading programs used in schools, phonics vs. whole-word, and balanced literacy. Each school district uses a different approach, so it’s important for parents to be aware of the program their school uses. It’s also important to keep in mind that each student learns differently. “Programs vary, and kids’ experiences within a program vary.” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 83). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

The author also addresses the hot topic of technology: “With all the power we attribute to technology, that seems like a pretty wimpy effect. But the modest impact is actually typical for educational technology interventions, no matter what the subject: math, science, or history. More disturbing is a point made by researcher John Hattie: when you try anything new in the classroom, you see, on average, this sort of modest boost to student learning. Why? It’s not clear. (My guess is that the excitement of trying something new makes teachers enthusiastic, and that excitement rubs off on students.) The conclusion I’m emphasizing is that educational technology interventions in general (and those targeting reading in particular) have been less successful than we would have expected.” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 85). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

Willingham does go on to mention that technology apps and videos vary in quality and how they are embedded. On the flip side, he also does a great job of mentioning how technology can provide individual feedback and other positive ideas (I really appreciate how he can be so calm when discussing hot topic things).

I love that he follows up the discussion of technology with techniques and ideas parents can use at home with their kids. He includes ideas such as: reading with your child, choosing the right book, providing feedback and dealing with reading frustration. Reading is a challenging skill that takes lots of time to develop, so it’s only natural for children to get frustrated with reading while being at home with a parent. The author includes some great ideas for parents on dealing with this frustration.

“I can offer four suggestions if you find yourself frustrated. First, the habit of not talking much is not only good for your child (so she hears mostly her own voice, reading) but also good for maintaining your composure when you’re frustrated. Second, when you do speak, you can usually find an intonation other than frustration that carries your message in a positive way. When my youngest would look to me for help on the same word three times in sixty seconds, my inclination was to shout, “You KNOW this one.” I trained myself to say, “You know this one,” with the intonation of, “You sly dog.” I probably should have said nothing, but at least I used a positive tone. Third, remind yourself that the whole session is only five or ten minutes. Fourth, if you find that you just can’t keep it together, quit. Ask your child to read with you later. Grinding through the process gives a little practice in decoding, but it carries too high a cost in motivation.”(Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 90). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

The final part is third grade and beyond. Since I’ve taught middle school language arts for five years, I was really curious about his thoughts on motivating struggling readers at this stage. Fluency is discussed in great detail in this part of the book, and it’s fascinating how Willingham connects fluency to spelling.  “It would be nice to get kids to fluency faster, especially given that national tests indicate only about half of kids have reached desired levels of fluency by fourth grade. Is there a way to hurry the process along? Three techniques can help. First, explicit spelling instruction seems to improve fluency. Although the spelling knowledge you use to read is not identical to the knowledge you use when you’re thinking about how to spell a word, there is some overlap. So that’s a reason to include spelling instruction in schools, even though we all use word processors with spell-checkers.” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 137). Wiley. Kindle Edition.). I have worked in environments where administration feels that students don’t need to spend time on spelling after a certain grade, but it is evident that spelling does translate to an increase in fluency.

The next big concept Willingham tackles is reading comprehension. This is the number one struggle I see with struggling readers in middle and high school. The author addressing the importance to reading comprehension strategies which include ideas like activating prior knowledge, listening actively, summarizing, visualizing, etc.

However, it is important to note, as the author does, that texts become increasingly more challenging the older a child gets. By third grade students are starting to read more nonfiction texts (articles, textbooks) and they are expected to understand the material and then interact with it in some aspect. In addition to that, some schools have made the transition to digital literacy. Instead of simply stating a positive or negative stance, the author breaks down and examines the different components which include general tech savviness and the ability to evaluate information. He then follows up his thoughts with information about the digital revolution.

“One change wrought by the digital revolution is that kids are actually reading much more than they used to, even though reading is commonly thought to be in decline.” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 156). Wiley. Kindle Edition.). If you think about what students today are doing, this makes total sense. Kids are constantly reading tweets, captions on Instagram, blogs posts, etc. They may not be reading novels, but they are constantly reading.

Overall, I am in love with this book. The ideas and suggestions are explained in a clear, concise manner that is extremely user friendly for those not familiar with the education or reading world. It is the perfect book for any parent because it addresses all stages of reading. It is the perfect book for an educator to use to provide parents with guidance.

Preschool & Kindergarten Literacy

This week I did a Facebook class for preschool and kindergarten. It’s amazing how much the expectations for this age group have changed over the last decade with the changes in education. It’s quite clear after looking at the Common Core Standards for kindergarten that preschool is extremely important for children at this time.

This post is for parents and early childhood educators. Below you will find a bunch of information and book suggestions for children around 4-5 years old for math and reading.

Learning Math1001-things-to-spot-collection

Preschool

  • Counting (count on hands, objects)
  • Understands written expression means number of objects for #s 1-5
  • Can do basic addition and subtraction
  • Can put numbers in order

Kindergarten (from the Common Core State Standards)

  • wipe-clean-number-cardsCount to 100 by ones and tens
  • Write numbers 0-20
  • Solve addition and subtraction word problems using objects or drawings to represent the problem
  • Fluently add and subtract within 5
  • Identify and compare shapes

 

 

At Home Strategies

thats-not-my-height-bookMath

  • Make activities into games. Some suggestions include:
    • Number sense- count items, use a calendar to countdown to events, play simple board games
    • Geometry- name 3D objects, create simple patterns
    • Measurement- record height monthly

Learning to Read

Preschool

  • Make simple predictions and comments about story being read
  • Hold and look thats-not-myat words right side up, turning the pages one at a time front to back
  • Name the letter in first name and can recognize name in print
  • Say and point to at least 10 letters of the alphabet
  • Match a letter with beginning sound of word
  • Recognize words see often (sight words)

 

 

Kindergarten (from the Common Core State Standards)

  • Demonstrate understanding of the organization and basic features of print
  • Understand spoken words, syllables and sounds
  • Know and apply grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words
  • Use a combination of drawing, dictating and writing to compose original pieces

At Home Strategies

Reading

  • Point out letters and numbers. “What word on this page starts with ‘s’ “
  • Make up stories about the pictures together
  • Ask comprehension questions. “Why is he mad?” “Where is hted-friends-with-cde going?”
  • Relate stories to child’s experiences (festive, doctors, et.).
  • Encourage writing and drawing. Have a constant supply of paper and crayons. Standing kid easels work really well.
  • Point out letters in your child’s name.
  • Make everything into a game so they don’t get frustrated.
  • Listen to books on tape.

 

Learning to Read Collections

As a parent and educator, I love to have everything given to me in a neat and organized pack. Usborne offers three different reading packages for parents that are really great.

Option 1: Phonics Reader Collection. 

Usborne has a fantastic Phonics Readers collection that is phonics-based, includes a guide for parents, and is leveled using Fountas and Pinnell. The books are sold individually, but can also be purchased as a box set with 20 titles.

phonics-reader-collection

 

Option 2: The Usborne Starting to Read Pack. This is the perfect set to help a child read. The pack includes an activity book, an alphabet chart and books. Here is a great video from a fellow consultant that shows specific details about this pack.

starting-to-read-pack

 

Option 3: Reading Box Sets. Usborne Very First Reading has 15 books that are meant to be read with an adult. As time goes on, the child takes on more of the reading.

Usborne My First Reading Library includes 50 books (the first are from the Very First Reading set) and the rest are leveled. The goal is to have the child read these independently, only getting help from an adult when needed.

Both sets come with a parent guide and links to “online help” at http://www.veryfirstreading.com.

very-first-reading-set

There is so much information to cover for this age group, it is truly unbelievable. For more information on the products featured, head over to my Usborne site here. To be a participant in my Facebook classes, follow me here .