Thursday, June 1, 2017

Why Aren't Schools Hooked on Phonics?

You must read this article in The Metropolitan. Why? I wrote it. It may be the most important article I've ever written. It may be the only article I've ever written. But it does raise some very important points regarding elementary education.
Children don’t need expensive computer labs fitted with colorful computer programs and websites that “make learning fun.” Children need a good sharp pencil, lots of paper, and a teacher who has learned and therefore can teach the phonetic structure of English.
Here’s why. Phonics is the beginning of reading. It’s learning the sounds that the letters make, both individually and in combination with other letters. Some students, especially those whose parents read to them frequently, can usually do this with little phonetic instruction. Those children coming from poverty and a lack of household literacy usually can’t. We know that. It’s been documented and re-documented. And yet until recently, almost all big time reading programs ignored phonics in favor of “balanced literacy”, formerly known as “whole language.” Teachers began in the middle with sight words and were taught that phonics doesn’t work.
Since the “balanced literacy” name change, phonemic awareness has become a piece of beginning reading instruction, which is kind of “phonics lite” with no expectation that teachers know and understand English on a phonetic level. How can teachers teach what they don’t know? Even Common Core, which does have some phonics requirements doesn’t truly address the issue since teachers are not trained to teach phonics and don’t know enough phonics to be effective.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Legislating Literacy

Can passing news laws help children learn?
I think we know the answer to that. (And if you don't, the answer is "no".)
And yet, here in the mitten-shaped state of Michigan, the legislature has passed what is known as "The Third Grade Reading Law." In theory, students who can't read at grade level at the end of third grade are to be retained. And there are supposed to be extra services for students who test below grade level in K-2. In other words, the teachers can't teach these kids to read, so it's time to call in some real experts as literacy coaches.
And who will these coaches be?
Based on past experience, they'll either be current teachers who will receive extra training in same literacy methods that haven't worked previously, or they will be para-pros, fresh out of teachers' college, who are doing this until they can get a full-time teaching gig with salary and benefits.
They will be immersed in subjects like phonemic awareness, fluency, decoding, and comprehension. They will learn (hopefully) entertaining activities that they will use with individuals or small groups of struggling readers. The activities will be "research-based". They will be "data-driven." They will entail activities on various literacy websites and programs. They will be failures in teaching students to read.
How do I know? We've been through this too many times already to not know. It's always failed, not because the students couldn't learn, or because the teachers couldn't teach, but because teachers haven't been taught to teach correctly for generations. Remember "No Child Left Behind?" or "Race to the Top?" Great successes, weren't they? Neither one focused on the ineffectual reading curriculum.
Yes, I'm getting back, as I frequently do, to phonics, or phonetic instruction, or whatever you want to call it; getting back to the beginning, the phoneme, the smallest piece of reading, so that students can begin at the beginning with tiny bite-sized pieces of impending literacy and build; from phoneme to word, to sentence, to paragraph, to story or essay, to literacy which opens up infinite worlds to them.
So like I was saying earlier, Michigan has this new law. And third grades in some of our lower performing schools are going to get very crowded if teachers are not allowed to promote their non-readers.
Fortunately (or not) there are enough exemptions and loopholes to the requirement that nobody need take it seriously. First of all, as the law currently stands, it doesn't take effect until the 2019-2020 school year. Second of all, there are nine (yes nine) possible ways out of retention. Some of them are absurd. Example:
(iii) The child demonstrates a grade 3 reading level through a pupil portfolio, as evidenced by demonstrating competency in all grade 3 state English language arts standards through multiple work samples.
Yes, a third grader who can't read will have no trouble with this. Of course, since parents can request an exemption anyway the point is moot. Yes, the exemption has to be approved by the district superintendent. For this, rubber stamps are already on order - or my name isn't "The Teacher That Exploded!"
I did find one interesting section of the bill:
(iv) Provides reading intervention that meets, at a minimum, the following specifications:(A) Assists pupils exhibiting a reading deficiency in developing the ability to read at grade level.(B) Provides intensive development in the 5 major reading components: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.(C) Is systematic, explicit, multisensory, and sequential.
Phonetic, multi-sensory instruction. That's what I do, baby! Part C is what a good phonetic reading program should be. So of course, it will be ignored by school districts. And since politicians only know what their most generous lobbyists want them to know, they won't even know enough to question whether or not school districts are following these basic necessities in literacy.
In other words, we in Michigan are in line for another spin on the merry-go-round of illiteracy.
I'll be laughing just to keep from crying.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

O. Really.

           Why are so many children doing so poorly when learning to read?
            Funny you should ask. But as long as you did, let’s take a quick look at one letter, the letter “o”.
            If we place the “o” after the letter “t” we have the word, “to” (which rhymes with “do” but not with “go”.) Two letters, each making a different sound, create a word. If we add the letter “m” to the end of “to”, we have the word (name), “Tom. The “o” is making a different sound. Add a final silent “e” to create the word, tome, and what do you know? The “o” makes a third sound (the same sound it makes in “go”). What if instead of “m”, we add “ss” for the word “toss”? Yep, a fourth sound. Use the letter “n” instead of “m” and you get the world “ton”, and we’re treated to the schwa sound.  What other words begin with t-o? And what do they sound like? In tow, town, toy, tough, and toil, the “o” is combined with other letters to make various other sounds.
            So what does this all mean?
            First of all, we adults know, there are many more opportunities for the young reading student to become fall into a ball of confusion, especially if they’re expected to figure all of this reading and spelling on their own. This is especially true for children who have been raised in poverty, or in a home where education is ignored or reviled. The child who’s been raised in a literate home has a huge head start in this quest and can sometimes figure this mess out with nominal help.
            For children born into the previously mentioned less than advantageous surroundings, wouldn’t it make more sense to give them a proper phonetic education so that the confusion can be, if not completely eliminated, at least minimized? There are reasons and rules for many (but not all) of the English language’s seeming inconsistencies. Sometimes, as in the case of “ton” it’s due to changing (some would say slovenly) speech patterns. Some are due to specific word origins. A knowledgeable teacher can turn these different sounds and spelling patterns into many “teachable moments” delving into history and literature and increasing student knowledge.
            Very few teachers are taught how. Most teachers are not knowledgeable about the workings of English. They flounder, miss opportunities, try to add a bit of “phonemic awareness”, try some useless interventions, and another generation of illiterates passes through their classroom.
            It’s  time to teach teachers to teach reading correctly, that is, phonetically.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Walter Williams agrees with me. There is no "right to literacy." He expresses it from a different but still valid (since he agrees with me) point of view. Yes, I am a Walter Williams fan. I have been for a long time, and I would be even if he didn't agree with me on this matter. Below is a taste. You can read the rest yourself.
In terms of per-pupil expenditures, the state does not treat Detroit public school students any differently than it does other students. According to the Michigan Department of Education, the Detroit school district ranks 50th in state spending, at $13,743 per pupil. This is out of 841 total districts. That puts Detroit schools in the top 6 percent of per-pupil expenditures in the state. Discrimination in school expenditures cannot explain poor educational outcomes for black students in Detroit or anywhere else in the nation. Let's look at routinely ignored educational impediments in Detroit and elsewhere.
Annie Ellington, director of the Detroit Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, reported that 87 percent of the 1,301 Detroit public school students interviewed in a survey last year knew someone who had been killed, disabled or wounded by gun violence. According to an article published by the American Psychological Association, 80 percent of teachers surveyed nationally in 2011 had been victimized at school at least once during that school year or the prior year. Detroit public schools are plagued with the same problems of violence faced by other predominately black schools in other cities.


Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Right to Literacy

Some Detroit Michigan students are suing Governor Snyder “charging that the State of Michigan has violated their right to literacy.” Right to literacy? How? Who is ultimately responsible for a person’s literacy? Even if a teacher is forced at gunpoint to teach children to read, will they all learn? Will they even show up to class? Detroit Public Schools has a truancy problem with almost 50 percent of its students chronically absent. Can’t learn if you’re not there.

And education is not something you’re born with or can be given to you. It’s something you build or develop – or not. Going deeper, how does one have a right to the gathering of knowledge, the cultivating of ability, the development of skills? There is no right to an education. There is only a responsibility to get an education, to work for an education, to teach your children so that they will value education and work for their own.

As the Talmud says, “Anyone who does not teach his son a skill or profession may be regarded as if he is teaching him to rob.” (Talmud Kiddushin 29a) Teach them as much as you can so that when they are not only ready but willing to do the difficult, sometimes tedious, but always rewarding work of learning.

A right? No. No one can give and no one can take away an education. There is only on way to get one: work for it. Spend the long hours at study or practice. There is no “magic bullet.” There are no short cuts. Turn off the TV, the video games, Facebook, etc. Pick up a book, a pencil, paper, and get busy. Do you have any books in your dwelling? Or do you spend your money on expensive gym shoes and electronic toys? Put your money where your “rights” are.

Can teachers and schools help? Absolutely. But don’t mistake going to school for getting an education, even if that school is a big time university. Millions have gone to school without getting an education. Some have spent their school days actively fighting against getting their own, and interfered with others who wanted to learn, thereby robbing them of needed learning. You may have met some of these idiots. Can they be sued for infringing on my children’s rights? (Of course, mostly my kids were in AP courses and didn’t have to deal with the idiots. The one class my one child had to take because it was the only one that fit into her schedule that wasn’t AP and that had some of the afore mentioned idiots, left her repeatedly angry until she figured out how to ignore them.)

Ray Bradbury said in a 2013 interview, “I didn’t go to college, but when I graduated from high school I went down to the local library and I spent ten years there, two or three days a week, and I got a better education than most people get from universities. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-eight years old.” Entitlement? Doesn’t sound like it to me. It’s funny how people who actually achieve something in life don’t wait for it to be handed to them because they’re “entitled” to it.

Eric Hoffer, another great mind who, rather than demand that he was entitled, worked as a longshoreman as he wrote his philosophical tracts. He too, spent many hours in the library and reading outside of the library. From his biography on The Eric Hoffer Project, “Through ten years as a migratory worker and as a gold-miner around Nevada City, Hoffer labored hard but continued to read and write during the years of the Great Depression. The Okies and the Arkies were the “new pioneers,” and Hoffer was one of them. He had library cards in a dozen towns along the railroad, and when he could afford it, he took a room near a library for concentrated thinking and writing.”

So go ahead and insist that you have a right to an education. Attack the government with lawsuits. Give statements to the newspapers. Protest. Seethe. Scream. Stamp your feet. Hold your breath until you turn blue. You will still be ignorant. Or you can pick up a book. Meet with friends to read and discuss the same book - not some trivial best seller, but maybe a classic or two. Explore the questions that have baffled mankind since the beginning of rational thought. Attach yourself to people who have the knowledge and skills that you want to learn. Then you can start your education.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Dorothy Sayers on Education - 1947

I had planned this blog to be all me, me, me, nothing but me. I'm the one who's been teaching in an urban district for the past 27 years. I'm the one who's watched and fought against the district slide further into failure year after frustrating year. I'm the one who decided to start this blog. But then I found this piece by Dorothy Sayers from 1947. It's long. It's scholarly. It's worth reading. I've reproduced a snippet below. I'm not going to waste anyone's time by critiquing or commenting. Go read the whole thing. It's worth it.
Is not the great defect of our education today--a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned--that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils "subjects," we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play "The Harmonious Blacksmith" upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized "The Harmonious Blacksmith," he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle "The Last Rose of Summer." Why do I say, "as though"? In certain of the arts and crafts, we sometimes do precisely this--requiring a child to "express himself" in paint before we teach him how to handle the colors and the brush. There is a school of thought which believes this to be the right way to set about the job. But observe: it is not the way in which a trained craftsman will go about to teach himself a new medium. He, having learned by experience the best way to economize labor and take the thing by the right end, will start off by doodling about on an odd piece of material, in order to "give himself the feel of the tool."
Let us now look at the mediaeval scheme of education--the syllabus of the Schools. It does not matter, for the moment, whether it was devised for small children or for older students, or how long people were supposed to take over it. What matters is the light it throws upon what the men of the Middle Ages supposed to be the object and the right order of the educative process.
The syllabus was divided into two parts: the Trivium and Quadrivium. The second part--the Quadrivium--consisted of "subjects," and need not for the moment concern us. The interesting thing for us is the composition of the Trivium, which preceded the Quadrivium and was the preliminary discipline for it. It consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order.
Now the first thing we notice is that two at any rate of these "subjects" are not what we should call "subjects" at all: they are only methods of dealing with subjects. Grammar, indeed, is a "subject" in the sense that it does mean definitely learning a language--at that period it meant learning Latin. But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to "subjects" at all. First, he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of a language, and hence of language itself--what it was, how it was put together, and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language; how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument. Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language-- how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.
At the end of his course, he was required to compose a thesis upon some theme set by his masters or chosen by himself, and afterwards to defend his thesis against the criticism of the faculty. By this time, he would have learned--or woe betide him-- not merely to write an essay on paper, but to speak audibly and intelligibly from a platform, and to use his wits quickly when heckled. There would also be questions, cogent and shrewd, from those who had already run the gauntlet of debate.