Six Tips for Growing Good Readers

I wrote following article for Forest of the Rain Productions this week (www.forestoftheraineducation.weebly.com)

In 2000, the National Reading Panel issued a report that served as the basis for reading instruction across the United States.  Many NCLB initiatives used the Panel’s report to justify a very narrow definition of reading instruction.  Their findings suggested that the best approaches to reading incorporate:

  • Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness
  • Systematic phonics instruction
  • Methods to improve fluency
  • Ways to enhance comprehension

Fourteen years later, as we prepare for the Common Core era, schools are hopefully shifting their focus to a broader and more comprehensive view of reading instruction.  Something significant has been lost with recent school reform efforts.  The creation of formulaic reading programs has moved schools away from fostering a lovefor learning in their students.

Before you can interest a child in unlocking the sounds associated with letters, you must at least light a candle of interest.  If you want children to become fluent readers who also comprehend, then show them how reading unlocks the world.  Schools wishing to elevate student success should encourage parents and teachers to consider the following tips on growing good readers:

1.      Talk to them

Vocabulary development and reading skills are linked processes.  The more you read, the better your vocabulary, the more you engage in conversation, the better you’ll be able to read.  Busy parents must take the time to talk with their children about a range of subjects.  Teachers must give their students opportunities to talk with their classmates.  While we can all appreciate the value of peace and quiet, our children will become better readers from ample opportunities to talk.

2.      Read to them

Oral comprehension supports the growth of independent reading skills.  Parents of young children should be reading to them every night.  Teachers should build read-alouds and books on tape into their daily instruction.  Older students also benefit from listening to others read.  You can turn the table on them by having students record themselves for others to listen to.

3.      Model good reading

Children tend to value what the adults in their lives show enthusiasm for.  If you want your child to be a reader, you have to model it.  Talk to them about the books you are reading.  Share your excitement about your favorite genre.  Have a quiet reading time in your home or classroom where everyone is reading at the same time.  Involve the extended family in sharing their reading interests.  Invite guest readers to the classroom to share their love for reading.

4.      Ask Questions

Questioning is the starting point for reading comprehension.  Good readers are constantly asking questions as they read.  Young readers should be encouraged to share what they are thinking as they are reading.  Reinforce questioning before, during, and after reading.  As children improve their questioning skills, raise the level from explicit to implicit questioning.

5.      Take them places

Background knowledge is vital for growing good readers.  Every trip a parent takes their child on, no matter how long or short, should involve literacy moments.  Trips to the store, to the park, or to the gas station can all provide teachable moments for parents.  Point out signs, letters, and numbers as you travel.  Have your child help you with the grocery list.  They can “read” it to you as you shop.  Children need to see the connection between reading and the real world.  The more background knowledge a child has, the better prepared they’ll be when the demands of reading get harder.

6.      Go to the library

You can never expose a child to too many books.  Our public libraries are tremendous resources for parents and teachers.  Many have very liberal policies when it comes to checking books out.  Your local library probably sponsors a summer reading program and many offer homework help for school-aged children.  In hard economic times, public libraries offer parents affordable and often free resources for growing young readers.

Good readers become great readers through a process that is part art and part science.  While phonemic awareness and phonics should be components of good reading instruction, we must remember to build a love for reading in our students.  A love for reading blooms in students who are exposed to a variety of literature using methods that actively engage them.

Let’s think of it this way:  the stem, leaf, roots, and flower are the phonics/phonemics of reading, the love for reading comes from the soil, sun, and water we supply.  If we provide the best of both for our students, they will surely become lifelong readers.

Retreating to the Chesapeake Bay

“A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest- but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.”

Richard Louv
Last Child in the Woods

I had the pleasure of spending three days last week on a principals’ retreat sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  We gathered at Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield, Maryland for introductions and orientation prior to boarding a CBF vessel for Tangier Island, Virginia.  Our three days were filled with exploration, discovery, and hands-on learning; the kind of teaching and learning that all children and adults should be exposed to.

The CBF principals’ program promotes using environmental education to boost academic achievement and get students involved in improving their community.  It offers participants a chance to network with other principals, to share ideas, and to learn from each other in a truly unique setting.

We canoed, scraped for soft crabs, set out and pulled in crab pots, visited the Tangier Combined School, fished, progged (beach combed) and ate local fare.  Maryland elementary, middle, and high school principals from Harford, Anne Arundel and Montgomery County participated.  It was obvious that each shared a passion for being outdoors and, most importantly, for involving their students and teachers in learning that promotes the value of environmental education.

One of the outcomes of the experience is that the participants develop an environmental education action plan.  Each principal creates a plan to pay their learning forward.  This aspect of the principals’ retreat has led to many schools in Maryland expanding environmental education opportunities for students.  Several of the principals are spreading the word to their districts on the benefits of getting their students outside.

Why does any of this matter?  It matters because we are raising a generation of students who spend little to no time in the outdoors.  While research supports the benefits of environmental education on learning, our motivation should be simpler.  We need to get our children outside because it’s good for them.  It makes them well-rounded individuals.  It makes all of us better people.  Don’t let this generation miss out on the value of knowing the woods or lying in a field listening to the wind and looking at the clouds.

Things I Forgot After 13 Years Away from the Classroom

This is a guest blog by veteran educator, Deborah Wooleyhand.

I was recently asked to cover a class at a local elementary school during state testing.  The teacher I substituted for was administering the assessment to a student with one/one accommodations.  I quickly agreed.  How hard could it be?  I was a kindergarten teacher for 18 years, so covering a class for a few hours would be no problem.

I have been out of the classroom for 13 years.  I forgot how children like to push the limit with a sub, even if you are married to the principal.  I forgot how fast a 5 year old can move, even when his shoes are untied.  I forgot how long it takes to get every shoe tied.  I forgot their shoes don’t remain tied for very long, even when you double-knot them.  I forgot that when one student wants a drink, suddenly the entire class is parched.  There is a lot I forgot while sitting behind a desk at district headquarters.

I also forgot that:

  • Children like routines and any disruption to their schedule matters.  The reality is no matter how detailed the lesson plan is, it cannot possibly capture all the important facts about each student in the class and it can’t explain how each routine is carried out. So when the schedule changes to accommodate testing and staff members are pulled to assist with testing, it matters.
  • Children have challenging behaviors, but they don’t mean to be challenging.  The schedule is different and they are trying to cope. 
  • Children love and are protective of their teachers.  They are happy to have a sub as long as they know their real teacher is okay and most importantly, coming back.

As you can see, there is a lot I forgot during my 13 year absence from the classroom.  Mostly, I forgot about the impact of decisions made in an office far from any school on the children in that school.  Decisions are made about testing, curriculum, and instructional methods, but we need to be mindful of how those decisions impact the daily operation of the school and ultimately the classroom.  We need to be reminded about the challenges teachers face on a daily basis as they juggle the demands of the curriculum with the needs of students and concerns of parents.

If, like me, you have been away from the classroom for a while, I encourage you to re-connect with the schools in your district.  Find a way to spend some meaningful time working with children in a classroom.  No matter what your current role is, the experience will remind you of why you do what you do.  I am sure that when you go to work the next day, you will have a renewed sense of purpose because you will have been reminded of how your position impacts the lives of children.  That is something none of us should forget.

Debbie Wooleyhand is an experienced pupil personnel worker for a large Maryland school district.  She can be followed on Twitter @ppw78.

Showing Up Is Important- Guest Blog by Debbie Wooleyhand

Promises and resolutions mark the start of the calendar year.  January is a great time for schools to review behavioral expectations with students and families.  One of the most important expectations a school can set is regular attendance.  Habits form early and parents are a child’s first teacher.  Educators need to empower parents and encourage them to teach their children about the importance of going to school.

Showing up is the greatest contribution a child can make to the classroom.  Typically, when a student is absent, the teacher will send home “make up” work.  Yet, there are events that occur in a classroom that can’t be sent home.  The calm that falls over a class when the teacher reads a story aloud, the spontaneous song that breaks out occasionally, or the shared laughter when something silly happens in the classroom- these are intangible moments.  They are the events that help create a special bond between teacher and students.  They are the moments that move a classroom from school-like to family-like.  No matter how hard we try, we can’t put those feelings in a backpack and send them home.

What message can school leaders share?  Tell your teachers about the power of a phone call home when a child is absent.  It lets the parent and child know you care and that it matters when they are not in school.  Let parents know that we really do want the best for their children, not just today, but every day and that begins by building good habits.  Other messages to share about attendance include:

  • Good attendance helps children do well in school and eventually on the job
  • Attendance matters as early as kindergarten
  • Sporadic absences matter. Before you know it, a child has missed 10 percent of the school year
  • Don’t let your child stay home unless he is truly sick.  Complaints about a headache or stomach ache can be a sign of anxiety and not a reason to keep your child home from school
  • Avoid medical appointments and extended trips when school is in session

Lastly, attending school regularly helps children feel better about school and themselves.  My resolution for 2014 is to share the message of the importance of school attendance.  I resolve to talk about it every day. See you in school!

Information contained in this blog came from www.attendanceworks.org.

Debbie Wooleyhand is a veteran educator and pupil personnel worker in a school district with over 70,000 students.  She can be followed on Twitter @ppw78.

Will Testing Be the Focus of Pre-K Programs?

The current pre-kindergarten bills being discussed before the United States Senate and House have the potential to positively impact education across our country.  The decision to provide states with the funds to meet the needs of our youngest learners signals a fundamental shift in thinking.  Federal and state politicians seem to finally agree that our country needs to focus on early childhood education.

The House proposal (H.R. 1041- PRE-K Act) includes the following language regarding what pre-kindergarten programs should look like:

Use of research-based curricula that are aligned with State early learning standards that are developmentally appropriate and include, at a minimum, each of the following domains:

(i) Language development.
(ii) Literacy.
(iii) Mathematics.
(iv) Science.
(v) Creative arts.
(vi) Social and emotional development.
(vii) Approaches to learning.
(viii) Physical and health development.

The House’s description seems to be aligned with the goals of most state-level early childhood programs.  They could add a line about the importance of developing a curiosity and love for learning, but maybe they consider that covered under (vi) and (vii).  States will likely have some freedom in choosing the scope and sequence of their pre-kindergarten programs.  Like Race to the Top, however, they will have to meet specific requirements in order to “opt in” to the federal program and receive funding.

On the surface, the proposals by the House and Senate seem to mean nothing but good things to come for early childhood education in the United States. There is, however, one catch that doesn’t seem to be getting much attention.  Both the Senate and House proposals include language that requires states to have a monitoring process to evaluate the effectiveness of their pre-kindergarten programs.  In her Edweek blog, Alyson Klein noted that, “States would have to have early-learning standards, be able to link preschool data to K-12, and provide state-funded kindergarten, among other requirements.”

Yes, accountability is important.  The federal government will expect to have a certain level of control when their funds are used for pre-kindergarten programs.  My worry is that the feds and states will turn the accountability piece into an early childhood version of NCLB and Race to the Top.

Will their pattern of focusing on data override the need to train teachers, provide materials, and build strong early childhood programs?  Maybe some brave member of Congress can bring this concern up before we have a law on the books that leads to an over-emphasis on testing our youngest learners.  Perhaps we could focus first on providing them with rich learning environments and highly skilled teachers.  If we truly care about early childhood education in the United States, we should build the programs up before we examine their efficacy.

What About Kindergarten?

The United States House of Representatives and Senate are currently considering separate bills on strengthening pre-kindergarten programs across the United States.  On the surface, this sounds like great news.  Who would argue against providing educational opportunities to four-year-olds?

There is, however, (at least) one problem.  The House and Senate bills do not address the need to provide all day kindergarten in all fifty states.  President Obama’s initial proposal included funds for all-day kindergarten.  The House and Senate proposals lack that element and include funding formulas that are discretionary (Alyson Klein, Edweek Blog, November 13, 2013).

This could lead to the age-old problem of unfunded mandates.  By the eighth year of the proposed Senate bill, states would be responsible for providing 50% of the cost of their pre-kindergarten programs.  Where that money would come from is a mystery.

So, as exciting as funding for pre-kindergarten sounds, we are still a nation without full-day kindergarten in all fifty states.  In fact, only ten (10) states and DC offer full day kindergarten programs.  Thirty-four (34) states offer half day kindergarten programs and six (6) have no requirement for kindergarten attendance.  In addition, many of the states that offer kindergarten programs do so without making attendance mandatory (childrensdefense.org).

Any bill being proposed to build pre-kindergarten programs must include funding for mandatory full-day kindergarten programs in all fifty states first.  Can you imagine states developing strong pre-kindergarten programs and then sending their students to kindergarten programs that are half day and/or optional?

We should applaud the President, the Senate, and the House for making early childhood education a priority.  Those who work in primary level schools can tell you that the earlier we get children in school, the bigger impact we can make.  The opportunity to reach out to four-year-olds and their families is exciting.  It is, however, tempered by the knowledge that as a nation we have yet to fully commit to the education of our five-year-olds.  Let’s get that right first and then address the pre-kindergarten dilemma.

Related links:

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/sarameads_policy_notebook/2013/11/harkin-miller_pre-k_bill_released_whats_good_whats_not_so_good_and_a_few_key_questions.html

http://earlyed.newamerica.net/blogposts/2012/full_day_kindergarten-65006

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2013/11/house_and_senate_preschool_bil.html

Raising Resilient Children

My father was 21 and my mother 19 when they married in 1962.  My mother gave my father an ultimatum.  He could choose her, or he could choose the Navy.  He chose her, then later joined the Navy.  I can remember my mother telling stories about how she would look for spare change in parking lots while my dad was serving at the Virginia Beach Naval Base.

I have three brothers.  We were born between 1963 and 1969.  We were poor by any measure, but we were not raised to wallow in pity for the things we didn’t have.  We were part of the “tough love” generation.  You got what you got and you were grateful for it.  You didn’t show off.  Humility was instilled by your relatives, sometimes in quick and painful ways.  While we didn’t realize it then, our parents raised us to be resilient.

Children today seem to lack resilience.  They struggle when things don’t go their way and seem to have few strategies for dealing with the roadblocks that life places before them.  While the challenges of growing up in the new millennium are much different than in the 60s, resilience seems to be more important now than ever.

One can speculate on why things have changed.  Do modern parents give their children too much?  Do they go to great measures to keep from disappointing them?  Do they run interference for any and every problem they face?  The answer to all three questions is probably, yes.

The reasons why children lack resilience are intriguing. It’s more productive, however, to focus on building resilience in the modern child.  What tools can we give children so they are better able to handle the stress of growing up in today’s world?

Margarita Tartakovsky provides tips for raising resilient children at psychcentral.com.

Tartakovsky’s advice includes:

-Help them become problem solvers- they’ll need lots of practice
-Don’t give them everything, or give in to everything they demand
-Don’t give them all the answers
-Let them make mistakes
-Model resilience

What seems certain is that parents and schools will need to partner in their resilience-building efforts.  By working together, parents and educators can provide children with opportunities to demonstrate their resilience skills in safe and supportive settings.

See the links below for more information on helping children be more resilient:

http://psychcentral.com/lib/10-tips-for-raising-resilient-kids/00017272

http://www.beststart.org/resources/hlthy_chld_dev/pdf/BSRC_Resilience_English_fnl.pdf