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Teaching Reading in Science Class: A Common Core Trend?

Common Core

The majority of passages in statewide reading assessments are now made up of non-fiction, informational material. Seeing this trend only grow, administrators have begun asking teachers in subjects other than English Language Arts (ELA) to start incorporating more reading and writing tasks in their courses. They point out that a lot of graphs and statistics appear in these assessments. The essays tend to be of a historical nature. Scientific articles and stories appear often.

It makes sense. How many working adults in their daily lives are asked to read and react to pieces from Mark Twain or F. Scott Fitzgerald? Now, how many of those adults in their work have to read and react to reports, news articles, or other informational reading materials on a daily basis? Even in jobs that can be classified as “math jobs” or “science jobs”, skills like understanding the author’s purpose and comparing and contrasting matter.

An evolution, dictated by the Common Core

The new Common Core standards for reading have validated this approach, with language clearly stating that our students should be proficient readers of informational texts - not just literature. They have refocused ELA instruction to create a well-rounded reader and writer, not just one that can discuss personification or onomatopoeia.

To be clear, students are still expected to learn their reading and writing skills in their ELA classes. But what’s the harm in asking students to argue a cogent point or extrapolate information from the relevant texts while learning about science or social studies?

The theory is that more practice will equal better results. But the teachers of other subject areas are not as experienced in creating lessons that utilize these sought after skills. They need help, and not just from the ELA teachers at their school. 

The implementation solution

To that end, teachers across the subject areas have begun employing template tasks, writing prompts that ask teachers to “fill in the blanks” in order to make the prompt relevant to their own subject area.

These template tasks are the work of the Literacy Design Collaborative on behalf of the Gates Foundation. The hope is that if they make incorporating ELA strategies easy enough, more teachers of the other subject areas will be willing to integrate reading and writing practice in their classes.

An example of an informational template task would be “After researching (informational texts) on (content), write a (report or essay) that defines and explains (content). Support your discussion with evidence from your research. What implications can you draw?”

These templates make reading and writing tasks accessible across the curriculum, giving students further opportunities to practice the skills they learn in their English/language arts classes.

The success of our schools - not just on statewide assessments but in the altruistic goal of creating students prepared to contribute in the working world - is finally a cross-curricular effort.

For further reading:

Reading on Science, Social Studies Teachers' Agendas

Literacy Design Collaborative

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Related reading:

21st Century Learning: Preparing Students Today

Common Core Reading Recommendations and the Role of the Teacher



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Categories: Education Trends, Reading & Learning

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Eric Jensen Links New Brain Research With Teaching in New Webinar

Eric Jensen

In a recent webinar for Scientific Learning titled “Teaching With the Brain In Mind”, Eric Jensen discussed the newest concepts in brain research and how they relate to teaching and classroom strategies. Jensen is the author of 24 books on brain research and is a former educator himself.

It turns out that almost everything that educators assume to be correct about the development of the brain in children and adolescents is mistaken. Mr. Jensen summarized what current research tells us about the childhood brain in three simple points:

1.      Brains are far more variable than previously thought

It turns out that “normal, healthy brains” only exist in about 10% of the population. For the other 90%, plenty of internal and external factors have affected their development. This finding supports teachers’ intuition, that educational differentiation is just as important as they have always suspected.

2.      Brains have the ability to change more than previously thought

An idea that gives hope to teachers everywhere, Mr. Jensen detailed research on brain plasticity, or a brain’s ability to change throughout life.  A “plastic” brain thrives when in an optimal educational setting , but the converse is also true. High-performing students in the hands of low-performing teachers can and often do regress rapidly.

3.      Every cognitive skill can be taught

Skills previously thought to be inherent or genetic, like attention span or capacity for responsibility, are actually teachable. This finding obviously has revolutionary implications for classroom management strategies. When paired with the previous two findings, one can conclude that every child has the ultimate potential for success when met with the proper strategies and support.

Throughout the webinar, Mr. Jensen tied the above guiding principles to real-world examples in a classroom. He touched on the efficacy of products like Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant, which are leaders in utilizing these guiding principles to make reading gains.

The professional educator leaves this talk not only with new insights into the workings of the childhood brain, but also with practical strategies that can be used the next day with students.



Related reading:

7 Amazing Discoveries from Brain Research

Brain Plasticity: A New Frontier For Education and Learning


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Categories: Brain Research, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Reading Assistant, Special Education

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How to Re-Wire your Burned-Out Brain


So it is only October and the buzz and excitement of starting a new school year has already fizzled. Life is a little boring, the holidays seem too far away, you are more tired than usual, and you are having a little trouble getting enthusiastic about your job or your children’s upcoming book reports and science projects, or whatever. What’s going on? Of course you know, burn-out.

What exactly is burn-out? Does it come from working too hard, not being appreciated?  Perhaps, but from the standpoint of the brain, burn-out occurs when motivation declines.  The human brain is designed to keep motivation levels high for activities we need to survive, those that are very rewarding, and those that involve novelty.  Hence we are usually very motivated to escape a dangerous situation, eat chocolate cake and watch a new movie we just purchased. We tend to associate reward and novelty with play and leisure – video games, a golf or tennis match, watching a new TV show or a sports event, playing a new board game,   or visiting a new vacation spot – even though we might work very hard at those activities.  Rarely do you hear avid golfers complain about golf burnout.  But you also rarely hear CEOs talk about being burned out. They may retire to relieve the stress of their job or spend more time with their family, but rarely do they complain about their workload or burnout.  Why not? Because the excitement of a new round of golf and the reward that might come from winning or achieving a greater profit margin motivates the golfer and the CEO.  However, when your daily life becomes repetitive, unexciting or non-rewarding, motivation decreases. Burn-out is really the symptom of a brain that has lost its motivation. And motivation declines when two important aspects of life are missing – earned reward and novelty.

So, what can you do about burn-out?  The answer actually comes from neuroscience research. Whether your burn-out is associated with a job in or out of the home, the solution is not to work less and play more (because poverty is not very rewarding).  Rather, the solution is to turn work into play.  And the way to do that is to imbue your day with novelty and challenges where there is an expectation of reward.

Reward thyself:  If your work is not very rewarding or your boss is not good at showing appreciation, one important key to avoiding burnout is to build in self rewards for a job well done. Each morning, next to your to-do list, make a “reward when completed list”.

  • After I work out I will…buy myself a little treat (a new pen, some fun post-it notes or allow myself a small ice cream cone)
  • After I finish my major work project I will…do something nice for myself (set aside time to watch the football game I recorded last week but never had a chance to watch, take a long hot shower with a special soap or set aside an evening with a few close friends)
  • After the house is cleaned I will…do something that makes me feel better (take a short walk to the park, check out some of the new houses for sale in my neighborhood, call a high school friend I haven’t talked to for months)

Keep it new: If a job largely involves repetitive routines, try to come up with something new to add.

  • Long boring commute – add something  different each week 
    • Try a slightly new route
    • Add a new song or pod-cast to your iPod to listen to
    • Rent audio books from the library
  • Hours at a computer – add something new to look forward to
    • Listen to music in the background using headphones
    • Make a contest or start a pool with workmates over your most boring tasks. Guessing the number of junk mail messages each of you has to delete each week – the losers take the winner out to lunch on Friday
    • Start a company softball or volleyball team, a duplicate bridge competition, a  bowling league, a game of cards at lunch
  • Change it up – change your routine
    • If you always eat lunch at noon, eat a late breakfast and take a mid-afternoon walk
    • If you always get in at 8:30 and leave at 4:30 pm, try a few days of getting in at 7:45, leave by 3:45 and go for a swim or a late afternoon hike
    • Do it a new way – rotate the pillows on each of the beds you make each morning, move the living room furniture around,  try one new recipe for dinner each week, learn a new technology to make your life a work simpler, take a management course and implement one new idea a week

Delay gratification: Make your work schedule its own reward by scheduling  your most boring task first each day and your favorite task last so all day you are looking forward to the activity you enjoy the most.

Finally, build in healthy brain-building activities to your week. A happy brain is a brain that is thinking, creating, planning, solving, and learning new things. Schedule activities outside of work that make you feel good about yourself and keep your mind sharp:

  • Bridge
  • Chess
  • Sewing
  • A musical instrument
  • Dancing
  • A class at the local junior college
  • A new hobby:  furniture upholstering, furniture refinishing, water color painting, crafts
  • A new language!

Related reading:

Lifelong Learning and the Plastic Brain

Creating the Optimal "Internal" Learning Environment


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Categories: Brain Fitness, Family Focus, Reading & Learning

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Demystifying Executive Functions in Preschool Children

childhood brain development

In a recent webinar, Dr. William Jenkins, a leader in the field of childhood brain development and one of the founders of Scientific Learning, presented on the importance of executive functions in the development of preschool students.

As described by Dr. Jenkins, the executive functions of the brain consist of:

  • Working memory: the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind for short periods of time (e.g., remembering what happened in the beginning of a story by the time the ending comes around)
  • Inhibitory control: the ability to control inappropriate behaviors or responses (e.g., not stealing a toy from a classmate)
  • Cognitive/mental flexibility: the ability to transition from one activity to another with ease (e.g., going from a matching task to an opposites task or from playing inside to outside)

In other words, these processes are the ones that allow a small child to develop good learning habits, pay attention in class, ignore distractions, and think creatively when unexpected outcomes occur.

Where do they come from?

One of the misconceptions among preschool teachers and parents is that executive functions are inherently developed rather than taught, a product of the genetic lottery rather than learned behaviors. This is a dangerous proposition.

Studies show that these skills need to be introduced early in life and practiced in preschool in order for students to have a greater chance at academic success later in their school careers. “These skills support the process (i.e., the HOW) of learning – focusing, remembering, planning – that enables children to effectively and efficiently master the content (i.e., the WHAT),” Dr. Jenkins said.

What can an educator do?                            

The good news for educators is that we already have the tools to help address executive functions. They tend to be grouped under the heading “classroom management”.

Think about it. It requires working memory to be able to follow directions. It takes cognitive and mental flexibility to understand why we behave differently out on the playground than we do in the classroom. And nearly every classroom rule ever written is either aided or hindered by a child’s ability to inhibit their immediate needs and desires.

According to the webinar and an accompanying white paper authored by Alexandra Main, it’s never too late to address these skills with students. The prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain that tends to govern executive functions - continues to develop in humans well after their twentieth birthday. Of course, by then the child is either about to graduate college or has already ended their scholastic careers.

With all of this evidence, it’s imperative that teachers in early childhood education – especially preschool teachers – rededicate themselves to instruction in these executive skills using the best practices and patience that they use during reading and math skills instruction. There are remediation opportunities for children that have fallen behind in their executive functions, including some software programs discussed in the white paper.

But if you wait too long to address these skills, their lack of success in executive functions will translate into a lack of success in the academic skills in which they will be measured later in their school careers.



For further reading:

InBrief: Executive Function: Skills for Life and Learning

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Brain-Building for Third Grade Reading Proficiency

reading proficiency“One in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not
graduate from high school on time, (which is) four times greater than that for
proficient readers.”

A major finding in "Double Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation", by Donald J. Hernandez (Professor, Hunter College and Graduate Center, City University of New York) and The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The sobering statistics related to third grade reading proficiency and high school graduation are expertly laid out in the 2011 study quoted above, and the subject has subsequently become a hot topic in education circles ever since.

Dr. Martha Burns' latest free webinar for Scientific Learning, Read by Third Grade, directly confronts the facts related to this issue and offers tips and tools for educators to reverse this statistic.  By identifying reading difficulties early and implementing proven solutions, educators can put students back on track to reading proficiency.

Using neuroscience research and relevant data from a wide range of sources to illustrate her points, Dr. Burns first reminds us of the enormous power classroom teachers possess as "brain-changers": adults who have the ability to increase, enhance, and upregulate the capacity of young people's brains on a daily basis. She then takes viewers step-by-step through the nuts and bolts of "brain-building" for reading proficiency and includes a thoroughly scientific but completely accessible primer on "brain architecture". She also offers a wealth of information about English Language Learners, provides easy-to-implement classroom tips, and reviews compelling statistics on how Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant products specifically target the skills that prevent so many struggling readers from reaching proficiency.



For further reading:

Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation

Related reading:

Reading to Learn: Meeting the Challenge of Third Grade Reading Proficiency

What Makes a Good Reader? The Foundations of Reading Proficiency

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Categories: Brain Research, Education Trends, English Language Learners, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Reading Assistant

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