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There’s a tug of war going on in American schools, a tension between learners’ developmental needs and the academic rigor required to meet challenging educational standards. In the classroom, where standardized assessments are the driving force of the day, the developmental realities of learners are often overlooked and shortchanged—and it’s something we ought to be talking about.
Signs of a Struggle
My co-worker’s son, Eli, is a case in point. As a kindergartener, he was expected to sit cross-legged with his hands in his lap on an 18” x 18” carpet square for 30-40 minutes of circle time each morning—something he was often unable to do. His teacher regularly reported home that Eli needed to improve in his ability to sit still, and the enthusiasm he had for school in September quickly waned.
His mother discussed the situation with her child’s pediatrician, who replied that Eli’s difficulty sitting still was a developmental stage that was perfectly normal for a five-year-old boy. The doctor also noted that Eli was expending so much energy trying to sit still that he was probably not able to attend to what he was supposed to be learning.
Eli’s parents transferred him to a different school the following year where he was assigned a teacher who designed her learners’ activities with their developmental needs in mind. For example, she gave her socially focused first-graders many opportunities to work with other learners in pairs or groups. Eli’s motivation skyrocketed, and in addition to performing at the top of his class academically, he began describing himself as a person who liked to be challenged.
Meeting Learners Where They Are
With so much to accomplish each year, and so little time, it’s no surprise that considerations around learners’ developmental stages often take a back seat to the focus on academic rigor. But as Eli and his parents learned, a standards-based curriculum isn’t likely to be effective if students are developmentally unable to attend to the material as it’s presented.
Some educators are calling for a renewed interest in child development and a move toward creating more developmentally appropriate classrooms for young learners. What might classrooms look like if developmental considerations were given greater weight? Here are just a few possibilities:
The Original Common Core
Long before we had the Common Core Standards, we understood that there are developmental stages that children step through as they move toward adulthood. Although children progress through them at different rates and there can be considerable overlap between stages, the stages are predictable for most children.
Learners bring their entire developmental selves to school each day, not just the cognitive components that are reflected in their standardized test scores. Classrooms that don’t take standards and developmental considerations into account aren’t likely to move students as far ahead as they need to go to stay on track.
Educators may find that aligning communication styles and classroom activities with their learners’ developmental stages results in less time spent on discipline and more time on task. Loosening the reins a little by adapting to learners can support the more “serious” work of building the cognitive skills that matter so much in meeting today’s standards.
Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.
Eccles, J.S. (1999). The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14. The Future of Children, 9(2), 30-44.
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If you want to master something, teach it. Or so the saying goes. But is the platitude based in fact? Can students really learn better by explaining? The evidence says yes.
The Self-Explanation Effect
Research shows that coming up with an explanation can help students learn more effectively than having an explanation handed to them (Fonesca and Chi, 2010). For example, when two groups of learners study the same material but only one group is tasked with explaining it (the other group engages in alternative tasks or spends an equivalent amount of time studying), the explainers typically outscore the non-explainers on a post-test (Lombrozo, 2013).
How Explaining Helps Students Learn
How does explaining yield these results? Hypotheses abound:
There’s recent evidence, as well, that explaining may be easier than predicting. Preschoolers in one study, for example, were able to explain another person’s behavior more accurately than they were able to predict it (Legare, Wellman, & Gelman, 2010).
Why Does Explaining Help Learning?
One theory says that explaining sheds light on causal relationships and causal mechanisms. For instance, when a group of children was asked to explain how an unfamiliar mechanical toy worked, the explainer group showed a greater understanding of the toy’s mechanics than did children in another group that was invited to simply observe the toy. However, the explainer group did not have any greater awareness than the observer group when it came to details that weren’t relevant to the toy’s workings—such as the toy’s colors (Legare and Lombrozo, unpublished data, cited in Lombrozo, 2013).
An alternate theory suggests that explaining helps learning because it requires the learner to relate a specific property or event to more general principles or patterns. In studies of category learning, learners who were tasked with explaining were more likely to discover patterns underlying the category structure than learners who were given alternate tasks (Williams and Lombrozo, 2010). This theory also predicts that explaining can sometimes impair learning when the material being explained is not strongly rule-based—and recent findings confirm this prediction (Williams, Lombrozo, & Rehder, 2010).
Much is still unknown about the role of explanation in learning, but it’s clear that explaining engages the brain in a way that other tasks do not. Perhaps some of the benefit comes from the fact that explaining something clearly and accurately demands more evolved language skills than those required when simply receiving an explanation. Students who improve their language skills, as with Fast ForWord, are likely to be better explainers and learners—and that sounds like a pretty big win in the classroom.
Fonesca, B.A., & Chi, M.T.H. (2010). Instruction based on self-explanation. In R. Mayer & P. Alexander (Eds.), The handbook of research on learning and instruction (pp. 296-321). Oxford, UK: Routledge.
Lombrozo, T. (2013) Explanation and abductive inference. In K.J. Holyoak & R.G. Morrison (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of thinking and reasoning (pp. 260-276). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Legare, C.H., Wellman, H.M., & Gelman, S.A. (2009). Evidence for an explanation advantage in naïve biological reasoning. Cognitive Psychology, 58(2), 177-194. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsych.2008.06.002
Williams, J.J., & Lombrozo, T. (2010). The role of explanation in discovery and generalization: evidence from category learning. Cognitive Science, 34(5), 776-806. doi:10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01113.x
Williams, J.J., Lombrozo, T., & Rehder, b. (2010). Why does explaining help learning? Insight from an explanation impairment effect. In S. Ohlsson & R. Catrambone (Eds.) Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 2906-2911). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society. Retrieved from http://cocosci.berkeley.edu/joseph/WilliamsLombrozoRehder.pdf
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Do you recall how you learned to read? Were you an early reader, someone who learned to read before starting school? I was an early reader and so were my brother and sister. Yet, we didn’t learn to read in the way that most early readers learn.
According to Dolores Durkin’s landmark study of early readers, most children who start school knowing how to read were read to on a regular basis by their parents. My family was lower middle-class and I cannot recall my parents reading to or with me in the traditional sense—sitting next to me with a children’s storybook. Indeed, after reading Durkin’s study, I had to ask my mother how I learned to read.
When I chatted with my mother about this, she reminded me that my father was a musician who played in his band on weekends at local clubs. Although his day job was as a factory worker, he would regularly come home from work, take his shower, and come into the living room with his saxophone or clarinet in hand. For a half hour to an hour several days a week he would rehearse for his upcoming gig (big band songs popular from the 1940s and 50s) while my mother, brother, sister, and I would often sit with him and sing along with the songs that we had heard him play and heard on the radio throughout our childhoods. We also had songbooks in front of us so we could follow along with the words after my mother’s lead. The rhythmic and melodic nature of these old songs made them easy to learn and remember. As we sang them week after week, we apparently began to match the words that we were singing with the printed words in the songbooks. I never thought of this as reading, but in retrospect it clearly was one of my initiations into reading the printed word.
I also remember my mother regularly reading poetry to me after I had said my nighttime prayers and before I went to sleep. Mom often had a favorite child’s poem or prayer that she would read once or twice while I would listen. After a minute or two to chat about the poem I was off to sleep. Over the course of the next several days she would bring in the same poem and invite me to join in the recitation, eventually reaching the point where I could often recite the entire text on my own. Later, she would show me the poem in the printed form and I found I could read it to her. Although my “reading” was mostly a matter of memorization of the poem, the fact that I was matching the words I recited to the words on the page was an early form of reading. Interestingly, when my mom took me in for first grade screening (we didn’t have kindergarten in my school), I read for the teacher and found myself spending time in the second grade classroom for reading instruction.
Now years later as I reflect on how I learned to read, I realize that many of the things my parents had done to introduce me into reading were much the same methods that have been advocated for building phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency—the Common Core foundations for reading. My parents exposed me to short, highly rhythmic and melodic texts that were enjoyable, easy to learn, and played with the sounds of language. Before I recited the songs and poems on my own, my parents modeled the texts by reading or singing them to me. Later we engaged in a form of assisted reading by reading them together as a family or with one of my parents. And then, once I had learned the songs and poems, I found myself reciting them over and over again—I had a hard time getting them out of my head. Although my parents may not have known the term “repeated reading,” that was exactly what they were providing for my siblings and me.
Sometimes the best models for good reading instruction can be found in our own personal histories. I think I found my models and inspiration for my work in reading fluency from my own parents. Thanks Mom and Dad!
Reutzel, D.R. & Cooter, R.B. (2004). The Essentials of Teaching Children to Read. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
1Durkin, D. (1978 - 1979). What classroom observations reveal about reading comprehension instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 14, pp. 481-533.
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If you’ve been following Dr. Timothy Rasinski’s webinars and posts on this blog, then you know how passionate he is about reading fluency. In September, more than 2000 educators signed up to hear Dr. Rasinski speak about the importance of fluency instruction.
What fluency is really about, Rasinski explained, is automaticity in word recognition and reading with appropriate expression. There are many kids at the middle school level and higher—and even adults—Rasinski said, who come across as robotic readers and could benefit from greater fluency.
Dr. Rasinski entertained many questions along the way in his most recent webinar, such as:
A recording of the complete webinar, including audience questions and answers, is now available. Anyone who works with beginning or struggling readers, or who wishes to improve their own reading fluency, can benefit from Rasinski’s insights.
In just a few short weeks, Dr. Rasinski will return to give a follow-up presentation continuing the fluency conversation. The next presentation will focus on methods for effective reading practice. Check our webinar registration page for details, or follow us on Twitter or Facebook for webinar announcements
See the original infographic at http://www.readingassistant.com.
Chances are, you’re doing something else at the same time you’re reading this blog post—at least partially. Divided attention is just part of the program in today’s “always-on” environment, and being constantly connected usually means spending a lot of time in front of a screen.
Not surprisingly, our kids’ screen time is increasing along with our own. As a result, language delays due to excessive screen time are becoming a cause for concern.
Too Much, Too Young
When children spend a lot of time in front of a screen—especially when that screen serves as a virtual babysitter for the child—it makes sense to expect that there’s going to be an impact.
One study published in Acta Paediatrica (Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda, 2008) found that children who started watching television before their first birthday, and who watched more than two hours per day, were six times more likely to have language delays than children in a control group.
The Dwindling Art of Two-Way Conversation
What seems to matter even more than the amount of screen time is the degree of adult involvement and interaction with that screen time. Both the Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda study and another study published in PEDIATRICS (Zimmerman, et al., 2009) have shown that when adults guide a child’s screen time and engage the child in two-way conversation about it, the detrimental effect on language development can be neutralized.
Children require conversation to develop robust language skills, and they need adults to invite and shape that conversation in ways that help them think about the world and formulate the language that expresses their thoughts. Even reading to children and telling them stories—both of which are important—are not enough by themselves to support healthy language development.
Connected vs. Connection
In some cases, it may actually be parents’ screen time that’s the problem. For a variety of reasons—including job pressures and shifts in culture—parent screen time has started to encroach upon family time, displacing adult-child interaction.
In her book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, Catherine Steiner-Adair shares the stories of children and teenagers who are sidelined by their parents’ use of technology and who long for their undivided attention. The overwhelming message from the kids is that “it feels ‘bad and sad’ to be ignored.”
If kids aren’t getting the attention they want from their parents, how likely is it that they’re getting enough of the conversation that they need to develop important life skills—including language skills?
Language isn’t just a tool used to communicate at the dinner table or in the classroom; it’s a living part of who we are, and comes to life and grows in our relationships, our conversations, and in caring for—and being cared for—by others.
As hard as it can be to manage the competing demands of work and family—or to break the habit of being “always on”—there’s no substitute for listening, asking questions, and being interested in kids’ lives.
Chonchaiya, W., & Pruksananonda, C. (2008). Television viewing associates with delayed language development. Acta Paediatrica, 97(7), 977-982. doi: 10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.00831.x
Steiner-Adair, C. (2013). The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. New York, NY: Harper.
Zimmerman, F.J., Gilkerson, J., Richards, J.A., Christakis, D.A., Xu, D., Gray, S., & Yapanel, U. (2009). Teaching by Listening: The Importance of Adult-Child Conversations to Language Development. Pediatrics, 124(1), 342-349. doi: 10.1542/peds.2008-2267
“There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, ‘How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?’ you are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you must practice one activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another.”
-Norman Doidge in The Brain that Changes Itself
The Critical Period
From our very earliest days, our brain begins to map itself to the world as we experience it through our senses. The mapping is vague at first, lacking detail, but the more we interact with the world, the more well-defined our brain maps become until they are fully formed and differentiated.
“The critical period” is the name given to the time in infancy and early childhood during which our brain is so plastic that its structure is easily changed by simple exposure to new things in the environment. Babies, for example, learn the sounds of language and words effortlessly by listening to their parents speak. Inside the brain, what this learning looks like is the brain actually rewiring itself to change its own structure.
Use It or Lose It: Training the Brain to Form New Maps
Just a few decades ago, the prevailing scientific view held that the brain was a finely tuned machine that operated within a fixed scope of ability once the critical period had passed. But in the 1990s, through a series of experiments with monkeys, Dr. Michael Merzenich discovered that our brains can change well past the critical period—and indeed throughout our lives. But learning that takes place after the critical period is no longer effortless, and children and adults must work hard to pay attention to the new information that they wish to absorb and master.
The maxim commonly used to describe the phenomenon of neural learning is “neurons that fire together wire together,” and it’s this “wiring together” that results in the corresponding structural changes in the brain. Timing is key to the process, with neurons that fire simultaneously wiring together to create a map.
The space allocated to a neural map evolves over a number of stages. When learning is taking place, a relatively large space is allocated to the map. Once a skill is established, the mapped neurons become so efficient that fewer are needed—allowing some of the map space to be reallocated again for new learning. It’s a practical use-it-or-lose-it process that allows us to continue picking up new skills without bumping into space limits in the brain. Taking up a musical instrument such as violin, for example, causes more map space to be allocated to the playing fingers, and consequently, less space is allocated where there is lower demand.
As we develop mastery of a skill, our neurons not only grow to be more efficient, but they also begin to process faster. With that faster processing they tend to fire together more readily as well, creating more groups of neurons that send out clearer signals. The clarity of those signals has a great deal to do with how well the brain learns and remembers what the neurons have processed. The clearer the signal, the more clearly the brain remembers.
But what if there are gaps or inefficiencies in the maps that have been established?
From the Lab to the Learner
Dr. Merzenich had become interested in the work of Dr. Paula Tallal at Rutgers University. Dr. Tallal was interested in understanding why some children have more trouble than others when it comes to learning to read. Her research had shown that auditory processing problems were causing the “fast parts” of speech—common combinations of consonants and vowels that are pronounced very quickly—to be problematic for children with language difficulties.
Dr. Merzenich believed the problem was a matter of the children’s auditory processing speed lagging behind the speed of the speech sounds, resulting in an inability to distinguish differences between similar sounds or to perceive the correct sequence of sounds when they occurred in rapid succession.
Another known contributing factor was that of neural readiness. After processing a sound, neurons require a rest period before they can fire again. Normally this rest period is about 30 milliseconds, but for most children with language impairments it takes at least three times as long for the neuron to recover. The result is that a lot of critical language information is simply missed during the rest period.
Merzenich and Tallal believed they could combine forces to effectively help children who struggled to read. In 1996, Merzenich and his colleague Dr. Bill Jenkins teamed up with Tallal and her colleague Dr. Steve Miller to develop a real-world application of the science of neural plasticity by creating a product that could help struggling readers rewire their brains. From this union, Scientific Learning was born.
The partnership between Merzenich, Jenkins, Tallal, and Miller resulted in the software product that today we call Fast ForWord. Fast ForWord was carefully designed in the guise of a video game that could challenge and develop cognitive skills like memory, attention, processing speed, and sequencing as well as language and reading skills from phonemic awareness to decoding and comprehension.
Merzenich and Jenkins wanted Fast ForWord to trigger the children’s brains to secrete dopamine and acetylcholine—neurotransmitters that help lock in learning. Because the brain secretes these neurotransmitters when it gets rewarded, a generous supply of entertaining animations was built into the product to play spontaneously when a child achieved a goal.
From the very beginning, Fast ForWord elicited remarkable results. Children who participated in the initial field trial boosted their language development by 1.8 years, on average, in just six weeks. A subsequent study at Stanford University, dyslexic children’s brains showed increased activity in several areas after Fast ForWord, bringing them more in line with the patterns seen in typical readers’ brains. The dyslexic children’s brains had shown different patterns of activity before Fast ForWord (as revealed by fMRI).
In the 14 years since the field trial, Fast ForWord has been used by more than 2.7 million children around the world, with achievement gains of up to two years in as little as three months. During this time, school-based results—such as those at St. Mary Parish Public School System in Louisiana—have demonstrated that Fast ForWord can improve test scores across subject areas. And many additional research studies have corroborated the effectiveness of the Fast ForWord program for building cognitive, language, and reading skills.
In a 2010 study at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, Beth Rogowsky found that Fast ForWord significantly improved students’ grammar skills as measured by the Written Expression Scale from the Oral and Written Language Scales (OWLS). A subsequent study by Dr. Rogowsky published in 2013 showed that college students who used Fast ForWord increased their reading and writing skills significantly more than students in a comparison group as measured by the Gates MacGinitie Reading Test and the OWLS.
The Brain That Changes Itself
Our current understanding of how the brain changes itself in response to experience opens the door to mind-bending possibilities. With the development of newer, smaller, and faster technologies, there’s no telling how Merzenich’s revolutionary discovery of brain plasticity past the critical period will impact the future of education.
What is certain is that true brain-based learning has arrived, that it’s available today, and that children around the world are overcoming language and reading problems that not long ago were often considered insurmountable.
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. London: Penguin Books.
Reading is one of the most rewarding and challenging skills to teach. It involves building upon solid strategies and taking your students from the mechanics of reading to the magic of the written word. Teaching inference skills playfully in the classroom helps us bring literature to life and connects our students with writers who artfully fill the pages of their books.
Being able to infer is a critical comprehension skill. As readers, students must approach texts like detectives and find the meaning that lies behind the words that they read. For many students this task is fun and exciting, but for some it can be daunting.
For students who are struggling with learning to infer, working on precursor skills can help. Two important precursors to inferring are automaticity and background knowledge.
When we say that students need to develop automaticity, we mean that they need to be able to read with enough ease and accuracy so that their brains have time to focus on the meaning and the message of the text. Building fluency with a program like Reading Assistant can help students achieve automaticity. Without this groundwork laid, students are simply too busy working on decoding words to seek out meaning in the text.
In order to make an inference, students need to have some background knowledge about what they are reading. We can support them by building context and asking thought-provoking pre-reading questions.
Teaching inference as a reading strategy can be great fun. Here are some ideas you can use in class with your students:
As students approach more complex texts and work more rigorously to meet the Common Core Standards, they will need to rely more on their ability to infer meaning from text. Solidly developed inference skills will enable readers to understand and apply the knowledge they acquire from print in school. And, perhaps more important, solid inference skills will also support a greater love of reading throughout their lives.
Kurland, D. (2000). Inference: Reading Ideas as Well as Words. Retrieved from http://www.criticalreading.com/inference_reading.htm
Graesser, A.C. & Clark, L.F. (1985). The Generation of Knowledge-Based Inferences during Narrative Comprehension. In author G. Rickheit & H. Strohner (Ed.) Inferences in Text Processing (pp. 53-94), Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers B.V.
Canada. Ontario Ministry of Education. Think Literacy: Cross-Cultural Approaches, Grades 7-12. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/studentsuccess/thinkliteracy/files/reading.pdf
I’m so excited to announce our webinars for this fall! We are honored to have Dr. Norman Doidge, the well-known author of The Brain That Changes Itself, join us October 2nd for a webinar. This is a rare opportunity that educators, clinicians and parents alike won’t want to miss. Dr. Tim Rasinski, one of our favorite presenters, is returning to speak about the role of fluency in comprehension, and Dr. Marty Burns will be speaking on meeting the needs of the rapidly changing diverse student populations.
Dr. Martha S. Burns will discuss what the latest brain science says about the true learning potential of ELLs, struggling readers, and students with ADHD. Find out how today’s powerful intervention technologies can help build foundational reading and cognitive skills for a variety of student populations—and help students improve their ability to learn.
Dr. Timothy Rasinski is a vocal proponent of teaching reading fluency as a means of helping students build better comprehension. In our September webinar, Dr. Rasinski will talk about fluency as a predictor of reading comprehension, present the research on fluency, and substantiate fluency as an essential component of any successful reading program (National Reading Panel). All this and you’ll gain a better understanding of how to teach fluency so your students can start getting more from their reading.
For 400 years, the brain was thought to be a more-or-less fixed piece of machinery after infancy. Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, will talk about the recent discovery that the brain retains the ability to change its own structure and function in response to experience through the latest years of our lives. Learn how this discovery was made, how it turns our understanding of learning on its head, and how it radically alters the was we think about student potential—especially for students with learning challenges or disorders. And, discover the online interventions that have grown out of the science and learn how they work to help students overcome reading and language difficulties.
During the earliest years of life, the brain sets up for learning through the development of language. This foundation has been shown to be the bedrock of school learning and the roadblock to success for many students.
Language is a complex, multidimensional system that supports decoding and comprehension as children learn to read. The formal skills necessary to create mental models of text not only for reading but for following instructions, interpreting stories and content and other higher order skills depend upon language abilities that have been developing since birth.
Talking to children from infancy is key to building language skills. “Baby talk,” aka “parentese,” is a singsong way of talking to children while exaggerating facial expressions. It is spoken around the world—not just in English-speaking countries—and is stimulating to infants as they map the key sounds and patterns of language.
Parents and caregivers teach children what words mean (“doggie”, “cup”, etc.), how to make new words (i.e. happy, happier, unhappy), how to put words together (i.e. “Ryan went to the corner store” rather than “Ryan went to the store corner”) and what combinations work best in different situations (“May I please have a toy” rather than “Give me that!”- also referred to as pragmatic skills).
Talking to children about daily activities, such as about how things are the same and different (fun to try at the grocery store), enhances communication skills. Reviewing the days’ activities with children builds language and memory skills as well as sequencing skills. Rhyming and word play help children to begin to break words into sounds which will build into reading skills later on.
Reading With Expression
It is important to read to children with expression from an early age. Six-month-old babies can enjoy picture books while they build vocabulary and language comprehension. Pre-school children, age 5, were studied by Mira and Schwanenflugel at the University of Georgia (2013), who found that the degree of expressiveness of the reader has an impact on how much of the story children are to able recall. This affects language processing so necessary for school success.
What You Can Do
Parents and early childhood educators can help young children build language skills with simple and fun activities that fit naturally into the day:
Avoid or reduce exposure to TV—even educational programming—in favor of person-to-person interaction. Helping young children build strong language skills is fun, and it’s also one of the most important things parents and educators can do to establish the necessary foundation for success in school and in life.
Mira W.A., & Schwanenflugel P.J. (2013). The impact of reading expressiveness on the listening comprehension of storybooks by prekindergarten children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. 44(2), 183-94. doi: 10.1044/0161-1461(2012/11-0073)