I remember the early years with my children and the dreams I had for their success. Of course, my dreams and theirs didn’t exactly end up being the same. But what happens when a mother realizes that her dreams for her child may be shattered because that child struggles with auditory processing issues, dyslexia, or other challenges never imagined? That’s exactly what Irene experienced with her daughter, Maria.
Attending school proved difficult for Maria. As she advanced from grade to grade and the work became progressively more difficult, anything presented in auditory form was especially challenging. By sixth grade, Maria had been diagnosed with dyslexia and Auditory Processing Disorder and was labeled with a language impairment.
For obvious reasons, Maria struggled in school. Because of this, she was shy around other students, avoided reading, and required extensive help at home. Her family considered sending her to a private school, but Maria was unable to pass the entrance exams.
By the middle of sixth grade, Maria had attended several different schools and the last was a disaster. It was then that one of her mother’s friends suggested Bridges Academy, a private school that specializes in serving students with learning challenges. Upon enrollment, Maria’s life began to turn in a new direction. When she got into her mother’s car after school she often said, “Mom, they understand me here!”
At Bridges Academy, Maria’s dyslexia and auditory processing issues were analyzed further and the Fast ForWord program was recommended in addition to Maria’s coursework and intervention regimen. Jacky Egli, the Director at Bridges Academy, explained to Maria’s mother that she personally researched every program thoroughly and only used programs that were scientifically based. Irene trusted Jacky and felt it was important to follow her recommendation, so Maria gave Fast ForWord a try.
Maria’s reading level was at least three to four years below grade level when she entered Bridges. She also had struggled in other subjects, because every subject—even math—requires reading. But that soon began to change and, in time, Maria made significant improvements. Maria’s comprehension level increased more than two full grade levels last year. This improvement aligned with her participation in the Fast ForWord Reading and Reading Assistant programs. Over the last 6 years, despite the odds, Maria improved on the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test 7.3 grade levels. Because of this significant improvement, she no longer receives remedial instruction.
Irene sought the best for her daughter and found it in the caring attitude of the staff at Bridges Academy and the innovative programs they use to make a difference for struggling students. “Jacky walks the walk and talks the talk of the school’s mission,” says Irene.
Maria has transformed from a shy, struggling child to a vibrant, engaged student who participates in class, reads aloud to her peers and conducts presentations for content area classes in front of her classmates. She is an ambassador for the school who greets and escorts new students and parents through the campus as she participates in open house and school events.
And, most exciting of all, Maria has been accepted into a local college and is thrilled about rising to meet a challenge and a future that once seemed entirely out of reach.
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As spring begins to overtake winter, I’ve noticed an increasing number of children riding their bicycles in my neighborhood.
Seeing one father helping his daughter with her new two-wheeler reminded me of my own initial experience with my first bicycle. The bike I received for my birthday had no training wheels on it and so I floundered on my first attempts to ride it.
A Wobbly Start
My dad came home from his factory job one spring afternoon and saw me struggling to keep my balance as I rode. Getting out of the car, he walked over to me and had me get on the bike while he steadied it by grasping the seat.
As I pedaled and steered my bike, he ran next to me holding me up. When I turned, I usually leaned too much or too little into the curve; my dad gave me feedback (he’d say “lean the other way”) and supported me by tilting the bike in the opposite direction.
The Power of Supported Practice
After a few trips up and down the block he gave me a push, let go of the seat, and before I knew it, I was riding without his help. I could ride my bike! Later that afternoon my father gave me a few more tips on bike safety and expressed how proud he was of my accomplishment.
The experience of learning to ride my bike reminds me of what happens during assisted reading with feedback.
The Importance of Feedback in Learning to Read
A considerable body of theory and research in reading acquisition tell us that the foundational skills in reading (in the Common Core Standards, phonics, word recognition, and fluency) are best developed through instruction followed by practice with support and feedback.
When a struggling or developing reader reads a text while simultaneously hearing it read to them (either with a partner, a group, or a recorded reading) the developing reader will eventually be able to read that text (and others) without assistance.
An essential key to the assist, however, is to provide formative feedback to the reader in the same way that my father gave feedback to me. That feedback can take a variety of forms—emphasizing a word that was mispronounced, providing the definition to a word or phrase, or briefly discussing the reading after the reading and focusing on an area of need or areas in which the reader has improved.
Most learning, it seems, is facilitated by an assist, scaffold, or support provided by another. Learning to read and learning to ride a bike are no exception.
The Teacher’s Touch
As teachers, our role in reading acquisition is to find ways to support our students in their reading while providing formative feedback during and after their reading. When we do so we will find our students not only making great progress in their reading but also viewing themselves as competent and independent readers.
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As an educator I spend a considerable amount of time providing advice to parents whose children are finding it difficult to be inspired with reading! Parents will describe their child as “struggling,” “disinterested,” or ”anxious” about reading and are searching for ways to instill the love of reading, when it is such a tedious task for their child.
It’s really quite simple: Children who do not read well will not be inspired to read, or to practice reading more. So, how do we get our reluctant readers to find reading fun?
As the director of a school that specializes in working with students with reading disorders—and a parent of a youngster who was diagnosed with dyslexia in 3rd grade—I see this issue from both sides. Some suggestions that I share with our parents (and that I used with my own son) can create a safe haven for reading for the emerging reader, gifted reader, or a student who needs more direct instruction to improve reading skills.
The Practice of Reading Skills
Keep the work of developing reading skills separate from pleasure reading. Students who require reinforcement in their decoding or vocabulary should practice those tasks for a short time (15-20 minutes) several times per week. Use some of these ideas to make the reading fun!
Reading for Pleasure
Children who are behind in their reading abilities, such as decoding, vocabulary, or comprehension, may not always select independent reading material that “matches” their age and grade. In fact, many children who struggle with the mechanics of reading may be interested in topics that are way above their independent reading level. To meet their intellectual interests and instill the “habit” of reading for pleasure, consider these ideas:
Above all, BE PATIENT and ENCOURAGING with your child as they develop independent reading habits. The “art” of reading is quite complex. Some children will require more support, individualized instruction, and continued practice, and may benefit from the services of a reading specialist. Your positive influence, patience, and support can make your child feel safe to take the “risk” of reading new words or selecting more challenging material. Celebrate the small steps, and keep positive so your child will become more confident!
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After 17 years as a teacher and 8 as a researcher in education, I have become increasingly aware of a “gravitational force” pulling me to instruct with little attention to the most ambitious goal a teacher, parent, or administrator can aspire to—inciting curiosity. I say ‘incite’ because it seems counter-culture to do so. My goals here are to illustrate briefly this force and to provide one simple way we can begin to counteract its pull.
When I discuss the matter with colleagues, I see that we all feel the same way. Few of us seem to know why we’re teaching what we’re teaching, how to get students to be interested in it or what to do about it. After years of thinking about this, I’ve come to understand that confusion is often a precursor to learning.
Communication of ideas is a central part of learning. Language matters – especially in mathematics. So far, I’ve said nothing new. However, let’s examine a way in which typical instruction attempts to provide language for students. Even the very attempt to provide language for students can be misguided and can be seen as the source of many learning difficulties. I will attempt to illustrate with an example.
Consider a typical lesson from middle school pre-algebra classes—this is a scenario that plays out across grade levels and content areas. I have chosen this example to illustrate how a common, well-intended teaching practice (pre-teaching vocabulary) can squelch curiosity, contribute to anxiety in the learner, and ultimately turn students into what I call “Do-Monsters.” (Even if you feel anxious reading this and start to break out in math hives, I encourage you to persist!)
Teacher: Today we are going to learn about: like terms, monomials, binomials, trinomials, and ultimately polynomials. Please take out your notebook and write these terms down together with the definitions I will show you. (Definitions are copied…)
Teacher: Now I will show you an example of a polynomial. Please identify two like terms in this example. Example 1: 2x – 3 + x
Take a moment to remember a similar occasion in your learning experience (if you can): your lack of curiosity or need to think critically, and the aimless feeling of the activity. Remember the worksheet with 25 mindless problems you worked on for the rest of that class?
The situation I am referring to is, generally, one in which the topic is foreign to the students and the teacher. The reason for discussing the vocabulary (or even the concept) is that there is an impending test, a social contract that a teacher must cover the book, or a belief that knowing the vocabulary is crucial for critical thinking to begin. Learning vocabulary out of context becomes the purpose of the lesson rather than asking how these words can help us solve problems or think critically.
Questions, Problems, and Meaning
Consider an alternative. Instead of giving students meaningless terms upfront (pre-teaching vocabulary) so they can think about a question, why not give them the question first and deal with vocabulary within a context? I have found that the most meaningful lessons are those in which a student has something worth discussing; one in which there is a problem to solve. The problem with this is that the kinds of questions I have been trained to ask and those primarily found in textbooks are not really central to the topic I teach. They make language acquisition the end—instead of the means to an end.
I have also come to believe that imagination is a necessary ingredient in learning. Once it’s in play we can ask different kinds of questions that leverage existing language to create a need for new language. We might ask questions like, “Do we all imagine the same things happening in this situation? How do you see it? How do our images differ? How are they the same? What would happen next? Can we play out the scenario? What if we changed the situation?”
When a context is present, there is a chance that I can play! Playing is good. Unfortunately, in our desire to ease students’ frustrations/suffering in the learning process we (teachers/parents/administrators) often seek to give them the words they need before they need them, creating a situation in which students don’t know what to do with what has been given to them. We expect a child to wait patiently with a word for the right time to spring into action and use it.
So, what might a lesson look like in which we try to put students in a problematic situation before introducing the vocabulary necessary to describe the phenomena we want students to reason about? Consider a potential revision to the previous scenario in which the goal of the lesson was to teach students about: like terms, monomials, binomials, trinomials, and ultimately polynomials. Changing the goal from language acquisition to critical thinking might play out like this.
The Birth of Puzzlement
Teacher: I’m thinking of a number…so that 3 less than twice my number plus my number again equals 15. What number am I thinking of?
Did you find yourself trying to answer the question? Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t. The point is that students have a starting point to imagine what could happen. A debate could break out about what that number is and students could talk to each other. The situation could be changed enough to make them think again until they are comfortable with the phenomenon – searching for an unknown number that satisfies the given condition.
Eventually, when the situation gets complicated enough, we might need the terms: like terms, monomials, binomials, trinomials, and ultimately polynomials. We know we are at that point when students see the need to refer to 3 less than twice my number as one entity instead of two. What would we call that thing? It is incumbent on us as teachers to bring students to this point through a careful selection of tasks. There is no algorithm other than asking the question, “How can I puzzle my students the right amount today?”
One argument to continue pre-teaching vocabulary is that a student (a second language learner in particular) might not know what a word means and might not have a sense of the question at hand. In that case, isn’t it better to pre-teach vocabulary?
There are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes yes, but usually no. In fact, I have come to see that puzzlement goes hand in hand with confusion in the beginning and that this is a sign that learning can occur. It represents the possibility that something can be learned and this is what excites me most about teaching. I WANT students to raise questions about words they don’t understand and begin to ask questions about them spontaneously. I WANT students to play out the scenario under their own interpretations—whatever those interpretations are. I WANT debate.
Unfortunately, too often we see no possibility of debate because we spend far too much time focusing on the wrong lessons. The irony about language acquisition is that it happens best as we use the language we have, not when we are taught words out of context. To really learn a term, we must first have something to talk about that requires the new word itself. In short, here is where we lose our way. To quote a colleague, “We are so fearful we won’t cover the material, that we fail to uncover something meaningful.”
Harel, G., Fuller, E., & Soto, O., (in press), Determinants of a DNR expert's teaching, In Transforming Mathematics Instruction: Multiple approaches and practices, (Li, Y., Ed.), Springer.
Harel, G. (2008). DNR Perspective on Mathematics Curriculum and Instruction: Focus on Proving, Part I,ZDM—The International Journal on Mathematics Education, 40, 487-500.
Harel, G. (2008). DNR Perspective on Mathematics Curriculum and Instruction, Part II, ZDM—The International Journal on Mathematics Education.
In the nearly 25 years since Congress designated the 1990s “The Decade of the Brain,” educators have been flooded with information about how the brain learns. Some of the “brain myths” that educators have learned are actually right on target, while others are outright wrong. Some data is still open for debate and other inquiries are just getting under way.
We asked Dr. Bill Jenkins and Dr. Martha Burns for a little help in sorting fact from fiction for those of us with other things to do besides reading through the original research studies and teasing out our own conclusions. They presented a great live webinar on the topic, and here’s what we learned:
Myth #1: The Brain is Hardwired – True or False?
Until the 1990s, neuroscientists believed that the adult brain was indeed hardwired with fixed neural circuits. The Decade of the Brain revealed that this view is false—the adult brain is not hardwired and neither is the child brain. In fact, learning goes hand in hand with the re-wiring of brain circuits on the fly, a re-organizing ability that lasts throughout our lifetime.
Myth #2: There are Multiple Intelligences – True or False?
When I first heard about the idea of multiple intelligences, I responded to it immediately. I’m a visual learner! I thought. Of course. And I know I’m not alone.
The truth is more complicated. The construct of multiple intelligences falls under the category of “still open for debate” and may depend as much on our frame of reference as anything else. Regardless, what’s important for teachers is to understand individual students’ strengths and weaknesses and not evaluate students along one dimension of Smart vs. Not Smart.
Myth #3: There’s a Critical Period for Language Learning – True or False?
The widely held belief that language learning must be mastered early is an example of a fact being taken too far. True, it is typically easier to learn a new language before age 7, but we retain the ability for language learning throughout life.
In fact, intensive language training can produce large gains in oral language and reading skills even in older children who are not yet fluent. This includes in-person training or computer programs such as the Fast ForWord Language and Reading programs. They key is an individualized and intensive approach that influences brain organization through mechanisms of neural plasticity.
Further, learning a new language later in life can be good for the brain—better than, say, Sudoku or crossword puzzles.
Get the Facts About 10 More Brain Myths
Drs. Jenkins and Burns had much more to say about fact vs. fiction in how the brain learns. Watch their on-demand webinar on Brain Myths in Education and get answers about these brain myths and more:
Many students enter our classrooms with limited vocabulary and loads of catching up to do. I’ve seen teachers discouraged by the challenge they are faced with, and yet doing valuable things in their classrooms everyday to not only meet challenges but to exceed expectations. The good news is that the little things we do everyday can have a great impact.
Why Modeled Reading Matters
“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” - Emilie Buchwald
Our students have a wide range of lap hours logged. For some, the idea of climbing up to listen as someone reads to them is more natural than putting on a pair of socks, while for others it’s a rare event. In classrooms, all children benefit from listening as we read.
Modeling fluent reading in our classrooms and displaying our love for the written word benefits every student, but it is essential for those students who do not get this benefit at home.
Older students can benefit as well. On this topic, Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, says, “Every read-aloud is an advertisement for pleasure, every worksheet is an ad for pain. If the pain outweighs the pleasure, the customers go elsewhere.” When we read and showcase our love of reading we are advertising the very thing we want our students to buy.
Get Students Reading More, More, More (and More)
“There is ample evidence that one of the major differences between poor and good readers is the difference in the quantity of total time they spend reading.” - National Reading Panel, 2000
The best way to improve reading skill is through reading practice. If we’ve modeled fluent reading for students and chosen material that is a great fit for their ability and their interest, then we have set the stage for practice.
It’s no wonder that good readers read a lot and poor readers read little. If an activity is not pleasurable, devoting time to it is not desirable. However, as good readers read and poor readers do not, the gap in their ability grows. We must encourage all of our students to read. We must find ways to make reading pleasurable for all students.
*Note that I’ve indicated Children A, B & C are all reading at the same rate (100WPM). Though this scenario may be unlikely, it highlights the gains that are possible for all students. As their reading improves, their rate will increase along with more words devoured.
For those with poor skills, the need to practice is critical—not only to improve their reading ability, but also to open their world. These “words” represent new vocabulary, new ideas, new topics, and new learning. By getting students to read more we are expanding their imaginations and building their background. When students read little they miss out on so much more than slow-growing reading skills.
A Deep and Continuing Need
One final note on quality. To incent students to read and to help them read well, we must also focus on motivation and help students choose reading material that will be inspiring and well suited to them.
“Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him. ” - Maya Angelou
I’ve always been struck by some of the reading material we put in front of our struggling readers. As I’ve worked with students on their assigned texts, I can’t help but find myself bored and listless. How can we expect students to develop a fondness for reading if what we’re asking them to read is not particularly good? Think about why you read and what you like to read. I’ve yet to find the well-read adult who chooses reading material based on their ability level alone. Instead, they read to gather information, to soak up a genre they are especially fond of, to escape and to dream. To foster this ‘deep and continuing need’, we need to provide our students with delicious, fantastic literature. They need rich vocabulary, exotic stories and variety. At times this beautiful content is beyond the reach of our students’ ability, but we are wise to help them reach, to scaffold, to encourage and to make every attempt to give them the good stuff.
“It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.” - Katherine Patterson
It’s exciting when a child learns to read—combining letters and sounds to form words for the first time until they’re stringing those words together to create sentences. But what happens when a child goes from “getting by” in the early grades to struggling in adolescence when cognitive demand increases along with the difficulty of required texts?
How Adolescent Learning is Different
There are important differences between childhood and adolescent brain function, and developmentally appropriate regression in abilities such as impulse control can affect adolescent learning.
Dr. Martha Burns’ webinar “Reading and the Adolescent Brain: What Works?” provides research-based insights for busy educators interested in the science of adolescent learning. Tune in and discover…
Understanding what’s happening in the adolescent brain can give you the tools to educate your students, support them in their struggles, and provide the help they need to get back on track academically.
Why Reading Interventions Fail
One reason that many reading interventions may not work for the adolescent learner is that they fail to provide the cognitive skills and oral reading practice required for reading fluency. Research shows that using the Fast ForWord program has been correlated with positive neurological changes in the brain corresponding to the cognitive skills that underlie reading.
By incorporating the use of the Fast ForWord program to build cognitive skills and the Reading Assistant program to ensure sufficient reading practice, you can help your adolescent students jumpstart their reading progress instead of remaining stagnant. Dr. Burns takes you on a detailed tour of how these programs strengthen cognitive skills, fluency and comprehension; reinforce learning; and shorten the time it takes to achieve significant milestones in achievement.
Changing the Future
Advanced literacy skills are needed not only in order to succeed in college but also to obtain and hold future jobs. When a teen is struggling in the present, it becomes more difficult for them to see a bright future, often causing them to erect a protective wall against learning and life. Informed educators can help transform these struggles into victory.
For many educators, summer school planning is in full gear! Districts are determining the who, the what and the how, and all with limited resources.
When I was working in the school system, summer school left something to be desired. The students were doing the same activities from the school year (and were still bored by them), and the teachers were working with students they didn’t know, struggling to individualize instruction. Making an effective summer learning program isn't easy; I appreciate the work that goes into making any instructional plan effective. Educating our students, during the year or summer, is not for the faint of heart. It takes an enormous amount of collaboration, planning, expertise, creativity and energy (lots of energy!) to be done well.
The Rand Corporation’s 2011 report on summer school effectiveness makes many recommendations; here are just a few:
After all is said and done, it’s important to know whether your summer school program was effective. Did all the work you put in lead to improved reading scores, for example? For schools that used Reading Assistant in their summer school programs, the answer was a resounding yes:
Is your district on track to make this the best summer school yet? If there were two recommendations I’d make, I’d say:
For further reading:
Results on Reading Assistant:
With the increased focus in recent years on Pre-Kindergarten learning, you may be asking where you can find funding for early childhood education. Your school may be looking to establish or expand a pre-school program, or you may need funds for an independent pre-school program. Public funding for Pre-Kindergarten education mainly comes from three sources: state funding, federal Special Education (IDEA) funds for Pre-K, and federal Head Start funding.
One way in which the federal DOE has shown its commitment to early learning is by increasing the funding to both IDEA for Pre-K and federal Head Start over the last two years. In addition, there are other federal funding sources for Pre-K: social services programs, like the federal Child Care and Development fund, and federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. And there are provisions in Title I that allow schools to use some Title I funds for Pre-Kindergarten programs, such as the stipulation allowing schoolwide Title I programs to “establish or enhance prekindergarten programs for children below the age of 6.” According to the federal non-regulatory guidance, Serving Preschool Children Through Title I, “The use of Title I funds for a preschool program is a local decision.”
Some new federal sources of Pre-K funding have also been created: Promise Neighborhoods (which has an early learning component) and the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants are likely to continue in some form as signature programs of the Obama administration. During the next four years, the federal DOE will focus more intently on the full Pre-K – Grade 3 continuum, especially working with Congress to embed Pre-K-3 strategies in a new ESEA.
But some Pre-K programs have also been cut from the federal budget, such as Even Start and Early Reading First. The purpose of the latter – “to enhance the early language, literacy, and prereading development of preschool age children” – has been absorbed into the newer Striving Readings Comprehensive Literacy grant, which provides a continuum of reading from birth through twelfth grade, though the future of SRCL is somewhat in question.
In 2011, 39 states provided Pre-K funding (the other 11 states were: Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming). In fact, more children are enrolled in state funded Pre-Kindergarten programs than in any other publicly funding Pre-K program, though the per-student amount varies dramatically in states from $2,000 to $11,000. State Pre-K funding goes to both community based organizations and school districts.
Want to Research Further?
Though Pre-Kindergarten education has in the past sometimes languished as the stepchild of K-12 education, its importance is now being realized, resulting in resources increasing for early learning and programs growing.
Earlier this month, Dr. Martha Burns presented a webinar titled “What’s in the Common Core, but Missing in Your Curriculum.” One of the exciting new changes that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) bring is a great deal more emphasis on how students learn rather than focusing solely on what they learn. The emphasis of previous standards have focused more on memorization of facts rather than on higher order thinking skills. In this webinar, Dr. Burns reviews the learning capacities spelled out in the CCSS and describes the skills that students need to be successful as lifelong learners, e.g., the ability to evaluate, to adapt, adjust and critique, etc. At the foundation of these higher order abilities lie the foundational skills below. Together, these skills can be termed the “process of learning.”
· Executive control or self-control
Students with deficiencies in these foundational skills may be labeled as “trouble makers” or “at risk” and have difficulty keeping up in today’s growing classroom. Experienced educators have always recognized the importance of these skills, but the idea that they can be specifically addressed and improved is relatively new. Without the ability to remember the details of a non-fiction text, how would a student be able to evaluate and critique it?
Dr. Burns describes new insights in neuroscience that are contributing to our understanding of the process of learning and what can be done to strengthen these skills in all learners, even those with learning disabilities and other challenges. The idea that these skills are inherent in students and cannot be changed is simply untrue. With the right training, all students can become stronger, more capable learners.
One efficient way for students to practice the skills needed to meet the rigor of the Common Core Standards is through the research-based learning tools employed by Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant programs. Dr. Burns concluded her presentation with a walkthrough of the programs, highlighting the aspects of the programs that speak directly to the foundational skills needed to create college and career ready students. She also describes what happens in the student’s brain when they are engaged with the software and the results that can be expected.
This new approach by the Common Core State Standards to draw attention to the “process” of learning, rather than just content, is important for all stakeholders to understand. With this new understanding comes a greater importance to use all of the tools at our disposal to help all learners succeed.