kitchen table math, the sequel: 2/10/08 - 2/17/08

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Teacher Who Couldn't Read

Retired Teacher Reveals He Was Illiterate Until Age 48

"I can remember when I was eight years old saying my prayers at night saying, 'please, God, tomorrow when it's my turn to read please let me read.' You just pretend that you are invisible and when the teacher says, 'Johnnie read,' you just wait the teacher out because you know the teacher has to go away at some point," said Corcoran.

Corcoran eventually started acting up to hide his illiteracy. From fifth through seventh grade he was expelled, suspended and spent most of his days at the principal's office.

The former teacher said he came from a loving family that always supported him.

"My parents came to school and it no longer was a problem for me reading because this boy Johnnie -- the native alien, I call him -- he didn't have a reading problem as far as the teachers were concerned. He had an emotional problem. He had a psychological problem. He had a behavioral problem," said Corcoran.

The further you go in the public schools the more clearly you see the profound destructiveness of a massive, half-trillion dollar institution* in which the employees cannot be wrong ever.

This is something I've been thinking about lately.

What happens to business and professional relationships, friendships, and marriages in which one party can't be wrong ever?

How productive and satisfying are business and professional relationships, friendships, and marriages in which one party is always, by definition, to blame for problems?

thought experiment:

Suppose someone handed you a magic wand that, when you waved it, would make just one change in the schools.

Suppose you decided that your one change would be to turn all the zeroes in Galen Alessi's survey of school psychologists into positive numbers significantly larger than the number one.

Would things be better?

I don't know what to think about that.

On one hand, Alessi's psychologists were diagnosing individual children; they were blaming individual children, by name, for their failures to learn or to behave. To stop doing that would be a radical step. I hope I live to see the day when a school psychologist's report says, "There's nothing wrong with this kid that a decent math curriculum wouldn't fix."

At the same time, our schools have been churning innovations for at least a century, often in the name of reform. The fact that our schools have apparently been in need of so much reform for lo these many years hasn't led to much in the way of a self-critical stance.

At some point shouldn't the ed schools just give up?

"Damn! We've been at this for a hundred years and we still haven't got it right. Let's say we get into another line of business."

Vicki Snider is right. We need a science of teaching. We also need school boards, administrators, and teachers who want a science of teaching. That's a trickier proposition.

Here is Corcoran's foundation.

* Current expenditures for public elementary and secondary education totaled $424.6 billion in FY 05, with $280.0 billion (65.9 percent) spent on instruction and instruction-related activities, $22.1 billion (5.2 percent) on student support services, $46.8 billion (11.0 percent) on administration, and $75.7 billion (17.8 percent) Revenues and Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary Education: School Year 2004-05 (Fiscal Year 2005)

Schaum's Outlines from a Professor of Mathematics

When I was a student, I worked calculus problems for fun. I especially enjoyed nonlinear dynamics. I also liked combinatorics. Schaum's Outlines series were hours of fun. I had just started on tensor calculus when I realized I had to get my thesis finished. I never did make it through tensor calculus.
Here's what the blogger (Angry Professor) says about herself
I am a tenured faculty member at a large state university. My teaching efforts primarily consist of delivering statistics lectures to social science majors. These experiences have colored my perspective somewhat.


I've been sitting here guffawing.

I think Susan S sent me this -- (or was it my sister??)


Friday, February 15, 2008

Steve on teachers, homework, and Extra Help

"I check to make sure they made the effort and tried the assignment while they check their answers, and we go over every single problem that is asked."

Do you collect the homework? You should. I did. I didn't grade each problem, but I saw what the issues were myself on a daily basis and I gave each homework a check/plus/minus effort grade. If you don't collect the homework and grade it somehow, then students don't have any incentive to do it in the first place. When I went over problems in class, I didn't have to rely on students to ask questions. Few do.

"How can you assume that it's a "teacher problem" when something isn't understood in class?"

How can you, the professional, assume that it isn't when you rely on the kids to tell you if there is a problem. You see and grade the tests. What do you do if students have major issues? By the time you get to a test, it's really difficult to go back and fix things. Perhaps eliminating homework and giving weekly quizzes would work better. Something other than monthly tests needs to push the students and inform the teacher about what is going on.

High school kids should take more responsibility, but you can't use that as a prerequisite for a good education. You have to try to structure things to prevent failure, not just leave it up to the kids.

Many students would NEVER come to my office hours. I never threw that back at them. I tried to think of ways to make it unnecessary for them to need extra help. Students hate going for extra help. It's a last resort. By then, the problem is really bad. A large use of extra help by many students implies that there is something fundamental going wrong, and it can't be blamed on the students.

Steve is on a roll today.

Having just finished Karen Pryor's Don't Shoot the Dog - a life-altering book - I've been thinking about this issue here at home.

We were reaching - had reached - the point at which I was using "aversives" to compel C. to get things done.

Of course I learned years ago, from behaviorists who taught us techniques for raising autistic kids, that aversives aren't very effective. Pryor goes further. Pryor argues, rightly I believe, that negatives have negative side effects.

A "negative reinforcer," by the way, increases the likelihood that a particular behavior will be repeated in the future. That's why it's called a "reinforcer," and that's what makes it different from a punishment. A punishment doesn't increase the likelihood of the punished behavior occurring in the future.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), punishers also don't particularly decrease the likelihood of the behavior occurring again. Behaviorists universally seem to think that punishing bad behavior just is not an effective means of getting people to straighten up and fly right.

In theory, a negative reinforcer should be no different from a positive reinforcer; in both cases the behavior being reinforced is likely to be repeated. Thus doing your math homework to get a good grade should be no different from doing your math homework to avoid getting a bad grade.

But in reality, negative reinforcement has side effects. This is Pryor's view; I don't think this is a consensus view in the field. Pryor is a researcher and a trainer. Her many years of animal training have made her an advocate of the exclusive use of positive reinforcement.

More on side effects later.

Everything Steve has said in his comments thus far could have been written by Pryor. I think.

Here at home, I've been working on increasing positive reinforcement while reducing negative reinforcement and punishment.

Pryor is right: positives work far better than negatives.

Why is it so much more difficult to use them, I wonder?

Steve H on collecting & correcting

"He needs to collect and correct the homework and have them re-do the problems they missed. That's what works."

I agree 100%. It's astounding that math teachers don't collect homework. It's lazy and THEY KNOW they should do it. Waiting for the test to figure out what areas need work is TOO LATE! I ALWAYS collected and went over each paper carefully. I would give a check plus, a check, or a check minus for each homework based on effort. But it was MY job to see what the issues were each day. I would then be prepared to make the most of the time allocated for reviewing the homework. I would NEVER just "go over" the homework. That's lazy teaching. I don't care how many problems that adds up to. That's their job!!!!

"...the onus falls upon him or her to 'seek extra help.'"

OK. Mark the problems you get wrong on the homework and ask for extra help. Does the school require the teacher to provide extra help after school? Does some other group or person do the job? I can't imagine (probably I'm wrong) that the school would allow a teacher to avoid providing extra help, but then make big bucks tutoring. That's unethical.

I suppose that if you pay for tutoring it's OK, but if you ask for too much free "extra help" that means you shouldn't be in the class.

Generally, I didn't like to call students up to the board. It is extrordinarily stressful for many students and it takes time. It would be nice to have some mechanism to get them to prepare more each day, but I liked to give weekly quick quizzes. Students pay attention to quizzes much more than homework.

I never thought of my (college) classes as a tool to build character, love of learning, or to develop their self-learning skills. My goal was to get them to learn the material as easily as possible. It wasn't a game. There were no trick questions. If I wanted them to know something, I would teach it to them and they would see it in their homework. I would cover the material in class, they would do it for homework, I would collect and grade the homework, I would review the problems in the NEXT class, they knew my office hours, and I tested them on exactly what was in the homework. I told them that I was on their side and that I wanted them to succeed.

All teachers should be required to provide "office" hours for extra help. Our school has a "late bus" that leaves one hour later. Children can tell their parents that they will take the late bus and go for extra help. It's quick and simple, with no complex need to arrange something. I had certain students coming in all of the time for extra help. It was no big deal.

I am now extremely skeptical of Extra Help because of our experience here: a public school district in which the provision of Extra Help (specified in the union contract no doubt) is viewed as the solution to all teaching and learning problems across the board.

Extra Help, at the middle school (and the high school, I gather), is the answer. If the student "doesn't understand," he must be "proactive in seeking extra help." It's up to him.

The school, however, apparently does not need to be proactive in improving classroom instruction.

No word on what happens when the student dutifully shows up for Extra Help and still doesn't understand. Apparently the reasoning is that while classroom instruction leaves students not understanding material, Extra Help is 100% effective.

the teacher is great; school culture is not

C's teacher this year is terrific: C. is actually making up for lost time, I think, and that is extraordinary. I'm in a position to know just how difficult it is to regain lost ground because I accelerated C. nearly 3 years ago when I decided he should be in a position to take algebra in 8th grade. It is very difficult - and to do it in a classroom setting is miraculous.

What makes this teacher so good, I think, are 3 things:

  • he's a positive, upbeat guy who has terrific rapport with the kids: they are learning in an "emotionally safe" environment
  • his classroom presentations are probably very good (haven't seen one, but that's the impression I get from C.)
  • his homework assignments are brilliant - every homework assignment is "shuffled"; every assignment includes problems from many previous lessons; no skill left behind!
Given the way this year is going, I am extremely glad we hung in there.

C. is learning and he's learning well.

BUT he wouldn't be learning if I weren't collecting and correcting the homework. I am functioning as the course T.A. The math chair, in issuing her no answers for parents edict, has gone out of her way to make it as difficult as possible for me to do what I need to do to make sure my kid learns math.

The school needs to establish a policy that homework is collected and corrected, and if the school is not going to do that, the school needs to make it possible for parents to perform this function.

in the TIMES

Every advertisement my district runs in the TIMES employment section sports the following boilerplate:

We are seeking highly qualified, professional educators to join this outstanding and innovative district in southern Westchester....the Irvington School District is committed to excellence for ALL students, welcoming parental involvement, and dedicated to ongoing professional development.

Dale on Schaum's outlines

I've been a long-time reader and very very occasional poster on KTM. In the last month, I decided to go back to graduate school in engineering, 18 years after graduating from law school and 22 years after my last math or science class.

The head of the math department at the university I'll be attending suggested that I start my prep work with Schaum's College Algebra. So, I can tell you that these books are well regarded, at least in some circles.

Great to know.

I'm hoping Dale will keep us posted on his studies in grad school (in his spare time, of course).

Thursday, February 14, 2008

back in the game

Hi G --

I learned last week that at least 2 students in the 8th grade Math A class are being tutored by district math teachers. One of the kids in the class told me, "It's sort of like insider trading."

Given the department’s refusal to share curricular materials with parents, I have to agree. When an Irvington parent hires an Irvington math teacher to tutor an Irvington student, that teacher/tutor has access to:

  • class syllabus
  • course scope and sequence
  • teacher’s edition of the textbook
  • answer key
  • solution manual
  • supplemental Glencoe practice workbooks and answer keys aligned to Glencoe Algebra textbook
  • attendance at department meetings; access to informal conversations amongst colleagues, etc.
  • knowledge of material to be covered on upcoming quizzes and tests

The other students and their parents have none of these things. I’ve asked; other parents have asked. The department’s answer has been “No.”

As a result, I’ve been forced to work every homework set assigned this year myself. I finished Homework #73 during the Super Bowl. [update: finished HW #81 tonight]

I’ve had to do this because Irvington teachers do not collect or correct math homework. That might not matter if Irvington math teachers performed frequent formative assessments. But they don’t do that, either.

Instead, homework problems are “gone over” in class and more homework is assigned. If a student “doesn’t understand” a problem covered in class, the onus falls upon him or her to “seek extra help.”

No student is asked to re-do a problem he’s missed.

This system does not work for C. I doubt it works for most students his age, and certainly not for students coming into Math A with so many gaps in their prior knowledge of arithmetic.

To learn math, C. needs to have his homework corrected; then he needs to re-do the problems he’s missed. Simply listening in class as Mr. X “goes over” the homework isn’t enough. Because Mr. X is a good lecturer C., thinks he’s understood Mr. X’s explanation, and I’m sure he has. But “understanding” and “doing” are two different things, and students are tested on the latter not the former. C, has no idea he can’t do a problem until his parent checks to see whether he can — or until he gets it wrong on a test.

“Extra Help,” the district’s stock answer to teaching and learning problems, doesn’t work, either.

It doesn’t work because C., doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Not knowing what you don’t know is typical of all human beings, not just middle school students. Not knowing what you don’t know is so commonplace that Richard Elmore identifies the belief that “students learn by asking teachers questions about things they don’t understand” as one of 5 “common errors of classroom practice.”

(I’ve attached the slides from Elmore’s presentation to the Tri State Consortium.)

For all of these reasons, I am renewing my request for the materials listed above. I would very much appreciate the district providing me with the class syllabus, the scope and sequence, and all relevant answer keys and solution manuals including answer keys to the Glencoe supplementary materials I’ve been able to locate online as Ms. P. advised me to do in our meeting of 12-13-2006.

In that meeting Ms. P. told Ed and me that, “If students need distributed practice, parents can find worksheets online.” I have indeed found Glencoe’s supplementary materials online but the answer keys are not posted.

I hope that I, along with other interested parents, can be provided these materials as soon as possible. If the district is going to outsource core teaching functions to parents, we should have access to the materials we need to perform these functions as best we can.

As a side note, I’ve consulted with the Committee on Open Government on this question. Answer keys fall under Freedom of Information Law.

Thanks very much.

Catherine Johnson

It's been awhile since I've emailed the powers that be.

pop quiz

Have just stumbled across what appears to be a test of professional knowledge for aspirant teachers.

This item will amuse and delight:

24. A heterogeneous group of three to six children working together in support of their learning is called:

1. Mastery learning
2. An authentic learning group
3. A cooperative learning group
4. A think-pair-share learning group

It will come as no surprise to learn that the answer is not number 1: mastery learning.

Is Europe a country?

inflexible knowledge in action

C. called home after school to say that the math test was "pretty easy."

"But, oh mom!" he said. "It didn't have the problems we did!"

"What problems?"

"It didn't have population problems or problems about the price of something."

"It didn't?"


"What kind of percent problems did it have?"

"Problems about markups and discounts."

Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise

out with the old

The old in this case being teachers in their 50s:

My school is a good school. Attracting quality teachers should not be a problem. But, in a system that does not value senior teachers this does not happen. Seniority transfers are no longer available. Administrators want the newbies who take a much lower salary than the experienced teacher and jump to follow all their directives. Experienced teachers in the schools already are being harassed and told to transfer (as if some other school would take them.) Only the young are valued.

When I started teaching there were many experienced teachers around. I needed to learn and they were around to help. Sadly, this is no longer true. Sadly, even the older teachers still around are so overwhelmed with work that there is no time to help the new ones. Soon the only teachers left will be the ones who don't know the material and can't teach. These teachers will embrace the horse shoe seating arrangement and they will embrace group work so my guess is they will be embraced by the administration.

Limitless Inability

This is what we see here, although the high school did recently hire a science teacher with 10 years' experience.

Primarily, though, we hire novice teachers. In math. I know of one instance in which the district refused even to interview a superb, experienced teacher qualified to teach h.s. math and physics. In another case my district told an experienced teacher that if he were to take a job here he would have to take a 5th-year teacher's pay.

He's teaching in a private school now.

pissed off teacher on limitless inability

Is it possible that there are math teachers out there that do not know math? The shocking answer to this question is YES! I 'm not talking about not knowing advanced math or even high school calculus, I'm talking about geometry, intermediate algebra and trigonometry. My AP said the new geometry course is going to be a problem because most of the teachers in my department don't know the subject and can't teach it. Little by little the old timers are retiring and those left behind are a sad bunch. (Not all new teachers are this uneducated in math, but lots of the ones in my school fall into this category.)

One of the young ones who will be around for a long time (and probably become an administrator) told me that if an answer is 3/2 and a kid writes 1 1/2, she marks it wrong. I tried to explain to her that she couldn't do that, the answers were equivalent. Her reply was, "my students know what I want and that is what they will give me." She taught the probability of picking a red and a blue marble from a bag of marbles and refused to recognize the answer had to be the probability of red and blue plus the probability of blue and red. It's her way or no way. My AP loves her. Even if he knew, he would probably not say anything.

There are teachers that go to the library for their C-6 tutoring assignment but who cannot help the kids with any math past the Math A regents. Even that is too hard for some of them. One teacher had to teach an SAT course over the summer and refused to learn the math. I have no idea what she taught but she will freely admit that she did not know the material and did not bother with it. The administration was just glad to have a body in the room and to be able to say the course was being offered.


Pissed Off Teacher

She has more on the ever-dwindling group of experienced teachers who know what they're doing as well.

the hard kind of percent problem

The hard kind of percent problem is this one:

John paid $52.50 for a shirt including tax of 5%.
What was the price of the shirt before tax?

I imagine this problem is a cinch (cinch?? sp?) for the gifted, but for the non-gifted, this problem is HARD.

I was thinking this problem is an example of a partitive word problem, but now, re-reading Carolyn's original post on the subject, maybe not.

variations on a theme: 3 kinds of percent problems

As far as I can tell, every percent problem comes in three forms. (PLEASE correct me if I'm wrong.)

price of shirt: $50
tax: 5%
price of shirt including tax: $52.50

1. A shirt sells for $50. Sales tax is 5%. What will the total cost be?
2. A shirt sells for $50. After tax, the shirt sells for $52.50. What is the tax rate?
3. A shirt sells for $52.50 including a tax of 5%. What was the original price of the shirt?

Problem number 1 is easy.

Making the move to problems 2 and 3 is hard for many students.

But 3 is the killer. (I think.)

If you're having to teach or reteach percent to your children, be sure to include lots of number 3s in the mix.


Do math textbooks call numbers 2 and 3 "work backwards problems" problems these days?

They may.


Liping Ma deals with these problems in her chapter on division by fractions.

She describes asking her group of U.S. elementary teachers to create a word problem representing 1 3/4 ÷ 1/2:

Imagine that you are teaching division with fractions. To make this meaningful for kids, something that many teachers try to do is relate mathematics to other things. Sometimes they try to come up with real-world situations or story-problems to show the application of some particular piece of content. What would you say would be a good story or model for 1 3/4 ÷ 1/2?

She goes on to say:

...division by fractions is an advanced topic in arithmetic. Division is the most complicated of the four operations. Fractions are often considered the most complex numbers in elementary school mathematics. Division by fractions, the most complicated operation with the most complex numbers, can be considered as a topic at the summit of arithmetic.

The summit of arithmetic!

I love it!

The U.S. teachers didn't fare well.

Of the 23 U.S. teachers, 212 tried to calculate 1 3/4 ÷ 1/2. Only nine (43%) completed their computations and reached the correct ansewr. For example, Mr. Felix, a beginning teacher, gave this explanation.:

I would convert the 1 3/4 to fourths, which would give me 7/4. Then to divide by 12/2, I would invert 1/2 and multiply. So, I would multiply 7/4 by 2 and I would get 14/4, and then I would divide 14 by 4 to get it back to my mixed number, 3 2/4 or then I would reduce that into 3 1/2.


Tr. Bernadette, the experienced teacher who was very articulate about the rationale for subtraction with regrouping, tried a completely incorrect strategy:

I would try to find, oh goodness, the lowest common denominator. I think I would change them both. Lowest common denominator, I think that is what it is called. I do not know how I am going to get the answer. Whoop. Sorry.

Tr. Bernadette sounds a little like me trying to do a simple percent change problem the other night. C. and I looked at the same problem last night and we both said: how did we make this so complicated?

That is the $40,000 dollar question.

The $40,000 dollar answer is: failure to transfer.

Ma goes on to discuss the word problems U.S. teachers came up with to represent 1 3/4 ÷ 1/2, and there we see a clean sweep: only one of the 23 teachers produced a correct model of the problem, and that one model was "pedagogically problematic."

I am proud to say that when I read Ma I was immediately able to produce a mathematically correct word problem representing 1 3/4 ÷ 1/2. As I recall my problem went something like this:

Catherine has two dogs, and each dog eats 1/2 can of dog food every morning. If she has 1 3/4 cans of dog food left, how many servings is this?

Six of the U.S. teachers confused dividing by 1/2 with dividing by 2.

The Chinese teachers created two genres of problems:

  • quotitive division, which Ma calls the measurement model
  • partitive division - finding a number such that 1/2 of it is 1 3/4

Which brings me back to my hard percent problem.

At least, I think it does.

the "measurement" model

The measurement model is more obvious to me. Obvious meaning easy to understand. My own word problem falls in the measurement category: how many 1/2s are in 1 3/4?

How many 1/2s can 1 3/4 be divided into?

How many 1/2-can servings of dog food are there in 1 3/4 cans of dog food?

If I'm measuring the number of 1/2s in 1 3/4, I divide 1 3/4 by 1/2.

1 2/3 ÷ 1/2 = 3 1/2.

I have 3 1/2 servings of dog food.

the "partitive" model

Chinese teachers gave the measurement model short shrift:

Among more than 80 story problems representing the meaning of 1 3/4 ÷ 1/2, 62 stories represented the partitive model of division by fractions--"finding a number such that 1/2 of it is 1 3/4":

Division is the inverse of multiplication. Multiplying by a fraction means that we know a number that represents a whole and want to find a number that represents a certain fraction of that.

After all this time, I still find this passage mystifying.

I was even more mystified when I read the story problem Tr. S came up with:

My story will be: A train goes back and forth between two stations. From Station A to Station B is uphill and from Station B back to Station A is downhill. The train takes 1 3/4 hours going from Station B to Station A. It is only 1/2 time of that from Station A to Station B. How long does the train take going from Station A to Station B?

[isn't this written wrong? shouldn't the numbers be reversed?]

I'm going to reverse them:

My story will be: A train goes back and forth between two stations. From Station A to Station B is uphill and from Station B back to Station A is downhill. The train takes 1 3/4 hours going from Station A to Station B. It is only 1/2 time of that from Station A to Station B. How long does the train take going from Station B to Station A?
update: see below

Here's another:
The mom bought a box of candy. She gave 1/2 of it which weighed 1 3/4 kg to the grandma. How much did the box of the candy originally weight? (Ms. M.)

For a lot of us, the candy problem will be most obviously similar to the "hard" percent problem.

To solve the candy problem:

let x = original weight

1/2x = 1 3/4
1 3/4 ÷ 1/2 = x
3 1/2 = x

The original box weight 3 1/2 pounds.

The hard percent problem has the same form. We know the final price; we know the tax rate. We need to know the price of the shirt sans tax.

let x = price of shirt
1.05x = 52.50
52.50 ÷ 1.05 = x
50 = x

price of shirt = $50

I have to include this for people like me: the reason you take 1.05x is that it is a shortcut.

I spent years of my life taking 5% of $50 to get the sales tax ($2.50), then adding the sales tax amount to the price of the shirt.

Then C's 5th grade teacher explained to me that instead of doing these two steps I could simply multiply the price of the shirt by 1.05 and get the whole thing over with.

The "1" in the 1.05 ensures that the price of the shirt is part of the final value.

That was a revelation.

are partitive problems harder than measurement problems?

I still don't know what kind of language to use in describing these problems (if I'm not going to use the term "partitive," that is, and for the time being I am not).

Can we say that the shirt problem is a part - part - whole problem in which the whole and a part are known and we have to find the other part?


Not exactly.

unknown part: price of shirt
unknown part: sales tax in dollars
part: sales tax rate
whole: final price

I have no idea what to call these problems or even how to describe them.

All I know is that they are difficult for kids to learn, and they don't "come naturally" once a student has learned how to find the price of a shirt given the original price and the sales tax rate.

Any thoughts?


update (from above)

I'm thinking there is a translation problem with the train problem as printed in Ma's book:

My story will be: A train goes back and forth between two stations. From Station A to Station B is uphill and from Station B back to Station A is downhill. The train takes 1 3/4 hours going from Station B to Station A. It is only 1/2 time of that from Station A to Station B. How long does the train take going from Station A to Station B?
As it stands, this problem does not model 1 3/4 ÷ 1/2.

This problem models 1 3/4 x 1/2.

I think the problem should read:

My story will be: A train goes back and forth between two stations. From Station A to Station B is uphill and from Station B back to Station A is downhill. The train takes 1 3/4 hours going from Station B to Station A. It is only 1/2 time of [the time it takes to go from] Station A to Station B. How long does the train take going from Station A to Station B?

let x = time it takes to go from Station A to Station B
time it takes to go from station B to Station A: 1 3/4 hours

1/2x = 1 3/4
x = 1 3/4 ÷ 1/2
x = 3 1/2

It takes 3 1/2 hours to go from Station A to Station B

What are the underlying problems?

For each academic area, what do you think the underlying main problem or problems?

For example, for reading, I would say lack of teaching basics (phonics) first, and lack of teacher understanding of the phonetic structure of English, which leads them to such things as teaching 150 completely phonetic "sight words" as wholes, and 65 more which can be taught with about a dozen rules or patterns (example pattern: to, do, into, today, together.)

I'l be especially interested to see what people think about history. I know I didn't learn much history in school, and the little I did learn was so dry and boring it made me stay away from reading anything history related for years after finishing my education. (I'm now 1/3 of the way through Albion's Seed and am greatly enjoying it!)

A military friend of mine whose children have gone to many different Catholic schools in several different states said that while all his schools have used good math textbooks and methods, there was a wide variability in teacher knowledge, and that his children learned the most from teachers who truly loved and understood math. He also said someone who truly loved math generally wasn't the type of person who loved working with small children, so that while his children often had great math teachers at the upper levels, they seldom had great math teachers in the lower grades. (I'm not saying this is the problem with math, but it seems like it could be a strong underlying contributor at the elementary level.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sight Words, A Case Study

Don Potter just e-mailed me this post describing how a family used one of his free online phonics methods to fix their sight word induced problems.

The father explains their sight word foray and its unfortunate results (excerpts from the post follow, read the whole thing, there is a lot more and the comments are also interesting.):

Shortly after she turned three, I started trying to get her to sound out simple words, from street signs ("Bump" was one of our favorites) and from books like Dr. Seuss' Hop On Pop. She was able to sound out simple, phonetically regular words by age three-and-a-half.

Now, at this point I made a decision that, if I had to do over again, I would not do [snip]

So I looked up the "Dolch List": ... We got pretty good at making long sentences using nothing but these 220 cards, and the Fairy rather enjoyed playing with them. And by the time she was four, she also became very adept at reading most sentences that contained these words. Truth be told, the Dolch words do make up a big chunk of our everyday vocabulary--this sentence alone contains more than a dozen of them. And she had them down cold.


As I later came to understand, when I was finally exposed to the contorversy between the Whole Word and Phonics approaches to learning reading, I was actually teaching my little girl some bad habits that would come back to bite us. We had made it very easy for our girl to recognize common words; she didn't have to do any phonetical decoding to read these words. Phonetical decoding takes work, and she (like most kids who just turned four) didn't want to have to put in any hard-core analysis to get what she wants. The words are supposed to come easily! I should just be able to look at the words and have them pop into my mind!

The skill of sounding out simple words, that she had been able to do shortly after she turned three, had been completely lost. If she didn't know a word by sight, she was stuck. [snip] ; even if a word was in her spoken vocabulary, she couldn't recognize it on the page if she hadn't seen it before in print, even if it was totally phonetically regular, with all short-vowel sounds. And when she came to these words she didn't recognize, she would try to guess, coming up either with nonsense words or with words that were similar-looking (same starting and ending letter, totally different middle), or with a synonym that bore no visual resemblance to the correct word on the page.


Here's the way I understand it: A reader who has been trained to read phonetically, and a reader who has been trained to read words by sight-recognition (See-and-Say or Whole Language), use their brains in totally different ways. In the brain of the sight-recognition reader, reading activates the part of the brain used in visual recognition--the same parts that recognize faces, for example. In the phonetic reader's brain, reading activates the parts of the brain that are used in analysis, and in the processing of sound (even if the person is reading silently). What goes on in the two readers' brains is completely different. When they make mistakes, they will tend to make different kinds of mistakes. And it's very difficult for a person thoroughly trained in one method to make the switch and start using the other kind of method--especially as the student gets older.


So, how is my daugter doing? Well, after finding Mr. Potter's website, we decided to try using Hazel Loring's phonetical method on our newly-turned four-year-old. When we had gone through that completely, we started through the McGuffey's Readers, being careful to make sure that she sounded out every unfamiliar word she came upon. She finished the primer and the First Eclectic Reader earlier this year, and rather enjoyed them. We've also started Level A Spelling Workout, from Modern Curriculum Press (Recommended in The Well Trained Mind), on the theory that learning a phonics-based spelling curriculum will strengthen her phonetical reading skills.


We think it's all working. While the Pillowfight Fairy still tends to guess at big words instead of sounding them out, she's doing it a little less often; and it may only be because she hasn't yet learned how to break the big words down into syllables--something that the spelling curriculum will hopefully cure. But aside from that, she's gotten very good at reading new material that includes words that I've never seen her read before, so I think we must be doing something right.

I've seen the exact same thing with the many students I've tutored. Just change the names, and make it 10 times harder to fix for every additional year the sight words get pounded into their heads. The younger the student and the fewer sight words taught, the easier the remediation process. It's really hard to believe until you see it, there is something going on with those sight words that makes it incredibly difficult to get them reading from left to right and sounding out words without guessing. Nonsense words are helpful, and so are syllables. With some of my older students, I've had to cover up all but the syllable we were working on to keep them from trying to guess the whole word at once. It's a very trying process that takes a lot of patience. Guessing habits are very hard to break. However, the results are very rewarding! I love watching my students learn to love reading and learn to sound out "hard" multiple syllable words on their own.

There are several theories out there to explain this: Don Potter explains the reading traingle theory, I have several theories on my dyslexia page: eye movement theories and brain location theories:

Sight words do not promote left to right reading because when memorizing words as a whole, the eye jumps all around the word. Too many words taught as wholes by sight encourages the development of dyslexia. [5] Moreover, pictures and words are processed on different sides of the brain. Not only do sight words encourage incorrect eye movements, they also confuse the brain, which research has shown reads words sound by sound.

The brains of dyslexics can be retrained with phonics. While this is easier with young children, it is even possible with adult dyslexics. [2] You can see brain changes from phonics training in the seventh slide of this online presentation by Dr. Jack M. Fletcher. [3]

and there is even a spelling brain connection different from the reading brain connection (I'm pretty sure it was different, the spelling brain pictures were very small. However, it seemed to be different areas of the brain than the reading areas):

A recent study found that dyslexics that were taught spelling in this orthographic manner improved their spelling. The study also found that this type of teaching "can actually change their brains' activity patterns to better resemble the brains of normal spellers."

And Dr. Hilde L. Mosse has a conditioned reflex theory:

To show a child a group of letters and to tell him that this means "house"--as is done in those kindergartens and first grades where children are introduced to reading with so-called "sight words"--confuses them, interferes with the formation of conditioned reflexes, and teaches them a lie. The letter sequence h o u s e stands for the word "house" and not for the house they see; pictures do that, but not letters.

Whatever the cause, I'm pretty sure that Sight Words are a Root of all Reading Evil.

my poll

Here's my suggestion for the next Teach Effectively poll: Most overused edu-term that used to be a normal word.

Susan S picks "authentic," but around here it's either "enhance" or "assist."

"Enhance," "assist," or "implement."

Why Johnny Doesn't Like to Read

...and why his vocabulary is so bad, and why he's not really decoding as well as you think.

It's all on my page, also titled "Why Johnny Doesn't Like to Read." (Read the whole thing! The first part which I don't have any quotes from explains why whole word teaching (I don't spell it out, but also, to a lesser degree, phonics with large numbers of sight words) makes people dislike reading.

Here's a preview:

The marginal literacy rates in the United States (and Canada and England) are a hidden problem: people can read text that is written at a low vocabulary level because of the high proportion of sight words in such text and can guess many of the rest from context. According to Geraldine Rodgers,

Only about 3,000 of the highest frequency words compose about 98 per cent of almost any discourse. Words from the remaining half-million or so words in English normally compose the remaining two percent of any untreated, natural discourse. However, when written material is artificially simplified in the deliberate attempt to remove that two percent of low-frequency words, the harm that is being done to vocabulary development is hidden. It is usually not even suspected. Such vocabulary control is the real reason for the drop in test scores at the high school and college levels. [6]

It is only when reading difficult material that their reading problems become apparent. Therefore, many people with reading difficulties or who dislike reading don't even realize they have a problem. According to the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey,

Perhaps the most salient finding of this survey is that such large percentages of adults performed in the lowest levels (Levels 1 and 2) of prose, document, and quantitative literacy. In and of itself, this may not indicate a serious problem. After all, the majority of adults who demonstrated limited skills described themselves as reading or writing English well, and relatively few said they get a lot of assistance from others in performing everyday literacy tasks. [7]

I now wear glasses. As a young child before my vision was tested, I thought everyone saw the world as blurry as I did. Because they can read material written with controlled vocabulary, which includes more and more books and newspaper articles, and even modern Bibles in a continued dumbing down process, many people with reading difficulties do not even realize they have a problem. They don't realize that they are reading with blurred vision, and that it is possible to enjoy reading even complex material.

According to Geraldine Rodgers, even most teachers are not aware of the extent of the problem right under their noses:

Yet most third grade teachers do not even know there is a real problem. If a child stumbles over a lower frequency word which has not already been taught, the teachers pronounce it and think the problem is solved, because most children can read their controlled-vocabulary sight-word reading books very well and score very well on the phony standardized “reading comprehension” tests given annually. That is, of course, because only l,000 words of the highest frequency compose about ninety per cent of most reading materials. Once children know those 1,000 highest-frequency words (which account for about 90 per cent of almost any material), they are automatically reading above the frustration level on most reading comprehension test materials. They are therefore able to guess the meaning of most of the unknown words in the remaining 10 per cent from the context of the selection, particularly if those words are already in their spoken vocabularies, and they can therefore guess the answers to the questions.

Their inability to read independently only shows up on oral word list tests which lack a written context from which to guess the words, or on demanding materials which contain difficult unknown, low-frequency words, well beyond the 10,000 commonest words.. Such reading disabled children (and most American elementary school children are reading-disabled) cannot pronounce, and therefore “hear,” low-frequency words because they are not already in their spoken vocabularies, even when they can guess the “meaning” of low-frequency words from the context of a selection.

The sounds of words are really only labels for the ideas being named. If the sound of a word cannot be resurrected from memory when it is needed, then the idea behind that word is rendered useless. When reading-disabled children encounter unknown low-frequency words, they may be able to guess their meanings, but the low-frequency words will lack a “sound” hook with which the children could have filed the word in their memories for future use, and with which hook they could have retrieved the word in the future. As a result, instead of accumulating their vocabulary through their reading, as healthy readers can do, reading disabled children cannot increase their vocabulary in a normal fashion, any more than badly taught deaf-mutes can. The stunted vocabularies of reading-disabled children are the real reason for the low so-called “reading comprehension” scores that show up so consistently today at the high school and college levels. [8]

“Context guesses” for little sight-word readers with normal hearing can obviously only be made for words which are already in the little “readers'“ spoken vocabularies. These little sight-word readers lack enough phonic ability to sound out truly unknown words so that they can add them to their spoken vocabularies. For such readers, vocabulary knowledge therefore cannot be increased by reading, but only by listening to oral speech. By contrast, phonic readers can sound out an unknown word from all of its letters and figure out its meaning from the context. Phonic readers therefore add both the spelling and the meaning of a previously unknown printed word to their vocabularies. The effect, of course, is cumulative: phonically-trained readers reach high school with larger vocabularies, besides being able to spell better and to read automatically with ease instead of with conscious, unpleasant, “psycholinguistic,” “whole language” guessing. [9]

This cumulative effect of vocabulary development was termed “The Matthew Effect” by Dr. Keith Stanovich. Its effects are real, and large, and have been proven in at least one legal case. This online article by Dr. Kerry Hempenstall further explains the Matthew effect, showing the vocabulary differences that accumulate each year:

struggling readers may read around 100,000 words per year while for keen mid-primary students the figure may be closer to 10,000,000, that is, a 100 fold difference. For out of school reading, Fielding, Wilson and Anderson (1986) suggested a similar ratio in indicating that children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in their Year 5 sample read about 50,000 words per year out of school, while those at the 90th percentile read about 4,500,000 words per year. [10]

I have compared the King James Version (KJV) of Romans 12 to the New International Version (NIV) version of Romans 12 to show both the nature of vocabulary restrictions caused by whole word teaching and also to show how uncomfortable it is to be a reader taught with whole word methods. The KJV is on the first page, the NIV is on the second page. If you were taught with whole word methods, you would have to guess at several of the words (those words not in the most common 10,000 words in the English language) based on their first and last letters. Depending on your memorization abilities, several of the red words would be difficult and would require study, and the purple words would be slightly more difficult to remember. The KJV has 10% of its words that are not the most common 10,000 words in the English language; the vocabulary impoverished NIV has only 2%. If reading everything was this uncomfortable for you, you might prefer TV as well!

Here are some samples of vocabulary controlled books. Evidently they are quite popular in schools: Leveled Readers.

Steve on high school rankings & non-linear optimization

Steve has left several comments on the U.S. News & Newsweek rankings of high schools. In this one he responds to the question I asked about whether a parent could base a decisions about where to live in the rankings:

"In other words, say you're a parent looking to move to a district with good schools. Could you base a decision in these rankings?"

"Base a decision"? No. Is it of no value? No, but it's all relative. Schools think it's important because it's good PR. Our high school has a reference to it on its home page, and it's only a silver medal!

Over the long run, schools can take advantage of the formula. Anytime you have an extremely important formula that condenses a lot of information down into a single number, it's open to gamesmanship. But, the more that schools play the game, the less useful is the formula. I've seen cases where it's a constant arms race between those who want a formula to reflect reality and those who want to beat the formula.

If a school pushes all students to one AP class or another whether or not they are properly prepared, then that might improve the score, but the education might not be better. Or, it could be a false or local optimum and they completely miss a much larger global optimum that uses a different approach.

Important formulas generally force a trend towards one particular solution. Uncertainties in the formula can hide other solutions that might offer much better results. Instead of reflecting reality, they drive reality.

Think of a formula that tries to represent a topographic map. You want to find the highest point on the map but all you can do is plug in your latitude and longitude into a black box that will give you a height. You keep doing this and try to search for the highest point. If your second point gives a lower height, you turn around and go in the other direction and check the height.

This is called non-linear optimization and I have many books that discuss solutions to this problem. If you know derivative information, you can search faster. If not, you can find slopes numerically.

The problem is that you might find a mountain peak, but it's the shortest peak of the mountain range. Another problem is that the black box might not represent reality very well. There might not be a mountain peak there at all.

Another, more subtle issue is that (due to uncertainty) the very highest peak location is no better than a location that is 10 percent lower. If you think of a long mountain range, it might be much easier to climb to the slightly lower end of the mountain range than it is to climb the other end where the absolute highest point is located. In other words, an easier optimum to a problem (within 10 percent) might be located far, far away.

Rather than push all high school kids onto at least one AP track in high school, the easier approach might be to fix the problems in K-6 before they get large. They won't find this solution if they are focused on a formula that uses only high school data.

Vote for: Which of the following is the most bogus reason for refusing to provide effective instruction to students?

John Wills Lloyd, at the Teach Effectively! blog, has a new Bogus Bowl up. Go and vote.
In this one, we’re examing reasons that educators give for shirking what I’ve sometimes called the “instructional obligation.” It’s your chance to consider alternative rationales for not teaching.

If you’re a teacher, you might have heard colleagues advance explanations such as these. Which is the most bogus? If you’re a parent, you may have heard one (or more) of these justifications for your child’s learning problems. Which one drove you the most batty? If you’re an administrator, I hope you haven’t suggested to your faculty that members use any of these.
The choices are:
  • That kind of instruction may be good for some students, but it just doesn’t fit my teaching style.

  • Nobody can teach students who come from bad homes.

  • Students will learn it when they’re ready.

  • Some students just have crossed wires in their heads.

Like I said, Go and vote.

John is also looking for suggestions for future Bogus Bowl competitions. Help him out. Leave suggestions in the comments.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ed School Disappointment #2*: Endorsement of "Scotopic Sensitivity"

The instructor in one of my ed school classes announced tonight that Irlen-Meares (scotopic sensitivity) syndrome is real and should be remediated for....


I'm pretty firmly in the Irlean/Meares/Scotopic Sensitivity skeptic camp, especially as regards the "Incidence studies suggest that 46% of those with identified with reading problems, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, or learning difficulties suffer from Irlen Syndrome and can be helped by the Irlen
" claim.

Since I don't have a bomb-proof handle on the alleged 62 studies published in peer-reviewed journals that show improvement, I'm going to keep my mouth shut for now. However, since the link references a web site, and the said website doesn't provide a link to the "review", I'm still skeptical.

And disappointed. I had thought this instructor pretty tough-minded.

*Ed School Disappointment #1 -- the lack of content in the "Intro to the Role" class.

Can the method cause dyslexia?

As I alluded to in my sight word post, I believe the answer is yes, the method used to teach reading can cause dyslexia.

As I said in my sight word post,
I give reading grade level tests to all my friends who have children, and through our moves have tested (directly and indirectly) hundreds of children from several different states. In my informal survey, I have found that the more sight words taught in a school, the higher the percentage of children who are reading below grade level.
I also found that schools that taught with completly whole word methods fared even worse in my informal assessment. And, the better the phonics program used and the less sight words taught in that phonics program, the better the percentage of students that were reading above grade level. I haven't found a single child taught with A Beka or with whatever phonics program the local Catholic school uses who was not reading above grade level. I thought I had found one student at the local Catholic school who was the exception to that rule but I later found out that she had transferred into the Catholic school from an out of state public school that used whole word teaching methods.

Several of my remedial students were supposedly "dyslexic," yet I have not yet found a single "dyslexic" student who learned to read phonetically. However, I find it best not to argue with people who think they have dyslexia--the methods used to remediate someone are the same regardless of how they obtained their dyslexia, and they are more willing to be helped if you do not argue with them. After teaching them for a while, I just mention the fact that all of my "dyslexic" students came from some kind of sight word or whole word background and that, while they probably do exist, I have not yet found a single "dyslexic" student from a low-sight word phonics background.

My dyslexia page goes into more detail about how teaching methods can cause dyslexia, and also explains the nature of sound and how to remediate dyslexia (both organic and method induced.) Here again are some excerpts:

According to Dr. Robert Myers of the Child Development Institute in his web page about Dyslexia & Reading Problems, "Children who have an average or above IQ and are reading 1 1/2 grades or more below grade level may be dyslexic. True dyslexia affects about 3 to 6 percent of the population yet in some parts of the country up to 50% of the students are not reading at grade level. This means that the reason for most children not reading at grade level is ineffective reading instruction. The dyslexic child often suffers from having a specific learning disability as well as being exposed to ineffective instruction."

Dr. Reid Lyon, in his article "Reading Disabilities: Why Do Some Children Have Difficulty Learning to Read? What Can Be Done About It?" talks about phonics training and the prevention of reading failure through proper training:

On the other hand, the early identification of children at-risk for reading failure coupled with the provision of comprehensive early reading interventions can reduce the percentage of children reading below the basic level in the fourth grade (i.e., 38%) to six percent or less....

These studies strongly suggest that such programs [systematic phonics] if implemented appropriately, could reduce the number of children who fail to learn to read well below the 38 % rate currently observed nationally. [6]

In France, it was proven that schools that taught with phonics produced less dyslexic students than schools that taught with whole word methods. Acording to Geraldine E. Rodgers,

However, the true sight-word method was generally discredited in Europe by the 1970's. Change was brought about by such things as those reported in a 1950 Enfance article. In France, 2% of dyslexic children were discovered in schools that used the phonics approach, but 20% of dyslexic children were discovered in schools that used the global [whole word] approach. [7]

Unfortunately, like us, the French have not learned from their history of education and keep repeating the same kinds of mistakes. According to several people I know, Global [whole word] and "mixed" (I assume the equivilent of "balanced literacy") methods are back in force in France today. This website, Lire-ecrire, is a website promoting the return of syllable-based phonics methods in France and warns of the dangers of Global methods and how to prevent them by teaching syllable-based phonics at home. (At least, that's what I thought from my auto-translation, I could be wrong!)

As I explain in my dyslexia page, I think that Webster's Speller is probably the best method for remediating dyslexic students. Through its focus on spelling, it may also help prevent dyslexia even more than regular phonics methods. If you can write and spell a word correctly, there should be less chance of reversing or confusing it.

There is also a teaching explanation to explain away some of the genetic connection for dyslexia. If your parents can't sound out words and you are taught with whole word methods, your parents can't sound out words for you when you're confused by poor teaching methods which have not clearly and explicitly taught you letter sounds and how to sound out words. I got a tiny bit of phonics in Kindergarten, then whole word methods in first grade. My parents would sound out words for me when I didn't know them. Parents who don't have a clear knowledge of the sounds in words and how to teach with phonics can't do this.

(This lack of explicit, complete phonics instruction left me a good reader but a poor speller. After learning the phonetic spelling rules and the sound/spelling patterns of phonics, I am now a pretty good speller, although not as good of a speller as people I know who were trained with a good phonics program from the beginning.)


Catherine here, diving into Elizabeth's post. Here's the link to Ed's translation of the brief Nouvel Observateur article on the increase in dyslexia amongst French schoolchildren.

Le scandale de l'illetrrisme (nouvel obs: the scandal of illiteracy)
dyslexie, vraiment? ) (nouvel obs: true dyslexia?)
Comment en est-on arrivé là? (nouvel obs: How did we get here?)

Lucy Calkins on teaching children to write

instructional casualties in America
curriculum casualties: figures
forcing hearing children to learn as deaf children must
Rory: I frickin' hate whole language!

thank you, whole language

Sight Words: a root of all reading evil

There are other roots, but sight words are a big one.

I give reading grade level tests to all my friends who have children, and through our moves have tested (directly and indirectly) hundreds of children from several different states. In my informal survey, I have found that the more sight words taught in a school, the higher the percentage of children who are reading below grade level.

A search for "sight words" on Google produced 1.26 million hits, "Dolch sight words," 41,200. Chances are your school is teaching some.

Wikipedia entry for "Dolch Word List" states:

The Dolch Word list is a list of frequently used words compiled by Edward William Dolch, Ph.D. The list was originally published in his book "Problems in Reading", the Garrard Press, 1948.

Dolch compiled the list based on children's books of his era. The list contains 220 "service words" that have to be easily recognized in order to achieve reading fluency. The compilation excludes nouns, which comprise a separate 95-word list.

Many of the 220 Dolch words can't be "sounded out" and have to be learned by sight. Hence the alternative term "Sight Words".

I requested Dolch's "Problems in Reading" through Interlibrary Loan and found that Dolch used 3 existing lists of the most frequent words to develop his list of 220 words. He took words that were common to the Child Study Committe of the International Kindergarten Union (2,596 words), the first 500 words of the Gates list, and the 453 words on the Wheeler and Howell list. He then added in 27 words on only one or two of the lists which he deemed improtant or which completed a group (for example, stop was on all 3 lists, but start wasn't, so start was added to the list.)

The idea that the Dolch sight words are phonetically irregular and therefore must be taught by sight is a commonly believed idea that is just not true. My sight word page explains this, here are some excerpts (but do go read the whole thing, it's pretty short and also has a link to a pdf file arranging the Dolch words by their phonetic patterns.) Better yet, print it out along with copies of the pdf file and give it to everyone you know whose children are being subjected to unnecessary whole word sight word teaching.

Of the 220 most commonly taught sight words (called dolch sight words), 150 are completely phonetic and can be easily learned by sound. For the other 70 words, 68 conform to simple patterns of exceptions and can be taught phonetically. Sight words should not be taught at all in a pure phonics program that teaches by sound. They should merely be taught phonetically along with other words.

Here are some of these 150 phonetic "sight words:"
be, he, me, she, we
an, can, ran
got, hot, not

ate, make, take

see, green, keep, sleep, three
My remedial students who were sight word victims required much retraining, it generally takes a lot of nonsense words to break their guessing habits. The most difficult words to break their guessing habits were those on the Dolch word list which they were exposed to repeatedly. I had one 33 year old female student who never did learn the difference between than, then and them or there and their. She would sound them out for a while and then after a few weeks revert back and randomly guess the wrong one. I eventually got her sounding out most words, but those specific Dolch sight words were too difficult to overcome. I did manage to improve her reading grade level from 3rd grade to 8th grade before I had to move to another state.

Another excerpt from my sight word page, a bit of a table from Laurita's article "Basic Sight Vocabulary--A Help or a Hinderance?": (You'll want to see the full article.)

This table contains words selected from the Dolch Basic Sight Vocabulary List which have configurational similarity and have the potential to contribute to the development of visual response patterning which is unreliable and confused.


One of the problems with the way the sight words are taught is that the words are commonly separated alphabetically and across grade levels. For example, "can" is taught in a preprimer list, but "an" in first grade. "Not" is taught at the preprimer level, but students are not expected to be able to learn "got" until third grade. Students are apparently ready for "when," which includes the diagraph wh, by First Grade, but not the phonetically regular and simple "ten" until Third Grade. This method of listing and teaching "sight words" hides their phonetic pattern and reinforces the idea that they cannot be learned phonetically.

68 of the 70 words on the Dolch list do have some degree of phonetic irregularity, but can be easily taught by teaching a few phonics rules. Here are a few examples from my sight word page:

Words with ve at the end. Words in English will not end in v, so words with ve at the end may be either short or long:
give, live, have (Live can be pronounced either long or short depending on its usage.)

Words with consonant pair substitutions (z sound for s, v sound for f). If you say each of these sounds, you’ll note that they are very close sounds. They are pronounced with the mouth in the same position, but the first of each pair is voiced and the second is unvoiced.
as, has, is his, use, does, of (does also has the vowel sound mushed to uh)

This word has a schwa sound of uh and a consonant pair substitution of z for s:

This word is regular with its long e sound before words beginning with vowels. Before words beginning with consonants, the e sound will mush to the schwa sound of uh:
the (long e in the end, uh sound in the bears)

I have sight-word phobia. I have seen the harm they do to students and have spent countless hours undoing the damage they have done to my remedial students.

I have only taught a single sight word to my daughter. (The word "one." Then, I taught her the word "once" as following its pattern. The other 218 words on the list, I just taught her phonetically along with other words. For the 68 that are slightly irregular, I taught them in groups following that pattern of exception. She learned "eye" on her own somehow, probably as a sight word. It's not on the Dolch word list, but it, like "one," has no phonetic explanation suitable for a 5 year old. There actually are linguistic explanation for both one and eye, they are just very complex.)

Howard Gardner on the liberal arts disciplines

JB: How you educate everybody?

GARDNER: I want people at the end of their education to understand the world in ways that they couldn't have understood it before their education. In speaking of the world I mean the physical world, the biological world, the social world ÷ their own world, their personal world as well as the broader social and cultural terrain. I believe that these are questions that every human being is interested in from a very young age. They're questions which kids ask all the time: who am I, where do I come from, what's this made out of, what's going to happen to me, why do people fight, why do they hate? Is there a higher power?


These are also the questions that historically have been looked at in religion, philosophy, science. While it's great for people to ask these questions on their own, and to make use of their own experience, it's crazy for people not to take advantage of the other attempts to answer those questions over the millennia. And the disciplines represent to me the most concerted efforts to provide answers to those questions. History tells us where we come from. Biology talks about what it means to be alive. Physics talks about the world of objects, alive or not.

It's important to emphasize the role of disciplines when you're talking about precollegiate education. Some people think the disciplines are irrelevant, and some people think all the interesting work is interdisciplinary so you can kind of jump right into that. I reject both of these claims. Disciplines are what separates us from the barbarians; I don't think you can do interdisciplinary work unless you've done disciplinary work.

A Talk with Howard Gardner

You'll notice that while ed schools everywhere teach Gardner's unsupported theory of multiple intelligences, one hears nary a word about Gardner's belief that high schools should teach the liberal arts disciplines.

extra credit: Interdisciplinary teaming empowers teacher!

help desk - percent change

from Glencoe Algebra, page 163:
China has a population of 1.24 billion in 1997, with a projected increase in population of 22.6% for 2050.
What is the population of China projected to be in 2050?

India has a population of 0.97 billion in 1997, with a projected increase in population of 57.8% for 2050.
What is the population of China projected to be in 2050?

The US has a population of 0.27 billion in 1997, with a projected increase in population of 44.4% for 2050.
What is the population of US projected to be in 2050?

47. Which of these three countries is projected to be the most populous in 2050?

I assume that I know how to do these problems, but I'd appreciate an answer check if anyone has the time or inclination. Seeing as how I don't have the answer key.

The fact that I am asking this question on a blog is further evidence of the ineffective pedagogical practices employed by my school district (per pupil funding: $22,000/yr).

C. worked this problem in a homework set a couple of days ago.

Or, rather, he attempted to work this problem.

The next day, the teacher sent around a student monitor to mark down whether the kids had or had not done their homework. I assume everyone got credit for having done the homework, since the kids who haven't done it just write a different date on an old assignment and the student monitor gives them credit.

Then the teacher went over the homework in class.


My child has attempted to do this problem.

He has seen the problem "gone over" in class.

He still can't do the problem -- and until last night, when I had him attempt to do the problem in front of me, he didn't know that he couldn't do the problem. He followed the demonstration in class, or thought he did, and thus felt no need to "seek extra help."

The fact that he was not "proactive in seeking extra help" is viewed by our teachers and administrators alike as a character flaw, a sign of immaturity or both.

It is not viewed as a sign of ineffective teaching.

Where is Galen Alessi when we need him?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Syllables, Syllables, Syllabary

Teaching phonics with syllables works a lot faster than regular phonics and allows students to read at high grade levels quickly.

Teaching with syllables, "Johnny" went from reading at the 3rd grade level to reading at the 6th grade level after 6 hours of phonics instruction. (The early version of my online phonics lessons, now 12 hours total instruction.)

Before 1826, children were taught to read with the syllabary. The first part of the syllabary is shown on old hornbooks.

Children taught with Webster's Speller and the syllabary could read this in first grade:

"Now, if you will try to re-mem-ber what I have told you a-bout these si-lent let-ters, I think you will be able to read ver-y well, in a short time; and I suppose you will be ver-y glad when you are a-ble to read pret-ty stories in books.

The si-lent let-ters which are used in spell-ing ma-ny words are ver-y puz-zling to lit-tle boys and girls, when they are learn-ing to read; but I hope that the good lit-tle boy or girl who is now read-ing this les-son will try ver-y hard to rec-ol-lect how all the words are spelt; and that the teach-er will re-quire ev-e-ry pu-pil to be a-ble to spell ev-e-ry word that is read. By so doing, the pu-pil will learn to read much fast-er, and in a short time hard words will cease to trou-ble him." (from Parker's First Reader, 1851)

and this in second grade:
"All persons, who are not deprived by nature or by accident of something which belongs to them by the gift of God, their Creator, have five senses." (from Parker's National Second Reader, 1869)
After teaching my daughter with Webster's, she can read just about anything. She's still 5 (she'll be 6 soon) and can sound out 3 and 4 syllable words she has never seen before. After 4 months of seeing syllables divided like those shown in the 1st grade selection above, she can now divide them on her own. A few months ago, she could read 3 and 4 syllable words only if they were divided for her. You can learn all about how to teach with Webster's and the Syllabary, it's surprisingly easy.

I believe that teaching syllables is a crucial step missing in most phonics programs today. A Beka divides words by syllables, and every child I've seen taught with this program was reading far above their grade level.