kitchen table math, the sequel: SAT scores & the first grade reader

Sunday, January 4, 2009

SAT scores & the first grade reader

From Jeanne Chall's The Academic Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom?

Changes in Textbook Difficulty

Historical analyses of textbooks show a steady decline in difficulty from the 1920s to the present. The first decline in difficulty was in the reading textbooks for the primary grades. The authors and publishers who were first to simplify the primary reading textbooks claimed that the easier books were more suitable for most children according to research on their vocabulary knowledge (Chall, 1958). The move toward ease was prompted, also, by the change in methods of teaching beginners to a whole-word, sight method from a stronger phonics emphasis. This change made it harder for the children to recognize new words. Hence, the number of new words to be learned in the reading textbooks was lowered. The easier books were soon considered the better books, and, probably because of competition among publishers, the new editions of the primary readers had fewer different words—that is, they were easier than the earlier editions.

By the late 1930s, however, most of the readers had fewer words than the research evidence indicated was optimal (Chall, 1958). Even so, the readers kept getting easier until about the 1960s when some started appearing to get somewhat harder again (Chall, 1958, 1983a).

Subject matter textbooks also became easier from about the 1940s to the 1970s. In a study commissioned by the Advisory Panel on the SAT Score Decline (Chall, Conard, & Harris, 1977), the most widely used textbooks (readers, grammars, composition and history books) published from the 1940s to the 1970s for grades 1, 6, and 11 were found to be increasingly less challenging. When the difficulty of the textbooks was compared to the SAT scores of students who had used them, compelling evidence was found that those students who had used the more difficult textbooks had the higher SAT scores. This was particularly so for the early reading textbooks. The students who had learned from the harder school readers had higher SAT scores, while those who received instruction from easier readers scored lower.

The Academic Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom? by Jeanne Chall
p. 50-51

in a nutshell
  • textbook difficulty declined from the 1920s to 2000
  • early readers were simplified because children who've been taught to sight-read can read far fewer words than children who've been taught to decode text using sound-letter correspondences, or phonics
  • "students who had used the more difficult textbooks had the higher SAT scores. This was particularly so for the early reading textbooks. The students who had learned from the harder school readers had higher SAT scores, while those who received instruction from easier readers scored lower."

Take-home lesson: teach your children to read.

perfect 1600

Until today, I had never heard of the SAT study.

I had read Tom Fischgrund's book about kids who scored perfect 1800s, however. He found something analogous:
[S]tudents who ace the SAT read an average of fourteen hours a week. Average score students, on the other hand, read only eight hours a week—an immense drop-off. The biggest difference, however, was found in the amount of time students spent reading for school. Average score students spent four hours a week reading literature, textbooks, and other assigned reading for school. Perfect score students put in nine hours a week for school-assigned reading, more than double the amount of time.


What do 1600 students read for fun?...The book most frequently mentioned—by a total of 6 percent of perfect score students—was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

The Perfect 1600 Score: The 7 Secrets of Acing the SAT
Tom Fischgrund

I'm thinking the 21st century re-definition of "literacy" does not bode well for the SAT scores of today's Kindergarten.

The NCTE Definition of 21st Century Literacies (approved by the board!)
Some sound reading advice
Schoolbook Simplification and Its Relation to the Decline in SAT-Verbal Scores (pdf file)
Summer homework
SAT I score equivalents


Tex said...

Does the author mention how using stapled handouts instead of textbooks affects achievement? I suspect the handouts are even easier to read than the books. It does seem to be a dumbing down phenomenon.

There is plenty to criticize about the general quality of today’s textbooks, so I can see how schools and teachers prefer to create their own learning materials. Then there’s the internet.

I guess reading a textbook cover to cover, integrating the various chapters into a cohesive domain of chunked knowledge and then being able to use the book to retrieve information would all be considered outdated skills by most educators. While I cannot verbalize it now, there does seem to be some value in these skills that has not yet been replaced by current instructional practices.

Tex said...

BTW, I just noticed at least one of my kids had NO assigned reading over the holiday break. It was up to me to “suggest” any of the reading that was done, and unfortunately, “High School Musical”, books I & II, were the first books my kid chose to read this past week.

Anonymous said...

Math texts today are largely math free, i.e. they are mostly compendiums of problems or work sheets through middle school. Kids never learn to use them as reference material (because they're useless as such). In fact they don't easily think to reference anything.

My students (most of them at least) won't open their journals on an 'open journal' test. "It's too hard." They've never learned to rely on written material as a reference, preferring to ask the teacher for (verbal) help!

Apparently they're used to getting this type of assistance elsewhere. I don't provide this crutch and they're not happy about it.

Catherine Johnson said...

Progressive ed is anti-book.

That's my conclusion.

John Dewey didn't want kids to learn to read until age 8.

Anonymous said...

"John Dewey didn't want kids to learn to read until age 8."

Hey! My son can start learning to read at the end of this month! :-)

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...

And not a minute too soon!

Anonymous said...

From the NCTE Definition: " Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies."

How in the world does one parse this sentence, particularly the function of "many literacies"? (by the way, my online OED doesn't accept "literacies" as a word, and I agree with the dictionary.)

Is "many literacies" a clause? A noun in apposition to "competencies?"

Crimson Wife said...

My mom has kept copies of her elementary school readers (copyright mid-'50's) and it's amazing to compare them with the modern readers that my mom-in-law gave me after she retired from teaching 3rd grade last year.

The old books are full of high-quality literary selections with relatively complex vocabulary that clearly are trying to teach cultural literacy and traditional values. The new ones are full of dumbed-down, politically correct fluff :-(

In our family's homeschool, I skip readers and simply have my student read classic children's literature.

Catherine Johnson said...

oh my gosh!!!

The OED doesn't think "literacies" is a word???

(And are you paying $300/yr for the OED? wow!)

Well, I for one do not know enough grammar to answer your question, though I intend to know enough to do so, and soon.

Still and all, good question.

What exactly is "many literacies" doing there?

Does it modify "abilities and competencies"?

Are you supposed to have abilities and competencies AND "many literacies"?

The whole thing is appalling.

Catherine Johnson said...

I skip readers and simply have my student read classic children's literature.


That's what folks used to do, back when children learned to decode as opposed to "predict."

You MUST read Rudolf Flesch if you haven't already.

An amazing book, incredibly droll.

Catherine Johnson said...

Chock full of many literacies, too!

Anonymous said...

O.K., it's the Oxford American Dictionary widget, which one can download from Apple. I lugged out my paper copy of the OED, however, and its definition for literacy is: [f. LITERATE: see -ACY. (Formed as and antithesis to illiteracy.)] The quality or state of being literate: knowledge of letters; condition in respect to education, esp. ability to read or write.

It's hard for me to see how there can be more than one literacy.

Anonymous said...

I have in my hands here some readers from the 1800s that I inherited from my great-grandfather. One of them he apparently inherited from *his* grandfather, my g-g-g-grandfather.

They are:

The School Reader, Fifth Book, designed as a sequel to Sanders' Fourth Reader, Charles W. Sanders, 1863.

Sequel to the English Reader, or, Elegant Selections in Prose and Poetry, Lindley Murray, 1818.

Sanders' frontispiece says, "for the use of academies and the higher classes in common and select schools." Now, I don't know whether "higher classes" means "older" or "upper class", but I assumed the former, meaning 16-year-olds.

The first section is Elocution, and begins the book with a table of "Elementary Sounds of the Letters", which is exactly what it sounds like: "G as in Gun, J as in Jet" (yes, the word "jet" was used in 1863). It appears that this section is intended to instruct in reading aloud with force and purpose.

Most of the book is poems and exerpts/chapters from various pieces of prose.

The Murray book is entirely excerpts and chapters of books, such as the following I found by opening the book at random:

Carazan, the merchant of Bagdat [sic], was eminent throughout all the east for his avarice and his wealth...

In both of these books, the printing is dense, the whitespace is minimal, and there are of course NO PICTURES.

It is worth remembering that for MANY years children learned to read from the King James Bible.