kitchen table math, the sequel: two thought experiments

Saturday, February 14, 2009

two thought experiments

1.

Suppose you simplified spelling so that written English became a perfectly transparent writing system like Spanish. It would be obvious to one and all that written English is a code, that spelling means encoding the sounds of the English language, and that reading means decoding the sounds of the English language.

Would schools use phonics to teach children how to read?

2.

Suppose the schools were required to teach all children to read and write Morse code.

Would schools teach children the codes for individual letters and have them practice stringing them together into words and sentences?

Or would schools give students a list of sight words written in Morse to memorize and then have them "read" leveled books written in Morse Code, focusing on the meaning of the text?


update from lgm:
For #2: If it was my district, each child would initially be given his first name in Morse code and expected to memorize it use it to label his color/cut/paste projects. Then it would be sight words. Once the Morse code equivalent of Dolch sight words are mastered, the child would be given instruction in decoding. He would never encode. He would spend far more time listening than watching or doing...which is IMHO why boys get behind. Too much listening to talk about the subject, not enough thinking and practicing on one's own.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

To answer #1: Would schools use phonics to teach children how to read?

Not necessarily.

"Instructional strategies in Spanish reading can be classified as synthetic, analytic, eclectic, or embedded within a whole-language approach (Calderon, 2001; Collier, 1995). The synthetic approach emphasizes identifying letters, syllables, isolated words, and phrases and then reading short texts of one or two sentences in length. In the analytic approach, children begin with whole words and then analyze parts of words (Thonis, 1983). According to Calderon, the analytic approach later became the m├ętodo global [global method] that emphasized reading the sentence or phrase first, followed by reading the word, the syllable, and the letter. The eclectic approach allows the teacher to select the best of any reading methods and to combine strategies based on the needs of the students. The whole-language approach focuses on learning whole words, with an emphasis on reading for meaning (Freeman & Freeman, 1998)."

From "Linguistic Units and Instructional Strategies That Facilitate Word Recognition for Latino Kindergarteners Learning to Read in Spanish".

You can also google for "metodo global" for something that appears to be similar to "whole language" [Not whole word!] in Spanish.

-Mark Roulo

Paul B said...

I'm not at all familiar with the reading wars or their underlying realities in the classroom. I do follow the conversations here anyway out of curiosity.

This post reminds of the (perhaps) analogous mathematical tension regarding calculators. I regard the (too) early introduction of calculators as a short circuit to the process of acquiring number sense. Instead of building a stable foundation, the calculator provides a plastic house of cards.

Does the same thing happen in reading? Are sight words simply ELA calculators?

Linda Seebach said...

"Simplified spelling" is a false hope. There are reasons why linguists (that is, people with actual credentials in the study of language -- I was a grad student in linguistics) are generally unconvinced it's a good idea.

First: You have to decide whose spoken English is encoded into this mythical "perfectly transparent" writing system. London? Boston? New Orleans? For that matter, why not Calcutta or Shanghai?

Which is more transparent, Burma or Myanmar? Cambodia or Kampuchea?

We actually do have a perfectly transparent way of transcribing spoken language, called the International Phonetic Alphabet. Do people use that to teach reading? (I understand the answer in China is sometimes "yes.")

Second, "simplified spelling" erases the historical and logical relations between words whose pronunciation has shifted over centuries, making it harder to learn new vocabulary beyond the words children know.

An example: English plurals are spelled with "s." Most English speakers are blithely unaware that the "s" is pronounced like the phoneme /s/ after unvoiced consonants, e.g. /t/, and like /z/ after voiced consonants and vowels.
Or at least they were until "Boyz" hit their consciousness. And now we have "Bratz."

Thus perfectly illustrating the problem; "Bratz" is wrong. That's an /s/, but nobody noticed.

Would it be easier to learn English plurals, or possessives, or third-person singular verbs, if children had to distinguish cats from dogz?

Third, we'd lose most of written literature. If you grew up with a simplified-spelling version of English, Shakespeare would be as remote as Chaucer, and only the relative handful of books that were translated from historical originals would be accessible to you.

The People's Republic of China adopted simplified spelling, in the form of simplified characters, in the name of improved literacy, but the political purpose was to obliterate access to written history that did not conform to the party's vision.

And as long as I've mentioned Chinese, character languages are a lot further from phonetically transparent than any alphabetic language, yet Japan, Korea and Taiwan have literacy rates that NAEP should envy. Spelling is not the problem.

ElizabethB said...

Some people would attempt to teach whole word methods and sight words.

Leigh Print was a specially marked print that was very effective as an aid to teaching reading, and some teachers used it in a whole word manner! (It made English 95% phonetic without respelling the words--and, it only taught the 95% of words they could make phonetic, so they made english like Spanish. It was run out of the schools by whole word proponents.

Here's a sample on my UPP page (UPP makes English 100% phonetic!)

http://www.thephonicspage.org/On%20Reading/upp.html

Simplified spelling will never come to pass. I system like Leigh Print or my UPP is possible, it transitions the reader to regular English.

SteveH said...

I see lots of things in education as high expectations versus low expectations; direct approaches to teaching versus indirect approaches to teaching.

So, is learning a natural process or isn't it? Do we define expectations to meet the needs of nature (defined by the school, not the parents), or do we force the issue and push?

Does the Zone of Proximal Development relate to a natural process, or can it be pushed with proper scaffolding? It's kind of like compound interest. I would rather have a 10% educational push than a 2% push after 12 years of schooling.

Then again, kids get to fifth grade not knowing the times table. That's educational incompetence. Talk of grand theories and how the brain works just hides the problem. Even if you drop in Singapore Math, kids would still get to fifth grade not knowing the times table.

Let's lower the expectations. How about making sure that kids know their adds and subtracts to 20 automatically by fifth grade? It didn't happen at the affluent private school my son went to.

Schools see some kids doing well and they look no further. Those helicopter parents they complain about are making them look good. There was a recent letter (from the PTO) to the school committee praising our K-8 schools and commenting that several of the valedictorians at the high school (in the next town over) came from our schools. I know the parents of several of those kids. They are helicopter parents.


So, that's my thought experiment. If you drop in Singapore Math, will kids do better in math? Will the school magically begin to hold kids back a grade?

Low expectations is low expectations. It drives everything.

Catherine Johnson said...

Sight words are BAD, BAD, BAD -- something I didn't know until the past few months.

Delving into the reading wars is a case of "It's always worse than you think."

The situation with reading is worse than the situation with math because reading is IT. Reading is at the center of all future learning, including math to a significant degree.

I can't tell whether a poor reader can excel at math -- does anyone know?

Catherine Johnson said...

OK, I'm off the boat for simplified spelling.

Although....it's the case, isn't it, that kids & adults who speak different dialects nevertheless learn to read perfectly well using phonics that teach mainstream pronunciation?

If that's wrong, please correct me.

I'm pretty sure this was one of Ken Goodman's original objections to phonics.

Catherine Johnson said...

Elizabeth & palisadesk are far better equipped to talk about whole language than I am, but one of the reasons sight words are so bad is that from the get-go the child is taught to scan the word in correctly. To read fluently, you need to scan from left to right & do it fast. With sight words a child's eyes can be hopping all over the word looking for "ascenders" and "descenders" and the like.

It's directly analogous to learning how to swing a tennis racket incorrectly and then trying to learn to do it the right way: it's not possible to "forget". To relearn something correctly, you have to inhibit the prior memory and activate the new memory.

When you really think about the implications of that factoid, you pretty quickly start to wonder if any children ought to be allowed to attend public schools ever.

In order to master and use a new method, you have to inhibit the old method you learned previously.

You can't simply erase it.

Catherine Johnson said...

Here's a question: isn't this a guiding principle in sports training?

You should always learn a technique correctly?

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm working my way through a terrific textbook on learning & memory (title: Learning & Memory...).

Most cognitive skills have a motor component, and there may not be much difference between the processes involved in acquiring and using cognitive skills versus motor-perceptual skills.

The real difference may life simply in where in the brain the content is stored.

Assuming this is true - and that's the way the field is leaning - Carolyn's argument that math has to get "in the hand" is exactly right.

Catherine Johnson said...

the craft of math

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, my answers are:

1. schools would still use whole language

2. schools would use whole language to teach Morse Code

Catherine Johnson said...

Paul - the issue with whole language/balanced literacy instruction, which I am only belatedly grasping, is that reading is every bit as cumulative as math.

If you start out slow -- and at least 30% of all kids don't learn to read using balanced literacy -- not only do you stay slow, you fall further & further behind as the years go by.

I'm now thinking that perhaps the major explanation for why boys are doing so much worse than girls is that boys don't learn to read as well as girls in Kindergarten and first grade.

Boys in private schools & in homeschooling settings do learn to read well; boys in public schools are at "high risk" of reading problems.

I'll get these various items & sources posted.

CassyT said...

SteveH said:

If you drop in Singapore Math, will kids do better in math? Will the school magically begin to hold kids back a grade?


Almost every school that adopted the Singapore Math curriculum that I trained last year started the students back a full level in the series at the 4th grade or beyond. Second & third grade started with some lessons from prior grades.

Schools that make the commitment to move to a relatively unknown curriculum tend to have thought the process through and have higher expectations to begin.

Anonymous said...

"... kids & adults who speak different dialects nevertheless learn to read perfectly well using phonics that teach mainstream pronunciation?"

Yes.

But, one interesting thing is that in the USA, since TV became prevalent (and probably since radio), we have had a "standard" dialect that people watching (and listening) have heard. Even those who *spoke* differently (think deep south or Boston) would *hear* the 'standard' pronunciation a lot.

This probably helped.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

"I'm now thinking that perhaps the major explanation for why boys are doing so much worse than girls is that boys don't learn to read as well as girls in Kindergarten and first grade."

I'd say that it was this *combined* with the fact that because the teachers aim for the middle of the classroom (where else?), the boys eventually are outside the skill range where they can learn what is being taught.

It is as if I was dropped into a 3rd year Spanish class. I'm not going to do well in Spanish, but the reason isn't *either*:
   *) That I'm in 3rd year, or
   *) That I'm behind the kids in 3rd year, but

that both are happening at the same time.

Take the boys and put them into a classroom full of kids reading at the same level they are and (assuming reasonable instruction), I'd expect them to do okay (and probably eventually catch up, assuming it mattered).

It is the mix of behind and instruction aimed at the middle that creates the "over one's head" problem where learning doesn't take place.

-Mark Roulo

lgm said...

For #2: If it was my district, each child would initially be given his first name in Morse code and expected to memorize it use it to label his color/cut/paste projects. Then it would be sight words. Once the Morse code equivalent of Dolch sight words are mastered, the child would be given instruction in decoding. He would never encode. He would spend far more time listening than watching or doing...which is IMHO why boys get behind. Too much listening to talk about the subject, not enough thinking and practicing on one's own.

palisadesk said...

A propos of the "gender gap," some results in the UK suggest that effective teaching in K-1 eliminates the gap. See the longitudinal study from Scotland:
Clackmannanshire study

Catherine Johnson said...

I was about to get to Clackmannanshire!

I've also got a study from Economic Review of Education finding that K-4 boys in private schools don't have a gender gap in reading.

I believe Judith Kleinfeld (is that her name?) found the same with homeschooled boys as well.

ElizabethB said...

There is also no racial gap with homeschool children for reading, that's a much bigger gap than the male/female gap. (There remained a small racial gap for math, but smaller than the public school gap.)

gap:

http://www.thephonicspage.org/On%20Phonics/litpercent.html

homeschool, no gap:

http://www.hslda.org/docs/study/ray1997/08.asp

John said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Linda Seebach. In fact there's really not much to add. In the UK the grandson of the inventor of shorthand, James Pitman, invented a system called ita, or the initial teaching alphabet. It was a very clever idea: it started with all the one-to-one correspondences (i.e. using the letter /a/ for the 'a' sound in 'bat' and he invented a symbol for all the vowel sounds not covered by /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/. Thus, forty-four symbols for forty-four sounds in that accent of UK English. Publishing companies even produced books written in ita. Did it work? No, because, as Linda says, the system was stuck with one fixed accent of UK English and didn't fit with all the rest.
Then there was the problem with the switch to conventional orthography - a nightmare from which many middle-aged people are still suffering.
I was delighted that Linda also mentioned the question of derivation. It mattered to Dr Johnson, bless his heart, and I find that children and teachers are still fascinated in the knowledge that such and such a word is derived from Greek and such and such is plain Anglo-Saxon.
Congratulations on a very lively website.
John W

dave874 said...

Apologies for my late entry into this thread, but I have only just come across it. I notice that palisadesk flagged up the Scottish Clackmannanshire study as demonstrating an elimination of the gender gap. I beg to differ. The results of this study are presented in a rather strange and not particularly scientific manner that makes it impossible to work out exactly what the overall implications of the average scores quoted are across the whole group of children that were tested. As I have no confidence that traditional reading test data tell us very much about literacy, but spelling test data does, I shall just comment on the spelling test results that were presented in this study.

In the first five year groups tested (6 year-olds up to 10 year-olds) figures are presented for the number of pupils scoring more than one year below chronological age. These show more boys than girls in every case. For the 10-year-old group of 235 pupils: 37 pupils (20 boys & 17 girls) were more than a year behind; whilst 7 pupils (6 boys and 1 girl) were more than two years behind. In terms of the spelling test used, this places 37 pupils between 1 and 2 standard deviations below the test mean (i.e. their chronological age when tested) and a further seven more than 2 standard deviations below the test mean. Statistically, from a sample of 235 pupils we would only expect 33 and 5 pupils to fall into these two categories. On this basis the results don’t appear quite as convincing as claimed. We could do with knowing how the overall sample was split between boys and girls, because of those more than a year behind their age level (20 + 6) were boys and (17 + 1) were girls, i.e. 59% boys and only 41% girls. If there were more girls than boys in the sample this gender gap would be much bigger! The conclusion that this study shows the gender gap to have been eliminated can only be based on the averages. The spelling age figures presented are these: boys average spelling age = 11.4 at an average age of 10.8; and girls average spelling age = 11.2 at an average age of 10.7. This is really interesting because the numbers of pupils doing relatively poorly is higher than expected which might suggest that the overall average would be lower. This suggests to me that a bi-modal distribution of results was found, possibly with those performing below average all doing worse than expected (by say 6 months) whilst those doing better than average did much better than expected (by say 12 – 15 months). This would give us a scenario where whatever was going on in the teaching was helpful to those who were functioning above average in literacy, but worsened the position for those who were functioning below average. My particular interest is in helping ALL those who are finding acquiring literacy difficult rather than just accelerating the skills and knowledge of those who find it relatively easy.

For those revisiting the paper, I should mention that I chose to quote the 10 year-old pupils results because a different spelling test was used for the 11 year-olds that conveniently boosted their scores considerably due to the test chosen having been constructed using a higher standard deviation (i.e. spread out more).

Dave P.