kitchen table math, the sequel: Headsprouts reading comprehension program

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Headsprouts reading comprehension program

Teaching learners how to comprehend text remains a largely unsuccessful attempt in our school system. Drawing from the fields of learning sciences, education, instructional design, and performance improvement, we designed, tested, revised, and released to schools and homes an interactive online program that reliably teaches flexible, widely applicable reading comprehension strategies to children. This article describes the analysis and design processes involved in the development of such a program.
Comprehension by Design: Teaching Young Learners How to Comprehend What They Read (pdf file)
Marta Leon, PhD; Victoria Ford Hirofumi Shimizu, PhD; April Heimlich Stretz Jay Thompson Melinda Sota; Janet S. Twyman, PhD T. V. Joe Layng, PhD
Reading this tonight!


FedUpMom said...

Catherine, IMHO, reading "comprehension" invents a problem that didn't really exist. I don't believe we have huge numbers of schoolchildren reading texts but not "comprehending" them.

We may have huge numbers of schoolchildren who can't produce the answer their reading teacher wants to hear, but that's a different issue.

I'll be curious to hear your thoughts ...

FedUpMom said...

Also, most of the comprehension "strategies" I've heard of, like the infamous "text-to-self" connection, are utter hogwash.

palisadesk said...

I haven't used the Headsprout Reading Comprehension program yet (am planning to do so in the fall), but I have had extensive experience with Headsprout Early Reading, which was designed by the same team. I can confidently say the latter program is one of sheer genius, and unlike anything else on the market. From what I can grasp of the instructional design of *both* programs, they not only identify component skills needed (something frequently missing in mainstream teaching in nearly all areas), but also scaffold the instruction in a sophisticated way so that the learner not only masters the component skill targeted but also incorporates it into his or her repertoire so that it will be generalized and used in new and untaught situations.

Headsprout Early Reading has (in my experience) led to student growth that is unmatched by *any* other program, including DI (of which I am a huge fan).

A frequent misrepresentation is that "reading comprehension" is a unitary construct that can be taught as such or (as Pondiscio maintains) not taught at all. This is untrue. Being a complex behavior, reading comprehension is composed of identifiable subskills which CAN be taught. While we may not have huge numbers of students who read without comprehending AT ALL, we do have many students whose ability to decode the text is well in advance of their ability to grasp non-literal meaning. One reason for this is the decline of complex *spoken* English in everyday life. Go back and read the Lincoln-Douglas debates for a jolt -- these were addressed to thoughtful and interested everyday citizens, not the elites. But the complexity of the language -- what we would now call "academic English" -- would stop today's "average citizen" in his or her tracks. Not only vocabulary, but syntax, use of the passive voice, pronoun referents, complex clauses and other features of written text go right past many of today's kids, even those who read a lot.

The reading tests we use require students to infer untaught vocabulary, point of view of the writer (which requires detecting and analyzing connotations as well as denoted meaning), and other facets of both expository and narrative prose. Even excellent decoders struggle with this. So I am looking forward to using HRC with some of these students (a prerequisite is fluent word decoding and passage reading) to see how well it accelerates their ability to make sense of challenging written material. If Headsprout Early Reading is anything to go by, it should yield stunning results. Also like Headsprout Early Reading, it probably requires consistent instructor (or parent) interaction and application to non-program materials.

Did I ever post about the student who made 4 YEARS' measurable progress using Headsprout in only ten weeks (pre-K to fourth grade -- the student was 7 and average in ability)? While that gain was the most impressive, a two-year leap in four months is par for the course. Headsprout does extensive and rigorous field-testing and constantly improves the product based on user results and feedback, so I am anticipating a positive result from HRC with 3rd and fourth graders in the fall.

Liz Ditz said...

I am glad to read Palisadesk's praise for Headsprout, and will check it out myself.

Read what Howard Margolis and Gary Brannigan have to say about reading comprehension:

One tidbit:

If your child has problems with reading comprehension, and he has more than average difficulty understanding word meanings, we suggest that you work with his teachers and his school’s language or reading specialist to develop a joint plan to pre-teach him the vocabulary he’ll soon need to understand. The plan should emphasize fun, meaning, and lots of informal, satisfying discussions that use the upcoming vocabulary. The plan should routinely tell you what vocabulary he’ll soon need to know, but should not have you quiz him frequently, make him fill out endless vocabulary worksheets, or have him spend lots of time copying and parroting dictionary definitions. Activities like these in the home rarely help; they often repel children. To make vocabulary development satisfying for your child, follow the 3M principle: Make it Meaningful, Manageable, and Memorable.

Catherine Johnson said...

Catherine, IMHO, reading "comprehension" invents a problem that didn't really exist.

I hope Erica (the SAT tutor) will weigh in here....I'm pretty sure she has quite a few clients who don't understand the passage.

Did you see the post about Arthur Whimbey's reading test?

When I gave it in my two classes last fall, a lot of students misunderstood the passage.

fyi: as a nonfiction writer, I have to do reading that's way over my head very often, so the idea that people have trouble with comprehending what they're reading makes perfect sense to me!

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm behind: I have I think two different emails from palisadesk she's given me permission to post...(and now that I think of it, I also have an email on precalculus I have permission to post!)

Gotta get going here.

Bonnie said...

Reading comprehension is a huge problem for my college students. The introductory CS textbooks are written using vocabulary and a sentence complexity that is way beyond them. I wish I had a better sense of their actual reading skills so I could do some vocabulary work with them. The gasstationwithoupumps blog has posted links to some excellent material on teaching students how to read technical material that I think I may use next semester.

My elementary school son has extensive hearing loss. Preteaching vocabulary is mandated in his IEP. It is something I never heard of until he started working with a Teacher of the Deaf a few years ago. One of the great things she has taught him to do is to speak up and *ask* whenever he encounters a word he doesn't know. He is an avid reader, and sometimes it is annoying to be constantly peppered with "Mommy, what does ideological mean?", particularly since he usually completely mangles the pronunciation since he doesn't really have good phonics skills.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Yes, Catherine is right, I can't resist weighting here. She's absolutely right: I have in fact encountered quite a few SAT students who quite literally don't understand what it is that they're reading.

It has nothing to do with them not producing a particular answer that a teacher has arbitrarily deemed "correct" but rather a result of their inability to unpack complex syntax, infer meanings that aren't literally spelled out for them, and, astonishingly (at least I was astonished the first time it happened - now I've been desensitized), to read an entire sentence from beginning to end, paying attention to every word, rather than "skimming" it in such a way that they only pick up random words that bear no apparent relationship to one another. If asked to summarize the gist of a reading in their own words, they're often completely lost.

Did I mention that some of these kids have attended elite Manhattan private schools since kindergarten?

At least from what I've seen, the problem isn't as bad as most people think. It's actually a lot worse.

Jean said...

I recently read "The War on Grammar," and the author's theory was that students who are never taught grammar often exhibit what he called a "higher illiteracy"--they can get by with writing relatively simple sentences, but can't comprehend complex writing with lots of dependent clauses and whatnot.

He gave his college students a little test by asking them to read the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence and then summarize it in their own words. Only a few could explain anything even close to the actual meaning of the text, and several produced plain nonsense. It was an interesting little exercise, I thought.

FedUpMom said...

These comments are very interesting. I might check out Headsprout for my 8-year-old.

Here's my beef: what I've seen of reading comprehension at school is that it mostly involves strategies that turn kids off from actually reading. Wide reading would improve comprehension, but kids don't want to read anymore when they're constantly interrupted and made to answer questions, fill out paperwork, produce posters and dioramas, etc. Reading becomes a chore that they avoid at all costs. Even "pleasure" reading gets wrecked by the demand for 20 minutes a night, which must be proven by a completed and signed (by Mom!) reading log.

I understand the point about sentence complexity, though. If you listen to speeches of FDR, it's astonishing how complex the sentences, and the ideas they transmit, are. And that's spoken English! (And FDR was described as having a "second-rate intellect!")

Jean said...

I'll agree with you there, FedUpMom. IMO programs like AR and all that stuff are horrible. Ask any librarian her opinion of AR and prepare for an earful!

And those programs tend to crowd out reading for (real) pleasure; my daughter's friends often have to put off reading a book they really want to read until vacation. That's awful.

Catherine Johnson said...

"The War on Grammar,"

I love that book!

Didn't I post something awhile back from Mulroy??

I'll go look.

Mulroy was the first person to clue me in to the importance of grammar to comprehension, a point that should seem obvious but somehow isn't (or wasn't to me).

Catherine Johnson said...

If you listen to speeches of FDR, it's astonishing how complex the sentences, and the ideas they transmit, are.


I'm always stunned by the complexity of written language 100 years ago, and I'm sure I'd have the same experience listening to spoken language.

A couple of years ago, I bought a copy of Penrod, a book I read as a child, for C.

C. is an extremely good reader -- but I didn't even bother with it. The vocabulary was so advanced that I didn't think he'd make headway.

(In retrospect, I think that was a dumb wasn't exactly that I decided Penrod was 'too hard' - but more that I lost enthusiasm once I looked at it...)

Catherine Johnson said...

IMO programs like AR and all that stuff are horrible.

Doesn't AR have some pretty good results??

I'm thinking it was the program tested in Yeh's book --- ?

My feeling about reading instruction in public schools is that it's gone way too far in the direction of children choosing their own books to read, resulting in 20 kids reading 20 different books. I'll have to post an excerpt from the latest Ed Week memo on the subject.

Last school year, when we visited C.s Honors English class, the teacher said apologetically, "Then we read The Scarlett Letter. Boys hate The Scarlett Letter, but they have to read some Hawthorne." (C's school is all boys.)

It was a wonderful moment.

Obviously, requiring kids to read classics they don't like is different from requiring them to read textbook reading passages they don't like, BUT if the required textbook reading passages systematically develop complex reading, then as a parent I'm OK with that.

The problem with kids choosing books they want to read is that they (and we) don't naturally choose hard or even too-hard books. The literature on "deliberate practice" is very clear on that: people normally improve a skill to a certain level, and then plateau because 'deliberate practice' is unpleasant.

I take that idea to heart: "deliberate practice" isn't fun even for the gifted.

The school or a parent is going to have to require kids to keep reading harder books; they're not going to make that choice on their own.

Catherine Johnson said...

Wide reading would improve comprehension

Amazingly enough, that's not really true, it seems. That is called the "reading a lot" theory of reading, and "reading a lot" doesn't improve reading comprehension!

It's the deliberate practice issue.

Repetition per se doesn't make you better at whatever you're doing.

Deliberate practice makes you better.

On the other hand, I assume it's true that to the extent that you gain more general background knowledge via wide reading, reading a lot does improve comprehension...

Catherine Johnson said...

I have been a voracious reader for lo these many years, and I am no closer to being able to read Shakespeare than I was as a kid!

Catherine Johnson said...

Did I mention that some of these kids have attended elite Manhattan private schools since kindergarten?


What do you make of this?

Are these progressive schools?

Catherine Johnson said...

Here's Whimbey:

Good readers work step-by-step through the sentence in obtaining its correct meaning. They begin with the subject: infectious diseases. Then they go on to the relative clause, an essential relative clause that indicates the type of infectious diseases being considered; those that animals can transmit to humans. Finally, they come to the predicate: are known as zoonoses. Therefore, in answering the question they pick alternative c.

Research studies have found that students with weak analytical skills can understand only simple sentences, just as they can solve only one-step math problems.

using sentence combining to improve reading scores

Anonymous said...

You need No Fear Shakespeare. I just bought Othello for my son. He loved it. It has the original text on one side, and an English paraphrase on the other. I'm going to have to buy one for each play he does, I'm sure.

Shakespeare is easier to read if you have a good deal of background knowledge on him and his time. You also need to have all of those little words that he uses over and over again automatically in you brain, as well as some common phrasing that he uses. That helps a lot.

Then, a good Shakespearean lexicon and an Oxford dictionary should take care of most of the rest.

But even after that, some phrases are absolute riddles, even to the scholars.


Bonnie said...

Having wide background knowledge is key to reading comprehension, whether it is Shakespeare or Introduction to Programming with C++. The background knowledge needed, of course, will vary. To read Shakespeare, you need to know something about Elizabethan England, for example, and to read Programming with C++, you need to know some mathematical and computer terminology.

I don't think formal knowledge of grammar rules is so important, but reading complex writing, and BEING ASKED about that writing, is very important. Even though I hate all the question packets that accompany reading in my kids elementary school, I think it serves its purpose in forcing the kids to be able to summarize what they have read. If kids just read, it is too easy to start skimming through everything.

My two boys are very good readers, and score way beyond their grade levels in reading comprehension. They break all the rules though - they are both visual readers who learned to read long before they knew any phonics. My second son in particular does not use phonics since he can't hear the differences in phonemes. They discuss what they read with each other, endlessly, and I think that process does help their reading skills.

Catherine Johnson said...

I used No Fear for the one and only Shakespeare play I've read as an adult, but I hated it because the No Fear language is so GROSS.

Next time I'm trying....oh gosh. That other series. The one from Cambridge, I think.

What is a Shakespeare lexicon?!

Can you recommend one?

Anonymous said...

The old one I used some 25 (gulp) years ago was Alexander Schmidt's Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary. It's in two volumes.

I bought another one that's more recent (the Lexicon I had was 1971) for my son (who I am sure has never opened it) that's called Shakespeare's Words by David Crystal and Ben Crystal. I have not personally used it, but it looks good. It's easier to see since the print is bigger.

An old one out there was called Shakespeare Bawdy which covered all of his naughty words and double entendres. I don't even know if it's published anymore. But I'm sure the the other three books cover those.

A fun background book that I discovered in grad school was Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare. My son actually loves that one. Ole' Asimov knew about everything, didn't he?

As far as individual plays, I like the Arden ones the best. Second would be Folgers (American). But this stuff may have changed over the years.


Glen said...

I'd like to put together a rigorous, well-sequenced path to language mastery for my kids. I've found it much easier to assemble such a sequence for math than for English. I'd like to take a deliberate practice approach to training my sons to mastery of written English, but doing this well requires a carefully designed sequence of concepts and material.

This Headsprout program sounds great. Their phonics sounds like the first 1% of what I'm looking for; their reading comprehension, the next 1%. Now I just need the remaining 98%.

I'd like the vocabulary training to continue through college level. I'd like basic grammar to lead into basic sentence patterns, more grammar to lead to basic sentence diagrams (simple trees to get comfortable with how parts relate to each other), leading to sentence manipulations, which give you the tools to talk about normative conventions (dangling modifiers, for example) and stylistic considerations, and so on, with readings of escalating complexity.

This would include lots of fun reading, too, but I've already seen that the better their skills, the more their fun reading options expand. The deliberate training and the fun reading are natural complements. Again, I'm hoping to continue this to finely crafted, adult-level writing.

I'd be grateful for suggestions from a group like this, which knows the difference between a Singapore Math approach and an Everyday Math approach to learning. Nothing will cover the whole range (even in math), but I'd love to find high-value bricks for the path.

Jean said...

"Doesn't AR have some pretty good results??

I'm thinking it was the program tested in Yeh's book --- ?

My feeling about reading instruction in public schools is that it's gone way too far in the direction of children choosing their own books to read, resulting in 20 kids reading 20 different books...."

Well, that's just my opinion as a librarian and homeschool mom. AR is such a PAIN. You get a list of books that you're allowed to read, and go to the library. The interesting-looking book that you want to read is not on the list, so you can't have it. You look for books that are on the list, but half are checked out and those are the good ones. You wind up with a book you don't really want to read, and then you take a needlessly nitpicky test on it. To a librarian, it looks like a wonderful system for getting a kid to hate reading.

If we're looking to enhance skills, then yeah, I'd be all for kids not picking books for classroom use. They could then pick their own for leisure reading, instead of having their leisure reading taken over by AR.

But I don't know a lot about the technical aspects of teaching comprehension; we haven't had trouble with it. I showed my 10yo the zoonoses passage and she understood it perfectly. She is a better reader than I was at her age, and recently tackled Jane Eyre. I've given her some lessons on slowing down and reading dense nonfiction, because she had to learn that she couldn't just read everything at lightspeed and expect to understand it, but otherwise I didn't do much besides reading lessons in K. But I know that won't happen with a lot of kids.

kcab said...

I read the Whimbey post and had to laugh. I don't have a problem with relative clauses or complex sentences in English, but I was trying to read some Kafka in German earlier today and became utterly lost in some sentences. (Of course, these were the sort of sentences that, in English, would have been broken into three or four.) It was as if I just didn't have the stamina to keep track of it all in my head. (I haven't been studying German long, just finished auditing a year of college classes.)

All of which makes me think that practice keeping track of a more complex web of thought, spoken or written, probably *is* helpful in building that stamina.

ChemProf said...

"I'd like to put together a rigorous, well-sequenced path to language mastery for my kids."

Have you looked at "Writing with Ease" or "First Language Lessons?" I particularly like the way that "Writing with Ease" builds up and you can choose your own texts to work with. The workbooks have pre-chosen texts, but the main book, which is for the parent, explains the approach without requiring workbooks.

FedUpMom said...

Glen -- Try the "classical roots" series, which I learned about on this blog. I'm planning on going through these this summer with older daughter:

If you know these roots, you can figure out words you've never seen before. I don't know why this isn't taught in every school.

Glen said...

ChemProf and FedUpMom, thanks for the suggestions. I've heard about WWE on Well-Trained Mind (naturally). I don't recall hearing about FLL before. I can't really tell what to think about these programs from the mass of comments on WTM, so I appreciate your comments. And the study of word roots along with the vocabulary is a perfect match, so thanks for the pointer.

Crimson Wife said...


I love Michael Clay Thompson's Language Arts series alternated with Don Killgallon's applied grammar/sentence writing one. I first heard about Killgallon here (IIRC it was Catherine's recommendation).

I do use the 1st/2nd grade book of FLL prior to starting MCT. It's solid but a bit dull and I have to compact it to single year because otherwise it's far too repetitive for my kids. I don't care for the higher levels of FLL because I find they have too much repetition of previously covered topics and not enough new material.

Anonymous said...


I used the Hake Grammar and Writing series when my son hit middle school. It's made by the Saxon people, so it has the look of Saxon, but is really extensive, covering every possible topic. It also includes diagramming. It might be too slow for some kids, but you can always modify it according to how fast your kid progresses.

I liked the writing portions because they were the antithesis of what was passing for writing instruction at my son's middle school. I wish I had started sooner and stuck with it longer.

We also used a lot of Kilgallon. Love him.

Catherine and I both used Megawords (middle school spelling) since, again, none of that was being taught at our middle school, or if it was it was done in a patchy, here-and-there kind of way.

We afterschoolers are always looking for the quick lesson plans since we're competing with the school in terms of time.

You must get a copy of The Well-Trained Mind. It has a ton of helpful info in it as far as curriculum goes. I still go back to it.


Glen said...

Thanks for these suggestions. A friend (a Chinese tiger mom) has her daughter grinding out Kumon language arts exercises, and she showed me a stack of the little exercise booklets. I liked what I saw, but I don't want them doled out, one at a time, at Kumon's chosen pace. I'd like something more like Singapore Math vs Kumon math, where I have all the materials, and I can adapt them to my own kid on the fly. I'll have to check out MCT and Hake.

There are loads of SAT vocabulary books. Has anyone seen any good equivalents for middle school or upper elementary vocabulary? These are the words that I tend to mistakenly assume my kids already know, because they feel as common as apple and house, unlike SAT-level words. I need a book to point them out to me. I've had several surprises where I discovered that my kids hadn't understood a (seemingly common) word I was using, which they hadn't mentioned to me. I have to wonder how many (again, seemingly common) words they hear from me or encounter in their reading that they don't understand and just ignore. If I knew what they were, I could solve the problem.

Crimson Wife said...

My DH swears by the Sadlier-Oxford Vocabulary Workshop series. We haven't started them yet because my DD is still finishing up MCT's Caesar's English series. Kolbe Academy starts with the Orange VW book in 4th grade.

Glen said...

Crimson Wife, thanks so much to you and your DH for that Vocabulary Workshop suggestion. I just checked them out at the publisher's website, and they look great.

lgm said...

Sadlier-Oxford Vocab is what our district uses in Honors middle school English. My son that isn't in honors prefers Vocab from Classical Roots. We find reading on the Kindle helpful as it is easy to look up definitions on the spot.

I find the Little, Brown handbook just useful for high school when I'm playing afterschooling.

Re: AR AR has a much bigger database of quizzes these days than when it first came out. It's been shown to be an effective way to motivate children who aren't hooked on reading. The way our elementary ran the program didn't discourage my sons b/c it is easy for a reader to bag points with series books. Harry Potter alone will make a kid a superstar, then add Series of Unfortunate Events, and you've won the competition for the year for 4th grade without the rest of your free reading. The biggest problem was finding a free computer to take the quiz on since the school has only 5 per 30 kid classroom....the large book quizzes are long and take 20 min so not a lot can test each day.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm a huge fan of Vocabulary Workshop --- which is quite challenging at the highest level (and probably at all levels).

My college kids last fall couldn't handle it on their own, as I had thought they would be able to.

Catherine Johnson said...

reading complex writing, and BEING ASKED about that writing, is very important


Ditto, ditto, ditto.

I've got to dig out my SAT-800 book (written about kids who scored perfect 800s on both reading & math).

One of the biggest things all those students had in common was that they all did far more assigned reading than other kids in their schools.

Some of you probably remember the HUGE reading stack C. was assigned the summer before he went to his Jesuit high school. Liz Ditz and some of the others here gave me advice on how to make charts to track our progress through those books (I read all of them, too -- it was one of the happiest summers of my life) -- and we got through every page.

C. told me the other day he's the only kid he's ever met who actually did all that reading.

He understood it, too, because I asked him about it as he went. (I didn't 'teach' it to him, and that's one thing I fault the school on: there was no follow-up. Nevertheless, I did check to make sure he was understanding it.)

The other day Ed said that summer reading list alone may be responsible for his reading score.

C. says he always does the assigned reading, and since his courses have all been Honors & AP that means he's been doing college-level reading since freshman year -- AND he's been doing it as assignments with teachers testing him on it or leading discussions on the reading in class.

Catherine Johnson said...

from 2008: the summer reading post

That was the happiest summer of my life.

Catherine Johnson said...

from that post: "Two thousand five hundred and forty-nine pages in all, not that anyone was counting. Five novels, Guns, Germs and Steel, the Book of Genesis, the first 12 books of The Odyssey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, and six Science articles from the New York Times. Plus quite a number of short-answer written responses."

We had about 8 weeks to read. C. was 13.

Catherine Johnson said...

wow - I just found the SAT excerpt:

[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

Catherine Johnson said...

funny coincidence: C. is reading Catch-22 now

I don't know why - he just decided to read it

Catherine Johnson said...

should have known -- just asked C. who said, "It's on my summer list." (it's one of the choices)

Anonymous said...


Is there an easy way that you can post C.'s reading lists from the beginning? I remember the killer first one after his 8th grade year. I'm curious what the other ones looked like.

I think it absolutely contributed to his score. He's probably developed a stamina that others don't have.

Our school just picks one novel that the entire class is expected to read. My son usually reads it in a day. It's really pathetic. However, we do have rather large packets in math and history, so he doesn't have a lot of free time.


Crimson Wife said...

One of my favorite electives in high school was a class I took my jr. year called "Reading for College". It was an independent study period where I got to go to the school library and read for 50 minutes. I met with a teacher once per week to discuss the book I was reading and to choose the next one. She would give several suggestions based on the kind of books I enjoyed (e.g. "if you liked Wuthering Heights, try Dr. Zhivago) but I got the final choice. I think that I did have to do a few compare & contrast lit analysis papers but mostly it was just a chance to sit & read. Given the heavy workload I had for my other classes, this was heaven!

Catherine Johnson said...

Is there an easy way that you can post C.'s reading lists from the beginning? I remember the killer first one after his 8th grade year.

I wonder if I can reconstruct them. I'll ask him.

I'm sure you can develop speed and stamina on your own....and all the books we read that summer increased background knowledge.

Boy -- you mention math packets.

We **desperately** need math packets around here. I was hoping to get C. to re-take precalculus this summer, or have tutoring in the subject, and I can't 'sell' either him or Ed on the deal. SAT math is going to be it.

He's had a much better education in English, history, & science than in math.

Catherine Johnson said...

It was an independent study period where I got to go to the school library and read for 50 minutes. I met with a teacher once per week to discuss the book I was reading and to choose the next one.


That's amazing.

You would have had the best of both worlds there --- you're reading books you choose AND you're getting guidance and oversight by a teacher.

(btw, I also think it's important to have the experience of reading the same book your classmates are reading.)

Crimson Wife said...

I had a some amount of choice but it wasn't totally just "read whatever you feel like". The options suggested were all quality literature, and mostly classics. I do remember that Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres was one of the books I read because we were studying Shakespeare's King Lear in my regular honors English class.

The goal was to build up an impressive "books I have read" list for students planning to apply to selective colleges. I think it was also a way for the teacher to share her love of good books with students who were more bibliophilic than the average student. In order to be able to take the independent study course, I had to have a recommendation from a previous English teacher. I don't think a student had to be in the honors track, but the school wanted to make sure that the students would actually use the time to read rather than goof off.

Catherine Johnson said...

it wasn't totally just "read whatever you feel like". The options suggested were all quality literature, and mostly classics.


That's what made C's summer reading list so fantastic that summer: we didn't pick the books, the teachers did!

The 'package' they put together was brilliant. Amazing.

Somehow it hit all the right notes for a boy going into his freshman year in a Jesuit school.

Catherine Johnson said...

In order to be able to take the independent study course, I had to have a recommendation from a previous English teacher.

That is a really interesting idea for senior year (was it senior year?)

It might be a good idea in other years, but it strikes me as useful for senior year when you get some slacking off.

Crimson Wife said...

The "Reading for College" elective was open to seniors too but usually was taken jr. year in order to beef up the college application. Students who took it in 11th were not permitted to repeat it in 12th.

lgm said...

Interesting Crimson Wife. My small midwestern rural high school offered similar for 11th grade English. (no tracking). Each quarter one appropriate lit book was read as a class (ie silently on a schedule), discussed in class , then the course continued on independently by each student picking another novel off the class list. Once a student was done with the book on the list, they had questions to answer in writing, then a conference with the teacher. There was a min # and no max # of books required. Fantastic class,b/c the culture was not one of wasting class was either heavy discussion or silent reading. Heart of Darkness was one of my favs that year. The teacher was fantastic - had come out of retirement to replace the original that was tragically killed by a drunk driver - and stayed on a few more years, offering the course as an elective to 12th grade too. Much better than study hall. The teacher education in the 40s must have been good.

FedUpMom said...

Catherine, I'm glad you enjoyed your "summer of the reading list", but it sounds like outsourcing to parents to me. You put in a huge amount of work to get your child through the reading and associated writing.

I'm not the least surprised that your son reports he hasn't met anyone else who actually did all the reading. How many hours do you think you put in to shepherd your son through all that work?

Anonymous said...

FedUpMom, Catherine was reading with her son by her own choice. Most summer reading is meant to be done by the student, without participation by the parent. In my high school, we read 4 books each summer on our own (no writing assignments were included, but once we were back in school there were some assignments in which having completed the summer books was needed in order to do them).
And let me weigh in on another issue: when my kids were in HS, my goal was to NOT be involved in their schoolwork, except at the level of dinner table conversations. True, they had some dud teachers (leading to the need for a tutor when they took College Algebra/Trig). Even some dud curriculums. They weren't always as conscientious as I would have liked. But they became totally independent learners. College (for those who went) did not represent a big challenge to them in terms of being self-directed.

Catherine Johnson said...

I had (and have) the same qualms FedUpMom has re: the huge and extremely demanding summer reading list C. had prior to freshman year. Anonymous is right that I did the reading, too, because I wanted to; this was a chance for me to force myself to read The Odyssey & to begin reading the Bible just because I'd set myself the goal and my son had the assignment. Plus, as it turned out, that 'curated' list worked beautifully. (One of the assigned books was by the Da Vinci code author -- Dan Brown, right -- so we were getting what we saw as an entree into the contrarian world of the Jesuits, which was mysterious and exciting: we were strangers in a strange land.)

I should add that the reading list was for Honors students, not non-Honors, and C. was in all Honors courses. He could handle the reading on his own in the sense that he could understand what he read. But I don't think there was any way he could have gotten through it all without a parent or teacher to create a schedule.

Another factoid I haven't mentioned: C. was transferring from public schools to the Catholic school, so he had only 8 weeks to complete the reading. Kids coming in from Catholic schools had 12 weeks because their summers are longer.

Still and all, it's obvious from the fact that no one C. knows actually did all the reading that kids that age, including the "Honors" kids, needed an adult to make sure they were actually doing the summer reading.

That struck me as problematic --- or, at least, if the school is going to depend on parents to oversee a very heavy-duty summer reading program, it should probably make that clear to parents & perhaps write up a schedule, etc.

Definitely, the kids should have been tested in some way on the reading when they got to school that fall.

Catherine Johnson said...

Ed and I were talking about this yesterday: we've been fantastically lucky in having a kid who easily and readily does his homework -- and always has.

otoh, I'm not sure he did all his math HW this year----I was so preoccupied with my folks that I completely dropped the ball.

I think pretty often he probably couldn't do the math HW; this was a year where I needed to either hire a tutor from the get-go or "take" the course along with him, as I did all 3 years of middle school.

One secret to getting kids to do HW: give them HW they can actually do on their own.

Catherine Johnson said...

Fantastic class,b/c the culture was not one of wasting class was either heavy discussion or silent reading. Heart of Darkness was one of my favs that year. The teacher was fantastic - had come out of retirement to replace the original that was tragically killed by a drunk driver - and stayed on a few more years, offering the course as an elective to 12th grade too.


That sounds amazing.

I tend to think that teacher training in the 40s was probably the pinnacle. (Maybe the 50s, too?)

Catherine Johnson said...

They break all the rules though - they are both visual readers who learned to read long before they knew any phonics. My second son in particular does not use phonics since he can't hear the differences in phonemes.

That's amazing!


(I've dipped into the literature on reading comprehension amongst children and adults who are deaf.)

btw, Direct Instruction has reading programs for deaf children.

And what's the name of that visual language that translates phonics into sign??

Cued.....cued something. I've always wanted to try to learn it to use with Andrew.

Catherine Johnson said...

Cued speech.

I also think cued speech would be fantastic for older people who are losing their hearing. Ed's dad can't hear anything anyone is saying; if we knew cued speech he'd be part of the conversation.

Crimson Wife said...

The good teachers I had growing up mostly would've been going through ed school in the early-to-mid 1960's. Though I did have a few great young teachers who were TFA types before there was a TFA program. There must've been some sort of alternate certification at the time for folks with graduate degrees in a subject.

Grace said...

I echo Catherine in thinking that CW's "Reading for College" course sounds wonderful. We have an English teacher who graduated from St. John's "great books" college who would probably LOVE to teach it. (I'm crossing my fingers my D gets this teacher this coming year.)