kitchen table math, the sequel: chemprof on masked deficits in high-achieving students

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

chemprof on masked deficits in high-achieving students

Absolutely. I think I've told the story of my first research student before, a very bright biochem major. She got a low C in biochem (after A's in organic) because of exactly this kind of problem. She was an early reader who basically memorized words, but really only read the first 3-4 letters. So she couldn't keep what she called the "glys" straight - glycine, glycolysis, glycogen, etc. all looked the same to her. She really needed explicit phonics, but no one noticed early enough.
That is an amazing story. Amazing, and chilling.

In the early grades, a strong ability to memorize, which C. had and has, is going to mask deficits if the only data anyone cares about is a passing score on the state tests.

C., too, was an early reader with a quick memory; he was one of those kids who 'taught himself to read.' But when he was in fourth grade, I discovered that he could not read a two-syllable nonsense word.

And he couldn't spell at all, which I knew was not right. Everyone in the household thought he'd naturally learn to spell if he just read more, but he had abruptly stopped reading, and his school didn't give many reading assignments.

Interestingly, at some point after C. enrolled in his Jesuit high school, he told me that "The kids are better readers" -- meaning they could read out loud better than kids in his public school. He also heard stories of parents who put their kids in Catholic school "because they couldn't read."

Catholic schools still teach phonics, I believe.


from the annals of All the answers are belong to us: trying and failing to buy a Direct Instruction spelling book


Genevieve said...

I get worried that this is happening with my daughter. Her school did not teach synthetic phonics. Instead there was a focus on word groups. She is a high achieving 3rd grader. She seems to read quite well, but her spelling is awful. She can memorize words for spelling tests, but then misspells the words the next week in her writing. Earlier today she thought the word consecutive was consuming.
School says not to worry to much about her spelling. Any ideas on how to truly assess her reading abilities?

Genevieve said...

I think it is extremely frustrating that parents have to worry about these things.
Is it to much to ask that schools make sure that children can actually read and do math? Especially children that speak English at home, have college educated parents and seem to have a decent amount of innate intelligence.

Jean said...

I'd recommend that you ask her to read aloud to you--just a paragraph or so from several different texts. Then have her read nonsense words that are two or more syllables. She is probably very good at guessing words, but by next year she will be struggling to read more advanced texts.

Luckily you are noticing it early, and you can remedy it by putting her through a good phonics program in after-school time.

Yeah, it's frustrating, but as the parent you are ultimately the one who has this job.

SteveH said...

I distinctly remember the fuss over phonics products (like Hooked on Phonics) when my son was small. I couldn't understand why some people thought they were bad for kids. I'm glad we ignored all of that. We never had our son guess at words. Everything was about letters and sounding out words. He learned to read before preschool. When he got to Kindergarten, his reading was dismissed as some sort of mechanical trick. What ever happened to "Learn to Read. Read to Learn"?

One thing we never thought of was how the school would never teach him how to hold a pencil properly. I remember his second grade teacher saying something to the effect that "it's too late now". He holds it better now, but it's still like a cave man. We taught him how to hold a fork and spoon, but didn't think to do that for pens and pencils.

Anonymous said...

We had the same problem with the pencil holding. I thought it was just a fluke and that they would correct him, but I was wrong. We had to insist that he hold it correctly. I also bought those guards that you slide on the pencil for my other son.

There's all kinds of things you need to watch out for, unfortunately.


Jen said...

Our school district explicitly tells teachers (especially K teachers) to not worry about pencil holding anymore.

I was pretty horrified, looking around my son's K class (this was 5 years ago, but it continues). We worked on this before K (I take all the easier tasks!). 5 yos clutching their pencils every which way is kinda cute, but I know that it's not at all cute in middle school and if you go apply for a job and have to scrawl your name if/when you actually have to fill something out on paper, that can't make a good impression!

Allison said...

In St. Paul MN, where there are still over a dozen Catholic grammar schools in the city (not counting Mpls or surrounding towns), I know of only one that uses a direct instruction phonics program. I know of two that use some blended program of sight words and some sounding out/rime/onset stuff. Most were full F&P.

Generally, Catholic schools do what public schools do, because they are run by administrators from public schools, and staffed by teachers with state credentials. In states where no one teaches phonics to ed students, then recent teachers don't know phonics.

Allison said...

I found I was incapable of studying neuroanatomy for a similar reason. I simply couldn't read and then pronounce the parts of the brain. I had no training in latin or greek, and without being able to say and sound out the parts I was reading, I couldn't remember them at all. But I subvocalize everything I read, and that's how I comprehend. I believe, though I can't get anyone in cog sci interested in the hypothesis, that blended systems and whole language don't work specifically because they short circuit the comprehension mechanisms in children which are fundamentally aural--based on speech, and children learning to comprehend what they hear the way they learn to understand their native language.

Allison said...

there was a blogger who posted here a lot in the past whose name was Liz, but it wasn't Liz Ditz, I don't think. Anyway, Liz had a wonderful phonics website where she had lots of little games you could play to generate nonsense words with out of phonetic phonemes or syllables, so you could help your children. I'll look for it in a couple days when I'm home and have my computer in front of me.

lgm said...

Allison, had dictionaries vanished from the elementary and jr high before you attended?

I had instruction on dictionary use, including pronunciation, in elementary and jr high as part of the LA program in the Dept of Defense operated schools I attended. I had a dictionary at my desk, issued by the school, and I was expected to use it in my writing assignments.

My childrens' teachers, NY public schools, skipped the pages with dictionary instruction; when the NCLB approved LA program was implemented those pages were not even included in the student material. There were no dictionaries in the classrooms until two years ago when the Rotary bought some for all the classrooms in Grade 3.

palisadesk said...

I'm sure Allison is referring to The Phonics Page which is indeed from one of KTM's regulars. Another good site for parents is Don Potter's site here

Unfortunately I can't use these at school because of their Christian orientation but they contain many valuable resources.

palisadesk said...

Catholic schools still teach phonics, I believe.

In my area, a number of Catholic schools teach systematic phonics in Kindergarten. They use Jolly Phonics (which has a U.S. edition), Animated Literacy or -- this is hearsay, I don't personally know of a school using this -- Sing, Spell, Read and Write.

However, from first grade onward, so far as I know, they all use Fountas and Pinnell or Four Blocks.

Crimson Wife said...

The Catholic schools in my area mostly use a phonics program called "Zoo Phonics". I don't really know that much about it except that it has puppets that the kids seem to like.

Allison said...

In my 3rd grade (in 1980), we had actual spelling. a list of 20 words each week. we had a test every friday. three activities each week for that word list--one was to write out the definition which we found in our dictionary. one was to write them out broken into syllables, which we also found in our dictionary. third was to use each word properly in a sentence. that dictionary was a school supplied dictionary, and the syllable practice was invaluable.

by 7th grade, we no longer had dictionaries, it seemed. and the grammar book was less good than the 5th grade one we had had, but we did have science words that we had to write out the defns for from our science book. I don't remember seeing another dictionary at school in 5th grade (skipped 4th) or after.

Amanda said...

My husband is a great example of masked deficit.

He couldn't read when he was eight after four years of (a Steiner) school, and we have a school report from then saying that 'he should be braver about looking at the first letter of the word and guessing'.

Despite this he did learn to read after a fashion and made it through a philosophy degree at Cambridge and was a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School.

Then a few years ago, after, I had put both our children through intensive synthetic phonics to school-proof them, he was reading a book of Greek myths one evening. Suddenly he looked up and said in tones of great surprise "I can read the names - I am sounding them out in my head." I asked him what he had done before and he said he had just looked at a few letters and constructed something plausible.

All those wasted years . . . .

And I found it interesting that in teaching my kids I could see that one would have been like him without the phonics drilling, and even now at 13 has to be reminded to apply code knowledge to spelling, whereas the other uses it without any prompting.

Debbie Stier said...

What a fascinating post/comment thread.

I'm a TERRIBLE speller (but was an early and avid reader) -- and I've suspected over this last year that my poor spelling was connected to some larger learning issue.

I have one kid who is an ok speller (good reader) and one who is a terrible speller and not a great reader (has dyslexia).

Kai said...

Google "stealth dyslexia." It's a term coined by Drs Brock and Fernette Eide that refers to bright kids (and adults) whose intelligence allows them to compensate enough to read well (particularly silently) but who actually have dyslexia. The dyslexia frequently manifests as difficulty with spelling. These folks will also do poorly on tests of reading nonsense words.

Amanda said...

Interesting article on stealth dyslexia.

However I do have a problem with it in that it doesn't distinguish between lesser levels of impairment that need never crystallise into dyslexia if a child is properly taught, and higher levels of impairment that will limit a child's progress no matter how well it is taught. (Ruth Miskin who developed the excellent Read Write Inc programme in the UK refers to the former group as ABTs, the 'Ain't Been Taughts'.)

Without this clarity there is no pressure on teachers to adopt effective reading instruction methods; they can simply excuse poor outcomes even with very bright children on the grounds of dyslexia. Perhaps if we relabelled children in the first category as 'teacher-induced dyslexics' we might see more action!

SteveH said...

"ABTs, the 'Ain't Been Taughts'"

This can apply to many things in education. Bad teaching and bad curricula can end up looking like it's the student's problem. Trust the spiral assumes that the spiral works by definition. By 7th grade, kids think they just don't have "math brains". They begin to believe that they must have mathlexia. It's a comfort to believe that it's something out of your control - that you're not just stupid. It would be good for kids and parents to evaluate whether it's just good old ABT. Unfortunately, schools point to the kids who do well without ever asking what teaching went on at home. How difficult would it be to take a survey of kids who get to algebra in 8th grade?

Labeling is also a problem for kids with minor difficulties. Only my sister's hard work helped her son do well in school. I don't think they ever knew what the problem was, but with hard work, he managed to find an alternate path. If they tried to find a label, I don't think it would have helped. He learned how to work hard and ended up getting a degree in computer science.

My other nephew was labeled as ADHD at an early age. The label did not help. They ended up putting him on drugs and looking for outside answers. Everything he did was viewed through the label he was given. There were always excuses for things that might not have had any relationship to "the problem". He began to believe that he was damaged goods in a general sense. It allowed him to not try. He had an excuse. At one point, they even had him on amphetamines (this was many years ago). He never finished high school, but he is very smart. He is 30, unemployed, and has a problem with amphetamines.

FedUpMom said...

@SteveH, your cautionary tale is scary indeed. I'll keep it in mind as we navigate the public schools with a daughter who is a struggling reader.

On "trusting the spiral": it reminds me of a cartoon I saw many years ago:

Wife, standing at sink, speaking to husband: "How long are you planning to let this dirty pot sit in here?"

Husband: "Oh, I've found that if you let it soak long enough, the cleaning takes care of itself."

Wife: "Oh, for heaven's sake!" (-- washes pot.)

Husband (in thought balloon): "see, it took care of itself!"

This is what the schools do with their crummy curricula. Oftentimes, especially in a "good" school district, the problem takes care of itself, because the parents teach the kid, or hire tutors.

Anonymous said...

"I'll keep it in mind as we navigate the public schools with a daughter who is a struggling reader."

I think a fairly pro-active strategy of having the kid read to you every night would go a long way here. Especially if you are intentionally selecting the reading material to (a) push the reading skills, and (b) look for gaps.

Picking a wide range of topics (both fiction and non-fiction) with slowly increasing levels of difficulty should bring most problems to the surface.


My almost-11-year old still reads to me most days. I'm not planning on dropping this for a few more years.

-Mark Roulo

palisadesk said...

@fed up mom, If you're school shopping, bear a couple of things in mind:

(1) a "lower-performing" (read, lower test scores) school may have a much higher-quality program and stronger staff than a so-called "high performing" school that pretty much offloads teaching responsibilities to parents. Richard Elmore has some articles about this which Catherine has cited before.

(2) There are often outstanding teachers in any school -- the trick is to know which ones. Don't depend on the administration knowing -- Michael Pressley, in his teacher effectiveness studies, found that district administrators often receommended as "exemplary" teachers ones who turned out to be below average or even execrable! His book, however, on Motivating Primary Grade Teachers (maybe you can get it from a library) details the practices and characteristics of highly effective teachers. This is what you're looking for.

(3) The curriculum is usually laid down from above, and individual teachers or school have limited ability to change it. But, not all districts impose particular programs across schools. Mine doesn't require Everyday Math, for instance, so all that "trust the spiral" stuff is alien here -- we are expected to teach every student in a sequential, organized way. It's difficult to do effectively without good curricular materials, but at least we don't have to fight BAD curricular materials. See if the school you're considering has some latitude, locally, to meet student needs.

(4)Depending on what level your child is reading at, you might check out the Headsprout reading programs ( . I have used them in school and friends and relatives have bought them for home use, with spectacular results. They offer a money-back guarantee to parents, and lots of online support, both tech support and problem-solving. Kids usually really enjoy the programs, which is half the battle with struggling readers. They need to have a positive experience.

Anonymous said...

The labeling thing is insidious, both by overt labels and by internalized societal norms. When I was teaching upper level molecular biology, part of my preparation was to put into my mind that the students could learn the stuff and tried to communicate that belief with a smile and patience.

To add some levity, I remember the first line of a spelling dictation:

"It's heinous!" shrieked the Sheik with a weird mien.

palisadesk said...

Oops, sure is a Freudian slip in my post above. The title of Pressley's book is "Motivating Primary Grade STUDENTS." The link is correct however. Of course, motivating teachers is a worthwhile skill as well. I recommend Karen Pryor's "Don't Shoot the Dog!" for an amusing but powerful way to influence the behavior of adults (and others, from cats and chickens to children quarreling in the back seat of the car).

FedUpMom said...

@Mark Roulo, darn tootin' we have our daughter read to us every day.

@Palisadesk, thanks for the advice. We're not school-shopping at the moment, but I'll keep your ideas in mind for the future. Also, I will certainly check out Headsprout.

Cassandra said...

@ Genevieve re: assessing your child's reading ability -
Try the Ruth Miskin Nonsense Word assessment, available free at These words should be easy for a skilled 2nd grade decoder & should certainly be so for a 3rd grader. If there is a struggle, you know there's a problem beyond the spelling issue.

@FedUpMom, if your child is too old for Headsprout (or you just want to check out another effective program), take a look at Abecedarian, used by lots of homeschoolers and tutors.

Genevieve said...

Thanks for the suggestions.
She actually did a little better with the nonsense words than reading out loud from a hard, unfamiliar book. I think it helped that she knew that the words weren't real. When forced to, she apparently can sound out most words. However, she seems to guess words based on the first 1-2 syllables.
I suppose it is good to know her deficits and work on them at home.
I know that if I mentioned this to her teacher, nothing would be done (and I would probably be told not worry).