kitchen table math, the sequel: when things changed (vocabulary edition)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

when things changed (vocabulary edition)

in the Wall Street Journal:
In the late 1970s I taught English grammar and literature in the 7th grade. I used the same literature book that my two daughters had used when they were students in the school only two years before. It included portions of books, single stories and poems written by authors including Carl Sandburg, Isaac Asimov, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Ernest Hemingway and Anne Frank. The themes were real life—loneliness, poverty, joy, broken homes, shame, pity. The first paragraph from one story included the words infatuated, distraction, periodicals and metaphorically speaking.

The next year the school was integrated with students bused in from downtown Columbus. These literature books were put in storage and replaced with short-story books about animals with human characteristics. Animals were used so that there were no blatant stereotypes of human beings, no hint of direct bias toward a group or idea.

I retrieved the former books, so sorry was I that these students could not also get lost in their incredible prose. But it was to no avail—so many words were unfamiliar to the students that there was no meaning to the sentences. OK, I tried reading the stories to the class. That lasted about a week. A whole class time could easily be used in delving into the background of one word to get the meaning.

And we wonder why students suffer from vocabulary inequality?

Lois Moor
Columbus, Ohio
Remember this?
Back in 1977, having watched SAT scores fall for 15 years, the College Board, which developed and administers the SAT, engaged a panel to try to identify the underlying causes of the decline. A first hypothesis to be checked was whether the test had somehow become more demanding. But, no, to the contrary, indications were that scoring had become more lenient. A second prominent hypothesis was that the decline was due to changes in the demographics of the test takers. Analyses shows this hypothesis to be largely correct, but only for a brief while. Over the early 1960s, changes in the composition of the tested population accounted for as much as three-quarters of the test score decline—and, no wonder, for during this period the number of students taking the SAT tripled. Over the 1970s, however, though the test-taking population stabilized, the scores did not. Instead, the decline continued, even steeper than before, while the extent to which it could be ascribed to demographic shifts shrank to 30 percent at most. Furthermore, the scores that dropped most were those of the strongest students, the students in the top 10 percent of their class; the scores of students toward the bottom of the distribution held steady or even increased.

Advancing Our Students' Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Texts
by Marilyn Jager Adams
American Educator | Winter 2010 - 2011
stop the multiverse, I want to get off


SATVerbalTutor. said...

That's the period when textbooks started getting dumbed down. There's another study that links the decline in SAT scores with the dumbing down of textbooks (maybe Catherine's the one who told me about it?!) Eleventh grade textbooks are now written at a ninth grade level. The other day, one of my students, an eleventh grader, thought "founded" was being used incorrectly in his (very simply written) history textbook because he didn't realize that "to found" could be a verb...

momof4 said...

But, we don't need to provide anything to the top kids, because they'll do fine, anyway! That sentiment was around when my FIL started teaching in the 30s and it's still thriving - read the regular whines about the G/T population in the WaPo. Unlike the rest of the world, we spend pennies on the most able and motivated kids for every dollar we spend on the unable &/or unwilling.

MagisterGreen said...

The other day I explained to my very baffled students (mostly 9th/10th graders but some 12th too) that "learned" can be a verb or an adjective and that the phrase "a learned man" was, in fact, perfectly correct. Minds. Blown.

Anonymous said...

"That's the period when textbooks started getting dumbed down. There's another study that links the decline in SAT scores with the dumbing down of textbooks"

You are thinking of this:

"Schoolbook simplification and its relation to the decline in SAT-verbal scores" by Hayes and Wolfe.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

"The other day I explained to my very baffled students (mostly 9th/10th graders but some 12th too) that 'learned' can be a verb or an adjective and that the phrase 'a learned man' was, in fact, perfectly correct."

What SES/background/whatever are your students?

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

Somehow Homer (Simpson, not ... Homer) was in a classroom filled with gifted students. One of them tells him that he is a "learned man". He smiles patronizingly and says something like, "the worded is 'learned', my boy, 'learned'". If you read this correctly it is sort of funny.

Anonymous said...

A local museum carries the McGuffey readers in its shop. I bought a whole set; they're far better than most of the materials used today (outside of CK, classical etc).

Catherine Johnson said...

I have the McGuffey readers! The language and grammar are FAR more advanced than anything in the schools today...

I was thinking.

I taught freshman composition years ago at the University of Iowa.

I don't remember ever talking about grammar at all.

(Of course, I didn't know any grammar to speak of, either, although I could write grammatically.)

I don't remember students not being able to write sentences.

I wish I still had copies of some of those papers. I remember focusing closely on argument, evidence, etc.

Students today, including students at selective colleges, have significant problems at the level of the sentence.

momof4 said...

My daughter interned at a Manhattan PR firm during the summer of 05. Of the 16 interns, she was the only one who was allowed to draft press releases etc; the others, mostly from elite colleges, were not allowed to write anything because their writing skills were so poor. Obviously, their resumes and cover letters were not representative of their abilities! When my kids arrived in college, they finally saw why I had red-pencilled their 1-12 work so religiously. Teachers used to do that, in the old days; now it's up to parents.