Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My Experiment with Reading

Getting my children to read is not difficult. They are both avid readers and love going to the library. Getting them to read books for school (re: literature)--now that's a different story. My son admits that just having a book assigned takes all of the fun out of reading it even if its a book he would have enjoyed on his own.

Every year since we started homeschooling, my daughter has fought me when it comes to the study of literature. The first year (sixth grade) was very difficult as we adjusted to homeschooling. After all, it was a very big change from the private school she had attended. So, struggling with assigned books was just part of the larger struggle. All she had to do was read the book and discuss it with me. Those conversations were like pulling teeth! I finally made a rubric for expected behaviors during the conversation and gave her a grade based on her performance. During seventh and eighth grades, I tried to focus the conversations on different elements of literature: the plot, character development, symbolism, themes, etc. It was a nightmare, and we never finished all of the books on my list. In ninth grade (last year), we used Excellence in Literature: Reading and Writing Through the Classics  an outstanding classical curriculum by Janice Campbell. I thought using a curriculum would help by removing me from the equation. My daughter would independently follow the instructions, do the research, read the books, and write the papers. I have never heard so much whining and complaining, and in the meantime, my daughter read only 8 books.

So, inspired by Donalyn Miller and her book The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Reader in Every Child, I decided to take a different approach this year. Donalyn  questions the standard approach to teaching literature in which one book is read and studied over several weeks. She feels this discourages reading by tuning it into a mind-numbing  chore. She suggests that children are encouraged to read when they are allowed to read widely and at their own pace from books of their own choosing. Genres, literary styles and devices, plot analysis, character development and themes are all covered in short classroom lessons, and then kids are free to read for the rest of the period. Donalyn asks whether it is better to have students study 8 to 9 texts in depth and destroy their love for reading or to have them read widely from a broad range of choices.

This year, my daughter is studying world literature. At the beginning of the year, I compiled a list of 88 books from 18 different countries. All of the books were on lists of books to be read before college or were award winners. I told my daughter that she had to read 23 of them, specifying how many she had to read from each country. She gets to choose which books she reads. When she finishes those books, she has to read 10 more of her own  choosing. We still have brief lessons about literature--not about the specific books she is reading-- and she still has to write the occasional paper.

So far, my daughter has read 10 books, and we are only half way through the school year! She is excited about reading and for the most part, enjoys the books she chooses. Every once in a while, she comes across one that she does not like. She doesn't have to finish it. She can just choose another .And she does not shy from challenges. She took on Hugo's Les Miserables (well over 1000 pages and not easy reading) and rewarded herself by seeing the movie. Even if she does not read the required number of books, she's already read more books than she read last year or in any of the prior years, and she is becoming familiar with a wide range of literature. She's happy and I'm happy. Thank you Donalyn.

Follow Donalyn Miller:
her blog  http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1970104.Donalyn_Miller/blog
on twitter @donalynbooks
her website: http://www.bookwhisperer.com/

Thursday, January 10, 2013

NAEP Vocabulary Scores and Homeschooling

As a professional educator, school librarian, and homeschool mom, I sometimes find that the educational worlds I occupy are like alternative universes or realities, each with it's own pedagogical philosophies and theories. What I learned in graduate school, particularly in my education courses, often conflicts with  my psychology background, personal beliefs, and experience as a homeschooler. My worlds collided when I saw the most recent scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). On the 2011 NAEP, eighth-graders scored an average of 265 out of 500 in vocabulary. Fourth-graders averaged 218 out of 500. Vocabulary is embedded within the reading exam; needless to say, reading scores were low and have been relatively stagnant since 1992.

Currently, public education focuses on teaching critical thinking skills rather than specific knowledge and content. The belief is that with the ever-increasing fund of knowledge, it is more important to teach children how to learn (find, evaluate, and use information) then to teach them content (reading, vocabulary, history, science). I saw an example of this in a first-grade class I visited during one of my internships. The teacher read the students a short story and then asked them to "draw a conclusion" based on the story. These poor students had no idea how to draw a conclusion, let alone read the story to themselves. I asked the teacher about this. She said the lesson came from the language arts curriculum required by the county. I pointed out  that most first graders were not capable of drawing a conclusion, an act that requires the higher-level thinking skills of  analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Shouldn't we be teaching them to read before we teach critical thinking?

E.D. Hirsch, raises a similar point when he criticizes "the principle of 'progressive education,' which assumes that students need to learn not a body of knowledge but 'how-to' skills that (supposedly) enable them to pick up specific knowledge later on" (Dec. 13, 2010).  He points out that children learn new words by guessing their meanings from the context within which they are read. In order to do this, they must have a broad range of content knowledge: they must know facts and information.

As a school librarian, I know that the best way to improve reading and vocabulary is to a) allow children to read rich and engaging texts of their own choosing, b) let them read widely, both fiction and nonfiction, and c) provide them with frequent, uninterrupted time for reading. Researcher Stephen Krashen has repeatedly proven the power of free reading for academic achievement and intellectual development. Teacher Donalyn Miller, in The Book Whisperer, shares the excitement,enthusiasm, and growth of students who are encouraged to read voraciously rather than being limited to studying one or two books each marking period. Keith Curry Lance demonstrates through his research the central role school libraries play in student achievement.

As a homeschooler, I share Hirsh's emphasis on content knowledge and the school librarian's emphasis on reading. Both are consistent with the classical approach to education or the trivium. In grade school, the focus is on learning and mastering the basic facts in each subject area. In middle school, students begin to study logic and reasoning, and in high school they learn the art of rhetoric, or how to put information together in a useful and persuasive manner. This approach is consistent with children's cognitive development and acknowledges that the higher-level thinking skills cannot be attained or practiced until students have a firm foundation of knowledge on which to base these skills. Unlike Hirsch, however, I believe vocabulary should be taught (in addition to exposure through reading). For instance, by studying the Greek and Latin roots of the English language, my children are constantly building their vocabulary. Good, solid resources include Vocabulary from Classical Roots, The Latin Road to English Grammar, and Wordly Wise

Reading is the best way to improve vocabulary and to increase comprehension. The classical curriculum emphasizes reading, especially classic fiction and nonfiction, as a source of knowledge as well as examples of excellent language use and reasoning. Most school librarians would disagree with this emphasis on the classics: many articles have been published recently espousing the use of current fiction to engage students in reading. My children are avid readers. In their free time they may read whatever they want. Their academic reading, however, is comprised of the classics. The classics expose them to
  • new vocabulary
  • outstanding use of the English language
  • some of the greatest thinkers and writers in the Western tradition
  • the essential questions and philosophical challenges with which we still grapple today
  • history, and
  • the development of the Western literary tradition.
When my children read the Harry Potter series, they were able to identify themes, ideas, characters, and precedents from mythology, the King Arthur legends, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Tolkien. When they read The Hunger Games, they noticed imagery and ideas from The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell. Reading the classics has allowed them to enter the great literary conversation that has been developing for over 2000 years. Public school students, those who participate in the NAEP testing, cannot be a part of this conversation: they do not have the vocabulary, grammar, or depth of reading experience common among homeschool students.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (December 13, 2012). Vocabulary declines, with unspeakable results. The Wall Street Journal, p. A15.