It is in reading and writing that we learn to think. I love helping kids enter the world of readers and writers. This is a place for me to share tricks for multisensory learning of reading, spelling and writing. I'll share thoughts and strategies and recommend books for emerging readers.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Let Them Write

     I'm in the midst of teaching my third child to drive and I had a flash of insight tonight.  You know what is really cool about teaching kids to write? It is completely safe. It is completely different from driving instruction. Tons of metal and massive oak trees are not involved. Errors are not dangerous.  Paper is cheap. In writing, you can let them make mistakes.  Don't  feel compelled to correct them every time.   My sister recently posted a  story about having mixed up her kids' lunches (one got 2 granola bars one got 2 baggies of carrots-- you can imagine the consternation.)   She posted the illustrated letter that her son wrote to her  complete with 2 dejected looking boys one of whom had 2 gunola bars. (39 For the First Time )  (She's funny-- read what she has to say.)

      That letter was worth at least 50 worksheets.  He had a reason to write it.  Nobody had to make him  write it.  Nobody made him edit it and it got everybody's attention.  So much so, that his mother and now his aunt have written something in response to what he wrote.  Powerful stuff. You could build a better than average writing curriculum out of these few things.  Motivation.  Approval.  Genuine Response.  Error correction can wait. Misspelled words and missing commas are not oak trees.

      I actually had to sign my name to the following statement in my son's sixth grade language arts curriculum on the first day of school this year:  "basic skills...are the very foundation of good writing."   I restrained myself from disagreeing with the teacher on the very first day,  but I totally disagree.  Thinking is the foundation of writing.  Thinking like: "I've got 2 granola bars!  That means my poor brother has 2 bags of carrot sticks! I need to alert someone to this outrage!"  A kid who has lots of reasons to write, will have lots of experience writing. A kid with lots of experience will gradually want to correct errors and bring his writing into line with  the conventions he sees in print.

Writing is the basic stuff of education.  It has been sorely neglected in our schools.  We have substituted the passive reception of information for the active expression of facts, ideas and feelings.  We need to right the balance between sending and receiving.  We need to let them write. 

                                                                                                            Donald Graves

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Art and Science of Picking the Right Book

       I've always thought of guiding kids toward the right books as something of an art.  Knowing the right book to spark a kids' interests or expand their  world is a powerful thing.  Some teachers, librarians and parents know just how to lay their hand on the perfect book.

     For emerging or struggling readers, it may be that there is more science and less art to it than I thought.  I had the chance to attend a workshop with Dr. Ilda King last week.  Dr. King consults with school districts all over Massachusetts and evaluates struggling readers and makes plans to help them.  Some kids will need focused tutoring like Orton-Gillingham or Wilson but many kids benefit from what she calls "Systematic Guided Reading."  Most of the people who are implementing her plans in schools are  paraprofessionals or volunteers. There's nothing very unusual that happens when one of these tutors sits down with a student.  For the most part,  the child reads and the tutors gives one of several prompts to help the kids through the tough places.  (I'll write about how to respond to errors in another post.)

     The magic mostly comes in the picking of a selection of books for the student to read.  Here's the basic idea:  (there was supposed to be a diagram here, but that seems to be beyond my technological abilities at the moment--but picture a pyramid.)

     Kids should be reading lots of books.  Dr. King says 60 in a school year for 4th and 5th graders. I'd put it higher than that for homeschoolers, because we have the time. At any given time, the student should have a bin or basket with 7-8 books.  Most of the books should be really quite easy for the student-- they should be able to read with 97 or 98% accuracy. (These easy books are base of the pyramid.)  Students benefit from repeated readings of these books to read fluently.  Repeated readings of easy texts have been shown to be the greatest builder of fluency. I'll write more about the different scales used to determine readability and how to use them at a later date.

     The books that they are reading with an adult can be a little harder, with slightly more complex sentence structure and slightly harder vocabulary.  (Maybe 1 or 2 of these for every 5 or 6 of the easy ones.) It should still be a happy  experience to read this text . The adult mentor can allow 2 or 3 attempts at a word and then just supply the word without comment.  (I will introduce and pronounce the characters' names before we start a chapter.  There are more "rule breakers" and foreign pronunciations in names than in almost anything else.)

       Every once in  while, suggest a book that is a real reach.  (Maybe after 5 or 6 really easy books and 1 or 2 slightly harder ones.)  A kid's non-fiction interests are the perfect way to do this.  Non-fiction tends to have more unfamiliar vocabulary and it's perfectly okay not to read the whole book.  If you have a new car and you  want to know how to set the clock, you don't necessarily make yourself read the whole manual.  Kids are no different.  It's perfectly fine to read just for information sometimes.

     The most important thing I took away from the workshop with Dr. King was essentially this:  we need to give our kids permission to use books the same way adult readers do.  We don't pick a chemistry text or Nietzche for our pleasure reading.  A lot of what we read is easy for us, containing the same plots and characters as the books we have read before. Sometimes we read just for information.  We take what we need and leave the rest for another day.  Kids can  and should do this, too.