School Days: Reading with Purpose and Understanding?

School Budget CutsNevada Governor Sandoval’s address to the state struck some conciliatory notes, which should be acknowledged a plus in a media environment of dueling drama queens.  As is the case in most states, the education budget consumes a goodly portion of the budget, and therefore got a goodly portion of the Governor’s attention in his address.  (pdf)

All day kindergarten is a welcome proposal.  And, yes, the good news is that we’re talking about it, the bad news is that we’ve known the benefits of pre-K and other kindergarten formats for the last 20 years and haven’t done anything much about it.  Take a look at the dates on the studies cited by Bridgewater State’s research into kindergarten results:

“The studies also show that children who attended full-day kindergarten were less likely to be retained, had fewer Chapter 1 referrals, and had higher attendance during the first three years of school than the half-day kindergarten children (Cryan et al.,1992; Elicker & Mathur,1 997; Gullo, 2000; Hough & Bryde, 1996; Puelo, 1988). It appears that parents approach full-day kindergarten more seriously and are more reluctant to have child miss a day of school, as observed by the better attendance records of full-day kindergarteners than those of half-day (Hough & Bryde, 1996).” [Bridgewater Edu]

And this:

“In researching my focus on the impact of full-day kindergarten on a first graders’ ability to learn to read, I found that the reading performance of first-grade students after full-day and half-day kindergarten programs showed that students who attended full-day kindergarten scored significantly higher in reading achievement (Damian, 1997: Fromboluti, 1988; Harrison-McEachern, 1989; Hough & Bryde, 1996; Pennsylvania Partnerships, 2000). Results showed that children’s knowledge of early literacy concepts increased during full-day kindergarten, and that this improved students’ reading achievement for the next 4 years (Phillips & Mason, 1996; Puelo, 1988).” [Bridgewater Edu]

The Center for Public Education report concludes that a combination of pre-K + half day kindergarten can be as productive as full day kindergarten alone, but adds the caveat that the amount of pre-K time wasn’t part of the study.   Their findings, however, do support the central point that early childhood education means better results later:

“In order to determine what combination of early childhood education programs produced better results later in school, we examined the impact on third-grade reading scores. Research shows that students who are proficient readers by third grade are more likely to be successful later on in school and in life. For example, a study of 26,000 Chicago Public School students found that students’ third-grade reading level was a significant predictor of both eighth-grade reading level and ninth-grade course performance (Lesnick, et al. 2010). Beyond the academic benefits, third-grade reading skills are also a strong predictor of high school graduation and college attendance (Lesnick, et al. 2010). Conversely, another study found that students who were behind in reading by third grade were four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma (Hernandez 2011).”

Most reputable, peer reviewed studies confirm the Governor’s point — we need to emphasize early childhood and primary education.   The problem will be, as always, how do we measure this?

We can “measure” if youngsters know that oral language can be represented in writing, and that the little one knows  in English text the words are read from left to right, which depending on the maturity and experience  of the kiddie may or may not prevent him from flipping the page to see if the back end of the Duck is shown on the back of the page with the front end of the Duck.   We can also measure the youngsters knowledge of words, syllables, and phonemes.  Sort of.  A common problem when giving standardized tests to kindergarteners and first graders is that the results will mainly tell the interpreter whether or not the child was having a good day.

Once our little darling has the symbol + sound code figured out, can make a good stab at predicting whether a vowel has a long or short sound, has a nice repertoire of sight words, and can discern the difference between words that sort of look like other words, he’s off to a good start.  However, measuring whether he is “reading with purpose and understanding” gets us into some new territory.

Here’s where the Back to Basics crowd often gets tangled in ideological rhetoric.  We do want the youngsters to understand basic language and  phonics, and those skills do translate into word recognition.  However, the point of writing is NOT to see if the skilled reader understands the proper application of the word “pervicacious” at any age.

What we do want are children who can understand words in context.  When Mom complains about the pain from a root canal, for example, the youngster shouldn’t associate that with the Panama Canal, Erie Canal, or the Venetian Canals.  We also want them to draw inferences from what they can read.  What does it mean when the storyteller writes, “His hair was as red as fire?”  And, we want youngsters to be able to extrapolate.  This is really handy when addressing such things as — “Does the bear bear a burden?”  Careful, we are slipping into the nefarious land of Thinking Skills!

Should children learn to read with Purpose and Understanding?  Surely, the answer would be a 100% yes.  However, if all we want to measure is word recognition, context, and basic inferences, then we’ve stopped before the real part of understanding begins.  Consider the difference between these two worksheets for little ones — which requires more thought?

kindergarten worksheet 2Or, this:

Kindergarten worksheet 1Concepts like “above, below, and on” are well past the word recognition level.  Unfortunately, some critics of public education are perfectly willing to accept “thinking skills” in the curriculum if the skills aren’t so finely honed as to create a situation in which the child may apply his or her own context, draw inferences different from those of the parent, and Heaven Forefend, extrapolate conclusions at variance with received wisdom.   And, this, from people who gnash and wail when test results don’t demonstrate a child’s comprehension of context, inference, and extrapolation.

We’ll be in a better place when we can agree that the function of education is to create learners who can read with purpose and understanding — and when we place more emphasis on the understanding portion of the formula.  This will require more than lip service to curriculum development, more than the testing of mechanical applications, and much more than on-the-cheap solutions to complicated educational issues.   However, if we’re willing to allocate the necessary resources we’ll have empowered our kids with the best gift we can give them — the power to think independently.

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