Monday, August 18, 2014

Mothers’ Lullabies Help Preemies Learn

Plenty of research has touted the benefits of talking to young children for the purposes of vocabulary development. But a recent study from Vanderbilt University suggests that a mother’s voice can be powerful even before children are capable of understanding speech.

Babies born too early often have a great difficulty with feeding; one of the big hurdles they must cross before being discharged from the hospital is learning to eat without a feeding tube. In an attempt to reduce the learning curve, doctors worked with music therapists to develop an innovative incentive for premature babies. The mothers of 94 preemies were recorded singing lullabies. Then, pacifier-activated music players were placed in the babies’ cribs for 15 minutes each day during a five-day trial. When the infants sucked on the pacifiers correctly—that is, in a way that “trained” them to eat independently—they were rewarded with the song. If they stopped sucking, the music stopped. Babies who participated in the study learned to suck the pacifiers much more quickly and were ready to have their feeding tubes removed about a week earlier than the control group.

The results speak volumes about the bond babies feel with their mothers long before they’re able to express it. Although maternal speech seems simple, it appears that their mother’s voice is a potent stimulus for babies, likely even for those born full-term.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Literacy Lessons from Teachers College - Part IV - Writing

Today's blog is the final installment of a four-part series on a conference I attended on literacy in the elementary and middle grades, hosted by faculty from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Through lectures, readings, discussions, and collaborative group work, I learned a great deal about the implications of current research on literacy assessment and instruction. Check out my prior posts on phonics, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.

Dotmatchbox via flickr cc
Teaching writing can be one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of literacy instruction. Writing is an enormously demanding activity. To do it well, students must be able to generate and organize ideas, form grammatical sentences using appropriate vocabulary, and combine motor skills with their memories about letter formation, word spellings, and written mechanics. 

The benefits of writing make it worth the trouble, however. Written work gives students the opportunity to solidify thoughts about material they’re learning. Writing can also make students better readers by acquainting them with different kinds of texts and structures. And research indicates that sharing personal experiences through venues like written narratives benefits students psychologically and physiologically.

Some of the most compelling writing insights presented at the Teachers College conference were:

Purposeful Writing

Students must have experience writing with different purposes. The ubiquitous five-paragraph essay is certainly a useful format through which to refine analytical thinking. But developing writers need to hone their ideation and language use through other formats, too. Students should experiment with the kind of language used to describe, narrate, inform, and persuade/analyze. Studies show that the most effective writing instruction gives students the chance to write across genres, as well. Younger students should begin to experiment with persuasive pieces, analytical essays, informative texts, and reflective journal entries. And older students need to continue expressing themselves through poems, stories, and other creative formats.

Writing instruction works best when it takes place beyond the language arts classroom. Content area teachers should give students the chance to write in forms fitting different subjects, whether this takes the form of lab reports in science, papers comparing and contrasting different systems of government in civics, or an explanatory paragraph justifying the answer to a math problem.

Effective Instruction

There are numerous ways to teach writing well and no single strategy works best for every developing writer. However, research indicates that the best instruction teaches flexible strategy use. Students need to understand which strategies to use for various types of writing, and they need to be able to choose independently which ones to use.

Optimal writing instruction also goes beyond the planning stage. Many students have the experience of planning a piece of writing by generating a diagram or an outline first. However, some kids aren’t ready to move directly from this plan to the first draft. Teachers often observe that students fail to refer back to their plan when writing; this may be because they’re not sure how to use it to assist them. Good instructors help students use the plan they generate to scaffold their first draft. But the completion of the first draft is not the end of the writing process.

Revising Versus Editing

Many students don’t know the difference between these two terms. The best way to polish papers may be to approach the proofreading process in two stages. First, students should revise by reviewing the content of their work. They should make sure what they’ve written accurately reflects their ideas and that their organization is effective. They should be certain that their writing isn’t repetitive and consider their word choices. Editing, the process used to find and fix mechanical errors, should take place only after students complete the revision process. When editing, students should look for mechanical errors (like spelling and punctuation mistakes) and make certain they haven’t written any fragments or run-on sentences.

At the Yellin Center, we have found that a two-part checklist works well to facilitate this review process. Students should read through their work once with a revision checklist, then read it again using the editing checklist. And students need to know that the best writers—even professionals!—often reread their work multiple times over many days to give themselves a more objective perspective.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Literacy Lessons from Teachers College – Part III Reading Comprehension

I recently attended an exciting two-day conference on literacy in the elementary and middle grades hosted by faculty from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Through lectures, readings, discussions, and collaborative group work, I learned a great deal about the implications of current research on literacy assessment and instruction. In this four part series, I am sharing what I learned about phonics, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing with readers of the Yellin Center’s blog!

Nearly every teacher, and many parents, would like to help their students improve their reading comprehension. Making meaning from the words on a page is critical for success in all content areas in school and in nearly every career after graduation. Here is some compelling information about reading comprehension from the literacy conference at Teachers College:

Background Knowledge

Alongside vocabulary knowledge, background knowledge is the biggest factor that influences reading comprehension for readers who don’t have trouble decoding (i.e. sounding out the words). Background knowledge allows readers make meaning from what they read by connecting incoming information with their own understanding of the world.

It’s helpful if teachers provide students with background knowledge but this is not always possible. Luckily, it’s not always necessary, either. Good instructors will help students activate relevant background knowledge, no matter what it is, prior to reading. For example, a text about the hardships of farm life may not resonate with inner city teenagers who have never plowed a field or fed a cow. But those teenagers probably have knowledge that can help them contextualize the passage anyway. For example, those who have kept pets understand the work that goes into caring for an animal, and kids who balance schoolwork with an after school job know what it’s like to juggle multiple responsibilities. Students can be prompted to think beyond personal experiences, too. Perhaps they remember scenes from Field of Dreams and can apply those images of cornfields to their reading. Or maybe they remember reading Esperanza Rising in middle school, which taught them about the labor needed to harvest crops. Students may not realize the value of their prior knowledge, but what they bring to a reading can vastly improve their understanding of it.

jepoirrer via flickrcc
Close Reading 

Close reading is a worthy goal for any instructor, no matter the content area, to select for his or her students. Research on close reading, or reading for a specific purpose, showed that students who did not demonstrate decoding or fluency difficulties were able to make large gains in comprehension. When students successfully read a text closely, they preview the text systematically, taking note of its structure and other relevant information. Then they read and reread carefully, self-monitoring all the while. Next, they reflect on what they’ve read to determine what’s most important. Finally, they synthesize the information and draw conclusions about it.

This complex process takes requires lots of modeling and support (and patience!) on the teacher’s part and practice on the students’ parts. But it can improve comprehension enormously. Some instructional sequences worth checking out are THIEVES (Manz, 2002 – Title, Headings, Introduction, Every first sentences, Visualize and vocabulary, End of chapter questions, Summary); TELL (Cummins, 2013 – Title, Examine, Look, Look); HIP (Hearaver, in Cummins, 2013 – Headings, Introduction, Prediction); and CATAPULT (Zwiers, 2004 – Covers, Author, Title, Audience, Page 1, Underlying message, Look at features, Time/place/important people).

Note that this kind of intensive reading is not necessary for every text. Because the process can be time-intensive and laborious, students must understand that they should reserve these strategies for dense texts that give them difficulty. Effective instructors will help students to understand which texts demand particularly close reading.

Marking Texts

Annotating a text can be a very effective way to improve comprehension. Most students benefit from learning particular ways to do it, however; simply underlining or highlighting can quickly become a passive process, and the results are difficult to navigate when the student returns to the text later. In addition to helping students understand what to underline, teachers can invent their own system of symbols for quick annotation in the margins, such as:
  • Star – Information that seems very important
  • Exclamation point – Something you found surprising
  • Check mark – Something you agree with
  • X – Something you disagree with
  • Question Mark – Something you don’t understand
  • Heart – Something you can connect to personally
  • V – New, important vocabulary word
Stay tuned for the final post in the Teachers College Literacy series, about best practices in writing instruction!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Literacy Lessons from Teachers College - Part II Vocabulary

I recently attended an exciting two-day conference on literacy in the elementary and middle grades hosted by faculty from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Through lectures, readings, discussions, and collaborative group work I learned a great deal about the implications of current research on literacy assessment and instruction. I look forward to sharing what I learned about phonics, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing with readers of the Yellin Center’s blog!

Vocabulary knowledge can help, or hinder, reading comprehension enormously. Unfortunately, much of the vocabulary instruction students receive is not supported by research. Too many students receive a list of vocabulary words each week with the assignment to look up their definitions and use them in sentences. The words often have no relationship to each other or to content the students are studying in their classes. Effective vocabulary instruction is tied closely to the reading and writing students do in other subjects. And, like most high-quality teaching methods, sound vocabulary instructional practices show students how to understand words on their own, sometimes without even the aid of a dictionary!

Five Myths about Vocabulary

1) Learning definitions is sufficient.

In fact, students must have the chance to both see and use words in multiple contexts.

2) Weekly vocabulary lists are an effective way to learn new words.

Higher-quality learning is achieved when words are connected to each other and to curricular content.

3) Teachers should teach all unknown words, especially words written in bold/italic font.

This would result in unrealistically long lists of words that students couldn’t learn deeply. Instead, teachers should mindfully select key words for study.

4) Learning Latin and Greek roots is too difficult for young children.

Children are ready to learn roots in primary school.

5) Word learning can’t be fun.

Most students love word play!

What Works

First, teachers must know that there are multiple levels of “knowing” a word. One can know it phonologically (i.e. correct pronunciation), orthographically (i.e. correct spelling), semantically (knowledge of correct definition), and/or syntactically (i.e. can use it correctly). Students don’t need to know all this terminology, but understanding that there are different ways to know a word can help them to determine which words they need to study more closely. Teachers should encourage kids to put words into categories. Here is one such scale:
  • Level One - Can define and use in a sentence 
  • Level Two - Understand in context but not in isolation
  • Level Three - Know the vague gist of (for example, knowing that “persecute” has a negative connotation but not knowing why)
  • Level Four - Have never heard the word before
Research indicates that when teaching new vocabulary, instructors should aim to provide students with both depth and breadth in terms of vocabulary knowledge. Students should know enough words to make sense of what they read, but they should also learn selected words deeply. How can one know a word deeply? By being familiar with the nuances of its meaning, understanding which words and concepts are analogous and opposites, and understanding what parts of the word (affixes, roots, etc.) give it its meaning.

To learn a word well, students must have multiple exposures to the word in the context of meaningful sentences. Additionally, students come to “own” a word only after they have had chances to use it in writing and conversation. Games provide excellent opportunities for students to use new words.

Watch for upcoming posts about reading comprehension and writing!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Literacy Lessons from Teachers College - Phonics

I recently attended an exciting two-day conference on literacy in the elementary and middle grades hosted by faculty from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Through lectures, readings, discussions, and collaborative group work I learned a great deal about the implications of current research on literacy assessment and instruction. I look forward to sharing what I learned about phonics, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing with readers of the Yellin Center’s blog!

Phonics instruction, which teaches children to appreciate the sounds that make up language and link those sounds to letters, is one of the first steps along the path to becoming a reader. It was, therefore, a fitting topic to begin the conference at Teachers College. Some of the main points covered were:

The Reading Wars

Beginning in 1870 and continuing for more than a century, two opposing schools of thought debated the best way to reading. Proponents of phonics instruction believed that teaching alphabetic coding skills was the best method. They felt that a systematic approach to the decoding process was the only way to achieve word recognition skills. Whole language disciples, on the other hand, believed that reading evolves naturally, like speech, when children are exposed to rich, high-print environments and that the focus of instruction should be on making meaning rather than on learning decoding procedures. Current research indicates that an either-or approach isn’t the answer, however.

What Works

Studies suggest that reading instruction should incorporate systematic, explicit phonics instruction alongside lessons about strategy use; in other words, good instruction should include elements of both phonics and whole-language.

Readers form connections between the spellings of words and the way they are pronounced. These connections are facilitated by an understanding of two things: 1) phonemic awareness, or the ability to understand the discreet sounds that make up language, and 2) knowledge of the alphabetic system. Put another way, word recognition is helped by phonics. But developing readers also rely on pre-existing knowledge about language, like knowing word meanings and grammatical sentence structures. This proficiency with language allows kids to use meaning to help them make predictions about words. For example, most children with no literacy knowledge could probably guess what word probably completes the sentence “Yesterday, David XXX a sandwich for lunch.”

Importantly, good instructors teach not only the rules but show beginning readers when and how to use them. Young children should have an arsenal of strategies ready at hand when they encounter an unknown word and should recognize when to use each one. If they can’t sound out the word, perhaps they can look at the pictures for help. If there are no pictures, they may be able to look at the first letter and think about the meaning of the sentence to guess what word probably belongs.

Unfortunately, no single curriculum is best for every student. Different kids will find it easier to be successful with different methods. But curriculum that provides a balance is likely to be most effective.

The Best Texts

Finally, studies show that students need to interact with various kinds of texts. So, controlled texts (books used only for instruction that contain words that follow carefully chosen patterns) are excellent instructional tools but should not be used in isolation. Children should have the chance to read authentic texts, too, across a variety of genres.

Stay tuned for additional posts about vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Dream On: Dream Themed Family Fun

Wracking your brain for a fun family activity? Better sleep on it. Dreams are a great theme for starting discussions with children and helping them learn. Most kids love to talk about their dreams and are eager for the chance to learn more about what goes on in their minds when they shut their eyes. Here are some ideas:

  • Many children may enjoy keeping a dream journal. Since it’s easiest to remember dreams right after waking up, present your child with a notebook and pen to keep by her bed. When she wakes up, she should write what she remembers about her dream and, if she likes, share it with you. (Be sure to respect her privacy; no peeking if she doesn’t volunteer to share.) Younger kids can dictate their dreams for you to record or draw pictures to show what they dreamed. To make this activity even more enriching, categorize each dream in the journal. Many children will enjoy this task so much they won’t suspect they’re building vocabulary. Choose less common words like “humorous,” “frightening,” “unlikely,” “suspenseful,” etc. 
  • For a more streamlined crafting experience, look for a premade kit like the Leather Factory’s Dream Catcher Kit (available through Amazon and at craft and toy stores). Be prepared to help younger children with this project. 
  • Dreams play a central role in Roald Dahl’s beloved book The BFG. Read this to children younger than second or third grade, but seven- or eight-year-olds and up should be able to handle it independently. 
  • If your middle and high school-aged dreamers are interested in learning more about their dreams, they may enjoy watching PBS’s documentary What Are Dreams? This fascinating DVD explores the sleeping brain through interviews with neurologists and psychologists. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Learn Mindfulness with Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel

Like that awful song your teenager has been playing on repeat all summer, the mindfulness trend is hot right now. Unlike that song, however, mindfulness is a trend we hope will stick around. Mindfulness can help improve attention and emotional resilience by simply encouraging people to be aware of what is happening around and inside them. Often it has been linked to meditation or yoga, but mindfulness can be taught in the context of everyday activities, too. Results of research exploring the effects of mindfulness suggests that it’s a very promising technique; children who learn mindfulness are able to sustain attention longer, resist impulses, self-soothe, and effectively control anxiety. In fact, in a recent blog post, we noted research that found that using mindfulness techniques has proven effective to reduce stress and depression and to improve parenting skills in parents of children with developmental disabilities.

For parents who think their children could benefit from mindfulness, Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel is an excellent resource. Snel, founder of the Academy for Mindful Teaching in the Netherlands, has worked to develop meditation and mindfulness training programs for more than twenty-five years. Her book is a user-friendly and effective tool that helps families use mindfulness and reap its benefits. The exercises in it are basic enough for children as young as five but nuanced enough to use with kids into their middle school years.

The book contains exercises for families to try together and explanatory passages aimed at adults that parents will find insightful and intriguing. In addition to the text, the book comes with an audio CD that leads listeners through more activities that promote calm and focus. Those suspicious that the book will smack of strange, new-age ideas will be pleasantly surprised by its down-to-earth tone and common-sense advice. To give you a sense of the program, here’s a short excerpt from the first track on the audio CD:

“A frog sits very still but is always aware of what is going on around it. It jumps, stops, and sits really still, being aware of everything around it. It only moves when it really has to, like when it’s hungry. It doesn’t waste energy doing things it doesn’t have to do. It’s aware of all the commotion going on around it, but it doesn’t react.”

Cultivating this awareness is a big part of Snel’s mindfulness training. In addition to learning to be attentive to their surroundings, kids are encouraged to turn the lens inward to find out what they’re thinking, feeling, and doing with their minds and bodies. Many children have difficulty understanding the escalation of their own impulses or feelings and aren’t sure how to control them, so providing kids with tools for this purpose can be enormously comforting. Parents can give staying power to the book’s worthy lessons by helping kids remember to use what they’ve learned when they’re presented with challenging situations.

Mindfulness can be very beneficial to children with attention difficulties and anxiety. But it can also help frazzled adults manage stress and feel more balanced. So, by sharing the lessons from Sitting Still Like a Frog with your kids, you may be doing yourself a favor, too.