Friday, July 29, 2011

It's Friday - Let's Look at Spelling Tests

Perhaps no memory of elementary school is as universal as the Friday spelling test. We all went through it -- the list of words in the beginning of the week, using the words in sentences as part of our homework and, on Friday, the weekly spelling test.

The traditional Friday spelling test may result in students learning the spellings of the words on their lists for a while, but as far as long-term learning, its effects are pretty dismal. As with any experience when students cram before a test, most information learned is quickly forgotten again. This makes sense, since student engagement with tasks like practicing lists of words over and over again is bound to be low.

Gary Alderman and Susan Green, professors of education at Winthrop University, believe that spelling tasks must be both challenging and sufficiently meaningful to cause students to remember the words. Their article “Fostering Lifelong Spellers Through Meaningful Experiences” offers the following suggestions for teachers to use for spelling instruction that works:

  • Encourage students to use spelling words in real-world writing. Have them write notes to each other, make lists or signs, or write poems or songs that include spelling words. Not only does this provide practice, it reinforces the notion that the words on the list are relevant in real communication. Competitions that reward creativity, such as who can use the most spelling words in a single sentence, can make these activities particularly motivating and enjoyable for students.
  • Use multisensory techniques that involve children with words in auditory, visual, and kinesthetic ways. Have children draw pictures to illustrate words and write them in logical format using different colors (e.g. using one color for prefixes or for blends like st and cr). Have students spell words aloud, clapping out each vowel that represents a short sound and stomping when they say the names of vowels that represent long sounds.
  • Teach spelling rules explicitly so that children understand the logic behind spelling. Do not ignore the exceptions to the rules, but teach students that most words can be correctly spelled by following reliable guidelines. This will cause spelling to seem less mysterious and intimidating to students.
Here at The Yellin Center, we sometimes recommend Ginger Software which goes beyond standard spell check functions in word processing programs and helps students correct word usage and grammar mistakes as well. And the traditionalists among us still keep a dictionary on our desks, to complement our quick link to an online dictionary.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Online Tools for STEM Education

There has been much discussion of late about fostering education in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math -- STEM. We've come across some excellent online tools to help students build their competencies in these important fields (and have some fun while they're at it).
EdHeads is the rarest of animals, a site that offers a genuine learning experience that is highly enjoyable too. Depending on the activity, this site will appeal to users in grades 4-10. Students can click on “Choose an Activity” to link to various medical, engineering, and meteorological interactive activities. In the medical section, for example, a surgeon invites the student to scrub in and conduct various surgeries from start to finish. (Graphics are realistic cartoons, keeping gore at a minimum.) Students interested in physics, geometry, or law enforcement will be fascinated by the crash site investigation activity. And for younger students (or anyone with a sense of humor), a walk through a truly inventive Rube Goldberg machine, accompanied by a quiz on physical forces, is a sure winner. These are some of the most appealing and valuable science learning opportunities available online.

Learning Science
Learning Science provides links to lots of great interactive science sites that provide quizzes and teach new information. Far from being a laundry list of available sites, the choices presented here appear to have been carefully selected before being shared with viewers. Some of the highlights include digital animal dissections and a series of oceanographic mysteries which must be solved. Activities are grouped by concepts learned in grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12.

Remember when you used a ruler and a pencil to draw a graph for your homework assignment or science project? Like the Rolodex, hand-made graphs have become a thing of the past, thanks to technology that makes creating a graph a snap. Create a Graph, a free feature from the National Center for Educational Statistics’s Kid Zone, allows kids to create professional bar, line, area, pie, or xy graphs by supplying a few pieces of information. Users can view a helpful tutorial, browse examples, or simply start experimenting. Create a Graph makes great finished products for printing and sharing, but perhaps its most valuable asset is the ease with which users can create and compare different graphs conveying the same information. It’s easy for students to enter the same data set into the fields for, say, a bar and line graph to determine which represents the information more effectively. In addition, information can be grouped differently and presented in various ways, providing an interesting lesson in how various designs can present the same data in very different ways. Students can use the site not only to create graphs but to learn to read graphs critically as well.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Visual Literacy in Science - Spatial Ordering at Work

Today’s students are more visually-oriented than perhaps any generation that has come before them. They spend more time watching screens than reading words, and they can access images and videos on the internet with lightning speed. Here at The Yellin Center, we describe these skills as part of spatial ordering, the ability to both create and interpret visual or spatial material.

A small, but interesting new study of students’ ability to interpret scientific diagrams by researchers Erin McTigue and Amanda Flowers suggests, however, that all this experience with visual information does not necessarily translate across tasks to help students understand the diagrams they encounter in their academic lives, especially in science texts. Diagrams, explain the authors, are important textual features for three reasons:

  • Diagrams represent certain kinds of information more readily than sentences can. Lengthy textual explanations are often replaced with a diagram; a picture, after all, is worth a thousand words.
  • Diagrams serve as an organizational tool, which helps even proficient readers make sense of dense or challenging text. Information presented in multiple ways is more likely to be remembered and understood.
  • Diagrams can contain information that goes beyond the text. Supplemental images can deepen a student’s knowledge and understanding of a concept.
The authors examined the use and interpretation of diagrams by students ranging from 2nd to 8th grade. They found that students frequently ignore diagrams or, if they read them, bring virtually no strategies to the task. This haphazard consideration of diagrams compromises the quantity and quality of information students can glean from a text.

Instructional Implications

McTigue and Flowers suggest that educators offer explicit instruction in reading diagrams. A simple measure like modeling the interpretation of a diagram through a think-aloud can go a long way in teaching students what to look for. To correctly interpret a diagram, students should be able to identify its purpose and have some strategies in place for reading it. Also, teachers should be mindful of the diagrams they present; students in the study indicated that complex graphics were often distracting rather than helpful.

The authors conclude that if students are to fully understand the value and organization of diagrams, it is essential that they create diagrams themselves. Just as literature teachers often teach a genre by asking students to write a piece in a certain style, science, math, and history teachers can help their students develop graphics to illustrate the life cycle of a butterfly, the structure of a Roman road, or the difference between geometrical shapes. In deciding how best to convey information, students will learn important lessons about diagram features that can guide their reading. As the fields of science and technology grow ever more prevalent, it becomes increasingly critical that students are equipped with the skills to interpret scientific and other visuals effectively.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Online Tools to Aid with Research and Writing

The temperature forecast for today in New York City is 100+ degrees. Wherever you and your family are spending this hot day, we have some suggestions for online tools that can help with research and writing -- now and well into the cooler days of fall.

Research Tool

It is critical that students learn to determine which websites can be consulted for reliable information and which should be taken with a grain of salt (or avoided altogether). But online research can be frustrating for even the most discerning student because of the difficulty inherent in organizing found information.

Is it best to copy and paste each relevant url to a document and consult them later? Copy and paste chunks of useful text onto a document, being careful to note the source? Juggle between multiple windows, all open at once on the screen? It’s enough to make one nostalgic for the good old days of highlighting paper documents. Thanks to two innovative websites, students can enjoy the best of both worlds. Both webklipper and crocodoc allow users to archive useful web pages, then highlight, annotate, and draw on them. They can be referenced again and again from any computer, and even shared with other users.

Writing Resource

What’s the difference between passive and active voice? What’s the format for a business letter? How do I develop a thesis statement? And really, why would anyone ever need a semicolon? Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL), a site created and maintained by the school’s English Department, is one of the best, most comprehensive writing resources available. From the homepage, writers can search for information by typing in a few keywords, or access the sitemap for a list of the hundreds of relevant topics the OWL covers.

The OWL provides quick answers to questions about punctuation or citation (both MLA and APA), but also features in-depth instructions on more complicated topics like writing an argumentative paper or formatting a resume. Outstanding examples – sometimes a single sentence and sometimes an entire paper – help to illustrate the clear, user-friendly explanations. Best of all, the site is free and available anywhere the Internet is accessible. Writers of all ages and skill levels will definitely want to bookmark this page!

Photo used under Creative Commons by Ray Bodden

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Increasing Motivation to Read

In our last blog, we looked at resources to help select appropriate books for reading to children and for children to read themselves. While motivating a reluctant reader to dive into a book can be a challenge, teachers and parents can try a few simple, reliable tactics that have been proven to get results.

Linda Gambrell, distinguished professor of education at Clemson University, shares the following research-based tips for turning early readers’ hesitation into enthusiasm:
  • Allow students to choose their own books. Select a handful of age-appropriate books about themes in which the child has expressed interest. Help the child read the backs of the books, look at the pictures or chapter titles, and predict what the book might be about. Explain that adults select books based on recommendations, book reviews, or simply because the book catches their attention on the shelf, and that the child can go through this process too.
  • Give the student an opportunity to talk about what he or she is reading. Not only do children like to talk about books they've read, research suggests that talking to others about a text improves cognitive functioning and memory.
  • Set aside reading time. Research consistently indicates that the more a person reads, the more their reading skills improve. Students should have time set aside during the school day for pleasure reading as well as designated time at home. The text itself is less important than the child’s level of engagement with it.
Students can improve their fluency, accuracy, and comprehension through practice reading texts they've selected followed by opportunities to share their reading with others. And these measures should yield another important result: increased enthusiasm for reading.

photo credit: enokoson/flickr

Monday, July 18, 2011

Reading Choices for Parents and Children

What better time than summer to look at reading choices for parents to read to their children and for children to read on their own?

Pam Allyn, literacy educator and founder of the world literacy project LitWorld, has provided a great resource for parents with her book What to Read When: The Books and Stories to Read with Your Child -- and All the Best Times to Read Them. Allyn writes, "Through books and stories that are meant to be read alound, we convey to our children the beauty of language and the joys of rhythm and rhyme; and in the books we choose to read and the way we read them, we also convey the values we hold dear."

Further, research suggests that reading alound to children, even after they are able to read fluently on their own, also improves their vocabularies and reading comprehension abilities.

While reading stories aloud, parents have the opportunity to:

  • model the habits of good readers: making predictions, asking questions, recalling previously stated information from the text, and drawing from prior knowledge and experience
  • familiarize children with common text structures
  • expose children to various genres
  • build children's critical thinking skills by critiquing books together
  • teach children about the world around them

After the introductory chapters, What to Read When is split into two sections. The first, called "What to Read Alound at Every Age" lists great books and brief descriptions to match a child's cognitive development from birth until ten years old. The next section, called "The Emotional 'When'" is arranged into fifty themes. Parents can select books to accompany the joyful times in a child's life, like Birthdays, Feeling Silly, or Loving Music, and can help guide them through difficult times with themes like Divorce, Coping with Illness and Loneliness. Bookshelves in the children's section can be overwhelming places. What to Read When is an insightful guide to help parents navigate.

And what about independent readers?

Finding the right book for a child to read on his or her own -- especially for a reluctant reader -- can be a struggle. The International Reading Association's (IRA) Fantastic Children's Choices lists make the process virtually painless, however. They go straight to the source by collecting opinions from real experts on children's literature -- the kids themselves. Since 1974 approximately 10,000 children from kindergarten through sixth grade have voted on their favorite books. The resulting list of winners is available on the IRA's website. Also available on the site are Children's Choice lists from past years, Young Adults' Choices, and Teacher's Choice lists. Each list includes the title, author, and a brief description of selected works.

Children's choices provides children with the opportunity to voice their opinions about books, and serves as a great resource for both children and adults. Check out these great lists, and encourage the kids in your life to investigate it, too. After all, who could provide a better recommendation than kids themselves?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Using the Internet to Improve Students’ Vocabularies

Research about vocabulary acquisition is plentiful and varied, yet nearly all of it agrees on certain facts about learning new words. One of the most important conclusions drawn by researchers is that the lion’s share of a student’s vocabulary comes from words learned through incidental exposure (i.e. words whose definitions a student figures out from context, either in reading or from oral speech).

Even the best language arts teachers cannot impart more than 300-400 words to students in a school year through formal, explicit instruction, yet by the time students reach 8th grade, they should know about 25,000 words! That means that most words and their meanings that students absorb come from informal, daily interactions with language. Research indicates that reading widely (about many topics and in many genres) and deeply (thoughtfully and reflectively) is one of the best ways for children to learn vocabulary incidentally.

A recent article in The Reading Teacher, by Bridget Dalton and Dana L. Grisham, provides suggestions for ways these research-based principles can be married to newly available technology to enhance students’ vocabulary acquisition. We were interested to learn that Dr. Dalton had previously served as Chief Officer of Literacy and Technology for CAST, a non-profit research and development organization that focuses on universal design for learning theory and practice. Dr. Yellin is a member of the Board of Directors of CAST. Some of the favorite technological tools mentioned by the authors are:
  • wordle and wordsift. To help them visualize relationships between words, students can create enhanced word clouds to help them make sense of the vocabulary in a text.
  • vocabulary and Both of these sites boast a wide selection of motivating games that allow elementary school students to have fun while they learn.

Monday, July 11, 2011

New Video Clips of Dr. Yellin

We're excited to share some new footage of Dr. Yellin speaking on a range of topics from a recent lecture. Stay tuned to this blog and to The Yellin Center's new YouTube channel for much more video to come in the future.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Value of Play

For many children, summer means trading in structured school days for equally structured days at camp. Concerned parents worry that “just playing” the summer away is a waste of their child’s time, and instead plan three months’ worth of enriching activities in a variety of settings. In a recent article for Education News, writer and consultant Julia Steiny combats that notion, instead making the case that play is a critical foundation for later learning.

Steiny references psychologist Susan Linn’s The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World, which argues that play is, in fact, pretty serious business. Linn makes a distinction between being entertained by hours of screen time and engaging in creative play. Interaction with one’s environment, Linn argues, defines real play, giving children “the opportunity to learn invaluable skills – to immerse themselves in experience, solve problems, create possibilities where non exist, learn what it’s like to be someone else, and make something new from that which already exists.” Working on these “skills” may feel like fun for kids, but it also allows them to rehearse important processes involved in thinking and learning.

Media like movies, television, and electronic games “invite only imitation” according to Linn. Their effects can be seen even in unstructured play time, when children take on prescribed roles and reenact familiar sequences instead of engaging in curiosity- and creativity-driven play. Girls play at being Princess Jasmine and Belle, and boys take on the role of characters from Pok√©mon or fight off invaders with light sabers. Even games marketed as “interactive” don’t allow for much creativity; they provide children with pre-determined choices so that they bring nothing of themselves to the game. As Steiny points out, “No matter how different each Sim city might look, they all still look like Sim city.”

All of this provides children with fewer opportunities to begin building important academic and social skills, according to Linn. “Most child development experts agree that play is the foundation of intellectual exploration,” she writes. “It’s how children learn to learn. Abilities essential for academic success and productivity in the workforce, such as problem solving, reasoning, and literacy all develop through various kinds of play, as do social skills such as cooperation and sharing.”

Steiny recommends turning off electronics and scheduling play dates and trips to the park this summer instead. For parents seeking inspiration, she notes that Linn provides numerous ideas in her book for healthy, genuinely interactive activities and materials to offer children. Just playing, it seems, may be the most productive work children can do before September.

Top photo used under Creative Commons by Ben Britten

Friday, July 1, 2011

Section 504 - Q & A

We have written before about Section 504, the federal law that can be used to provide school services for some children. But we know that parents -- and schools -- are still confused about what this law can and cannot do for their child and when and how it should be applied. So, we thought it would be helpful to answer some of the questions parents have recently asked.

Q: What is the difference between 504 and "Special Education"?

A: Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides for "special education services," both are federal laws which apply to every state. The main difference is that the IDEA requires that a student both have a "disability" and because of that disability require special education services. Section 504 also requires that a student have a "disability" but once the student is shown to have a disability, it is not necessary to show that he or she needs special education services.

Q: That's confusing. So how do I know if my child needs a 504 Plan or an IEP, the Individual Education Program provided by the IDEA?

A: For some students, it's an easy call. Those with health issues, such as asthma, allergies, or diabetes, will need a 504 Plan to help manage their medical issues, even if they have no significant learning problem. Some students with attention difficulties that do not significantly interfere with their educational progress will do fine with a 504 Plan. But, if a student needs special education services -- services such as reading instruction, a smaller class setting, resource room -- or related services, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, or physical therapy, then that student should be receiving his or her services under the IDEA.

Q: Does it make a difference how my child receives services?

A: It often does. The IDEA requires parental involvement and consent in setting up the services and goals for a child who receives services under that law. That means you, the parent, can help shape your child's education. It also requires the school to at least consider any Independent Educational Evaluations you may choose to submit. In contrast, 504 services are provided under a 504 Plan that is set up without mandated parental input. The protections and procedures for parents who disagree with a school providing IDEA services are more extensive than under Section 504.

Q: My child's school says he isn't doing poorly enough to qualify for IDEA services, but they will give him a 504 Plan. What should I do?

A: The IDEA gives states some leeway in determining how to decide whether a student needs special education services. Some states, like New Jersey, still use what is called a "discrepancy model" that requires students to show a significant gap between their ability (usually measured by things like IQ tests) and their classroom performance. Other states, like New York, are moving to a different model, called Response to Intervention, which is a more flexible way to determine who needs special services. While we believe that students who truly need special education should receive those services under the IDEA, it is reasonable to accept the 504 Plan and see if it provides enough support. If it does not, and the school still does not want to provide IDEA services, it might be time to consider seeking advocacy assistance to consider your options.

Q: Can my child have both a 504 Plan and an IEP under the IDEA?

A: While this is theoretically possible, it is not something we recommend or something that most schools will do. The IDEA is broader in both the services it provides and the protections it provides for parental rights. Once a student is classified under the IDEA, he or she is entitled to all the services he or she needs to make education accessible. So, if there is a medical or attention issue, that can be dealt with as part of the IEP. Once you have an IEP there is no need for a 504 Plan.

Q: Why does my child's school seem so reluctant to provide an IEP, while they are pretty free with 504 Plans?

A: Because they are accountable to the State for the number of students that are classified under the IDEA. If they have more classified students than other schools, they will be subject to scrutiny with respect to why they are classifying so many students. Special education can be a substantial expense that is at least partly paid at the State level. Schools are not subject to the same scrutiny for their 504 Plans.