Friday, June 29, 2012

Improving Elementary School Students’ Writing

The What Works Clearinghouse, an excellent source for meta-analyses of educational studies, has recently released a report on research-based methods for helping elementary school students become better writers. Teaching Elementary School Students to be Effective Writers shares four key findings. The report classifies the evidence for each of its recommendations as having minimal, moderate, or strong evidence backing it, although it should be noted that all of the report’s research-based recommendations will help strengthen students’ writing skills. We’ve summarized the report’s findings for you below; please consult the report for further details about the panel’s rationale and suggestions for implementation.

Recommendation 1: Provide daily time for students to write

Evidence: Minimal

The panel noted that, while research has not thoroughly examined whether simply providing children time to write leads to favorable outcomes, practices which have been shown to improve writing take time to implement. The panel recommends that one hour a day be devoted to writing, beginning in first grade. Writing practice need not be limited to language arts; it can occur in the context of other content areas, like lab reports of science, inventing word problems in math, etc.

Recommendation 2: Teach students to use the writing process for a variety of purposes

Evidence: Strong

This recommendation involves teaching students about the different stages of writing (planning, drafting, sharing, evaluating, revising, editing, and publishing) and has the gradual transfer of responsibility to the student at its core. To help students be successful as they take on more and more of the writing process independently, the panel recommends that teachers impart strategies for each stage. It is recommended that strategy use be introduced in first grade, with strategies becoming more complicated as the student is promoted through the grades. Additionally, students should be taught to understand the different purposes of writing, and be given opportunities to practice them. Students have been shown to benefit from thinking about different audiences for their writing, and should analyze others’ writing to determine what makes it good.

Recommendation 3: Teach students to become fluent with handwriting, spelling, sentence construction, typing, and word processing

Evidence: Moderate

Writers who struggle with mechanical fluency cannot devote as much focus to their ideas. Most of the studies reviewed found that increased fluency in forming letters, spelling words correctly, and using appropriate punctuation led to improved writing outcomes. Young children should be taught to hold a pencil correctly and form letters using an efficient sequence of movements. Older students should focus on improving spelling and constructing sentences that convey meaning as efficiently and fluently as possible. Typing can greatly improve all students’ writing but is particularly beneficial for students who struggle with handwriting.

Recommendation 4: Create an engaged community of writers

Evidence: Minimal

A supportive classroom environment in which teachers and students all collaborate to improve each other’s writing provides a rich setting for children to appreciate the importance of writing, as well as the assistance they need to improve their skills. Students should be allowed to choose their own topics as often as possible; this increases motivation and helps students to invest in the classroom’s writing community. All students should be both writers and editors, and students should have opportunities to collaborate during the writing process.

Please consult the report for helpful tables and detailed suggestions for implementing these valuable recommendations!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Long-Term Changes in How Children Play

A review of 14 studies of elementary school students, looking at close to 900 children over a period of 23 years, has found that children are significantly more imaginative in their play than they were at the inception of the study period. The research team, headed by Dr. Sandra Russ of Case Western Reserve University, had expected to find lessened creativity in light of studies that have shown that children have less time for unstructured play (up to 8 hours less a week, according to some studies) than they did in the 1980's. 

Play photo by Gustty via Flickr Creative CommonsAs reported in Education Week, Dr. Russ noted, “We knew from talking with children that they didn’t play with toys as much as they used to. So we were surprised by the finding, and we think it’s important.” Dr. Russ went on to note that children who are more imaginative in their play tend to have better coping skills, creativity, and problem solving skills than children who are less imaginative. 

Play is an important part of the cognitive and emotional development of young children, and there has been concern from pediatricians and others at the lack of play time available to children, particularly those who live in poverty. These findings that children are using their limited playtime in more creative ways could potentially lessen concerns about reduced opportunities for childhood play. 

There was one area of concern raised by the study, however: over the years, the children in the study  showed less negative emotion during their playtime. The researchers cautioned that while this might seem to be a positive finding, it actually meant that the children were less likely to use play as a way to work through negative feelings and experiences and that could be harmful to their long-term well-being.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Memory Training Programs Fail Researchers' Review

In recent years, we have seen the rapid proliferation of “brain training” and "memory training" programs that purport to build working memory (mentally suspending information while using or manipulating it), treat attention deficit disorder and learning differences, and generally improve cognitive function in children and adults. We have been reluctant to recommend these programs because they tend to be expensive and time-consuming while the long term benefits are unclear. When asked why we don’t recommend these programs, I frequently respond that the idea that exercising an isolated brain function will improve your academic performance makes as much sense as thinking that arm exercises will make you a better tennis player.  

Research demonstrating that these brain training programs are beneficial may sound convincing. After all, we do know that we are constantly making new brain cells and re-wiring our brains. We know that working memory, which is often compared to a computer’s RAM, is an important brain function that plays a major role in many important activities. We also know that these programs do lead to short-term improvements in performance on working memory tests.  

However, what has not been clear among all of the hype surrounding these commercial programs are the answers to two critical questions:
  •  Do these improvements persist over time?         
  •  Does the improved performance on working memory tests translate to improved performance in school?

An article recently released on-line and about to be published in the journal Developmental Psychology answers both questions in the negative. In the article, Drs. Monica Melby-Lervag and Charles Hulme report on their meta-analysis of 23 different studies. Their conclusions:
  • “Memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize”
  • “Current findings cast doubt on both the clinical relevance of working memory training programs and their utility as methods of enhancing cognitive functioning in typically developing children and healthy adults”

On the other hand, activities that build mastery in meaningful activities, enhance self-esteem, and support the development of healthy relationships are “brain building exercises” that have been well documented to produce long-term benefits that extend beyond the task at hand.

Friday, June 22, 2012

WatchMinder: A Clever Tool to Send Reminders

Ever wish you could sit next to your child as he takes the SAT, simply so you could tap him on the shoulder now and then and mouth, “Stay focused”? Fantasize about sending telepathic messages to your daughter to remind her to report to the office after morning recess so she won’t forget to take her medication (again)?  

The WatchMinder may be the answer. This normal-looking watch is actually a powerful tool, allowing you to subtly send important reminders to your child or yourself.

The watch looks like any digital watch and its alarm function can be set to go off at any time for any reason.  Instead of a disruptive or embarrassing beeping sound, however, the watch vibrates so that only the user will know it has gone off. At the same time, messages you have entered in ahead of time flash across the top of the screen. Sending alerts like “Meds,” “bathroom,” or “pay attn.” will serve as invaluable reminders to people who are prone to distraction or who simply have a lot of things to remember. The watch is easily programmed from a PC. Before using in school, parents should check with administration to ensure tools of this kind are allowed.

Visit the WatchMinder website to learn more about how the WatchMinder can help people with ADD/ADHD, hearing loss, behavioral challenges, bedwetting problems, rehabilitation commitments, or medications to manage.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

History Lessons Brought to Life by "Maps of War"

What if you could learn about the spread of world religions throughout the world's history in only 90 seconds? The website Maps of War may not impart all of the details as religions ebbed and flowed across the world during the last 5,000 years, but it does an impressive job of showing how ideas spread.

Maps of War features many different maps showing both historic and current events and trends. Students can watch democracy spread across the globe, see the Middle East change hands (again and again and again), check out the way the Western Front wavered its way around Europe during World War I, and see firsthand how troops have moved through Iraq over the past few years. 

Maps of War will suck in history buffs, cartophiles, and reluctant students who just can't fathom why anyone should bother studying history. 

Watch the presentation embedded below for an example of how Maps of War can help bring history to life.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hitting the Mid-Atlantic College Trail

As the school year comes to an end and families finalize their summer plans, high school students and their parents will often take time to visit college campuses. We've written before about these trips and have come across an excellent guide in the New York Times The Choice Blog that should be required reading for every student who embarks upon this journey. There's also a chapter in my book, Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families entitled "The Campus Visit" with lots of advice on how to get the most from your time on campus.

-University of Maryland Quad by arianravan

Your blogger is planning a college trip of her own this summer, to check out some of the schools in the mid-Atlantic region that may be of interest to some of the students with whom we work. I'm heading off with a friend who is a guidance counselor at a suburban Maryland high school. We plan to visit Fairleigh Dickinson University's Florham Campus in Madison, New Jersey, and to check out its well-regarded Regional Center for Students with Learning Disabilities. We will then stop at Rider College in Lawrenceville, NJ before heading south to stop at the University of Delaware where we will visit their Academic Services Center. 

Our trip will then move on to Maryland, where we plan to visit Frostburg State University, McDaniel College in Westminster, and the University of Maryland campuses in both College Park and Baltimore. We'd welcome any of your suggestions for other places to visit along the way. Just drop a note or suggestion in the comments below. I'll be reporting back on this blog about what we learn later in the summer.

Photo of UMD-College Park campus: Arianrivan via Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, June 15, 2012

Forty Years of Title IX

Next week marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the Education Amendments Act of 1972 whose key language provided that " No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance..."

Since it was signed into law on June 23, 1972, Title IX has transformed the landscape for women's education and women's sports, providing for such sweeping changes as the formation of women's sports teams, and the right of pregnant girls and women to remain in school. The law does still permit single sex schools and colleges, so long as public schools do not use them to limit access to programs to only one gender, such as having special math or art programs only available to students in a single sex school.

The protections of Title IX have not been enjoyed equally by all women. A recent New York Times article points out that women of color in sports still face challenges in reaching equality in athletics and that white girls participate in high school sports at higher rates than other groups.

Still, the progress under Title IX has been substantial in the last 40 years. One place that is celebrating these decades of growth for women is the Charles M. Schulz museum in Santa Rosa, California, which is running an exhibit called "Leveling the Playing Field" which celebrates the athletic exploits of Schulz's comic strip girl characters in sports from football to figure skating. It turns out that Schulz was very impressed by tennis great Billie Jean King and was inspired by his friendship with her to create a series of strips celebrating women in athletics. They certainly make a point, and are sure to bring a smile as well. Take a look for yourself.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Building Critical Thinking and Content Knowledge with Art

In a recent article in The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, author Arlene Lundmark Barry describes the walls of an art museum as “vertically displayed, exploded textbooks.” Indeed, most museums are strangely similar to textbooks: there are images accompanied by captions (though some of the images might be three-dimensional artifacts), and longer pieces of text (found on the wall instead of on the page) to help viewers place the art or artifacts into a context.

As far as most students are concerned, a trip to a museum is unquestionably preferable to reading an assigned textbook or novel. Teachers and families can turn museums into fertile ground for critical thought. Museums are not only fun places to visit, they can inspire students to think deeply across the content areas.

Below are some examples of questions to get students’ minds working across a variety of themes and content areas.

Example Questions

Making Inferences
  • How did the artist feel about his subject? How can you tell?

  • What do you think has just happened in this painting? What will happen next?
  • What was the artist trying to communicate by exaggerating/downplaying this part of the sculpture?
  • Describe the emotional atmosphere/climate/culture/time period associated with this setting. How can you tell? When/where do you think this was created?
  • Does this artist’s portrayal of (Juliet, the Lady of Shalott, King Arthur, Saint Peter, etc.) match your mental image of him/her? What’s the same/different? Do you like this portrayal? Why or why not?
  • Find a piece of art that reminds you of a theme in a book, story, or poem you’ve read.

  • Imagine you are one of the people in this painting. Write a letter to another person in the painting, or write a diary entry about the event shown .
  • Imagine that the city council has proposed painting a mural of this image on a wall as a statement (of anti-violence, in support of education for all, about the importance of natural conservation, etc.). Do you think this image is a good choice? Write an argumentative essay explaining your opinion.
  • Write a poem/short story that uses words to convey the message the artist wanted to convey visually with this piece of art.

  • This painting shows a doctor treating a patient during the artist’s time. Is this a sound treatment? How does your knowledge of biology and the human body inform your response to this treatment?
  • Explain why so many sculptors chose to use marble/bronze. What are the pros and cons of working with this material?

  • How is fractal geometry used in this image of waves? Can you find other fractals in the museum, or recall any you have seen in the world elsewhere?
  • Explain mathematically why the stone arch in that painting was a better architectural choice than a rectangular opening. Can you think of an even better design?

  • What does this image tell us about transportation during this era?
  • Using what you know about Spain during this period, how might the church and the king have influenced the way the artist painted this picture?
  • List some differences between medieval and Renaissance paintings. How did the different ideologies of these periods shape these different presentations?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Summer Learning Gaps

In a recent blog post we looked at when children who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are eligible for an extended school year. But all children, not just those with special education needs, are affected by the summer school break. What is of particular interest is how income levels impact how the summer break affects students and their learning.

A review of pertinent research on the website of The National Summer Learning Association, republished on LD Online, noted that most children lose approximately 2.6 months of grade equivalent learning in math each summer. Loss of math skills does not seem to vary between children from higher and lower income families, and the researchers posit that this may be because children from both groups are not engaged in math skills training over the summer months. However, the situation is quite different for reading levels. In this realm, children from low income families lose more than two months of reading level over the summer, while children from middle income families actually gain reading skills over the same period. The researchers ascribe this difference to opportunities for reading that are available to the higher income children over the summer months. 

Furthermore, research seems to indicate that the impact of these differences accumulates over the course of a student's elementary school career, and that differences between these two groups of students can be attributed largely to gaps created by summer breaks. Parents need to be mindful of these issues and do what they can to create opportunities for all students to have access to learning opportunities -- especially those that provide reading and language exposure -- during summer months, such as those offered by New York public libraries.

Read more at LD Online: LD Online: "On Summer Loss" 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Test Taking as a Study Tool

No one likes taking tests. But research has continually demonstrated that it is test taking, not reading or trying to memorize, that produces the best outcomes for students. In a keynote presentation to The Association for Psychological Science convention in May, Dr. Henry L. Roediger, III of Washington University's Memory Lab addressed this issue in a talk entitled "The Surprising Power of Retrieval Practice in Improving Retention: From the Lab to the Classroom."

As reported in Education Week, Professor's Roediger's research team has found that testing itself, ideally from five to seven "retrieval sessions," seems to enable students to really understand a particular concept. The process of taking a quiz or testing yourself on material actually transforms your understanding of the material, according to Professor Roediger, and that means that you will do better on future tests than if you simply memorized the material for a single upcoming test. 

Other researchers whose work was presented at the conference had similar findings.

Dr. Jeffrey D. Karpicke of Perdue University presented the results of a study of college students asked to use various methods to learn science material. Those who quizzed themselves did roughly ten percent better on all kinds of questions than those who read the material repeatedly and even those who created concept maps of the material. 

Here at The Yellin Center we often recommend that students create tests -- by themselves or in a study group -- as an important part of their studying process.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

An Award-Winning Memory

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Joshua Foer
In 2005 journalist Joshua Foer covered the U.S.A. Memory Championships for a story. He was fascinated by the event, which challenges competitors to push their memories to the limit by recalling decks of cards in sequence, a previously unpublished poem, long lists of numbers, or fictitious first and last names associated with photographs of various people. The more Foer saw, the more he was fascinated by the competitors' apparently limitless capacities for holding information. He began to study memory and to do his own experiments. A year later, he returned to the Championships, this time as a competitor. Not only did he win, but he set a new record in the "speed cards" event by memorizing an entire deck of cards in only one minute and forty seconds.

Foer describes how he accomplished this feat in an intriguing TED talk. TED is a nonprofit whose mission is to bring together individuals from the worlds of technology, entertainment, and design to share what they know at conferences and via "talks" on their website, among other means. Foer swears that he does not have a particularly great memory. Anyone, he says in his talk, can accomplish this sort of thing.  

Foer was able to learn all the cards because he had dedicated time and energy to assigning each card a celebrity match and memorizing them. For example, the six of hearts might be Britney Spears, the jack of diamonds might be Mickey Rooney, etc. He made sure to select celebrities that were meaningful to him and whom he could clearly visualize; for example, famous as author Mary Shelley may be, it's hard to picture her. Then he practiced by going through a decks of cards, imagining very vivid scenarios in which he walked through his house and encountered each of the characters in the order that their cards were drawn from the deck. When the cards were taken away he simply replayed the scenario in his head and was able to "see" each of the celebrities and associate each with their card.

While this particular situation is not one we encounter often at The Yellin Center, Foer's message about memory echoes advice we often give students: To remember something, one has to figure out a way to convert the information into another format that will make it meaningful. For example, to remember information about the Battle of Gettysburg for a test, a student could draw the battle, representing the different battalions and their actions throughout the conflict. The student could act it out with friends or with Lego people. The student could picture the battle vivdly in his/her head, or find a documentary or a narrative account of the battle. It may also be valuable to compare and contrast the Battle of Gettysburg with something the student knows well, ranging from another battle to a football game.

Memory strategies are generally not one-size-fits-all, meaning that learners will have to experiment to figure out which kinds of transformations will make the information meaningful, and therefore memorable, to them. But as Foer, the journalist turned memory champion, demonstrates, seemingly superhuman feats of memory are not as superhuman as they seem.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Beating Writer’s Block

Many kids struggle with writing, but for some, the difficulties have nothing to do with remembering when to use a semicolon. Writer’s block can be infinitely frustrating to students, and it can happen for a number of different reasons. "io9," a website aimed at fans of science fiction, in a nod to those of its readers who are also writers, offers some helpful tips that just may help the young writers in your life release the floodgates of words and ideas. Try sharing some of these ideas with stuck students:

Problem: You can’t come up with an idea.

Solutions: Do writing exercises to get your fingers moving and warm up your mind. Write a profile of an intriguing character you've come up with, even if you can’t figure out how to work him/her into a story. Do a free-write about your assigned topic – jot down anything and everything that pops into your head, and don’t worry about whether it makes sense. Rewrite the ending of a classic story/book/movie. Describe a photograph. Borrow someone else’s characters and throw them all into an elevator together to see what happens. Don’t worry about where your effort ends up taking you, just get those words flowing.

Problem: The idea of being critiqued later paralyzes you. 

Solution: Remind yourself that your rough draft is meant to be revised and get through it. You can change anything in a revision after you’re done writing, but having nothing is worse than having something mediocre that can be improved.

Problem: You can’t stop obsessing about that perfect, elusive word that’s hovering on the tip of your tongue.

Solutions: Stick any similar word in the sentence and move on. Highlight, underline, or star the word that needs to be changed so you don’t have to remember it and can direct your attention to more important things – like continuing to write. Stopping in the middle of a piece of writing can make it nearly impossible to pick up your momentum again. Paying close attention to writing and being precise with your words is great, but don’t allow it to stem the flow of your productivity. 

Photo credit: Rennett Stowe/Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, June 1, 2012

Mentor Texts

Writing is a challenging task, and for many children it can be difficult to know where to begin. The use of mentor texts – books, stories, poems, articles, etc. written by professional writers – selected as models can provide young authors with a much-needed boost.

To begin, ask the child to select a text he really enjoys. (Or, if the child must complete a homework assignment, try to find a piece of writing that is similar to the goal of the assignment.) The student should reread the text and consider what makes it so appealing. Some children may need assistance in pinpointing the particular aspects of a text that make it so great – good word choices, flowing sentence structures, plot pattern, etc.

Once the student has generated some good observations, it’s time to get writing. She shouldn’t copy the ideas in the mentor piece, but rather should focus on trying to use the same elements she admires in it. For example, use of specific words that professional author included can make a piece more lively and vivid while simultaneously teaching vocabulary. Using someone else’s sentence structure to express a student’s own ideas will expose her to different ways to construct and join phrases and allow her to experiment and branch out as a writer.

Modeling writing from mentor texts is effective because it can liberate students from writer’s block and promote learning by doing. Pieces written with inspiration from models will be of higher quality than pieces written independently, and students are likely to retain the lessons they learn about good writing because they’ve had the opportunity to practice them.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, and it can also be a great teaching tool.