Sunday, February 12, 2012

Reading Is Not Fundamentalist

Reading the Star Tribune's article this morning on building preschool reading skills almost made me physically ill. I'm all for quality early childhood education and reading to kids -- that's a given. But this new emphasis is on early drill and kill -- learning letters, learning to write, doing work in preschool or kindergarten that used to be saved for first grade. It's not the way to make sure kids read proficiently by third grade, and definitely not the way to make sure they love reading.

After putting them through the mill in preschool and kindergarten, the program will top out in third grade when "schools have to report reading scores to their communities and have a specific literacy plan. They will receive $85 for each third-grader who passes the state reading test or shows growth in reading."

I wonder how that incentive will get twisted, as it seems all incentives attached to educational attainment do.

As college professors Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols recently noted, third grade reading tests don't necessarily measure the ability to read. Instead, they offer questions that have more than one legitimate answer:

The first section of the test comprised reading a short story and answering six multiple-choice questions about it. The story, concerning a pair of tiger siblings (an older sister named Tikki and a younger brother named Mista), was short and simple.

“Tikki eyed Mista, her little brother,” it began. ” ‘You sure don’t say much,’ she said.”

In the course of the story Tikki gets annoyed with her little brother because he can’t talk yet, attempts to get him interested in looking for bugs, then joins him in tearing bark off a log.

She tries to instruct him in this task, but discovers to her surprise that he is better at it than she is.

The first question asked, “What is this story mostly about?” and offered four choices:

A) what tigers like to eat
B) how tigers tear bark off logs
C) how two tigers get along
D) what tigers like to do

An intense literary debate followed the reading aloud of the story and this first question. In fact, we never got beyond it. One of our party felt that B, “how tigers tear bark off logs,” best summed up the action-oriented nature of the story, while another thought that C, “how two tigers get along,” best highlighted the interaction between the two animals.

The third felt that the story was mostly about sibling relations, and fretted that there was no E) none of the above.

And, predictably, the fourth felt that all the possible answers had merit: F), or all of the above.
So a child who doesn't pick C as the correct answer on enough questions is labeled as not reading at grade level.

I think teachers working with students every day know which students are not reading at grade level. They don't need a standardized test that's reported to the community, with penalties and rewards attached to the outcome, to know which kids need help.

Whether they have the time to give that help is another story, but not one that most education reformers seem interested in addressing.

Rather than drilling 4-year-olds in letters, I'd rather see preschools and kindergartens using the Tools of the Mind curriculum. Tools of the Mind doesn't address specific knowledge content so much as it uses structured dramatic play to foster self-regulation. This in turn is what leads to students who have the self control to do school work successfully.

Some kids read at the age of 3 on their own. I've known kids like that. Daughter Number Three-Point-One, on the other hand, knew all the letters, loved books and being read to, and liked to try her hand at writing, but she had absolutely no interest in reading on her own. In fact, she seemed almost resistant to it until the beginning of first grade. Then, suddenly, she was reading in about two weeks.

Would DN3.1 have been "better off" if someone had forced her to read when she was 4, 5 or even a younger 6 (she has a fall birthday, so she started reading just a month or so shy of her 7th birthday). I don't think so, and possibly the opposite. I don't think it's any different for kids who come from less advantaged homes than hers. They need enrichment and dramatic play, not spurious testing.

1 comment:

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Wow, so much misguided thinking out there. The PiPress, on the other hand, has a story about giving kids individual help with reading skills early on, before they get labeled by tests, etc.