Facing Flashcards Head On

In an ironic twist, given my last post, I am faced with helping lead a family literacy night at which the families will receive materials made by others. And, as you might guess, half of the materials families will receive to take home are flashcards with letters & sounds, and sight words. The event is just weeks away and the other event organizers are eager to make these resources available to families. They haven't had the advantage of using a variety of materials, understanding the theory that produces each option, and observing how readers respond to their use. It is this kind of experience and critical analysis that helps teacher education students understand the connection between theory and practice.

On top of it all, most of the families are English language learners, making the practice of practicing words out of context particularly challenging. Instead of "comprehensible input," as Stephen Krashen terms meaningful language experiences, flashcards strip away all meaning.

So what will I do? My first plan is to use available funds to purchase books, so each family receives at least one book with each flashcard set. I'll highlight the "sight words" within these books (or have the families do it) so the surrounding text supports the reading.

In the meantime, I have not located the research I mentioned in my last post. Stay tuned for any additional ideas I come up with. Oh yes, I've also raised the issue with leaders who may have the latitude to revise the next production of materials.

Time to scan in the coded texts that Emily borrowed so I can illustrate this issue for you, blog readers.


The Usefulness of Flashcards & Worksheets

Emily asks for my perspective on flashcards and worksheets.

In general I can say that I don't ask kids to read words in isolation. A study I'm trying to track down for you showed that kids can read 60% more of the same words in context (with the support of all the cueing systems: phonics, meaning, grammar) than they can in isolation. Words in the real world are always part of texts, not apart. (Even STOP on stop signs is always in white print on a red octagonal field.)

One day I walked by a mom who volunteered for a first grade teacher by monitoring kids reading "sight words" on flashcards. One kid correctly read the word "were," to which the mom responded, "Good reading! Here's your sticker!" At the same time, the kid was quizzically shaking her head, "Were. Were. What's a were?"

That being said, the occasional flashcard isn't going to hurt a reader. Rather, I would question how much they actually help. I prefer to focus on kids reading real texts.

Another study quoted to me by a prof in grad school documented that 80% of the spelling errors kids make after grade four are usage errors, like there for their or they're, or personnel for personal. It is not possible to spell these words correctly out of context, so all the more reason to focus on writing, and then edit for conventions (spelling, punctuation, grammar) in the final stages.

It's hard to comment on any particular worksheet outside of seeing it. In general, worksheets require a minimum of writing on kids' part, especially in the early grades. An entire piece of paper may be used for a child to draw lines between 5 words and 5 pictures, or to X several boxes. These pieces of paper have such a short life, and classrooms where lots of worksheets are used are often littered with them, or one can likely find many of last week's worksheets crumpled up in desks. (Corrected, or completed but not turned in, or incomplete: Which is worse?) Moreover, many worksheets must be almost incomprehensible for kids, as adults can be challenged to figure out what is being asked.

In contrast, many of the purported goals of these practice sheets can be accomplished in spiral notebooks or composition books, and the more kids write, the more evidence of their understanding, as well as their growing skill as writers. Midway into my career I made a goal to use no more than one sheet of copied paper, per kid, per day. On most days that was a group-authored class newspaper on one side, and something relevant to our current learning on the backside. The kids eagerly read their news, and the parents counted on the Notes for Home section to keep them updated. All other draft or informal writing was accomplished in 19 cent spiral notebooks from someplace like Target. If the purpose of the writing was not obvious and it was important for parents to understand my intentions, I ran off small notes describing the assignment that we glued right on the page.

Emily's question touches on trends in "best practices." Here is a web-based adaptation of the work of Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde: Best Practice: Today's Standards for Teaching and Learning in America's Schools. (I prefer the earlier first or second editions.) Both include worksheets ... decreasing in use.

Trust your judgment on their value. And ask yourself: "What are my most valuable learning experiences? What have I saved in a portfolio or box of artifacts?" If you answer a worksheet, let me know!


Coming Full Circle: When Students Teach!

One of the rewards of teaching is reconnecting with students. Two years ago it was Judy, a student from one of my last first grade classes in Tacoma. She is now teaching herself and trying to figure out what shape her work with young people will take. I'm awed by her intellect and thoughtfulness, and humbled to think I might have played the smallest part in her learning.
And each Christmas season brings a visit from Emily, one of my amazing Pacific Oaks
College students. She is now working as a teacher educator in Nashville, and is the mom to two incredible young kids. We have stayed in touch for a decade, and nothing has been more touching than the photograph she sent of Anna, just ten months old, reading books to herself. This "simple joy and beautiful thing to see," as Emily described in her journal, got us talking about literacy once again.
Now Anna is a kindergartner, and Emily and I are corresponding about Anna's early reading instruction, as well as Emily's work with pre-service teachers. We've agreed to post some of her questions here so others can have the benefit of her insights and questions, and my attempts to address them. Her questions are similar to those of Jacqueline.
So for tonight, I've pasted in comments and questions from Emily, and over the next week, we can continue the conversation. Stay tuned.
In light of a balanced literacy approach that you advocate, what do you think of sight word flashcards and things like that? I am seeing a lot of this in a different light as Anna has been learning to read this year. I see her being asked to do flashcards and there are quite a few worksheets that come out of her class. I am trying to figure out what a real balanced literacy class looks like (as they say that they use balanced literacy, but it seems that perhaps it has a heavier leaning toward the phonics.)
What do you recommend as far as a specific reading curriculum? (If we don't use the textbooks, what is the best way to supplement the curriculum if teachers are just starting out with few resources?)
Would you remind me of the exact context in which you used the coded reading books (phonics, skills, holistic) in our Language and Literacy class? [Note: Emily borrowed these coded texts from me this winter so that she could use them with her own students.] What was the objective in relation to the rest of what you had already been working with us on? I just want to make sure that I am using this experience to its maximum potential! I remember it being powerful because I had been teaching Distar (which was hard for me to swallow) and this showed me how some kids might view it.
I was reading the book New Policy Guidelines for Reading and loved that page that showed the writing samples from the three different classrooms. In classrooms where real literature is used, it seems that everything improves (reading, writing, language in general). Is this going to hit the mid to higher readers or will it hit everyone from your experience? (I am trying to think about some of my struggling readers and writers and wondering if I would have seen that kind of writing from them-- the kind in the final sample.)
What about the kids who are really struggling? I remember when I was at XYZ school that some of the folks brought in Distar because they wanted to make sure that the kids had a phonics background. They were concerned that they had no foundation with this so they chose this route. (And it totally bored the higher-level readers. I recall that this was not really engaging for the struggling readers either--it just seemed that folks thought that we had to give this foundation or they would not get it from the other literature).
Also, what about Reading Recovery models? Don't they just go back to the phonics? Hmm--are we doing this all wrong? Do we just need to get to reading good literature? Doesn't "balanced literacy" try to focus on some phonics too?


To Teach Well is to Learn From Children

Hello again. My time away from the blog means I've been busy with other endeavors, including several pieces for the print world. I also wrote an essay for the National Public Radio project, This I Believe. My essay is now in their library, although it wasn't selected to be recorded for radio. I share it below, as it includes the writing of several students in my blog photo: Mandy, Erin, and Makeesh.

I believe that to teach well is to learn from children. My students have taught me about how they learn, about their vulnerabilities and strengths, and most importantly, about myself.

Thirty years ago I became a teacher. Perhaps it was an expected choice for a teenager who volunteered in the church nursery and helped to raise younger siblings. After college I learned the ropes of teaching on the job, then fine-tuned my knowledge in graduate school. But in the end, it has been the students themselves that have most helped me become the teacher I am. The more I learned from them, the more I valued them, and the more I valued them, the more I paid attention to their strengths, needs, and interests.

For over twenty years I learned about children in the presence of six and seven year olds, and nothing better documents the small gems of my learning than the students’ writing. The students and I kept journals, writing back and forth daily to one another, which certainly provided writing opportunities for these beginning authors and allowed my writing to serve as an example. Yet, beyond the journals’ practical role of helping the students grow as readers and writers, the students’ entries introduced me to the amazing intelligence and thoughtfulness of young children.

Thin and quiet, Mandy’s personality was mirrored in her spare, beginning writing. In the spring I wrote about the garden I was planning, and Mandy asked what I would plant. I responded that I wasn’t sure, but that I didn’t have room for flowers and vegetables both. She advised that I better choose so the plants wouldn’t get stepped on. Even though her spelling was becoming easier to read, it would have been easy to miss the humor she found in her own advice and the small happy face that punctuated it. A month later Mandy’s family moved. In her journal she wrote, “Please don’t ever, ever forget me.” Because of Mandy, I took even more care to notice and respond to the ideas that kids shared.

It was most common for students to write about their daily experiences. Michael wrote, “Yesterday when I got off the bus little puffs of wind passed by. It felt good to me.” And Joseph noticed that “the snow looked like gold” on his way to school and illustrated his description with bursts of color across a white lawn. It was a surprise to me that six year olds experienced these kind of small moments much like I did and that they could so vividly describe their experiences.

Even if a writing assignment was contrived, like one I borrowed after hearing kids’ responses on the Johnny Carson show, first graders continued to teach me. I asked the kids what spring fever meant, and James wrote: “[It] means that more people might be getting fevers or colds, or the sniffles. But it might mean people are finding more lovers. It might mean the flowers are going away. Or more people are getting tired. It might mean you stay inside and dance.” Joseph, in contrast, approached me several times to say he didn’t know what to write. In spite of my assurance that he should do his best, I later found his paper on my desk with a small note stapled to it: “I ain’t gonna do this. I don’t know how.” My students’ writing transformed the quick laughs on the Carson show the night before. The sincerity of their efforts called me to treat their writing with respect, not as a source of amusement. I learned that their ideas mattered and could inspire amazing life poetry.

Erin brought a keen eye to the talents of her classmates and used writing to compliment them during an end-of-the-year letter project. It seemed she intuitively understood the encouraging power of words: “Dear Arthur,” she wrote. “I like you because you’re like the Incredible Hulk. You’re cool all the time, too. You’re snazzy and jazzy and razzamatazzy. You are the best fighter.” And to Krista she wrote, “I like you because you are beautiful and so calm. You’re so unique, so intelligent, so feminine. You sing nicely. You look like a ballerina. Love, Erin.” In letter after letter, she identified her classmates’ strengths. Most poignant was the letter she wrote to herself: “Dear Me, I like you because you’re an author and you went to the Young Author’s Conference. I’ll tell you a secret. How about it, me? Okay, here’s the secret. Me, do you have any friends?” Makeesh decided to write a second letter to Erin, warning her that, “You shouldn’t write to your own self. People be talking!”

Over a career I’ve taught every subject area, including music and art, as well as my area of expertise, literacy. I’ve developed lessons based on research and national standards, and used many different curriculum materials to support kids’ learning. But in the end, the most important work I’ve done is to help students develop the tools to make sense of their experiences, to express their ideas, and to follow their passions. Then I’ve paid very close attention, allowing me to form a relationship with each one. And while I’ve played an important role as the teacher, I’ve also been privileged to be a part of each unique classroom community.

Indeed, when Anne wrote, “You are very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very special, Ms. Egawa,” I became more of that special teacher who has now touched the lives of close to 2,000 children. I never imagined these experiences when I chose teaching as my life’s work.

I now carry within me a rich tapestry woven from each of these young voices, much of it preserved in writing. Their observations of the world changed how I see it, and how I see myself. Fortunately, I’ve also learned that a teacher’s learning is never complete. Seth reminded me of this final point on his last day of first grade: “Dear Ms. Egawa, You weren’t always a good teacher, but when you were, it was fun.”