We are having so much fun!

Imagine the scene.

It's a warm, Midwest afternoon. My 5-year old companion complains of hunger, so I pull over to the Esquire, a burger joint in downtown Champaign. We settle at a table, the only outdoor customers.

While we wait for our burger, she starts in on the complimentary bowl of peanuts. It's breezy and quiet as I watch her small fingers try to break open a peanut. She's squeezing her fingers together on its rounded sides, so I offer a few tips. The shell isn't giving, and she continues her squeeze.

Finally she looks up. "We are having so much fun!"

It was the last thing I could have predicted she would say, but how perfect it was! The slow pace of the day, the lovely weather, the empty patio, her determination. I was enjoying watching her, and we were having so much fun.

I share this story as spring break approaches. Maybe you have a few days off, and if you're lucky, a young child to enjoy. I hope you too can find the time, and the place, and the quiet, to be surprised.


The Real Learning of "Sight" Words & Punctuation

Last spring a reader asked my thoughts about the value of worksheets and flashcards. I shared my own teaching priorities and promised to track down research on how well kids read words in context compared to reading them on lists or cards.

It took almost a year! No luck on Google searches, or searching through my files. No luck writing several literacy researchers who I guessed might have done this work. In the end, the answer came in an email outlining a lifetime of research by Ken Goodman, my educational "grandfather"!

When Goodman began his miscue research in the 60's, one of his research studies involved 1st grade and 3rd grade students reading passages, and then reading a subset of the words in those passages on a list. The results might surprise you.

First graders could read 66% more of the words within a passage (what reading people sometimes call "connected text") than they could read on a list. Third graders could read 80% more of the words within a passage. Further, this research was conducted in a diverse, low-income community--the kind of kids that research shows get more traditional literacy instruction (worksheets, round robin reading, low-level comprehension activities), while their more advantaged peers are honing their reading skills in book clubs and discussion groups.

(The photo above shows 3rd graders reading sight word cards in the hallway. The kids could read them all, and yet the stated goal of learning the words was to spell them accurately in their writing. I encouraged the teacher and principal to shift the focus to just that. The time in the hall, and with flashcards, didn't match their goal.)

A decade later, Lucy Calkins conducted similar research, but this time about punctuation. One class of third graders studied punctuation, and a second class learned about punctuation in the context of writing and talking about their writing with their teacher and peers. At the end of the year, the first group could identify and define, on average, 3 punctuation marks, while the kids who wrote as a means of learning could identify and explain the use of 8 or more, including editing marks.

Talking about ... or doing? Practicing words on lists or cards, or reading more of those same words within books? Naming punctuation marks, or using them to achieve one's purpose as a writer?

Therein lies the difference between what some call workshop curriculum, and the teaching of the past. M.A.K. Halliday observed, also in the 1960's, that kids learn language, learn about how language works, and use language simultaneously. They do it in their early years, and can do it in schools, too. Moreover, our job as teachers is that much easier when the direct teaching of strategies is based on what we see in the kids' work and can be immediately applied.

I'd love to hear from readers who find a way to test this out in their own work!


World Read Aloud Day

Today, March 3rd, is World Read Aloud Day. This is a celebration I can get behind!
No one describes the power of read aloud better than author extraordinaire, Mem Fox.
Reading aloud is not a cure-all. Not quite. But it is such a wonderful antidote for turning on turned-off readers and brightening up dull writing that I feel it's worthwhile to plead again for its regular occurrence in every classroom, not only those classrooms at the younger end of the school. Even in my forties I have benefited as a writer directly from hearing writing read aloud. The music, the word choice, the feelings, the flow of the structure, the new ideas, the fresh thoughts -- all these and more are banked in my writing checking account whenever I am fortunate enough to be read to.
Mem's bold book, Radical Reflections, is organized around 16 lessons that teachers can learn from parents, because long before kids come to school, they've successfully learned many complex behaviors, the least of which is their home language. In many homes, that language learning is undeniably influenced by being read to.
The findings of a recently reported study in the UK show that daily reading aloud at home boosted children's success at school, including knowledge and understanding of the world, literacy and math. These children also outscored classmates in assessments of their social, emotional, physical and creative development.
Teaching kids the alphabet and to count, in contrast, was not shown to be significant.
So all you parents out there, thanks for inspiring lesson #16, "reading aloud, once again, with feeling"! And today while you're reading, take satisfaction that empirical evidence supports the importance of what you've known all along.

Here are a just a few of many favorite read aloud titles:

For young ones, look for titles by Mem Fox. "More, More, More," Said the Baby! (Vera Williams) is another favorite, and comes as a board book. Buz (Egielski) is also a winner, if you can find it!

For 4-7 year olds, nothing beats Martin Waddell's Pig in the Pond or The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything (Williams & Lloyd).

For slightly older kids, Roald Dahl always hits a home run, and my absolute favorite title of his to read aloud is The Enormous Crocodile. It makes a great readers theater if you can find multiple copies and highlight the different voices.

Afternoon of the Elves (Lisle) offers girls a lot to talk about, and it was one of few "girl books" that my 3rd grade boys also enjoyed.

Finally, if you're the parent of a disengaged guy reader, check out Jon Scieszka's site, Guys Read. It's never too late to reengage!