Monday, September 27, 2010

Raising Boys into Readers: A Response

Thomas Spence, president of Spence Publishing, in The Wall Street Journal (September 24, 2010 "How to Raise Boys Who Read") addressed a recent report from the Center on Education Policy where:

“…substantially more boys than girls score below the proficiency level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test….Everyone agrees that if boys don’t read well, it’s because they don’t read enough…[research found] Boys with video games at home spend more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially…"

Spence's remedy:
“…keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say almost absent).  Then fill our shelves with good books….[and not] books that exploit love of bodily functions and gross-out humor.

So WHAT DO WE AS PARENTS DO NOW if our sons don't read well? And what do we do if we aren't even home to enforce internet control?  Here are some suggestions:

  • No one is ever to old to be read to.

  •  If your son is falling behind in school, help him catch up (while encouraging him to read for fun on his own).  Read aloud the books he needs for school, or introduce him to the audio or video versions (if available).  Watch the video together, talk about it.  Talk about how the movie and book are different.  Make reading less daunting and more fun.
  • Make reading come alive.  Find places near you to visit that relate to the theme or time period of the book.  Talk about the content, use the internet together to find related clips, satire, pieces that make it more fun. 

  • Introduce/have access to fun books (with low "gross-out factors", solid vocabulary and varied sentence structures).  If he 'isn't into books' begin with graphic novels (ONLY for older kids 5th grade or older).  While there are some poor graphic novels with a great deal of sex and or violence, there are also some really good ones (two of which I list below).  Begin with these, read them together (independently), talk about them and then go to the library or book store to find books of related genres and topics.

  • If your child loves sports, find books about athletes, with their favorite sport in them.  Find high-interest books to begin with, then slowly introduce other genres.

  • Start a parent/son book club with his friends.

  • Read aloud whenever you can and depart the text.  Talk about the illustrations, the characters and their problems/issues and brainstorm possible resolutions.  Make the text meaningful on multiple levels.  (Please see my earlier blog entries: "Goodnight, Sweet Gems!" and "Departing the Text 101" for more details).

  • If you can enforce limited access to gameboy, nintendo, wii, the Internt, do so, allowing for occasional viewing and play when earned.  We did this in our home and I have never regretted it - but you have to make it work for you.

Some of my favorite classic books (please recommend yours in the comments):
Frindle by Andrew Clemens - about a 5th grade boy who tries to outmaneuver a teacher who wants to give homework by distracting her with the age-old question 'what makes a word a word?'

The Redwall series by Brian Jacques.  Action packed middle age adventure with woodland characters.

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (the first The Chronicles of Prydain series) about a boy, Taran, ward of a prophetic pig who becomes a reluctant hero fighting evil to save all he holds dear.

The Graveyard Book (or Stardust another favorite) by Neil Gaiman, a contemporary author for kids of all ages.  The Graveyard is an empowering book about a boy raised in the graveyard by a motly crew. 

Dragonwings by Laurence Yep (the first of two historical fiction books) takes place in San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century and is all about immigrants, the Great Earthquake, and flying.

Note three of the five books suggested belong to a series.  Read the first aloud.  Let it grab him with great characters, adventure and fun and he will begin reading them on his own, for fun.

My favorite graphic novels (please recommend yours in the comments):

Mouse Guard a series of graphic novels by David Petersen - about mice struggling to live and prosper among all of the world's harsh conditions and predators.  It is beautifully illustrated and the characters must cooperate and think creatively to ensure safety and success.

I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Nimura - is a gripping stoary of a young teenage girl battling monsters and giants, both real and imagined, and how she faces her greatest fear.

Mr. Spence's final reflection:  "...a boy raised on great literature is more likely to grow up to think, to speak, and to write like a civilized man...I offer a final piece of evidence that is perhaps unanswerable:  There is no literacy gap between home-schooled boys and girls.  How many of these families, do you suppose, have thrown grossology parties [based on the gross-out humor and literature of Goosebumps and Captain Underpants series]?"

I have taught language arts honors/enrichment courses for many years in grades 1-8, and am currently teaching a critical reading course for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.  When teaching in school, class membership was optional BUT the students had to be reading well above their grade level.  Interestingly,  in the lower school the girls had a slighter edge.  In the upper grades, however,  (above grade 5) there were consistently more boys in my class than girls.  Furthermore, in middle school I noticed a tendency for the girls to 'dumb down' because it was not cool to be smart.  Why is it that reading is so important but also so overlooked by our youth?  I don't think it is about restricting internet and games, I think it is about making reading come alive, making it more fun and making it more meaningful.  More about this in future blogs, just wanted to sow seeds for further thought.

What do you think?  What are your reading with your boys/girls?  Please leave comments.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Understanding Spelling Errors to Raise Better Writers

Commenting on my last entry, AlwaysMomof4 asked a question that merits more than a cursory response:

I have a 6th grade daughter who struggles with spelling. She does well on spelling tests and well in reading. When she is writing, particularly longer pieces she has many spelling errors where she spells phonetically instead of remembering the rules. Any suggestions? 

Writing's challenging is the simultaneous coordination and feedback between:
  • higher order cognitive systems - analyzing, brainstorming and/or creating content ideas;
  • sequencing systems organizing what to say so it makes most sense;
  • memory - remembering what they are supposed to be writing about and how to do this while remembering the words they want to use, along with proper tense, spelling and grammar;
  • attention - continuous monitoring making sure they are responding accurately, appropriately, and with correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation;
  • graphomotor coordination -coordinating muscle memory while entering the correct letters/words; and
  • language - recalling vocabulary and rules of grammar and syntax.

Spelling's challenge is having to learn and focus on graphic and language details while remembering letter sequences (their rules and their exceptions) and memorizing an infinite number of words and their correct spelling format, all while making sure they are written down correctly. 

Analyzing spelling errors provides a window into your child's language, memory, attention, sequencing and cognitive skills.

What to look for in your child's spelling errors:
  • Phonetic accuracy.  Words that sound 'right' but are misspelled show that your child can distinguish between letter sounds and  knows the component sounds of the word she is trying to write.  She just either didn't notice the error or  could not recall the correct spelling.   These types of errors often arise because of overloads or weaknesses in attention or memory - which are understandable given the incredible demands writing places on the brain.
  • Letter sequencing.  Are letters reversed or a bit jumbled?  If so, your child may have trouble remembering or attending to sequences. 
  • Handwriting.   Is it getting sloppier as he or she writes?  IF so, her hands may be tiring.  Check the grip ((where and how tightly the pencil is held) and  how heavily she presses down.  If her grip is too tight, too light, too heavy, this could tire her and drain attention.
  • Inconsistent, random errors. Your child could also have trouble focusing on small details.  If this is the case, have her slow down when she works.  Also, point out details and how they are so important when following instructions or directions. The focusing on details, however, should be done during edits and not necessarily on the first draft.  [On the first draft, focus should be on generating and sequencing ideas.]

  1. Leave enough time between assignment and due date to write in stages.   FIRST - make sure your child gets her ideas down on paper in some informal outline or draft.  SECOND - review the outline/notes/draft making sure it responds to the writing prompt.  THIRD - make sure what's written is presented in an organized, flowing manner.  FOURTH - check spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation.  You may also want to reread it a final time just 'to make sure' you got everything.
  2. Edit.  Depending on your child's ability to attend to detail and multiple facets at a time, this may have to be done in stages, much like those described in the item above.  The first edit may be to simply focus on the flow of the paper.  The next on spelling and or grammar.
  3. To strengthen sequencing skills:  help your child focus on patterns and sequences around her.  Help her recognize the beginning, middle or end of a story; sing songs with multiple verses; have your child teach you or a sibling how to tie a shoe, cook a favorite dish, follow a familiar recipe.

Making Editing More Fun:
I am still working on this.  Part of the problem is that editing requires attending to detail.  Those of us who prefer the forest from the trees find this hard to do.  In my experience, the key is using reinforcements, prompts, and turning editing into a habit not a chore.  Point out and reinforce better grades and better teacher comments and reinforce their editing more frequently (maybe prepare a favorite dinner or dessert because they worked so hard, or allow them an extra half hour of television/computer/game time).  Some parents make charts of progress (in terms of frequency of editing or in writing/spelling grades).  Praise goes a long way!

A final note on spelling tests vs. spelling in writing:
As Alwaysmomof4 writes, there is a difference between our kids' spelling test scores and their applying their spelling prowess in their writing.  Spelling tests simply demand remembering the spelling patterns and attending to the task, making sure they produced the right result.  Writing demands much more.  Keep reinforcing studying and memorizing spelling because it will free the mind to focus on other aspects of writing, and keep that editing alive!

Hopefully this helps.  Let me know what works for you and what issues your child faces when writing or editing.  Also, please let me know if you want more detail on writing, outlining, or editing.