Whole language and the art of “making meaning”

Whole language and the art of “making meaning”

I found myself stuck at home sick today, and unable to do pretty much anything other than lie flat on my back on the couch, I inevitably ended up trawling the internet and somehow found myself on Retrospective Miscue, a blog run by various members of the whole language community (including Yetta Goodman, wife/collaborator of Ken Goodman, the founder of whole language and one of the figures discussed in the article by Marilyn Jäger Adams I posted about recently.)

As I read through the posts, I couldn’t help but notice what seemed like a rather idiosyncratic connotation of the term “making meaning,” and it occurred to me that what scientists and, well, most educated adults understand by it is fundamentally different from what the whole-language crowd—or a certain segment thereof—mean. The two groups are not simply having a theoretical debate; they’re living in two separate universes, one of which is based in reality and the other of which is not. (more…)

The LaGuardia protests and the privatization of the public school curriculum

The LaGuardia protests and the privatization of the public school curriculum

If you live in the New York City area, you might have heard about the recent student protests against cuts to the arts programs at LaGuardia High School (aka the “Fame” school).

I don’t normally focus on local news, but in this case, I think the real story is much larger than what’s getting reported; in fact, I think that it’s getting overlooked entirely. I happen to have some insider knowledge of the school (colleagues, former students), and although it’s unique in many regards, some of the changes it’s undergone are actually reflective of a much larger trend involving the creeping privatization of public education.

In case you haven’t been following the events, here are the basics:

LaGuardia is one of NYC’s elite public specialized schools, offering both strong academics and pre-conservatory-level training in fine arts, music, drama, and dance. Unlike the other specialized high schools (e.g., Stuyvesant and Bronx Science), to which admission is based solely on SHSAT scores, LaGuardia selects students via a combination of auditions/portfolios and academic achievement (the SHSAT is not required).

Since Dr. Lisa Mars became principal in 2013, there has been a substantial push to increase the focus on academics, and a corresponding decrease in the school’s traditional focus on the arts. Rehearsal time for the musical, for example, has been cut in half since 2017, and studio teachers are claiming that students who would have been accepted in previous years, based on the strength of their auditions, are now being denied because their academic credentials fall short.

Unsurprisingly, this state of affairs has generated a good deal of backlash from both students and parents, who are calling for Dr. Mars’s ouster. As the headline of a NY Times article put it, “Should algebra really matter [at LaGuardia]?”

But in fact, the question is posed in a misleading way here; framing the issue in terms of aspiring artistes forced to learn pointless, boring, soul-destroying horrors like algebra plays nicely into the narrative of schools sacrificing student creativity on the altar of achievement. That makes for a good headline, but it also misses the bigger picture.

To be fair, the insistence that all students achieve at an advanced academic level is in fact unreasonable at a place like LaGuardia, but there’s another, larger dimension to the issue: the real question isn’t whether students who have no interest in pursuing STEM careers should be required to take basic algebra (it is high school, after all)—the question is whether such students should be pushed to take calculus. AP calculus, that is, emphasis on the AP part. Not, in this case, because the class is excessively rigorous for an aspiring painter, but rather because it’s a product of the College Board.

And I do mean *product* in the most literal sense, as in something that gets bought and sold.

Over the last decade or so, the curricular structure at LaGuardia has undergone a type of shift that’s become increasingly common. In the past, students who were headed for college but who were not academic superstars had the option of enrolling in honors classes if they didn’t feel they were quite up to the challenge of college-level work. Now, however, many such classes have been eliminated; for the college-bound, APs are the essentially only option since the non-AP alternatives are taught at a much, much lower level. So even if students don’t want to be taking a lot of APs, they really have no choice. (When I hear reports of students piling up ridiculous numbers of AP classes, I often wonder what other options are available to them.)

The result is that students are more likely to end up in advanced classes when they don’t have a solid foundation, and then find themselves in way over their heads academically—something I repeatedly saw in the LaGuardia students I tutored (only a couple of whom, incidentally, intended to pursue careers in the arts). Working with them was often frustrating for me because most of them genuinely liked French and wanted to do well, but the best I could do was to patch things up around the edges; I couldn’t offer them the kind of grounding in the subject they really needed.

The question, then, is why high schools are so eager to promote AP classes at the expense of internally developed alternatives.

I think there are a few reasons: first, in the current data-driven environment, AP participation provides an easily obtainable metric that can be used to improve rankings. In contrast, honors classes offer no possibility of adding to a centralized store of data.

Notably, schools are rarely judged on actual student performance on AP exams; rather, the focus is almost invariably on participation. Because the College Board collects the exam fee regardless of how students perform, the push is simply to sign up as many students as possible, regardless of whether they have the necessary background to do well. Indeed, between 1999 and 2018, AP participation ballooned from about 700,000 students at just under 13,000 schools to nearly 3,000,000 at around 22,600 schools.

In service of that goal, the College Board has done an exceptional job of promoting the narrative that taking an AP class is in itself 1) a worthwhile experience, regardless of how a student actually does; and 2) that the AP program effectively has a monopoly on rigor—by definition, a class without the AP label cannot be as rigorous or prepare students for—everyone’s favorite buzzword, c’mon say it with me—college and career readiness.

As one article notes, Laguardia’s “college readiness” score—a metric that the school has been under pressure from the DOE to improve—has risen from 89% to 98% since 2015. That’s a remarkably high jump in a very short period, and given that the composition of the student body has not changed dramatically in that time period, it is hard to imagine that those numbers correspond to an actual increase in student achievement (particularly when I’ve heard from teachers there that students can no longer handle the level of work that they routinely assigned just a few years ago).

Much fuss has been made about school privatization in the form of charters (despite the rhetorical trick of referring to them “public charter schools,” they are only public in the sense that they receive tax dollars) and voucher programs, but far less attention has been paid to the creeping privatization of public school curricula.

In fact, the systematic replacement of teacher-designed honors-level classes with pay-to-play College-Board- (or, to a lesser extent, IB-) designed AP classes is creating a hybrid system in which a school itself may be public but the classes are increasingly a product of the private sector—and the final exam comes at a price. Yes, there are fee waivers, but what about students above the cutoff line, for whom $94/exam represents a real sacrifice? Give that a $500 emergency would put most Americans in debt, that’s probably a significant percentage of the high-school population.

The College Board’s recent imposition of a $40 penalty for late registration and/or canceled exams will only exacerbate the problem. Regardless of whether the CB’s new rule requiring students to sign up for AP exams in the fall does in fact result in more students sitting for the tests, it is not hard to see how this could unlevel the play field even further: for a wealthy student, the forfeiture fee amounts to crumbs—essentially, the exam is just as optional for a student whose family earns $250,000 as it was before. For a poorer student who misses the exam, however, that’s not an insignificant amount of money for a family to lose.

If the CB were actually serious about leveling the playing field, they would, at the very least, find ways to bring costs down rather than increase them. It requires quite a feat of doublethink to accept that the College Board is doing students a favor by adding on charges.

This issue has provoked some outcry, but I also think that the extent to which the AP program has taken over the college-prep curriculum at some high schools has flown largely under the radar—backlash only emerged at LaGuardia because the school has such a focused, arts-driven mission, and for that reason the systemic aspect of the problem has been missed.

I also have the impression that when the College Board comes under fire, it generally does so for the SAT since that’s the exam most people still associate with the organization. And whereas the SAT is inevitably a source of controversy, the AP program is somewhat less tainted in the public mind—first, because the tests have always been clearly aligned with specific subjects rather than some fuzzy notion of “aptitude”; and second, because with the cost of college so high, the prospect of using AP exams to earn credits and save on tuition dollars is so enticing. In that context, $94 seems like a steal.

Moreover, since college admissions has become so competitive—in no small part because of grade and score inflation—students are under intense pressure to distinguish themselves academically. For many of them, signing up for large numbers of AP classes is the obvious solution. And again, AP has become synonymous with rigor; for many students aiming for top schools, not piling on AP classes would be unthinkable. Given that context, any sort of meaningful pushback against the program is unlikely at any but a handful of elite (mostly private) high schools that are already so well known to admissions officers at top colleges that their (non-)participation in the AP program is effectively moot. Elsewhere, it’s the College Board that drives the narrative and, increasingly, sets the terms and the consequences.

“Sight words” are not just “little words”

“Sight words” are not just “little words”

Dipping my toe gingerly into the “whole language vs. phonics” debate again. I was scrolling through my Instagram feed the other day when I came across an image that made me stop and do a double take (and not in a good way):

Now, I’m admittedly not an expert in reading pedagogy for young children, but even I can tell that there’s something wrong with this picture.

It seems obvious that is should be treated as a sight word because, well, it’s one of the most common words in the entire language and because it follows a semi-irregular phonetic pattern that most beginning readers won’t have mastered.

Had is a different story altogether. Yes, it’s short, and yes, it’s super common, but the differences end there. There are a lot of words that end in -ad and that follow the exact same phonetic pattern:


To name just a handful.

If teachers are actually requiring students to memorize had without ensuring that they master its component sounds, they are passing up an opportunity to help children identify scads (!) of common words—on their own, even without obvious context clues.

To me that just seems like common sense.

Now, to be fair, in a blog post for Scholastic, veteran kindergarten teacher Brian K. Smith makes the point that a teacher might choose to initially treat certain more complex phonetically regular words as sight words in order to help students read slightly more challenging texts. He advises, however, that teachers make clear to students when they are doing so, and why, because otherwise:

Telling students they simply need to memorize these words can create misconceptions and mistrust. For students who struggle with reading, these misconceptions can create even more misunderstanding of the code that words follow.

That strikes me as an entirely reasonable approach, one that an experienced teacher can adapt to the particulars of the students involved. But that is a best-case scenario, managed by someone who knows how to look at the whole picture and head off problems before they begin. Suffice it to say that an increasingly small number of teachers have the expertise for this kind of global thinking.

Moreover, in this case the logic doesn’t hold up: had is far too simple to get treated as a sight word for the sake of pushing students ahead. Furthermore, -ad is a such a high-frequency ending that children probably aren’t at the point where they can really read books independently at all until they know it.

I actually wonder if there’s a sort of categorization problem going on here with teachers, similar to something I used to observe in my ACT students.

Let me explain: one of the most commonly tested errors on the ACT involves the incorrect placement of a comma before a preposition. In order to identify this error securely—as opposed to just thinking “that sounds weird” or “you don’t need to pause there”—it is of course necessary to know what a preposition is.

I didn’t learn much grammar in elementary school, but one of the few things I did learn was what prepositions were: “location” or “time” words. To figure out whether a word was a preposition, we were encouraged to place it before the tree, e.g., in the treeon the tree, around the tree, etc. Using that little trick, I was able to form an abstract category called “prepositions” and easily determine whether new words fit into it, without ever having to memorize long lists of words individually.

When I started tutoring, however, I quickly discovered that many of my students (though not all) had an inordinate amount of difficulty with that task: they did not seem able to form a general category for prepositions. As a result, I was forced to spend ridiculous amount of time drilling them on individual prepositions.

I really disliked doing this, and it struck me as a hideously inefficient way to teach, but because they could not reliably apply a big-picture, conceptual understanding of prepositions to terms we hadn’t explicitly discussed, or had discussed in another context, it was the only way I could get them to correctly answer questions involving commas and prepositions. (Luckily, most such questions involved only 10-12 or so common examples. But still.)

The difficulty, from what I could eventually gather, lay in the length of the words. Prepositions were usually short, but then again, so were other kinds of words, like, say, conjunctions. You could say to the tree, but you could also say and the tree. So why wasn’t and a preposition? To make matters worse, some prepositions also doubled as conjunctions. Trying to recall an abstract categorization like “position” when differentiating between to and and was too much of a strain on their working memories, given how many other new concepts they were also trying to digest.

Essentially, they had difficulty distinguishing between appearance and function.

I suspect that something roughly comparable may be going on with teachers and sight words.

One website I looked at pointed out, for example, that “oftentimes the terms sight words and high-frequency words are used interchangeably.”

If that’s in fact the case—and I’m going to assume it is—then there’s a real conceptual muddle being promoted. Essentially, “short and common” is being confused with “phonetically irregular.” But those are two completely different things.

In any case, if new teachers are writing in to random education websites asking what sight words are, then it’s fair to assume that there’s a lot of really, really poor training going on. (Balanced Literacy in practice, not theory.) And if teachers are selling/buying sight-word worksheets with had on Teachers Pay Teachers, that’s a very concerning sign. Curious about this, I checked with Richard McManus of The Fluency Factory, and he confirmed that yes, things are actually are that bad.

One of the things I eventually learned to do as a tutor was to focus on concepts that could be transferred to the greatest number of other questions, and to more or less ignore those that applied only to the particular question at hand.

For example, I spent a huge amount of time going over questions that tested things like subject-verb and pronoun agreement (concepts that, once mastered, could be used to answer many new questions) and almost no time on questions that tested things like idioms (you either know them or you don’t, and there’s no way to transfer the knowledge).

I would also regularly ask students to explain to me how else a question might have been asked, the point being that could be tested in many possible ways and that they were responsible for understanding the underlying ideas well enough to apply them regardless.

When I trained tutors, however, I almost invariably noticed that they had a tendency to get caught up (over-)explaining questions with very low general applicability. The result was that they wasted a lot of time on material that could not be transferred to other situations, or explained answers in ways that did not emphasize their applicability to other questions. The entire discussion remained focus only on the particular question at hand.

I confess that watching this drove me positively up the wall.

It would not surprise me in the least if novice kindergarten/first-grade teachers—and probably some more experienced ones as well—were falling into a similar trap. They’re looking at individual common words but not thinking about what else students can get out of learning them.

So, words that are short and common may be phonetically irregular, like one or door were, but they may also be perfectly regular, like sad or mad. However, it may not even occur to an inexperienced teacher that the question when determining what should count as a sight word should not be, “Is this word short and common”? but rather, “Will learning this word help students learn lots of other words”? (Or, more simply, “Is this word phonetically regular with lots of rhymes”?) They may not even realize that the question needs to be asked.

And if they don’t, children are essentially being asked to treat phonetically regular words—easily decodable words—the way my former students treated prepositions: as discrete, isolated units, disconnected from the larger universe of sounds and words.

What exactly is Summit Learning? (And why can’t billionaires pay for their own materials?)

A couple of days ago (4/21/19), the New York Times ran an article about a Kansas community’s rebellion against the Summit Learning platform, a controversial ed-tech initiative funded in large part by the Chan-Zuckerberg foundation.

Normally, I try to hold myself at as much of a distance as possible from the ed-tech world, but in this case, I seem to have acquired an inadvertent stake in things: last school year, while looking at my analytics (see, I’m data-driven!), I suddenly noticed that I was receiving regular traffic from summit.org and that, moreover, the number of daily referrals from that site corresponded almost exactly to the number of hits on my “how to use a dash” post.

Obviously, a link to the piece had been incorporated into the Summit platform.

When I first discovered this, my curiosity was piqued, and so I spent some time on the main Summit website trying to figure out where my blog was linked to. (Is it just me, or is the ransom-note motif not positively creepy?) Predictably, aside from a handful of vague, weak sample lessons that could be downloaded, I was unable to access anything more substantive. Still, I assumed that more real lessons—even really poorly constructed ones—had to exist…right? At that point, I didn’t really have the time or the inclination to investigate further.

Then, as I was reading the Times article, I came across this:


The dyslexia distraction

The dyslexia distraction

In discussions about reading instruction, a commonly raised point is that students with reading disabilities—particularly dyslexia—suffer disproportionately when deprived of systematic instruction in phonics. In fact, this is virtually impossible to dispute—whereas many students in whole language classrooms do manage to figure out enough of the rules to become reasonably proficient readers, students who cannot make sense out of word/sound relationships have no way of keeping up. And if their difficulties are not noticed in time, or they lack access to competent reading specialists, either through their schools or privately, the consequences can indeed be extremely dire. (The percent of prison inmates with reading disabilities is, for example, astronomical.)

I’m saying this upfront because I do not want in any way to minimize the difficulties faced by these students and their parents. But what I’m interested in examining here is how some of the rhetoric surrounding reading pedagogy operates—how concepts like “normal” and “abnormal” are defined and how, in some cases, the recognition of the importance of phonics for students with reading disabilities like dyslexia can become a tool for reinforcing naturalistic ideas about reading. (more…)

Statement on ed-tech

Statement on ed-tech

I’ve been stunned by the reaction my previous post, “Unbalanced Literacy,” has generated (a couple of people have informed that I’m all over Twitter, a platform from which I remain willfully absent—let’s just say that pithy isn’t really my thing); had I known that the debate over phonics was still capable of generating such passion, I would have written something about it a long time ago! The piece took me hours and hours to write, and I’m gratified that it’s gotten such a great response.

That said, in light of some of the queries/interview requests I’ve received, I’d like to follow up on one of the points I made in the original piece, namely the fact that some teachers are suspicious of the push for increased phonics because they believe it represents an attempt by the ed-tech industry to exploit students for financial gain—essentially, that phonics will be marketed as the One Great Solution to magically boost reading scores, and that it will be used as an excuse to create all sorts of highly profitable apps and programs that can be marketed to school districts. (more…)