A while back, a colleague recounted to me the following story: On the train to school one morning she found herself sitting next to a fellow teacher, one who taught AP® Government. They chatted about their classes and upcoming exams, and at one point her colleague began lamenting the fact that he was forced to make students learn facts like, say, the number of members in the House of Representatives. As he explained, his former students wrote to him with great enthusiasm about the political science courses they were taking in college. Why, he wondered, couldn’t he teach a course that generated that kind of excitement in students? Why couldn’t he just skip to the good stuff and focus on “real learning”?
I can’t say I was surprised by their conversation: I’m perfectly familiar with the trope of the teacher who proudly proclaims that it doesn’t matter whether students remember whatthey learned in his class—what really counts is the love of the subject and perhaps the habits of mind they acquired, not all those pesky little facts. But the incident stuck in my mind, and it also prompted me to finally try to put down some things that I’ve been trying to find a way to convey in less than a book-length post for a very, very long time now.
When I first discovered E.D. Hirsch’s work back about seven or eight years ago, I was already well acquainted with the deep-seated anti-intellectualism that runs through American society, but I did not fully grasp the extent to which facts themselves were maligned within the educational system. (more…)
Update, 11/20: I realized after I posted this piece that the problem I discuss in this post—namely, that most people don’t know what the three-cueing system is—ironically made the piece hard to follow. So if you’re unfamiliar with three-cueing and want the full background, see this post first.
If you want the short version, it’s this: basically, the three-cueing system is derived from the observation that skilled use a variety of “clues,” including spelling, syntax, background knowledge, to draw meaning from texts. Over time, that idea became profoundly distorted into the notion that children should be discouraged from using all the letters in a word to determine what it literally says, and should instead look at only the first/last letters, along with other contextual clues—usually pictures—to identify it. I’m simplifying here, but that’s the gist.
A couple of weeks ago, a colleague of mine attended a mandatory development workshop for AP French teachers. During a discussion of the previous year’s main essay, she learned that the average score had been exceptionally low—a 1, in fact—because so many students had confused the main verb in the prompt, s’habiller (to get dressed), with habiter (to live in or inhabit).
Now, the s’ at the beginning of the former signals a reflexive verb (in French, one literally dresses oneself), whereas habiter can never be reflexive—from a logical perspective, one cannot live in oneself, and so this construction makes no sense. (Note to anyone new to this blog: I have a college degree in French and started out tutoring that language; the English thing happened more or less by accident.)
Nevertheless, an enormous number of French AP exam-takers failed to notice either these very important linguistic clues (despite the fact that students at this level should theoretically be able to recognize reflexive constructions easily) or their commonsense implications.
Beyond that, s’habiller and habiter are such incredibly common verbs that that a student sitting for the AP exam should obviously know the difference between them.
So why did so many students mix them up? (more…)
Lest anyone should have read my last few posts and concluded that my depiction of the state of American reading instruction was exaggerated in some way, I direct you to the video below. If you’ve ever wondered why so many children struggle, this pretty much says it all; you basically get to watch reading problems being created in real time.
Notice that a couple of times, children attempt to use the letters sound out words, but the teacher reminds them to focus on the pictures instead. The clear message is that sounding out words is a strategy to be avoided.
The only times she acknowledges that letters have something to do with how the words are said is when she tells children to look at the first and last letters in conjunction with the pictures; the fact that the sounds in the middle of a word also play a role in how it is said is not mentioned, ever. (more…)
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It can now be found at: https://www.breakingthecode.com/whole-language-is-rote-memorization/
Of all the difficulties involved in tutoring SAT reading, the one that perplexed me the most was the inordinate difficulty certain students seemed to have in grasping the notion that the answers to the questions were *in the passage,* as opposed to in their head or somewhere on the other side of the room. As I wrote about in a fit of irritation many years ago, not long after I started this blog, it literally did not seem to occur to them to look back at the text, and I could not figure out how to get them to do otherwise.
That many tutoring programs treated the location of the answers as some kind of amazing secret baffled me even more. Where other than in the passage would the answer be? How was it possible that so many students seemed to struggle not just with understanding what various texts said, but with the idea that answers to reading questions were based on the specific words they contained? How could such absolutely fundamental notions of reading be so lacking that they could actually be packaged as tricks? (more…)