Literacy, Poverty and Curriculum

Needless to say, the vaunted education ‘reform’ movement has very little to contribute here. I’ve hammered repeatedly the idea that mathematical illiteracy, such as the inability to do simple algebra, stems from arithmetic incompetence. We have to teach students foundations, and the lack of the foundations is often the source of academic failure. Not only does this apply to mathematical literacy, but to literacy itself (‘literacy literacy’? Heh). Peg Tyre explains (boldface mine):

Maybe the struggling students just couldn’t read, suggested one teacher. A few teachers administered informal diagnostic tests the following week and reported back. The students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences. A history teacher got more granular. He pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed. What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

The exploration continued. One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

A lightbulb, says Simmons, went on in her head. These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn’t understand that the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”

Some teachers wanted to know how this could happen. “We spent a lot of time wondering how our students had been taught,” said English teacher Stevie D’Arbanville. “How could they get passed along and end up in high school without understanding how to use the word although?

Answer–curriculum (boldface mine):

But the truth is, the problems affecting New Dorp students are common to a large subset of students nationally. Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

The catch method works for some kids, to a point. “Research tells us some students catch quite a bit, but not everything,” Graham says. And some kids don’t catch much at all. Kids who come from poverty, who had weak early instruction, or who have learning difficulties, he explains, “can’t catch anywhere near what they need” to write an essay. For most of the 1990s, elementary- and middle-­school children kept journals in which they wrote personal narratives, poetry, and memoirs and engaged in “peer editing,” without much attention to formal composition. Middle- and high-school teachers were supposed to provide the expository- and persuasive-writing instruction.

Then, in 2001, came No Child Left Behind. The program’s federally mandated tests assess two subjects—math and reading—and the familiar adage “What gets tested gets taught” has turned out to be true. Literacy, which once consisted of the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and express complex thoughts about the written word, has become synonymous with reading. Formal writing instruction has become even more of an after­thought.

Teacher surveys conducted by Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany (part of the State University of New York system), found that even when writing instruction is offered, the teacher mostly does the composing and students fill in the blanks. “Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,” says Applebee, “has become increasingly rare.”

I want to return to poverty in a bit, but there’s a general point, applicable to all students. Teachers do not set curricula: principals and central administrators do. Any teacher who breaks out on her own, and winds up performing poorly (not an unlikely outcome given the year-to-year variability in student outcomes) is putting her job (and rent or mortgage) at risk. Yet most reformers view poor performance as a teacher problem. This is insane.

The other issue is poverty. Poverty means that a student is far less likely to acquire proper writing skills (and reading skills too). That makes classroom education all the more important. Educators (note that I didn’t use teachers) need to realize that some students are going to need very direct writing instruction, as Tyre describes (boldface mine):

By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject. So in chemistry class in the winter of 2010, Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although.

Although … “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.”

Unless … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.”

If … This was a hard one. Finally, she figured out a way to finish the sentence. If … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they lose their original properties of being explosive and supporting combustion.”

As her understanding of the parts of speech grew, Monica’s reading comprehension improved dramatically. “Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,” she says. “The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”

It’s worth noting that Brockton, MA has had success with similar programs. This approach does have problems. First, many students won’t need this sort of direction and will find it boring. That means you have to identify which students need this sort of curriculum (and intervene much earlier than high school). That’s expensive. Training teachers in ‘traditional’ methods and these direct methods is expensive. Every year, the number of students needing these different curricula will change. Purchasing enough teaching materials (i.e., having extra to account for additional demand) is expensive. You might have to do something about funding inequalities.

Second, it’s not a panacea. In this study, as well as in Brockton, scores increased, but there are still problems. As I’ve noted many times, poverty itself makes learning hard. Students need more resources, even as they typically receive relatively fewer. Nonetheless, curriculum matters.

Although it’s a lot cheaper to flagellate teachers. So there’s that approach too, I guess.

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1 Response to Literacy, Poverty and Curriculum

  1. Jim Thomerson says:

    Two stories. My mother taught one room country school for many years. When in her 80s she was asked by the local school to help several students who could not learn to read. Sometime later, I asked her if they had learned to read. She replied, “Of course.”

    I had a minority student in biology class at my university. He seemed bright, but his first test was mostly incomprehensible. I wrote See Me, and he did. I sent him over to testing and evaluation. He was reading at the fourth grade level. He got into a program and persisted. A couple of years later he told me he was up to 12th grade level and was going to continue for a while. He also told me he had been two years in a junior college, and had my class the second year at the university. I was the first person to tell him he had a problem. He was appreciative and grateful. One has to wonder why he was not noticed and helped earlier.

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