Is Penmanship Obsolete?

Is it still worth the time for children to learn cursive handwriting in this day of computers? What do you think?

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Remember learning to print when you were very young, and later switching to cursive writing, which also had to be learned? Many of us were raised before children had access to keyboards and we learned to use typewriters when we got to high school unless we didn’t want to. So our entire elementary school success depended on our ability to write with pen or pencil on paper. Even in college, we used composition books for tests. 

Today things have really changed. Some schools believe cursive writing is obsolete and no longer worth teaching in the schools.  Has Handwriting Become Extinct? explains some of the reasons that it’s still worthwhile to learn this skill.  Handwriting seems to be especially valuable in helping us organize our thinking and in helping those who are beginning to suffer from memory loss. Seemingly writing our lists and notes by hand imprints them more firmly in our minds.

What do you think? Is handwriting obsolete or not?

 

 

The River as an Educational Resource

There’s a lot of science to be discovered around a river in winter, even if it’s half dry. Check the tree branches and trunks for mosses and lichens and even buds. Explore large rocks near the river for life, and if part of the riverbed is dry, check for interesting rocks and notes their differences and learn how they were formed. A science teacher with a camera can produce a lot of her own visual aids on one river walk.

Whether you are a home educator or a classroom teacher, if you have a river nearby, you have a wonderful educational resource. I live near the Salinas River and often hike the Salinas River Trail in Larry Moore Park in Paso Robles. It normally has water only a few months of the year, and only if there’s a normal amount of rain. Most of the year the Salinas River is subterranean. You don’t see the water. The river normally appears during winter, and I usually start searching for water around January. This year, though, we had our heavy rains start earlier than usual. So I went out in search of the river today, December 28, 2012. I found it.

Water in Salinas River
Water in Salinas River flowing north toward Niblick Bridge, Paso Robles

I followed the river bed for some distance, since I always get excited about what I see. Today it struck me how much science there is to investigate in the river and the riverbed.

Is there a story under this willow?
Is there a story under this willow?

As I walked along the edge of the river, I saw these small clumps of willows everywhere. Those closest to the west channel, which always stays full of water the longest, seemed to live on top of brush piles. Let’s take a closer look at one of these. Do you think a child might wonder how all this material happened to be under this willow? Might one try identifying different types of trees from what’s in these piles? What might one learn about a river by observing this small tree?

What's under this willow?
What’s under this willow?

Although the overall impression as one walks along the river in late December is colorless brown and tan branches and dead leaves, some plants show they are very much alive, or host things that are. On the ground beneath are new weed seedlings. There are red buds on some of the twigs. Moss and lichens also add color. Children turned loose with a hand-held microscope would have fun discovering this variety of mosses and lichens of different colors and identifying the new weed seedlings.

Winter Color in the Branches
Do you see all the colors here?

Children would also be fascinated at all they can see growing on a rock.

What grows on a rock in winter?
What grows on a rock in winter?

Not all growing on this rock is moss or lichen. We also see green seedlings. They need soil. How did soil get on this rock? How about the weed seeds? Is soil created on the rock itself? Or does it all blow into crevices? And why does the rock itself look the way it does? How was it created? There is geology as well as life science to be learned. All these questions can be answered through research and observation. As a teacher, you can inspire the curiosity that will make students want to solve the mysteries.

If you aren’t in a position to take your students on a field trip, you can at least make the trip to the river yourself with a camera. Take the pictures that will arouse interest in what you want students to learn. And don’t forget the videos. Watch the river’s current. Study the rocks in the riverbed to try to understand how they became what they are. You can even collect a few rocks to bring into the classroom. Here are some specimens I found.

Egg-Shaped Rock
Egg-Shaped Rock and Some Other River Rocks
Interesting River Rocks and Milk Thistle Seedlings
Interesting River Rocks and Milk Thistle Seedlings

National Constitution Week is September 17-23

Is your school in compliance with Public Law 108-447, which requires any school which receives federal funding of any kind to have an educational program teach the Constitution during National Constitution Week, September 17-23? Here are some suggestions for easy compliance.

We the People: Exploring the U.S. Constitution
We the People: Exploring the U.S. Constitution

In 2004 Public Law 108-447 came into being requiring each school that receives Federal Funding in the United States to hold a special program on the Constitution on September 17. This year this it happens to be a Saturday, but you can pick any day between September 17 and September 23, which is designated as National Constitution Week. Has your school decided how to implement this program yet? 

If you’d like a quick and easy solution that will fulfill the requirements, I have a suggestion. The National Center for Constitutional Studies has produced a curriculum for National Constitution Week  that complies with the law’s requirement. Its main component is the DVD, A More Perfect Union – America Becomes a Nation, a two-hour movie which brings the Constitutional Convention to life. I saw it myself, and it was easy to follow the issues and controversies that were part of the process of putting the Constitution together.  After seeing this movie, the Constitution will no longer be a “dead” document, but the result of men trying to lay the best possible foundation for the United States of America. Your students will learn how and why the Constitution was written.

The entire curriculum package includes a teacher guide , posters of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the DVD of the movie, and an individual pocket-sized copy of the Constitution. For a limited time, schools can order this entire package for only $19.95 plus shipping . It’s an opportunity your school should take advantage of , especially if you don’t have a curriculum for National Constitution Week in place yet. 

If you would like to go into more detail on the history, founders, and issues of the Constitution, click on the picture of the We the People book above, which is found at Barb’s Teaching help, my e-commerce website. It also contains vocabulary activities, a series of critical and creative thinking activities, and a list of additional resources.

Be aware that the local chapters of the Tea Party Patriots will be monitoring schools, as part of their “Adopt a School” program,  to see if they are going to comply with the law. They might be contacting your school district to see what you are planning to do. They also might be letting the media know if you are in compliance or not, since they are very interested in citizens being educated about the Constitution.

If you aren’t in school any more or connected to a school, but still want to see this movie, the DVD alone is currently on sale (as I write this) for only $9.95 at the web site linked to above. I saw the movie with a group of my neighbors in a home, and that’s a very good setting, as it allows friends and neighbors to discuss it informally afterwards. Enjoy!

Oral Comprehension Lays the Foundation for Reading Comprehension

If we are trying to improve a child’s reading comprehension, we need to start with oral comprehension, and we should begin this when the child is still just learning to use language. This means parents need to be involved. They are their children’s first teachers, and they lay the foundation for all future learning.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If a child can’t comprehend spoken language, he’s not likely to understand what he reads, either. We all learn to use spoken language before we learn to read. Almost any parent or teacher has those moments when they are quite sure a child has not understood a word they said, though they also might believe the children did not want to understand and didn’t really listen.

It still follows, though, that if we are trying to improve a child’s reading comprehension, we need to start with oral comprehension, and we should begin this when the child is still just learning to use language. This means parents need to be involved. They are their children’s first teachers, and they lay the foundation for all future learning. One of the first things they teach children is how to talk.

I know few parents who have taken an educational methods course in teaching children to talk. They are able, instead, to zero in on the child’s own desire to interact with them. If the parents talk, the child  will want to talk. If the child wants something, he has to learn the words that will communicate his needs. He also begins to learn what the parent expects of him, and even the meaning of the word “No!” The parents will teach the names of the objects and living beings in the children’s world and some basic concepts such as over, under, through, run, push, and all the rest. By the time the child reaches kindergarten, he’s supposed to have that basic grasp of language.  He will, if the parents have spent enough time interacting with him.

However, many parents are too busy and too tired at the end of a day to meet all the child’s interaction needs. Many children live with a single parent who also works outside the home. At the end of a day, the temptation is to put the child in front of the television or a video game rather than interacting with him. Thus the child has no need to to actively use his brain to understand, but can sit passively and absorb or, in the case of the video game, develop hand/eye coordination, but not improve communication skills.

What’s the solution? Reading enjoyable stories to the child for twenty minutes each night, maybe just before bed, can be a big help. The parent can go to the public library once every couple of weeks and check out books that look not only appropriate for the child’s age and interests, but that also look like they would be fun for the parent to read. Keep these books so the child has access to them at certain times of the day, and then let him pick one of them for you to read to him. There are some good suggestions in this previous post: Choosing the Best Children’s Books, Part 1. Another previous post, When You Read Aloud, Ham it Up, might also inspire you — especially if’s there’s a bit of the actor or actress in you.

We found that our own children looked forward to story time, and when we read stories to them during summer vacation, they would often round up their friends to join in. As we discussed the stories, it was easy to talk about the meanings of words they might not know, ask what they thought might happen next, ask why they thought a character behaved as he did, and so on.

Little Red Hen by Paul Galdone
Little Red Hen by Paul Galdone

Let’s  take some examples from a story you may remember from your own childhood : The Little Red Hen.

As you sit with the book in your lap and your child next to you, begin the story. The  process of making bread as it’s described here may be entirely new for your child, so you can talk about what the hen is doing and why. Here are some questions that would be perfectly natural:

  • What is the hen doing with the wheat? Why?
  • What other jobs does the hen need to do to make the bread?
  • What does the hen ask the other animals to do?
  • Do they want to help her do any of  the jobs?
  • Why do you think they don’t want to help her?
  • When the bread is ready to eat, do they want to help her eat it?
  • Does she let them? Should she have shared? Why or why not?

These questions will not only help you make sure the child is understanding the facts in the story — what’s happening, but also will let you know what the child is thinking about the story line itself. Does the child think the hen should have shared? Did the child think it wasn’t fair for the hen not to share? Does he see the point that the animals didn’t want to help with the work, but thought they were entitled to the result of the work whether they had helped or not? This involves higher thinking skills than just knowing what happened.

Almost any folk tale lends itself to a good discussion as you read it aloud. If you have a discussion like this several times a week when you read a story together, your child will naturally learn the comprehension skills they will later try to teach in school : main idea, figurative language, context clues, reading for detail, inference, cause and effect, drawing conclusions, fact or opinion, logic and reasoning, and predicting outcomes. If he can figure out the main idea orally, it will be easier to find it in a passage he reads in school, because he will know what a main idea is. He has learned that the main idea in The Little Red Hen is that those who do not want to help with the work should not expect to share in the results of the work. To see if they can apply this to other situations, you might ask them for examples of this same main idea in what they observe from life. (If a child won’t share his toys with others, should  he expect the others to share their toys with him?) You get the idea. Now, if you apply it, your child will be well on his way to improving reading comprehension later on.

Sight Words or Phonics?

What’s the best approach to teaching children to read — sight words or phonics? Let’s take a look at Dr. Fry’s approach.

I just read a blog that discussed some of the virtues of rote memorization and it reminded me of the old question about whether children should learn to read by learning sight words or by learning phonics. Sight words are memorized and often learned by drilling on them. The late Dr. Edward Fry produced a lot of materials that help children learn sight words, but he also wrote materials on teaching phonics and spelling.

He recognized that some of our most often used words in English don’t follow the rules of phonics. He is widely recognized for his list of 1000 Instant Words which are intended for children to recognize by sight after a series of exercises, drills, games, flashcards, and other memorization aids. Some of these words, such as in, on, he, be and fish, also obey phonics rules and can be sounded out, but when a child is first learning to read, it’s discouraging to have to stop and sound out every word and lose track of the meaning. It’s very satisfying to be able to read a complete sentence or story without having to stop often and sound out words. Think what it would do to our adult reading speed and comprehension to have to sound out every word we read? By learning the most common words by sight, a child or illiterate adult can have the satisfaction of really reading, not just decoding words. She will understand “A doll is a toy.” if she reads it at a normal speed instead of struggling over every word.

On the other hand, as a child continues on the path of learning to read, it would be burdensome to have to memorize every single word he will ever need to read. Dr. Fry recognizes that understanding the sounds attached to letters is also necessary for a child to become an and independent and proficient reader. He brings these two approaches together seamlessly in his Spelling Book Grades 1-6: Words Most Needed Plus Phonics.

Let’s look at the first lesson for first grade. Only ten sight (or instant) words are introduced: the, of, and, a, to, boy, girl, man, woman, baby. Though the teacher is given teaching suggestions, this is not a workbook. The student pages may be reproduced for student use, but the teacher decides how to best teach the words.

Under the list of words is a list of phrases using the words so that the students can practice seeing and reading the words in context. Samples of the phrases are man and woman and to the boy and girl. Students could practice reading these aloud and the phrases could also be used for dictation exercises, since this book also teaches spelling.

The last parts of the lessons involve age-appropriate word study. In the first grade lesson we used as an example above, students learn about how the phonogram an is used in man, rancan, and pan. Then they learn in the phonics section below about the short vowel a. The included notes to the teacher in these sections spell out the rules and explanations, but I seriously doubt that the first graders will have to memorize, “The Closed Syllable Rule states that when the syllable ends in a consonant, the single letter vowel is short.” (Examples are taken from Lesson 1 of the book linked to above. ) At this stage of the game, the student may not know or care about syllables, open or closed.

That's me, with my book at the age of three.
That's me, with my book at the age of three.

When I learned to read I taught myself in much this fashion. First I memorized a very simple picture book my mother read to me over and over and then I read it back to her. She knew I’d memorized it, but I knew which word was which, so I had learned some sight words that I could recognize in other contexts. My mother would tell me about the sounds that the letters made until I was asking her for the ones I didn’t know yet. I started asking my dad about the letters I saw in the headlines of his newspaper. I was only three, but I could read. By the time I hit first grade, I was sitting in the class library section reading whatever I wanted while the teacher taught reading to all the rest of the class except another student who shared my first and middle name, who could also read.

My mother was a wise woman who realized that although I was reading above grade level, I had holes in my phonics understanding, so she sent me to a private school for a semester to learn phonics in a systematic way. (This was in the late 1940’s, when the “look, say” teaching method was in vogue.) After my phonics instruction, I flew in my reading skills. I think I would have thrived with Dr. Fy’s approach, since I would have learned the sight words in and out of context, as well as the relationships of the sounds to the words I learned every week. Seeing those relationships brings this method of teaching beyond rote memorization to understanding. I think Justin Snider, the author of the blog that inspired this one, could live with this approach. Maybe he will stop by and let us know.

When should we start formal instruction of math and grammar ?

It’s such a shame that so many children in the early grades only learn to hate school because they are pushed into tasks they are not developmentally ready for too soon. When children are ready, they will be able to learn grammar and reading and formal math quickly, without endless repetition from first grade on.

I have just finished reading a blog by Harvey Bluedorn, Research on the Teaching of Math, that confirms something I have always believed – we waste the first few years of a child’s school years teaching subjects they are not yet mentally prepared to learn. The result is that we instill a dislike for school that kills a child’s natural desire to learn, for the student comes to relate education and school to increased frustration. Instead, we could be building on a child’s natural curiosity and predisposition to love learning by laying a foundation of experiences that will increase vocabulary and model language usage. Then when the brain is ready, children will learn in a couple of years what they were learning to hate because of endless repletion of the same content for several years in the early grades – grammar and formal mathematics.

Bluedorn quotes Raymond and Dorthy Moore from School Can Wait, p. 228:

. . If we expect reading and arithmetic based on understanding rather than on rote learning, delay of formal training in these areas appears wise – although informal education through warm parental responses is desirable. Some scholars and clinicians conclude that formal education should wait until ages ten to fourteen . . . . Strong clinical and research evidence indicates that early exposure to the so-called stimulation of school often destroys childhood motivation for learning. By grade three or four many children become stranded on a motivational plateau, never recovering their early excitement for learning. Most primary teachers agree.

In Endangered Minds, Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It, by Jane M. Healy, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1990, Healy says on p.289 :

Abstract rule systems for grammar and usage should be taught when most students are in high school. Then, if previously prepared, they may even enjoy the challenges of this kind of abstract, logical reasoning. Only, however, if the circuits are not already too cluttered up by bungled rule-teaching.

One ninth-grade student who came to me last year for help with grammar was hopelessly confused about the simplest parts of speech. Although she was intelligent and could, at her current age, have mastered this material in a week, she had been a victim of meaningless “grammar” drills since second grade. As Michelle and I struggled on the simple difference between adjectives and adverbs, I often wished I could take a neurological vacuum cleaner and just suck out all those mixed-up synapses that kept getting in our way. It took us six months . . . But finally one day the light dawned. “This is easy!” she exclaimed. It is, when brains are primed for the learning and the student has a reason to use it with real literary models.

She continues on p.290:

Immersing children in good language from books and tapes, modeling patterns for their own speech and writing, and letting them enjoy their proficiency in using words to manipulate ideas are valid ways to embed “grammar” in growing brains . . . . No amount of worksheets or rule learning will ever make up for deficits resulting from lack of experience with the structure of real, meaningful sentences.

It is folly to ignore the importance of oral storytelling, oral history, and public speaking in a world that will communicate increasingly without the mediation of print. These skills build language competence in grammar, memory, attention, and visualization, among many other abilities.

Now the experts seem to believe that if we start teaching children to read and write sooner, they are getting an early start in learning and that this is a good thing. But wouldn’t it be better to use a child’s natural desire to understand his world by taking him outside and learning the names of the various trees, flowers, animals, birds, insects, and other creatures that he sees? Then the teacher could also tell stories that the sights suggest, perhaps in answer to the questions children ask: What makes a flower? Why do leaves change color? Why do leaves fall off the trees? Why is the sky blue? What is a cloud made of? Where does snow come from? This is a great time to build vocabulary and do hands-on science demonstrations or experiments that will lay the foundation for more formal science instruction later.

The best way to help children become successful in language skills later on is to model good language for them now. Read wonderful stories that model standard English or offer opportunities to explain English that’s a bit different and why it’s different, and what the words we use say about us. Discuss the stories with the children to lay a foundation for reading comprehension skills later. Help them find main ideas, see the sequence of events, and predict outcomes. See if they can guess what new words might mean from their context. Take a book like Rosie’s Walk (Pat Hutchins) or Pancakes for Breakfast (Tomi de Paola) and let children use the pictures to tell the story orally. Let them tell their own stories, with or without prompts.

 In their early years, children have an innate sense of wonder that makes them open to learning all they can. We can lay the foundation for many subjects before teaching them to read and write by helping them explore the world around them, reading to them, talking to them, and answering their questions. We can also introduce many skills needed for critical thinking and reading comprehension orally as we converse with children and let them tell us stories. It’s such a shame that so many children in the early grades only learn to hate school because they are pushed into tasks they are not developmentally ready for too soon. When children are ready, they will be able to learn grammar and reading and formal math quickly, without endless repetition from first grade on.