The latest report card results for Los Angeles schools paint a picture of students who are still struggling to read, who have relatively low math scores, and who have not advanced sufficiently in English Language Learner courses. The scores may not look all that bad, but consider this: having passed the same test all four years, with the same methodology, the students would consequently be graduating at a rate of 72 graduates per year, instead of the actual rate of only 60.
Ah, but that’s not right. If anything, the latest State of the Education in the Los Angeles Schools Report card should be seen as an out-of-date report card lashing the administration for failing to turn around the losing students and failing to teach them what they know (or at least not what they need to know yet). In other words: blame the kids. I mean, we all kind of know that these kids are bad… But if we don’t teach them the techniques to overcome their badness, they will never know they have any options other than to continue to struggle.
The problem cannot be fixed by making the students care more about how they look or how well they are doing in a class. Of course, it’s not the students’ fault that they are distracted by the cultural emphasis on Winning Telly. But rather than offer more of the same (see The Three Little Mees in “Coco Chanel” commercials), let’s try some alternatives:
1. Give students control over their learning! When they are called upon to read material that they are unfamiliar with, or that may have different interpretations, the students should be required to do the reading and to figure out the meaning if they get it wrong. If they answer correctly, they should be rewarded with the opportunity to learn more about the subject. If they answer incorrectly, well, they knew it all along!
2. If students are going to have to read the material, they should do it in color. In the days of printing, if you wanted to read a certain number of pages, you had to color-print them. This is not the case today. I want my students to read, but I also want them to see and feel the story. The color-print method works if you apply it to the right material.
3. Mysterious connections between the images and words should be made with care. drawing unexpected connections may prove to be confusing to some readers. For example, Dr. Seuss might write and illustrate a simple animal, and then connect the animal to a medical term. If I were to do that, I would probably draw a lot of circles, too much to keep on the page. Also, any connections must be shown with care; too often, we see things like “Bows” and “Teeth” connected without connecting the two words with a thought!
4. Give students control over their reading. In the old days, teachers would stand at the front of the class with chalk and try to force all the students to read words from books that they already know. This is called the ” doctrinaire” approach and is pretty ineffective. If you want to ensure that students are reading, you need to get them involved by giving them options for how to read the text. You can do this by giving them the freedom to choose how they will proceed with reading each line of text. This might mean that each line is to be read in isolation, or that they are to find a relationship between the lines. You can teach a sentence lesson in a single line, or you can have a progression of paragraphs and sentences that enables them to learn the format of the sentence and the relationship of each individual word to the overall structure of the phrase.
5. Use Phonemic Awareness activities and strategies. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and understand words when they are spoken (as opposed to when they are written). A young child with good phonemic awareness can speed up reading, minimize comprehension problems, and extend their vocabulary. However, a young child without good phonemic awareness will have difficulties connecting the words he reads to the names he associates with each word. Some children learn more by hearing the words than by seeing the words, and this is the learning skill that is most neglected in what teachers call a “whole-language” reading approach.
6. Make phonics enjoyable. In addition to teaching phonemic awareness, any solid reading approach needs to include strategies and activities that support reading for phonemic awareness. Good methods for teaching phonemic awareness and reading for it include using stories and other texts, placing students in circles to sound out words, and using hands-on activities to incorporate phonics.