Comprehensive Literacy Legislation Introduced in Senate

Last week, Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) Act, a comprehensive literacy bill designed to overhaul the federal role in supporting literacy from preschool through high school. Companion legislation is being introduced in the House of Representatives by Representatives Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and John Yarmuth  (D-Ky.)

This bill addresses the important need to reestablish a federal role in supporting early literacy, following the elimination of funding for the Reading First program. It also takes important steps to support adolescent literacy. But we worry that it shifts the focus of federal literacy efforts too much towards the middle and high school years, at the expense of critical PreK-3rd years, which build a foundation for all of children’s later literacy learning.

Content Knowledge in the Pumpkin Patch

We're in the thick of pumpkin patch season. Children around the country have been heading out on field trips with their classes and families, bumping along on hay rides to find the plumpest pumpkins they can get their hands on.

Good teachers know how to turn these field trips into curiosity-driven moments of learning for themselves and their students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds who finally have a chance to hear, see, use and interact with objects and concepts that they rarely come across in their everyday lives.  As a New York Times story highlighted yesterday, for some children a trip to the pumpkin patch means being able to hold and touch what is essentially a foreign object. When a classroom of 25 children at Harlem Success Academy 3 were asked how many had ever held a pumpkin, only two raised their hand.

Some Words on Webkinz: Can Digital Media Actually Help Emergent Readers?

I have decided to pick on Webkinz in a post this week on the Breakthrough Learning blog -- a place where writers are stirring up ideas in preparation for a Google forum later this month called Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age.  I'll be moderating the "Literacy 2.0" panel. A copy of my post is below.

P.S. If you're not familiar with Webkinz, take a look at this screen shot, which shows you one view of what children see when they play with Webkinz on screen. Webkinz, you should know, are really two things. They exist physically as hold-in-your-hands plush toys -- like stuffed horses and dogs. And they exist as virtual characters that live online in virtual worlds that children create. Each toy comes with a password so kids can log in on their home computers and design rooms and outdoor spaces for the online versions of their stuffed animals. (I know, it sounds a little odd and confusing. But trust me, these toys and their accompanying virtual worlds are perfectly understandable to the 5- to 8-year-old set.)

New Analysis Points to Size of Early Literacy Gap

Jumpstart, a non-profit organization dedicated to early literacy, released an analysis last Thursday that presents some new data and zooms in on some of the more note-worthy findings in recent studies on literacy and children. In a new poll of 504 American adults, it found that 95 percent of Americans recognize that early childhood literacy is "a very important issue," but only 18 percent of Americans are aware that children who lack early literacy skills are less likely to succeed as adults.

The report focuses on the gap in early literacy skills between children from low-income families and those who come from middle- and high-income families, as well as the lack of public awareness about early childhood literacy issues in the United States. Most experts now believe that children who are introduced to literacy in their early years -- through exercises like alphabet awareness, one-on-one book reading with adults and the practice of writing their names, not to mention knowledge of content -- have a better chance for strong academic performance in higher grade levels.

Once More, With Feeling: Teaching Content is Teaching Reading

Daniel Willingham, the UVA psychologist and Brittanica blogger,  flags an interesting and important new study from Hong Kong that analyzed the relationship between 39 teacher characteristics and instructional practices and 4th grade students' reading scores on the PIRLS international reading assessment. Of the 39 teacher factors, Willingham notes, four were found to play a significant role in predicting fourth graders' reading scores:

A Closer Look at the President's Budget: Early Literacy Grants

On May 7 the Office of Management and Budget released the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2010. As Early Ed Watch reported at the time, that budget includes funding for several new early education programs, including Title I Early Childhood Grants, Early Learning Challenge Fund, Early Literacy Grants, and Home Visitation. Previous installments have considered Title I Early Childhood Grants and the Early Learning Challenge Fund. Today we turn our attention to Early Literacy Grants.

E.D. Hirsch in New York Times on Teaching and Assessing Reading Skills

An important op-ed by E.D. Hirsch in Sunday's New York Times looks at how we measure reading achievement in our nation's schools. For all the conversation about using "better tests" to measure school performance and student learning, policymakers often overlook one important shortcoming of existing reading assessments: the content on them is totally disconnected from the vocabulary and content children actually learn in school. Hirsch writes:

The problem is that the reading passages used in these tests are random. They are not aligned with explicit grade-by-grade content standards. Children are asked to read and then answer multiple-choice questions about such topics as taking a hike in the Appalachians even though they’ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.

Teachers can’t prepare for the content of the tests and so they substitute practice exams and countless hours of instruction in comprehension strategies like “finding the main idea.” Yet despite this intensive test preparation, reading scores have paradoxically stagnated or declined in the later grades.

Must See YouTube: Teaching Content is Teaching Reading

UVA cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham is at it again, with a new YouTube video about the connection between content knowledge and reading comprehension. You never knew cognitive science could be so much fun!


Must Reading

Richard Colvin makes the case against allowing the scandals around Reading First and the less than glowing results of the recently released Impact Study of the program to launch a new reading wars. We concur. The lesson from Impact Study is not that we've placed too much emphasis on decoding (Kids who can't decode have no hope of comprehending, and the Impact Study does show that Reading First works to improve first graders' decoding skills), but that we also have to do much more to improve children's background knowledge and vocabulary so that they can understand what they read.

Gene Linked to Poor Reading Ability

Researchers in England have identified a gene linked to poor reading ability. Previous research had identified a correlation between the gene and dyslexia, but this research shows a correlation between the gene and poor reading ability among non-dyslexic children, as well. While the presence of the gene correlated with poorer reading performance in a population of 6000 children, ages 7 to 9, it does not affect overall cognitive abilities. Further research is needed to better understand the role this gene plays in affecting reading abilities and children's brain development.