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Tier One – everyday words usually learned in the early grades.
Tier Two – High frequency words, used across content areas, key to understanding directions, relationships, and for making inferences.
Tier Three – Domain-specific words
Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges
By Peter Gray, Psychology Researcher at Boston College, Author of Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013) and Psychology (Worth Publishers, a college textbook now in its 7th edition)
Psychology Today, September 22, 2015
A year ago I received an invitation from the head of Counseling Services at a major university to join faculty and administrators for discussions about how to deal with the decline in resilience among students. At the first meeting, we learned that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a [bad name] and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.
Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices. Many students, they said, now view a C, or sometimes even a B, as failure, and they interpret such “failure” as the end of the world.
Faculty also noted an increased tendency for students to blame them (the faculty) for low grades—they weren’t explicit enough in telling the students just what the test would cover or just what would distinguish a good paper from a bad one. They described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more, or more effectively.
Much of the discussions had to do with the amount of handholding faculty should do versus the degree to which the response should be something like, “Buck up, this is college.” Does the first response simply play into and perpetuate students’ neediness and unwillingness to take responsibility? Does the second response create the possibility of serious emotional breakdown, or, who knows, maybe even suicide?
Two weeks ago, that head of Counseling sent us all a follow-up email, announcing a new set of meetings. His email included this sobering paragraph:
“I have done a considerable amount of reading and research in recent months on the topic of resilience in college students. Our students are no different from what is being reported across the country on the state of late adolescence/early adulthood. There has been an increase in diagnosable mental health problems, but there has also been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life. Whether we want it or not, these students are bringing their struggles to their teachers and others on campus who deal with students on a day-today basis. The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the University and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”
The full article is available here Psychology Today: Declining student resilience, by Peter Gray
Physics is a deeply conceptual class. Its not like English class, where everyone already knows what English is. People enter an English classroom already knowing what a story is, what characters are, what a theme is, and what a moral is. In stark contrast, students generally start physics from scratch.
The human themes discussed by Shakespeare or Homer are universal, and intuitively understood by even the least prepared of readers. Students may not know much about Elizabethan England, or ancient Greece, but they know what it means to be happy, sad, angry, jealous. This is not so, however, with concepts in physics. Student entering a physics class often have no meaningful understanding of conservation laws, or Newton’s laws of motion. Outside of AP Physics we usually are teaching from the ground level upwards.
No teaching method, homework assignment, or pedagogical technique has much effect on student performance – unless that student takes time to engage in internal mental reflection.
When students review at home what we learned in class,
When students think about what happened, and why it happened,
When students compare their preconceptions to what they have observed
only they are engaging in internal mental reflection.
If a student chooses not do this, then there is little a teacher can add. We can explain it for you, but we can’t understand it for you.
This is one reason why some students struggle. Doing classwork has only limited usefulness, unless one internally reflects on the subject.
The full article is available here: The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million word gap by age 3. and at http://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2003
Betty Hart and Todd Risley entered the homes of 42 families from various socio-economic backgrounds to assess the ways in which daily exchanges between a parent and child shape language and vocabulary development. Their findings showed marked disparities between the sheer number of words spoken as well as the types of messages conveyed.
After four years these differences in parent-child interactions produced significant discrepancies in not only children’s knowledge, but also their skills and experiences with children from high-income families being exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare.
Follow-up studies showed that these differences in language and interaction experiences have lasting effects on a child’s performance later in life.
The Early Catastrophe
Betty Hart & Todd R. Risley
Betty Hart and Todd Risley were at the forefront of educational research during the 1960’s War on Poverty. Frustrated after seeing the effects of their high quality early intervention program aimed at language skill expansion prove unsuccessful in the long-term, they decided to shift their focus. If the proper measures were being taken in the classroom, the only logical conclusion was to take a deeper look at the home.
What difference does home-life make in a child’s ability to communicate? Why are the alarming vocabulary gaps between high school students from low and high income environments seemingly foreshadowed by their performance in preschool? Hart and Risley believed that the home housed some of these answers.
Hart and Risley recruited 42 families to participate in the study including 13 high-income families, 10 families of middle socio-economic status, 13 of low socio-economic status, and 6 families who were on welfare. Monthly hour-long observations of each family were conducted from the time the child was seven months until age three. Gender and race were also balanced within the sample.
The results of the study were more severe than the researchers anticipated. Observers found that 86 percent to 98 percent of the words used by each child by the age of three were derived from their parents’ vocabularies.
Furthermore, not only were the words they used nearly identical, but also the average number of words utilized, the duration of their conversations, and the speech patterns were all strikingly similar to those of their caregivers.
After establishing these patterns of learning through imitation, the researchers next analyzed the content of each conversation to garner a better understanding of each child’s experience. They found that the sheer number of words heard varied greatly along socio-economic lines. On average, children from families on welfare were provided half as much experience as children from working class families, and less than a third of the experience given to children from high-income families.
In other words, children from families on welfare heard about 616 words per hour, while those from working class families heard around 1,251 words per hour, and those from professional families heard roughly 2,153 words per hour. Thus, children being raised in middle to high income class homes had far more language exposure to draw from.
In addition to looking at the number of words exchanged, the researchers also looked at what was being said within these conversations. What they found was that higher-income families provided their children with far more words of praise compared to children from low-income families. Conversely, children from low-income families were found to endure far more instances of negative reinforcement compared to their peers from higher-income families.
Children from families with professional backgrounds experienced a ratio of six encouragements for every discouragement. For children from working-class families this ratio was two encouragements to one discouragement. Finally, children from families on welfare received on average two discouragements for every encouragement. Therefore, children from families on welfare seemed to experience more negative vocabulary than children from professional and working-class families.
The authors conclude:
We learned from the longitudinal data that the problem of skill differences among children at the time of school entry is bigger. more intractable. and more important than we had thought. So much is happening to children during their first three years at home, at a time when they are especially malleable and uniquely dependent on the family for virtually all their experience. that by age 3, an intervention must address not just a lack of knowledge or skill, but an entire general approach to experience…
…Estimating, as we did, the magnitude of the differences in children’s cumulative experience before the age of 3 gives an indication of how big the problem is. Estimating the hours of intervention needed to equalize children’s early experience makes clear the enormity of the effort that would be required to change children’s lives. And the longer the effort is put off, the less possible the change becomes. We see why our brief, intense efforts during the War on Poverty did not succeed. But we also see the risk to our nation and its children that makes intervention more urgent than ever.
A summary from “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. (2003). American Educator. Spring: 4-9, which was excerpted with permission from B. Hart and T.R. Risley (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.
The Atlantic, October 2012
By Peg Tyre
in 2009, when Monica DiBella entered New Dorp, a notorious public high school on Staten Island, her academic future was cloudy. Monica had struggled to read in early childhood, and had repeated first grade. During her elementary-school years, she got more than 100 hours of tutoring, but by fourth grade, she’d fallen behind her classmates again. In the years that followed, Monica became comfortable with math and learned to read passably well, but never seemed able to express her thoughts in writing. During her freshman year at New Dorp, a ’70s-style brick behemoth near a grimy beach, her history teacher asked her to write an essay on Alexander the Great. At a loss, she jotted down her opinion of the Macedonian ruler: “I think Alexander the Great was one of the best military leaders.” An essay? “Basically, that wasn’t going to happen,” she says, sweeping her blunt-cut brown hair from her brown eyes. “It was like, well, I got a sentence down. What now?” Monica’s mother, Santa, looked over her daughter’s answer—six simple sentences, one of which didn’t make sense—with a mixture of fear and frustration. Even a coherent, well-turned paragraph seemed beyond her daughter’s ability. An essay? “It just didn’t seem like something Monica could ever do.”
For decades, no one at New Dorp seemed to know how to help low-performing students like Monica, and unfortunately, this troubled population made up most of the school, which caters primarily to students from poor and working-class families. In 2006, 82 percent of freshmen entered the school reading below grade level. Students routinely scored poorly on the English and history Regents exams, a New York State graduation requirement: the essay questions were just too difficult. Many would simply write a sentence or two and shut the test booklet. In the spring of 2007, when administrators calculated graduation rates, they found that four out of 10 students who had started New Dorp as freshmen had dropped out, making it one of the 2,000 or so lowest-performing high schools in the nation. City officials, who had been closing comprehensive high schools all over New York and opening smaller, specialized ones in their stead, signaled that New Dorp was in the crosshairs.
And so the school’s principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing. By 2008, she and her faculty had come to a singular answer: bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page.
If nothing else, DeAngelis and her teachers decided, beginning in the fall of 2009, New Dorp students would learn to write well. “When they told me about the writing program,” Monica says, “well, I was skeptical.” With disarming candor, sharp-edged humor, and a shy smile, Monica occupies the middle ground between child and adult—she can be both naive and knowing. “On the other hand, it wasn’t like I had a choice. I go to high school. I figured I’d give it a try.”
New Dorp’s Writing Revolution, which placed an intense focus, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching the skills that underlie good analytical writing, was a dramatic departure from what most American students—especially low performers—are taught in high school. The program challenged long-held assumptions about the students and bitterly divided the staff. It also yielded extraordinary results. By the time they were sophomores, the students who had begun receiving the writing instruction as freshmen were already scoring higher on exams than any previous New Dorp class. Pass rates for the English Regents, for example, bounced from 67 percent in June 2009 to 89 percent in 2011; for the global-history exam, pass rates rose from 64 to 75 percent. The school reduced its Regents-repeater classes—cram courses designed to help struggling students collect a graduation requirement—from five classes of 35 students to two classes of 20 students.
…[Why were the students previously failing?]
…. New Dorp students were simply not smart enough to write at the high-school level. You just had to listen to the way the students talked, one teacher pointed out—they rarely communicated in full sentences, much less expressed complex thoughts… Scharff, a lecturer at Baruch College, a part of the City University of New York, kept pushing, asking: “What skills that lead to good writing did struggling students lack?” …
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?”
…The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be unfamiliar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own. It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. “I prefer recipe,” Hochman says, “but formula? Yes! Okay!”
…Within months, Hochman became a frequent visitor to Staten Island. Under her supervision, the teachers at New Dorp began revamping their curriculum. 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.”
Classroom discussion became an opportunity to push Monica and her classmates to listen to each other, think more carefully, and speak more precisely, in ways they could then echo in persuasive writing.
PEG TYRE is the director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation and the author of The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve.