Toby, 21, was an honor student at Walt Whitman High School in South Huntington and is now a biology major at Stony Brook University. He is about to take possession of his first apartment. His prospective landlord hands Toby the lease to sign. His signature? He has none. He scribbles his name. Like tens of thousands who were part of the whole language experiment of the past three decades, Toby has been failed by the system.
What Happened To Our Kids?
Why does our younger generation pretty much write in print today, despite the fact that universally, students are taught cursive in mid-elementary school?
If whole language, a teaching philosophy now known as balanced literacy, has been the focus of our children’s education for decades, why do we see so many spelling and grammatical errors in everything we read?
Why can’t today’s high school students, who man the cash registers at local retailers after school and in summer jobs, “make change” if the cash register doesn’t tell them how much money to return to the customer?
Why are business leaders still telling us that graduates of our educational system, at whatever level, are inadequately prepared to meet the demands of today’s work place?
Why does every child seem to need a tutor these days?
Why do so many students entering college need to take non-credit-bearing remedial courses, despite having recently received a New York State high school diploma?
Let’s see if we can puzzle through some of this.
Education is one of the most publicly debated issues of our time, due in part to its impact on property taxes. Frustration with taxes in general, coupled with the fact that school and library taxes are the only arenas in which the public has direct voter impact, fuel the controversy. Newspaper publication of standardized test scores, listed by school district, has resulted in perceived property values being at least in part dependent on school test results. Understandably, administrators feel tremendous pressure to have their districts look good when the standardized test scores appear in print. In turn, administrators convey to teachers the importance of having classroom instruction emphasize test-taking skills. How has that translated into classroom practice? Each and every standardized test administered to students of any age or at any grade level is preceded by an unprecedented emphasis on test prep. Test preparation transfers the pressure to score well from the teacher to the students. The students, clearly perceiving the importance of their individual test scores, then worry their parents with what easily becomes test anxiety.
Time constraints are an unavoidable factor in standardized testing. Because very specific curricula content must be covered and in theory mastered before the assessment tool is administered, we are now teaching on a timeline. This means that whether or not a particular student has mastered the material just taught, class instruction is moving on to the next topic on the list.
Now we also know that the learning rate of a particular individual varies, depending upon what he or she is attempting to learn. Predictably, if a student has failed to learn what has previously been taught, that student will have difficulty learning subsequent instructional topics particularly in subjects like mathematics, which are often taught hierarchically.
According to the anti-testing organization www.nomoretests.com there are many reasons to oppose testing, not the least of which is that testing is also big business at odds with our children’s best interests. According to College Board studies, the results are more reflective of a student’s family income than their proficiency. For example, on SATs, students appear to raise their score by 30 points for every $10,000 in their parents’ income, which could reflect the ability to take SAT prep courses and the like.
Is Handwriting Passé?
Where does this leave us with handwriting? We spend a great deal of extremely valuable classroom time instructing students how to execute manuscript/print and cursive/script handwriting, despite the fact that few if any teacher training institutions instruct educators in how to teach handwriting or, more importantly, why handwriting matters. As Toby’s third grade teacher told his parents, “Handwriting doesn’t matter. Today, everyone uses a computer.”
Yet nowhere on Long Island at any grade level do we see a computer on every student’s desk. Even more importantly, lost is the understanding that handwriting is the integrative process that helps a learner connect the individual auditory sounds of language (phonemic awareness) with the letters that visually represent those sounds (phonics).
Handwriting is a very complex set of motor and information processing skills that requires several of our sensory systems to work together in coordination. If in fact handwriting is of little consequence today, then why do we, the taxpayers, pay for an occupational therapist to work with a student who has poor handwriting?
The reason for that occurrence, long ago lost in our teacher training institutions, is that spoken language has been found to exist almost innately in humans. In order to live together in any type of societal structure, we must speak with one another. Reading and writing on the other hand, are man-made inventions. A society develops the ability to write down and to read ideas and laws when that society becomes too large and/or too complex for its members to reliably communicate person-to-person on an event-by-event basis.
Reading—as in a book, not a text message—and writing are highly skilled processes that must be first learned and then mastered to the point of automaticity.Thanks to texting and instant messaging, kids are shirking handwriting and reading altogether, and it appears that many schools, as demonstrated by Toby’s experience, don’t seem to care either. Terms such as LOL and OMG have moved from the computer to everyday spoken communication. Schools seem to have given up on teaching cursive and are now teaching “print cursive,” which involves semi-connected letters—Toby’s “signature” on his lease.
Cursive, which started its decline in the 1970s with the rise in popularity of computers, has been lost to this new generation. In 2006, when the SATs first introduced essays, only 15 percent of the 1.5 million students wrote in cursive.
The demise of handwriting is also a cognitive loss. The enhancement of neurological processes involved in the skill of writing is wide-ranging.
Oh, the SAT scores written by those who used cursive? They were higher than those written in print, according to the College Board.
OMG: Whole Language and Technology
The whole language philosophy is that when children are immersed in literature they will figure out on their own how to read. But it has been proven that often skills such as spelling fall by the wayside. Just give an impromptu spelling test to those around you in their 20s or younger. Whole language has since drawn much criticism, and has even undergone a name change—balanced literacy—but the operative elements remain the same.
Few people will deny that immersion in literature provides an engaging learning environment for those who can read, which translates into 20 to 60 percent of learners who learn to read no matter how they are taught. The remaining (almost) half of the student population requires direct instruction in order to learn the transcription of spoken language into written form.
The problem presented by whole language instruction does not lie in the fact that it utilizes authentic, rich literature as its instructional medium. Rather, the problem lies in the fact that specific skill instruction is incidental—specific skill instruction is conducted when the need arises.
Scientific study has proven beyond a doubt that maximal potential is achieved when the specific sub-skills of reading and writing are taught simultaneously in a sequentially organized, cumulative manner that is presented to the learner directly and explicitly and not learned by rote. That does not occur with whole language.
Technology has further interfered with the acquisition of conventional spelling. When texting, the communicator’s ability to effectively utilize the phonemic/phonetic elements of language are clearly evident. However, our schools fail to comprehensively instruct students in, and insist on the mastery of, spelling generalizations and conventions. These simple teachings change English from a language riddled with exceptions to a highly flexible, word-rich language that is 90 percent phonetic when all of the component elements are known and understood. In other words, when we teach someone that “…sometimes we change the final ‘y’ in a word to ‘i’ and then add the suffix,” an understandable response is, “OK, sometimes I’ll do that.” The unspoken clarification is: but when?!
With practice, the learner knows when to do what and can produce conventionally recognized written word forms. To teach someone something without having them understand why that particular “thing” matters becomes an exercise in futility. As a result, well-skilled, knowledgeable teachers do not realize in their students the results they seek (and which they know the students need).
The same is true when teaching a skill like cursive. If you teach someone how to bat a ball but fail to provide them with sufficient practice, why teach them to bat the ball at all? The same is true of any type of handwriting.
Instead of showing students what cursive writing looks like, we need to directly and explicitly teach them the process of cursive letter formations and connections and then insist that they practice that instruction until they have mastered it. Skill instruction without practice to mastery is a waste of instructional time.
Training Vs. Learning
An unfortunate corollary of the need to score well too often involves a shift in instructional emphasis from understanding concepts to getting the right answer. You do indeed have to “bubble in” the correct spot on the test form, so in many instances getting the right answer makes complete sense. Test preparation is very helpful with this aspect of testing. But what happens when you haven’t mastered the content that has been taught? You sort of know the stuff but you don’t really understand it. Often those students can get the right answer if they are taught to do things like find the numbers, read the key words and do what they tell you to do. Or in the case of an essay question, struggling writers can be taught very formulaically to restate the question, start the next three paragraphs with “first,” “next,” “last” and then conclude by restating the first sentence in their own words.
I’m reminded of a third grader who really struggled with writing tasks. He looked “finished” on a particular assignment, so I asked, “Are you done Bobby?” Very seriously, he replied, “Yeah, I just have to go back and put in the periods.” And that’s exactly what Bobby did. I watched him, without reading one word of what he had written, start at the bottom and move backwards to the beginning of his essay, putting one randomly placed period on each line of writing.
The bottom line is that we are now covering the curriculum, not learning it, and there is a vast difference between the two. Increasingly we hear students declare that they hate to read. Any teacher can tell you that whatever they are teaching and to whomever they are teaching it, the first question asked is, “Will this be on the test?” When I taught at the middle school level, the second question invariably was, “Do we have to memorize this?” I would tell them, “You really don’t have to memorize anything. If you understand it, you will be able to figure out the answers.”
These examples attest to the reality that schools are no longer nurturing lifelong learners; but rather, schools are now training students. Kids want to know what they have to do to pass the next test, get to the next grade, and eventually work at the job they desire. So what’s gone so very wrong?
The Information Boom and Accountability
There has been, without doubt, an exponential increase in the amount of information and knowledge now available to be learned and ways to learn it. When business leaders accurately informed the educational system that it was not sending them workers who were sufficiently skilled to perform what was expected of them in today’s work place, educational leaders and, indeed the public, began questioning: What’s wrong?!
The push for accountability as a driving force in education was born and has become a determinant of whether or not we are doing a good job of educating our citizenry. Are the graduates of American schools better prepared now to meet the needs of an internationally competitive workplace? We are still awaiting the business sector’s ultimate response. But the rumblings heard from business leaders, even in casual conversation, seem to indicate that still, too many of our high school and even college graduates can’t write a persuasive letter, can’t do basic math, can’t problem solve or think critically. So what’s really going wrong?
The learners have been left out of the learning equation. Because there is so much that is learnable, most of which can easily be looked up, we need to stop viewing curricula content as a body of knowledge that must be remembered. Curricula must instead be seen as the vehicle used to teach our students how to think!
As Sarah McPherson, Ed.D, chairperson of instructional technology at the New York Institute of Technology in Westbury, so succinctly puts it, “Instead of granulating content and attempting to process it for the students, we need to place emphasis on the development of higher-order thinking skills—analysis, synthesis, application—and teach students how to problem solve, how to determine relevance, how to reflect on their own learning.”
In real life, people must be able to figure out, “What information do I need?” and “Where can I find it?” That means that graduates of the public education system must be able to read and write fluently so that they can access and use the information they need. That irrefutable need means that we must without equivocation teach the basic, underlying foundation skills of both language arts and arithmetic to mastery. In turn, that necessitates that we teach the learner…not simply to deliver content.
“Thanks to modern science,” says Darra Pace, Ed.D, associate professor of counseling, research, special education, and rehabilitation at Hofstra University, “we are increasingly knowledgeable of how people learn, and we know that there are differences among us with regard to how we each learn best. Those learning differences need to be factored into the process of teaching.”
In addition, our learning environment needs to better parallel the realities of today’s work environment. In the real world, most people don’t work in isolation. Yet, we often expect our students to do just that. In real life, we know that no one is good at everything. Yet in school we want straight-A students; or in today’s rubric lingo, we want our students to get “all 4s and 3s.” Instead, we should teach our students how to recognize and acknowledge their relative strengths and weaknesses. That would result in their being better able to learn to work collaboratively, utilizing each group member’s strengths.
Lastly, in real life, how often do we have to “take a test” to prove our competence? Our work performance is evaluated within the context of what we do and by the results we achieve by doing it. The desire to do well is intrinsically motivated. In schools, we need to minimize such extrinsic motivators as getting a good score, and instead become masterful at nurturing the true love of learning, with which the overwhelming majority of children enter preschool, kindergarten and first grade.
As a nation, we must move from an emphasis on product to an emphasis on process. We need to reliably equip all of our students with the skills they need to easily access and utilize information. Then we will have the time and energy to value the questioning that catalyzes learning and nurture the process of discovering the answers. Then and only then will standardized tests begin to measure how well we are educating our young people.
Lynn Burke, a former teacher, is an educational consultant who teaches teachers to improve instructional results for learners of written alphabetic languages. She serves as president of the Long Island branch of the International Dyslexia Association and is a board member of the Learning Disabilities Association/LI branch.