Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Drowning in an Ocean of Words----Does everything need to be "Higher-Order" thinking?

By definition, children on my caseload with language impairments struggle with language-based classroom content.  Though they are certainly capable of learning, often the concepts need to be pre-taught, presented with a simpler language or visual format, and then re-taught. Long verbal explanations will often overwhelm a child who has language difficulties.

By contrast, typical elementary classrooms today are awash in language.  Lots of it!  Written charts and word walls adorn the walls, teachers are asking complex questions, kids have to use written paragraphs to 'explain their thinking', and vocabulary knowledge is often assumed. 

Today for me was a wake up call.  An eye-opener to what children (who don't process well) DON'T learn when they are bathed in language all day.

  • After three weeks of practicing editing children's own sentences, a 10 year old girl (regular 4th grade)was asked to look at capitalization errors for the one below (a sentence she had written the previous lesson):

            She did manage to find the capital 'L', but then stopped short.  "I don't know how to make a lower case L." she pleaded.  I guess she didn't see the second correct L she made in the word 'little' already, or maybe when she prints, she is relying on motor memory for common words more than processing upper and lower case letters.  In any case, there's a gap in her learning---Basic skills and  prior knowledge that should be there are missing. (Upper and lower case letters are kindergarten skills.)

  • Here's another example of a long-standing learning gap.  A different child (4th grade) didn't realize that the first person pronoun "I" needed to be capitalized.  There are a few other problems with this sentence, but that lack of basic concept mastery jumped out at me.  (Capitalizing first person pronouns is a kindergarten skill.)

I want to say that the teachers in our classrooms are wonderful, hard-working people.  The curriculum however, doesn't allow much room for cycling back to basic concepts and re-teaching if necessary. Instead, the expectations are for rigor: Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, and each is supported so he or she can learn at high level, and each student demonstrates learning at high level. The school system is demanding this--80% of the kids can do it.

 Rigor is fantastic, but filling in the gaps for our more fragile learners is often needed too, in every subject.  Otherwise, we get fourth graders who combine want with won't to get wan't. ('Want' is a kindergarten sight word.)

When I started as a school speech pathologist in 1986, schools were all abuzz with teaching 'basic skills'. One standardized test to measure student performance was the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) which my school did use.

I am certainly not advocating a return to 'basic skills' (That fad didn't fix education) but unless time is allotted for direct teaching of skills which may not actually be a part of 'higher order thinking', the children on my caseload will continue to sit in an ocean of words without taking much in.   In all honesty, the backlash some states are witnessing now against the Common Core may be due in part to parents witnessing this conundrum.


  1. I'm a speech pathologist currently half-way through a 24-credit literacy instruction endorsement program, and I say this over and over and over all through my classes. What's the point of all this teaching if the kids don't actually *learn* it? Heck, I'd just like teachers to take about half of their posters and signs and printed work down off their walls, so the kids can actually *see* the stuff that *is* up there. I've got one kindergarten teacher across the hall from my office/clinic who talks non-stop. More than a few of her kids treat her speech as just a constantly running white noise. And she wonders why they don't listen, and why they're not learning what they need to learn. ARGH!

  2. As an SLP, I recall how tired and moody and overwhelmed my LLD kids were by the end of the day - heck, by the middle of it. Too many words coming at them from too many sources and they couldn't process half of it. Then there are my kids with ASD, for whom this sea of words is actually aversive.
    I want all ids to reach their potential, and I want schools to offer them a true education. But sometimes that's about making sure we're giving them what they need, not what what we're told is best.