What does it mean to be literate?

Definitions vary:

  • Reading, writing, speaking and listening (The Common Core State Standards Initiative)
  • Understanding, using, reflecting on and engaging with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate in society (The Programme for International Student Assessment)
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2010 report, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 Results

Here’s a video on the PISA 2009 Results.

At its most basic, literacy means the ability to read. When and where did this ability begin?

  • Scientists believe symbols representing ideas first developed around 8,000 years ago in ancient Sumer, in what we call Iraq. The symbols were used by commercial and agricultural interests to keep track of the numbers of things—chickens and eggs, for example.
  • Egyptian hieroglyphics developed about 5,300 years ago; it was the first system to include some phonetic symbols, not just pictographs.
  • Written Chinese notations began around 3200 years ago.
  • Around 3500 years ago, in Canaan, in what is now Syria, a consonant system of notations was first used.
  • Later alphabets (Phoenician, Hebrew and Aramaic) using both consonants and vowels, are thought to be based on this Canaan alphabet.
  • Beginning around 2700 years ago, the Greek alphabet derived from these others.
  • Literacy was widespread among male citizens of ancient Rome, but with the fall of the Roman Empire, literacy retreated , becoming the practice of princes and priests. Over the centuries, as trade increased, so did the need for some literate citizens. The Industrial Revolution which produced cheap paper and books became a strong force for more widespread reading, but so did educational reform which required children to learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

Today in the U.S., the ability to read is not universal, even though some statistics show the U.S. has a 99% literacy rate.

  • One out of three fourth graders scored “below basic” on the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress Reading Test, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
  • More than 67 percent of all U.S. fourth graders scored “below proficient” on this same test, meaning they are not reading at grade level.
  • If a child is not reading proficiently by fourth grade, that child has a 78% chance of never catching up.

–Mrs. K

My child keeps mixing up left and right. She’s only six, but still. What can I do to help her?

"Left? Right?" says boy, flailing arms, "I'm so confused!"For a child so young, make learning a game so she will want to continue.

  • Have her hold up her hands, fingers touching and thumbs sticking out, with palms facing away from her body. Ask which side makes a proper “L.” That is the left side. (My son used this method throughout elementary school.)Girl looking at how the thumb and forefinger of the left hand make an L shape.
  • Play Simon Says using left and right directions. “Simon says touch your right ear.”
  • Play a guessing game. “I see something on the left side of the room that is red.”
  • Create a wristband for the dominant or nondominant hand and mark it L or R.
  • Write L on left palm and R on right palm.
  • Have the child trace her hands (or if she can’t, you do it) and label one hand L and the other R. Cut out pictures for a simple wordless story, and have the child sequence them properly, left to right.
  • Let the child sit on your lap and type on your computer. Point out the way the letters always go, from left to right.
  • Your child might already play some electronic games on your phone or tablet. Show her how the Angry Bird’s shot arches from left to right.
  • Create a book mark with an L on one side and a R on the other side.
  • Create a series of dots and have the child connect them, left to right.
  • Using a doll or teddy bear, ask which is the doll’s left leg, or right arm, or left eye.
  • Play hopscotch, asking her to name the leg she is stepping on.
  • Give her a bracelet or watch to wear on special occasions on one of her wrists. Remind her which wrist she is putting it on.

Don’t get annoyed if this skill takes time. Gently offer her the correct choice and move on. Eventually we all figure it out. –Mrs. K

Is reading from an electronic screen just as good as reading from a paper book for my child?

Have you seen the You Tube videoAngry child thinking a book is a tablet app. in which a one-year-old child swipes the family iPad screen to make it work? Then she does the same to a magazine but it doesn’t “work.” She pinches the magazine and swipes back and forth across the picture but the image on the page does not change. In frustration she presses hard with her index finger, still with no results, and then just to be sure, she presses her finger against her leg to see if her finger is working.

Even at one-year-old, children are using electronic devices to learn. It’s a given. Does it help? Does it harm? Most of the research comparing electronic reading with old-fashioned book reading uses older children or college students as subjects, so it is difficult to apply the results precisely to younger children. Even so, here is what some of the research shows.

  • A book has a physical presence that an electronic device does not. The reader knows intuitively how big the book is, how hefty the book is, and how many pages have been turned or still need to be turned. A little child can figure this out quickly even before he can talk.
  • An ebook’s physical size, by contrast, is difficult to gauge. Is it 24 pages or 48 pages long? All ebooks books “weigh” the same. If you are at location 304-6 out of 4020, what does that mean? A bar across the bottom helps to show that 7% of the book has been read, but since you can’t “see” the turned pages, what does 7% mean? Most books for little children are not more than a couple dozen pages, but can children tell that? Do they have any sense that they are halfway done?
  • Old-fashioned books allow an intuitive navigation of the text. You read an idea on page 33 that reminds you of something you read a few pages earlier, on the top of a left-handed page.Indian girl on the floor reading a book. You can easily go back to just the left handed pages and reread the tops while holding your finger or a bookmark in the place where you left off. If a child suddenly notices a tiny frog on page ten, he can go back quickly to find out if there is a frog several pages back by flipping pages.
  • Ebooks also allow you to go back, but you need to check every page since there are no left and right-handed pages. Ebooks don’t allow for flipping back without skipping pages, or for scanning ahead. And if you forget how to go to the beginning of the book, or to chapter 2, you need to stop and go to the electronic device’s directions. Little children can’t do that. Ebooks do not allow for easy highlighting or jotting down notes, though this is not important for young children.
  • Research shows that reading from old-fashioned books leads to more serious and focused reading and more retention. Because of books’ easy navigability, older students approach handheld books seriously, and they absorb more.Boy on floor reading an ebook on his tablet.
  • Reading ebooks, on the other hand, is a more casual experience. Kids browse, scan through a document, look up keywords and tap a hyperlink before finishing a document. They often read information once without rereading it. Do little kids see this distinction between old-fashioned books and ebooks? It’s hard to say without more research.
  • Books with tiny type faces or books read in inappropriate lighting can strain eyesight and even lead to wearing glasses in young children.
  • Onscreen books’ typefaces can be increased in size, and most ebooks come with an internal light to create sharp contrast for easy reading—both real advantages. But the screens can also cause glare leading to headaches and blurred vision. Time in front of a screen needs to be monitored.

Nooks, iPads, smart phones, notepads and other electronic devices have been around for only a few years, so much more research will be done on them, including research on young children. Also, manufacturers are improving the technology to meet the shortcomings of past versions, so a newer version might be more kid-friendly than an older version. My Kindle purchased just four years ago seems like a reading machine compared to the latest Kindle Fire which downloads apps, plays games, lights up internally—and allows me to read books.

Unlike us, little children today are growing up using old-fashioned paper books and electronic screens at the same time, much like a bilingual child uses two languages interchangeably. An engaging storybook with a good story and excellent illustrations might be just as attractive as an online book if read and shared enthusiastically by Mom.

We shouldn’t fear the new technology but rather search out what it can do better than the old-fashioned book. Can it read a story aloud to a child? Can it allow the child to match rhymes with a swipe of his finger? Can it allow the child to email his voice reading a book to Grandma?

So should you encourage your child to read from a screen? Sometimes, especially if you are guiding him. Are onscreen materials just as good as old-fashioned books? Some are, some are not. Each offers real advantages.  –Mrs. K

What are the Newbery and Caldecott awards?

The Newbery Medal and the Caldecott Medal are prizes given annually to honor two children’s or two young adults’ books published in the US during the past year.  The Newbery Medal honors an author, and the Caldecott Medal honors an illustrator.

Newbery and Caldecott MedalsThese two awards are considered the most prestigious awards in the U.S. for children’s literature.  They are awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association.

The Newbery award, named after an eighteenth-century British bookseller, goes “to the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published in English in the United States during the preceding year.” This award is the older of the two, having been given since 1922.

The Caldecott award, named after a British illustrator of the nineteenth century, goes to “to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published in English in the United States during the preceding year.”  This award has been given since 1938.

Both awards list runners-up, named Honor Books.  Once a book is honored with one of these awards, the publisher usually adds a picture of the medal to the book’s jacket to lure readers and buyers.  Most libraries with children’s sections carry recent Newbery and Caldecott winners, and sometimes they are even grouped apart from the other children’s books.

Some well-known past winners of the Newbery Medal include

  • 2004: The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo
  • 2000: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • 1990: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
  • 1986: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
  • 1984: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
  • 1977: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
  • 1976: The Grey King by Susan Cooper
  • 1963: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • 1961: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
  • 1959: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
  • 1944: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Some well-known past winners of the Caldecott Medal include

  • 1990:  Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young
  • 1986:  The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburt
  • 1970:  Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
  • 1964:  Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • 1963:  The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Many Newbery and Caldecott winners are included in the exemplars of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.  On the other hand, some of the best loved children’s books (Dr. Seuss’ books, for example) were not Newbery and Caldecott medal winners but are included in the Common Core exemplars.

My child is a reluctant reader. How can I encourage him?

First, commit to working with your child every day for many months or even years.  He will not become an eager reader without your help, or the help of a dedicated tutor who works with him several times a week.

Boy at mailbox discovering skateboard magazineNext, find reading material that your child enjoys.  Boys—and most reluctant readers are boys—prefer nonfiction—how an engine works, for example, or how to build a bird house, or sports stories.  Nonfiction offers certain pluses:  illustrations (photos, charts, and diagrams), subheadings, a separate introduction, and maybe a summary.  Tempt your child with a skateboard magazine or a comic book or graphic novels.  Find online sites too.  Then:

  • Build on past success.  Ask your child to reread material he has mastered, but which he couldn’t read a short time ago.  Remind him of his gains.
  • Introduce new reading material which you suspect your child can read with 90% success.  Increase the difficulty level in tiny, tiny increments so the child has a growing feeling of success, not failure.
  • If a child stumbles through a sentence, focusing on individual words and not on the sentence, repeat the sentence for him with fluency, so he knows what the sentence means.
  • Stop the child after a passage and ask what it means.  Don’t let him move on until he knows the meaning of what he has already read.
  • Take turns reading.  You read one page; he reads one page.  Or for older students, you read one paragraph; he reads one paragraph.
  • Let him read to you without distractions.  No TV calling from another room.  No cell phone in your hand, or tablet in your lap.  No brother on a video game in another room.  Give him your undivided attention.
  • Read to your child—maybe at bedtime?—without any expectation that he will join in.  Let him enjoy reading as pure entertainment.
  • If he has only one reading strategy—such as guessing at a word—model other strategies.
  • Cover part of the word to show a part he can read.  Reveal more of the word.
  • Point out prefixes and suffixes, and cover them so the child can see the basic word unit.
  • Ask him to read a sentence leaving out a difficult word.  Together discuss what that word might mean.
  • Ask him if a word looks like any other word he knows.  Talk about word families or rhyming words which often sound the same.
  • If the child’s attention span is short, have more reading sessions but limit their time, and use a timer so the child can monitor how long the reading session will go on.
  • Praise his efforts.  Point out successes like
    • Knowing a word he missed in the past.
    • Sounding out a word.
    • Pronouncing a word using correct syllable breaks.
    • Putting inflection into his reading.
  • Talk to your child’s teacher.  She might know appropriate reading materials to recommend.  She can keep you abreast of reading skills the class is working on so you can work on them at home.  She will carefully watch your child for reading problems or successes if she knows you are working with him too.

My son was a reluctant reader, way behind at the end of first grade.  I consulted an expert and followed his advice.  I worked with my son for at least a half hour every day over summer vacation, asking him to read lists of words (for phonics) and easy reading books (for comprehension).  He hated it.  Every session was a struggle.  Yet he started second grade reading on grade level and was an eager reader after that.  By sixth grade he was devouring a chapter book a week, anticipating the publication dates of books in series he enjoyed.

The sooner you can intervene with a reluctant reader, the more likely you are of success.  Analyze your kindergartener’s or first grader’s reading habits.  If he is a reluctant reader, commit yourself to working with him now, before he becomes discouraged or evasive.  –Mrs. K

What is a Lexile score? My daughter’s Iowa test showed a Lexile score.

A Lexile score is a number used to measure a student’s reading achievement.  Several kinds of tests can be analyzed to determine this score.  The Iowa test is one of them.

Chart of typical grade level scoresA Lexile score is not the same as a grade level score in reading.  The lowest Lexile score—zero L—corresponds to the reading level of a beginning reader.  The highest scores—1600+L—correspond to advanced readers.

These scores can be used to choose appropriate reading materials for a student.  About a half a million books have been analyzed and given a Lexile score.  A student with a score of 800L, for example, would find appropriate reading material in books with a similar score.  At such a match, the student could be expected to comprehend 75% of the reading.  Below is a sampling of Lexile scored books.

List of Lexile scored books.

Find more book lists at: http://goo.gl/hA2X0P

A Lexile score is a scientific measurement of reading based on two factors:  how often words in the test or text are used in English and sentence length.  It is a 21st century readability formula developed by MetaMetrics (www.lexile.com), an organization which “develops scientific measures of student achievement,” according to its website.

Many state departments of education and school districts have licensed Lexile to analyze their tests and to link students with appropriate reading materials.  Several testing organizations such as the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests, the Iowa Test, the Sanford and Iowa achievement tests and the Total Reader, an online testing site, are “translating” their reading scores into Lexile scores.  Some online reading sites offer Lexile scores for their reading material.

One shortcoming of the Lexile readability measurement is that, like many readability formulas before it, Lexile measures just a few factors, leaving out many others.  Format and design factors (length of page, length of type line, length of paragraphs, type size and font, size of margins, white space between lines, use of graphics and use of color, for example) are not measured. Neither are the age-appropriateness of the material, the child’s interest in it, or the prior knowledge the child brings to reading.

Even so, Lexile is becoming a widely used method to measure a student’s reading ability and the readability of written materials.

What are high/low books?

High interest / low reading level books are books that appeal to children who are older than the reading level of the book.

High/low books in a way are a mismatch: the reading level is lower than the age of the child to whom the book appeals. A good example is the Fudge series by Judy Blume. The early books are written at a second grade level but appeal to third or fourth grade children because the narrator begins as a fourth grader and grows older in the series.

Too many words on a page make reading hard.These books appeal to children who are struggling to read. The stories are about kids their age doing activities they do. These books are also good for ESL students whose age might not align with their reading level in English, and for disabled children, including those with dyslexia, who are behind their peers in their reading level.

What makes these books different? They share many of these qualities:

  • Shorter, everyday vocabulary words with concrete meanings
  • Short sentences
  • Short paragraphs
  • Large margins
  • Unjustified right margins (margins that look ragged)
  • Larger type size (minimum 11 point) in clear fonts
  • Realistic characters who are the same age as the reader
  • Easily differentiated characters
  • A fast moving plot which is low on description
  • Compelling stories
  • Chronological order (no flashbacks)
  • One point of view, not two
  • Illustrations, photos, graphs and maps
  • Tight, concrete writing

Many lists of these books can be found online.

A long list can be found at http://www.schoolonwheels.org/pdfs/3328/Hi-Lo-Book-List.pdf. This list gives the reading level (RL) and the interest level (IL) plus a one sentence description of the book. All the books on this list are fiction.

Some small house book publishers are known for publishing books for reluctant readers who often happen to be high/low readers. At http://www.nbss.ie/sites/default/files/publications/READ_-_hilow_books.pdf you can find the books of several publishers which are geared to students older than their reading level suggests. These books are mostly appropriate for high schoolers.

At http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/children/bookmark/booklists/141/ there is a list of 14 books for various age levels written below age level.

http://specialeducation.answers.com/english-and-math/10-high-interest-low-reading-level-books-for-teens-with-reading-difficulties gives information about ten books, some nonfiction, which are written at low reading levels but which would still appeal to kids in their teens.

The largest teachers’ union in Britain has a listing of book publishers and book series appropriate for high/low readers. Go to http://www.teachers.org.uk/node/12418 .

Seven publishers of high/low books are listed at http://www.writing-world.com/children/foster03.shtml. Included are hyperlinks to those publishers. –Mrs. K