For many children, going to school is just one part of their daily ritual. They grumble get out of their comfortable bed, have breakfast, and are transported to school for a day of learning and spending time with friends. They receive their assignments for the day, then head home to complete them before they head to bed and get ready to complete the cycle the next day. That is the ideal: a stable base for children to build their education upon.
That is not the reality for may children. As of 2013, most students come to school from low-income households. They can leave for school malnourished and tired from sleepless nights in unstable homes. Heading to school can be dangerous as well, especially if their home is in a high crime neighborhood. School can add to the struggle when they cannot stay awake, are focused on their hunger instead of lessons, and have no time at home to complete assignments. Such a fragile base is difficult to build an education upon.
There are ways that the school itself can be a place to help students from low-income or unstable homes educate students in subjects beyond the three Rs.
One way was suggested over two decades ago by Dr. James Comer, a child psychologist from Yale University. He believed that “no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” He developed a process called the Comer Process, known by some as the School Development Program. It is a system that looks after the whole student, helping them develop social and life skills in school along with being educated. Teams are built to help students manage their lives inside and outside of the classroom.
It takes a major commitment to apply the Comer Process to a school. There are many other options for schools to ensure that students are being supported for the time they are there.
- Building Relationships – You do not need to treat students as friends, but you do need to give them respect. A trusting relationship is a big step in discovering what is happening outside the classroom that could affect them inside of it.
- Formal Communication – Unless the home is highly religious, formal speech is not often used in low-income families. Most tests over the years are written formally, which makes them harder to understand for these students. Building this form of vocabulary is incredibly important over the long haul.
- Understand their Resources – By understanding what support a student has, arrangements can often be made by the school to offer what they do not have. Time and tutoring are usually the two things most students in low-income families need most.
- How to be a Student – Being a student is a skill that is not inborn; it is learned. Asking questions, planning assignments, and preparing for tests may not be taught in the home. Especially if the parents struggled in school. But it can be taught with other lessons.
Low-income students offer schools the opportunity to be a haven from their day to day life. They can help them with life skills they may not find at home, adding stability to what can be a very unstable existence. A stability to help them become lifelong learners.
The creation of a lifelong learner and passionate reader extends beyond the classroom. It involves a group effort, which includes the friends and family of the student. They are the support system that ensures the lessons learned in the classroom get reinforced outside of it. They are the ones that make sure that homework gets completed promptly and passive learning occurs. Researcher Susan B.Neuman, in her paper Guiding Young Children’s Participation in Early Literacy Development: A Family Literacy Program for Adolescent Mothers, states that “engaging parents and children in mutual activities that include book reading, but are not limited to it, may constitute the richest potential for supporting children’s early literacy development.”
It can be a challenge to get parents to engage. Parents have busy lives, and while they want to participate, other problems in life prevent it. They are not only making sure their children are doing well at school, but they are also working to pay the bills, get children to social events and possibly taking care of other family and friends. Schools intimidate some parents, based on their history with education. Teachers have a variety of tools at their disposal to invite and encourage parents to become more active in their child’s education.
- Get to know the parents. After school, have family nights where the parents and students complete lessons together. Make time after the lesson to work with the parents to show them how to help students with similar assignments. This allows the teacher to get to know the parents, opening up communication.
- Build the right communication channels. Like students, parents have their preferred ways of communication. Some react quickly to email, while others are very responsive to text messages. If access to the internet is an issue, phone calls may be the best way to open channels. Finding the method that works best with the parent improves the teacher’s ability to put parent and student on the same page.
- Provide parents the tools teachers use. Parents can be very willing to help a student, but not know what the lesson is or how they can help. Sharing tools with parents, like Powerpoint presentations or websites with learning tips, encourages parents to get involved. Not only are they involved, but they are also reinforcing the lessons presented in class, reinforcing the information.
- Allow them a peek inside the classroom. Parents that know what their students are doing in the class are more engaged. When they go on a field trip, send the parents some pictures. If they have a project, provide the parents ways to participate and show off what other students in the class create.
- Tell them something good. The overwhelming assumption when a teacher sends something home is that it has a negative connotation. Send more good feedback than bad builds trust with the parents and makes a note from the school a little more exciting to receive.
Opening the door for parents to help in the classroom is a significant benefit to the students. Teachers and parents, when they combine their resources and efforts, provide a seamless educational experience for a student. This has long-term benefits for the student, and the family as well. It creates a culture of learning in the home, which is an advantage to the whole community.
Language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
Wittgenstein knew that his world was limited to the words he could use to describe it. This has been borne out through more methodical tests, like those performed by Johnson O’Conner. For over two decades he performed a variety of experiments to establish what factors turn a person into a success. The one factor that Johnson found to predict success, taking other variables into account, was vocabulary size. The larger the vocabulary, the better chances that the person would find their way into the C-Suite. The earlier children begin building vocabulary, the better their chances are for success in life.
Children start to understand words at 12-18 months, absorbing everything they hear. As they get older, they benefit from having their vocabulary expanded with more complicated words. By the time they are ready to start preschool and kindergarten, their vocabulary is advanced enough that they need to have discussions that improve their word knowledge. Kindergarten is the time when vocabulary differences become evident. A child from an affluent family will understand nearly twice the words that a child from a poor family. This is a gap that, if left unchecked, affects student learning.
Fortunately, many strategies are available to close that gap.
- Teach children words directly. Vocabulary lists belong in the classroom. Teaching students five to ten words a week, especially ones that are related to other lessons, vastly improves student vocabulary. This helps them build their language skills over time, up to 6,000 more words through graduation.
- Teach children words indirectly. Vocabulary lists help expose students to new words. Lists give a child a decent cushion, but they need more than that to succeed in higher education. Expand vocabulary to all lessons by using words with similar meanings through the day.
- Use words in context to make them interesting. Teaching vocabulary without context makes it difficult to understand their meaning. Putting vocabulary list words into sentences and other lessons provide examples to students how the word is used. This technique is another way to build their confidence in the words they are using.
- Repeat words over and over. Students require hearing the word over and over, up to fifteen times before they become comfortable using them. With all of the repetition of certain words during the day, their vocabulary will grow without them even knowing it.
- Encourage use of new vocabulary. Have students draw pictures of the new words. Play a game using the words as answers to questions. Activities that make students more comfortable with the vocabulary that is taught improves the chances they absorb and use those words.
These small but necessary steps build a foundation for reading. The more words a student has in their possession, the easier it is for them to grasp new concepts in class. Building vocabulary encourages them to explore new concepts, opening them up to new ideas, that expose them to new words. A virtuous learning circle develops, giving every student a chance at success through high school graduation and beyond.
In 2011, innovative game designer Jane McGonigal wrote a book about her experiences with gamers and how to live better through games. The book was Reality is Broken, and it discussed how to improve life through gamification.
Offering rewards for people to achieve has become a staple in our everyday lives, from points on credit cards to badges in apps. Every little win gives us a little burst of dopamine that makes us want to reach out for one more attempt. There is always one more carrot to make us want to take one more step towards our goal. We have discussed before how goal setting and rewards can help motivate students to achieve. But there are other ways to build that excitement for learning.
Chapter four of Reality is Broken begins with the story of an experiment that discovered that success is motivational, but to be entertained and encouraged by failing may be more motivational. The M.I.N.D. Lab studied how gamers reacted to success and failure in 2005 by using the Super NES game Super Monkey Ball 2. It is a game where you “bowl” with monkeys in clear balls. A gutter ball sends the monkey hurling into space with an entertaining graphic. The monitored subjects reacted well to hitting the pins with the ball, but they were more excited when the ball went off the side.
Their reasoning? By failing, and receiving something positive out of the experience, they are encouraged to try again. It is a combination of a challenge that they feel they can overcome and the opportunity to overcome it that keeps the gamers returning to the game. Learning a new piece of information releases the same dopamine as earning a badge in an app. According to a study done by The Princeton Review, 90% of high school students are focused on the results of their work, while only 10% are focused on the process of learning. Making the process of learning engaging keeps the students interested in the lesson. It becomes a challenge they want to achieve.
The Center for American Progress surveyed students from across the country and came to similar conclusions. Up to 37% of fourth graders surveyed stated that their math problems were too easy. The highest performing students overwhelmingly agreed (67%) with the statement “Schoolwork is interesting,” while a much smaller percentage (40%) of lower performing students agree with this declaration. Students that lack challenges are not engaged. If they are not engaged, they are not learning. Instilling a love of the process of learning makes it much more likely that they will achieve better results in the long run.
Students that discover at an early age experiments and unknowns in learning can be as enjoyable as the successes also discover doing the wrong thing becomes less intimidating. Accepting the challenge of the unknown becomes part of the process. Learning becomes a journey, filled with exciting new challenges to overcome instead of something to fear. As the Super Monkey Ball 2 players learned, the fun of the game is not always the success. Sometimes it is the joy of the journey!
The problem starts slowly. Students begin to struggle with their assignments. They work hard to understand the explanation of the concept, but it is just not coming to them as easily as it comes to their neighbor. When they go home to do homework, they do not have the same support system as other students. That frustration builds as they struggle to keep up with the rest of the class. One of the most accurate predictors of this negative behavior is literacy level.
Illiteracy is a threat to the teacher’s classroom as much as it is to the student’s future. Students who struggle to read act out during class in a variety of ways. Their outbursts cover the full range of emotions, from anger and lashing out to comedic interludes to gain attention. By the time they reach third grade, they possess a basic understanding of the fact that they are behind their peers. This can lead to the negative emotions that cause them to act out during class, doing whatever they can to distract from time spent having to learn. Students that have a hard time learning become adverse to going to school and using that time productively.
Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles at the Stanford School of Education discovered in a 2006 study that “relatively low literacy achievement in 1st grade predicted relatively high aggressive behavior in 3rd grade … [and] low literacy achievement in 3rd grade similarly predicted high aggressive behavior in 5th grade.”
The theory was that as students became more discouraged with school, they acted out more often. These issues are magnified over time, resulting in adults that are more likely to end up with lower earning potential (75% of unemployed adults have low literacy) and a higher risk of ending up incarcerated (70% of those incarcerated have low literacy rates).
Fortunately, early intervention can help students avoid these problems. Catching this shift in behavior early provides teachers, and other students, a much more conducive learning environment. Some positive information to consider:
- Children who can read at grade level by third grade are very unlikely to end up on the wrong side of the law. Those that cannot read at grade level at this critical juncture are four times less likely to graduate.
- Better social skills help improve performance in the classroom. When students are young, Miles and Stipek discovered that reading ability correlated with higher social skills. As time goes by the correlation weakens, but it is important during the years when building good reading habits matters.
- Encouraging high achievement makes better classrooms. When students are part of a class with high standards, there are fewer behavioral problems. Especially if the class provides the tools in the classroom to succeed.
The events that influence students before third-grade may cause ripples through their entire life. Helping students equate the class with a positive experience helps mitigate future problems. The less time teachers must spend dealing with unruly students, the more time they can contribute to developing all of their students into enthusiastic readers and lifelong learners.
The impact of the summer slide has been the focus of multiple studies over the past several decades. Over the course of their school career, students can lose up four years of education by not studying during vacation. This affects graduation rates, employment rates, and incarceration rates. The impact on society is well documented. What is not as well documented is the impact on the school itself.
The summer slide can be costly to school districts that do not take action to halt it. Many of the school districts in Ohio are facing reduced funding from the state over the next several years. This means that every dollar spent in the district must be spent wisely, balancing the advantages and disadvantages of every purchase for the district. Understanding the direct costs of the summer slide to any district’s budget is important.
- Up to two lost months – Many school districts accept that for the first two months of the year they will be refreshing the information students have lost over the summer. This is good news for the students that were not engaged in summer reading. For those that were engaged, this can mean they can disengage with classes early.
- Up to $1,500 spent – In 2002, the NEA stated that the average cost for a student per year is $7,000 (Ohio spends $6,000). That two months of lost class time costs a school district $1,555 ($1,300 in Ohio). In a city like Columbus, that means $75 million is spent annually helping students get caught up from their three month break from school.
- Reduced scores on standardized testing – The results of tests that students take to gauge their abilities has a large impact on funding for schools. These tests are ever evolving, and becoming more important in terms of determining funding for schools. Most schools see a drop each year in the Spring to Fall results on these tests, which can impact the funding the school receives.
- Poor schools are already at a disadvantage – According to a federal study, state and local governments spend an average of 15% less in poor and disadvantaged districts. This further impacts students, reducing their access to programs that could help them through the summer slide.
Fortunately, there are many programs that offer ways to mitigate or eliminate the summer slide. The least expensive ones are well managed summer reading programs that offer incentives for reading through the summer. The Kids Read Now summer reading program encourages stopping this slide by sending self selected books home for the family to enjoy. There are many places that offer summer reading camps as an option, taught by community volunteers or teachers.
Utilizing funds as a preventative measure instead of reacting to learning loss can save districts millions in revenue. Money that can be spent on new books, new facilities, and new programs to help teachers. This approach does not only help the school district manage its resources, it improves the lives of students by keeping their minds busy during the summer, ready to begin a new school year!
Over the summer, home is an incredibly important place in the development of a love for reading. That center shifts when the days get cooler and school begins. The classroom becomes the place where children continue to build their literacy skills. Instilling this desire goes beyond lessons taught in English class. There are amazing stories to be told in Science, History, the Arts and Social Studies. Every subject offers tales that can be inspirational to students!
The best time to foster a love of reading in students is when they are young. Younger students learn by imitating what they see in the world around them. In school, this means seeing teachers reading books while they are doing work at their desk. Or having a discussion with the principal about what books they are reading. Becoming role models for reading and literacy can go a long way to developing a love of reading in a student. There are plenty of ways to do that as a school:
- Share what you read – Let students know that reading is not only for homework! Teachers and staff should be willing to share what they are reading with their students, letting them see that reading is an activity for everyone.
- Read a book to the class – Students do not have to do all the reading themselves. Opening a book and telling the students a story, complete with different voices and changes in vocal tone, can bring the words to life. This technique is incredibly helpful for students who learn best by listening. Hearing the words also helps improve student vocabulary.
- Give students learning strategies – There is nothing quite like the feeling of accomplishment. Especially on a task is difficult. Developing multiple ways for students to build reading skills helps them overcome these obstacles on their own. Every word they learn on their own boosts their confidence in their reading skills.
- Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) – First mentioned by Beverly Cleary, Drop Everything And Read is a great way to give students an educational, unplanned break. Between lessons teachers can have students read a book of their choosing, showing that reading can be done at any time. The combination of self selected reading materials and the encouragement of someone they look up to delivers positive reinforcement of their hobby. Students will want to read more as a result.
- Fill the class with books – Not every student will have a book for an impromptu reading break. If they do not have one they are working on, having a library in class can provide them options. Composing this library of books and topics the children enjoy will make DEAR time more enjoyable!
- Create active assignments based on what they have read – Worksheets about what a student has just read can dampen their enthusiasm. They can write stories about what happens next, or discuss in class what they think the reading meant. Having them engage with the story can help reinforce what they just read and improve reading comprehension.
The environments that students are part of is only part of the equation for encouraging reading. Demonstrating that reading is a pleasurable and relaxing activity helps students develop a similar perspective. The combination of parents and teachers acting as reading role models is the best way possible to encourage a love of reading in children.
Like developing anything important, building better students requires providing the right environment. This is an easier task when the children are in school. A school is filled with teachers, staff, and materials that serve the purpose of encouraging students to learn. Outside of the classroom, that encouragement is not always present. Those materials are not always available when they are at home. They do not need desks, whiteboards, or even computers to spend time learning at home. All they need are home libraries.
Having a library at home encourages students to spend time reading, and learning, outside of the classroom. Richard Allington, author of Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Achievement Gap, states that a handful of self-selected books could have a dramatic impact on a child’s learning over time.
In a multi-year study, he discovered that just adding 12 self-selected books to a home every summer can have the same learning impact that summer school offers. When books are convenient, it is more likely those books will be used by the students and parents. It creates a home environment that shows that reading is encouraged, especially when there are books within easy reach at all times. Helping parents build home libraries have other benefits as well:
- Continuous access to books – It can be difficult for parents, especially those in low-income families, to take their children to a local library over the summer. By developing home libraries, students have easy access to books all summer long.
- Topics of their choosing – Everyone is more likely to read books about topics that pique their interest. Teachers and parents can work together to build a home library of books that will encourage children to read not only through the summer but during the school year.
- Familiarity with the material – Children enjoy things that are familiar. They love their favorite toys and clothes. That same love of the familiar can apply to books, especially a favorite character in a series. A beloved character can expose them to new vocabulary over the course of that series, elevating their understanding of the language.
- Builds family literacy – Reading can be contagious. Once one member develops a passion for reading, it can spread to siblings and other people in the home. This has a multiplying effect of bringing more books into the home, creating a virtuous cycle of overall improved literacy for the family.
- Improved academic performance – Research shows that, even when wealth and location are taken into account, more books in the home leads to greater academic performance. Owning 500 books can add 3.2 years of educational gains over time, according to Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. Even the addition of one book can have an impact on educational gains.
Creating a friendly environment for students to read changes the environment for the whole family. Even in areas where there may not be a bookstore or community library available, home libraries offer a bridge to literacy. It extends a small part of the learning environment into every home.
Motivating students is complicated. School staff knows what is required of the students by the state. The challenge has been to find a way to get the class to not only see that goal but to instill a desire to achieve it.
A healthy debate has existed for years whether or not rewarding student achievement is the right mechanism for this task. This means of motivation does work (as shown in a study by Robert Fryer, Jr.), but it is important that faculty use it properly.
Not all positive reinforcement is beneficial to students. Reinforcement generally falls into two categories: planned and unplanned. Planned motivation–offering a reward for performing certain tasks–can help students develop good habits over the years. It is the unplanned motivation, bribing a student to get them to perform, that ultimately harms students in the long run. There are distinct differences between the two.
- Rewards can establish a better path – Laying out a system of rewards can encourage students to take actions in a direction that benefit them in the long run. The behavior they learn when they are bribed that if they behave poorly enough, they can get what they want.
- Rewards are long term fixes; bribes are short term solutions – Bribes may get a student to perform in the way you want them to at that moment, but it is a temporary patch. Offering students a reward to achieve a goal requires effort on their part. That effort can be a lesson in itself.
- Rewards empower the faculty; bribes empower the students – Developing a reward system requires planning on the part of the staff. The students understand the parameters to earn the reward, so they know the goal in advance. Offering a bribe enables the student to establish a price for their good behavior. If a teacher wants to keep the class in order, they will have to pay it, giving the students control in school.
- Rewards build a relationship, bribes undermine it – When students know they can get the upper hand, they can use it to their advantage. They can get what they want by complaining about it, not working for it. Offering rewards to students encourage better behavior since no amount of carrying on will get them the prize.
- Reward elements students have control over – The prevailing wisdom is that offering incentives for test grades will increase student performance. Evidence gathered at Harvard suggests otherwise. By incentivizing students to read books, study math, and behave in class, they discovered the building blocks to better test scores. The improvements came from there.
This trail of breadcrumbs, filled with more books, more experiences, and more education about the joy of learning, can turn students focused on trudging from test to test to ones that understand the journey. Bribing students to prevent bad behaviors teaches them the wrong lesson. It shows them that they can get an advantage by using the right leverage, not by working for it. A system of planned rewards makes the complication of motivating students into a learning mindset easier to do.
In the middle of the summer, it can be difficult to keep children motivated to read. There are pools to play in, friends running up and down the street, and for many, little desire to be reading anything.
School is not for another month, and there is not a scrap of homework in sight. They have a small stack of colorful and exciting books to read, and even more of them will be coming as they finish each one. Without the motivation of assignments or encouragement of teachers, reading over the summer could fall the wayside.
There are multiple ways to keep students motivated to read over the summer. These tips are just as valuable during the school year as well, encouraging students to read for pleasure as well as for homework and information.
- Create a fun environment – Getting children to do something they do not want to could be a labor worthy of Hercules. Creating a fun reading environment will make them want to read, not force them to read. Instead of external motivation, they become internally motivated, making it more likely they will grab a book as a fun activity.
- Give them choices – Allowing children to have say in the books they read and when they read them gives them control. Children that are interested in a topic will spend hours exploring it. Providing books on that subject strengthen the association that books are for more than homework.
- Discuss what they are reading – As children approach preschool ages (three to five years old), they are starting to develop their standards and communication skills. The books they are reading are perfect opportunities to allow them to practice discussing with you about a topic they enjoy.
- Set attainable expectations – Children, despite what we may think, can be reasonable. Giving them specific goals, with specific rewards, is a way to encourage them to be motivated. Go the extra mile and make them visible. Make a chart where they can color in a box or add a sticker when they complete a book. These visual reminders allow them to see where they are in relation to their goal.
- Always be encouraging – When a child sits and reads, or discusses their reading, give them positive encouragement. Support from teachers and parents builds confidence in the task they are performing. Even when they do not perform to a high level, encourage them to try again and congratulate them for the work they put in will go a long way in their eyes.
Summer reading does more than preventing the summer slide. It is an opportunity to build their love of reading outside an environment where reading is required. Maintaining the momentum of reading through the summer will help students find an appreciation for reading they may not discover elsewhere.