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NCLB Outrages

"What The Dibels Is That?!" (A direct quote from a first grader)

by Farin Houk-Cerna

Fresh from winter vacation, this is a busy time in our kindergarten-first grade combination class. It’s time to review our rules, the ones that we all wrote together as a class. Do your best, help others do their best, and treat everyone kindly and peacefully; simple really. We teach the new kids how things work in our class: how to do the calendar, where to find writing materials, what it means when the stoplight is on red (NO TALKING!), and as one says very solemnly “about peace, Ms. Cerna, they have to be peacemakers and help other people.” We review the expectations, just in case anyone accidentally forgot them over the long break: how to walk in the hallway, how to do our
end of the day jobs, how to be a good listener. And of course, we pitch ourselves back into the routine of what one possibly delusional teacher calls “joyful rigor”: our learning. We remind ourselves how to read all those books that we forgot while we were playing in the snow, we stammer about getting our days of the week back in order, and we resume work on whatever brilliant story we were writing before the break.

And I, as the teacher have a new job this January around: this year, five short months into the school year, I get to go through and sort my kids into categories: at risk, some risk, and low risk. For reading failure that is. It’s quite easy actually: all I do is give them a simple test and poof – I get a nice neat graphic that shows me exactly which of my kids are at risk for being struggling readers, and exactly what they need to avoid such a miserable fate.

An absolutely reliable indicator of basic literacy skills and potential, they say. (And even if its not totally reliable, we’ll still call the kids at risk in the meantime.)

All I do is sit down with my kids and test them:
how many letter names can they say in one minute? Forget any letter that takes them longer than three seconds (did you still have visions of sugar plums dancing in your head?)
--it’s wrong and they’re off down the road to at risk.

How many phonemes (sounds) can they segment in one minute? OK, when I say “man” you say /m/ /a/ /n/. Easy! Just make sure that if I say “trick”, you don’t say /tr/ /ick/ - that’s too many sounds all mushed up together. That might work for real reading, but it won’t keep you out of the at risk category!

And the best indicator of future reading success, the nonsense word test. How many nonsense words can my kindergartners read in one minute? My five-year-olds - all but two of whom speak another language at home – those kindergartners? Aren’t they all nonsense words to them? We go through the list: vaj, ov, sim, lut, and my personal favorite, fek. The kids look puzzled. One says, “If you switch these two letters and you put a j at the beginning you’ll have ‘jump’ teacher!” Sorry, honey, that’s wrong and you’ve used up you time trying to make some sense of these words. Off to the at risk group you go!

And what does it mean to be “at risk”? Well it means that the kids need intensive, systematic intervention. It means they get lots and lots of
focused, methodical teaching so that next time they can really read all of those nonsense words. There won’t be much time left for any real reading or any real kindergarten learning, but they’ll be able to dissect those words properly.

The thing is, I didn’t need any fancy test that the school district invested thousands of dollars in to know which of my kids are at risk. I know that many of my children face serious risks in their lives, only one of which involves reading. After living with these children for five months now, I know which ones don’t know their letters, I know which ones don’t know a single sight word, I know the ones who have a functional English vocabulary of maybe 100 words. I know which ones need extra help; I know which ones are struggling. And any teacher worth his or her salt knows too.

A good many of my students are in absolute need of intensive, systematic help. But they don’t need to be practicing day in and day out until they can name 54 letters in 60 seconds. And they certainly don’t need more work in decoding nonsense words.

Want a plan to insure reading success for all children? Here it is. First, start with some good prenatal care, nutrition, and education. Second, when the children arrive, make sure that their parents don’t have to work 3 jobs in order to keep their spot in a rundown, cramped public housing unit. That way they can spend more time talking, playing, and reading with their children. Then, as the children grow, make sure that they always have plenty of healthy food around to eat. Having a mediocre meal once a day at school because there’s no food at home, or because mom’s at work and there’s no one to cook it is no way to insure reading excellence.

And if you really want to make sure that we don’t leave anybody behind, include some great birth to 3 programs that emphasize language and concept development, good purposeful play, and quality parent education. As the children enter school, let’s be focused and systematic about their health care. Do they need dental care? Get it! Do they need shoes that fit and don’t give them blisters? Get them some! Do they need glasses? They sure can’t read without ’em!

As the kids get older, make sure that their parents don’t have to work three jobs to keep their spot in a rundown, cramped public housing unit. That way, they’ll have lots of time to ask their kids about school and make sure their homework gets done. And finally, if you want all kids to be great readers, make sure they have great schools, with tons of good books, lots of money and time for field trips, plenty of materials, and the best-trained, highest-quality teachers to be found.

Give that intensive systematic plan a good try and I promise, all of our children will be readers.

But in the meantime, I trudge through, sorting my children, this one “some risk”, that one “high risk”, inflicting upon them the next round of band-aid solutions to misinterpreted deficits. It’s enough to drive a good teacher to say, well, fek.

NOTE: Farin Houk's book is Supporting English Language Learners: Guide for Teachers and Administrators (Heinemann 2005)

The book is organized into three parts:

* Creating a Context describes how to work with administrators or teachers to create an ELL program, as well as how to create home-school partnerships that support it.

* Classroom Matters offers explicit strategies for implementing best-practice ELL instruction, including suggestions on assessment, content study, and oral and written language development.

* Advocacy outlines the politics of ELLs, with ideas on advocating for your students, your curriculum, and your school or district's program.

— Farin Houk-Cerna
Tacoma News Tribune


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