"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Things Have Changed in Third Grade Reading

I grew up in Manila. As my father and I walked to school, we would pass by sidewalk vendors as well as beggars. Some of the beggars I saw were blind. This past weekend, my son and I was reading a book, Knots on a Counting Rope. And I just realized that my son who is currently in third grade has yet to see a blind person. I then asked my son to try and walk across the room with his eyes closed to help him imagine what blindness entails.

Above copied from Amazon
Knots on a Counting Rope is a beautiful story. It is touching and sad, yet hopeful. Here is the book read online by Bonnie Bartlett & William Daniels:

The counting rope is a metaphor for the passage of time and for a boy's emerging confidence facing his greatest challenges: blindness and the approaching death of his beloved grandfather.


Ideas by Jivey at the Teachers Pay Teachers site has the following suggested activity to accompany the reading of this book.

Above copied from Teachers Pay Teachers
When my son first read the text "The boy was born with a dark curtain in front of his eyes", I knew that it would be challenging for him to comprehend that passage. Later in the text, however, was a conversation demonstrating how difficult it was for the grandfather to explain to his grandson the color blue. So my son got a clue that the boy in the story could not see. Still, looking at the suggested answers to the above activity shows how a child may be able to comprehend this book.

This is third grade reading. I might have seen real blind people when I was in third grade, but I do not remember reading books at this level. Stevens and coworkers have recently published a paper in the American Educational Research Journal that examined how the reading curriculum has changed over the past hundred years. To avoid just citing anecdotes from my life and my son's current reading curriculum, it helps to look at data to see if things have really changed in reading curricula in the elementary years. Since I was in the elementary years during the 70's, I am particularly interested in comparing my elementary years with those of recent years.

The complexity of a reading curriculum lies on the text students read as well as the comprehension questions asked. One measure of the level of text is the number of sophisticated words, specifically, the ratio of words not among the 2000 words frequently used to the total number of words in the text. Here is how the most recent curriculum included in the study (1995-2004) compares with my generation on this metric.

Above graph based on data provided by
Robert J. Stevens, Xiaofei Lu, David P. Baker, Melissa N. Ray, Sarah A. Eckert,
and David A. Gamson. Assessing the Cognitive Demands of a Century of Reading Curricula: An Analysis of Reading Text and Comprehension Tasks From 1910 to 2000. American Educational Research Journal 0002831215573531, first published on March 11, 2015 doi:10.3102/0002831215573531

Another measure of text sophistication is the Type Token Ratio, the ratio of unique words to the total number of words. Here, likewise, third-grade students are dealing with more complex reading material:

Above graph based on data provided by
Robert J. Stevens, Xiaofei Lu, David P. Baker, Melissa N. Ray, Sarah A. Eckert,
and David A. Gamson. Assessing the Cognitive Demands of a Century of Reading Curricula: An Analysis of Reading Text and Comprehension Tasks From 1910 to 2000. American Educational Research Journal 0002831215573531, first published on March 11, 2015 doi:10.3102/0002831215573531

The reading difficulty of the text also depends on how sentences are constructed. There is a developmental level scale that can be used to gauge how complex text is at the sentence level:

Covington, M. A., He, C., Brown, C., Nacxi, L., & Brown, J. (2006). How complex is that sentence? A proposed revision of the Rosenberg and Abbeduto D-Level scale (CASPR Research Report 2006-01). Athens, GA: Artificial Intelligence Center, University of Georgia.
Using the above scale, this is how my generation differs from my son's:

Above graph based on data provided by
Robert J. Stevens, Xiaofei Lu, David P. Baker, Melissa N. Ray, Sarah A. Eckert,
and David A. Gamson. Assessing the Cognitive Demands of a Century of Reading Curricula: An Analysis of Reading Text and Comprehension Tasks From 1910 to 2000. American Educational Research Journal 0002831215573531, first published on March 11, 2015 doi:10.3102/0002831215573531
Not only does my son have to deal with text that is richer in vocabulary, but the sentences are likewise more complex. The differences, however, do not stop at the type of text. What is expected from a child in the 70's likewise differs from what is expected from my son now. In the 70's, there was emphasis on fact recall:

Above graph based on data provided by
Robert J. Stevens, Xiaofei Lu, David P. Baker, Melissa N. Ray, Sarah A. Eckert,
and David A. Gamson. Assessing the Cognitive Demands of a Century of Reading Curricula: An Analysis of Reading Text and Comprehension Tasks From 1910 to 2000. American Educational Research Journal 0002831215573531, first published on March 11, 2015 doi:10.3102/0002831215573531

Now, the emphasis has shifted towards inference:


Stevens and his co-authors therefore conclude:
This trend away from literal comprehension questions provides evidence that the tasks students are asked to complete have become more cognitively demanding by requiring the students to process more information from the text to answer the questions or complete the tasks asked of them. Questions that ask students to interpret information may also increase the cognitive demand for readers to use their prior knowledge and integrate it with text information. Again, it also gives evidence to a change from conceptualizing comprehension as extracting information from text to more cognitively demanding acts of interpreting and summarizing textual information.
Whether this trend is good or bad remains to be addressed. What is clear is that the cognitive demands are now higher. Whether it helps children develop proficiency in reading comprehension is yet to be seen. The scores of nine-year old children on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) may provide some clues:

Above copied from
The Nation's Report Card 2012
Larger gains over the past four decades are seen with children scoring below or at 220. This score incidentally is the cutoff between questions that demand explicit details from those that require inference. We may now infer....



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