Archive for the ‘Libraries’ Category

Why Reading Levels Continue to Decline–PART I (of 2)

April 30, 2015

Students who still can't read

The problem of students who are unable to adequately read their grade-level textbooks is not new; the problem starts in early elementary school and only gets worse as students move up in grade levels.  Unfortunately, the rise of the internet in the past twenty years has only exacerbated the problem.

Let’s look briefly at the pre-internet reading situation in middle-class schools and above (poor schools have additional problems which will not be treated in this particular article).  Looking back, the most important function of the school library was to be filled with books to be used for school research projects which were at the correct reading levels for students.

Primary School Libraries

Not only were grade-level books provided, but there were plenty of below-grade-level books on every topic available to readers who were still below grade-level.  For example, a middle-school student with a lower reading level could still find good primary-level books on any research topic assigned. There used to be hundreds of books available through publishers, on every conceivable topic, for school libraries and public libraries to choose from.  Bookstores made them available to the general public.

Today, funding priorities are focused less on providing new books for the school library–partly because of the explosion of new topics and knowledge in our modern world, and also because of the explosion of information on the internet.  Now funding must be divided between  books, and new library computers.

The market for children’s non-fiction has plummeted since 2005.  Sales to both libraries and bookstores have dropped substantially. Therefore,  fewer nonfiction books for children are being written and published.  Publishers and booksellers decided to drop most nonfiction, and focus primarily on children’s fiction–for which there does continue to be a market.

Desirable Non-Fiction Book Topics

 The lack of nonfiction is particularly damaging for boys.  They tend to prefer autobiographies, nonfiction, newspapers, and realistic topics. Ever since 2005, as the internet has become more powerful, children’s nonfiction has declined.  This decline is preventing many boys from developing as readers. National standards in Britain and America drive the decline even further, “…as the strictures of the national curriculum have driven many publishers to stop producing anything very original, and how many books on Vikings and rainforests do we really need?”

Starting in middle school–most commonly Grade 6 and above–teachers now direct students to the internet for research, instead of to school libraries. One reason is that science classes are now often researching topics which are not even available in books in the school libraries–things such as genetics, and various types of cells–and this is happening in Grades 6, 7, and 8.

Students are now being asked to research obscure people for reasons of diversity in the classroom, rather than famous people.  This means that the information can only be found on the internet.  Students are now expected to use the internet for all research.  This is now true even in elementary school.  Students may be assigned reports on animals, for example.  Perhaps there are perfectly good books in the school library at the right reading level; however, it has now become “too much trouble” to even check , when one can “just look it up online.”

Using online sources creates a much worse problem–aside from the problem of whether a source is reliable, biased, or incomplete–that is, the problem of reading level!

Below is reading sample from a Grade 5 science text which more than half of students (even in good schools) might find too difficult to read without the teacher’s help.  Why?  Because students are now used to reading only fiction in reading class.  They are not used to the vocabulary in non-fiction; nor are they used to reading expository sentences..

Levers text


Not only have student reading levels declined in real terms, but the sources students are now attempting to use are usually written at far too high of a level for their age.  Students in middle school and high school usually go first to Wikipedia (and are often specifically told to do so by their teachers, particularly in international schools that have much less access to English-language printed material).  Unlike school library books or school text books of old, vocabulary is not controlled for difficulty.  Sometimes the articles are poorly written, and written by scholars who are just trying to impress other scholars with their difficult vocabulary.

Below is a section of what one of my 7th-graders attempted to read for a report on glial cells last year, using Wikipedia.  Most students now need adult help to translate and explain what they are trying to read.  To a poor reader, this may as well be in Chinese:

Glial cells text from Wikipedia

Those students who can afford it hire private tutors.  My students show up and say, “I have a project or report due next week on glial cells (or guard cells, or an obscure historical figure).  Can you help me?”  Students arrive knowing nothing about the topic, and are expected to research on line, and write a report listing their sources.  So, together we look on line and usually find very scholarly articles, which I, as an excellent reader in my 60s with a graduate degree and decades of experience teaching, sometimes have trouble understanding!  So we pull out little snippets of information from various articles, which I explain in plain English and then mark our source.  Even many Wikipedia articles are written by scholars, seemingly just in order to impress other scholars!

Hiring a private tutor

I learned a great trick years ago when I was in a professional writers’ group.  If you need good, concise information on an area or a subject, one of the best ways to find it is to go directly to children’s books, where you can find the information thoroughly distilled and written in clear, easy English.  I use this same strategy now and show students how they can search on the internet using the search terms “my topic + explained for children.”  It doesn’t always work, but it often does.  Sometimes we arrive at a website where something has been clearly explained at a reading level appropriate for middle-school students.

The thing which most excited me about the internet when it first began, especially as an overseas teacher with little access to English-language reading materials, was its potential as a world library at our fingertips.  Sadly, much of this potential is being lost for two reasons.  First, children are not developing adequate non-fiction reading abilities to function in society.  Second, most of what is available on the internet is written at far too high of a level for students to be able to benefit from it.

In most American schools, for the past several decades, the textbook has been seen by teachers as only one resource of many for classroom use.  In fact, years ago, over-reliance on the textbook was almost seen as the mark of a lazy teacher, within the teaching profession.  Unfortunately, the current result of this attitude has now led to teacher over-reliance on the internet, with students who are unable to understand either their textbooks OR the internet!  I personally have come around 180° to the view that students would be better served if they learned and discussed in class everything which is in the textbook.  Now, however, there is a new problem!  Many schools are now moving entirely away from textbooks as a way to save money, and teachers are mostly downloading random worksheets from the internet. Unfortunately, it is students who are again losing out on their education.

Part II of this series will discuss what parents, schools, and teachers can do to address these problems.

–Lynne Diligent

Young Student Remembers Past Life?

January 20, 2013


Several years ago, while teaching third grade, the school asked me to have students write stories.  One of my third-grade boys (age 8) wrote a story unlike any I have ever seen in all of my years of teaching.  Instead of writing about the usual kinds of stories which children do, he wrote about his experience as an adult man during war.

His story was about trying to save his family while he was being called off to war.  He was rushing to hide them in the basement and get them necessities, while trucks of soldiers were coming by to pick him up and take him with them off to war.  It was in Europe, and there were trucks.  It’s been several years, and I no longer recall all the details, but the essence of the story has stayed with me ever since.  Out of all the stories my students wrote over the years, it is the only one I can clearly remember today.

As someone who believes in reincarnation, I’ve always wondered if, in fact, this child’s story was a past-life memory.  It was shocking to read.  It sounded like one of the World Wars.  His concerns sounded just as if an adult man of 35 was speaking about his feelings.  There are a number cases now researched and published of young children who remember past lives, and even past lives in wars.

I mentioned the story to his mother, and she responded, “I know.  He’s just like an old man, in a little boy’s body.”

–Lynne Diligent

Each Tutor’s Most Crucial Dilemma

March 3, 2012

“Thinking back to literature tutoring days, there’s a fine line between helping students, and doing the work for them.  Students and parents are happiest only if the tutor crosses it.  How do you handle such situations?”  a fellow tutor asked me.

This is the tutor’s most crucial dilemma, in a nutshell.

Most successful long-term tutors have also been teachers.  As teachers, we want students to benefit from doing their own work.  However, as tutors, we have to remember who we are working for, if we wish to stay employed.

Most students who choose to use a tutor are not reading the required books in school anyway.  Few students are.  These days, tutors or not, I’m finding that upwards of 90 percent of students are just watching the movie, and a few students are going to Spark Notes and reading those notes, or taking those quizzes.  (Few actually read the Spark Notes well, and even fewer bother to take their quizzes.)

As a tutor, what I’m really being paid for is to make sure my students get good grades.  Parents are willing to shell out money for this, but not so much for someone who tells students that they must read on their own and who does not coach non-reading students for their tests.  So, what is a tutor to do?

Formerly as a teacher, I prided myself on getting all of my students to LOVE reading for pleasure, and to become truly interested in whatever subject we were studying.  Presently as a tutor, I pride myself on getting my non-reading students to read SOME, and to APPRECIATE what we are reading or studying.

I use all sorts of techniques to achieve these aims.  I sometimes rewrite books that use difficult language, to tell the story in simpler language.  I read these simpler rewrites with my students, and once they understand, they are sometimes motivated to read the original.  Sometimes they are unable to read the original, but at least they read SOMETHING, and learned about the story, and are able to pass a test asking them about the story.  We discuss the story and how we feel about it as we read it (even if it is in its easier version), and the students gain an appreciation for the piece of literature.

Is this acceptable?

As a tutor, I cannot take the same attitude I would take as a teacher.  As a tutor, I am coming from the perspective that students are not reading, and are not going to read.   If I can get them to read ANYTHING (even if I have to “spoon-feed” it to them), they are reading more than they would if they were not coming to me.  If I can get them to APPRECIATE the story, they are appreciating it far more that if they were not coming to me.  If they are PASSING THE TEST, they are learning far more than if they were not coming to me.

spoon-feeding students

Should we spoon-feed pupils?

So yes, I DO cross that “line” as a tutor, but I try to do it stealthily, where I sneakily make the student work and understand more than he planned to do before he came to me!

This same dilemma exists in helping with writing assignments, with math homework, and with everything else that a tutor does  As a tutor, I try to help lighten the students’ burden, while at the same time actually teaching the student on a one-to-one basis, in a way which would be impossible in a full classroom.  For example, I often do math homework problems on individual white board along with the student.  Then we compare answers.  If they are the same, we move ahead.  If they are different, we go back through the problems step-by-step to see where we diverged.  I feel students learn more this way.

I would like to hear about how others deal with this dilemma.  If you are a tutor, where do you draw the line?  If you are a teacher, what are your thoughts?  If you are a parent, what are your feelings?

-Lynne Diligent

Why Teachers Should NOT Treat All Students the Same Way

November 25, 2011

When I first began my teaching career, I made a great effort to be fair with all students by treating them the same way under the same circumstances.  We all want to be fair with students if we are decent human beings as teachers.

However, over many years of teaching (and parenting) I discovered that treating all the same way was not producing the best results.  Over time, my focus changed from concentrating on being “fair” to doing whatever was necessary to bring each student to his highest and best performance in my class.  Furthermore, each student’s best performance was not at the same level as any other student.  This is where teaching becomes an “art” rather than a procedure, or a delivery.

Let’s look at some specific examples.  If students don’t do their homework (math, for example), they arrive in class unprepared to learn from their mistakes in that day’s lesson.  It is not important if they got the right answer in their homework; what is important is whether they attempted the problems and knew at which points they encountered difficulty.  Then they were ready for that day’s work and explanations.

So, how can teachers get students to do their homework (each student’s highest and best effort)?  In my early teaching days, in attempting to be “fair,” I would have given an identical penalty to every student who did not do their homework.  After two decades in the classroom, my approach had changed.  In Grade Three, I put A’s on every paper where the homework was completed (correct or not, although grades were not counted–unknown to the students, but known by their parents) and F’s on any homework undone or uncompleted (again, not counted, as above).  Other than that, I used different incentives for each student.

One student might need a threat–threat of a phone call to a parent, threat of staying in from recess, threat of extra homework.  Another student might need a reward–verbal praise, positive note home from the teacher, getting to be first in line all day long, reading a book while others continue to work.  Still another student might need extra help in class, extra time with the teacher, help from a classmate arranged with the teacher’s blessing, help speaking to a parent.

This is where teaching becomes an art.  In order to know when to use the carrot and when to use the stick, and how much carrot or stick, or which carrot or stick to use, a teacher must know all of his or her students individually, and know them well.  In a normal class of 25-30 students, it takes about two months to know the students this well.

Some teachers don’t want to know their students, and put up a wall.  It’s also harder for younger teachers who are closer in age to the students they teach.  The older one is, the easier it is to get to know students individually without compromising privacy or classroom discipline.  Sometimes older students assume that younger teachers want to be their “friend,” whereas younger students with an older teacher don’t make this assumption even if they do become actual friends at some point.  So the older the teacher is, the easier this is.  Sometimes younger teachers need to erect more of a barrier.

So, how to get to know one’s students?  The first way is through grading their papers, reading their opinions, and by commenting on their papers regarding what they have said.  The second way is through classroom discussions, and by being open and honest with students in classroom discussions, which encourages them to be open and honest with teachers in return.  You both learn about each other.  It’s always easier to do this in primary school than in secondary school.

Regardless, any effort expended in knowing students individually will pay dividends both in personal rewards as well as for knowing what to use to motivate that particular student.  Students who know and respect a teacher will work hard for that teacher as a person.

The reason students must not be treated the same is that some are motivated by carrots, some by sticks, and most by alternate use of various carrots and sticks at different times, and under different circumstances.

–Lynne Diligent

Teaching Conditions Faced by Teachers in the Rural Middle East and North Africa

November 22, 2011

Imagine 46 students per class (with the teacher having 550 different students per week), no chalk, no electrictiy, and no heat in freezing winter conditions.

The current generation of young teachers are often placed in government public schools which are now built in agricultural and mountain regions.  I spoke with one of these teachers, an incredibly dedicated first-year English teacher, who is teaching in one of these schools, and listened to him describe to me the teaching conditions he has to endure.

He teaches in a school without electricity or any sort of heat (and it is winter now with freezing temperatures), and without enough chalk for him to use.  The school finally was able to obtain one box of chalk to use.  When I asked him how long this was supposed to last, he told me the whole year.  I asked him if it might be possible for him to buy additional chalk from  his own pocket (even though he shouldn’t have to).

A rural, public secondary school.

He said that the problem was that as a new teacher, he hadn’t received his salary yet.  When I asked why not, he told me that all the teachers placed in public schools did not receive their salary for the first one-to-two years on the job (although I am assuming that they do eventually get the salary to which they are entitled)!  He said that teachers at private schools do get their monthly salaries upon starting, and that this is just a problem in the public-school sector.  When I asked about salaries, it appears that new teachers in the public sector generally make about $400 a month; whereas veteran teachers of many years usually make about $700 a month.  The top end of the salary scale is around $1,000 a month for the most veteran teachers in the most difficult subjects (possibly math, chemistry, physics).

My next question was, therefore, how was he managing to live, if he wasn’t getting any salary?  I asked if students ever invited him to their homes for meals.  He said no.  He said that he was very fortunate, compared to some teachers, because his parents had actually moved to his new location with him (he’s 25) so that he could live with him and they could support him during his first few years in this job.  (In this country, most new teachers are placed first in rural areas, and after several years of teaching in such conditions, they can apply to come to the city.  But it usually takes many years to actually be able to get to a school in a city.)

School hours are from 8:00 am – 12:00 Noon, and again from 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm.  This particular teacher is an English teacher in a middle school.  He has 550 students a week.  His classes average 46, and in each class, the age of students ranges from 13-20!  Each of the 550 students spends about two hours a week in his class, once a week.  So each day he has three classes.  One goes from 8:00 am to 10:00 am.  Then he has a ten-minute break.  The next class goes until noon, followed by an hour for lunch.  The third class is from 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm, and another class from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm.  He has tried assigning homework, but has so far found that only five or six students out of 550 actually did the homework.  He says that most students take notes, but never open their notebook once they have left class.  The school has no library at all, and twenty classrooms which are equally as crowded as his.  The school has no extra resources even to buy an extra box of chalk for the teachers.

I asked about the sex ratio in his classes.  He said that being a secondary school in a rural area, it’s about 70% boys and 30% girls, but that the girls are far more serious, and study better.  Some of the reasons behind the lower attendance of girls have to do with girls’ labor being needed in the home, as well as it being dangerous and far for the girls to walk to school.  They cannot walk alone (for safety reasons).  The school is 2-3 kilometers from most of their homes.  The older girls get, it is more difficult for families to keep them in school, than it is for boys.

This teacher told me that he started his class year by having only two rules, which he explained to his students.  These are to have RESPECT, and to DREAM BIG.    He talked to the students about respecting themselves, about respecting others, about respecting their teachers, and about what it means to have respect in each of these areas.  Next he talked to them about their dreams.  He tried to encourage them in whatever their dreams were, to take steps toward pursuing them, whether it be becoming a soccer or basketball player, or becoming an artist.  The saddest thing, he said, was that most of them don’t have ANY dreams at ALL.  He said they have been raised in such a way that such thinking and ideas are not encouraged.

A typical public secondary school in a small city.

I told him (speaking as a teacher of many years) that no teacher can hope to be that “special” teacher for everyone, but that every teacher CAN hope and expect to be that “special” teacher for at least some students.  Teachers can change the lives of students by opening up possibilities and giving emotional support.  We discussed it, and he said that while middle-class students are now having dreams, that lower-class students (the majority) are not yet to that level.

As a first-year teacher, he told me that he desires to be a “modern” teacher, using games, songs, and playing.  However, he quickly found this did not work.  “If you have fun with them,” he says, “then they think you are a cool teacher who ‘lets them do whatever they want’ and they don’t respect you.”  He has problems with students getting up out of their chairs out of their chairs without permission, and many students talking in class, disturbing the others.  When he tries to get them to CALM DOWN they don’t want to listen.  These are the same problems I had for many years in my classrooms in this country, although I found getting older (as a teacher) helps!

Interestingly, English teachers in this French-speaking country tend to follow Western models of teaching, and the education departments follow modern methods from America.  They are not being taught in ed school just to have students “memorize” and the like; however, they have the same trouble as foreign teachers do with finding that often more fun and interesting methods don’t seem to work with students who have been raised with different sorts of ideas by their parents, and by the local culture.

This teacher and I live in different parts of our country, and I spoke with him over Skype.  His English was unbelievably good, even compared to other English teachers I have met.  We are a French and Arabic-speaking country (upper classes speaking French, and lower classes speaking the local dialects of Arabic).  It was as good as if he had been raised in England or America, and only had a very slight accent.  He spoke with perfect grammar and pronunciation, and in our two-hour conversation I heard only one slight mistake, which he self-corrected.  I think it’s amazing that someone of this quality is teaching in such a far-off rural school.

I mention this teacher’s good English as a comparison  to my daughter’s experience less than ten years ago in respected private school in a big city in our country.  I went to a presentation for parents in a large auditorium.  The English teacher got up and spoke to parents for five minutes from the stage, explaining what the students were going to do.  Yet, I could barely understand a word!  When my daughter (a native speaker) was in her class, she used to tell my daughter that she wasn’t speaking English correctly (not true).  Since that time, I have found that the English standards of the public-school teachers generally seem quite superior to those of many private-school teachers (although I’m not yet sure why that is).

This teacher’s dedication really impressed me and made me feel as if I wanted to be a student in his class!

–Lynne Diligent

How Mothers Feel!

November 22, 2011

Should Tutors Help Students Who Haven’t Done ANY of Their Own Reading?

November 16, 2011

Sometimes I tutor students who have been allowed to advance to a grade far beyond their reading level.   Special help (other than ordinary private tutors) is not available in my country.   So my problem is how to help these students.

This week I had a student in upper middle school who was supposed to read a book of classic literature written in about 1880.  The student wasn’t able to read the book at all (not even one page).  I taught this student many years ago in an early elementary grade and he was weak then.  He is even weaker now.  This student is now approximately four years advanced beyond his reading level.  There is no question that this boy has a learning disability, but there are no facilities or specialists for testing such things in my country.

When this student left my class five years ago, I told his mother that what he really needed was as much encouragement as possible to stay in school.  Today I see that the student is still interested, motivated, and DOES try in spite of not being able to read anything for the class.

I began by trying to rewrite the classic book as a much simpler story so that I could read it with the student.  It’s quite a long book, so I was only able to rewrite a quarter of the book in a few days.  I finally gave up on the rest (done in my free time for no pay).  I did read through this easier version with the student, and he enjoyed it; however, there were still many common words in English that he did not know, which people who are native speakers might know.

Once we got though what I’d written, we only had an hour to summarize the rest of the book before my student has a test on it in two days.  So I quickly tried to highlight the most important parts of the story and dictated four or five paragraphs of the rest of the story, which my student copied.  He relies on copying things down and trying to memorize them.

Should I do this?  When the student came to me, he was already getting an F.  If he fails, he will drop out of school.  Our school is a high-standard college prep school.  There are no other alternative English-language schools within 300 miles, and those are three times the price of our school, to say nothing of this student not having any family or other support to attend a school far away.  The student cannot switch to a school in another language at this late date.

While I’m sure this student will not make it to college, my objective here is to help this student get his grade up to a C (or higher), to stay in school as long as possible,  and to get as much as possible out of his education.  It’s not ideal, but the student is definitely learning, is still interested, and still positive.  Learning anything is better than learning nothing.

Siobhan Curious, who teaches introductory college literature, wonders how to motivate students who don’t want to read.  This is a similar problem to motivating my students who can’t read.  I think part of the answer is to try to get them excited about the story itself, sometimes even helping them to read it– which gives SOME the incentive to want to read it on their own.

What do others think?

–Lynne Diligent

Santa Grants Students’ Wishes

November 16, 2011

How to Get HBO Programming Ten Years Before Anyone Else

October 23, 2011