Sunday, 27 September 2015

Bedtime story is key to literacy, says children's writer Cottrell Boyce

As a new literacy drive is launched, authors including David Walliams and Michael Rosen warn of threat to storytelling from screens and busy lives.

The childhood tradition of a bedtime story is in serious peril, as experts warn that parents are not making the time to read to their children at the end of the working day and stop reading to them at too young an age.

“Parents lead very, very busy lives,” said Diana Gerald, chief executive of the Book Trust, which encourages children and families to enjoy books and develop their reading skills. “We live in a world where parents are juggling work and home life. Lots of parents are working shifts and there’s a lot of pressure on families. People are increasing their hours.”

A recent survey, by YouGov for the children’s publisher Scholastic, revealed last week that many parents stop reading to their children when they become independent readers, even if the child isn’t ready to lose their bedtime story. The study found that 83% of children enjoyed being read aloud to, with 68% describing it as a special time with their parents. (“It felt so warm, so spirit-rising,” as one 11-year-old boy put it.)

One in five of the parents surveyed stopped reading aloud to their children before the age of nine, and almost a third of children aged six to 11 whose parents had stopped reading aloud to them wanted them to carry on.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, who won the 2004 Carnegie medal for his first children’s book, Millions, was dismayed by the findings. “The joy of a bedtime story is the key to developing a love of reading in children”, he said – more so than literacy classes in school, which can be “a very negative experience”, for the many children he meets during visits to schools, whose first experience of books is in the classroom.

“They’re being taught to read before anyone has shared with them the pleasure of reading – so what motivation have they got to learn?” said Cottrell Boyce. “Even the ones that attain high levels of ‘literacy’ (whatever that is) are in danger of achieving that without ever experiencing the point of reading.” Frank Cottrell Boyce: ‘This is something people have done since the days of sitting around campfires napping flints. To stop doing now is to break the great chain of our being.’ 

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Scotland's child poverty levels so severe teachers are sent advice on spotting malnourished students

Country’s largest teaching union draws up guidelines to help 'poverty-proof' classrooms.

Child poverty in Scotland is now so severe that teachers are being sent advice on how to spot if a child in their class is going hungry, amid evidence that the problem is having an increasingly serious impact on education.

The new guidance, which will be distributed to schools and colleges across Scotland next week, warns that the issue of hunger among pupils is “moving from the exceptional to the more commonplace” as families struggle to make ends meet.

The advice has been drawn up by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s largest teaching union, after a survey of 300 schools and colleges suggested that teachers are increasingly having to help underfed pupils. It is the first time that a section on hunger has been included in the guidance.

“Pupils may appear pale, fatigued, irritable or lacking in concentration, or complain of headaches or feeling unwell,” it states. “While there can be other reasons underlying such signs, for a growing number of children and young people in our schools and colleges today, the reason will be hunger.”

Teachers who suspect that a child may be going hungry should include them in morning breakfast clubs and post the details of nearby food banks on school notice boards and websites, so their families can seek help, the guidance says.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Too much too soon? What should we be teaching four-year-olds

The first day of school is a momentous event in the life of a child. For many it is a day filled with pride and excitement. For others it is more stressful; they may cling to their parents, unused to being parted for so long.

In England, these extremes of experience are particularly marked because of the very young age at which children start formal schooling. Children begin school in the year in which they turn five, meaning that many children start school shortly after their fourth birthdays. England is unusual in this regard; in 31 out of 37 European countries children do not start formal education until they are at least six.

The age at which children start school may not matter as much as what happens to them once they get to the classroom. Given our backgrounds in developmental psychology and speech-language therapy, we think the current targets set for children in their first year at school are not developmentally appropriate. Our research published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry demonstrates that the youngest children in the class find these targets particularly challenging.

England has a curriculum for Early Years Foundation Stage, which outlines developmental goals from birth to five years old. This includes three prime areas of learning such as personal, social and emotional development; physical development; communication and language; as well as specific areas of learning such as maths and literacy.

In 2012, the New Early Years Foundation Stage Profile was introduced, to document attainment at the end of the early years curriculum. The profile is completed by the teacher at the end of the first year in school, and children are assessed on the extent to which they meet or exceed expected progress on 12 key targets across these areas of learning. Those making expected progress are deemed to have achieved a “good level of development”. Here are a few of the key targets:

Thursday, 24 September 2015

When parents with high math anxiety help with homework, children learn less

If the thought of calculating a tip at a restaurant makes you nervous, then you are not alone. Math anxiety is common worldwide.

Math anxiety can lead to poor performance and also deter people from taking math courses. This is because feelings of anxiety can tie up important cognitive resources (known as working memory), which are needed for solving math problems.

But why are some people more math anxious than others? And is there a link between parents’ math anxiety and their children’s math anxiety?

As researchers who study the role of cognitive and emotional factors in achievement, these are some of the questions that my colleagues and I have been examining. We find that when parents with math anxiety help with homework, it could have a negative impact on their kids.

Social factors contribute to math anxiety

Math anxiety can start early. Children as young as six can experience varying degrees of math anxiety which is linked to poor math achievement.

While recent research suggests that some people are predisposed to develop math anxiety, and that there may be a genetic component to this predisposition, the social factors that can lead someone to develop math anxiety are also important to understand.

Recently, we examined the link between parents’ math anxiety and their children’s math anxiety and math achievement.

We assessed the math anxiety and math achievement levels of 438 first- and second-grade children at both the beginning and the end of the school year. We assessed their parents’ math anxiety level. We also assessed how often they helped their children with their math homework.

Monday, 21 September 2015

When Success Leads to Failure

The pressure to achieve academically is a crime against learning.

I’ve known the mother sitting in front of me at this parent-teacher conference for years, and we have been through a lot together. I have taught three of her children, and I like to think we’ve even become friends during our time together. She’s a conscientious mother who obviously loves her children with all of her heart. I’ve always been honest with her about their strengths and weaknesses, and I think she trusts me to tell her the truth. But when she hits me with the concern that’s been bothering her for a while, all I can do is nod, and stall for time.

“Marianna’s grades are fine; I’m not worried about that, but she just doesn’t seem to love learning anymore.”

Above all else, we taught her to fear failure. That fear is what has destroyed her love of learning.

She’s absolutely right. I’d noticed the same thing about her daughter over the previous two or three years I’d been her middle school English, Latin, and writing teacher, and I have an answer, right there on the tip of my tongue, for what has gone wrong. Yet I’m torn between my responsibility to help Marianna and the knowledge that what I have to say is a truth I’m not sure this mother is ready to hear.

The truth—for this parent and so many others—is this: Her child has sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement, and it’s our fault. Marianna’s parents, her teachers, society at large—we are all implicated in this crime against learning. From her first day of school, we pointed her toward that altar and trained her to measure her progress by means of points, scores, and awards. We taught Marianna that her potential is tied to her intellect, and that her intellect is more important than her character. We taught her to come home proudly bearing As, championship trophies, and college acceptances, and we inadvertently taught her that we don’t really care how she obtains them. We taught her to protect her academic and extracurricular perfection at all costs and that it’s better to quit when things get challenging rather than risk marring that perfect record. Above all else, we taught her to fear failure. That fear is what has destroyed her love of learning.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Organic food starts to prove its worth

Scientists are finding benefits for the environment and possibly human health.

At the supermarket, there are usually two sections in the produce aisle. In one, all the fruits and vegetables, from apples to zucchini, are labeled “organic.” Often these products cost more than ones that look the same but don’t have the organic label.

The big price tag can lead people to assume organic food is better than conventionally grown food. But, in the United States, the label simply means that the food has met guidelines set out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For instance, organic fruits, vegetables and other crops must not have been treated with syntheticfertilizers, certain pesticides or sewage sludge. Meat, eggs and milk must come from animals that have been raised according to specific health and welfare standards. Also, farmers may not treat these animals with antibiotics or growth hormones and must raise them on organic feed. Products with multiple ingredients must contain 95 percent or more organic content.

What benefits the organic label might signify, though, has not always been clear.

For years, scientists have been trying to tease out whether organic foods are themselves different than those grown conventionally. Research is beginning to show organic foods can be better — and not only for the people who eat it. Growing foods organically also can help the environment, new data show.

Pesticides are good travelers

On a farm, pests and weeds can destroy a crop. So most U.S. farmers apply chemicals called pesticides to limit the damage.

Conventional farmers can apply any pesticide approved for use in the United States. Organic farmers cannot use all of those same chemicals. That doesn’t mean organic farmers allow insect pests and weeds to live peacefully among their crops. They too can use pesticides and weed killers. They just have a smaller list from which to choose.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Dinnertime storytelling makes kids voracious readers

Family dinners can whet children’s appetites for reading.

As a young child, I loved to imagine myself as a pioneer girl in Little House in the Big Woods, eating fresh snow drizzled with maple syrup. I even pestered my mother to make this treat with the dirty snow that fell on our Manhattan sidewalk. Not a chance.

Years later, I honored my young sons’ request to try a coconut after reading the adventures of Babar. Who knew that even a hammer and chisel won’t crack these nuts? I resorted to clearing out the sidewalk below and then pitching the fruit out a third-floor window.

It worked, but thankfully there are many easier ways to bring food and reading together than hurling coconuts or eating dirty snow.

Here are some of the connections I researched while working on my book, Home for Dinner. And remember, none of these requires a gourmet meal or a trip to the bookstore. Library books and a takeout pizza are just as good.

Dinner conversation builds vocabulary

For starters, there is the linguistic pairing of reading and eating, shown in such common expressions as “devouring a good book” or being a “voracious” reader.

Those sayings reflect the reality that children who have regular family dinners have a real leg up on being good and early readers. Years of research from the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development have shown that dinner conversation is a terrific vocabulary booster for young children – even better than reading aloud to them.