• The Puzzle of Teaching and the Puzzle of Student Success

         Teaching is a puzzle that keeps me thinking all the time. In my work with students who have learning disabilities, statistics prove that the most beneficial and most effective educational approaches include “explicit, systematic, cumulative, and multisensory” instruction. But what may seem like a straightforward plan is not always so easily implemented. Depending on the student, one needs to be systematic or creative or systematically creative. It’s a question of tuning and retuning and fine-tuning as progress is made and setbacks are faced.

         Adding to the complexity are the social and emotional problems related to learning difficulties. “Anxiety caused by constant frustration and confusion in school,” can make a student vulnerable to feelings of fear, anger, inferiority, and a barrage of ensuing emotional/behavioral issues. The world we live in also plays a part. The fact that information is literally streaming towards us at an ever-increasing speed from multiple simultaneous sources has to have consequences on our ability to sit still and concentrate. Is it any wonder that more and more children and adults are diagnosed with attention issues that affect learning? And finally, the greatest impact on educational success, and perhaps the most deeply rooted, is socio-economic status. Is the playing field equal for a child born into the upper or middle class versus a child born to working class or welfare parents?

         As an educator I’ve taught a variety of students over the years, both in-school and privately. My current student roster is widely diverse. It includes twelve males and five females. One Cambodian American student, one Haitian American student, a Japanese American, a Somali American, an African American, a Native American, an Israeli American, and ten Caucasian students. That incredible mix of backgrounds includes two seven-year-olds, two eight-year-olds, three nine-year-olds, three ten-year olds, three eleven-year-olds, one twelve-year-old, one seventeen-year-old, and two adults. Thirteen of the students live in two-parent households. Three split their time between divorced parents. One lives in a single-parent household. All of the parents work but their jobs and incomes range from upper middle class to middle class to working class, from lawyers to janitors. Four students are enrolled in parochial schools, four in private schools, and seven in public schools. My two adult students are developmentally disabled and work at forty-hour-a-week jobs.

         For me, teaching involves awareness and understanding of such issues as dyslexia, dysgraphia, learning deficits for numerous reasons, developmental delays, attention difficulties, multiple intelligences, systematic instruction, attentive listening, and teaching moments that can inspire students of all levels to explore and expand. Apart from the differences in age and sheer numbers, the composition of my clientele mirrors most inner city classrooms. It is as complex and multifaceted with the same variables and immense challenges that arise from the same diversity. The big difference is I have the luxury of tailoring my work to each student’s individual needs.

         So what is the best way to achieve student success? The answer is not simple. It’s not just through teaching methodologies, curriculum, technology, or academic standards. It’s more comprehensive than that. Naming the pieces is important but figuring out how they best fit together is key. Two books, one published almost twenty years ago and one published this past year, offer insights into the matter. They also offer hope couched in the realization that change is painstakingly slow, when time is clearly of the essence. There is such urgency to the task of rebuilding America’s educational system, such a need to produce thinkers equipped to face the demands of this millennium and beyond.

         In Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, a book published almost 20 years ago, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley present a rigorous study of language acquisition (or lack thereof) in American children and offer devastating data. The amount of words a child knows by the age of three years old is highly linked to socio-economic strata. Hart and Risley recorded the number of interactions between parents and children in a broad swath of project participants across 42 families. The conclusion was that “socio economic status made an overwhelming difference in how much talking went on in a family.” Children from professional families “would have heard more than 30 million words” in the first year three years of life, “the children from working class families 20 million, and the children in welfare families 10 million.” Not so much the kind, but the amount of utterances combined with parental interactions, would make an exponentially huge impact in the years to come. By the third grade, academic success was clearly contingent on vocabulary acquisition. The study showed an “ever widening gap in vocabulary use”, dependent on the amount and richness of daily experience. Even more poignant, the authors concluded that in the lower economic strata, “the poverty of experience is transmitted across generations.”

         In his recent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough’s findings mirror to a great extent the findings of Hart and Risley. In this highly readable and passionate treatise on the impact of socio-economic status on America’s diverse student population, Tough presents several moving examples of teachers and students who persevere to realize their potential. He agrees with Hart and Risley that early intervention in the form of nurturing support within the family, supplemented by the community, is both beneficial and crucial to healthy human development, but he also presents a strong argument for another ingredient in academic and professional success. He leans heavily on the value of what he calls character strength or noncognitive skills. Drawing on the ideas of innovative educators throughout history, including Lev Vygotsky, Geoffrey Canada, and others, Tough enhances his thesis that building noncognitive skills is key to the confident and questioning mindset that will carry students through the learning experiences in their lives and allow them to grow and flourish.

         What then are noncognitive skills? Tough posits these develop as the prefrontal cortex develops, similarly to executive function skills such as self-regulation, the ability to focus attention, retain and process information, connect and organize thoughts, and engage in meaningful discussion. Included on Tough’s list are impulse control, tenacity, and grit or resilience—all critical qualities when facing and managing adversity but lacking in many students. Brain science shows that these noncognitive skills are not innate but learned, and their implementation takes time, often through adolescence and into adulthood. The good news is this means they are valuable tools that can level the playing field across economic strata. Both Paul Tough and the Hart and Risley study advocate more effective support for parents in developing skills and strengths in their children, but they do not stop there. Tough urges taking an active role. “This means the rest of us – society as a whole – can do an enormous amount to influence [the] development [of character strength].” Teachers, mentors, coaches, neighbors, local and national government – all of us have a role in creating smart, strong, thoughtful, caring children.

         The Hart and Risley study and Paul Tough paint a harsh picture tempered with optimism. “It is possible to provide all children equal experience and thus equal opportunity,” Hart and Risley state while encouraging early involvement on familial, educational, political, and governmental levels. Tough, meanwhile, tells inspirational tales. He presents struggling students who struggle at home as well as school, facing hunger, chaotic family situations, and often abuse and contrasts them with students from wealthy families in high achieving schools, wanting for nothing but their seldom seen parents who prioritize work over family life. Against all odds and with support from the wider social safety net that both authors insist we must continue to create, these students and more not only survive but succeed.

                                                     -- Lynn Frances Guthrie, B.A., M.A., Owner READ WRITE LEARN
                                                         Published on the WABIDA website            


    International Dyslexia Association (2011). JUST THE FACTS, A PARENT’S GUIDE TO EFFECTIVE INSTRUCTION.


    Hart, Betty & Risley, Todd R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. 268 pages. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

    Tough, Paul. (2012). How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. 231 pages. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. 

  • Why Teach Handwriting?

         The debate on whether handwriting, and more specifically cursive, should be taught as part of the school curriculum is currently a heated one among educators of all levels, including teachers, administrators, and the Common Core Standards Committee. Laptops and hand-held devices are changing the way we think, communicate, live, study, and write. With all the discussion surrounding the subject, I decided to survey my students for their points of view. Who, after all, is better qualified to weigh in than the population required to learn this rapidly disappearing art?

         My participants spanned the gamut of ages between seven and thirteen, from second to seventh grade, and, interestingly, the range of their perspectives mirrored the range of adult perspectives. Several students were adamantly against learning cursive. “It’s not a good idea. No one asks you to write just cursive. It’s slower because you have to pay more attention to how you write. Cursive should be optional. In the long run, it’s a subject that’s not worth it. When I’m a grown up, half the people will be writing on computers anyway so it’s kind of a waste of time.”  After more discussion and reflection, however, students warmed to the idea. “It might come in useful when you’re around 30 and want to write in a fancy way, like for a letter.”  Those who had already learned cursive, most often were positive.  “I’m glad I learned it. I think it should be taught in schools. They should teach it in third grade and then offer it again later so you can improve. If more teachers had taught it, I would have used it and had pretty handwriting.”

          Cursive cons included:

    • Regular writing is easier.
    • Cursive is super hard to write and impossible to read. It looks like a bunch of fancy scribbles.
    • I don’t like writing cursive because it’s hard and all the letters look like squiggly lines.
    • You have to make all the right loops and all those loops make your hand hurt.
    • Cursive is slower because you have to pay more attention to how you write.
    • It takes a long time to learn and you can’t mess up.
    • Regular writing is faster.
    • Print is enough.

         Cursive pros included:

    • It’s harder than printing but faster.
    • All the letters are connected and you can write quicker using cursive.
    • It’s a fancier way of writing.
    • Every grown up writes in cursive so I think someday I might need it.
    • Learning cursive gives you two different ways of writing.
    • Many older people were taught cursive so if you know it you’ll be able to read your parents handwriting.
    • Cursive is neater than manuscript.
    • Cursive looks really beautiful.

         How would students use cursive in their day-to-day lives?

    • You can use it on a daily basis for everything.
    • It’s useful for writing cards or letters.
    • Some essays could be in cursive.
    • It’s important for proper documents like the Constitution. If we ever need to do that again, we are going to need cursive.
    • The one unanimous answer was the importance of cursive for writing signatures because it looks cool.

         As the comments of my students attest, the momentum of technology is pushing us towards the next evolutionary step, but should we leave writing by hand behind? In his recent book, The Missing Ink, Philip Hensher attacks this question on multiple levels. First he takes a rambling look at the history of handwriting and handwriting tools, jumping back and forth in time and providing illustrations.

         In almost three centuries, the United States has produced a number of major schools of handwriting. Platt Roger Spencer, also called “the father of American Penmanship” and the author of Spencer’s New Standard Writing in 1884, brought the ornately flowing Copperplate round hand to America with his hybrid “Spencerian Script.” In 1890, A.N. Palmer simplified this script and developed a completely new style. His book Palmer’s Guide to Business Writing made handwriting a commodity.  Mandating upright posture, desks in straight rows, and drills, the emphasis centered on the necessary musculature to produce efficient, rapid, and legible writing with almost military precision. Then in 1935, the lesser known but more expansively thinking Marion Richardson published Writing and Writing Patterns and the pendulum of penmanship swung the other way. Richardson was an art teacher before she became a proponent of “free cursive handwriting.” Her goals, antithetical to Palmer’s, encouraged exploration, “spontaneous scribble”, the experience of different writing rhythms, and creativity promoted through “the power of invention.”

         There were other schools along the way, including Zaner-Bloser, still prevalent in the Midwest, but Handwriting Without Tears (not mentioned in Hensher’s book) is one of the most widely-used modern curriculum in the United States. It dates from 1977 and includes aspects of the Palmer methodology with systematic attention to start, sequence, size, placement, and control in daily drills. The goals are similar as well: neat, fast, and easy. However, Marion Richardson’s influence can be felt in the Handwriting Without Tears program that also includes creativity through music, dance, play, and drawing.

         The Missing Ink touches on aspects of handwriting that go below the surface as well. In a later chapter entitled, “What Is To Be Done?” Hensher mentions research done by Virginia Berninger and Robert Abbott at the University of Washington. Their studies show that “improved handwriting also improved reading skills, better word recognition, better composition skills, and better recall from memory.” And he quotes Berninger:  “Handwriting is not just a motor process; it is also a memory process for letters – the building blocks for written language.” In fact, the work of Berninger et al. merits much more attention. Their studies address the crucial question of the developmental importance of cursive. What should the academic curriculum include as education moves forward in the technological age? Their findings offer empirical data to be taken seriously when considering handwriting’s place in the cultivation of growing minds.

         One such study is “Comparison of Pen and Keyboard Transcription Modes in Children With and Without Learning Disabilities.” Just as its title implies, the reader is given the answer to the question du jour: which is the fastest and more fluent method of transcription? For criteria, methodology, measures, procedures, and research aims, an in-depth read is advised. Both academic and engaging, there is much to learn and the conclusions are clear. “Although LD-TD and non-LD groups did not differ in total time for producing letters by pen or keyboard, both groups took longer to compose sentences and essays by keyboard than by pen. … Consistently from second to fourth to sixth grade, children wrote longer essays with faster word production rate by pen than by keyboard. …  In addition, fourth and sixth graders wrote more complete sentences when writing by pen than by keyboard.”              

         Berninger and her colleagues also highlight the idea that “forming a written word letter-by-letter by pen may leave a stronger memory trace for written words than [selecting] a word letter-by-letter by keyboard.” This leads to the concept that “the motor act of producing a word results in tactile sensations in the brain; such sensations may create an envelope that links letters into single written word units.” These “graphotactic word envelopes … may develop more quickly and become more automatic sooner for handwriting by pen than by keyboard.” What’s key here is the tactile aspect of writing by hand assists in letter learning, aids in fine motor-skill development, and shapes and engages the brain in composition tasks, such as idea generation and expression. Because of their findings, Berninger cautions that keyboard accommodations for students with learning disabilities may not always be the most effective solution for addressing transcription issues, particularly before adolescence. On a similar note, one might posit that the surge of dysgraphia-related learning disabilities may be due to the diminishing practice of handwriting.

         Further work by Virginia Berninger, Todd Richards, and Robert Abbott yielded “The Role of the Hand in Idea Expression.” After the results of their longitudinal study, Berninger and her co-authors recruited a sample of these same participants for brain imaging observation. Their hypothesis concerning the correlation of handwriting with “idea generation in developing writers” broadened. “Language is a complex, multi-leveled, mediating system that contributes to the translation of ideas into writing, that is, makes connections between the vast internal cognitive representations in the unconscious, implicit memory and the visible language symbols that externalize cognition.” The complexity involves “working memory architecture” and arises when the interrelated loops of phonology, orthography, and morphology must work together with the hands, fingers, and eyes, plus the higher thinking executive functions to transmit letters and words from thought to the page. Berninger embraces the importance of handwriting in all its forms to such an extent that she recommends schools “create learning environments that support not only language(syntax)-based thinking but also translation of ideas in non-syntax format—as in poetry, art, music, and evolving forms of technology.”

         The Missing Ink ends with a similar call to action. Besides the beauty and personal expression of writing by hand that is clearly absent with technological devices, Hensher concludes that “handwriting is good for us. It involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate, and individual. … To diminish the place of handwriting in our lives is to diminish, in a small but real way, our humanity.”  His conviction is such that he attempts to construct a future that gives handwriting relevance. “I dream of creating a space every day where we write with pen on paper, whether for ourselves or to communicate with other people.”  The last chapter of his book is a passionate plea, offering ten suggestions on how to keep handwriting alive both individually and as a society. Hensher energetically enlists readers and writers in the cause. The bottom line is: handwriting is not just handwriting.  Why teach it in schools? The answer is clear.

                                                  -- Lynn Frances Guthrie, B.A., M.A., Owner READ WRITE LEARN
                                                      Published on the WABIDA website


    Hensher, Philip (2012). The Missing Ink. 270 pages, hardback. New York, NY: Faber and Faber, Inc.

    Virginia W. Berninger, Robert D. Abbott, Amy Augsburger, and Noelia Garcia (2009). “Comparison of Pen and Keyboard Transcription Modes in Children With and Without Learning Disabilities Affecting Transmission.” Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 32, 123-140.

    Virginia W. Berninger, Todd Richards, and Robert Abbott (2009). “The Role of the Hand in Written Idea Expression”, in Proceedings of the International Conference “de la France au Québec : l’Ecriture dans tous ses états”, Poitiers France, November 2008.