December 7, 2011

Article on The End of Deep Literacy

The End of Eloquence?

By Andrew Pudewa

“Most of the young people we have to hire these days really can’t communicate clearly. They can’t speak three sentences without saying 'like' and ’cuz' and 'stuff' several times. They can’t write two complete sentences with correct grammar and capitalization . . . and forget about punctuation!”

Traveling around the country, I meet professionals from all walks of life: managers and business owners, teachers and professors, supervisors and graduate students. Though their histories and circumstances are often quite different, they all have one universal frustration, which when voiced, sounds very similar to the statements above. Now while it’s true that older adults have always complained about young adults, it seems undeniable that at this time things are really worse than ever before.

In Mark Baurlein’s 2008 book The Dumbest Generation, he argues forcefully that the digital age is stupefying young Americans and jeopardizing our future. His examples of profound ignorance and inarticulateness now ubiquitous in schools and workplaces are so convincing that one wonders if there is any remedy, or are we really at the end of a literate, educated America? While some readers contend that Baurlein’s causation argument is lacking, virtually no one argues that the problem is not acute.

As an observer of people, a student of the times, and a teacher of English, I must concur; technology is having a viscerally negative effect on the linguistic skills of students. Inundated by TV and music with marginally correct usage and syntax, young people today are constantly amused by the ever-present entertainment of Internet and video games. This, when reinforced by constant peer interaction, results in an environment that practically prevents a teenager today from developing any type of sophisticated use of words. We couldn’t have contrived a worse language development environment had we tried!

But some of us just won’t give up. We are the hard-nosed adults who are willing to be despised for demanding that students write—and speak!—in complete sentences. And we are the lovers of language, who strive not only to model correct usage, but who devote extra hours searching for the best ways not just to restore basic reading and writing skills, but to help our students cherish words and appreciate great writing.

We need more leaders like Frederick Douglass, the illiterate slave boy who grew up to become one of the finest orators of all time; and how did he achieve such eloquent use of language? In great part by memorizing dozens of famous speeches found in one of his few and precious books!

But beyond that, we must consider the effect of language on the mind and soul. Being human, we think primarily in words; we express and preserve ideas with words; we build civilization with words. Words are the tools of thought, and the more words we have, the more thoughts we can think. As language becomes less complex, so does thinking, and as thinking becomes simplified, people become simpletons, easily conquered or controlled.

Economically allocating every moment of time, every square inch of resource, and every erg of energy available to us, we must fight heroically against the digital armies of text and chat, the warheads of Halo and Hello Kitty, the silent espionage of Facebook, and the anthrax of apathy.\

November 18, 2011

I will remember it is hard to write....

I will remember how hard it is to write.
I will remember how hard it is to write.
I will remember how hard it is to write.

In a parent presentation I gave this week, about early reading acquisition, I reitterated how important it was to remember that the reason it is so hard to teach 7-year olds how to decode is because we cannot feel ourselves doing it. So it doesn't help to say, "Oh, c'mon, you know this word!" I then passed out a list of Ambassador's names, so they could feel what it is like to have to make several attempts at decoding a word before it sounds right.

I need to remember how hard it is for kids to produce a paragraph. The mind doesn't think in paragraphs, but rather, idea strings. So the 5-paragraph essay seems artificial to some of my free thinkers, and long (!) to some of my spatial and visual learners, who tend to think in pictures, not words. I mistakenly and effusively say, "Oh let's write about your laser tag party that you loved so much this weekend!" I figure that will be easier to produce than an assignment about a historical fiction novel they just read. But who is their audience? Just me? Well then they would prefer to talk it out.They will sometimes get up from our work table in my office and spin around, gyrate and gesture, in order to recount the event, but they go into "lockdown" when it is time to put pen to paper. Okay, sometimes putting finger to ipad app will get the flow going a little bit more.

Tis the season for legends and myths. I have two students creating legends and another two creating myths, for school assignments. They were so proud of their (terribly short) rough draft pieces! I could not resist the urge to coach for elaboration. Vague settings (but not in their minds) and a lot of dialogue (their teacher said they had to use it) but no emotions, or How Phrases, or Why Phrases. I settled on giving them each a managable, small revision to make. is my newest discovery... an online detailed grammar checker
It checks for everything, from preposition use, to fragments, to parallel verbs.
This may be a great tool but it also may create overwhelm, since it give such a detailed rundown of every nuance. I would like it more if you could tailor it to only search for a certain few criteria. Also I would prefer that it show other sentence options after the user works on the sentence

I cut and pasted in a final draft of a student's essay about Sherman Alexie's book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. (Blogger does not allow underlining!)

Here is a precious capture, and there were some great examples of better sentences, but not examples of his sentence.


When Jr.’s sister dies it makes it harder much on him because he has lost yet another family member and that can be really hard on a child.

When Jr.’s dad does not pick him up from school he has to walk the 22 miles to his house or when he has to go to school.

This is a very mysterious kid - not diagnosed with ADD - yet - but a 6th grader who still makes these kinds of mistakes in his 4th draft.

Grammarly vs. Microsoft® Word

Example mistakes caught only by Grammarly

Contextual Spelling
The philosopher did not speak allowed often.

Presenting your ideas effectively improves communication.

Be careful for the ice, the steps are slippery!

"Let's go outside" said the boy.

Do you want more or less apples?

It is music to my own ears and eyes, but I am sure some kids might just feel daunted by the tool, like I feel looking at this:

September 30, 2011

Light Bulbs with Holes

I hear it so often, from parents, and this week's phone conversations I had with Educational Psychologists, Teachers, Tutors, and Occupational Therapists.

"They have such good ideas - but they cannot seem to get them down onto paper, or out of their head in a coherent way."

Well, that is true, most of the time. Then there is the hard truth that writing ability is directly related to verbal ability, which is is measured in part by one's receptive and expressive vocabulary. *the rest is syntax and speech flow). And vocabulary is directly tied to IQ.

So, in other words, a low IQ, or low lexicon of vocabulary words in your brain, will impair the writing process significantly. (Think: Sunday morning at 7 a.m. trying to write a coherent letter to a co-worker, with the right tone and right adjectives, and you are straining for synonyms.)

Conversely, a high IQ lubricates the writing process, and when I work with those writers, there is more teeth to sink into the page, even though their output can be an obstacle course.

Some days I want to add "detective" to my business card and website.
I feel like I am mining for information like they do on CSI and Law & Order, when students stall and shut down and even say, "I can't." This week I ran into two walls, and broke through one but not the other until I talked to his teacher.

The first is a 3rd grade girl who tends to make up stories about her life, about school, and about books she has read - she fills in blanks a lot. Well, her assignment was to write about a memorable event when she was afraid. Ouch! Hard to recall, then add all the details, and who wants to dwell on fear?

But as I drilled down into her pre-write and brainstorm (that she had spent hours on creating at school, over a week) she actually had 4 events from her life rolled into one. And then some "filling in the blanks" parts. It took me 35 minutes to uncover just that. After that I discovered, after Countless Compassionate Questions, that she could not remember the details, and seldom can, so she fills in the gaps. And here her mom thought all this time she had a tendency to lie.

This got me thinking about so many other kids who loved writing fantasy, but personal narratives were a bear. Bingo.

Her mom and I connected all this back to her assessment that came out with a low working memory score. Doh! I love my job. I can see past her frustration and frozen places about the writing process.

The other student had a mini meltdown and tears, about a poetry assignment. I mistakingly said it was like a song. Perfectionist mindset! No go. He felt it had to be like the model his teacher shared, long and detailed. So I am wondering if he is a kid on the spectrum, because he has great ideas, a huge vocabulary, but just can't seem to get his ideas down on the page.

Do I hear an echo?

September 23, 2011

Well, new school year, new (private practice) students; new parents; new assessment reports, new word retrieval issues, new IEPs, and new teacher names for me to remember when talking with each student about their daily life. And some students who are continuing, and I have worked with for awhile.

I am pausing for a Catholic moment of confession.
I raised my voice with two students in one week.
Against my nature, my ethics, my upbringing, and my morals.
Their shoulder-shrugging responses to all of my questions about their writing just sent me through the roof.
Did you use the rubric to help you with this paragraph/assignment?
Do you remember where you got stuck?
Did you use the tools in the toolkit? (our tutoring folder)
What words do you think are really good in this piece?
Does this sentence say what you want to say?
Are you determined to get out of writing anything in this hour with me?

I would not make a patient parent at moments such as these.

The ADD Brain just has a way of tuning out, sometimes, and putting absolutely zero importance on the verbage that is coming at them. These two students, at times, will just act completely apathetic about a poorly done piece of writing, or a weak report card, etc. Their parents battle with them to find a reward, or even a consequence, that works. It is like they are okay with getting nothing and living motivation-free.

"The hallmark of ADD is an automatic, unwilled "tuning out," a frustrating non-presence of mind. People suddenly find that they have heard nothing of what they have been listening to, saw nothing of what they were looking at, remember nothing of what they were trying to concentrate on."

Of course, I have my outsider perspective, and may not know the ins and outs of their other brain life. I am hired to teach them writing, so it is entirely possible that "tuning out" does not occur in certain activities, and that their motivation to build legos is worthy of a You Tube Video.

But some ADD-ers grow up to become incredible, published authors!

And not from being yelled at. But from being given a chance to express themselves.

Here are these 9-year old boys I work with who are being unfairly asked to write, for example, an argument-style essay, defending diversity and cultural variety at school. Wow. That is a hard task, to explain, in words, why sameness is not a great aspiration.

So my little guy - in this week's session - starts out by saying that with no differences, everything would be white, like at school no colors on the walls, and no petals different on flowers.

That is beautiful. But not gonna pass the expository muster.

I have put this blog post in draft format for 10 days now, awaiting the illuminatory answer to expound upon my readers about how to deal with the tuning out thing, but it has not arisen. I am sure it will come. My brain makes connections pretty fast.

My other confession is that I have joined Twitter, and have entered the dark side. I only did it a month ago because so many people said it was a way to direct traffic to my blog, but now I am stuck with "followers" that are really just marketers, and homeschoolers who repost articles I have read already. Okay, it is not that bad. I find out interesting things from about 1 out of 10 twitter links I am sent. And I read them on my laptop, not on my phone. More like reading the paper.

Can I leave the confessional booth now?

August 21, 2011

Junk In; Junk Out?

So... I have a slew of students this past year and more this summer who have jumped on the bandwagon of reading (phew), but something is gnawing at me about their book choices. I imagine children's librarians, as well as critics of our declining cultural standards, are restless too.

There is a new genre of books that are "conversational" in tone, and graphic novel-like. Although actually old-fashioned comic books, and a certain type of graphic novel, are filled with complex plots and rich vocabulary. The ones I am referring to are a type of hybrid.

The Wimpy Kid series is probably the best known, and a few others that are about the same reading level (4th and 5th grade) are:

Big Nate Series
The Great Hamster Massacre
Charlie Jackson's Guide to Not Reading
Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

These are titles that make overnight readers our of reluctant readers. Score! These are books that kids love so much that read them over and over again. So what is the problem? Well, if we adhere to the nuances of vocabulary research and the studies on how connected writing skill is to rich reading, not to mention variety and volume, then I have some basis for my gnawing.

A few of the Amazon reviews of Wimpy Kid #1 that I resonate with:

Great book if you think burping, farting and acting badly is great.

The words moron, jerk, dork and hot girls are used in the first 5 pages.

While I am not a proponent of sanitizing our kid's lives and reading materials so as to insulate them from the realities of growing up, neither am I a cheerleader for steering kids into books that glorify teasing and bullying. Plus, in my small, but reliable, literacy laboratory of my private practice, the readers of these books unconsciously drag the informal tone of the writing into their own.

"At camp I was like so totally hanging out with the other kid
who is lots like me, and totally liking that."

"The koolest part of the book I read was when the kool snails
turned into warriors cuz you know how snails look, don't you?"

It truly hurts my ears to read it aloud.

So, what to do? I tell parents to let these be "dessert books" and the main course be ones with thicker plots, richer vocabulary, sophisticated grammar, and a lot less mean. Okay, Huck Finn was mean, but there is an undertone that proves a lesson for him about that behavior. The Wimpy Kid never grows and changes, but his sentences get a little longer in each book!

August 13, 2011

Neurotransmitters need more than just ME to make them work

Today a normally foggy and frozen student, aged 10, brightened up and lightened up and wrote up a storm.

He has spectrum-like tendencies, which in layman's terms means he is a little Asperger's-like.

I wish I could take the credit, but Concerta gets the trophy.

It is his first week on it, and he was articulate, not at all dreamy, honest to a fault about his writing goals, and he produced three times as much as usual without arguing. This is a miracle. Granted, he needed some organizers, tips, and tools that I provided, but wow.

So once again, my tried and true line gets inserted here: Success is a Vitamin. Stole that from Mel Levine.

MelLevine may be controversial, and accused of all sorts of things that cut to the heart of our trust, but he was brilliant, dedicated, and widened my vocabulary. I never talked about "de-mystifying" children before I read his books.

He makes grave efforts not to use traditional labels. When he spoke for our local IDA (International Dyslexia Assoc.) he would not use that term!

This is how he describes the input/output mechanisms, very succinctly:

Mental Energy

A student:
  • has difficulty concentrating; may complain of feeling tired or bored
  • does not seem to be well rested and fully awake during the day
  • has inconsistent work patterns that negatively impact quality and quantity of work
  • shows overactivity and fidgets -- especially pronounced when sitting and listening


A student:
  • processes too little or too much information; can't distinguish between what is important and what isn't
  • focuses too superficially or too deeply on information presented
  • has difficulty connecting new information with information already known
  • only pays attention to exciting information or highly stimulating activities
  • focuses for too brief a period
  • has problems shifting focus from one subject or activity to another

A student:
  • fails to preview the effects of statements or actions or to predict the outcomes of tasks or activities
  • has difficulty coming up with the right strategy or technique to accomplish a task
  • does not monitor quality of work or the effectiveness of strategies
  • does not use past successes and failures to guide current behavior, actions, or strategies
  • is apt to do too many things too quickly and some other things too slowly
  • has a poor sense of how time and how to manage it

If any of these signs occur inconsistently or in a particular subject area, they may be pointing to a different learning problem. When children struggle with reading, for example, because of a neurological breakdown that hinders their decoding ability, it is very difficult for them to concentrate and stay focused.

So with tools, and nutrition, and medication (sometimes) and breaking the whole thinking process down more than seems natural, we can send kids (and adults) soaring, in written self expression.

August 9, 2011

Back to Writing - Back to Strong Sentences with Kids

Oh My. Mea Culpa and all that.

I have written in my journal. I have composed long Facebook posts. I have calligraphed detailed cards to friends. I have, in stream-of-consciousness style, blown the air out of my lungs onto the page with friends and loved ones who I trust to hear my truths. I have compiled compassionate and sometimes contentious emails to people who have not stayed true to their word, and asked for forgiveness for judging them for doing so. It is the week of International Forgiveness Day, after all.

What is missing in that list is of course, my blog.
I have read many blogs, talked about my own blog, heard advice about where to link my blog, and considered shutting the whole thing down, but I have not written.

I led a Writing Camp for 5 days, 90 minutes each day, with 5th and 6th graders. I have coached summer tutoring students in writing. I have gotten accepted again this year to present on Writing for ADD kids, in the annual ADD Conference in October. I have searched endlessly on my new ipad (birthday gift from my 83 year old mom) for writing apps to use with my students. (have only chosen 2 so far!). I have looked up new curriculum on writing to use with unique students, and met with other professionals for coffee and talked for hours about how to teach writing to our tougher students. But I have not written in my own blog.

Summer students have an interesting array writing needs, and I am loving going slower than is my nature - I am going over and over what makes a good sentence, and reviewing the grammar pieces more than I usually do - I tend to give them a Mad Lib, and all my cheat sheets on parts of Speech, and a few grammar card games, and then a week later I tell them to add an adjective to a sentence, or switch to a stronger verb, and they forget what those are. Argghh. But in the face of them, I just ask, ask, ask questions and don't show my shock.

So a good lesson for me is to review more, teach less. Even though the clock seems to be ticking and they still can't write a paragraph that holds together, or that is not rambling or robotic, I have to conk myself on the head and remember to get their sentence-level writing SOLID as a rock. I love my job.