love of learning, Synthetic Phonics, effective instruction, campaign promises

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Dec. 17, 2005
Editor's Note: Michelle Newlands is a Canadian educator who has worked extensively in the field of literacy acquisition. As a trained Reading Recovery teacher, Michelle has worked both in a Reading Clinic and in classroom environments. She is currently on secondment with the Canadian Education Quality and Accountability Office. Her current work as an Education Officer involves the development and administration of Ontario's standardized assessment for the 6th Grade Language component. Michelle is also a freelance writer working on her second novel.

Teach Them so They Will Love to Learn

guest columnist   "To keep our kids in schools requires an educational approach, which initiates within each child interest, engagement, and commitment to learning. This is a difficult task under the best circumstances. Given the current education climate, this is a momentous task."
By Michelle A. Newlands

Education, Education, Education, could there be a better mantra?

Although we would be hard pressed to find a government official who would disagree, we are equally pressed to find one who would back this statement with the financial commitment necessary to keep education at the forefront of policy decisions and budgetary allocations. As it stands today, educators are silenced with political rhetoric and placed in a financial straightjacket by budget cuts.

A common political platform is the promise of more money for education. A new government is often elected by a public that recognizes the need for education funding. Unfortunately however, society has repeatedly witnessed government amnesia with regard to platform promises. Funding for education reform seems destined to be placed on the back burners, despite campaign promises to the contrary. The result of the lack of commitment to education is that each year classroom teachers are forced to do more with less. This is starting to show not only in classrooms but also in nation wide statistics.

The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2005 fourth- and eighth-grade reading assessments for the entire nation indicate that 38% of grade 4 students fall below the Basic achievement level while 33% fall in the Basic Level. In California, one of the richest states in the country, 50% of students are falling below Basic, while 17% are at the Proficient level. Only 5% of students are achieving at an Advanced level. This is among the lowest scores reported across the nation. Is there any wonder that in classrooms across the nation there is an outcry for more resources and better instructional training?

In addition to the systemic under-funding of schools, teachers must also confront issues of poverty, outdated or inappropriate resources, and instructional strategies that are ineffective at best, and damaging to future learning in the worst cases. These issues, when left unattended become stumbling blocks for learning. This is a concern for all education stakeholders: students, parents, teachers, and government officials.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy Survey (1992), 21 – 23 % of adults in the United States score in the lowest level of English proficiency ( Level 1). Although there are many variables which account for this statistic, one of the most significant for educators is that two-thirds of the respondents in the lowest literacy level left high school before graduating. Statistics have shown that, students who do not have a high school education are at risk for becoming marginalized members of society. These individuals are often relegated to lower socio-economic strata. Additionally, a high drop-out rate does not bode well for future generations. The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey(2003) found that a parent's level of education had a significant impact on the literacy scores of their children. Students whose parents had completed 12 years of schooling performed better on the literacy scales than students whose parents completed only 8 years of schooling.

To keep our kids in schools requires an educational approach, which initiates within each child interest, engagement, and commitment to learning. This is a difficult task under the best circumstances. Given the current education climate this is a momentous task.

Fostering a love for learning is perhaps the best strategy for creating life long learners. How teachers do this is a matter of both skill and technique. The one grounding principal is that students must actively participate in their own learning. In many classrooms students receive information in a lecture format. The teacher stands at the front of the room and imparts knowledge, which the children are encouraged to memorize. Question, investigation, evaluation, and discovery need to be a part of each student's daily school experience. Students need to interact and shape their learning environments. Rodney Nillsen (2004) notes that when students feel a capacity within themselves they are well on their way to developing a love of learning.

Another method for engaging students is to teach to the child's inherent learning style. Howard Garner's theory on Multiple Intelligences is one strategy that teachers use to ensure a favorable learning environment for all students. This approach acknowledges that there are many ways students can display their "smarts". According to Garner there are six different types of intelligences:

  • Spatial Intelligence
  • Verbal/Linguistic Intelligence
  • Logical/Mathematical Intelligence
  • Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence
  • Musical/Rhythmic Intelligence
  • Inter-personal Intelligence
  • Intra-personal Intelligence

By creating a learning environment, which acknowledges different learning styles, the best opportunities for student engagement and learning can be produced.

Effective instruction is another important strategy for engaging students. Teachers can provide in-service training to colleagues and through the process of collaboration build the instructional skill base of the school community. In one rural school with very low literacy rates on state exams, primary teachers are starting to replace ineffective approaches to reading instruction with Synthetic Phonics.

Synthetic Phonics is a non-prescriptive reading program that involves visual, auditory, and tactile components. Researchers have seen remarkable rates of student success in Clackmannanshire Scotland. Synthetic Phonics allows young readers to acquire literacy skills without laborious memory work with flash cards.

Another approach involves the inclusion of parents with specialized skills or an interest in making a contribution. Parents or adult guardians can be invited into schools to present workshops to students. In one school a parent who worked as a freelance writer was invited to lead a weekly Writer's Workshop session with 7th graders. The students were highly motivated to participate in the workshops. The process of working with a professional author enabled them to see how a career could be crafted from writing stories. This led many students to commit themselves to their writing assignments with here-to-fore unparalleled enthusiasm. Whenever students can be fully engaged in their learning, the experience is extended to every aspect of the child's life.

In order to keep high schools students in schools, a commitment from teachers, parents, and students themselves is required. In Ontario Canada, the government also feels it has a role in keeping kids in school. Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario, has introduced education reforms which will:

  • keep students in school until 18 instead of allowing them to drop out at 16
  • provide an alternative to the requirements of the secondary school diploma
  • accommodate struggling students with additional help or alternative programs

These initiatives are intended to equip students with the skills required to participate and compete in what McGuinty refers to as the knowledge based economy of the 21st century.

Students in Ontario will be very fortunate if the government does as promised. In other jurisdictions, however, teachers would be unwise to wait for policy makers to recognize the struggles in the classroom.

The conditions of poverty and lack (lack of funding, lack of resources, lack of staff), which characterize many schools, must not be permitted to hinder the business of teaching and the benefits of learning. Fostering a love for learning may be a teacher's most important role in the classroom.

Learning, Learning, Learning, there is no better mantra.