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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Do you want your kids to do better in school? Have them read fiction.

Boy With a Lesson Book, 1757 Jean B. Greuze
Posted by Alana T.

A few weeks ago, I was reading an essay by Lisa Zunshine from The Chronicle of Higher Education that I thought might be interesting to our library patrons, especially parents.  There is much discussion about how to best prepare children for academic success. Ms. Zunshine points out it is well known that children with rich vocabularies do well in school, but how to achieve these vocabularies is still hotly debated.  Elementary and secondary school reformers working on the Common Core State Standards Initiative recommend focusing on acquisition of vocabulary through informational texts.  Ms. Zunshine suggests the Common Core is ignoring a body of research that sheds light on how children learn and by doing so, will negatively affect educational outcomes for future students.  

The basis of her argument is the concept of metacognition - "a constructive, effortful process where the learner actively reorganizes perceptions and makes inferences."  To illustrate her point, she summarizes a 2004 paper by Joan Peskin and Janet Astington (the paper will download directly with this link). The authors describe an experiment in which kindergartners were divided into two groups and were read picture books.  Books for one group featured metacognitive vocabulary (think, know, wonder, guess), whereas the second group received the same books without these types of words.  She also describes similar studies with children watching television shows and teacher/classroom interactions with and without metacognitive vocabulary (but does not provide citations for these papers).  The results are not what you may expect: children who heard metacognitive words did less well in post-tests than those who were not exposed to those types of words.

What's happening here? In short, giving the children the words does not guarantee that they know what the words really mean, or how they are used.  What is a parent or teacher to do?  Peskin and Astington suggest the best remedy is reading fiction. Zunshine explains that in order for children to understand what is happening in stories, they must follow and understand the social and mental states of the characters, as well as their own. The best practice for this is reading that requires a constantly shifting mental map of nested social, emotional and situational states - a process that, incidentally, drives the acquisition of a rich vocabulary.  The good news is that reading fiction creates a child with a richer vocabulary and the ability to understand more complex arguments.

In her final paragraphs, Zunshine suggests the current trend in schools towards a focus on non-fiction (fact based learning) and away from fiction will create young minds unprepared for college and an increasingly more complex world.  Food for thought.  

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