Engaging English: A Targeted Way to Learn English

As school lets out for the summer, many high school graduates find themselves looking forward not only to their summer vacation, but also to entering a college or university in the fall.  However, as Dan Levin of the NY Times points out, for some upcoming freshman, their acceptance is the result of hours of preparation in addition to a significant financial investment.  This is especially true for international students.

With China sending more students to American colleges than any other country, the competition for spots at the top schools has soared… [And] as a record number of students from outside the United States compete for a limited number of spots at the most selective American colleges, companies…are seeking to profit from their ambitions.

Parents in China enroll their children in programs that offer a money-back guarantee of university acceptance (the money back amounting to upwards of$15,000).  These companies work with students starting as early as their freshman year of high school and “design extracurricular activities for the students; guide them in essay writing; tutor them for the SAT…and train them for the Test of English as a Foreign Language [TOEFL exam]….Often [students] have poor English language skills and have done little with their free time beyond homework.  Yet their parents often demand the Ivy League.”

 As students work with these companies to improve their college applications they often also turn to a variety of web-based products in an effort to improve their English language skills. Our own  EngagingEnglish.com is an example of a supplemental resource for students seeking to improve their English reading skill.  This online service provides targeted reading by matching readers to appropriately difficult texts, based on the Lexile Framework for Reading  and their selected interests.  Engaging English also provides immediate feedback and tracks users’ progress – motivating continued achievement.   Look for the new version available in early July with enhanced features and improvements.

Keeping Math Fresh…All Summer Long

Summer is just a few weeks away and, for many students, an extended break offers an academic hiatus – a pause from the rigors of academic life.  Unfortunately, summer break also means that many students experience a significant amount of learning loss.  And that loss adds up.  Over the years, twelve contiguous summers of learning loss translates into a significant gap between where many students end up and where students should be to be prepared for life after high school.   Which is why many educators encourage parents and students to stay engaged over the summer break. 

Hat’s off to Jennifer Chintala over at Math Hub for recommending ways for students to stay engaged with math activities over the extended break:

While most parents do not want to subject their kids to hour after hour of math drills during their break, many do want their students to continue to practice their skills throughout the summer months. We all know that math is all around us, but parents often have to make math more explicit to ensure their students recognize how they use math outside the classroom. Depending on the student’s level, parents can play counting games with kids, look for shapes in nature, or help children work with money during a vacation.

Here at MetaMetrics we share the concern that students fail to stay engaged over the summer months, especially in math.  Which is why we’ve developed Math at HomeMath at Home is a free tool and provides access to fun and engaging resources – like websites, worksheets, and videos – that support textbook lessons that students have studied throughout the school year.  Best of all, Math at Home helps students practice specific math skills and concepts that are targeted to their individual level.  Students and teachers can even build customized lists of materials and activities.

If you haven’t yet seen Math at Home, we encourage you to check it out and take advantage of this valuable free resource for keeping students engaged all year long.

Summer’s Coming: What We’re Reading

Here at MetaMetrics, our employees represent a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and interests.  As you can imagine, those interests find expression in the wide range of reading materials our employees enjoy.  Those selections run the gamut – from popular fiction to research material to philosophy and even travel guides.

We thought it might be interesting to share what we’re reading with our readers.  It’s our hope that by sharing these selections with a broader audience, we might expose our readers to new selections or genres they have not previously considered.

To that end, we have redesigned our What We’re Reading page, which can be found in the More About Us box on the right hand side of the blog.  A few features worth mentioning:

  • Each selection now features a picture of the book cover (where available), allowing readers to establish an image of the book when browsing later.
  • Where applicable, books that have been measured now display a Lexile measure, indicating the text difficulty of the title.
  • Clicking on the title of the book provides a fuller description for readers interested in learning more.
  • Clicking on the author’s name redirects readers to a Barnes & Noble page featuring that writer’s work.
  • Best of all, on the right side of the page, readers can find Shelfari.  Designed as a virtual bookshelf, Shelfari allows readers to link to a larger community of readers.  By clicking on a specific title, readers are delivered to a forum where readers have posted comments and reviews of that title.  We encourage you to join the global discussion on books of interest.

Summer is quickly approaching and we hope that your schedule allows for more reading: for research, for enrichment, and especially for fun.  We invite you to take a look.

The Right Book for Every Reader

The Illinois State Board of Education has incorporated Lexile Find a Book into its 2011 Summer Reading Program.  And here’s the local media picking up on the message on the importance of keeping students reading over the summer months:

Governor Pat Quinn, Secretary of State Jesse White and State Superintendent of Education Christopher A. Koch are urging educators and families to help students retain and develop academic skills by reading during summer vacation.

The free online “Find a Book” utility at www.lexile.com/findabook provides a way for parents and children to quickly and easily search books that match a child’s reading level and interests as well as to locate the local library carrying each title.

It’s good to see that even the local media is joining in the call for keeping students academically engaged over summer vacation.  It’s our hope that parents and students will take notice and then take advantage of free tools like Find a Book and resources like their local public library.

Hats Off to Cincinnati Public Schools

Earlier this month Joe Natham of Education News reported that schools in Cincinnati Public Schools have significantly raised their graduation rates.   In fact, according to Elizabeth Holtzapple, Cincinnati Public Schools Director of Research, Evaluation and Testing, “…the district’s public schools increased overall high school graduation rates to a bit over 81% in 2010.  That’s up from 51% [in] 2000.  She also reported the district also has eliminated the graduation gap between white and African American students.”  CPS made these gains despite more stringent graduation requirements in the years between 2000 and 2007, including statewide standardized testing across multiple areas of study.

This is great news.  In looking at the broader picture, Natham points to several important strategies, including:

  • Focusing on just a few goals (increasing overall graduation rates and reducing the high school graduation gap)
  • Focusing staff development on a few key areas, including literacy, numeracy and ways to work effectively with urban students
  • Partnerships between schools, businesses and community groups focused on project goals
  • Creating small schools or small learning communities in large buildings

Hats off to all students, teachers, parents, administrators and supporters that contributed to the amazing success of the Cincinnati school system in the last decade.  They are to be commended for all of their hard work.

Another Voice for Increasing Instructional Time

In the past few weeks, we’ve written a number of posts on the importance of increasing student instructional time.  We’re not alone in recognizing the urgency of keeping the educational spigot on during the summer months.  Here’s yet another voice – LZ Granderson – calling for a greater emphasis on the amount of time students spend learning.  Granderson does a nice job rounding up the current thinking on the importance of year round learning and even references Harris Cooper’s work on summer loss. Cooper has argued that the cessation of learning during the summer months has a devastating long-term impact on a student’s overall academic future.  Our own Malbert Smith has made similar arguments and offered a number of ways to curb the effects of the academic loss that occurs each summer.

Granderson argues that the traditional school calendar was built around cultural and economic needs that may no longer be applicable:

…the reason for summer vacations in the first place was that little Johnny was needed in the fields to help the family during growing season. Today more people live in cities than they do in rural areas, and that farming structure has been obsolete for some time. If our kids aren’t working on the farm all summer long, what are they doing?

Granderson has a point.  At 180 days, the U.S. has one of the shortest school years of the PISA countries.  By way of comparison, Finland has just a few more at 190 days, while South Korean students are in school 40 days longer than their American counterparts!

In the meantime – until efforts to secure increased instructional time take hold as part of most education reform agendas – there are other resources to help keep students engaged over the summer.  Tools like Lexile Find a Book allow students to select books on topics of their choice and at their targeted reading level.  And because Find a Book is linked to public libraries, all students have a chance to access targeted reading material over the summer.  Tools like Math at Home allow students to access free math resources to supplement and reinforce their math lessons from the previous year.  The amount of math learning loss that occurs each summer (students rarely do any math instruction over the summer) is pronounced and found across the socio-economic spectrum.  Math at Home aims to curb the impact of that loss by matching students to targeted math resources that reinforce the lessons of the previous school year.

These tools are free and easy to use.  Be sure to take a look.

E-books Take Root

Here’s more evidence that e-books along with their augmented cousins – books with audio and visual and animated support – are here to stay:

Book titles reached 945,026 in May 2011, increasing by 47,000 over April 2011 (5 percent month-over-month increase) and by more than 740,000 since Kindle’s first anniversary.

eBooks with embedded audio and video clips increased by 290 in May 2011 (their 11th month in Kindle Store) and their number reached 600. Magazine titles increased by 8 to 94 while newspaper titles increased by 3 and reached 167. U.S. newspapers’ count was at 81 and international at 86.

Publishers are responding as well.  Capstone Digital’s myOn Reader program, which allows students to read targeted texts on topics of their choice, was recently released to much fanfare.  One thing seems clear: the market has made its preference clear and the publishing industry will look very different just five years from now.

Florida Kicks Off ‘2011 Summer Literacy Adventure’

With summer vacation just around the corner, and students composing their summer lists of places to go and things to do, Florida is hoping its new initiative will make reading an essential part of that list.  As Tallahassee.com reports, this week students saw the launch of the 2011 Summer Literacy Adventure program which is designed to encourage reading over the summer months, is backed by the Florida Department of Education, the Florida Department of State, and the first lady, Ann Scott. 

We’ve written extensively on the importance of combating the learning loss that occurs each summer, which is why we applauded Florida’s success with last year’s Summer Reading Adventure Program.  This year, with the first lady’s encouragement, students are being asked to make a pledge to read over the summer and commit to the number of books they will finish.  “The initiative also urges students to visit their local library, and to use the website Lexile.com to identify books that might be on interest to them.”

To use Find a Book, students simply enter their Lexile measure and select their interests from the categories provided.  Find a Book will then generate a reading list for students targeted to both their reading level and area of interest.  Click here to access the Lexile Find a Book site.

Bookish: Personalizing Reading

Publisher’s Weekly announced today that Bookish, a new digital-platform for readers, will launch this summer. Like many user-driven sites, Bookish is built around collaborative filtering and will offer book recommendations to users through their profile preferences. This is very similar to sites like Pandora or Netflix, which offer suggestions based on the user’s experiences and personal preferences. Backed by large publishing names such as Simon & Schuster and Penguin Group, Bookish will be editorially independent and offer readers suggestions from all publishing houses.

“The more information readers provide the more customized the recommendations can be,” Penguin Group CEO, David Shanks said, noting that Bookish is aimed at helping readers identify books they may like from the tens of thousands published annually.

Users will be able to purchase books in print and digital formats through the site.

As we approach the end of the school year and the onset of summer, it is always encouraging to learn of new technologies that support reading. Be sure to visit our own book site, Find a Book, to create your personalized summer reading list!

School’s Out Soon. Should It Be?

Here is Duke University’s Harris Cooper offering a bold plan for education reform – extending the school year.  There’s ample evidence to support the claim that increased instructional time has a positive impact on educational progress – particularly for low-income and struggling students.  As Cooper argues, the current administration has thankfully made extending instructional time a central component of their reform agenda, but he makes a compelling case for even more:

But it is not only the summer schedule that needs rethinking. The length and organization of the school day don’t serve our children well either. Look outside a school building as the day ends and you see a queue of buses and vans waiting to transport children to empty homes or to afterschool programs.

For the past 15 years, my graduate students and I have reviewed research on school time and calendar issues. We’ve looked at summer learning loss, summer school, year-round calendars, afterschool programs and homework.

For nearly all these reforms, the evidence suggests that more learning time would have positive effects for kids – especially for poor kids and those struggling in school. But each effect is generally small, on its own.

Most recently, we examined empirical studies on the impact of lengthening the school day and year. The collective finding (and the wisdom of school calendar researchers) is that a few extra minutes here and a few extra days there won’t be enough to have the desired effect.

Instead, the increases in time have to be substantial enough that educators can adopt new curricula – and new expectations about what students should know and when they should know it. Don’t add 15 minutes a day, add an hour. Don’t add five days to the calendar, add 20. And, simultaneously, change how that time is used.

We’ve written previously on the devastating impact of summer learning loss and have argued that steps should be taken to keep the educational spigot on during the summer months.  A study by Alexander, Entwistle, & Olson (2007) revealed that students across the socioeconomic spectrum make similar gains in reading and math during the school year, but that students from low-income families stagnate or slide during the intervening summer months.  As Cooper reminds us, students from more affluent families have access to a wide array of academic activities (summer academic camps, tutoring, enrichment programs, study abroad opportunities, etc…) and often don’t experience as much learning loss as their less affluent peers (although, it’s worth noting that students across the economic spectrum experience a degree of math learning loss during the summer).

Last year, Time brought national attention to the problem of summer slide:

And what starts as a hiccup in a 6-year-old’s education can be a crisis by the time that child reaches high school.  A major study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded that while students made similar progress during the school year, regardless of economic status, the better-off kids held steady or continued to advance during the summer-while disadvantaged students fell back.  By the end of grammar school, low-income students had fallen nearly three grade levels behind.  By ninth grade, roughly two-thirds of the learning gap separating income groups could be blamed on summer learning loss.

We share Cooper’s concern and would argue that any serious effort at education reform must advocate, to some degree, extending instructional time for all students.  As is becoming clear,to remain competitive the structure of educational institutions (including the amount of time dedicated to instruction) must reflect the realities of an increasingly well-educated and global landscape – not remain tied to cultural norms and practices of the past.

In the meantime, our own efforts to combat summer learning loss can be found in the free utilities and tools we offer to educators and students.  Find a Book allows students to match themselves to targeted text based on their reading level and their interests.  Once selected, students can create individualized book lists that reflect their own interests and choices.  Find a Book is linked with public libraries across the U.S., making books of interest available to all students.  Math at Home allows educators to create entire resource lists specifically targeted to a student’s math level.  And because the resources are free and online, students can continue to practice and supplement their math lessons all summer long.  It’s our hope that these resources offer all students a way to remain connected and engaged with academic material year round.

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.