Less is more… Again

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There is a new article making the rounds that nicely dovetails with a couple of my recent posts. “Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom” discusses new research from Carnegie Mellon, which shows that young children who are still learning to focus, like those in K and 1st grade, are more distracted, less focused on the teacher, and learn less in heavily decorated classrooms.

I wrote about similar theories in Keeping a Child Focused and Trouble in Interactive Book Paradise. It was definitely my experience with my two kids that the more extraneous decoration there was around the material they were learning, the less focus they had for the material itself. Sesame Street ABC cards were quickly discarded for my homemade letter cards because of the distraction of characters climbing over the letters. And I’ve become a broken record on how much I like the BOB Books for their simplicity and black and white pages.

Interactive books and classrooms with busy walls may have their place for older children (the article mentions 6th graders who are more capable of dealing with the distractions), and even for younger children in the right circumstances.  But this study advocates the “less is more” approach.  It also makes this one more area of Maria Montessori’s century-old approach to teaching children that has been backed up by recent research. As the article reminds us, “Montessori schools have long emphasized a calmer, understated look.”

More studies are needed to really understand the impact of classrooms with busy walls. Perhaps the children absorb what is on the walls over time, reinforcing the verbal lessons they pay less attention to? Perhaps the children in the more heavily decorated classroom learn faster how to focus and ignore distractions? Or, are the children in the decorated classrooms ultimately more inspired and excited about learning, or do they continue to miss lessons, fall further behind, and lose interest because they are struggling? What does this tell us about teaching the many children with attention issues?

I’m obviously only a researcher within my little family, but the article quotes another researcher of early education, unassociated with this study, who feels that her own research is in line with the results of this study.

I want to throw myself over those scalloped borders and cute cartoon stuff and scream to teachers, “Don’t buy this, it’s visually damaging for children!”

says Patricia Tarr, from the University of Calgary.

Tarr wrote an article in 2004 on this topic which is worth a quick read, particularly for those who will be decorating classrooms next Fall.  She implores educators to rethink their classroom decorations.  One of the classrooms she observed was heavily decorated.  After looking at the commercial decorations that adorned the walls and bulletin boards, Tarr became convinced that they create stereotypes that are counterproductive to the learning going on in the classroom.

The image of the learner embedded in these materials is that of a consumer of information who needs to be entertained, rather than a child who is curious and capable of creating and contributing to the culture within this environment.
She sees value in some postings on walls, but feels they should be based on work done by the children or should be accessible and relevant to work the children are doing, rather than commercial decorations.  If there is a word wall, are they words that are relevant to the children in that classroom, and are they readily visible as a resource, or just a decoration filling a back corner?
I hope you find this food for thought for school and home classrooms, and for the level of distraction that our young ones can handle when simultaneously learning a difficult new task.  Happy reading!
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Keeping a child focused

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KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) seems appropriate when teaching kids to read.  The skill of reading is so difficult and requires so much concentration, that children don’t need distractions.  I have even been known to cover up black and white BOB book illustrations when my kids were getting too distracted by them.  Generally, if I saw my child’s eyes drift from the words to the picture and then they stopped reading, I tried to redirect them to the text, I reminded them to finish the sentence and then we would talk about the picture, and if none of that worked, I took an index card and covered up the picture.*(see below)*  I only bring this up to show how very easily distracted children can be and to offer the advice to look at your child’s eyes if they seem to be struggling with a text.

Are they tracking the words or are their eyes wandering away?  If they are wandering, is it time for a short break?  Is there a phrase you can use to help bring the child back to the task?  I end up saying things like, “Let’s keep going, I want to know what happens!” and “You’re almost done.  Let’s finish strong and then we can play, but you are only one page from the end.”  (Why did my kids stop with one page left?  Self-defeatist tendencies?  Feeling like they got so close to the end that it’s really the same as finishing?  Child stubbornness?  Who knows.)  Does it help to ask the child about what is happening in the story?  To pause and talk about the picture before going back to the beginning of the sentence/paragraph/page so that comprehension doesn’t suffer?

It can seem silly, but these little redirects are helpful in reminding kids to finish what they start and that even if tired, they can finish the sentence (if not the book) and be proud of what they accomplished.  Which leads me to my last tip on this – if my child was lagging, I gently pushed until I sensed that they were done (as opposed to having a moment), then had them continue until the next logical break (sentence, paragraph, page, chapter), and then we stopped.  There’s always tomorrow.

** I want to be clear that sometimes, kids use the pictures to decode a word.  This is a GOOD use of a picture, and also why picture books are so important to early readers.  I only covered up the pictures when the next word was something I knew my child knew, and he or she was distracted as opposed to struggling with a word.  If you pay attention, you can see the difference, and base your reaction on your child’s need at that moment.

Trouble in Interactive Book Paradise

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There has been a recent flurry of news about whether children learn as well from ereaders as they do from paper books. Many of the studies cited are comparing interactive books with paper books. Researchers have found that children have lower reading comprehension on some ereaders because they are getting too distracted by the interactive features. I feel this way with my kids on everything from TV character flashcards to the BOB Books ipad app.

But wait, hypocritical blogger, you may be saying, you recommend the LAZ Readers, which are on the ipad. Yes, I do. But if you look at one of the sample books, you will see how low-tech the readers are. There are no games, no animation, no background music. The only interactive features are the ability to turn pages with your finger (I’ve complained about how sensitive the app is) and the ability to look up a definition of a few words in each book. My kids liked them so much because it was a break from reading paper readers, and made them feel excited just to be doing anything with the ipad.

Long story short, the studies don’t surprise me. I’ve tried to take the simple approach to teaching my own children. I even find that I, a dedicated ereader, get troubled by the new format. It can be harder to go back to recheck something, because you can’t just flip back a few pages. There is a search feature, but the results tend to be overwhelming. Maybe I’m just not an expert at using the finer features of the machine, but I know I’m not alone. Ereaders are here to stay and are fabulous in many ways. But the interactive versions are not, it appears, a great way to get children to read.

All that said, it makes sense to me that if interactive books are what it takes to help increase your child’s interest in reading, go right ahead. Maybe it just means that you need to interact with your child more to ensure that they are really reading and understanding.

What has your experience been?