Educators should embrace—not castigate—video games and TV.
What leads to the fourth-grade slump? It is not caused just by poor early "decoding" instruction (learning to match letters and sounds, a skill that has tended to be stressed in current educational policies), since many children who can decode adequately still fall victim to it. Probably the most important cause of the slump is language, or mastery of vocabulary. As school progresses, the language of learning (for content areas) becomes more complex and specialized, and less like everyday conversational language. What gives students a good running head start to engage this complex language is a wide-ranging, sturdy vocabulary of words introduced before school entry. Unfortunately, we don’t teach early literacy in a way that provides most students with that vocabulary if they don’t already have it.
The complex language associated with school success is often called "academic language." Different academic subject areas and disciplines use different varieties of academic language, and academic language itself is just one type of specialist language. Specialist varieties of language are used in many workplaces, institutions, and professions such as law, medicine, and business. For success in school, students need to acquire lots of words that are used regularly across academic areas (words like "maintain" and "process"), as well as technical terms used more narrowly (words like "nucleus" and "legislature"). Such words are mainstays of the classroom and of books, but do not occur regularly in everyday conversation.
As school proceeds, content for students is increasingly couched in academic language. In the twenty-first century, academic knowledge is being increasingly applied to complex systems–systems such as the environment, the economy, even weather. In the future, learning of "content" will increasingly mean working with others collaboratively to pool disciplinary knowledge and tools.
If we are to teach literacy in ways that prevent the fourth-grade slump and make all children adept at academic language and school content, then the preschool and middle childhood period–roughly ages four to 10–is absolutely crucial. It is during this time that children are making the transition from learning to read to reading to learn and, we now hope, reading to discover. It is during this time when children’s background knowledge and vocabulary development are set in motion, when the foundations are laid for meeting the demands of comprehending and using academic language connected to content. If these foundations are not well set, young people cannot successfully navigate high school, let alone graduate from college.
One key reason that some children are successful in school with academic language is their early, home-based preparation. Many successful students enter kindergarten with a large and varied vocabulary acquired through regular dialogue with parents or grandparents, being read to frequently, and exposure to a wide variety of experiences in the world.
Beyond such practices, Kevin Crowley, an expert on out-of-school learning, has studied how young children develop "islands of expertise," which he defines as "any topic in which children happen to become interested in." One example is a boy who develops a "sophisticated conversational space" about trains and related topics after he is given a Thomas the Tank Engine book and is supported in his interests by a tuned-in, guiding adult.
Many students today, especially from low-income families, do not get these sorts of early language-based preparation for schooling. Although billions of dollars have been spent developing and administering reading intervention programs for four-to-nine year olds under No Child Left Behind and Title I, these policies have made scant progress and have failed to fundamentally improve reading skills, especially the skills that lead to mastering school-based content.
Closing Two Gaps at Once
If we do not get the transition from early schooling to later schooling right so that all young people have a solid foundation for learning language and content, we will face two educational gaps–an old reading gap and a new digital gap–both detrimental to our success as a leading nation.
These two gaps intersect. The old reading gap can only worsen as the high-tech world makes larger and more complex demands on literacy and content learning. At the same time, the old reading gap prevents certain children from meeting these demands. What exactly is the connection between digital media on the one hand, and literacy, content learning, and complex academic language on the other?
Put simply, digital media–video games, simulations, modeling tools, handheld devices, and media production tools–can allow students to do two fundamentally important things. First, they can see how complex language and other symbol systems attach to the world. We can put kids into virtual worlds and let them engage in goal-based interactions with others. Consider the video game Dimenxian from Tabula Digita, in which children use an algebraic Cartesian coordinate system to allow their avatar to navigate the landscape and eventually construct coordinate systems to map their environment and solve algebraic problems in the virtual world. They have to "algebratize" the world to play the game, and the game world gives them constant feedback and mentoring. They now have vivid images and actions associated with algebraic symbols that give them "situated meanings"–that is, meanings tied to experiences they can remember when they need to use coordinate systems for further problem-solving.
Second, young people can use digital media to produce knowledge and to display, argue for, and demonstrate their learning. This can transform our traditional notions of assessment towards more genuine mastery of skill sets. Digital media can also combine assessment more intimately with teaching. When media tools are used to track what learners do moment by moment, we can study different trajectories toward mastery, give students constant feedback based on this knowledge, and assess progress across time and not just in terms of a one-off test.
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