Book Review of “Jump Starting Boys” by Pam Withers & Cynthia Gill

Click the image for Pam's blog.

Click the image for Pam’s blog.

It’s no secret that somewhere around Grade 4, when boys are 8 or 9, many fall behind in reading. The new book release “Jump Starting Boys” by Pam Withers and Cynthia Gill is a very good attempt to help parents deal with that reality.

I say “good” attempt, as opposed to “outstanding” because, in spite of my being a retired educator and former reading specialist, I found it hard to navigate the book to get at the book’s cover promise of “hundreds of encouraging tips and tools.” A subject index at the back of the book would have helped in that regard.

In addition, the eleven chapter titles read like you would find in a college or university textbook and the Appendix which (contains endnotes,  bibliography,  references and recommended reading) is 67 pages long!!!! Although, kudos to the authors and publishers for not allowing the footnotes to interrupt the prose.

Overall, however, I think it is a worthy book for parents. On pages 25 to 28, for example, the authors talk about the various reading “slumps.” Of the three slumps (Kindergarten, Grade 4 and High School), in my opinion (from personal experience), Grade 4 is the most important — and here’s why.

The first stage of reading is about reading fluency, being able to decode and identify letters and combinations of letters, as well as being able to identify their meaning within sentences. That phase is formally called the “learning to read” stage and it is taught using a variety of instructional methods in Grades 1, 2 and 3.

Meaning, that by the start of Grade 4, all those skills need to be totally automatic. The problem of course is obvious. Not all children develop at the same pace. Yet, ready or not, from Grade 4 onward, reading is all about comprehension or what is referred to in the literature as the “reading to learn” phase.

The result? Students do their best to catch up but when they can’t, they give up and become what Withers and Gill refer to as “underachievers.”

On page 73, readers will find a learning style list that I think is incomplete in that I would recommend separating visual learning style into two categories: visual spatial (maps and flow charts) and visual sequential (sequential lists and sequential diagrams) — which is what my textbook was about.

Without a doubt, kids today have many things competing for their time.  While reducing TV and computer time is important, parent engagement is probably key and on that I agree with the authors 100%. However, in spite of that agreement, I think the book’s format would have been more parent friendly had it been structured on the basis of the most important eleven or twelve tips and tools, as opposed to the awkward chapters.

My thanks to VIVA Editions for the complimentary copy.  To purchase the book, click on the above image for the publisher’s website.


“Library Build” non-profit a wonderful idea to revive school libraries

I noticed an interesting article yesterday in yesterday’s Philadelphia “Inquirer.” Written by Kristen A. Graham, it is about teacher Callie Hammond, laid off last June, who has set up a non-profit group called “Library Build.” Here is a link to a Facebook page as well as a blog. What she plans to do is raise enough money to pay library science graduates to run a few Philadelphia elementary school libraries on a two-year contract basis.

A truly wonderful idea!

I just cannot imagine why the U.S. Department of Education is allowing school libraries to close, while simultaneously expecting improvement in standardized test scores so that no child is left behind.

Well hello? Libraries are about books, access to Internet encyclopedias and literacy in all manner of ways, including how to use a library and traditional research skills. So, how is it that U.S. teachers are being fired because of low standardized testing scores when county and federal governments are making it nearly impossible for children to succeed? We know, for example, that test scores decline as soon as school libraries are shut down or operate unstaffed.

Well, at least Hammond understands the situation and I hope everyone who reads about her endeavour understands it as well. I wish her only success, particularly in getting through to the board officials who are closing school libraries and firing teachers for low test scores. I also hope the initiative gets through to the lawmakers who are making teachers work with their hands tied behind their backs.

Talk about a catch 22 situation!


Endnote: While Ontario schools still have libraries, they are no longer staffed by qualified teacher-librarians. Instead, to save money, they are staffed by library technicians. And, while technicians do a great job at shelving and managing book collections, they are not qualified or permitted to teach literacy or research skills. In other words, we are one step from the U.S. situation. How was it, for example, that previous generations benefitted from teacher-librarians and now do not — even though taxpayers are spending billions more now? What has changed? And, more specifically, whatever happened to the amazing Ontario library guidelines and report called “Partners in Action?”

ON seeks extension in stimulus funds for skills training

Louise Brown has a column in that explains what the Toronto PTP Adult Literacy and Employment Program does and why it is important to continue funding it. If the results show that adults are benefitting and getting out into the workforce, it would be tax money well spent. For example, Brown writes:

“In an open letter to Ottawa, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities cautioned the shutdown of stimulus dollars would throw 13,000 students out of programs like PTP, deprive 29,000 students of help finding a summer job and remove training and job help for 7,000 new Canadians. ‘The effects of the recession aren’t going to end on March 31, especially for those folks who don’t have a lot of education,’ said MPP John Milloy, whose letter urges Diane Finley, federal minister of human resources and skills development, to keep providing an extra $315 million a year for training and literacy.”

However, in my opinion, what is confusing are the discrepancies in the numbers. On the one hand, there are claims that 1200 students are helped a year, while the above quote talks about 13,000 students. Which is it? Canadian taxpayers should not simply be funding jobs for teachers. I mean, let’s face it, $315 million is a lot to spend in a single year for that many students. So, the onus is on the Executive Director, Barbara McFater, to prove to the federal government and all Canadians — with specific results — that the money is being well invested.

Are 1 in 6 Canadians illiterate or 10th best readers in the world?

During the last year, we have been given conflicting information about how well Canadians can read. First to be released, in May of 2010, was a Statistics Canada report that claimed 1 in 6 Canadians were functionally illiterate or 14.6% of the 42% who were considered semi-illiterate.  For specific information on those statistics, read this CBC story. It is titled “Canada’s Shame” and is clearly an attempt to justify increasing funding and programs for adults with literacy difficulties.

Now, I am all for helping people who need it. I operated my own private reading clinic for a decade or more to do just that.  But, something is wrong when StatsCan has to use twelve-year-old numbers to make their case. Here, for example, is how the joint StatsCan, IALS (OECD’s International Adult Literacy Survey) study is explained — that the first round of IALS surveys were conducted in 1995, followed by second and third rounds in 1996 and 1998, with the final report pertaining to 23 countries or regions being released in 2000.

So, given how out of date that data was, why was it released in 2010? And, why was it discussed in the absence of other studies — particularly since both studies involved the OECD and data pertaining to the the studies on the reading competency of fifteen-year-olds was already available for 2000, 2003 and 2006? And, just last week, the 2009 OECD’s school-based international test scores in reading were released (December, 2010). Involving 70 countries, that report found that Canadian youth ranked tenth overall for reading, having slipped from 7th overall three years ago in 2006.

Now, here is the Canadian dilemma: Given the latest OECD school-based reading tests and the explanation in the CBC column, how can we have 42% of our population semi-illiterate while our high school graduates are performing well above the norm. I mean, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t be drowning in illiteracy while our kids are excelling.

So, which is it?

Do StatsCan numbers mean we are a country of illiterates?

I would swear that each and every time there is a major literacy study, the percentages get higher. Now, either the teachers in our publicly funded schools are totally inadequate (which some would debate is the case) or it is how illiteracy is defined that is responsible for the ever increasing statistics. And, while I think that decades long social promotion and no-fail policies are likely not helping the literacy rates, the latest StatsCan report is, without a doubt, misleading. 

Specifically, to read this CBC story titled “Canada’s Shame,” is to think Canada is a country of illiterates. Yet, that is simply not true. It is not true because it all depends on how the numbers are collected and analyzed, what assumptions one makes about what it takes to become literate, as well as how one defines illiteracy or semi-literacy. And, in my opinion, StatsCan misses the mark on all three with their seven-country international survey.

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