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California math standards, meet California reading standards

Submitted by on Tuesday, 15 September 2009 No Comment

“Kev makes this pattern: square, rectangle, rectangle, square. He repeats the pattern 3 times. What does the pattern look like?” – Macmillan McGraw-Hill “California Mathematics,” Page 1.

I don’t know about Kev, but to me the pattern looks like something most first-graders are not going to be able to read on their own.

Of the 20 words in the question, only nine are on California’s list of first-grade “sight words” – words students are expected to be able to read without sounding them out. Only four are “sight” words for kindergarteners – and that’s the reading level you’d expect most students to be at during the first week of school.

And a colon? These kids are just beginning to get the question mark.

It’s not just a grumpy mom’s imagination, either. Run the passage through a Flesch-Kincaid reading level calculator. It weighs in at sixth grade.

Let’s see, we’re supposed to encourage our kids to be independent and responsible for their studies. But then they’re assigned work that discourages independence by forcing them to have an adult read it to them?

Left hand, meet right hand. Maybe you’d like to get together at a keyboard somewhere and write a math text. What we have right now really isn’t working.

It leaves me with two choices every evening: I can read it to Big Guy or I can have him read the words he knows while I help fill in the blanks.

I usually try the latter first – I’m all for challenging him with new words – but the problem is that he’s concentrating so hard on figuring out the words that he misses the meaning. So then I read it to him. Then I usually have to explain, in my own first-grader accessible words, what problem the question is asking him to solve.

As a result, he’s frustrated before he even starts on the actual math. It’s worse than the eastbound and westbound trains  and their varying rates of speed that used to make my head explode in high school.

Big Guy is not dumb. He loves math, and he’s plowing through books that used to take him 15 minutes to read in half that time. But that’s pleasure reading, and that’s a whole different critter from reading to digest information.

I get that this is not my first-grade math book, where we weren’t asked to do much beyond draw lines to matching pictures and write numbers. These kids do bar grafs and polling – I don’t think they learn to rig elections until third grade, though.

In this case, though, a few simple tweaks – substituting the shorter word “circle” for rectangle – would have taken the passage down an entire grade level. It still would have been beyond the abilities of most first-graders, but it would have been an improvement.

And in fairness, a lot of the rest of the book isn’t nearly as bad as the first page. Many other problems use pictures of shapes instead of words or depict a pattern and ask the student to finish it.

Dumbing it down? I’d contend that it needs to be. Children can’t complete what they can’t understand.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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