It’s getting close to Halloween. The kids are getting their costumes and anticipating that unmatched once a year sugar high. My family has been having a great time carving out our virtual pumpkins and scaring our visitors!
Archive for October, 2009
Playing the Guitar is One of Life’s Joys
My daughter’s first attempt at learning the guitar didn’t work out. She lost interest very quickly. This saddened me because there is something about guitars that inspire. When I really got into playing, I could feel the guitar take over and all was as it should be.
My daughter’s quick loss of interest in playing the guitar bothered me. Why had she lost interest? What would get her to feel the joy playing the guitar can bring?
She lost interest because the teacher focused first on learning the notes. At home alone in her room, practice became a tedious time of learning scales and reading the notes.
It became a burning desire in me to at least get her to feel how amazing playing the guitar could be. Whether she pursued this as something she would continue was then her choice.
Location, Person, Practice
I decided a place that embraced what a guitar was about, an inspiring teacher, and a practice routine that engaged my kid was needed. Happily, I found this! Dusty Strings is the most awesome place for stringed instruments. It is the kind of place where a person spends hours checking out all the instruments, books, and accessories.
Engage Through Personal Interest
The first thing the guitar teacher did was listen to the songs on her iPod. She started my daughter on three chords that she could use to play some of the songs. The first week, my daughter came home and played about two hours a night until the next lesson. As the weeks progressed, her teacher had her write and play her own songs. My daughter stayed highly engaged. Recently, her teacher started her reading music and going into more depth on musical theory. The other day my daughter asked me if we could look for more material that covered musical theory. The better my daughter gets at playing, the more she plays. A part of her identity now includes her guitar playing. She is looking for a wrist band that would hold picks in case she is around a guitar she could play.
Reading is One of Life’s Joys
Learning to read and learning to play the guitar have striking similarities. However the ramifications of a child falling behind in reading are far greater.
As I talk to parents and teachers about the challenge they face making sure their children don’t suffer from a low self-esteem because they are at a low (or non-existent) reading level, I am struck by what the true problem is. It is the lack of engaging reading material for early (and struggling) readers to practice at home, or during times in school when the kid is not engaged with a teacher because the teacher is working with a small group that does not include them. The practice material kids have available to interact with doesn’t interest them enough to want to practice.
How to Maximize Engaging 1:1 Reading Times
“Pardon me sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” He replies, “Practice, practice, practice.” According to Dr. John Bransford, kids spend only 18.4% of their time in school. And during some of this time, a teacher is not able to give engaging 1:1 interactive reading time to a kid because they have many students to interact with at a time. Kids must practice, practice both in school when the teacher cannot provide 1:1 instruction AND at home. Yet reading practice most likely will not happen without a caring adult making it engaging. In today’s world, parents spend 22 hours less per week than they did with their children 30 years ago. That means there are allot more hours when kids do not have a caring adult making engaging them in ways that get them to read. Most importantly to comprehend the sentences they read.
The kids on the left are playing ItzaBitza (TM) during class time. Like playing simple chords isn’t learning to play the guitar, drawing with Living Ink (TM) and watching the silly things that happen with their drawings isn’t reading. But all of a sudden their Sketchy needs something and they can’t figure out what it is without reading. Or a star challenge can’t be won without reading. Next thing you know, these kids are asking for books and reading sentences you thought were not possible!
There is no way we can provide that cherished 1:1 time all the time. We need new ways to engage our children in reading practice when we can’t give them individualized attention.
1630’s-The first formal schools appear in the 1630’s. However conditions were very different than schoolrooms now. For one thing, most “teachers’ moonlighted as grave diggers, choir directors, or personal assistants. This may be because in these days teachers were paid in cows, pigs, apples, or firewood.
1647-The “Deluder Satan Act” required that every Massachusetts town of at least 50 households hire a teacher of reading and writing. Towns with a hundred or more households had to operate a grammar school as well. If they town didn’t obey the law, they were fined 5 pounds (about $25.oo today).
1690-The New England Primer was published and became a popular beginner’s textbook. It taught spelling, religion, and the alphabet. Despite being only 3 by 4 inches and 90 pages in length, it stayed in use for 100 years!
1700’s- Schools are still not prevalent, so many parents taught their child to read at home using a hornbook. A hornbook was a wooden board with a handle, a lesson sheet of the ABC’s in small and capital letters, and a series of syllables. These lessons were attached to the board and protected by a thin layer of cow’s horn, hence the name. Wealthy families had fancy hornbooks with jewels, leather, and ivory pointers, but most hornbooks were plain with a string around the handle to be worn around the neck.
During this time, early primers and readers were also being created. Interestingly, most of these books used pictures of animals reading and writing to enforce to children how simple it was to become literate. It may seem far-fetched, but apparently watching Spot the dog learn syllables worked because….
During the time our oldest daughter was recovering from major surgery, one of the few things she could do was play XBox games. I watched in fascination while she became a better virtual snowboarder from playing SSX Tricky. We had fun playing Fusion Frenzy together. She fought great fights playing what I thought was a totally inappropriate game – DoA3 (Dead or Alive 3) – for hours on end.
As I am sure many of you have, throughout the years I purchased a lot of children’s software that claimed to have educational value. Many used popular TV characters as virtual playmates. None of them held their attention the way the XBox games held my daughter’s attention. Eventually we had bins filled to the brim with kids computer games and edutainment ready to be sold on eBay. Meanwhile, my kids had moved onto playing Zelda and Animal Crossing on their GameCube.
As they played on the XBox and GameCube, they got better at whatever virtual skill was thrown at them. Their self esteem improved because they were able to conquer advanced levels in a video game. And yes, they relieved frustration by fighting and zapping the “bad things” their characters came across.
I started thinking what an excellent learning framework video games have. The method of play involved exploration of multiple paths, discovery, trial -and try again!, immediate feedback – and ultimately – success at conquering difficult tasks. All without an adult or grade judging them.
Here’s the challenge I kept thinking about. My kids will spend hours learning how to plant virtual gardens or snowboard on virtual snow. By playing video games their self-confidence grew and they got better at problem solving skills. I thought If my kids were learning these skills, so were countless other kids. Kids who could conquer the difficult challenges they came across in the video games they played. Yet these kids failed to conquer a reading test required from NCLB (No Child Left Behind) testing. These kids who were clearly very capable yet did poorly in school because they didn’t learn to read in Kindergarten.
I couldn’t sleep thinking about what the world would be like if all kids shared a lifelong love of reading. They would be informed. They would feel empowered. They would move from a feeling of inadequacy to making a positive impact on our world.
As I became painfully aware during our research project at Microsoft, there is a much stronger business model around Halo 3 than around games that engage kids in learning. After all, injecting years of research in cognitive psychology on how kids learn to read constrains what a successful game designer can do. So why bother? Why bother when it is by far more profitable to design the next Bejeweled? Or the next killer iPhone game – after all The Moron Test is hilarious – simple and profitable.
The Sabi team bothered because WHAT AN OPPORTUNITY TO IMPACT OUR CHILDREN if our efforts sparked a lifelong love of reading. After all, team members have shipped many successful video games for the XBox, PlayStation and PC. Yet what have they done? They have designed and created two games – ItzaBitza and ItzaZoo – that provide a new way for kids to learn to read. A way that is not what we would expect. In the Itza games, reading is a by-product. This blew me away the first time they walked me through ItzaBitza’s design. The game design was not about “ok, Johnnie, read this sentence” but rather Johnnie realizing reading is needed to achieve something – like earning a Star by completing a Star challenge.
It is a start.
(many thanks to Dr. Diana Sharp for the ideas and words I liberally “borrowed”)
"If we made them read while playing video games," Starkey said, "the scores would be higher."
Noted a school board member from Pasco County, Florida in this article.
Learning to read for kids is like climbing a mountain for adults. It’s exhausting! Yet most books early readers have access to are as meaningful to them as counting sand on a beach. WHAT IF learning to read was more like making cupcakes? Maybe the recipe is a little hard to get right and sure – there’s a mess to clean up, but kids want to do it because the reward is worth it.
After all, kids (or adults) don’t learn to cook because they really want to be able to measure teaspoons or wash dirty bowls. They do it because they want to eat! So what they eat has to make the hard work worth it. Ever see those cooking classes advertised in the newspaper? They talk about the yummy food you get, not the work you have to do to make it. Here’s one from a paper:
"Seafood tacos, ancho chiles stuffed with beef tenderloin and mushrooms, and brownie tamales with Mexican caramel sauce are all on the menu for Wednesday’s cooking class at the Taco Bus."
Yum! It doesn’t say, "First we will spend several classes learning to make broth and gruel. Then you can get to the good stuff later." So why do we teach kids how to read by giving them things to "eat" that are boring and tasteless? They need right from the start something to tempt them like brown tamales with Mexican caramel sauce….or cupcakes!
“Read” should not be a four letter word to our kids. Kids should crave reading. Imagine not experiencing the thrill that comes with reading a well written book that might change their lives. Games are already a great way to learn some skills. But I can think of only one other game besides ItzaBitza and ItzaZoo – Skatekids Online – that make something as difficult as learning to read fun, inspiring, and boosts a kid’s self-confidence.
One customer wrote me:
We were just sitting here playing the game, and my son is so proud because a few weeks ago when we played, he had to click on many of the words to have them read to him, but this time – he read them all independently. I almost fell off my chair when he read the word "explode"! He is 5 and has just started K.
Recall this sentence from the beginning of this post:
"If we made them read while playing video games," Starkey said, "the scores would be higher."
I would change this sentence to better reflect what happens when kids learn to read by video or computer games like ItzaBitza and ItzaZoo:
Great games draw the player into wanting to play…I mean learn…no, I truly meant play. Just as the thought of eating tasty cupcakes draw budding cooks into the kitchen. We have seen this countless times watching our younger Itza adventurers. The early reader doesn’t start out reading. They are having a blast using Living Ink to make their drawings come to life so that whimsical reactions happen between their drawings and their Sketchy.
Then all of a sudden, they need to read to win a star. Or to know what to draw so they can help their Sketchy. It is at this point the early reader WANTS to make the very hard effort to read. And we MUST provide the early readers with sentences that they initially struggle with to read, but they WILL SUCCEED. They WILL feel the power!
They will succeed because of the way we fine tuned the game design so that no child is left behind when it comes to reading sentences. We’ve figured out a way to help children based on years of working with them. Children will feel the POWER that comes from learning to read because of the approach we took in increasing sentence complexity as an early reader’s skill increases. We didn’t make this stuff up. It took years of exploration with a renowned learning science team led by Dr. John Bransford to figure out “the formula.”
Learning to read is hard. It’s about time we made a game out of it.