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Learning, the Write Way

To become better beginning readers, children have to write in every subject.

That is the implicit message in a study published in the March issue of the journal Educational Leadership. As part of a decadelong study on children's literacy development that began in 1990, researchers David K. Dickinson and Lori Lyman DiGisi have been sitting in on the 1st grade classrooms of 69 children--most of whom come from poor families--in 11 school districts in the greater Boston area.

In addition to observing the children's classroom environments, the pair tested the students' reading and spelling skills. The 1st graders who performed best on the tests, the researchers found, came from classrooms in which teachers had integrated writing into a range of activities, from journal writing to science experiments and math lessons.

"It's less common to find writing connected to social studies or science, but it was really the single best indicator of student achievement," says Mr. Dickinson, a senior research scientist at the Education Development Center Inc., a research group in Newton, Mass. Getting experience in writing across the curriculum was even more important, the authors found, than whether students used basal readers or were drilled in phonics.

But Mr. Dickinson said his study shouldn't be viewed as favoring one side or another in the debate over the best way to teach reading. That long-running debate has centered on whether to emphasize teaching children to link letters to their correspondent sounds or to immerse them in reading and writing and thus more naturally ignite a desire to learn to decipher. The findings, the researchers say, argue for a balanced approach to teaching reading and for more science and social studies in primary-grade classrooms that may be too narrowly focused on teaching basic math and reading skills.

"While there is little doubt that children need to learn how to connect sounds to symbols, and that phonics helps some children make this vital connection," the researchers write, "it also is imperative that children have reasons to use print."

The 'Need' To Cheat

Middle school students are more likely to cheat if they believe that their schools stress grades and performance over learning, a study concludes.

Psychologist Eric M. Anderman and graduate students Tripp Griesinger and Gloria Westerfield, all of the University of Kentucky, explored the motivations for cheating of 285 science students at an unidentified middle school in the Southeast.

They found that students who reported that they cheated--and who believed that cheating was acceptable--tended to:

  • Worry about school;
  • Perceive their school as focused on grades and ability;
  • Believe that they will get a reward for doing well in class, such as getting out of homework;
  • Blame their failures on others or on outside circumstances; and
  • Avoid trying different ways to solve a problem or otherwise thinking too deeply about schoolwork.

The results, the authors say, suggest that middle schools can reduce cheating by decreasing the perceived need to cheat. Middle schools should focus more on the intrinsic rewards of learning and less on tests, grades, and ability, according to the researchers.

"Typically, I think, when kids get to the middle school, the environment immediately becomes an environment of testing and ability grouping. But middle schools can make that transition less of a tumultuous time for kids," says Mr. Anderman, an assistant professor of education and counseling psychology at the university's campus in Lexington. Tests, for example, could be graded to reflect effort and improvement as well as performance, he says.

The study appeared in the March edition of the Journal of Educational Psychology.

--DEBRA VIADERO dviadero@epe.org

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