The Effect of Tracking and Stereotyping by Teachers – Part VI

Barone (2003) conducted a multi-case study in order to find out what teaching methods were most effective for low income students in a school with a majority of English Language learners. The researcher chose 16 students in a sample of opportunity. She chose the first children to arrive for their assessments with the kindergarten teacher on the first week of school.  She attempted to include an even number of boys and girls by refraining from recruiting students of the sex she had too many of, until the sexes were even. She had the assistance of a bilingual English-Spanish speaking aide in recruiting children of Spanish speaking parents.

Of the 16 subjects selected, 3 dropped out of the study (Barone, 2003). This left the researchers with 6 boys and 7 girls. Ten of the children chosen were learning English as a second language. Nine of these children spoke Spanish, and 1 spoke Tagalog. Three of the chosen students spoke English as their first language. The inclusion of these students in the study seems unnecessary, as there were no recommendations made for their literary needs, even though of the 3 students that finished second grade below grade level in reading, 2 were native English speakers. The researcher also notes that 3 of the children attended preschool, but does not connect this information with their later performance in reading. The information seems unnecessary to include in the study if it is not going to be connected to the conclusion.

The school the children attended (Barone, 2003) had a high population of English as a second language students. Of the 600 students who attended the school, 60% were not native English speakers and 85% of the students here Hispanic. Eighty percent of the student body received free or reduced lunch. The school was in a medium sized school district in a Western city.

There were 17 teachers who participated in the study (Barone, 2003). Three kindergarten teachers, eight first grade teachers, and six second grade teachers. Only one of the seventeen teachers was male. Only one of the teachers was fluent in English and Spanish. In kindergarten, one teacher taught a morning and afternoon session, and two teachers shared a morning and an afternoon session, alternating days so the students had a different teacher every other day. The first and second grade teachers all taught in pairs, so one large class would have two teachers. Unfortunately, no information was given about class sizes. The teachers were provided with professional development in literacy weekly.

The study (Barone, 2003) was conducted by observing in classrooms and interviewing students and teachers, as well as collecting student work and assessments. The end of the year interviews were tape recorded, but the others were not. The notes for the other interviews were made after the interview. The researcher does not explain why only some of the interviews were tape recorded or why no record was made of the beginning of the year or mid year interviews while they were occurring. This makes the ability to confirm the research difficult, since no notes were made during the interview and they were not taped. The children were interviewed about their second grade literacy experiences at the end of that year, interviews lasting about 5 minutes. These interviews with the students could have been conducted more than once, perhaps at the end of each school year. Also, children may have a hard time remembering retrospectively their literacy experiences over the entire year, and more complete assessments of the children’s feelings about their literacy experiences could have come from interviews even once or twice during the year as well as at the end.

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The researcher (Barone, 2003) and a doctoral student took field notes simultaneously in the same classroom and compared notes until their observations were 90% similar in their recording of teaching and learning activities, then they observed in different classes. The children were observed once a week in their classrooms during reading instruction. Kindergarteners were observed for an entire half day session, while first and second graders were observed during their reading block. One full day at the beginning and one at the end of the year was spent in each child’s classroom to identify how reading and writing were incorporated into the rest of the curriculum, if that is enough to accurately assess that. Depending on scheduling or where the class is at in a unit, it is possible that they might be doing less or more embedded literacy instruction than is the norm for the room. From these literacy block and full day interviews, a literacy profile was created for each student. These literacy profiles were shared with the teachers for accuracy, and for additional information. This could be problematic, because a teacher’s own view of their instruction could be biased, and it is the job of the researcher to see with a clear view what is occurring. Interviewing the teacher’s about what literacy activities were happening would be acceptable, but having them check the researchers impartial observations for validity could lead to the information collected not being impartial after all.

A literacy profile was compiled for each grade in Barone’s study (2003). Kindergarten classrooms varied in the method of literacy instruction. One classroom had a focus on phonemic awareness, reading aloud, and attempts at book discussions in English. Since the children struggled with the English discussions, the book readings and discussions were discontinued by November in favor of whole group phonics activities.

The other classroom, which had a different teacher every other day, had vastly different expectations with each different teacher. One teacher read to the students but did not encourage discussion, and did not read any of the books a second time. The other teacher spent a lot of time having the children memorize how to spell their names and completing phonics worksheets. The phonics principles were not applied to the books that were read aloud. Neither classroom provided opportunity to practice conversational or academic English. Many children talked in their small groups in Spanish. There was little support bridging home language to school language. Only 4 of the kindergarteners had a rudimentary understanding of the phoneme grapheme relationship at the end of the year, and 2 of the children could not write their name

There are some concerns about the Barone’s (2003) reporting here. She states that only 4 of the 13 kindergarteners “…had a rudimentary understanding of sound/symbol relationships at the end of the year” (p. 984). Later on the same page she summarizes “…the majority of the focal children left with very rudimentary knowledge of the alphabetic principle and little understanding of books” (p. 984). 4 of 13 is not a majority in any sense of the word, and reporting it this way makes readers question the credibility of the rest of the information reported.

The First Grade Classrooms included in Barone’s (2003) study had a major curricular emphasis on phonics and decoding. The teachers said in interviews that they believed students needed a foundation in phonics to gain the skills for reading. Children were grouped in small ability groups for instruction, but all students completed the same worksheet packets, which were not leveled for ability or English proficiency. All teachers read to the students each day, and leveled texts were available to the students. One of the classrooms was very different. Students in this classroom copied sentences form the board instead of composing sentences, and there were no leveled texts in the classroom library. Three of the 4 focal children in this room qualified for Reading Recovery, a tutoring program, and a total of 3 from the three other classrooms combined qualified.

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The emphasis on phonemic awareness, decoding, and phonics gives children skills in those areas, but there was little attention paid to comprehension, vocabulary, or writing in any of the classrooms. By the end of first grade, all children were able to independently read texts and write short stories. Three children were above grade level, while 3 more exceeded the schools expectations but were still in the first grade range.

One child was at grade level, and 6 were below grade level. Of the 4 who had finished kindergarten with knowledge of grapheme phoneme correspondence, only 1 finished first below grade level.

Second Grade consisted of a more whole language approach, with a greater focus on meaning than on decoding (Barone, 2003). During, Daily Oral Language, students corrected sentences and discussed errors. Teachers read aloud and students discussed books. The students were in leveled reading groups and leveled texts were used. The focus of the reading was on meaning and reactions to plot and character. Students used Venn Diagrams and KWL(know, want to know, and learned) charts to help with understanding texts. Students wrote their own stories and books, on topics of their own choosing. Classroom discussions incorporated Think Pair Share, which helped students less proficient in English have a chance to talk their thoughts over so they felt comfortable articulating them in the large group. In one classroom, students were encouraged to make connections between their native language and English. Students were praised for native language abilities. The teachers this year helped students have academic conversations with each other, which teachers in previous years had not attempted or had given up on. At the end of the year, 8 children were at grade level, 2 children were above grade level, and only 3 were below grade level. Five of the children who ended first grade below grade level ended second grade at grade level. The focus on meaning may have made the difference for them.

The researcher (Barone, 2003) does not address the possibility that decoding does not work well for students who do not understand the words they are decoding. Students who do not know the meaning of an English word cannot comprehend its meaning by decoding alone, but this is not addressed as a reason the meaning based approach succeeded. Barone also does not address the possibility that the student’s background in phonics could have been the reason they succeeded in second grade. She concludes …after the emphasis on letter knowledge in kindergarten and phonics in first grade, the teachers in second grade utilized a more balanced approach to literacy that included shared, guided, and independent reading. This more complex curriculum enriched students’ literacy learning. (p. 1014).

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She had followed two of the students, Sandra and Julio, more closely than the other students through the two years. Julio never comprehended the alphabetic principle or phonics, and he ended the second grade below grade level. Sandra on the other hand had struggled at first but in first grade began to comprehend decoding and phonics. She ended the year only slightly below grade level. In second grade she skyrocketed and ended the year beyond grade level. The omission of the possibility that her background in phonics set her up for success in a literature based classroom discounts the role phonics may have played in Sandra’s success. By saying that the second grade’s meaning based approach worked better than phonics, the researcher does not consider that a background in decoding may indeed be necessary for that approach to work.  Since Julio did not have the background and did not succeed in a whole language classroom, and Sandra did have the phonics background and went on to succeed, this is a possibility that should have been considered.

There were some credibility problems throughout the study (Barone, 2003). Some conclusions did not seem to fit with the data, and some important possibilities were omitted  Some have already been reviewed, but additionally, the researcher concludes that the lack of connection to the students’ home language in kindergarten caused the students achievement problems. But she does not address the fact that half of the English speaking students finished kindergarten below grade level. If these students also failed to thrive in the environment, then there were obviously more reasons for a lack of success than language, since their home language was the same as what was spoken at school. It seems like she wanted to draw that conclusion and ignored this fact to do so. Also, at the end of second grade 1 Spanish and 2 English speaking students were below grade level. So perhaps the differences in achievement have little to do with language at all, but with natural abilities and learning styles, or other variables.

The researcher’s (Barone, 2003) numbers again do not match when she states that two children maintained status as above grade level from kindergarten through second grade, Heidee and Eric, but when you look at her chart on the next page, Eric was not above grade level in first grade. Only Heidee was above grade level all three years.

The researcher (Barone, 2003) concludes that teachers can change the literacy achievement of students by valuing their language and encouraging academic discussion. Also, a teacher’s attitude and teaching methods can take a student who is on track to continue failing and move them onto a path of success. While it is true that significantly more students ended second grade at or above grade level in reading and writing, it made no difference for Julio, who continued to fail even in a whole language classroom.

Additionally, the researcher states “the results of this study showed no clear pattern of literacy development for children learning English as a new language” (p. 1014), and on the same page states “schools and teachers can change achievement patterns of students in reading, even after first grade” (p. 1014). A critical reader may ask, if there is no pattern, how can the study show that the pattern can be changed?