Intelligence, Reading, This Will Make You Smarter

This Will Make You Smarter by John Brockman

John Brockman, via, gathers together the thinkers of our era, and asks them a question. This Will Make You Smarter is a collection of answers to one of those questions.

“What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

Each entry names the concept proposed by one of today’s intelligentsia, describes it in layman’s terms, and attempts to connect it to everyday life. The answers are varied, but have been grouped into overall themes. A few of these mini-essays are beyond me, to the point I’m actually aware I don’t get it. But, on the whole, the entries are interesting and thought provoking, and justify the effort to understand them.

Now, just in case you think this might be too “sciency,” Brockman clarifies the question a bit. “Here, the term “scientific” is to be understood in a broad sense – as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be human behavior, corporate behavior, the fate of the planet, or the future of the universe.”

I think that much of this book will eventually end up in my personal arsenal (I said arsenal) of intellectual weapons, to arm my pen and tongue, as it were. I will update this section with synopses of some of the entries, and the questions and ideas they provoke, as I work through the book.

But check it out yourself if the state of modern intellectual development is something you’re interested in exploring.

Education, Literacy

Flash Cards Good, Part 1

In the past, I worked as an Early Literacy Intervention teacher. One of the things I had to do was improve the sight vocabulary of my students. I used the standard Dolch lists (words selected for their frequency in child centered texts and their irregular spellings), doing what most primary teachers would do; I wrote the words on flash cards, and drilled, drilled, drilled.

We went through each deck of cards, a few at a time, reading and spelling the words over and over. We played games like snap and memory, and whatever else I could think of, to get these words in my students’ heads. And it appeared these activities worked, base on improved results on timed sight word recognition tests.

But, I was deluded. Inevitably, when these same words appeared in the books I assigned, my students almost never read the sight words properly, sometimes not even recognizing the word as something they studied.

“So,” I asked myself, “what’s going on, and how can I change this?”

Here is the conclusion I drew from these results. The students I was working with could not transfer the discrete skill of simple recall to the act of reading meaningful sentences. They were perfectly fine at recognizing and naming these words in the context of a meaningless list, but they couldn’t recognize, name, or even guess at those same words outside of the specific drill activity. They needed something more, but what?

As a literacy teacher, I am somewhat of a self-proclaimed expert on conducting and analyzing running records (having the child read aloud from an unfamiliar text while I manually record everything that the child says and does, so as to determine strengths and weaknesses in the child’s reading behaviours). The most important component of a running record is determining which cuing systems the child uses, be it phonics (visual), grammar (syntactical), or context (meaningful), or any combination of the three. A strong reader will use all three systems, seamlessly switching from one to another, depending on the demands of the text.

Sight word flash cards only focus on the visual cuing system, and not very well, as there is no focus on the phonic relationships at all. It’s just, “Here’s a word, say it.” No wonder these kids don’t recognize these sight words in contexts that demand grammatical and semantic knowledge.

In Part 2, I will describe a flashcard method that incorporates all three cuing systems in order to learn the whole word (not to be confused with whole language), and not just how it looks on paper.