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Curriculum Update

The latest developments in math, science, language arts and social studies

Helping Challenged Spellers

When spelling errors pop up all too frequently in assignments from secondary students, is it too late to do something about it? Rebecca Bowers Sipe, author of the book They Still Can't Spell? Understanding and Supporting Challenged Spellers in Middle and High School (Heinemann, 2003), thinks not.

Yet, in a subject where the research base focuses almost exclusively on the elementary level, educators often don't know where to begin. A former teacher and district language arts coordinator, Sipe is now an assistant professor of English at Eastern Michigan University. Her four-year collaboration with two middle and high school teachers and their students helped shape Sipe's view that spelling can be woven into regular English classrooms, with teachers helping students identify and correct spelling problems within the context of writing.

"We found that promoting reflection is ... important," Sipe says. Students can keep a log of the words they misspell frequently and brainstorm strategies to help each other overcome challenges. "In all grade levels, I think we need to be more up front with all kids that some people have more difficulty with spelling," she says. The book separates challenged spellers into four categories, from avid readers and writers who have learned strategies to help hide their spelling deficiencies, down to students with minimal literacy investment who have simply concluded they can't spell and have given up.

Sipe suggests that schools looking to focus on spelling stretch to find innovative approaches that go beyond lists and tests. A school- or district-wide policy can tie spelling to the writing process. For example, a policy could make it clear to teachers and students alike that content and fluency are most important in first-draft writing--so work is only graded after the editing process, during which a student has the chance to concentrate on getting the spelling right.

Monroe Local Schools in Ohio, for one, has made the connection between literacy and spelling a priority this year. "We consider spelling to be one of the key supporting components of reading and writing," says Curriculum Director Sue K. Wilson. Educators in the three-school, three-year-old district have been having discussions about the importance of spelling and its "spillover" effects.

"At the high school level, teachers are encouraged to use vocabulary of their content area to emphasize spelling," Wilson says, adding that they cover the meanings of root words and prefixes, as well. "The expectation is that stronger spelling skills will support and increase reading and writing skills."

The Why's of Civic Education

Young Americans are more likely to know that Ruben Studdard won the last American Idol competition than they are to identify the party of their state's governor. But gaps in civic knowledge aside, a recent study identified some important links between civics courses and citizenship.

Results from a national survey of 15- to 26-year-olds, Representative Democracy in America: Voices of the People, make a convincing argument for courses in civics and government. Above are some revealing numbers from the study, conducted under the direction of the National Conference of State Legislatures. See table below.

It's a Way of Life, Not a Course

"We have to remind our students of a lesson taught in ancient Greece: the character of the person is the primary product of education," U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said recently at the 10th national forum of the Character Education Partnership.

That lesson is something the U.S. Department of Education is throwing its arms around with the creation of a Technical Center for Character Education and Civic Engagement.

Universal values--such as respect, tolerance, family commitment, responsibility, honesty, civic duty and fairness--"cannot be covered in 10 minutes a day. [Character education] must be at the heart of the entire education program," Paige explained.

Under the direction of Linda McKay at the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, the new program marks the first effort of the Department of Education to separate character education into its own strategic area, says spokesman Carlin Hertz. Program efforts will include providing technical assistance to CEP grantees, a Web site clearinghouse for resources and support, publications and seminars on effective character education programs and internal training for Department of Education staff about implementing character education.

Bill Would Scale Down Textbook Choices

Get out the scales. There's a new textbook selection strategy weighing on the minds of administrators these days.

In an effort to curb back pain and other health problems that can result from students carrying heavy backpacks, Massachusetts has joined a handful of others states in considering limits on textbook weights. The limits under the bill, proposed by state Rep. Louis L. Kafka, would apply to all newly purchased or updated revisions of textbooks for students in grades 1-12.

Besides citing improper use of backpacks, publishers argue that today's books are heavy for a reason--they attempt to cover all of the ever-increasing content standards.

Research Focus: Mathematical Learning Disabilities

Although it's the stuff that excuses are made of, educators and researchers now widely say that there's no such thing as a "math gene," causing some of us to understand math and others to run the other way. However, an upcoming study of 350 sets of twins will be looking for genetic and environmental conditions that may influence mathematical learning.

It's just one of the five projects that just received funding from a new program from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Called the Program in Mathematics and Science Cognition and Learning, Development and Disorders, the office is distributing ongoing research funding covering a range of topics, says Director Daniel B. Berch. Most of the initial grants deal with children's mathematical learning disabilities.

While NICHD has also funded reading research that was the basis for federal policy emphasizing phonics, Berch cautions that these projects are just a beginning that may set the stage for more applied research about particular math and science programs. "Nobody's leaping to a curriculum that's going to be in the classroom," he says. The projects may, however, help educators better understand what's "at the heart of [children's] learning and thinking processes."

On the science side, the program is now funding research on the misconceptions that children have about how the world works. Building upon what children already understand, project investigators are now looking toward effective instructional approaches, Berch says.