Mining online data on struggling readers who catch up

Hechinger Report

A tiny difference in daily reading habits is associated with giant improvements

Photo of Jill Barshay

Education by the Numbers

What’s the difference between kids who remain at the bottom of the class and those who surge ahead to the top half?

It might be as little as 4.7 minutes, in the case of reading.

According to a November 2015 report on almost 10 million U.S. schoolchildren who practice reading using an online software program called Accelerated Reader, a shockingly small amount of additional daily reading separated the weak students who stay at the bottom from those who catch up over the course of a school year.

The analysis of struggling readers was part of an annual report, called What Kids Are Reading, produced by Renaissance Learning, the maker of Accelerated Reader. The report also noted which books are the most popular at each grade level, and attempted to gain insight into how kids become better readers as they progress from first grade through 12th. Real student data was used, but the children’s identities were kept anonymous in the research analysis. (Findings from the first report and an explanation of the report’s limitations can be found in a piece I wrote last year here).

In this year’s report, Renaissance Learning found that roughly 200,000 of the 1.4 million fifth graders in its student database began the 2014-15 school year reading at a very low level, among the bottom quarter of fifth graders nationally. Most of them finished the school year in this unfortunate category. But 28 percent of these students somehow got out of the bottom quarter by year’s end. And a smaller subset of those students — five percent of the 200,000 — did something spectacular: in less than a year, they were reading as well as the top 50 percent of fifth graders.

The computer doesn’t know everything that affected them, but it does know that these spectacular students read an average of 19 minutes a day on the software. By contrast, the kids who remained at the bottom read only 14.3 minutes a day. Over the course of fifth grade, the catcher-uppers read 341,174 words. That’s 200,000 more words that those who remained strugglers.

“I wouldn’t say to a group of educators, ‘Hey, all you’ve got to do is five more minutes,’ but five more minutes is really helpful,” said Eric Stickney, director of educational research at Renaissance Learning. “But if they’re just sticking with low-level books that aren’t expanding their vocabulary, and not really understanding what they’re reading, five extra minutes isn’t going to be helpful.”

There were two other differences, too. The kids who caught up were choosing to read more challenging texts. (Accelerated Reader allows students to select their own books and articles from a list). And they had higher comprehension, answering 80 percent of the multiple-choice questions after each book correctly, compared with a 72 percent correct rate among those who remained at the bottom.

Stickney suspects that the students who are making these leaps are receiving extra help at school from talented teachers, and not just reading more on software.

Indeed, at least one expert in early literacy development, particularly among children living in poverty, says we cannot tell from this study whether the extra five minutes a day is causing kids to make dramatic improvements. In an e-mailed comment, University of Michigan Professor Nell Duke explained that stronger readers spend more time reading. So we don’t know if extra reading practice causes growth, or if students naturally want to read a few minutes more a day after they become better readers. “It is possible that some other factor, such as increased parental involvement, caused both,” the reading growth, and the desire to read more, she wrote.

Stickney also noticed in his data that it was possible to make this extraordinary one-year leap from bottom quarter to top half even as late as eighth grade. Again, we don’t anything about this subset of students. It’s plausible, for example, that some of these leapers hail from well-educated immigrant families and were already strong readers in their native languages. But it’s also possible that some of these leapers suddenly had a breakthrough after years of struggle.

Even the eighth graders who made the impressive jump aren’t reading very much, though; the report finds interest in reading rapidly deteriorates after elementary school. The eighth graders who leapt from the bottom to the top read for only 16 minutes a day, three minutes less than the motivated fifth-grade leapers.  Eighth graders who remained in the bottom quarter read less than 10 minutes a day, four minutes less than bottom students in fifth grade.  But the word difference was enormous. In that small amount of time, the eighth-grade leapers read almost 500,000 words — 300,000 more than those who remained at the bottom. The more exposure to words, the more kids build their vocabularies, and the more they understand.

Teachers typically recommend 20 to 30 minutes of reading practice a night. One data mining lesson here is that you can get away with a lot less and still make extraordinary gains.

Hundreds of Nude Photos Jolt Colorado School

The New York Times

Here’s a good reminder of the need to be involved in your daughter’s use of her cell phone.  We recommend having your daughter’s passwords, and approving all app downloads – even free apps.  Dave



CAÑON CITY, Colo. — At least 100 students at a high school in Cañon City traded naked pictures of themselves, the authorities said Friday, part of a large sexting ring.

The revelation has left parents outraged, administrators searching for missed clues, and the police and the district attorney’s office debating whether to file child pornography charges — including felony charges — against some of the participants.

George Welsh, the superintendent of the Cañon City school system, said students at Cañon City High School had been circulating 300 to 400 nude photographs, including images of “certainly over 100 different kids,” on their cellphones. “This is a lot of kids involved,” he said, adding that the children in the pictures were believed to be students at the high school as well as eighth graders from the middle school.

Screenshots show two types of The Vault Apps That Keep Sexts a SecretNOV. 6, 2015
Members of the high school football team, the Cañon City Tigers, were at the center of the sexting ring, Mr. Welsh said. On Thursday night, separate community meetings were held for parents of football players and parents of other students to address the scandal, which has shocked this quiet, semirural community of 16,000. The team was forced to forfeit its final game of the season.
Because it is a felony to possess or distribute child pornography, the charges could be serious. But because most of the people at fault are themselves minors and, in some cases, took pictures of themselves and sent them to others, law enforcement officials are at a loss as to how to proceed. “Consenting adults can do this to their hearts’ content,” said Thom LeDoux, the district attorney, but “if the subject is under the age of 18, that’s a problem.”

He added that he was not interested in arresting hundreds of children and would “use discretion” if he decided to file charges.

Mr. Welsh said a significant percentage of the student body at Cañon City High School had participated, with boys and girls involved in seemingly equal numbers. The photo-sharing, some of which took place in school, was done largely on cellphone applications called “vault apps” that look innocent enough — some look like calculators — but are really secret troves of photographs accessible after entering a password.

While sexting among children is a rampant problem, “I hope no other school has it at the level we have it at,” Bret Meuli, the principal of Cañon City High School, said in an interview in his office. “But I fear we aren’t the only ones.”

Students at the school described a competitive point system that classmates used to accrue photographs. Different point values were assigned to different students. Students who collected naked photographs gained points by adding these desirable children to their collections. Isaac Stringer, a junior interviewed outside the high school who said he did not participate in the photo-sharing, called the boy with the largest collection “the pimp of pictures.”

The repercussions are likely to resonate loudly over the days and weeks ahead in this small town, a tightly knit community ringed by correctional centers, where many people are employed, as well as tourist attractions such as Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, which claims to have “America’s highest suspension bridge.”


Mr. Welsh, the superintendent, said in a statement that “because a large number of our high school football players were implicated in this behavior, the coaching staff and administration, after careful thought and consideration, decided that stepping on the field to play this weekend to represent the Cañon City community is just not an option.”

The “sexting scandal,” as parents are calling it, shocked many, and it has also elicited anger from parents who say they knew about this type of photo-sharing for years and sought unsuccessfully to get school officials to intervene. Heidi Wolfgang, 41, a mother who no longer lives in the district, said in a telephone interview that she had spoken to a Cañon City Middle School counselor in 2012 after she found photographs of a nude adolescent on a cellphone owned by her daughter, then 12.

“He told me there was nothing the school could do because half the school was sexting,” Ms. Wolfgang said. She called the response “heartbreaking,” and said she eventually decided to educate her child at home.

Mr. Welsh said that like other school systems across the country, Cañon City schools had received reports of students’ exchanging lewd photographs, but that he had not been aware of the scope of the issue until recently, when officials received anonymous tips through a system called Colorado Safe2Tell.

“If there’s not a lead that takes you to this larger thing going on, why would you go there?” Mr. Welsh said.

Another mother, Lisa Graham, 46, said her daughter, now a junior at the high school, had been “propositioned by multiple guys” during her freshman year. “She received unsolicited photos from guys, which she immediately deleted,” Ms. Graham said by telephone. “I’m frustrated if people knew and didn’t shut it down three years ago.”

Mr. Meuli has been principal for six years, and he was assistant principal of the school before that. He said that the school had had to handle a few instances in which a girl would break up with a boy and fear that he would circulate intimate photos of her, but that nothing this serious had been brought to his attention before.

What to do about a sexting scandal involving potentially hundreds of students was not covered in his master’s degree classes, Mr. Meuli said — but these days, it should be, he added.

The high school has turned over a cellphone that contains several hundred images to the police, and investigators will try to identify the children in the pictures, according to Paul Schultz, the Cañon City police chief. No arrests have been made, Chief Schultz said, and parents have been notified about the apps that can be used to mask the illicit photographs.

Mr. LeDoux, the district attorney, said the investigation would look into whether any adults were involved, whether children were bullied into participating, and whether any illegal sexual contact occurred.

Amy Adele Hasinoff, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver and the author of a new book, “Sexting Panic,” contends that schools need to find new ways to talk to students about the issue. Rather than just demanding that students abstain from sending risqué images, she said, educators should aim for open conversations that involve guidance in “safer sexting” with trusted partners.

Teachers and school officials “think they’re protecting people from harm,” Professor Hasinoff said. “But we know it doesn’t work.”

Strengthening Executive Function Development for Students With ADD


What are the root causes of Attention Deficit Disorder in our children and youth, and how do we address these challenges? According to the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of children in the United States age 4-17 (6.4 million) have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2011.

Dr. Russell Barkley, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina and medical expert in ADD, shares that this disorder is primarily about emotional regulation and self-control. It is not just about inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Emotional regulation, which is foundational to social, emotional, and academic success, is underdeveloped in these youth. Dr. Barkley discusses five executive skills, centered on emotional control, that are deeply affected by ADD. He emphasizes that the cause of this disorder arises from within neurogenetic roots that “effective” or “ineffective” parenting do not touch. ADD is not a knowledge or intelligence disorder. When we study the inability of many children to control emotions and regulate behaviors, we begin to address the specific organic components of ADD and the social repercussions affecting many students at all hours of the day.

The brain is a social and historic organ that performs, behaves, and learns in the context of relationships. People will forgive your academic mishaps, but negative behaviors are often viewed as personal afflictions and intentional. The following strategies, designed to strengthen the five executive skills, address these negative behaviors supportively and constructively.


Young people with ADD often show an inability to create a pause, or a moment of self-restraint between stimulus and reaction while weighing the consequences of their impending reaction. To assist students in creating this pause, give their brains the opportunity to make associations with color, visuals, and concrete objects. Tangible items can be symbolic reminders for students of all ages. Here are examples of signaling an intentional pause:

    • Flicking a red rubber band bracelet on our wrist or placing a red ball cap on our heads are two practices that teachers could model and repeatedly share when a pause is needed before making a hurried emotional or academic decision.
    • Accompanied with the tangible item, teachers can help students identify words that are analogous to waiting and hesitating. Stop, halt, think, rest,breathe, float, and tread could be posted in specific areas of the room with pictures and images to add meaning.
  • Students could bring in an object from home that reminds them to stop, pause, and wait. These personal objects could be placed in a “red corner,” a highlighted area in the classroom where they are seen as reminders. Seeing, saying, and experiencing meaningful and personal reminders can effectively create associations and metaphors that the brain desires and needs for personalizing new responses.


Children need to understand how past experiences and reactive decisions have resulted in a negative impact. Dr. Barkley describes ADD as a lack of hindsight — and therefore foresight — to visually see past experiences that did not go well! A lack of hindsight prohibits us from viewing the relevant past, which means that we are unable to see what might happen in the future.

Teachers can address this by having students create a visual or written story about a recent experience. There are a variety of options for implementing this exercise. The following questions might spur a story starter and reflection:

  • Who are the characters in this story?
  • What is their challenge?
  • What were the rising actions, climax, and solutions?
  • What were the patterns or repetitious behaviors of the characters in the story?
  • How would you create or design a different ending?


This skill is developed through childhood beginning with audible talking that moves inward. Without the voice in our head, we are left in a deep void of confusion, feeling disconnected from choices and consequences.

As an activity, identify self-talk when experiences go poorly, while developing coping strategies through class discussion and reflection. Students can write their challenges on colored cards and toss them into a container. They then draw cards and become Problem Solvers, creating Pinterest boards that display a variety of improved strategies to select as social and emotional anchor charts for improved learning and behavior.


Through this executive skill, youth feel the connection between their emotional responses and ability to self-motivate. This is profoundly lacking in students with deficiencies in emotional regulation and self-control. Here are two approaches to try:

    • Noticing is a form of feedback that is not evaluation or praise, but rather purely informative, indirectly saying to the student, “I am present and understand.” Noticing assists students with frequent feedback and is a validating mirror for small motivational steps. When we begin to noticeeverything — new shoes, a smile, a haircut, following a procedure or direction — we affirm the process.
  • Motivational documentaries are powerful stories that promote emotional connection by igniting mirror neurons in our brains to promote perseverance and motivation. They spur great conversations, questions, and discussions that students can apply within their own lives. The emotional lessons from these documentaries could inspire student-designed Snapchats and shared Vines for discussions, increased positive emotion, and modeling.


The fifth executive function embraces problem solving, cognitive flexibility, and empathy. To visualize a problem from a different perspective, we need to empathize, see possibilities, and talk through a challenge, which can motivate us to discover a new way of learning and relating to others. The Mind’s Playground incorporates Pause, the Mind’s Voice, Mind’s Heart, and Mind’s Eye. Combining these skills gives us an incredible opportunity to be a part of our students’ brain development.

Have you used these or similar practices for teaching students with ADD? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.