More on Zinc's embedded standardized test strategy

High-stakes testing is a reality for most middle and high school students today, and it's often accompanied by fear and anxiety. To combat such feelings, we train students in structured ways to approach standardized tests. Zinc Reading Labs grew out of Zinc Educational Services, a leading tutoring and test prep company, and we brought our knowledge of standardized test strategy when we built the reading program. Strategy, like predicting your own answer before viewing those given by the test, is an integral part of the Zinc Reading Labs experience.

Changing the conversation on college readiness: it's about more than you may think

Zinc's approach to creating college readiness tools was inspired by the following observations from our work with students over the years.

  • We almost never see a strong critical thinker who does not read and comprehend on a high level.

  • We've never seen a student read and comprehend on a high level without a strong ability to think critically.

  • It’s impossible to be college ready, without the ability to read at a high level and think critically.

We consider the last finding the most telling and took this insight into our conversations with teachers and education leaders.  When we began talking with educators about our mission to increase college readiness through advanced reading and choice, many were on board right away, but to our surprise, many senior administrators asked, "why reading?".  We quickly understood that these committed and seasoned educators saw that their students could read, so didn’t immediately understand why we’d want to rock that boat.  However, they weren't looking at what their students could read and fully comprehend.  We know that basic literacy isn't a problem in the United States, but we can’t ignore that advanced literacy is.  According to the most recent findings from the National Center for Education Statistics’ National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 30 million adults read with “below basic” skills, which means even an upper elementary level text would be a challenge for about an eighth of US adults.    

Most of the students that we come across aren't in the reading-at-3rd-grade-level camp, but most aren't at a level that will suffice for text-heavy college courses.  Equally important is the widespread void in critical thinking skills that seems to accompany the low reading level.  At Zinc, our mission is to improve students’ skills in both areas. By using engaging, but challenging, text on a variety of topics we're cracking the code for how to use technology in classrooms to build critical thinking and reading skills.

Through reading articles in USA Today or People magazine a student may be a "reader", but she won't get the chance to stretch her reading skills to a college-ready level, and she won't have a need to build her critical thinking muscles by having to evaluate complex ideas. Instead of going to these entertaining, but unchallenging sources, we ask students to go outside of their comfort zones and tackle pieces from publications like The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and The Atlantic, to name a few.  In this diverse and culturally stimulating environment, students are given choice - to pick articles based on topics, length and difficulty level - so that they're willing to put in the effort to understand what they’re reading when the arguments need to be processed through complex syntax and advanced vocabulary.  

Further, through carefully written post-reading quiz questions, we ensure that students are interacting with the text: arguing with it, dissecting it and picking up on nuances.  We and others dedicated to increasing critical thinking know that high level questions are the way to ignite critical thoughts.  The Critical Thinking Community writes in their Critical Thinking Handbook: Basic Theory and Instructional Structures:

"If we want thinking we must stimulate it with questions that lead students to further questions. We must overcome what previous schooling has done to the thinking of students. We must resuscitate minds that are largely dead when we receive them. We must give our students what might be called 'artificial cogitation' (the intellectual equivalent of artificial respiration). "

This explanation of how a mind gets stimulated is the reason we don't ask students to read an opinion piece and simply report back what was stated.  We ask them to go a step further and question why and how it was written.  Our writing prompts ask students to engage with the text on a more personal level, often giving them the chance to question their own beliefs in relation to those of the author.  In this way, Zinc readers start to connect to the world differently -- not simply as consumers of information, but as critics and questioners.  

Our passion for empowering students with these thinking and reading skills comes from our deep caring about their future prospects and commitment to preparing them for the world and job market they will encounter. We all know that the days are long gone of factory style "good jobs”, which don't require much higher level thinking, but do pay a middle-class wage and pension for old age.  Reading and critical thinking skills from Zinc won't keep low-skill jobs from moving overseas or becoming automated by machines, but they will prepare the next generation to excel in the higher level jobs that remain.

Use Zinc’s individual student report to drive reading ownership

Since we released Zinc’s individual student report in the fall, we’ve gotten great feedback about how useful it is in tracking growth and areas of strength and weakness.  We’ve also seen that these reports are a great tool to engage students in their own reading growth process.  Some Zinc teachers are asking students to monitor their own reports and to choose articles and vocabulary accordingly.  Specifically, these students are paying attention to what their weakest Zinc skills are and then searching for text with a focus on those skills. They're monitoring their reports to watch as their percentages correct in those areas grow with reading practice.

In case your learners need help deciphering the Zinc reading lingo and understanding the skills we're tracking, we’ve created a Zinc reading terms cheat-sheet. Now students can take the reins of their data driven instruction!
 





Veritas is now Zinc!

We're happy to announce that Veritas Learning Labs will now be known as Zinc Learning Labs.

We develop digital tools to improve reading comprehension, because we know that reading comprehension is the secret element that makes students succeed in school, on tests and in life.

The mineral zinc, though unheralded, has been used for millennia to strengthen and transform precious metals. Zinc also plays a crucial but largely unnoticed role in the functioning of most proteins in our bodies. Over two billion people world-wide suffer from zinc deficiencies which lead to weakness and lack of growth.

Nothing else is changing about our company. The Veritas URLs will re-direct.

Henceforth, we’ll be known as Zinc.

Big news for our vocabulary games!

We're thrilled to announce that we've launched an entirely new vocab game that blows our old game out of the water and actually works! It's fun, addictive and effective and you're going to DEFINITELY want to use it. 

What's new in the New Vocab:

1. Four new games 

The old game just had one type of gameplay, and we consistently heard from users that it was repetitive and not pedagogically consistent. The new game has 4 different types -- a synonym game, an image game, a definition game, and the old classic, the sentence game -- to foster different connections between words. 

And it's insanely addictive!

sentence.png

 

2. A word bank

We heard strong feedback from users that it was too hard to have to type in the words from memory. The new game has a word bank to help users recall the words - but they get more points if they don't use it!

word bank.png

 

3. Assignment functionality

Teachers are now able to assign sets of words to their students. They can also see the status of the assignment - whether the student has started, is in-progress, or completed it, and when they completed it! 

4. More amazing sets of words

If you want to get started quickly, assign your students one of our 40 SAT/ACT Power Words sets!  We've handpicked the 2,000 most frequently-occurring words on the SAT and ACT, and prioritized them so you learn the most important words first. 

In the coming weeks, we'll be adding grade level sets and sets for great works of literature. Reading The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice and want your students to pre-learn the vocabulary in a fun way? We've got you covered! 

 

5. Custom sets

Easily create custom decks from any of our 3,000 words - either by choosing the specific words or copy/pasting a piece of text (e.g., copy/paste the text from that New Yorker article you were going to send to your student anyway, and they can learn the words before they read!)

Plus you'll be able to see + assign the custom decks made by other teachers!

 

And more! 

In the coming months, we're going to be giving the reading resources a major overhaul (adding more questions per article, letting students make predictions, associating a vocab deck with each article, and changing the look and feel), adding robust reports, and much more.

We're excited for you to see it!

Some ideas for getting students excited about reading

Helping students improve their reading levels is more important than ever before. Reading proficiency scores have been essentially unchanged for high school seniors since the 1970s, and fewer students read for fun (40% of 17-year-olds read for fun either “almost every day” or “once or twice a week”, down from 64% in 1984).

Some studies suggest that fewer students are ready for college-level reading by the time they graduate from high school than would be expected given their performance levels in the 8th and 10th grades, suggesting that a drop-off occurs in college-ready literacy between the 8th and 12th grades. WIth the Common Core being implemented across the nation, there is greater urgency to pay attention to high schooler’s reading levels.

There are many ways teachers can help their students improve reading levels, but we’ve found, in our work with students, that one of most effective ways is to get them excited about reading.

Easier said than done, right? Especially given that upwards of 40 percent of students are disengaged in school.

We totally agree. But, all the same, since turning students into readers is perhaps the most important and noble thing that we as teachers can do, here are some ideas for what works with our students (we’d love to hear yours, too):

  • Experiment with texts outside of the cannon 
    Many english curriculums are (understandably) structured around great canonical works - like The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter. In our work with students, we often find that they are less engaged by these classic works than with texts that are modern or speak to their direct experiences. That doesn’t mean that these works need to go away. Some ways to keep the canon but also try new things include assigning contemporary articles to accompany a canonical work (like articles about class conflict or materialism to go with Gatsby) or a unit on only essays and persuasive writing. It’s a great way to build towards the 70% non-fiction common core requirement. 
     

  • Start small. 
    Books are the core foundation of reading, and the meat-and-potatoes of a reading meal. But articles and short stories are the amuse-bouche, the appetizer that makes a reader want more, and gives them the chance to sample many tastes. We’ve found that shorter works can be a great entry point to more advanced reading. Later, students can move onto books.
     

  • Let them curate their reading journey
    Many teachers give free reading time, but another option might be to let students choose what articles they want to read, perhaps all on one theme. 
     

  • Push them to figure out what they’re actually interested in.
    It’s hard to do in a big class, but if you find a few minutes with a student, push them to discover what they’re really interested in. Everyone likes movies and sports - they’re designed to be enjoyed and consumed! What really gets them fired up? Politics? Business? Psychology? History? Technology? Philosophy? Who are their heroes?
     

  • Be topical
    Students are always more engaged by what’s happening now.

Obviously, there are many, many ways to get students engaged with reading, but these are a few that we’ve found to be particularly effective with our students.

We liked them so much that we’ve used them to guide the development of Zinc Learning Labs' tools. Contact us for more information about signing up for a free one month pilot.

Big Changes Coming to the SAT (and why they matter)

What do the SAT and the Common Core have to do with each other?

Matt Bardin, the founder and CEO of Zinc Learning Labs, is also an experienced classroom teacher and tutor. In his blog post analyzing the upcoming changes to the SAT, he argues that the test is changing to become an even better educational opportunity for students:

Coleman is a genius. He didn’t take over the College Board to free up time for his hobbies. In less than two years, he has completely rebuilt the SAT to align with his Common Core. Just as educators are beginning to seriously grumble about and predict the demise of the Core (states only adopted it so as to claim federal “Race to the Top” dollars during the recession), Coleman has lashed the test, the SAT, to the Core. He’s aligned test prep with what goes on in school and what colleges demand. With any luck, his new test may actually correlate with students’ college performance – a game changer if he pulls it off, as, amazingly, neither the SAT nor the ACT has ever fulfilled that obvious criteria for a college admissions exam.

 Check out his blog post to learn more.

Why high schoolers’ low reading levels matter

In our last post, we pointed out that high school reading levels are low, and have been essentially unchanged for the past 40 years (despite gains in younger students’ reading levels).

But the next question is: why does it matter? So what if reading levels are low?

It matters a lot, both for students and for society as a whole, for five reasons:

1. Reading helps students succeed across the high school curriculum and beyond

Low literacy levels often prevent poor students from mastering other subjects, because they struggle in text heavy courses or are blocked from taking more challenging courses

Almost seven thousand students drop out of high school every school day; one of the most commonly cited reasons for this is that students do not have the literacy skills to keep up with their high school curriculum.

2. Employers demand strong reading skills, and are noticing a reading problem

Our service economy increasingly relies upon, demands and rewards workers with strong reading and critical thinking skills – the Carnegie Foundation reports that the 25 fastest-growing professions have greater than average literacy demands, while the 25 fastest declining professions have lower than average literacy demands

Yet employers report that nearly 40% of high school graduates lack the reading comprehension skills necessary for their jobs

3. Strong reading skills significantly improve job opportunities

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 61% of employed proficient readers have jobs in management, business, financial, or related sectors, or would otherwise be considered “professional,” while only 7% of Below Basic readers are employed in those fields

Only 13% of people with Below Basic reading skills, and 23% of people with Basic reading skills make $850 or more a week. 58% of people with Proficient skills earn above $850 a week


Percentage of Full-Time Workers by Weekly Earnings and Reading Level in 2003

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics

 

4. Readers are more likely to serve their communities and their country

Those who read frequently are more likely than non-readers to volunteer, to stay informed about current events, and to vote in elections

 

Source: National Endowment for the Arts

 

5. Readers do more.

Frequent readers are also significantly more likely to exercise, do outdoor activities, play sports, visit art museums, create art, visit art museums, and attend plays or music concerts.

 

Source: National Endowment for the Arts

For those who are interested in this topic in detail, check out The NEA’s To Read or Not to Read, and the Carnegie Foundation’s Reading Next, from which most of this data comes.

And if you’d like to do something to improve student reading levels that students would enjoy, check out Zinc's reading and vocabulary tools.

High School Reading Levels: Don’t Just Pay Attention To The Little Kids

Under 40% of twelfth grade students read at a “proficient” level, a grim verdict which has held steady since the National Association for Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal agency, started releasing a study called “Our Nation’s Report Card” in 1971.

There are two things that are worrisome about this: first, the low reading level. Second, that nothing has changed about it in over forty years.

Other sources back up the story. Even the ACT, responsible for giving tests to high schoolers intending to go to college, reported in 2013 that only about half of the 1.8 million students who take the exam (who are already a self-selected group) were ready for college-level reading. This finding is not new; reading levels reported by the ACT have been at at this level since at least 2002. Perhaps more concerningly, the ACT reports that “more students are on track to being ready for college-level reading in eighth and tenth grade than are actually ready by the time they reach twelfth grade.” Something is happening to them between early and late high school that stops growth.

One response to this concern might be to target students in lower grades - it is necessary to make sure that students are up-to-level from the beginning, so they never fall behind.

In fact, this has been the thrust of education policy for years. The Alliance for Excellence in Education reports that Congress has been committed to early reading instruction, and has invested several billions of dollars in K-3 Literacy programs in recent years. However, investment for grades 4-12 - mainly in the form of the Striving Readers pilot program - has been much less (only a relatively paltry $35 million, nationally, for 2008).

It is true that elementary school students’ reading levels have increased slightly over the years; 9-year-olds scores have inched up 13 points on the 500 point test from 1972 to 2012, according to the same NAEP Report that showed no progress in 12th grader’s reading levels.

But this is exactly the point; if elementary schoolers have improved their reading levels, but high schoolers haven’t, what has been accomplished? Or, in the words of Catherine Snow, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education,

“It is clear that getting third graders to read at grade level is an important and challenging task, and one that needs ongoing attention from researchers, teacher educators, teachers, and parents. But many excellent third-grade readers will falter or fail in later-grade academic tasks if the teaching of reading is neglected in the middle and secondary grades.”

The problem with the strategy of targeting elementary schoolers is that the techniques needed for a fourth grader to reach grade level are not the same as the skills needed to reach proficiency as a high school reader. While phonetics and word recognition are the primary skills of early literacy, the skills need for secondary school literacy are “more complex, more embedded in subject matters and more multiply determined.” Plus, as Snow points out, kindergarteners are generally more motivated and interested in learning than 12th graders, so it is easier to teach them.

In many ways, the proof is in the pudding: a survey of 2.6 million students across the country found that the average reading level of the top 40 books read by high school students was a 5.3. That is, most high schoolers are reading books that are at just barely above a fifth grade level. The top three books read by 11th and 12th graders were the three volumes of The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins (each volume having a reading level of 5.3), followed by Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird.

While it’s obviously crucial that we continue to improve the reading levels of young children, getting everyone to the 5th grade level and stopping there is equivalent to training doctors by making sure they understand high school Biology and expecting them to figure the rest out on their own.

We have succeeded in getting students to an elementary school level. But more attention and care is required to get them beyond that.

Five reasons to teach your high school students vocabulary

English teachers are busy.

In a given day, we want to discuss the reading, do a reader’s theater exercise, have our students practice writing argumentative essays, teach grammar and details about the author’s biography and so much more. And, of course, it would be nice to teach vocabulary (especially given that it’s part of the Common Core).

But it’s sometimes hard to prioritize it, especially if you’ve never found a great way to teach it.

But here’s why we feel strongly about vocabulary:

  1. Vocabulary knowledge is highly correlated with reading comprehension
    Yeah, yeah, we know you know. But it’s so important, it’s worth repeating - if there were any doubt, some researchers looked at all the studies from 1924 to 1984 and concluded that that vocabulary knowledge does really, really affect reading comprehension.
     

  2. Vocabulary knowledge helps students remember what they read
    There is only a limited amount of information that the short-term memory of the brain can process at one time (around seven “pieces” of information, according to well-established psychology research dating back to the 1950’s). 

    This means that if students are “using” all of their working memory in decoding, trying to figure out the meaning of individual words, they won’t be able to take in the more complex meanings, connections and themes of the sentences they read. They will be using each of those seven “slots” to decode the meaning of the words, and won’t have space left for more complex memory work.
     

  3. Students need to know 90-95% of the words to even learn new ones in context
    Vocabulary experts agree that adequate reading comprehension depends on a person knowing 90 to 95 percent of the words they read

    This allows the reader to get the main idea from the reading and use context clues to guess correctly what the other words mean. If they don’t understand at least 90% of the words, not only will they not understand the reading - they won’t be able to pick up new words!
     

  4. Vocabulary acquisition is essential to help “level the playing field”
    The average student learns about 2,000 to 3,000 words a year, but students at the lower end of this range may learn only 1,000. This means that the gap in vocabulary knowledge widens with age - it is worse in high school than it was in elementary school. While one teacher’s efforts with vocabulary instruction alone cannot close the gap, it can make a real difference - if a student learns 50 words a week for 35 weeks (perhaps using the Zinc Vocab game) that can mean 1750 words over the course of the year. 1750 words! That’s huge!
     

  5. Vocabulary knowledge is correlated with occupational success
    It’s not just about school - it’s about life. Johnson O’Connor, a researcher who was one of the pioneers of early aptitude tests, became obsessed with vocabulary because he found that, a person’s vocabulary level was the single best predictor for occupational success.

    One study, of managers in large manufacturing companies, found a strong positive correlation between vocabulary and hierarchy level, even when factors such as scholarship level and age were controlled for. 

    Moreover, studies show that 88.3% of Fortune 1000 executives scored well above the vocabulary average of the control group (most of whom had a college degree or higher). Within that same group, 71% of managers scored above the average, meaning that they had better vocabularies than the general population, but not as good as the executives

 

Put briefly, vocabulary is like a teaching/learning superfood (incredibly good for your students). Some students might think it’s not delicious, but that’s because they don’t realize that you can prepare it in delicious ways. In other words: vocabulary is super good for them, and it doesn’t have to be a chore.

We believe this so strongly that we created Zinc's Zinc's Vocab, an innovative vocabulary tool that is completely free to students. Or want your students to learn vocabulary from context? Check out Zinc Articles (also free for students, as a matter of fact).


And want more info? E-mail us at support@zinclearninglabs.com