Friday, December 31, 2004

Helping Struggling Readers: Explicit phonics instruction

Helping Struggling Readers - New Horizons
What are the Essential Components of Effective Programs for Struggling Readers?

To answer this question, we analyzed the components of six programs for underachieving readers. The programs included Success For All, Reading Recovery, The Spalding Method, Early Intervention Reading, The Boulder Project, and The Winston-Salem Project. We also interviewed six teachers and four reading specialists about what they believed to be essential when teaching struggling readers. There were significant areas of agreement. According to the educators and the established programs, the necessary components of effective reading programs include 1) phonics instruction, 2) listening comprehension , 3) reading comprehension, 4) tutoring opportunities, and 5) extending reading from the classroom to the home. Each component is described below.

1) Explicit Phonics Instruction
There were three key reading strategies that all six programs and the ten educators cited as essential. The three skills included phonics, listening, and reading comprehension. All ten educators agreed that phonics was the number one skill that struggling readers lacked. Likewise, it was interesting to observe that the majority of instructional time in the six programs is dedicated to word recognition and fluency through explicit phonics instruction. The programs typically use prescribed texts in which stories contain letters and words that children have been introduced to.

I'm no conservative. So it's annoying that I have to align myself with the social conservative dominated phonics-first forces rather than the lefty "whole word" gang. Sadly, the data says the phonics fascists are right, and the commie whole word folks are wrong.

I'm a very strong reader, as is my wife. I probably could have learned to read using any technique. Most kids will teach themselves phonics given a few hints along the way. Children with reading needs need a directed, structured, focused, monitored phonics-driven approach. They need it even though, for the teacher, this is boring, boring stuff. It's boring stuff for natural readers too (it was hard for me to learn to read aloud -- sounding out words just slowed me down).

Boring. Dull. Painful. Necessary.

New Horizons for Learning: Teaching and Learning for Special Needs

Inclusion of Students With Special Needs: Teaching and Learning

A potpouri of articles on special needs education. This site includes Gifted Children as "special needs" (sigh), but the rest of the articles are useful nonetheless. Includes sections on technology and on teaching reading; the Kelly & Campbell article is particularly interesting. They do need to put DATES on their online materials.

The web site is more than a bit confusing, but the organization is serious in supporting teachers and learners. It was started by a group of idealists @1980 and receives funding from Washington state, various foundations, and individual donors.

New Horizons publishes a journal, I think the articles on this page may have first appeared in the journal.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Endocannabinoids, buspirone (Buspar), and behavioral disorders in children with ADHD, PDD, EBD (explosive child)?

Haller J, Varga B, Ledent C, Barna I, Freund TF. Context-dependent effects of CB1 cannabinoid gene disruption on anxiety-like and social behaviour in mice. Eur J Neurosci. 2004 Apr;19(7):1906-12.

This is a mouse study:
CB1 gene disruption promoted aggressive behaviour in the home-cage, whereas it inhibited social behaviour in the unfamiliar cage. Thus, the anxiogenic-like effect was restricted to the more stressful unfamiliar environment. These data suggest that the effects of CB1 gene disruption were context and not behaviour specific. Novelty stress resulted in higher ACTH levels in CB1-KOs than in WTs, which suggests that context dependency occurred in conjunction with an altered HPA axis function. The present data at least partly explain contrasting effects of cannabinoids in different contexts as well as in different species and strains that show differential stress responses and coping strategies.

The endocannabinoids are a relatively recently identified set of neurotransmitters. They affect appetite, diet, social behavior, anxiety, aggression, sleep, memory, and learning. Most of our knowledge comes from the effects of the plant cannabinoids (marijuana, etc).

Naturally there is great therapeutic interest in the endocannabinoids. If we could influence their activity in a safe manner we might have new ways to treat disorders of anxiety, of aggression, and of diet (both anorexia and obesity).

Coincidentally, fairly recently there've been studies of using Buspar, a medication marketed as an anxiolytic (Buspar abolishes REM sleep -- a side-effect that I feel has been rather understudied), for marijuana withdrawal syndrome (aggression, anxiety).

Buspar has also been used in children with anxiety and behavioral disorders, including the group that gets labeled as "Emotional behavioral disorder/EBD", Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), severe ADHD, and "exposive disorder".

Also, some of the behaviors of these children, including a peculiarly setting specifiic tendency to either anxiety/withdrawal or aggression, resembles marijuana withdrawal syndrome.

Lastly, book I've quite appreciated, written by an adult who'd suffered from severe ADHD/Explosive disorder, emphasized how severe his withdrawal syndrome was from marijuana, and provided anectdotal evidence that for children with ADHD marijuana is a particularly disruptive drug.

Given all of the above, it does not seem to be a great leap to a speculative relationship: Buspirone and endocannabinoids and "Explosive Disorder"/ADHD.

An interesting axis to explore. So I fired up and entered the search terms: endocannabinoid buspirone. Intriguingly that led to the article cited here, a mouse study that makes no mention anywhere (in the abstract) of buspirone). More mysteries of Google! The study does, however, note that Endocannabinoid CB1 disruption did produce a peculiar mouse behavior -- anxiety/withdrawal in unfamiliar settings, aggression/activity in familiar settings. Hmmm. That sounds interesting.

It will be very interesting over the next few years to see how the Buspar, endocannabinoid, CB1, ADHD, PDD, explosive child, EBD, CCBD (complex cognitive behavioral disorder) axis evolves. Look for some interesting work on children with EBD using PET scans and Buspar. We are probably five to ten years from well undestood therapies however -- even if this relationship holds up.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

NYT does an extensive review of autism therapy - esp. behavioral treatments

The New York Times > Health > To Treat Autism, Parents Take a Leap of Faith
.. the science behind behavioral treatments is modest at best. Researchers have published very few rigorously controlled studies of the therapies, and the results of those studies have been mixed. While some children thrive, even joining regular classrooms, the studies have found that most show moderate or little improvement....

The most recent analysis of treatment research, financed by the National Institutes of Health and scheduled to be published next year, concludes that although behavior treatments benefit many children, there is no evidence that any particular treatment leads to recovery. Doctors do not yet know how to predict which children will improve in the treatments, or even how treatable the condition is, the report concludes.

'If so many kids are being cured, then where are they? Who are they? Show me 10 percent,' said Dr. Bryna Siegel, director of the autism clinic at the University of California, San Francisco. 'The reason practitioners can't show you all these kids is because there simply aren't that many of them out there.'

We need better science, and we need to be skeptical. Even if these interventions weren't expensive, they'd still ask a lot of parents and families, and they limit the opportunity to pursue other treatments (though I don't know of any alternatives!).

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

How to talk about funding of public education

Faughnan's Notes - education funding
Of all the sterile discussions I have to endure, among the least valuable are discussions about educational funding. In my experience, no-one presents any useful data.

I'd like each presentation to begin with 4 charts, with an optional 5th chart for discussions of local funding (all inflation adjusted of course):

1. A 15 yr chart of per student funding.
2. A 15 yr chart of spend on infrastructure (buildings, etc).
3. A 15 yr chart of the average salary of a state legislator.
4. A 15 yr chart of the % of students enrolled in public education (vs. private education).
5. Optional: A 15 yr chart of local tax revenue.

Once those charts are up front, one can talk intelligently. I would expect student per student costs to rise faster than inflation because:

1. Knowledge workers are becoming more costly, so there's increasing competition for teachers.
2. We're working harder to educate chidlren with language, cognitive and income disadvantages.
3. Regulations and computerization are impacting infrastructure spend.
4. Migration to private schools or to wealthier districts increases public school educational costs (private schools "cherry pick" children who are less costly to educate).

If one finds that educational spend is barely tracking inflation, then we likely have a serious underspend.

Ahh, but what if tax revenues are declining? Our population is aging and may consider education to be a lower priority. That is the crux of the matter. It is fundamentally the same issue we face with social security "reform". What is the duty owed by society to citizens, and citizens to society?

I'm quoting myself here. Special education will be badly hurt by the funding cuts that are likely to emerge.