Last week I noticed that several middle and high school folks reported that their students could not decode. They laid this entirely at the feet of balanced literacy, which they believe always does a bad job of teaching phonics in the early grades. Speaking to that is a whole different blog, but I will say that I use balanced literacy methods in my teaching, and the younger children I work with end up the year being able to decode, read with fluency and comprehend. Let me give one possible alternate explanation for why some children in middle school/high school cannot decode new words. I was in Title 1 buildings for over 30 years, and I know that the turnover rate can be very high in buildings with high numbers of at-risk children. Some years, three-quarters of the kids I finished the year with were not the kids I started with. I mention this because to get a true picture of what is happening in the beginning reading program (say grades PreK, Kg and 1st) of such districts, you need to look at the kids who spent their entire time in the district’s program. If those kids can’t decode, then it’s time to revamp the early grades’ program. If they can decode, then the problem is elsewhere. That doesn’t mean do nothing. It likely means the district needs to develop an effective program for transfer students.
Now that you’ve indulged me with my musings about last week, I’d like to share some things that I’ve found can really help older readers in both the areas of decoding and comprehension. Remember that my program simply augments the main literacy program for the school’s K-4 classes. The school has K-8 classes. My program includes the use of trade books, predictable text and some decodable texts from the online program called Headsprout, LINK. That program is produced by the same company that makes Raz Kids. I will now talk about some ideas that middle school and high school teachers might use to help their students who come into those grades unable to decode.
The first is to make use of the ideas of Dr. Tim Rasinski around fluency, word work and prefixes/suffixes/roots. He has materials about that, LINK, a video about that LINK, and if you follow him on Twitter (@TimRasinski1), he gives out free materials about prefixes, suffixes and roots every Monday. Here’s a sample:
Teaching about affixes can pay off handsomely for both meaning-making and decoding. Knowing them helps students decode words and also helps them figure out the meaning of words. Examples of affixes include math- bi, tri, deci, science sarus, bio, macro, history, pre, post, trans, and the list goes on and on. Do have a look at Dr. Rasinski’s next morphology Monday on Twitter, and try out some of his resources. Also, look at one middle school teacher’s explanation of how he used vocabulary study based on Dr. Rasinski’s work with Greek and Latin roots, LINK. NOTE: In Comments about this post readers have been talking about Pete Bower’s Structured Word Approach. That’s another source for this kind of teaching.
Dr. Rasinski is best known for his work around fluency. He and Melissa Cheesman Smith wrote The Megabook of Fluency LINK. It has a treasure trove of resources, including many for the upper grades. In his research on repeated reading, Rasinski found that reading and rereading the same short passage several times improved fluency and comprehension. His website includes many free resources and ideas on how to improve reading, LINK.
Again, from his website, one teacher describes a research project on an upper-grade fluency program she carried out LINK. The results of the program were impressive. In my own setting, each week, I choose a short passage for the class to practice (1 paragraph or less). It can be a poem, song, or excerpt from a book or short story. I use various sources for the sample, including the Megabook and Rasinski’s Phonics Poetry book. The Phonics Poetry book is copyrighted in 2001 and sometimes out of print, but used copies are readily available on Amazon and other sites. The Megabook has great passages that are suitable for middle school and/or high school students.
For my students, I make a Zoom video of me reading the passage. I emphasize that I try to read like a storyteller as I do. The students watch the video at home. I ask for them to watch at least three times a week and to read along with me as they do. They can see the full passage as they watch the video. At the end of the week (or two weeks), they create a video of themselves reading the passage with prosody (like a storyteller). That is the performance event in “reading to perform.” There are times when I also do a whole class zoom. I sometimes pick a word from the passage and use analytic phonics (teaching the sounds from the word) to reinforce the words in their synthetic phonics program. Periodically I look at the videos of the students’ performance reading scoring them with Rasinski’s rubric from the Megabook. I consider Rasinski’s rubric far superior to some of the more commonly used fluency measures. His rubric includes Expression, Automatic Word Recognition, Rhyme and Phrasing, and Smoothness (EARS). There are norm tables for use in the Automatic Word Expression component. Rasinski’s measure avoids some of the problems associated with other measures where students, teachers, and administrators come to view fluency as simply how fast you read. This problem is addressed in Rasinski’s blog entry entitled “Making Kids Read Fast is NOT the Goal of Fluency Instruction; Making Meaning Is “ LINK. I think the combination of work on prefixes, suffixes, roots and on reading to perform (repeated reading) could really help middle school and high school teachers help their students who have problems decoding.
Writing and reading: Writing and reading have a symbiotic relationship. There are many ways writing can enhance a reading program. Lucy Calkins recently talked about that on Heinemann’s Facebook page LINK. Since the middle school/high school teacher’s concerns were mainly around decoding, I’d like to discuss a classic teaching method that helps both decoding and comprehension. The method is Language Experience, LINK. The link I just gave gives a look at language experience and how it fits into a program of personal narratives. Though it is most often used with younger readers, I have used it with readers of every age and have found it especially effective with older readers who are reading well below grade level (or not reading at all).
The process is very simple. Ask the student to tell a story or talk about a topic of interest. As they do, write down what they say. For instance, I once used this with a 16-year-old who wanted to get a driver’s license. I read to him from the state license manual. I asked him about what he learned from the passage. I wrote down what he said. I kept a copy for later. We came back to this copy and I asked him to read it.. This became a library of material for him to read from. Of course, with other students, I might just have them tell stories, or talk about something they liked, or ???
Back in the day, I used to take what the students said and write it down- usually in a notebook. Today I sometimes do that, and I sometimes use a word processor. For the youngest children, I also have them create their own books. I’ve blogged about how I used Zoom to do this LINK. Here is a screen capture of one of the books a younger student dictated.
I first took “dictation” from the student- he wanted to talk about strange animals. He started because he had found a picture of a blobfish online. Yep, that funny-looking fish in the picture actually exists! I wrote down what he said about the blobfish. Then we found pictures of other strange animals. I wrote down what he said about them. I wrote the language he used and avoided writing for him. It was his story to tell. I then saved the book and printed it off for him. We read from that book for several more lessons.
Language experience stories can be produced in any form- handwritten, handwritten with hand-drawn pictures etc. This procedure works so well for older students because it is often hard to find books they can decode but are age-appropriate. The other advantage of this method is that every word in the book is already in their listening and speaking vocabulary. You can do analytic phonics (teaching sounds from words) using words from the book they wrote. The book becomes one of the materials that you can use for repeated reading. I can’t begin to tell you how proud the student who wrote the Strange Animals bookwas when he was able to go home and read a book he had written to his family.
Another thing I sometimes do with older readers is to have them write a “show don’t tell” paragraph. Here’s one I wrote:
When the boy walked in the door, he had to duck his head. He was sweating and a little out of breath. He was smiling. He tossed the ball from hand to hand. He had made the team.
What team do you think he was trying out for?
The rules for a “show don’t tell are simple.” You can give clues, but you can’t use the word. After creating their show don’t tell paragraphs, I usually let students pair and share more than once. I tell them if the other person doesn’t get it, then add another clue or two. This is a great activity for teaching inference. After doing it for some years, I found a similar activity in Jennifer Seravallo’s Readings Strategies book, LINK. For students who need it, let them do “show don’t tell” using language experience. (of course, the answer for my show don’t tell is basketball!)
In sum, writing can help to develop reading comprehension and fluency. So can learning about prefixes, suffixes, and roots. This isn’t all one can do to help older students with decoding, but it is a good start.
BTW- I’m already starting to line up some folks for upcoming interviews. I think you will find some great ideas for things that can help you help your students in literacy. As always:
Happy Reading and Happy Writing
Dr. Sam Bommarito, aka the centrist who uses ideas from all sides to inform his teaching
Copyright 2021 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.
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