Fairfield Ledger
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Neighbors Growing Together | Dec 20, 2014

New reading classes help students with comprehension, pronunciation

By ANDY HALLMAN | Aug 07, 2014

Fairfield Middle School has rolled out a few new programs to make reading fun and easy.

Katherine Al-Khanfar, reading specialist at the middle school, said reading aloud can be one of the most unnerving experiences for young people. She hopes these new programs will change that.

One new initiative is called “Reading Blitz,” which involves using a child’s knowledge of phonics to sound out unfamiliar words. Al-Khanfar said the old strategy was to tell kids to look at the first letter of the word and then guess at its meaning and pronunciation based on context clues, which was not especially effective. She said the new phonetic approach, on the other hand, has been hugely successful.

“If they know their phonics patterns, they’ll be able to read a word even if they’ve never seen it before,” she said.

This is the second year of the “Reading Blitz” program. Last year, 12 instructors taught classes in it. Al-Khanfar said so many students improved their reading during the year that they were able to graduate from the program. This year, the middle school will have about six teachers teaching the course.

The English language presents a number of problems for children that literate adults might be unaware of or have forgotten about from their own youth. “Reading Blitz” requires knowledge of phonics, which is not easy to acquire. The sounds English speakers make with their mouths do not map perfectly onto the printed page, and vice versa.

Some sound distinctions are lost when they’re put into letters. For instance, the vowel sounds in the words “father,” “bath” and “maze” are all written with an “a” but pronounced differently. Al-Khanfar said English pronunciation defies simple and easy rules because it has drawn from so many other languages, each with its own phonetic rules. The result is a dizzying number of pronunciations for the same letter.

To take one common example from phonics classrooms, the letter combination “ch” can make three different sounds. Its most common is that of words such as “chair” and “church,” but it can also make an “sh” sound as in “champagne” or “Chicago,” as well as a “k” sound as in “chaos” and “chasm.” Al-Khanfar said this reflects their different etymologies. Words that are spelled “ch” but pronounced as “sh” are usually of French origin, while “ch” words pronounced as “k” tend to be from Greek.

Learning about the origin of words is a neat history lesson for the kids, but they still get headaches when they come upon a new word with seemingly endless possible pronunciations. Al-Khanfar said she doesn’t believe dyslexia would be the severe problem it is if English didn’t have so many convoluted rules.

Al-Khanfar said many students struggle reproducing all the vowel sounds in English, especially considering the language has many more vowel sounds than it has vowel letters. The crux of the students’ dilemma is the part of their brain that is activated when they read.

Al-Khanfar said a team of researchers attached electrodes to the brains of children who read well and to those who read poorly to see if the neurons in their brains fired differently when they read. They found that, among the fluent readers, the four sections of the brain used in reading fired in the same order, but the kids who struggled to read did not follow that pattern.

The researchers discovered that when dyslexic or poor-performing readers tried to retrieve information about a word, the part of their brain that was activated was the sight portion, whereas in the good readers, it was the auditory portion. The brains of the struggling readers were not remembering the words as a sound but as a picture.

“The trouble is that words don’t represent pictures; they represent language, which is spoken,” Al-Khanfar said. “Under Reading Blitz, we do kinesthetic activity to train the students’ brains to go to the sound portion rather than the sight portion. After all, when we talk, pictures don’t fly out of our mouths – sounds do.”

To ensure students associate the words with sounds, they are always asked to read aloud.

“Teaching kids sight-reading seems like it makes sense to adults, but if you don’t have a background in phonics, you have no strategy to figure out what the word is,” Al-Khanfar said. “Once you become a fluent reader, you can read silently, but we read out loud.”

Al-Khanfar said some of the students are familiar with only 70-80 percent of the words they read. To be proficient, they must be able to understand 98 percent of the text. That means they must be able to understand 98 out of 100 words they come across in a text at their reading level.

“Reading is the most important thing you learn in school, because if you can’t read well, you can’t succeed,” Al-Khanfar.

Another reading program the middle school started last year was “close reading.” It is a reading strategy included in the Common Core standards that has been proven to improve reading comprehension.

“It is basically just what it sounds like, which is a class on how to teach students to pay close attention to what they’ve read so they can understand it,” Al-Khanfar said.

Several tricks exist for helping students better understand the text they read. Until recently, the prevailing strategy was to ask students how they felt about the story and what they would tell the main character to do. Al-Khanfar said that method was not effective because it gave kids too much leeway to interpret the passage however they wanted, rather than to pay attention to what the characters said.

Under the new method, the students read the text multiple times, focusing on a different aspect of it each time. For example, the first time they read it, they are asked to summarize in one sentence the passage’s basic meaning. The second time through, the students look for hard words that they didn’t understand the first time, and use context clues to deduce their meanings.

Al-Khanfar started “close reading” in February, more than halfway through the school year. She said she wishes she had done it all year long. She said the students are in the class because they can pass the phonics tests but struggle when it comes to comprehension. She said all her students showed improvement last year and some were able to graduate out of it. She looks forward to another successful year of improving students’ reading skills this coming school year.

 

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