Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Comprehension and Vocabulary Building

Comprehension and Vocabulary Building

True reading requires a reader to understand the meaning of the text being encountered. Comprehension, therefore, is an absolute and ultimate goal of our reading program at every level. It is not sufficient for readers to be able to pronounce the words they are decoding; they must be able to extract the message from the passage as well. Our teachers and students build word knowledge together, adding vocabulary words and meanings, dissecting parts and origins of words, and finding multiple ways of defining and describing new and known concepts.

September 19: Mono-. Di-. Tri-.

Ask a BDS 6th grader what these prefixes mean, and you’re in for a lesson in Greek. This week, the 6th grade class began a yearlong study of etymology, the study of word origins. Their first unit is an investigation of the Greek roots related to numbers (mono is one; di is two, and tri is three). Mr. Spencer and the students reviewed a list of words that include numeric roots from one to ten. Familiar and unfamiliar words gained new significance as students learned the root words (oct means eight, and pous means foot in Greek, so an octopus is, quite literally, an eight-footed creature). The students analyzed meanings, made connections, and discussed word-based mysteries: If oct means eight, then why is October the 10th month? Ask a 6th grader!

On the same day that the 6th graders were learning about decathlons and heptameter, the Kindergarten class conducted an in-depth investigation of alphabet books. Ms. Isler, Ms. Chu, and the children looked carefully at the different shapes of the letters, shared words that they know using those letters, and learned some new words that begin with the letters (do you know what a kohlrabi is?).

These two lessons represent critical points on the continuum of literacy. From the earliest stages of letter recognition to the ability to decode and define the word decahedron, reading involves the process of connecting symbols, sounds, and words to make meaning. The Belmont Day School literacy curriculum is an excellent model of best practices in reading and language arts instruction. As the year progresses, we will share continued highlights and examples from our Road to Reading.

October 10: Reading to Learn

There is an adage in elementary schools that until third grade, children “learn to read,” and after third grade, they “read to learn.” The implication is that reading is primarily about correctly pronouncing words in print. However, true reading is more than connecting letters and sounds. A good example of this distinction is the experience many of us have encountered in “reading” a language we don’t speak. We may be able to pronounce the items on the menu, but we’re not sure what we’re ordering.

Our third graders are expanding their true reading skills to make meaning from text. They are reading Stone Fox, a story about a boy who decides to enter a sled-dog race. Mrs. Moriarty’s and Mrs. Listfield’s classes provide a powerful illustration of what reading instruction looks like after children have learned to decode most words.

In Mrs. Moriarty’s group, a child read a passage that included a conversation between the main character and the mayor. He didn’t miss a word. “Wait a minute,” Mrs. Moriarty said. “Let’s go back and notice how many people were talking. How can you use your voice to show the differences between Willy and the mayor?” When the child re-read the passage, attending to the quotation marks, the meaning of the text was much clearer. In Mrs. Listfield’s class, a child paused after reading the phrase “hair tonic.” “What’s that?” she asked. This type of self-monitoring is a critical skill in true reading. A few minutes later, another student encountered the word “amateur.” Many of the students had heard the word, but its precise meaning was not clear. As they discussed the word and re-read the paragraph, the children became more engaged in the story and in their own ability to make sense of the text, demonstrating the balance between learning and reading.

October 24: What Am I?

What looks like orange flat circles, sounds quiet, smells like something sweet, feels squishy and sticky, and tastes sweet and good?

This is a riddle written by a group of pre-K students for their classmates to solve. For the past several weeks, the children have been learning about the five senses. More recently, they have begun an investigation of riddles, specifically the kind of riddles that give clues about the identity of a person or thing.

What is that orange, quiet, sweet thing? Maybe it’s an orange, suggested one child. No, it couldn’t be an orange; oranges aren’t flat, said someone else. What about a pancake? A pancake is flat, but it’s not orange. Could it be a lollipop? Perhaps, but lollipops aren’t squishy. After much deliberation, the children decided that they needed more clues.

The children’s conversations and the experiences surrounding these riddles provide a marvelous example of the power of language as a tool for precise communication. The ability to interpret and to generate descriptive language is a critical literacy skill, and the size of a person’s vocabulary is an excellent indicator of success in reading. Throughout their lives, children’s receptive vocabulary (the words they recognize and understand) and their expressive vocabulary (the words they use in their own communication) expand through experiences, exposure to literature, and direct instruction. Our pre-kindergarteners’ riddles are an exercise in expressive language.

So what is that mysterious object? Here’s a clue. Every morning, Pre-K children and adults are welcomed with an activity that encourages them to explore the classroom, learn about each another, and practice new skills. Last week, people arriving in the room found plates of dried apricots, bowls of pretzels, apple slices, kashi cereal, raisins, and sliced radishes. The children were asked to describe how each food looked, sounded, smelled, felt, and tasted. One of the sample foods is the answer to the riddle.

October 31: Reading Between the Lines

Have you ever found yourself connecting with a character in a book whose life is entirely different from yours? What sort of thinking is involved when you analyze the plot or consider the world from that character’s point of view? Our fifth graders are reading Esperanza Rising, a novel about a young Mexican girl in the 1930s. After a family tragedy, she and her family are forced to leave their country to find work in the farms of California during the Depression. The teachers are using this deeply emotional book to encourage the students to think beyond the basic elements of the plot. After the class re-read a passage where Esperanza and her mother talk about the life they’ve left behind, the students tried to determine what Esperanza missed the most. Since the text does not provide this information directly, the students relied on their inferential skills to form their answers.

Children begin making inferences early in their literacy experiences. In the primary grades, they use contextual clues to deduce a character’s mood or intentions. Good questions are at the heart of this type of comprehension. In a second-grade reading class, students have been writing their own questions about the book that they’ve just finished. We have introduced the idea of a “thinking question,” which is aimed at inferential comprehension. When asked to describe what a thinking question is, one child explained, “It’s when you can’t find the answer right there in the book, but if you read that part again, you can figure it out.”

As they get older, children’s inferential comprehension expands to include metaphors, symbolism, and broad themes. In fifth grade this week, both Mrs. Listfield’s group and Mr. Sucich’s group have been discussing the concept of imagery in the text. The teachers are guiding the students to discoveries about the characters as well as the author’s purpose in including certain recurring images. Achieving this level of comprehension is a long process, and it is an important component in a lifelong love of reading.

January 16: Martin’s Words

A comprehensive literacy curriculum addresses skills in four key areas: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. As our school has prepared for the sharing assembly to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it seems particularly relevant to consider the meaning and power of words and spoken language.

Among the words and concepts that have been addressed this week are fairness, power, discrimination, status, and civil rights. In eighth grade, where the class has been immersed in a study of the civil rights movement, students watched the film Warriors Don’t Cry, about the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. After watching news footage and listening to the personal accounts of people who lived through the events in 1957, the students talked about the nuances of language, and the way certain words can be construed. Governor Faubus sent the National Guard to Central High to “preserve the peace and avoid violence,” but students wanted to know, what was his true intention?

The sixth grade has been reading the classic novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which takes place in a racially charged community in Mississippi in the 1930s. As the class reviewed a particularly tense episode in the book, students read aloud passages that they found especially meaningful. A central theme in their discussion was the importance of standing up for what is right. This theme was echoed by the second grade, who have examined the idea of “standing up” in the context of bullying and unfairness.

In third grade, words and labels took on a technical as well as a whimsical nature, as the children learned about melanin, the chemical that gives each of us our unique pigmentation. After reading a book called All the Colors We Are, Mrs. Moriarty brought out an assortment of colored spices from her kitchen so that the children could concoct customized mixture to match, and then name, their own skin colors.

In many grades, Dr. King’s speeches and his call for nonviolent protest have been focal points of lessons and conversations. The fourth grade has been reading a book of brief biographies of individuals who have changed the world through the power of their words. These profiles have led to discussions about what it means to be a hero, and how a peaceful protest can have a profound impact. First graders watched a video of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and read many books about Dr. King. Mrs. Chait shared an observation that resonated throughout the school this week: our classrooms are a safe place to discuss difficult words, events, and issues. The power of language is palpable here.

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