Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fluency and Oral Reading

Reading aloud with efficiency and understanding is one of our literacy goals. We provide a wide variety of opportunities for children to read to other people in different settings and for different purposes. Practice, repetition, and reinforcement are important components of our language arts program. Our teachers work together to identify situations where children can read and recite texts to develop their oral language skills. Dramatic productions, presentations of research projects, and group activities encourage children to find their voices and their own sense of presence.

September 26: ‘Just Right’ Learning

The first graders’ book bags are here! The annual debut of these canvas bags, carefully decorated and boldly labeled with the children’s names, represents much more than a simple means of carrying items between home and school. For our first grade students, the bags are a symbol of newfound independence. The book bag program is a central element of our early reading curriculum, focusing on the skill of fluency—reading smoothly and comfortably with thorough comprehension of the text. To accomplish this goal, the teachers help the children choose a “just right” book that allows them to read with greater than 95% accuracy. Though such proficiency might suggest that the task is not challenging enough, it is precisely at this level that children can focus their attention on comprehension rather than on decoding, which is the ultimate goal of reading. The book bag program illustrates a core idea in education: learning happens at the edges between what we know and what we don’t know yet.

To teach at the edges requires deep knowledge of both the students and the curriculum. All through the school, classes are beginning the year with this kind of “just right” teaching and learning. Our teachers frequently engage the students in a process of guided discovery, first uncovering the knowledge that children bring, then leading them to build knowledge by making connections, asking questions, and observing carefully.

The fourth graders have been studying seeds as part of their science class. Ms. Rochford introduced the unit by asking the children to share ideas, facts, and questions about plants. With this discussion as their foundation, the students engaged in a detailed series of observations. They used hand lenses to investigate dry lima beans, opened newly sprouted seeds, and made predictions about the conditions for seeds to grow well. Ms. Rochford presented additional information about types of seeds and different ways that seeds take root. She then presented a challenge: apply the knowledge you have gained to design your own seed, build a model, and explain the way that the seed would take root. Using plastic bags, plastic wrap, pipe cleaners, straws, rubber bands, tape, beans, balloons, and cardboard, the children built 3-dimensional models of their seed designs and prepared specimen cards to present the details, grounded in accurate biological concepts, of their creations.

Connecting the known and the new does not always happen as part of a multi-week project; sometimes it happens in a brief exchange between teacher and student. Earlier this week, a second grade student came across the word “porcupine” in her reading book. She looked at the word, made a guess, hesitated, and then looked at the teacher. “The last four letters are a word you know,” suggested the teacher. “Pine,” the student read. “Now look at the first three letters,” the teacher prompted. “Por-,” read the child. She paused, looking at the whole word, then smiled. “Porcupine!” she shouted, with a look of great satisfaction. This moment of success prompted a short discussion among all the children in the reading group about how to read big words. Each child in the group described a strategy: looking at the rest of the sentence, finding a small word inside the big word, or sounding it out one letter at a time. The most striking aspect of this conversation was the confidence of the children: they were certain that they would be able to decipher these as-yet unread words. These children know the spaces between what they know and what they don’t quite know yet, and they know how to learn in those edges.

February 6: DeLovely

“A lot of serious things start silly.”

This line summarizes one of the key themes in the 5th grade play, The Search for Delicious. The story revolves around a dictionary, a definition, and a disagreement over what is truly delicious. The main character, a young boy named Gaylen, is sent on a mission throughout the kingdom to record each citizen’s vote for the most delicious food. Along the way, he is confronted by foolishness, wisdom, and an overwhelming list of people’s favorite foods.

Drama teacher Susan Dempsey wrote the script, carefully adapting Natalie Babbitt’s 1969 classic book, and using her musical talents to incorporate her own arrangement of Cole Porter’s song “DeLovely” as an added treat. Mr. Downing and Mr. Sucich have been reading the book to the class, reinforcing the students’ knowledge and appreciation of the story. Mrs. Dempsey’s rendition maintains the whimsical nature and clever wording of the original text, and provides an excellent example of how language instruction occurs throughout the curriculum here at Belmont Day.

As the production moved from the script to the stage, the students focused on the nature of the language in the play, and made observations about the differences between a book and a play. One important difference is the value of action over description, and the importance of clear expression. The students practiced different ways of using their voices to emphasize specific words—and since words are central to the plot in this play, enunciation was of extra importance.

The students were drawn to the old-fashioned nature of the story and its language. During their final rehearsals, they were eager to discuss the upcoming performance and the unusual ways that words are used. They noticed how often opposing ideas came together: “What an uproar! Calm down!” says the mayor at one point. Students praised one other’s ability to express the meaning of their lines through action, facial expression, and posture, and they described the subtle humor as well as the tension that permeates the story. One student repeated a line from the play: “It’s nothing to you, but it’s much to me.” The student paused, and thought for a moment. “It’s partly funny, and partly serious,” she said, describing the type of conflict that can ensue over something as seemingly insignificant as a definition.

March 20: The Play’s the Thing

Literature study in 8th grade has taken a dramatic turn. On Monday, the class gathered in the kiva for an opening lesson about Romeo and Juliet. In small groups over the next few weeks, we will study the tragedy in its entirety, marking the first time for many of our students to read a whole Shakespearean play. Teaching and learning Shakespeare in middle school is a rewarding experience, and we approach it differently from most of the other books and stories we have read before. As we began our discussions this week, it became immediately clear to the students that the plot is not always the most important focus. Although there may be specific characters or details that are unfamiliar, the main points of the play are well known to everyone. However, the specific language, the arc of the story line, and the timeless relevance of the work are critical elements of cultural literacy.

The language of Shakespeare appears daunting at first. For this reason, we have chosen a version of the play that provides excellent page-by-page summaries. Students read a few scenes each night, using the summaries to help them interpret the original text. In class, we take the scenes apart, sometimes acting them out, sometimes re-phrasing the characters’ lines in modern speech, and sometimes analyzing the historic or cultural significance of a particular reference.

As they become more comfortable with the material, the students gain confidence in applying analytical skills that they have developed through years of critical reading. They question the characters’ motives, evaluate their flaws, and debate the plausibility of events: How is it that Romeo can claim to be so desperately in love with Rosaline at the beginning of Act 1, only to have his heart swept away in the very next scene when he catches a glimpse of Juliet across a proverbial crowded room? Is Tybalt really so arrogant and hotheaded that he would try to start a swordfight at his uncle’s party? A group of students acted out this scene for their classmates, interrupted by commentary, laughter, and clarification of language. Through these relatively informal small group exchanges, our students gain an appreciation for the classic work, while at the same time identifying humor and modern connections. “This is just like a soap opera!” one of them observed. And so it is.

June 5: In Their Own Words

A celebration took place in Kindergarten this week—the publishing of everyone’s first book from Writer’s Workshop. After the children carefully chose a favorite story from their writing folders, the teachers typed the selections, leaving plenty of room for illustrations on each page. Before adding drawings, each student sat with a teacher to listen as the words were read aloud. After confirming that the text did indeed match their original stories, the children sat down with colored pencils and crayons. The final products will feature laminated covers and “about the author” biographies.

Down the hall, a group of first graders bounded into the classroom from their reading class, beaming with excitement: they had amassed 100 words on their word rings! Since the beginning of the year, our first graders have been adding colored cards to the large binder rings on their bookbags, building a repertoire of words with irregular spellings that they can recognize and read automatically. The 100-word milestone, celebrated with high-fives and shouts of glee from classmates and teachers, represents only a portion of the words that the children have learned to read this year. Our first grade reading curriculum emphasizes words with regular phonics patterns (fondly known as “word families”), which the children have also mastered.

Even more words were the focus of attention in second grade, where the entire Word Wall (more than 400 spelling words!) was removed from its place of prominence for the final spelling test of the year. Ms. Morin selected 20 words from the entire list, focusing on those that involved irregular spelling patterns or that couldn’t be sounded out easily. From the children’s responses, this end-of-year assessment might as well have been a well-earned party. Their enthusiasm and motivation to succeed were contagious, and the teachers were delighted with the results of the quiz.

In each of these scenarios, we see the results of a year of concentrated work as well as a progression of skills that begins early in primary school. What does it mean for a reader to “possess” a word? It means familiarity with the sounds, meaning, appearance, and formation of the word. It means the ability to recognize it aurally and in print, to use it appropriately, and to write it independently. Through this sequence, the connections among listening, speaking, reading, and writing are obvious. The foundations of literacy are strong at BDS—in the lessons taught, the books read, the stories written, and in the words that the children make their own.

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