Friday, May 6, 2016

Reading Complexity

Many high school students have developed strategies to cover up their reading struggles. I've taught students who would misbehave so that they would get kicked out of class rather than read. I've had students feign headaches, lost glasses, and sore throats to avoid reading. 

Imagine the impact on students' daily educational experiences when students are reading 4 grade levels below the reading material of classes. Then add in the complications of specialized vocabulary for different content areas, perhaps a lack of personal experiences with a larger world, and feelings of inadequacy. It's a recipe for disaster. 

Here's a paragraph from Chill, a young adult novel with a LEXILE LEVEL OF 820. A Lexile Reading Level of 820, (820L), equates to 4th-5th grade level. In the CCSS adjusted "Stretch Lexile Levels", it equates to upper 3rd grade through early 5th grade. The "Stretch Lexile Levels" refers to the idea that at every level of reading, every reader has a range or band of comprehension. My lexile level for poetry is high (English major), while my lexile level for physics is lower (again, English major!) Every reader has subjects, background knowledge, and motivations which impacts our reading comprehension.

Back to our student in the 9th grade. Her struggles with saying and understanding words in a book designed to be high interest but lower reading level, indicate that she is a struggling reader. Even using the highest grade level calculation of 5th grade, AT BEST, the student is reading FOUR grades below grade level. 

The blue words are words one of our BAHS students stumbled over:

I heard Mr. Sfinkter's boisterous laugh. When I peeked in, I could see the teachers surrounding him, listening intently as he told a story about the whole ugly incident. They were obviously supportive, nodding sympathetically. Some offered comments: "...a terrible thing to happen...," "horrible...and to such a nice man," " should sue the station" (75).

So...Sfinkter. "Who wouldn't stumble over this one?" you might ask. Interestingly enough, our reader who has some letter-sound awareness (sound it out), stumbles every single time. Our reader who uses guessing and memorization, gets it right every single time! Why? I think our "sound it out" reader gets hung up on the odd beginning "Sf," and then gets thrown by the long "i." The name is an aptronym (it reveals something about the character). We had quite a discussion about sphincters, and why the character would insist that his name be pronounced with a long "i" instead of a short one. I love English class! :-)

Boisterous. It's a long word. The "oi" combination is somewhat unusual. I know, there's "moist," "hoist," "foist," and "joist." But really, "joist" and "hoist" are specialized to carpentry and engineering and sailing. "Foist," well as pithy a word as it is, it's falling rapidly out of use. That leaves us with "moist." How about "damp?" Isn't that easier? "Clammy" and "wet" are often used to mean the same as "moist." 

Where was I?

Oh yes! "Boisterous." Now that I've tried to convince you that "oi" is a relatively unusual vowel combination, you can see why our student stumbled on this polysyllabic wonder of a word. Yes?

Were you expecting "listening" to be on the list of mispronounced words? I was not. 

"Intently." I think I'm seeing the pattern of difficulty--letter combinations. The more letters combined to make a sound, the more likely this reader is to stumble. Sometimes the difficulty is in the initial sound, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes at the end. 

Our student also did not know the meaning of "intently," so even after I helped her with the pronunciation, she did not recognize the word. We talked about "intently" and what it means to listen intently. 

To keep this relatively short, I'll skip over the other words, trusting that you are seeing the difficulties for reading and understanding when a text is above grade level. I'll just mention my theory on the struggles with "sue." I think the student was thrown by the name "Sue." Why wasn't it capitalized? Isn't it a name? What does it mean to "sue the station" if you only recognize it as a name?

Excluding "Sfinkter" because it's a name, there are NINE words in one paragraph that were stumbling blocks. NINE WORDS. 

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