Educators at a literacy conference learn how to help struggling readers, no matter what the subject.
By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2003
CRYSTAL RIVER -- Kylene Beers challenged her class to read through a complex paragraph and answer some basic questions.
First she urged the class members to read aloud clearly, quickly and with feeling.
Then she helped them sound out a particularly difficult word. She concluded by asking basic questions to test their reading comprehension skills.
"What is cormandic?" she asked.
The class dutifully responded. "An emurient groff with many fribs," most wrote.
Beers counted that answer, or the shorter version "an emurient groff," as being correct. In fact, most in the room walked away from the pop quiz with 75 to 100 percent of the answers correct.
Too bad no one had any clue what the paragraph was really about. It was written in gibberish so Beers could show her "class" -- 300 teachers from Citrus and surrounding counties -- how students who cannot read and comprehend can still make it through standard lessons year after year.
Her goal was to show the teachers specific methods designed to help struggling students read and understand better. Beers, a professor of reading and language arts education at the University of Houston, was the keynote speaker for a special literacy conference hosted Monday at Crystal River Middle School.
Teachers moved from session to session throughout the day, learning new ways to teach reading -- and not just in language arts class. With reading a major stumbling block to higher scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, conference organizers wanted educators to learn new ways to teach reading in social studies, math, physical education and any other classroom setting.
One session focused on connecting math and literature. Another answered the question: "What is different about reading math." And still others offered new classroom organizational methods or new approaches, such as Crystal River Middle teacher Sandy Balfour's encouragement to have students talk more in class in a session called "Don't Stop the Talk."
The idea for the conference grew out of a summer FLaRE training program. FLaRE stands for Florida Literacy and Reading Excellence. Some of Monday's program presenters were FLaRE representatives; others were teachers from throughout the Citrus schools.
Beers, editor of Voices from the Middle, a journal of the National Council of Teachers of English, was brought to the group by Holt, Rinehart and Winston Publishing Co. Other book publishers sponsored the breakfast, lunch and snacks for the conference and several had set up displays of their reading texts.
"This is something that is going to be really big," said Crystal River Middle teacher Anne Brooks, one of the organizers. "We've very excited."
To set the stage for the learning ahead, Beers began her talk by asking teachers to demonstrate what struggling readers looked like in the classroom.
Some flung themselves backward in their chairs, crossing their arms, staring around the room. Crystal River Middle teacher Vincent Treacy fell forward, his head resting dejectedly on the table in front of him.
Beers wanted the teachers to understand that, for students, science might be boring or math difficult, thus making it simpler for the students to explain away why they don't do well in those subjects. But students who don't know how to read -- and they know that as soon as their class starts to outpace them by second grade -- blame themselves. In their minds, they can't read because they are dumb, Beers explained.
And while the adult who doesn't catch on quickly to tennis or never learns how to sew very well usually drops out of the activity quickly, students who can't read must face their shortfalls for hours each day in front of their peers.
"When we see kids who struggle with reading, the very fact that they are walking through your door makes them courageous," Beers said. "And the very fact that they show up might have to be where we start from."
She talked about the need to teach students confidence. While her own focus when she taught school was to help students comprehend a text and determine the meaning of words, Beers said that this kind of learning helped students be school readers and do better on standardized tests.
To become lifetime readers, though, students also must learn social and emotional confidence in their reading skills by learning to enjoy reading. Beers noted that this skill is particularly important because lifetime readers will tend to read to their own children. And children who have been read to before they enter school will progress much faster than those who don't.
Even good readers need help learning to stick with reading material that might be difficult, so teachers also need to develop reading stamina in their students, Beers said.
She also showed the teachers several specific techniques to use with students. One was to allow students to read a passage and then ask them to summarize by naming someone in the passage, then noting what that person wanted to do, what happened when they tried to do that and what the consequences were.
She called it the "somebody, wanted, but, so" method.
In another example, she showed how to go through a difficult passage word by word and use underlining, circling and arrows to slowly show students out loud how one word relates to others so they could work through the meaning of words and the meaning of the overall paragraph, a process she called "syntax surgery."
Beers also suggested that each school look at the process of bringing a student up closer to their grade level in reading as one that the entire school must work together to achieve.
"Our defeat is that we each only have the kid for nine months," she said. "But as a building, you have three years."
-- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 564-3621.