Learning to Read

by Mark Lewis
Teaching requires a kind of intellectual empathy–understanding how a student is thinking, why they’re thinking it, or how they’re feeling when they think it. My own study of a new language has deepened my empathy for primary students learning how to read.

In my linguistically diverse classroom, I’m often figuring out ways to support learning English as a new language. It’s important to keep in mind though that seven year olds are pretty new at even their first language. My students give huge amounts of time, frustration, and joy to their language learning, and my empathy has deepened with time.

In the summer/fall of 2011, I took some night courses in Arabic at a local not-for-profit continuing
education place. One amazing benefit to taking these courses is getting a glimpse of a some of the joy and frustration of learning how to read. I do not remember learning to read in English, so it’s been a big missing piece for me.

Sometimes it’s easy to figure out where students are coming from. For example, reading “island” like the two words “is land” is not just something from hooked on phonics commercials. When sensibly incorrect readings like this happens, I know why they happen, and I have a pretty handy stock response ready. (You know a lot about the sounds that letters make. Some words are different because they won’t follow the rules you know. As you see more of these special words, you’ll have to remember what they look like spelled out.) School days seem to pass by in a speedy succession of these small instructional moments. In a typical day, I feel like my empathy is working in some of these moments and not in others. Iz-land I have down pat. In other cases, I’m unsure about why a student is making their particular approximation, so my instructional response can be unsteady. Empathy is an important resource for me, so I’m always trying to expand it.

In this post, I’m presenting two language learners. One is me, reading a few sentences I wrote about myself in Arabic. The other is Emilio, who wrote last month in English about getting new shoes and let me record him reading it.

[Translation: I have a fiance. Sometimes we talk. Sometimes we study algebra for the big tests. We live in the state of Virginia. In the morning, I make tea for her.]

A few observations. Compositionally, Emilio’s writing is much stronger. His vocabulary and language structure are far more varied. His piece has a clearer narrative structure and focus, whereas mine is more list-like. This makes sense given that Emilio is far more experienced using English than I am in Arabic.

Using the word khatiiba (fiance) is neat for me, in that it is “advanced” vocabulary, but it doesn’t mean that I know advanced Arabic vocabulary. It’s a phenomenon of very early learners knowing some basic vocabulary and a few more uncommon items. I know “fiance” but not “because.”

The shared disfluencies in the reading are clear: the stopping and starting, going back to add intonation, slow rate of reading, things like that. Graphically, we have both had to scribble out something we wrote incorrectly (or at least unsatisfactorally).

Now for the sensation. What does it feel like to read that way? For me, it feels terrible. It can be skin crawlingly unpleasant. It is such a mental strain, visually, cognitively, and verbally. Sometimes when I read and write Arabic, I suddenly get a headache. Sometimes I put the pen down and have to get up out of my seat and move around, because it’s either that or scream!

I’m sure my students feel like I do, at least some of the time. I’m a better teacher for knowing clearly what that frustration is like. I’m still working on how to turn that clarity into better and more support for frustration. But intellectual empathy is the start.

I’m an Arabic class hiatus for the winter, but Arabic III starts in two weeks. Even though it’s difficult, I am excited. My memories of excitement also aid my empathy. I see my students try, and try, and try, and then read, and then smile. And I know how they feel then, too.

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4 Comments to “Learning to Read”

  1. Appleseed, thanks for your insightful post. I think we have a lot in common, teaching a high percentage of English Language Learners (ELLs) in an elementary setting. I think you touched on it here briefly, but one of the hardships of learning how to read in a second language is not only mastering the words through word attack, but also reading prose in a fluent and steady manner.

    I had a similar experience to your learning Arabic when I tried to learn Mongolian studying abroad. I can now use words that we use in my elementary setting to describe my shortcomings: I was strong in word attack, but not accurate with “island”-type words sightwords. That makes sense, right? But, what was really the thing that stood between me and reading like a native Mongolian speaker, my teachers told me, was reading fluently–not accurately. I was steady in pacing my reading (i.e.: I could turn pages pretty quickly), but nowhere near accurate with my intonation and stress. They said I would never sound like a real Mongolian until I could pick this up.

    I see these problems with ALL of my students, newcomer to mainstreamed. Sometimes I feel like we spend too much time on the phonetic/phonological awareness and not enough time on teaching students how to read fluently. How can we do that without shoving a stopwatch in their face? I’m not really sure.

    • What’s word attack?

      • Word Attack is essentially the elementary school teacher name for a student using a wide variety of skills in order to decode a word they can’t read. If a student comes across a word they can’t sound out or don’t know by sight, then I tell them to do a number of things, namely: 1) look at the picture for clues, 2) look for words they know inside the word they don’t, and 3) chunk it up and sound it out by syllable. Hence, attacking a word they find unfamiliar. Word attack.

  2. I think all new (and probably not new) teachers should be simultaneously learning a new language. The physical/embodied experience of how hard it is and how that makes you feel would be so useful to all of us who teach. Lisa

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