Oct 31 2006

Reading Challenge

Considerate text helps reading-challenged students improve their reading and critical-thinking skills.

ASK A NINTH GRADE LIFE-SCIENCE CLASS how the male blue-footed booby attracts a mate, and the collective response is likely, “Who cares?” Harder still is trying to motivate the class to read a textbook on the subject, especially if some of the students struggle with reading problems. After all, Charles Darwin may have possessed an innate fascination with the life and death dramas played out on the Galapagos Islands, but it’s a completely different story for many middle school and high school students.

However, if you ease into the subject by asking students to consider their own budding courtship rituals—including how they dress for a school dance and preen once they arrive there—you might be on to something.

That’s one of the tenets of an emerging strategy called considerate text, which aims to ignite a reading interest in middle school and high school students whose struggles with reading have turned them off books—or kept that passion from firing up in the first place.

Considerate text uses specific word choices, a clear organization of concepts and, in some cases, ancillary computer graphics and audio narrations to engage struggling readers. Rather than stumble over an unknown word, students can hear its pronunciation and definition, thanks to the software that accompanies the traditional textbook. Teacher prep work completes the educational package that some experts believe can make the printed page come alive for reading-challenged students.

Researchers have found that fifth-graders who rank in the 30th percentile for reading spend fewer than one-and-a-half minutes per day reading books outside of school. This equates to elective reading of only about 100,000 words per year. By contrast, students who are in the 80th percentile spend about 14 minutes in elective reading per day, which means they are exposed to more than a million words a year. This gives skilled readers a clear educational advantage compared to struggling readers.

By using a full arsenal of instructional devices, such as considerate text materials, educators get students to read more books, and this may do more than just boost their reading scores. It may also help students develop far-reaching skills that can improve their overall learning abilities.

The end result: Learning success snowballs. Fluent readers continue to expand their vocabulary and language skills and even learn to think in new ways.

Reading-impoverished students lack valuable decoding skills, a well-developed vocabulary, background knowledge and familiarity with formal written language structures. It’s no wonder that they are overwhelmed by the literature and expository textbooks they encounter in middle school and high school.

Considerate Components

Considerate text is not merely a remedial reading strategy. It keeps the needs and interests of the audience in mind. Key components include:

1. Mature story themes and grade-level curriculum: Older struggling readers are both socially astute and academically challenged. The books provided to them must connect with their maturity level, and the texts must be age-appropriate in feel and content.

2. Engagement: In order to hook reading-challenged students, texts must compete with the daily distractions of Xbox, instant messaging, iPods and malls. The books have to be relevant and compelling.

3. Idioms and vocabulary: Good readers add more than 3,000 new words a year to their comprehension vocabulary, while struggling readers add only a few hundred. In order to maximize learning, considerate text limits the new vocabulary and carefully introduces idioms, new words and new meanings of old words.

4. Background knowledge: Good readers apply prior knowledge to difficult texts. Considerate text assumes little prior knowledge and anchors the reader by using familiar examples and analogies.

5. Sentence structure: Considerate text simplifies sentence structure, but makes logical, clear connections between ideas. It does not use short, choppy sentences that require the struggling reader to infer the relationships between them.

6. Text structure: The organization of material should be clear and presented in a predictable format. The student can easily follow the author’s train of thought.

7. Computer support: Well-written considerate text can boost a struggling reader’s success, but adding computer support can make the text even more effective. Computers can provide human-recorded digitized speech to model all the extra spoken clues that promote understanding, such as intonation, phrasing, sarcasm, humor and the pronunciation of unfamiliar words.

Some considerate-text materials highlight text onscreen as the recorded narration plays. Students can easily start and stop the computer audio to match their own pace. Computers can individualize the support a student requires during reading, quizzing and writing activities. Finally, the computer can record a student’s fluency and store all this data to chart progress.

That’s what considerate text aims to do: make progress toward the goal of ensuring that all children become fluent readers.

Jerry Stemach, MS, CCC-SLP, is a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based speech/language pathologist and director of Start-to-Finish Publishing. Gail Portnuff Venable, MS, CCC-SLP, is a San Francisco-based speech/language pathologist and senior language editor of Start-to-Finish Books.

Succeeding With Considerate Text

By Christie Taylor

Asking students to walk over to a dictionary when they don’t know a word may soon be a thing of the past, thanks to innovative learning products that use considerate text to explain definitions during the reading experience. These products are often augmented by computer programs and audio tapes.

School districts across the country have implemented such tools, which include Don Johnston’s Start-to-Finish books, Write:OutLoud talking word processors and Co:Writer SmartApplet portable keyboard and dictionaries. Though these products were originally intended for students with learning disabilities, teachers have discovered that struggling readers also can benefit.

“The important thing is to increase reading levels for all children, and it’s hard to do that if the text is too difficult,” says Barb Wollak, a speech and language pathologist with the Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. “For junior and senior high school students, finding considerate text that is age-appropriate is a challenge. A lot of companies just make the text shorter and dumb it down. But Start-to-Finish books don’t [achieve] a lower reading level by making sentences shorter. Instead, they use strong vocabulary and activate students’ background knowledge.”

For instance, if a student is reading a story with the word “slate” in it and doesn’t know what it means, the Start-to-Finish book will include a description of “slate” as a “small chalkboard.” “That gives students access to information at the appropriate reading level,” Wollak says. The books also include different types of text structures, including fiction and nonfiction.

Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia have many students receiving special education services who use Start-to-Finish books. “We can’t keep them on the shelves,” says Cheryl Temple, Fairfax’s elementary educational specialist. “ Start-to-Finish books help build students’ confidence, and since they use scaffolding, students have various levels of support. With the CD, they can listen to words or a passage over and over, and the great thing is the computer never gets impatient.”

Temple says the student record is particularly helpful because it tracks each student’s progress, and students can print out graphs to see how they’re doing.

An innovative application of considerate text is taking place in Collier County Public Schools in Naples, Fla., where a teacher motivated her students to use Start-to-Finish tapes during the 45-minute bus ride to an offsite work program.

Bill Schulte, an instructional technology specialist with Collier County, is a fan of the Don Johnston products. “There are no others that have the same kind of support, that have been so well-thought-out and that have high interest for older students but don’t offend them by presenting information in a way that’s too babyish,” he says. “The technology component is also important. These students may not pick up a book because they’ve had so many bad experiences, but, to them, computers are cool. Reading by using the online resources and tapes keeps them interested.”

Collier County has a high migrant population in one of its areas, and considerate text is even more important with that population, according to Schulte. “Teachers can’t assume that [migrant students] know who George Washington is or why he was important,” he says. “With considerate text and scaffolding, they can find out on their own.”

Christie Taylor is a Houston-based freelance writer who specializes in entrepreneurial business, education and the arts.