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The Secret ClubWhy and How We Must Teach Phonics and Essential Literacy Skills to Readers of All Ages
By Pat Doran
Freedom Reading Foundation, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Pat Doran
All right reserved.
Chapter OneREADING DEFICIENCIES AND NEGATIVE BEHAVIOR
"Conduct or behavior and the factors which influence conduct or behavior are all of one piece all of education has conceivably an influence on conduct...." Frank Freeman, Journal of Educational Psychology, 1936
FOCUS POINT: A connection exists between reading deficiencies and negative behavior in students. Poor reading produces poor self-esteem that in turn results in poor behavior. Many problems in the classroom can be rectified when students gain foundational skills for independent reading. A teacher can diagnose deficiencies in reading and comprehension by observation and by testing students' reading skills. By attacking the problem(s) and by making sure that students develop a knowledge base, the teacher is then able to build the trust that is essential to students' continued academic success. Systematic phonics is crucial to establishing this foundation.
This chapter discusses the common, yet often overlooked, cause-and-effect relationships that may occur between reading deficiencies and negative behavior. The chapter also explains that laying foundations to enable students to read well can often end these relationships, often reversing negative behaviors. The benefits can be significant.
A Frequent Scenario
Consider this fictitious, but all-to-common, scenario.
Jano's Story: I am a high school student. My teacher is always well prepared and is good at explaining the lesson and answering questions. The lesson interests me. I pay attention. I want to learn. I know I am smart because I know all the answers. When the teacher calls on me, I answer correctly. I feel self-assured. I am confident because I know the material. Then, the teacher assigns homework.
The Homework: The homework is a study sheet that contains an illustration and several paragraphs that review the lesson. It includes questions to answer. The teacher says that the questions will be on the test tomorrow. The teacher stresses that if we pay attention in class and complete our homework correctly, we will do well on the test. She says that we may use the textbook to help in answering the questions.
I fold the homework paper and put it with my textbook inside my backpack. When I get home, I am ready to do my homework. This should be easy enough because I paid attention in class. The teacher explained that this handout is a review of the lesson and will prepare me for the test. I have my textbook. I am all set.
I take out the homework paper and begin reading. Some of the words - maybe two out of every ten - seem to me to be written like they were in a foreign language. I have trouble comprehending the passage because I can't figure out all of the words, even though some of the assignment makes sense to me. I get the gist of the work. I try all the strategies that every teacher has ever told me to use. I try to guess at what the words might be. I substitute words that I think might make sense in the sentences.
I look for little words in bigger words. I look for word parts that I know. I look for context clues. To choose the correct answers, I try matching words in the questions with words in the passages. I try to make smart guesses. I look at the illustration for clues.
I'm confused. I feel so dumb. I'm getting frustrated. Deep down inside, I begin to panic. I try to remember the discussion in class. My frustration mounts. I try to use my textbook, but it seems like some of its words are in a foreign language, too.
Nothing seems to make sense. I want to do well. I want my parents to be proud of me, but the more I try to figure out the words the more I feel frustrated. My level of anxiety is rising. I knew the answers when the teacher asked questions in class. I just can't comprehend my homework with all of the confusing words mixed in. My brain feels like it's in a fog.
I take a break, get a snack, and watch TV. My mom tells me to get back to doing my homework. I tell her that my homework doesn't make sense. She tells me to try harder. I've heard that before.
She says, "Your teacher says that you have comprehension problems when you read." Then she reminds me that I might do better if I paid attention in class.
I snap back that I do pay attention, but that the homework is "stupid."
She says, "Well, if you paid better attention in class, it wouldn't be stupid, now would it?"
I yell at her. I tell her that she doesn't understand. I feel helpless, defeated. I'm a real loser. I go to bed angry. I remind myself how much I hate school.
The Test: The teacher reviews the homework orally. Just as I did in class yesterday, I know all the answers. It's the reading part that messes me up.
I hope that I might have a chance to do well on the test, despite what happened last night. As the teacher gives each student a test, she says, "This is going to be easy. This is the same paper as your homework. If you paid attention in class and did your homework correctly, you will do well on the test."
The teacher walks by. She hands me the test. I know what's coming. I feel defeated already. The tension in my throat and stomach increases. My mom has told me that she read somewhere that these are symptoms of test anxiety. I guess that's what I have. I take a deep breath. I look around. Everyone is working on the test - everyone except me.
I try to read the first paragraph. It's no use. It just doesn't make any sense. I can't read all the words. It's the same as my homework. Let's face it. I accept the fact that I have a problem. I can't comprehend what I read. I know that I must have some kind of learning disability. There's nothing I can do. I scribble down whatever comes to mind. I think, "Tomorrow she's going to pass back the tests. I know already that I got an F." It's frustrating to know all the answers and yet, tomorrow, I am going to be handed a failing grade like always. My anger at my failure builds up.
I ask to be excused to go to the restroom. As I walk down the hallway, I say to myself, "Maybe I won't show up tomorrow. Why bother?"
Even if Jano knew 100% of the answers, but had been able to read only 80% of the words on the test passages or questions, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Jano to score 100% on this test. Jano's experience, although fictitious, is quite real for many students. I have heard this story told in many versions by numerous students and adults who lived with the same daily defeat and discouragement. They say that the frustration becomes more painful as they advance in age and move up through the grades.
The Need to Read
Reading is a fundamental requirement in society. The success of a representative government rests on a well educated, reading populace. It is necessary for the formation of well-grounded opinions, the enrichment of family life, success in the world of work, and invaluable throughout life. Essentially, reading is required for innumerable tasks, such as:
(a) to experience literary enjoyment;
(b) to gain information;
(c) to fill out forms and to understand contracts; and
(d) to follow directions.
Students must read to gain and communicate information. Students must be able to read independently, read aloud, do homework, perform research, and take tests in preparation for the time when they take their role as responsible adult citizens in society. What they do and how they succeed in the classroom, therefore, affects them throughout their lifetimes. Consequently, the classroom is a critical starting point.
Connecting the Dots
As in the scenario with Jano, if a bright student in a class learns aurally, that student may be able to comprehend 100% of the material presented aloud in class. Some professionals believe that if a reader can read most of the words in a passage - perhaps at least 70% - then the reader can get the gist of the passage's meaning. While this may be true, students who cannot accurately read what is written cannot accurately comprehend an author's meaning, pass tests, or move forward successfully with schoolwork done well.
Dr. John Paul Loucky, who has done extensive research in bilingual and acquisition of English reading strategies, understands this important truth. In 2004, Dr. Loucky wrote the following as part of a message posted to ExtensiveReading@yahoogroups.com. It is cited in the introduction of this book, but worthy of repetition here:
Without help in reaching a 'minimal phonemic awareness,' learners will be at a frustration level virtually all of the time, just as they will be if more than 1/20 or 5% of the target text's running words are unknown to them.
Students like Jano do not have effective decoding and reading strategies. Therefore, they live at a high frustration level all of the time. Since reading has inherent social value, such individuals fail to read successfully and, therefore, experience an overwhelming sense of defeat, embarrassment, and poor self-esteem. They are unable to achieve academically. The longer that they are in the education system the greater their burden grows. Negative emotions may eventually manifest themselves when students act out in socially unacceptable ways both inside and outside of the classroom.
Accordingly, the angst of teachers in the upper grades grows. Dedicated educators can become discouraged because they are responsible for teaching required curriculum although many of their students cannot read well enough to do the work. Furthermore, teachers must respond to classroom disruptions caused by students' negative behaviors and attitudes. Many of these academically frustrated students may be seeking negative attention since they receive little positive affirmation for educational tasks done well.
However, teachers and administrators may not "connect the dots." Because of their different areas of concern, educators often look for diversified solutions. Consequently, in recent years, educators at all levels have devoted considerable attention to improving classroom behavior by, for example, introducing "character education" programs. These programs undoubtedly are beneficial in themselves. Similarly, but in another area, educators place a strong focus on students' test scores. Tests are important because they evaluate how well the teachers are teaching and how well the learners are learning.
Not surprisingly, educators must understand, as did Frank Freeman, who was quoted at the beginning of this chapter, that character education and all other aspects of education, particularly those aspects involving reading acquisition, are interrelated. Indeed, many behavior problems and literacy deficiencies are definitively not unrelated.
Statistics on Behavior Problems and Illiteracy
Each year, a large number of students continue to fail at reading. Individuals of all ages, who are unable to read well, often internalize negative feelings. Without their realizing that the origin of their inability to read well may lie outside of them, they experience an ever-present sense of personal inferiority. While delinquency is an obvious negative outcome, other long-term and widespread negative social effects may occur. Illiteracy puts young people at risk.
One person who has understood this for years is Robert Sweet, a former high school teacher. He also is a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Education, the former White House domestic policy advisor to President Ronald Reagan, and the former head of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency under President H. W. Bush. In July 1997, he resigned as president of the Right to Read Foundation that he founded. He then became a professional staff member on the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce. In his essay (1996), "'The Century of Miseducation of American Teachers," he wrote:
Although statistics are always subject to challenge by some, the evidence from such prestigious sources as the National Assessment of Education Progress [NAEP] (which found that '70 percent of fourth graders, 30 percent of eighth graders, and 64 percent of 12th graders did not ... attain a proficient level of reading) cannot be ignored. These students have not attained the minimum skill level in reading considered necessary to do the academic work at their grade level. The National Adult Literacy Survey, after a five-year study, confirmed that finding indicating that 42 million adults can't read, and that 50 million more recognize so few printed words they are limited to a 4th and 5th grade level of reading.
Even more troubling are the findings of The Orton Dyslexia Society, that illiterate [individuals] account for 75 percent of the unemployed, one third of the mothers receiving AFDC, 85 percent of the juveniles who appear in court, 60 percent of prison inmates, and nearly 40 percent of minority youth. Of people in the work force, 15 percent are functionally illiterate, including 11 percent of professional and managerial workers, and 30 percent of semiskilled and unskilled workers. Is it any wonder that a Census Bureau survey released in February of this year found that 'American employers regard the nation's educational system as an irrelevance?' Rather 'businesses ignore a prospective employee's educational credentials in favor of work history and attitude.'
In another essay, "Illiteracy: An Incurable Disease or Education Malpractice," Robert Sweet (1996) wrote:
One out of every four teenagers drops out of high school, and of those who graduate, one out of every four has the equivalent or less of an eighth grade education. According to current estimates, the number of functionally illiterate adults is increasing by approximately two and one quarter million persons each year. This number includes nearly one million young people who drop out of school before graduation, 400,000 legal immigrants, 100,000 refugees, 800,000 illegal immigrants, and 20% of all high school graduates. Eighty-four percent of the 23,000 people, who took an exam for entry-level jobs at New York Telephone in 1988, failed. More than half of Fortune 500 companies have become educators of last resort, with the cost of remedial employee training in the three Rs reaching more than 300 million dollars a year. One estimate places the yearly cost in welfare programs and unemployment compensation due to illiteracy at six billion dollars. [Emphasis added.] An additional 237 billion dollars a year in unrealized earnings is forfeited by persons who lack basic reading skills, according to Literacy Volunteers of America.
Serious concerns over these numbers have prompted numerous educators, business professionals, the United States Congress, and the Department of Education to make sure that poor readers get help. An admirable, Herculean push is being made to make sure that primary students are taught to read using a systematic, explicit phonics approach. However, if individuals in fourth grade and beyond are unable to decode words efficiently, they will always be at a disadvantage. These students and others have been deprived of the knowledge of word-attack or phonics skills that would enable them to "sound out" unfamiliar words. Most likely, they have been taught by means of various reading methodologies that include the strategies used by Jano. They have been taught to guess at words, to substitute an unfamiliar word with a known word, to get the "gist," or to construct their own meaning of a passage or text. Whole language is one such approach.
Excerpted from The Secret Club by Pat Doran Copyright © 2005 by Pat Doran.
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