Access to the Middle of the Word
Providing developing readers with a way to clearly see the rime within a word, beginning with words that consistently act the same way, allows them to march forward with renewed confidence. Instead of relying only on the beginning letter(s) of a word to help with constructing meaning as they read, students who in the past had perceived an unruly string of letters are now able to see those letters as a series of familiar chunks. Readers who have struggled for years are able to see right away that this is different from other phonics lessons and that it’s going to work. And teachers who have spent so many hours of planning and teaching time trying to find ways to help the students in their classrooms who seem to make so little progress are stunned to see their struggling readers jump ahead so easily.
Struggling readers of any age need to see that what we are asking them to do is going to make a difference. Middle and high school students who have spent year after year in remedial reading groups and classes, given program after program with the same phonics lessons, brighten up and pay attention when they see right away that the Magic Rimes are the key to unlocking many of the words that have stumped them in the past. Because students are taught to recognize the Magic Rimes within words that are consistently short-vowel, multisyllabic words, they are ableto develop a strong foundation right away. In their very first Rime Magic lesson, students are able to locate the rime in a two- or three-syllable word and easily decode the word. Eyes light up immediately and hope turns to confidence before the end of one lesson. Engagement is everything: when students feel successful and competent, they enjoy learning.The most important path to motivation for struggling readers is early success (Routman, 2003; Allington, 2001).
Respect and Autonomy
Effective teachers have always known that what makes the biggest difference in their classrooms is shared respect.When I walk into a classroom where students are thriving and everyone seems happily engaged in learning, I see a teacher who is valuing each student for the contribution he or she makes to the classroom community. When I talk with my struggling readers, they can see my confidence in their success right away. I look into their eyes and talk straight to them about their strengths and gifts. As they meet with me each day, they feel stronger and more responsible for their own success. The most important gift we can give our reading intervention students is confidence and a feeling of success (Stipek, 2002). When students feel respected and honored for who they are, they begin to feel accountable and willing to take responsibility for their learning. Giving students choices leads to feelings of autonomy. Within the parameters of the goals we set as intervention teachers, we can give students choices of topic, tasks, and time. When students feel successful and have some power over the process, fast progress is possible.
What’s the difference between stickers and genuine acknowledgment? In my experience,there is an ocean of difference! Extrinsic motivation in the form of prizes or pizza might be motivating at the moment, but it causes excitement about the prize. We want our students to be excited about reading. We want them to be excited about books and their new ability to get lost in a story or to learn about absolutely anything! Our struggling readers need to hear thousands of positive statements about their attempts at literacy.When I think about how many negative experiences a high-school boy reading at second-grade level has had over the past ten years or so, I am deeply saddened. How many F’s has he seen on his spelling tests and other assignments? How many times has he been told that if he would just pay attention, he would learn something? How many of his teachers have given up on him in frustration? How much disappointment has he seen reflected on his parents’ faces?
How can we make up for all of this negative input? Each struggling reader needs to hear positive acknowledgment of his unique gifts and of each tiny step in his progress during every reading-intervention session. Even better, what if each small improvement were encouraged and acknowledged all day long in each of his classes?
I keep all of this in mind as I work with struggling readers. I tell them every last thing that I notice about how smart they are, how right they are, and how I knew they could do it. Every moment in an intervention group is an opportunity to cancel out one of the thousands of negative comments that make up the way many of our struggling readers see themselves.
Most commercial programs are structured into what publishers and authors consider a sequence that will move students comfortably through carefully thought-out levels of instruction. The problem with most programs is that everyone is often expected to move at the same pace. Some districts require teachers to conform to the schedule of a pacing guide, even if many students have not achieved success along the way. We need to observe our students to see what they need, with the understanding that each child is different, learns at a difference pace, and has unique gifts and challenges. And we need to trust teachers to know their students and to make decisions based on what those students need rather than what a pacing guide or a teachers’ manual indicates is the next step for the class. And then we need to trust our students to learn! Students are always learning. Sometimes they are learning that school is boring, that reading time is frustrating, or that they are deficient in some way. What if they were able to participate in lessons that are scaffolded and motivating and meet their particular needs, while being surrounded by books at their independent reading level so they can practice what they have just learned?
All of the strategies outlined in this book are designed to allow students to learn in a stress-free environment. First of all, intervention students who need decoding instruction are grouped with others who function at nearly the same accuracy level in their reading and have similar problems recognizing words or blending parts of words. During Rime Magic lessons the group chanting allows students to chime in with others who are somewhat more proficient without requiring students to perform solo. The Rime Magic activities and the whole-class instruction in multisyllabic words and spelling are highly scaffolded and leave very little room for frustration. Struggling readers begin to stop struggling and relax into the lessons, feeling more confident each time.
Teachers who observe my intervention groups often comment on my level of patience. I believe that this patience comes from my certainty that every student is capable of more than he or she knows, and of much more than has been expected in the past. Often, because of time constraints, we feel pressure to press forward, attempting to move as quickly as possible through a planned lesson. But there is a huge payoff in allowing the time for students to process what seems simple to us but may be a new and challenging abstraction for our students. Teaching a concept isn’t enough. It needs to be processed and discovered and digested and practiced by the learner, and that often means that we have to include “wait time” in our interactions with our students.
Many students who struggle with reading have mastered the art of “hiding out” in their classrooms in order to avoid embarrassment. They will sit across from you at your intervention table and pretend to participate as they do every day in class. As soon as you look down at your Magic Cards, they will find something else of interest in the room. For this reason, it is especially important to engage your students with eye contact. I do not start any part of the Rime Magic sequence of activities until I have confirmed eye contact with each student in my group. I do this gently and with a sense of humor. Very soon, their sharp and willing focus on the activity at hand becomes a habit.
Immersion Before Mastery
Struggling Readers who have had difficulty with decoding and encoding need plenty of time to process what is offered to them in the Rime Magic, multisyllabic-word, and spelling strategies outlined in this book. It is important that we do not expect mastery at every juncture. In each part of the process is a whole array of opportunities for students to develop proficiency at their own pace. You will find that some students are very quiet at first, maybe even just watching. Understandably, children or adults learning a new language often do this, just observing and not trying to speak out loud for a period of time. Learning to see the parts of words is a similar challenge for some of our students. As they are immersed in the rimes and the lessons continue day after day, they will begin chiming in with the more confident students. As they watch the words being placed in boxes on the Spelling Long Vowel chart, attempting to fill in the words on their own papers, they will begin to feel confident enough to raise their hands to contribute. If struggling readers are allowed the comfort of continued immersion without pressure, mastery will be the result. And of course, mastery of the act of reading comes as a result of hours and hours of independent reading for pleasure.We must not forget our intended result!
Closely related to immersion, scaffolding is a critical element in the success of struggling readers. When students are asked to spell the word shimmering, they are able to see the colorful rime (im) surrounded by your fingers as placeholders for the letters of the onset (sh), the extra m, and the two endings (er and ing). All of this scaffolding, along with the blended voices of the teacher and the rest of the students in the group, provides so much support that it is hard to make a mistake. And if a student does say an incorrect letter, your response is positive!
If a student spells s-t instead of s-h at the beginning of the word shimmering, I respond, “You’re right, it starts with an s . . . now listen . . . shhhimmering. Do you hear the shhhh?” The student will either self-correct and say s-h, or not. If he does not know the sh digraph, I just tell him casually that s-h spells sh, and we go right on, respelling the word, with the understanding that there will be many more opportunities to learn the digraph.
The Base Word Constancy and SMILES lessons are similarly scaffolded. Students can follow along with you, separating affixes and the rest of the syllables, always with immediate feedback, until they begin to see the separate word parts as they come across a multisyllabic word in their reading and hear the separate syllables as they are spelling a particularly long word as they write. Everyone learning something new and challenging needs a certain amount of scaffolding. I only need to imagine myself learning to work on a sputtering car engine to be perfectly clear about this.
All of the lessons described in this book need to move forward at a fairly good clip. Does this sound contrary to the concept of giving students plenty of time? Because the lessons are so scaffolded and you are giving students time to think, your students will find it easy to move briskly through the lesson and will be more likely to remain fully engaged. Avoid the temptation to teach at every teachable moment. If you do, you run the risk of losing the rapt attention of all of your students. This is especially important when your students are volunteering words during Long Vowel Spelling. It’s important to keep the pace going rather than stopping to discuss spelling rules with the class. They will become familiar with spelling patterns as you repeat the lessons each week. Your pace will improve as you become more familiar with the teaching processes and you benefit from practice over time.
The Rime Magic Cards are the most challenging at first for most teachers. It can feel awkward at first to place your fingers quickly and smoothly in front of and behind the Magic Rimes. However, as you get more practice, you will become more and more comfortable holding the Rime Magic Cards and your fingers in place at the same time.
Brisk pacing is especially important during decoding lessons since decoding is a small part of the reading process. We want to slow down and give most of our thoughtful attention to strategy instruction, comprehension activities, and plenty of time for independent reading. We need to keep our decoding lessons short and focused, with an eye toward slowing down at just the moments that will support our struggling readers. Who said good teaching isn’t a challenge?
When students are reading significantly below grade level, it’s serious business. We must immediately do something about it, and we must show students that the intervention time is important. However, I have had the best results over the years when I keep my interactions with the students in my intervention groups somewhat light and playful. Smiles and laughter here and there are like adding a little spice to a fine meal. Lessons are livened up, the affective filter is down, and there is room for concern to diminish and for struggle to disappear. Humor is a universally recognized way to relieve stress, and stress has darkened the academic lives of some of our struggling readers for years. Having fun with our students is the best medicine. It’s always a good idea to create an atmosphere in which a good book is associated with positive feelings, happiness, and smiles.