Monday, 19 June 2017

Getting into the Game: How Structured practice with connected text levels the playing field for struggling readers.

I spend a lot of time at practice. Like many parents with active kids in competitive sports, I constantly shuttle kids to and from practice. There isn’t a day in the week that I don’t have at least one practice to get to. In fact, I’m at practice right now.

In sports, practice is taken seriously even from a young age. My daughter’s soccer team practices for two hours three times per week. The coach wants them to be competitive. Despite having advanced skills, the team still works on speed and accuracy of the basics like passing and receiving – these skills need to be automatic so that the girls can keep their heads up and focused on the game. But strong basic skills aren’t enough to make a strong player or a competitive team. That’s why these soccer practices also spend a lot of time running plays – a sequence of ball movements with a set purpose and intended outcome. Some may be simple three-pass plays and other may build on three or four more passes. Repeatedly practicing these connected actions allows the players to know where they need to be, anticipate where the ball is going, understand the flow, and maintain situational awareness in game situations. In other words, practicing foundation plays enables game comprehension. Comprehending the game makes you competitive.

You probably know where I’m going with this. It is a reading blog after all.

Soccer practice (or practicing any skill) is a lot like reading practice. Reading fundamentals such as phonemic awareness and decoding are essential but not sufficient for reading comprehension. Reading fluency has often been described as the bridge between word recognition and comprehension, most notably by Rasinsky. Fluency develops over time with practice in reading and re-reading text. Samuels theorized that due to limited cognitive capacity, re-reading reduces brain processing because of the increased familiarity the reader has with the content. With less effort applied to word recognition, the brain frees up more resources for comprehension.

Like running foundation plays on the soccer pitch, reading fluency develops with practice reading connected text – word combinations such as phrases and common co-locations. Building short sentences using previously practiced word strings adds an incremental but manageable complexity to the reading task. Through repeated practice with connected text, the reader is able to read with enough accuracy, pace, and expression to understand the author’s message.

Not all of our readers can handle the demands of comprehending grade-level texts. In many cases, struggling readers have developed basic decoding skills but they lack the fluency required to draw deep meaning from print. By getting more practice re-reading connected text in small structured chunks, below-level readers are in a much better position to access grade-level material. As they become more and more familiar with what they are reading, they are better able to focus on meaning. With enough practice, the gap eventually closes and readers can handle grade-level reading expectations independently.

We all want our students to be reading at grade level. Be it reading or soccer, structured and purposeful practice enables comprehension – and that makes you competitive.

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