Monday, January 27, 2014

You say "tomato", I say "tomato": Word pronunciation, meaning, and spelling

I had an interesting (almost sweet for a story about an eighth grader) experience last week when I was working with a student (let's call him David) on a reading fluency exercise.  He is in his first year out of bilingual, and he struggles, to say the least.  This kid is a cool kid - well-liked, adorable, and goofy.  But he does everything in his power to avoid doing his academic work.  His teachers may complain that he is unmotivated and lacks focus, but I can hypothesize that what is really going on here is that David is trying to "save face" by deflecting any attention away from his lack of skill, which affects his academics.  The best way to do this?  Goof off in class.  You get your peers' attention, a few giggles, and inevitably you get adult attention also. 

So David and I were sitting in the hallway a few weeks ago running a fluency passage.  We use The Six-Minute Solution (Sopris, 2003) for quick and painless fluency training in our short amounts of intervention times that we have.  I cannot even remember the topic of the passage we were reading, but I will forever remember the conversation we had right before David began reading to me.  I always read the passage before the kids to model good fluency and to show them how even I can improve daily on my reading fluency when I practice.  After I read the passage, I looked at David, and he asked, "How do you pronounce that word?"  To me this was a big deal, because he usually doesn't ask - he just mispronounces words over and over again, and with his accent, sometimes it is difficult to determine what he is mispronouncing and what mispronunciations are dialectic.

The word was comfortable.  I pronounced it for him the way I pronounce it (COM-fer-ta-ble), and I could see him testing it out before he started reading.  During his read he stumbled on the word, but he did manage to pronounce it the way I had pronounced it.  I pondered this while I monitored his reading, and similar experiences with other ELLs popped into my head.  Ask a kid to pronounce that word.  I just asked my ten-year-old, and she looked at it, said it (com-FOR-ta-ble) twice, and then a light bulb went on in her head before she said, "COM-FTER-BUL!"  At that point I had to look the word up in the dictionary because I was curious how the dictionary said it should be pronounced, and what did I get?  Multiple pronunciations - both mine and theirs with an ADDITIONAL pronunciation (for kicks, I guess).  Fabulous. 

This situation brought me to the dozens of times when I have worked with students one-on-one or in small groups on reading and spelling.  Our big kids have been mispronouncing certain words for so long that, even when they DO know spelling rules, they misspell because they hear it and repeat it in their heads, naturally changing the pronunciation to how they think it is pronounced and have heard it pronounced over and over again by parents, siblings, and neighbors.  Part of our job is to help them understand that there are some words that may be pronounced differently, and explain how the spellings of those words may or may not follow spelling rules. 

I'm giggling now, because I am recalling a story a colleague shared with me about an issue where one student couldn't place a common phrase into context.  The student, who was writing a story in class, started the story with, "One supana time."  Clearly this student lacked the background knowledge in fairy tales to understand that the phrase was "Once upon a time."  There is nothing wrong with this, except that we assume that our kiddos will have knowledge to read, spell, and write, and some of them just don't.

Another example comes from a sixth grade classroom last year when I happened to be in a room where a teacher was asking students to give definitions or examples of words written on the board.  She asked one sixth grader, who I knew to have trouble with multisyllabic words larger than two syllables, about the meaning of a word (the specific word escapes me now, but it was a -tion word).  He stared at her, fear stricken, before he said he didn't know.  I  KNEW he knew the word, so I said, "I think you do know the word," and I pronounced it for him.  I am a believer in probing some kids until they see success, and I knew I could push him a bit.  The second he heard the word, he said, "Oh, THAT'S what that says?  I know that word!" And he went on to explain it to the class. Success.  I also knew that this student was a good reader as long as you kept his words to one and two-syllable words.  This particular word had three syllables.  That's how specific some of these reading deficits are!

My point here is that we take for granted that these kids can read or have the background knowledge to produce what we think they should.  They all can't - not yet, anyway, and they are brilliant at hiding that fact.  So how can we be absolutely certain we are covering our bases, as teachers of all content areas?  Here are some ideas.
  • No matter what content area you teach, pronounce any and all vocabulary words over and over and over and over again.
  • Require your entire class to pronounce them back.  Who cares of they think it is silly.  Just tell them that you want to be sure everybody has the correct pronunciation of all of the words.  If you're working with names in social studies, this is an easy justification because some names are just tough!  If they bawk at it, bawk back and make them say them in a British accent or like Dracula or something. 
  • If you're out of "bell ringer" exercises (or even if you are not), have students pronounce and spell vocabulary words back and forth to each other in partners.  Don't forget to pronounce them FIRST.  If you have two kids in a partnership and neither one of them knows how to pronounce one of the words, they will inevitably practice it wrong.  Throw in a few words that are not content area vocabulary words but are found in the text just for kicks! The kids will never know the difference!
  • Consider the fact that your students may run across other words in their reading that look unfamiliar.  If you know that you have struggling readers in your class (which you all do!), then reading a text book independently and silently is probably not the best way to expect your students to tackle the text.  Be sure to group (or preferably pair) students appropriately. 
  • Please do not put a gifted reader into a group of struggling readers or pair them up to support the struggler.  Space out those strugglers amongst your regular kiddos so that they can get some support and do the same with your gifted readers.  In my opinion, struggling readers and gifted readers can be grouped or paired together, but not for reading.  The gap is too wide.  I know you might be temped because you think it might give the struggler a good model, but there are plenty of good models amongst the average readers, and there is such a thing as looking at a gap and feeling like you'll never be able to jump it.  I imagine that is what it feels like to some of the struggling readers when they work with a gifted reader.  Plus, gifted kids are gifted and generally know it.  They're smart enough to know why they've been partnered up with certain people, and the minute the struggler opens her mouth, the gifted student will know.  There is no partnership at this point, and both students may feel like they can't wait for the activity to be over.   And to be honest, not all gifted readers feel like it is their calling to help those who struggle.
  • If your text books come with supported or modified text, use it, but use it with care. Don't just give it to kids who struggle with your content, use it with kids who struggle with reading and need reading support.
  • Look to your reading specialist, interventionist, data collection specialist, or special education staff to help you identify your strugglers.  There may be data in your school that you don't even know exists!  I hold all of our reading data, and I try to communicate it as much as possible, but with seven hundred kiddos and more than fifty people working in our building, not all information will get to everybody who needs it.  Sometimes you have to ask.  If you notice a student who is not meeting your expectations, look for answers and start with one of these people.

So the next time you notice a student who misspells words, ask the student to pronounce them for you.  Chances are, the problem may lie with the idea that he struggles with the pronunciation.   If you read my previous posts on students who lack vocabulary, you will understand that many of these kiddos are encountering some of these words for the first time and are building their oral vocabularies as fast as they can.  We need to continue to expose them, but we have to expose them properly and thoroughly.  Don't take for granted that they "should know", because some of them just don't.

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