Gaining a Better Understanding of Student Thinking

Sociopsycholingustic Theory

Understanding the difference between inference and predictions has been a major problem for many of our Adult High School/GED students. While reading Kenneth Goodman’s article, Reading, Writing, and Written Texts: A Transactional Sociopsycholinguistic View, I realized why some of our students couldn’t grasp the differences. Goodman’s explanation was clear and expressed the differences in ways that made sense to me, and that our students would grasp if I broke them down into terms they understood. Simply put, a “prediction is an assumption that some information not yet available will become available in the text.  An inference is supplying information not yet produced in the text” (1123). The prediction is based on prior knowledge that the reader guesses will materialize in the text, even if it is a misguided speculation.

Last week before reading the assigned article, I was perusing through the class text Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading, and discovered another article, Err Is Human: Learning About Language Processes by Analyzing Miscues, authored by both Yetta and Kenneth Goodman. The article highlighted the differences between errors and miscues, and showed how the text subject, Betsy, would substitute words based on her prior language. When retelling the story, she would insert words that fit in with her personal vocabulary database, such as cream for churn (626) because the latter was not part of her fountain of knowledge.

Essentially, the miscues were founded on predictions Betsy made as she read because they were filed away in her schemata. In contrast, an inference is something that is either implicitly or explicitly stated in the text.  For example, in  Level H-1 Reading Plus handout for inferences, the author writes, “The soldiers remained hidden in the forest all afternoon. Their uniforms blended so well with their surroundings that enemy planes directly overhead could not tell them from the trees and shrubs.” From this selection, the reader is to conclude that the soldiers are dressed in the forest colors of brown and green, to provide camouflage from the planes.

In contrast, our students are provided explicit guidelines. All of our course contracts stipulate specific academic requirements necessary to complete the courses, e.g., hours and what are considered passing grades required by the State of California; how Santa Barbara City College treats plagiarism; and the student disciplinary code of conduct.  It helps knowing why students make miscues and errors, and when they are legitimate errors. Most importantly, Goodman’s view emphasized a salient point that stood out for me; essentially, miscues indicated that the students were engaged in the learning processes and quickly delving into their schemata to help them with reading and comprehension. Even though they didn’t predict the right answers with their miscues (predictions), they were actively moving forward with the learning process. Furthermore, as an instructor, it is important to teach the differences between predictions and inferences, especially to our GED students because they are required to know how to make inferences on the exam. Fortunately, Reading Plus has a good selection of handouts addressing how to understand implicit and explicit inferences.

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Sentences Have More Staying Power

Information Theory

Philip B. Gough’s Article, One Second of Reading, was very detailed, dense and, at some points, difficult to understand. Although I fluctuated between interested, confused, totally captivated, losing interest, and back to the beginning, there were definitely several sections that made me pause in reflection. One section caught my attention in particular, the Place Where Sentences Go When They are Understood.

As I was reading this section, there was a vision of a list traveling on a train, passing through my eyes, and slowing down at designated points to indiscriminately dump some of the words from the list. When the train full of sentences made its journey through my eyes, each one would hang on tightly until it moved on to its next destination point. That is how I pictured lists and sentences traversing through the “One Second of Reading“process.

The sentence versus list recall was even more interesting because it helped explain why I could remember sentences without any problem, but always had difficulty recalling lists. Sometimes I would create sentences to help me remember the lists. In fact, I find making grocery lists stressful and a waste of time. Making the list isn’t the problem, but knowing that I can’t remember the items as easily as recalling sentences annoys me to no end.  According to Gough, “if the list is registered first, PM is full when the sentence arrives, and it can be processed only at the cost of some items from the list, whereas if the sentence arrives first, it is quickly understood and the PM is cleared when the list arrives” (669).

How the Primary Memory (PM) works explains why my daughter and myself have difficulty remembering lists. I remember a situation happening with my daughter when she was little, and not understanding why she couldn’t remember a list of vocabulary words, but she had no difficulty remembering the sentences. I found that so odd because the sentences had more words. Even though I had the same problem with list retention, I never made the connection that I, too, suffered from the same situation, or the reason it presented itself.

Another good example of the PM theory is my trying to remember Goodman’s list of seven mental strategies as one word items while studying for the quiz, and ending up writing them out in full sentences. I now understand that the sentences were better retained because they provided connections from one word to another, similar to the links between each caboose. These connections allowed for the seamless flow of words that joined together to form sentences. It makes more sense why some students remember spelling words when they are required to write sentences, and not solely one word definitions

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Reading Strategies Provide a Lifeline for Teachers and Students

In our program some of our instructors have been evaluating several ways for improving student reading skills, specifically, reinforcing comprehension. Applying only a few skills at time was not generating the results we were hoping to obtain. Comprehension is a complex project that requires multiple steps administered on a consistent basis in order for students to advance as good readers.

The strategies covered through this week’s comprehension readings that stood out most for me, were those that I hadn’t focused on as stringently, or yet implemented. These include instructing the students to read slowly, quickly, and then deciding what to read and reread; dealing with inconsistencies in gaps; integrating prior knowledge with material in the text; and teaching the students to monitor their own use of comprehension and strategies (Duke & Pearson, 2009). The latter one held my interest because it was a strategy that older students could easily attempt. Based on the comprehension assignment, students become better readers and comprehend at a higher level when they are motivated. The apparatus helps them to correlate and decode concepts so they can assimilate the necessary tools to break the code that will increase their comprehension skills.

Most of our students have difficulty in having clear goals in mind, as they are increasingly overwhelmed by essay assignments. Teaching them to evaluate the text is one of the first things I cover when discussing the guidelines of their English assignments. This may take form by examining headlines, subtitles, graphs, and charts, etc. Before surveying the passages, I always suggest that they study the text for unfamiliar words and concepts to help create customized lists of vocabulary and terms. Students have often complained that they would score higher on assessment tests if they only understood the words and had a dictionary on hand during the exams. I agree with them and explain that it is the reason for creating their own personalized lists. Furthermore, I emphasize that it might take longer to get through the reading assignments, but that in the end they will have a stronger grasp of the material and knowledge to answer the questions correctly. Of course, some students initially complain about all of the extra work I suggest, but most of them realize that it will help them to understand the texts and even request extra tips and ways to become good readers.

When I first began to suggest that students integrate additional steps beyond the bare minimum, I was hesitant to recommend it to our at risk students. I didn’t want to scare them away from my sessions. They have the option to attend any session with the instructor of their own choice. My concern was that if I were to propose they try new strategies, that it might potentially push them to seek instructors who would not expect more from them. Unfortunately, some of our instructors refuse to expect our students to accept supplementary assignments. They are primarily concerned with maintaining high student counts because classes are at risk of cancellation if the numbers drop down too low. The truth is that historically when students were required to complete other assignments to help them understand concepts, they quit our program. Recently, a number of us have been worrying less about the number requirement and focusing on the real issue: increasing student comprehension without fearing cancellation of our classes.

Nowadays, I look for ways to help them increase comprehension without the concern that some of the students might balk at all of the extra work. Not surprisingly, I find that many students request, even beg, for additional work so they can advance in their comprehension. After this week’s assignment, I plan on suggesting other ways for them to improve comprehension, such as highlighting and explaining in depth the benefits of asking questions, retelling the stories and, especially, showing them how making predictions will continue helping them to become better readers. The report rightly states that, “Comprehension is a consuming, continuous, and complex activity(Duke & Pearson, 2009). Fortunately, there are many strategies available to help increase comprehension, and the most successful revolve around teachers and students who take proactive steps. When students learn ways to decode texts and put precise strategies in place, they learn how to think and search for the clues that will make the process less stressful and generate higher rewards. By breaking down comprehension into manageable segments, I foresee it becoming a less daunting project and a richer, rewarding program for our students.

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Phonemic Awareness Helps Bridge Student Reading and Writing Skills

This week’s reading assignment by the National Reading Panel (NRP) regarding Phonemic Awareness (PA) Instruction was rather compelling. It is so incredibly multi-layered and detailed, that I understand why many teachers might shy away from teaching it. As the report states, it is more successful when teachers and students are motivated. Small group sizes are the best, and sessions that last between 5-18 hours produce optimal results. I was pleased to hear that students using computers for PA were achieving good scores. It seems as though if the teachers were trained in PA, that it would provide an even more supportive environment for students learning PA on the computers.

I was somewhat surprised that lower socioeconomic status (SES) was not a contributing factor to lower reading skills or poor PA. However, many successful readers and writers have been raised in abject poverty and excelled despite their dismal, living conditions. It made sense that teaching one to two skills at a time produced higher results on all skills levels, versus teaching multiple skills concurrently, as “…children who were taught many different ways to manipulate phonemes may have become confused about which manipulation to apply when the various PA were assessed after training” (p. 20). Quite often when children are expected to master too many skills at once, they then become overwhelmed and can’t see, as the saying goes, “the forest for the trees.” Teaching a few skills at time allows students to embrace and assimilate the new concepts without the expectation of mastering everything in such a short period of time.

The NRP study comes at an optimal time, as a colleague and I have been conditionally approved to create a new pre GED Reading and Writing project to help students increase these skills. The course will include phonemic awareness and application; reading and writing instruction; short essays and writing assignments; plus worksheets and potentially some fun activities. The format will consist of small groups, for twenty sessions of three hours twice a week. We were unsure as to how many hours should be designated for each section, and especially for the phonemic component. The report has provided essential tips for improving our program in addition to the prior points listed, such as initiating an alphabetic component; incorporating the computer into our project; offering a variety of learning opportunities; writing and providing clear, explicit explanations; avoiding overwhelming with multiple skills at one time; and teaching segmentation and blending. Most importantly, the evidence from these studies proves that “…better designed studies tended to produce stronger transfer effects in reading than the weaker studies” (p. 27). Furthermore, this report highlights the importance we ensure that the social component is motivating and furthers continued learning opportunities.

An article addressing the British Government’s phonics check appeared in the Guarding on September 25th. It reported that student reading rates have increased since phonics instruction has been enforced these past years (Rise in Children Passing Literacy Benchmarks through Phonics in England). According to the article, there was a “…rise of 73% of pupils in England reading expected standard…” It indicates that students are passing literary benchmarks; however, not surprisingly, the program has met with resistance. Phonics seems to be a controversial hot topic, and one that receives a lot of attention from all sides — either strongly in favor or fervently against backing the program. Since I read the article after our NRP report, it helped to reinforce the value of teaching phonics because positive numbers underscored its benefits with increasing reading skills.

Another point the NRP reported highlighted, was that English learners tended to have difficulty “…misperceive some English phonemes because their linguistic minds are programmed to categorize phonemes in their first language, and this system may conflict with the phoneme categorization system in their first language…” (p. 32). Interestingly, the example explains that Spanish speakers select CH when they should indicate SH. When I was helping a graduating Spanish-speaking bilingual GED student with her Valedictorian speech in June, I was questioning myself why she kept saying CH for SH. It didn’t make any sense to me, until I realized that my parents were explicit in their enunciation when speaking Spanish, and my father when he also spoke Italian. The PA was imprinted in my very young brain, which meant I did not need to struggle in the acquisition of PA, or in the differentiation of the sounds throughout my lifetime. Since my paternal grandmother was an English teacher, who was extremely picky with pronunciation (plus reading and writing skills), it would stand to reason that my father would also demand the same stringent standards of his children in regard to phonetic skills. Teaching and learning PA is essentially a much bigger project and definitely requires patience and perseverance on multiple levels from teachers and students.

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Welcome to the New GED 2014 Exam

This year the GED rolled out the new, improved 2014 exam to our students’ chagrin. They were extremely worried because many had been told by teachers that it was going to be harder to pass. As more reports were heard to that extent, our students began losing hope that attaining the GED certificate was an ephemeral dream. The majority of our students were already grumbling about experiencing difficulty with passing the old 2002 GED test and, more specifically, with the reading and writing components. After GED classmates began sharing that they weren’t passing the new exams, students preparing for the tests were experiencing a deep sense of hopelessness and trepidation because they completely believed that the standards were unreasonable and way beyond their abilities.

It is heartbreaking seeing students attempting to pass these tests when their skills are not yet at level. We walk a thin line when trying to discourage them from taking the tests if they are not quite ready. It is their legal right to apply for exam dates, and they can take the tests regardless of our sage advice.

Some make vocabulary flash cards or lists to improve their reading proficiency. Skills improve with an expanded vocabulary; however, a memorization of words and definitions does not always equate increased comprehension or stronger reasoning skills. The problem is generally seen when students are baffled as how to associate and correlate concepts to then develop that indispensable, linking thread. Memorizing words and terms is just a fraction of the process required for increasing comprehension: it becomes expansive when students gain a broader contextual understanding of word usage and meaning. It’s terribly discouraging for them when learning that only one meaning of a word is insufficient for helping them to make interconnections.

Teaching students to ask questions, i.e., who, what, where, when, why, and how, from the moment they begin cracking open their books, is one way of reinforcing the integration of skills which are necessary for students answering the more complex GED prompts. Directing students through scaffolding provides the schema for integrating the required skills. Creating relevance is critical for establishing a direct link to the material. Failing to establish linkage in the initial stages of reading, eventually, leaves many students floundering and further losing hope of ever passing the exam. When relevance is not demonstrated nor understood, students quite often quickly lose interest in the material and, at the end of the day, some of these weary students abandon their studies because they perceive that the tasks at hand are insurmountable.

Seeing other students grapple with the same concepts in discussion groups, removes some of the anxiety and resistance toward reading. Students realize that they are no longer alone and relegated to the “Island of the Misfit Toys,” where they are left abandoned by an uncaring society with inadequate devices to make sense of “dreadfully” difficult reading assignments. Collaboration, peer review, and a stronger vocabulary through increased contextualized practice, have proved to help students cross the great divide between failure and success as readers.

Essentially, no single technique or program solves the complexity of reading problems or deficiencies. Students are unique individuals who learn and advance at their own pace. They succeed when programs are customized to strengthen areas where they are weakest and promote their strengths. Even though a number lose hope and don’t return for many years, they eventually come back and are pleased to find that their folders are still intact. Those folders signify more than just a pile of dusty papers buried away in dark, musty, old catacombs; they represent the connection to a world filled with words and a myriad of interlinked meanings steadily leading them to completion of the GED certificate.

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Choice Creates Intrinsic Value

Offering choice in regard to writing is something that causes some of our adult high school students to experience an incredible amount of consternation. A number find the open essay a difficult topic to write because they are accustomed to receive prompts, or at least some form of explicit guidelines. Knowing how to maneuver with choice is something that takes time and practice. Once our students overcome the hurdle of determining the essay topic and style, they soon realize that choice is something quite magical and not nearly as terrifying as they have perceived.

For those struggling with the open essay, devising a topic is one of the most difficult steps in creating an interesting, imaginative, or compelling story worth writing. A student/teacher produced rubric, such as suggested by Keta Foltz, would potentially help make the writing process less of a challenge and a more enjoyable, creative journey. When I taught parenting classes to parents of gang members, one of the things the course advised was for parents to establish reasonable rules with their children’s input. As with the gang members involved in forming the new standards, Robbin Ferrell explained that rubrics which were inclusive “…had a clearer picture of what the end result of an assignment should be” (Skillings and Ferrell, 2000, p. 452). Partaking in the schema of family rules was an empowering and embrasive process because the gang members were seen claiming equal ownership. The same can happen with those hesitant writers because it will underscore that their voices and concerns are considered when the customized writing rubrics are created.

By involving students in developing their customized rubrics, it is highly probable that it would encourage more students to view writing with less resistance. It would not surprise me that the students might establish harder writing guidelines. When parents of the gang members returned after they negotiated family parameters, they shared that their children instituted tougher standards than they themselves would have imposed. This example essentially shows that when students buy into the program, they are more than likely to adopt it, rather than undermine their own developmental progress. Nevertheless, it is fundamental for students to approach writing without worrying initially about the rubric they are helping to create, and as Keta Foltz states, to “…mentally and physically set it aside” (No date, p. 17). Temporarily reserving the rubric for later will allow students a period when all of their focus is directed toward envisioning and delving into their storylines. Saving the conventions for the next stage of writing takes off the pressure of striving to master skills, which requires precise focus that they are not quite ready to carry out.

Students might consider exploring poetry as an alternate option for an open essay assignment. Through the process of writing poetry, students undergo an essential progression in their prose. It alleviates some of the stress and burden to remain constricted by one format, and expands the writing boundaries and potentiality for new writing options. Writing poetry has another valuable quality, as it has the immense ability of helping “…readers and writers understand texts, experiences, and ideas” (Webb, 2009, p. 110). As poetic themes are often implied than openly stated, writing and analyzing poetry is a good exercise in training for evaluating text. This in depth analysis facilitates a closer examination of literature because students learn constructive techniques on how to decipher poetic themes. They can then translate this practice to further evaluate and better appreciate literature. More importantly, by choosing to explore and write poetry, a writer increases his/her options to an even more valuable artistic and expansive writing experience.
Foltz, K. (n.d.). Motivate first-grade writers by providing choices and clear expectations,    35 (3), 14-22.
Skillings, M.J., & Ferrell, R. (2000). Teaching reading: Student-generated rubrics: Bringing  students into the assessment process, 53 (6), 452-455.
Webb, P. (2009). Innovative writing instruction: Sophomore boys and poetry, 99 (1), 110-113.

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