Teaching Readers

Thanks to Jose Vilson and Zac Chase I’m in the midst of reading Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children. If you’ve never read it*, I highly recommend it. The book is highly readable and will turn your world upside down. Just the original introduction did so for me.

Last week I was reading the essay, Language Diversity and Learning, in the book. One small piece of this essay has been constantly in my mind since I read it. Delpit writes about the types of things teachers correct as they are helping students learn to read.

Cunningham found that teachers across the United States were more likely to correct reading miscues that were dialect related (“Here go a table” for “Here is a table”) than those that were nondialect related (“Here is the dog” for “There is the dog”).

She goes on to give a detailed example and then writes,

The lesson continues in such a fashion, the teacher proceeding to correct the student’s dialect-influenced pronunciations and grammar while ignoring the fact that the student had to have comprehended the sentence in order to translate it into her own dialect.

As one who teaches first graders, this resonated with me. One of the things teachers do as they help students who are just beginning to read is to look at errors. We put errors into three different categories: meaning, visual, and structure. When students err in meaning, the word they said does not make sense in the text. Errors in visual means that the word the child said does not look like the word in the text. And structural errors are ones that don’t sound correct. (This is a really simplistic description.)

The errors in Delpit’s example are not errors in meaning. (In the example the child says ‘wash’ instead of ‘washed’ and ‘bruvver’ instead of ‘brother’.) I am much more concerned about meaning errors than the others. If a child is not using meaning when reading I worry that they don’t truly understand what it means to read. I worry they are simply word calling and not gaining any understanding of the text as a whole.

So far this all seems pretty straightforward. But here’s the snag, that first error Delpit cites is one I likely would correct. The second one, the pronunciation of bruvver, would not bother me in reading. It is obvious the child read the word. However, reading the wrong verb tense concerns me. I want my students (most of whom are learning English after one or more other languages) to learn to speak and read correctly. Correct verb tense is an exceptionally challenging thing. Especially in English because so many of our verb conjugations are exceptions to rules. We hear native speakers say runned for ran or growed for grew as they are growing up.

So looking at those errors matters to me both for their reading and for their speaking. In reading I want to be sure students are looking at the entire word rather than just the first letter. In speaking I want them to learn ‘correct’ ways. I don’t want them to be held back in life because they sound uneducated in any way.

My question then is, where is that line? When should I be correcting and when should I be letting it go? I know that if I stop their reading too often I’m doing them no help because I’m interrupting the flow and focusing the attention solely on word calling. How do I balance their fluency and understanding with learning the formal language they will see in books and need to be able to speak?

 

*This book was published the year I graduated from college. The fact that I didn’t read it in graduate school nearly ten years later makes me question my grad program.

2 replies on “Teaching Readers”

  1. Sue VanHattum says:

    >Correct verb tense is an exceptionally challenging thing.

    You know more than me about this, but are you sure? My impression is that young children don’t find language learning particularly hard. Here’s what I imagine. All of the kids hear you speak, and internalize it as something along the lines of “teacher dialect”. The Black kids are learning it from you, and if they choose to use it, probably can.

    If you correct them, you’re saying their dialect is wrong. If you don’t correct them, but do give them lots of chances to hear the standard English version, then you give them information without implying their way is wrong.

    If the kids ever point out the differences, you could call your speech the way people talk at lots of jobs, and their ways could be described as some of the many ways people talk in their families.

  2. jenorr says:

    Sue, thank you for these thoughts. I’ve been thinking about them for several days. My thoughts about verb tense come at least as much from watching my own daughters acquire language (and only English) as my students. My 7 year old still has certain verbs that she conjugates incorrectly. Her errors make perfect sense based on other verbs she knows.

    I think the other reason I struggle with this is that my students are, almost exclusively, recent immigrants. I’m not sure any of my students would be considered Black. I have several African students, students who speak languages such as Krio. I’m having trouble figuring out how another language, rather than a dialect, impacts my teaching in relation to their culture. Maybe there’s no difference. I go back and forth as I mull it over.

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