Cyndie was a junior in my Advanced Reading class in 1996. In many ways she appeared to be a typical adolescent with above-average verbal ability who possessed a well-balanced, affable personality. She was a mature young lady, in spite of a few lapses in attention or inappropriate giggles, on occasion.
One day I decided to share with Cyndie’s class some of the reading-in-the-content area strategies I was preparing for curriculum teachers in my suburban high school. I thought it was important to brainstorm with my class because I wanted to share with my peer teachers what my students had considered valuable in improving their grades and reading skills. After a few minutes of discussion, my students told me that it was their consensus that for students to learn from textbooks, and also to grow in their reading skills, they need to have textbooks that are not too difficult to read. (The students in most high school classes are reading on a wide range of reading grade levels, but they all have the same grade level textbooks, within a given class.) Once they shared their “meeting of the minds” on this major point, we continued with our vocabulary lesson.
At the end of the lesson, I invited any interested student to continue to brainstorm with me about reading techniques after class. I didn’t seriously expect anyone to remain after 3:10 pm on a Friday afternoon. I told them to have a good weekend and I started to clear my desk. Then, I felt the presence of someone else in the room. It was Cyndie. I asked her what she wanted, and she said she wanted to share her story with me. Here it is. I hope it inspires you as it did me. I had asked Cyndie if I could share her story with other teachers in the school. She agreed that I could.
Cyndie had gone to elementary school in another local school system. When she was in fifth grade, she said she was reading on second or third grade level and that she could not comprehend the meanings of some sentences. Her science teacher had set up a part of her classroom for students who were lower in reading skills to read the science lessons from easier to read books – some even with a comic book approach to teaching science. In the process of reading books that were easier to read than the ones the majority of the class had been issued, Cyndie said that she not only learned the science concepts, but that she increased her reading skills to grade level, or to 5th grade level. She said that by being able to read parts of various science books, she learned the meanings of unknown words from the words surrounding them (context clues). She said that her mother always believed that she was an intelligent girl but that, for some reason, she had never acquired adequate reading skills. This science teacher’s approach to enhancing the reading abilities of her reluctant readers significantly increased Cyndie’s reading ability. Cyndie said having students talk about the science concepts after they had read the easier to read science books, also, helped her reading advancement.
Cyndie told me that if she had been placed in a separate room that she would have felt like a “slow” student, and that this would have inhibited her ability to read. I said, “but Cyndie, you were pulled apart from the larger group - in that classroom.” She said she realized that then, too, of course, but that “that wasn’t so bad” because she was still “good enough to be a part of the total class.”
I told Cyndie I never would have guessed her developmental history, and that I thought of her as an above-average reader. We, then, checked her pretest scores - the ones from the Nelson Reading Test that she had taken in August, 1995 (as an 11th grade student). Her vocabulary pretest score was on grade level 13 (Freshman in college level) and her comprehension level was grade level 14 (Sophomore in college level).
Cyndie wanted, also, to share with me the fact that when teachers explain the meanings of new vocabulary words through teaching the root and prefix meanings of those words, students are better able to understand and remember the meanings of those vocabulary words. She said that that way of learning new vocabulary, in her different subject areas, was more effective than simply memorizing definitions rotely, which students can quickly forget if the vocabulary is not tied to the meanings of the prefixes and roots of those words.
This, then, was Cyndie’s “personal testimony” to me of her reading development. What she had been through in school had impacted her life so significantly that she had waited to share her story with me after school hours on a Friday afternoon, and she had wanted me to share her story with others. Cyndie’s fifth grade science teacher had touched Cyndie’s future for the better, and her teacher may have touched the future of many others, especially through Cyndie’s gift of sharing her reading developmental history with me. Teachers must never sell themselves short. Their efforts can be, and often are, continually perpetuated.
POSTSCRIPT: This story illustrates the need for teachers, even high school teachers, not only to preassess each student’s reading scores, but also to create smaller subgroupings of students within their larger classes, at least during certain days of the week, so that those students with lower reading skills than others can be taught with materials appropriate to their reading functioning skills, at point in time. Reading growth will occur and, then, based on posttest scores, students can be reassigned to the larger group which functions on grade level.
As I recall from those 16 years ago, Cyndie had “topped out” of her posttest with me in May of 1996. That means that she had scored higher than grade level 16 (Senior in college level) on her vocabulary and comprehension sections of the Nelson Reading Test, at the end of her 11th grade year in high school.