Developing a Reading Skills Curriculum

Inquiry Project Proposal/final report

Sandy Jacobi

The problem: Low reading comprehension skills in ABE/pre-GED

During the past 10 years of working in Rhode Island adult education, I have felt the need for more intensive and effective ways to help students in pre-GED programs improve their reading skills. Nowadays the typical student is most likely to come from an ESOL background with little or no formal education, or is a native-speaker of English with a record of school failure and possible language-based learning disabilities. Both types of student typically lack a solid foundation in phonics, word attack skills, grammar and vocabulary, with reading levels that tend to stagnate at Grade 6.

Adult studentsı problems with reading and comprehension appear to have the following causes:

  • Inability to sound out words and over-reliance on sight words, with frequent inaccuracies as a result.
  • Confusion with the meaning of grammar, particularly with words having similar forms but different functions, modals and the more complicated verb tenses.
  • Generally undeveloped vocabulary, ranging from idiomatic expressions to technical/scientific terminology and more abstract "academic" language.
  • Lack of general comprehension skills such as deductive and inferential thinking, visualization, and others, which have never been developed due to the above problems.

    In a mini-grant project (summer 2000), I focused on the first of these and presented ways to provide direct, structured instruction in the sound system of English. In this project, I have investigated classroom activities that would address the additional causes of reading difficulties identified above.

    The goal: Develop a reading curriculum to build skills in grammar and visualization

    As is usually the case, I discovered that my scope was much too broad and needed focus, so I chose two areas of concentration: visualization and grammar. Curricula already existed in the form of Nanci Bellıs Visualizing and Verbalizing (Academy of Reading Publications: Paso Robles, CA) and Victoria Greene and Mary Lee Enfieldıs Framing your Thoughts, a component of the Project Read series (Language Circle Enterprises: Bloomington, MN.)

    In March 2001, I attended a 2-day seminar on Visualizing and Verbalizing at the Commonwealth Learning Center in Danvers, Massachusetts, which provided step-by-step instruction in the program.

    Results: Visualization

    The ability to visualize what we read appears to be a vital component of memory and comprehension. In her 1991 article in the Annals of Dyslexia , "Gestalt Imagery: a Critical Factor in Language Comprehension," Nanci Bell cites several studies indicating that visualization promotes comprehension in both children and adults. Good readers appear to visualize automatically, that is, they image as they read. Poor readers, even those with good decoding, do not, and often complain that "words go in but donıt stick."

    From March through June, 2001, I used visualization techniques with a total of six students. These activities were based on the Visualizing and Verbalizing sequence and included the following:

    Picture verbalizing. Students look at a picture and talk about what they see. They are encouraged to make a "word picture" that allows the listener to see what they are seeing in his/her mindıs eye. Details must be very specific. For example, if the student says, "The boy looks happy," the teacher asks, "What does happy look like? What shape is his mouth?"

    To make sure that students fully describe the picture, they refer to the following checklist of "structure words:"


    Single word imaging. Students visualize and describe a personal or known noun, for example, a favorite possession, a clown, or a policeman.

    Single sentence imaging. Students visualize and describe a single sentence. An example would be, "The policeman ran down the street." As with the other two visualizations, structure words are used to check completeness.

    Sentence-by-sentence imaging. Using felt squares, student visualize and verbalize up to five sentences. As they develop an image for each sentence, they lay down a felt. They then return to the first felt and report what they saw, image by image. Finally, they sum up what the text was about.

    Multi-sentence imaging. Students repeat the same procedure as above for two or three sentences at a time.

    Conducting a visualization session is harder than it might seem. Many students find talking about a picture on their mental screen extremely difficult, mainly because they are not seeing anything (yet another school activity that theyıre not succeeding at.) These students will repeat the text and not talk about details. When questioned, they will act impatient and say something like, "You know, just an average boy." Because of this, it is extremely important to start with an actual picture and get them talking and using words to exhaustively describe it.

    Because I found group visualization hard to manage, I skipped over the noun imaging segments, which was a mistake. One person, who was having difficulty imaging, needed that step, as well as more practice on the first step with pictures. This student has ADHD tendencies and found visualization challenging. She either did not image anything or reacted so strongly to individual words that she got sidetracked and neglected other parts of the text. With practice, however, she got better at visualizing the whole picture.

    It was interesting to note when students really began to visualize. Some clues are gesturing, upward eye movements, and using specific personal details. For example, one student described a pan, which she said was like one in her kitchen. Another student, a teenage boy, used more sophisticated vocabulary and poetic description when he visualized, a departure from his usual laconic street English.

    I tried to promote visualization in other class activities. For example, when students learned a new word, they were encouraged to use it in context and get a picture. We then talked about what we saw to demonstrate that everyone has a different image of the same word. During sentence dictation in the Wilson Language lesson, I required that they listen to the sentence first (pencils down), repeat it, "get a movie," and then write the sentence. It is common for students to be unable to remember a 6-word dictated sentence. Visualization appears to help them with this.

    Four students completed questionnaire interviews about their experience with visualization. The most spectacular results were with a woman who had 6 one-on-one visualization tutoring sessions, ranging from picture descriptions to longer texts. When she entered the literacy program, she reported not being able to remember or understand what she read. Upon entry she had scored a 9.4 in reading on the TABE and a Fifth Grade comprehension level on the Burns and Roe. Her second TABE score (both administered at CCRI) was 12.5. She reported that she did not guess the second time around and deliberately used visualization when reading the TABE passages. She was so pleased with the effects of visualization that she is teaching her 8-year-old son to do it when they read together. She reports that he is now begging for a bedtime story instead of being a reluctant listener/reader.

    A student in the basic skills group also reported trying to teach visualization to her son, another reluctant reader. All four students who answered the questionnaire were highly enthusiastic about visualization and report that they are consciously trying to image pictures now when they read or listen. All of them claim that it helps them remember and understand what they read. All four reported that they did not visualize previously.

    Tips for teachers

    My experience indicated that one-on-one visualization is the easiest and most effective. However, when group work is unavoidable, it is important to maintain order and a calm atmosphere. Use an overhead projector for pictures.

    Invest in a copy of Visualizing and Verbalizing and Visualizing and Verbalizing Stories, both by Nanci Bell, available from Gander Educational Publishing, 1-800-554-1819.

    Give the students a clear explanation of how visualizing helps them comprehend and remember what they read. Donıt go too fast. Follow the sequence and make sure that everyone is imaging. Use the structure words to promote detailed descriptions.

    Spend a lot of time reading text aloud while they visualize. It is very difficult for some students to visualize while they are struggling through a reading passage. For that reason, all text to visualize should be significantly below their reading level at first.

    Integrate visualization throughout your program, for example, with

  • new vocabulary words
  • listening comprehension
  • dictation
  • math word problems
  • Don't expect visualization to be a magic bullet. It can produce dramatic results, but only when students have sufficient decoding skills and vocabulary. Be aware that students with ADHD may have varying responses to this technique. Some students may find it extremely difficult to visualize at first and will need a great deal of time and practice.

    Results: Multisensory Grammar

    Student response has been excellent to the multisensory grammar program, Framing Your Thoughts, which Iıve used in a small group and one-on-one tutoring. Iıve found it most useful as a common-language platform for explaining a variety of grammatical points, such as the difference between there, their and theyıre, the forms of verbs and tricky subject/verb agreement. Many of the typical GED language questions can be analyzed using the symbolic diagramming method of this program.

    Four students completed questionnaire interviews about Framing Your Thoughts. On a scale of 5 (very helpful) to 1 (not helpful), three students rated it 5, and one rated it 4 (noting that we had not finished the program.) Three said that they used the method to understand sentences in their reading. Two said they used the method to check their writing. Two said that they used the method to make sense of their GED textbook reading.

    Other comments were: "I always had trouble with grammar. The pictures make it easier to understand and remember."
    " I've noticed a change in reading for Literature and Arts. Now I can figure out what the subject is and what is important."

    Tips for Teachers

    Order Framing Your Thoughts from Language Circle Enterprises, 1-800-450-0343.

    Do not jump around in or rush the sequence. You need to build a strong foundation. This is particularly important for students with language-based learning disabilities, who have a very shaky concept of grammar. I made the mistake of rushing the sequence and needed to go back and reteach.

    Make large symbol manipulatives from manila file folders for demos and "living sentence activities," where students get up and act out sentences.

    Encourage students to apply their new analysis skills to classroom reading if they are having difficulty deciphering a sentence.

    All in all, I have been so pleased with the results of using visualization and multisensory grammar with my adult students that I have encouraged my colleagues at Project Learn to incorporate them in all GED and pre-GED classes. I strongly urge other teachers to learn about these methods and include them in their reading and writing programs.

    Sandy Jacobi

    June 25, 2001

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