Thursday, 14 November 2013

A picture tells a story or stories...

This is a post about the benefits of activating and building schemata to develop reading fluency and comprehension in the ESL Literacy classroom.

While searching for efficient ways to remediate reading difficulties in adult ESL learners with interrupted formal education (LIFE), on multiple occasions, I have observed that bottom-up techniques are far from successful with learners who are not literate in their first language. LIFE are more likely to identify and retain the words that they understand rather then combinations of sounds that do not make sense to them. Students who have never learned to read before in their first or any other language lack the so called academic or formal schemata of the reading process or reading scripts that would allow them to understand what typically happens when reading a text and, therefore, are not able to apply this knowledge. I have noticed that the learners who have incomplete studies but can read in their first language, even if the language uses a non-roman alphabet, progress in developing their reading skills much faster as they are able to make necessary connections from their previous learning-to-read experience and, therefore, are better readers. It does not necessarily mean that they are better at reading comprehension, but they are definitely much more efficient at deciphering words from sounds and at the reading mechanics in general.

What both groups of learners, those who read and those who do not read in L1, can successfully do is use their content schemata to facilitate top-down processing of the text and, thus, develop reading fluency. The text format that I like using in my class is a picture or a set of pictures describing real life situation followed by a text of approximately 10-15 sentences; each sentence starts from a new line. First, I draw students' attention to the picture. I often encourage them not to look at the text in the early stage of the training (reading at this point can be very confusing) but look at the pictures instead and tell me what they see. I start with eliciting words by asking some common question. Who is this? How old is he or she? Is he or she married? Do they have any children? How old are their children? In the beginning, students may need some help in understanding that they are not required to give precise answers but rather guess or predict the information based on what they see on the pictures. Once they are not afraid of making their own guesses this technique is infallible. Learners soon develop an ability to gather a great deal of information from the pictures alone by making connections with the knowledge that they posses about the world. Based on the information elicited from the students and the text itself, I continue with telling them the true version of the story, sometimes stopping to ask them yes or no questions in order to see if they are following with the story and check their comprehension of what have been said. For example, after saying 'This is Bill. His wife is Faye.', I usually stop to ask whether they are married or not or what Bill's wife name is. When learners proceed to reading, they already know the story very well, therefore, when they approach the words that are not familiar to them, for example, a person's first and last name such as Rose Sullivan or Bill Miller, with a little hint, they are able to guess and recognize what these words are.

A sample of a story described in the post. 

This is a book of stories by Ann Gianola published by New Readers Press. Texts in this book can be used with the techniques described in the post.

I have noticed that at the initial stages some learners draw arrows to connect words with the picture or sketch little images beside the words in the text to recognize these words later on. For example, drawing a person beside 'son', or a house beside 'house', 'home', 'apartment' - a technique adopted from the vocabulary study when many of the learners relied on pictures to facilitate the retention of the cue words for the alphabet.

Learners are using pictures to facilitate reading fluency...

Learners are using drawings to learn vocabulary...

A wonderful thing about this strategy is that by using it students are also working on building their text schemata and bottom-up processing skills. It allows language exploration activities and follow-up speaking and writing tasks. When the students can read the text more or less easily, it is appropriate to draw their attention to some language features displayed in the text to introduce language noticing and awareness. For example, 'Bill lives on a farm. He is a farmer.' - we could point students to the word morphology of the farm and farmer, or in 'Bill is married. Bill's wife is pretty and smart.' - possessive forms could be addressed. Language noticing activities will potentially develop learners' linguistic schemata that they will be able to use in the future reading activities. Vocabulary building is successful at this stage. Learners are more likely to respond well to new words in a very familiar context. As a follow up, they can be invited to share orally or write a few sentences about similar familiar situations. Gradually, the learners develop the ability to search for information in the text without looking at the pictures. I noticed that shortly after a consistent use this technique students are able to quickly find the correct information regarding the name, age, job, marital status, family, etc. in the text. They develop the ability to scan through the text and identify the specific information.

Finally, schema is a culturally bound construct and, therefore, there is an opportunity to develop new schemata based on the values of the new country. For example, we have been working with a story about Rose Sullivan who is divorced. As all of my students come from a background where divorce is forbidden and therefore unthinkable, after reading the story, I observed that all the students in class were upset. I asked them what was so upsetting for them and found out that they thought that Rose must have been very unhappy and her life was almost over. I took some time and courage to convey that maybe she wasn't so unhappy after all, and divorce does not necessarily mean a bad thing: it could have even been a better solution for the parts involved. Another example is a story about a couple who have been married for 10 years and do not have any children. Needless to say, my students (who have big families) disapproved this situation. Once again, I had to step in and suggest that it could have been a choice or a health problem, etc.

I have been using this activity with the primary focus on developing reading fluency in ESL literacy learners but it obviously integrates skills and language and has a lot of potential to build on the pre-existing knowledge and develop some new skills. 

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