Through A Remedial Reading Program, Children Can Decode Words Like Linguists
About 14 percent of Americans cannot read. That’s according to a U.S. Department of Education Study in 2013. And while Vermont’s literacy rate is higher than the national average, plenty of children are falling behind.
But there is a remedial reading program that’s showing promise.
At about 3 p.m. on a sunny afternoon at Mount Lebanon Elementary School in New Hampshire's upper valley, kids are eager to go home. But one third grader will stay late to catch up on her reading skills. Her tutor, Neal Cronce, works with the non-profit Stern Center for Language and Learning. It’s based in Williston, with a branch in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
Here and at the Hartford Middle School, Cronce teaches what’s called “structured language.”
“It’s supported by huge range of research, and basically it’s old fashioned phonics, layer upon layer, premeditated, one step at a time. The students who work with teachers like myself end up becoming very similar to linguists. They get a real, deep, intense understanding of the English language,” Cronce explains, as he connects his computer to a smart screen and waits for his pupil to arrive.
It may seem odd that a child having trouble learning to read can acquire a sophisticated understanding of the way the language works. And not everyone needs that grounding. Cronce says 30 years of research shows that 85 percent of native English speakers learn to read and write intuitively, without being taught explicitly how the language is put together. But he says the other 15 percent, including his eight-year old tutee, Ava Boivert, learn to read only by mastering phonetic rules.
"Basically it's old fashioned phonics, layer upon layer, premeditated, one step at a time. The students who work with teachers like myself end up becoming very similar to linguists. They get a real, deep, intense understanding of the English language." - Neal Cronce, Stern Center for Language and Learning
She arrives at the classroom with her mother, Kristin. She’s shy about being photographed and recorded, but dives into the session anyway. It lasts about two hours, and this is about her 15th class in as many school days.
Her face dimly lit by the smart board, Ava drags letters with her fingers to make words on the screen. Eventually, she tries reading a whole paragraph containing some of those words. To make sure she is applying phonics rules, rather than making guesses based on the overall meaning of the story, Cronce tells her she first has to read the whole passage in reverse.
“That’ll be hard,” she observes, but complies anyway, as her mother looks a little nervous.
Hard to tell at this point, but it's an amusing tale about a talking chicken. When she's finally allowed to read the words in the right order, Ava first pronounces “cork” as “crock,” but corrects herself by remembering what the letters “o-r” always sound like together.
“Cork, cork, cork!” she squeals happily.
“Alright, you got it!” an elated Cronce tells her.
“Put a cork in it,” Ava reads perfectly from the screen, not realizing that the text in the story sounds like a retort to her tutor. That brings a laugh from both him and her mom.
It’s a eureka moment as Ava finishes the story with flair and does a little dance at the end. Kristin Boisvert, gazing at her budding reader, is a little misty-eyed.
"I am blown away and a little emotional about it but, just her understanding ... it's just amazing to me. It's really, really been a dramatic change. I'm just in awe." - Kristin Boisvert, mother
“I am blown away and a little emotional about it but, just her understanding, her being able to break it down, her understanding of syllables, vowels – you know, it’s just amazing to me. It's really, really been a dramatic change. I’m just in awe,” she says.
Not every mother can take her child to remedial reading lessons after school every day. Not all kids have as many books at home as Ava does. Families matter in the road to literacy. But so, perhaps, does the makeup of a child’s brain. As she reads, Ava’s brain waves will be studied by Dartmouth education professor Donna Coch, who is partnering with the Stern Center on a National Science Foundation Grant. Coch hopes to learn what makes brains like Ava’s different.
“If we can pinpoint what does change with the intervention, then we can sort of ... backwards reason to, 'that’s the part that wasn’t working so well at the beginning,'” Coch says.
Coch also hopes to learn whether this kind of intense, daily, one-on-one coaching can bring a struggling reader up to par with her peers quickly enough to advance with them in school.
“See you Monday,” Cronce says to Ava.
"He's super nice," she tells her mom.