Bite by Bite

     What good is it for students to learn to decode if they don’t understand the words they’ve read? I believe it is very important for children to both study phonics and be given many opportunities to learn how to gain meaning from text.
     As soon as my young readers can put a few phonemes together to form words, I teach them to put a few words together and read phrases. Ex: “The cat is on the mat.” is a very simple sentence and yet you can derive meaning from it. First my students learn to read “The cat” as a phrase, rather than as individual words. Then I might ask them “What kind of cat did you picture? Did you see a kitten or a fully grown cat? What color is the cat in your mind? Did you picture it inside your house, outside, on someone’s lawn?” Then they read the next phrase: “is on”. I ask, “What do you picture the cat on? Is it on a table, a bed, the branch of a tree?” Then they continue reading and find out the cat is “on the mat”. “Is the mat a welcome mat, a kitchen mat, a back door mat? What color is this mat? Are you picturing other cats near this cat, or maybe kids? etc.”
     I encourage my students to create interesting, comprehensive images in their minds. Since the sentence is not presented within the context of a story, these few words provide the only information. However, it still allows for practicing and testing simple literal comprehension skills as well as more difficult reasoning skills. For example, you can ask the student for a prediction or conclusion based on his or her own visualization. The questioning for even this type of simple sentence trains the brain to put pictures to the words, therefore building better understanding.
     I equate phrase reading to eating. I begin, even with my emerging readers, by reminding the students that when they eat something, such as a hamburger, they take (hopefully) one bite at a time, chewing and swallowing each bite so that they can enjoy its flavor. It’s the same thing with reading. The student should read a sentence “bite by bite”. In this way, the student has time to “digest” and enjoy what he has read. When students reach a point where they’re reading long sentences, it is even more important to break them into chunks. When reading one word at a time it is easy to forget what has been read. In The Reading Gym™, I was the one to choose the breaks in the sentences, however, I tell my students that when they’re reading material on their own, they need to find the appropriate places to stop and process what they’ve read. As adults we do this automatically, especially when reading more difficult literature or technical material. The more complicated the text, the more we need to break it down into meaningful phrases.
     In The Reading Gym™, the students read the sentences over and over again. They learn to pause at the end of each phrase and think about its content. They gain expression by learning to emphasize italicized or bolded words. Students begin to adjust their voices appropriately according to punctuation signals. Even if the sentences are memorized, I find my students benefit from the repeated readings because their expression improves with each reading. The segmented sentences are followed by the same sentences without the breaks so that the children can see the way these sentences would actually appear in text. These in-tact sentences are then read with the same phrasing, as the segmented sentences.
     There has been a plethora of research substantiating the fact that phrase reading helps to build comprehension and fluency. This is one of the reasons that The Reading Gym™ was developed. I invite you to have fun at The Reading Gym™ and help your students enjoy their “meal”!

Deborah Finger/The Reading Gym™

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