Neil Anderson

NEIL ANDERSON

Neil Anderson. N-E-I-L A-N-D-E-R-S-O-N.

ANDERSON, NEIL: I think some of the most important things to understand about the differences between first and second language reading is that when we’re--you’re working with a first language reader, a child for example, that child has had years and years of input, oral input, in the language, so they’ve been listening to their parents, to caregivers. They’ve been listening to people in their environment and so they’ve got a very strong linguistic background to begin then putting print and the oral language together. When you’re working with a second language learner, they do not have those years of experience with the language. Uh, there are certain elements that will transfer from their first language reading experience, but I think one of the most important things that educators need to know is that we can’t assume that it’s going to be exactly the same process between first and second language reading because of the difference in the amounts of input that the learners already have.

ANDERSON, NEIL: I think there’s several issues that they’re dealing with when they’re trying to, uh, pull apart English as their second language and put it all back together in a meaningful way in English--or in reading in particular. Um, there’s background knowledge issues. Many which ties into cultural issues. Uh, there are many elements about reading and English that if you don’t have the background knowledge, that’s one of the issues that you’re trying to sort out as a reader. Uh, you may not understand what’s going on in that context because you lack the cultural background. Another element that the readers may be grappling with is the sound symbol correspondence. So, they’re not sure what the pronunciation is of a particular word and thus, it’s impeding their ability to actually get that word off of the page to make sense to them. Uh, they’re grappling with grammar issues. Uh, how do you put together this new language that you’re learning in the grammar that makes sense in English and makes sense for you as--as the reader? They’re grappling with comprehension issues. Uh, sometimes they may be reading text that’s beyond their actual level of language development so they’re struggling with the typical kinds of comprehension issues that we would be dealing with with first language readers also and putting it back together in a way. Uh, they’re grappling with how do I demonstrate my comprehension or carry on a conversation with somebody else about what I’ve just read. So they’re sorting through all of the linguistic elements with the--hopefully the ultimate goal of being able to do something with this text that they’ve read in some meaningful way with another, uh, student or with their teacher or with their parents.

ANDERSON, NEIL: Reading rate is one of the elements about second language reading that I feel passionate about and notice that I’m using the word ‘rate’ and not ‘reading speed.’ In our classrooms I think that every educator needs to devote some time to the issues of rate. We don’t want to try and get the second language readers in our classes reading thousands of words per minute. We don’t want to teach them speed reading, but we’ve got to address the issue of rate. Most of the students that I’ve worked with in terms of their reading rate have been very, very slow readers, perhaps a hundred words per minute. And there’s very limited research that looks at what the threshold level is of a reading rate, but it varies anywhere from 150 words per minute to about 250 words per minute, maybe 300. Uh, Ron Carver’s got some research, but his deals with first language readers and not second language readers. So we’ve got readers that are reading very, very slowly and when you’re reading slowly, by the time you get to the end of a paragraph, you--your processing skills have been so slow that you don’t remember the beginning of the paragraph. So the fluent auto--automatic processing of text does not happen where you’re reading very slowly. So I encourage all second language reading teachers, any teacher that’s going to be working in a reading context, to make sure that there’s some time devoted to reading rate development so that we can get students somewhere at about 200 words per minute so that as they’re reading the text, they can do it fluently in a way that will allow them to connect the meanings of all of the vocabulary in the sentences that they’re working with.

ANDERSON, NEIL: There are two exercises in particular that I use to help develop reading rate. One is called ‘reading build-up.’ I have the learners start with a paragraph or a--a story, something that they’re reading and I give them one minute to read as comfortably as they can, understanding everything, uh, so I’m--I--I’m telling them I’m not trying to push you, I want you to read comfortably so that you can talk with someone else about what you’ve just read. After that one minute, I then ask them to turn to a partner and discuss an element of the text that caught their attention. Then we return to the beginning of the text again and I give them one minute and I say ‘You have already read this paragraph or this material, but now I’m asking you to read it again, but this time, because you’ve read and you understand, read what you’ve already read quickly and see how much new material you can read in the second 60-second period.’ And then it--we do a comprehension check again. Have them turn to a partner, discuss a little bit about the text. Then we repeat that 60-second exercise again a third--for a third minute and a fourth minute so that by the fourth time, uh, hopefully they’ve doubled the amount of text that they’ve read in 60 seconds from the first minute to the fourth minute. I have students keep rate build-up logs so that we just estimate approximately how many words did you read the first minute. How many did you read the fourth minute? And what really fascinates me about looking at students’ rate build-up logs is that the initial one minute rate gradually increases when you use this activity in the classroom so that after you’ve done this for two months the beginning first 60-second rate is much higher than when two months previous when you started using the exercise. So rate build-up allows them to read and reread and practice focusing on rate and not worrying about so much continual new text and maintaining that rate over time. Some teachers ask me if learners get bored doing this. Because we’re only doing it for four minutes, um, and because students want to increase their reading rate, I think that there’s a certain amount of motivation on the learner’s part to want to keep reading more. And once you’ve used this activity in class, the students know that you’re going to do it for four 60-second periods and they know that their ultimate goal is to try and read twice as much in the fourth minute as you did in the first minute and that gives them some element of competition with themselves.

ANDERSON, NEIL: The second exercise that I do is very, very similar, but it’s called ‘repeated reading.’ So the second exercise is called repeated reading and with this particular exercise you choose just a chunk of text and you ask the students to read a chunk three times in a certain time period. So you might pull out 250 words of text and say ‘Read this three times in three minutes.’ Now in the first minute that they’re reading, they’ll be reading slowly and they won’t get through all 250 words, but the second time they read it they’ll be going a little faster and the third time a little faster. And I set a goal for the class of how fast do we want to be reading this now and I call out one minute, two minutes, three minutes with the goal of trying to get them to read that chunk three times in the three minutes and then they would be reading at about 250 words per minute. I change that goal depending on where the students are at in rate development for that particular time of the course that we’re in so I may start with an--a goal rate of 150 words per minute and then gradually move up so that we’re getting them closer to the goal that I set in my classes of about 200 words per minute.

ANDERSON, NEIL: There are actually six things that I focus on in a reading course that I make sure that students have the opportunity to develop in a wide variety of reading skills. We work on the activation of background knowledge so that readers can begin to develop appropriate strategies for approaching a text, what kinds of things they should be doing to prepare to read. Um, we talk about vocabulary development and what skills the learners need to develop in order to increase their vocabulary. We, uh, discuss the development of comprehension skills. One very interesting thing with comprehension is that I think as teachers we’re very good at testing students’ comprehension, but sometimes we’re not good at developing or teaching the students how to comprehend. So I think that devotion to comprehension strategies is vital. Reading rate is a fourth element that I concentrate on so that students can increase their rate. Uh, strategies is a fifth element so that students are introduced to a wide range of strategies and have opportunities to talk about those strategies in class so that they’re learning how to learn to be a better reader. And the sixth element that I build into all of my reading classes is the element of evaluation. Teaching the students how to evaluate their own progress as well as allowing me, as the reading or language teacher, the opportunity to evaluate the progress of the students. So these six elements are things that I want to build into every class of second language learners that I work with so that we make sure that we’re not just concentrating on a very narrow focus, but a wider range of skills so that the learners are able to develop all of the skills that they need to be successful users of the language.

ANDERSON, NEIL: I think there’s several principals that come in mind that help inform me as the language teacher in stepping into a second language reading classroom. And it may not be a reading classroom, per se, it could be any classroom where reading is an element of the curriculum. One is the selection of appropriate texts. If we choose material that is too difficult for the learners, we will discourage them. We will overwhelm them too quickly and they will not be excited about the reading process. So that sele--appropriate selection of materials. And that’s very tricky. Uh, the guidelines in first language ac--um, reading, uh, base many of the materials on grade levels based on a US education system. So we’ve got first grade reading materials, second grade, third grade, fourth grade. We can’t use that same calibration with second language readers because we may have a sixth-grader that is on a second grade reading level, but you can’t use second grade reading material because the content is not going to be appropriate for the sixth-grader. So you--you may have to do some editing of materials and adapting of materials to help get it at the right level for the learner, but that the content’s appropriate for your sixth grade reader. This became very evident in, uh, one of the studies that I was doing related to reading strategies. I was working with a reader, uh, and the topic that the student was to read for the research project was a passage about math. And before the reader came in for the study, I looked at the topic and thought, ‘Oh, no. This student’s really going to struggle. She’s a beginning level language learner. This topic is math. I’m going to--she’s going to be here all day trying to read this material and she’s probably going to get frustrated.’ So for a moment I considered changing my research design to select another passage for her to read. And then I thought, ‘No. I’m going to maintain the integrity here of the re--researcher and ask her to read this passage.’ When she came in, I introduced the passage to her and she had a task of reading a portion of the passage and then stopping and reflecting on what she had read to reveal her strategies. She started reading and within a very short time period, she said ‘I’m ready to discuss the passage and my reading strategies.’ And I was very surprised. And she started talking about the passage with great fluency and it caught me off guard. And I said to her, ‘How do you know this information?’ And she said, ‘I like math very much and so reading this passage, I already know that I like it and even though it’s a little bit hard, because I like math, I’m able to understand the passage.’ And that was a real, uh, defining moment for me as a reading teacher. That in terms of selecting materials, it--selecting the right level will often be contingent on the motivation of the reader. So that’s another--or a principle in the selection of appropriate materials is to make sure that I know what areas of interest the readers have so that I can be choosing materials that will help them develop, uh, their reading skills in--on topics that they’re already very interested in.

ANDERSON, NEIL: Um, I thi--I think a second area here is the role of reading strategies. And I--I strongly believe that with second language readers, they’re transferring as many strategies as they can from their first language reading, but I think that many readers have a narrow band of strategies that they use. And so my role as a language educator is to make sure that the readers get introduced to a wide range of strategies so that they can see that there are multiple ways to approach a particular text. And providing a--opportunities for the students to talk with each other in class about the strategies they use, is one of the most effective techniques that I’ve used because then it doesn’t place the responsibility on me as the language educator. I can use the expertise of all the learners in the class to help the students identify that wide range of strategies that are available to them.

ANDERSON, NEIL: A strategy is a conscious, um, tool that a language learner can use to improve their learning. There’s a real distinction here between the unconscious use of a technique or the conscious use of a strategy. And I believe that strategies are conscious. They can become automatic at some point in our learning, but initially I think that we need to be conscious about how we’re using the strategy and whether the strategy is effective and whether it’s working for us as a reader.

ANDERSON, NEIL: I also believe that there are no bad strategies in reading. You can see in the literature some articles about the strategies of the--or good strategies and bad strategies that readers or learners use. I think that there’s poor application of a strategy, but there are no bad strategies because what may work for me and what may be a poor strategy for me as a reader, may be a very successful strategy for you. And so the consciousness of the strategy also has to involve the conscious evaluation of whether the strategy is working for you as a reader. In classes, when I’m working with learners, I provide opportunities for the students to share their strategies with each other and there may be a particular strategy that we say ‘Let’s now spend five minutes reading and everybody use the strategy that Juan has just identified or that Keiko has just identified.’ So that everybody has an opportunity to practice a particular strategy and then we have a discussion about was--does that strategy work for you. And I love to engage learners in the, uh, discussion when for some of them the strategy doesn’t work, but for others the strategy works. And you can have a wonderful in-class discussion about why it’s effective for some and why it’s ineffective for others. And then highlight. Use what works for you, but just know that there’s no bad strategy.

ANDERSON, NEIL: Medicognition is the ability to think about your thinking and the ability to make your thinking visible. Particularly with strategy use, I believe that the medicognitive strategies are one of the most important that we need to develop because if we can get learners to develop appropriate medicognitive strategies, other types of strategies, cognitive, social, affective, should, uh, also be developed and--and work. There’s a real challenge with medicognition to get learners to actually reflect meaningfully on their thinking and to think about whether the strategies that they’re using are effective. And I like to look at the topic of medicognition on a continuum. On one end, you’ve got individuals who are doing what I call ‘superficial reflecting.’ They’re just thinking back about their reading and just hitting the surface about what they did and what strategies they were using and what strategies are available to them. On the other end of the continuum, you’ve got someone who hyperanalyzes. And they’re so focused and they may be looking through a microscope and dissecting a cell into multiple parts and overreacting and overanalyzing what they’re doing as--as a language learner. And I talk with the learners about this continuum and tell them that we want to be somewhere in the middle where we’ve got critical, but healthy reflection and thinking about what we’re doing and evaluating whether what we’re doing is effective and if it’s not, what changes do we need to make in our own learning so that continual progress can be made. Medicognition helps to put the learner in charge of their own learning so that they don’t have to depend on me as the language educator. I can give them some skills so that they can continue learning outside of the classroom and perhaps learn better on their own without me than with me.

ANDERSON, NEIL: The use of a think aloud protocol in the classroom I think is one of the most effective tools that we can use to really learn what our learners are doing in the classroom. One thing that we’ve got to be aware of, well if we use think aloud protocols in the classroom, is that thinking and reflecting about what you’re doing is not easy. And learners--it’s not going to come automatic to most students in our classes. So the first thing that I do is model a think aloud protocol for the students that I’m working with. Sometimes when I engage learners in think aloud protocols they begin to retell or demonstrate in some way their comprehension of what they’ve just read. And I explain to them that a think aloud protocol is not so much an opportunity for them to develop what they under--or to demonstrate what they understand, but how they arrived at their understanding. And--and it’s not an easy process so if I can model for the learner what a think aloud protocol is and what I do while I read, then they begin to get the flavor of what it’s like, uh, to actually think about what you’re doing and make conscious decisions about strategies that you need to use. I engage the students in my class in thinking aloud and sharing with each other and sharing with the class what they’re doing. Let me share one very interesting story when I started using this technique in my reading classes. I had a young woman from Japan and she was the only speaker of Japanese in the class and every other student in the class had at least one fellow speaker of the same language. I considered, with this particular class, allowing the students to do think aloud protocols in their native language so that they could talk about their strategies with someone in the language that was most familiar with them, but I chose not to because this Japanese speaker would not have anyone to speak with. So we started doing the think aloud protocols in class in English. And the students would share with each other the strategies they were using and this Japanese woman, uh, young woman, would say out loud, more to herself than to the class, ‘Mmm, I never thought of that before.’ And then another student would share a strategy that she was using and the Japanese woman, we would hear her say, ‘Mmm, I never thought of that before.’ And I realized that this woman had a very narrow range of strategies that she was using and she was being exposed to many new strategies that she hadn’t thought of before. So, in class we would provide opportunities to practice strategies and as the course progressed the Japanese student would say fewer and fewer times, ‘Mmm, I never thought of that.’ And she started experimenting with the strategies that she heard her classmates using and that was so rewarding as a teacher to watch this woman blossom into someone who was actually experimenting with strategies that she had not thought of before and it wasn’t me as the teacher giving her the strategies, but her fellow students giving her the strategies.

ANDERSON, NEIL: My passions have changed over the years, um, but I think that they’re--the--the circle gets larger of my passions, it’s not that I’m discarding any of them, but that circle of passions just keeps getting larger and larger. The current passion that I have is the development of medicognitive strategies in, uh, the children in their learning. I think that about the fourth grade the child is cognitively developed adequately that they can begin reflecting on their learning and taking charge of their learning. And I think that there are many things that as educators we need to do in the public school setting to help the students learn how to reflect on what they’re doing and we need to build opportunities in the class for them to practice. We don’t need to change the activities in the class, we just need to capitalize on what we’re already doing, but then build in opportunities for reflecting. So if we have the learners engaged in any learning task, when the task is done, make sure that there’s an opportunity for the learners to evaluate how they just performed in the task. Have an opportunity for the learners to talk with somebody else about what they just did and why they did it and was it effective and what would they change if they could do it--that very same task again.

ANDERSON, NEIL: I also feel passionately that teachers need to be developing these very same skills. On the medicognitive skill are sk--uh, continuum. I think teachers need to be in the medical middle of critical healthy reflection so that as we leave our classes we can sit down and have an opportunity to reflect ‘What would I do differently if I were to u--teach this same set of exercises and activities to another class?’ And the next--tomorrow when I go into class, ‘What have I learned today that will help me be better in class tomorrow?’ And we should take opportunities with the students that we work with to tell them what we’re doing to make their education better. And if we can talk with them about what we’re doing and that we’re trying to make their learning as effective as possible, they’ll see that it’s not just something they have to do as a learner, but something that even the teacher is doing.