Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Casualties of "balanced" literacy, years later

pra sno vla pni smu gra

These are some of the nonsense syllables that students in the after school program I teach in were recently asked to read aloud. This list was part of a French language literacy test, and the point of this test was to assess the kids’ French skills (many of them have French-speaking parents). But what was most revealing about the results of this particular test component had nothing to do with French.

The kids did ok with two other lists of syllables: ones that consisted of consonant vowel combinations (ta, le…) and vowel consonant combinations (ame, ette). But when it came to the consonant clusters in the above list (pr, sn, vl, pn, sm, and gr), they stumbled. Invariably, if they pronounced the second consonant at all, they placed it at the end of the syllable, such that “pre” became “par”; “sno” became “son,” etc.

In other words, these students, now in 3rd and 4th grades, were totally stumped by consonant clusters. What does this mean for their ability to read words like “presque” and “pneue”?

As it turns out, none of these students can read any French. As for English, while they are able to read it, they do so less fluently than an unsuspecting person might predict, given how many years they’ve attended ELA classrooms. How would a new word like “protracted” or “gravely” sound in their mouths?

The difficulty these kids have sounding out single syllabus with consonant clusters has nothing to do with their unusual backgrounds, and everything to do with the continued de-emphasis on phonics instruction in America’s K12 classrooms. I didn’t get to test the older kids, but I’m guessing that they, too, had problems with “pra,” “sno,” etc. If you never learn how to sound out arbitrary consonant clusters, you’d think this would get only marginally easier over time.

In fact, it would be really interesting to take a random sample even of high students and see how they would do sounding out random nonsense syllables with consonant clusters. Let alone erstwhile SAT words like "phlegmatic" and "punctilious."

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