Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beware of the Verbal Red Pen

Using a red pen to correct papers has become something of an educational taboo. We don’t do it because we know that nothing deflates a learner more than a paper that comes back all marked up screaming at a child, “I can’t believe the mistakes you made!” We’ve all moved on to less severe colors and mind what we write on children’s papers so to keep children motivated to learn.

I recently had a reading conference with a young boy. It started innocently enough, “Tell me about what you are reading.” The child complied and shared his excitement about reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The day’s lesson was about fluency so I decided to ask him to read a short bit of his book to get a handle on what he did and did not already know about fluency. As he began to read, his voice was flat and unenthused. I worried. Does he understand this? So I directed him to notice a word that had been written in capital letters. I asked him if he knew why the author would do such a thing. He gave me a blank stare that clearly indicated he did not so I went on to explain how writers do that for emphasis. I told him that when writers want a reader to say it really loudly in their head, they use all capital letters. He accepted that explanation and dutifully went back and read it louder. He read on and came upon a couple of words that he did not know. We talked about strategies for decoding unfamiliar words. Again, I worried. Does he understand this? Our conference continued and this boy continued to disregard all he had learned about paying attention to punctuation cues and reading with expression. We addressed other words that came up that troubled him and by now, I could ignore the question burning in my brain no longer. DOES HE UNDERSTAND THIS? So I followed that line of thinking. “When you read this what do you see in your mind?” The young boy looked directly at the picture on the page and described the drawing the illustrator had made. There was no longer a question in my mind about whether this reader understood this book. So, I made yet another move. “You know, when readers aren’t understanding what they read, they have an important decision to make. They have to decide whether they will keep reading this book and try really hard to use their fix-up strategies to make sure they are understanding or they have to think about abandoning the book and going back to it after they have had more practice reading in books that are just-right for them.”

As it turned out, this young reader decided to abandon Diary of a Wimpy Kid for now. But after this conference, I am left wondering what he really learned. I tried to teach so many different things: why authors use capital letters in their writing, how to sound out words that you don’t know, how to pay attention to punctuation cues that tell you how to read it with expression, how do you know if you are understanding, AND when do readers abandon books. Yikes, talk about conference overload!

I liken this conference to the red pen marks on a paper. In the same way that red pen stops the learning because it says too much and deflates the learner’s confidence, so too does a conference that teaches too many things. In hindsight, I would have been better off to have made a note of my concern, stuck with fluency instruction, and revisited this reader again the next day. In the end, I think he would have learned more about becoming a better reader. Ultimately, that is what we want for all of our students.

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