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Using Different Styles to Help Weak Readers

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The National Reading Styles Institute (NRSI) trains teachers to help struggling readers by identifying students' learning styles, and then adapting instruction to those styles. The approach works with older as well as younger students, according to NRSI executive director, Dr. Marie Carbo. Included: Tips for developing strong readers.

Dr. Marie Carbo

Nothing stunts a student's progress like limited reading skills. A nationally recognized and award-winning researcher, lecturer, and author, Dr. Marie Carbo, founder and executive director of the National Reading Styles Institute (NRSI), says she has found success with slow and poor readers with her teaching model. She also is a former classroom teacher specialist in disabilities.

NRSI strives to improve literacy through a variety of programs that help teachers determine students' reading styles and then adapt instruction to meet students' needs. One approach that has shown strong results with struggling readers is having students listen to a recording of a short story while following along in a text.

NRSI consultants and staff members have trained teachers and administrators across the U.S. in Dr. Carbo's approach, which has been named a research-based language arts program by the U.S. Department of Education.

Dr. Carbo talked with Education World about her Reading Styles program and commitment to helping children and youths become confident, competent readers.

"So many at-risk readersare defensive and angry because they are afraid they will never learn to read," says Dr. Marie Carbo, founder and executive director of the National Reading Styles Institute (NRSI).

Education World: What inspired you to develop the program?

Dr. Marie Carbo: My learning-disabled students were the inspiration. When I began as a new special education teacher about 25 years ago, all of my students had severe reading difficulties. Some actually shook as they read. Some froze. They all agonized over just about every word, struggling and stumbling -- expending their energies trying to decipher the words, barely comprehending.

I discovered that every one of these children had an auditory deficit, making it difficult for them to discriminate sound differences or blend sounds. After having had years of phonics work, these children had flunked out of the school's phonics program. But when I devised alternative reading methods for them, they practically leaped forward in reading.

The first child to break through the barrier was Georgette, who could read only her name after three years of schooling. I used some special techniques to record four words with her. That very day she learned and retained all four words and spelled them on the board. I took what I learned from working with Georgette for a few weeks, and devised a method of recording books for my students. I used a slow pace so they could track the words, chunked phrases for meaning, and placed a short amount on one tape side to help their recall.

Using the tapes, my learning-disabled kids gained eight months in reading in only six weeks! They became different children. Where before they were nervous, fearful, and sometimes angry, they now were motivated, excited, happy about learning to read, and wanted to read to me. I was hooked! Shortly afterward, I began my doctoral work, conducted research on the methods, published and presented the research, and trained teachers in the methods.

EW: What do you think is the basis for Carbo Reading Styles Program's (CRSP)'s success?

Dr. Carbo: I think there are several major factors. First, while it is true that CRSP's design is based on strong research, the concepts we teach are also intuitively appealing to teachers. Teachers know that different students learn in different ways. They want to know how these differences impact their students' learning, and, in particular, which teaching strategies will help their at-risk readers most.

The first two days of CRSP training grounds teachers in the theory and research on brain behavior and learning styles, and introduces them to powerful reading strategies that are easy to teach and produce high reading gains quickly. The early success that most teachers have motivates them to put forth the work that change requires.

CRSP also provides schools with self-evaluation tools so that they can monitor their own progress, and we develop model schools that serve as lab schools and working models. Additionally, CRSP provides the materials teachers need to be successful, along with the technical assistance to ensure continued success.

EW: What types of schools (urban, rural, suburban) make up the majority of CRSP users?

Dr. Carbo: Since we provide seminars, a national conference, and a wide variety of on-site trainings, CRSP has all types of users, grades K-12.

EW: What is one of the key factors in helping children become confident, competent readers?

Dr. Carbo: Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate that, by fourth grade, only one third of U. S. students read at or above grade level. According to our research and work in schools, these statistics can be changed dramatically with the correct use of specially recorded, high-interest short stories and books in grades K-12. Children listen to the recording of a story, while following along in the text, usually two times. Then they read the story to a teacher, peer, or volunteer, and discuss it. The listener's energy must be accepting, interested, and helpful -- not critical. (There is solid research indicating that when children read to dogs, their reading ability increases. This is another indicator that non-critical acceptance is important.)

One of our trainers related this poignant story of a tenth grade gang member who attended her reading lab. After a few days of school, she noticed that he no longer had the smell of liquor on his breath. When asked, he told her that he was delaying his drinking until later in the day because he liked her class so much (an unusual indicator of success).

After the boy had spent days on the same story, listening to it while reading it over and over, he still refused to read it aloud to the trainer. Finally, after 14 listenings, the trainer encouraged him to read to her. As she sat with him at her desk, she had to tell him many times that he could do it. When this "tough" gang member began to read, tears streamed down his cheeks. At the end of the page, in a shaky voice he said, "I never read a page before. Can I finish the story?" And so he did, with eyes tearing the whole way through. That young man never needed 14 repetitions again, and he gained over two years in reading comprehension in only four months -- nearly as much as he had gained in 10 years of schooling.

So many at-risk readers, like this boy, are defensive and angry because they are afraid they will never learn to read. Constant failure builds thick walls. We have seen the walls crumble again and again, especially for older students, who invariably make the greatest gains of all. The recordings enable them to practice along with the recorded model, and then read aloud when they are ready. Fear subsides, fluency increases, and comprehension improves, almost immediately. Give kids the tools and the encouragement, and they can learn.

EW: You talk about first identifying students' reading styles. How can the Carbo Method be used in classes with students of varying abilities?

Dr. Carbo: First, teachers need to know the typical reading-style pattern of at-risk readers, and which strategies accommodate those patterns. At-risk readers tend to be global, tactile, and kinesthetic learners who respond well to group work, movement, choices, and structure.

The reading methods and strategies that work well are holistic approaches, such as recorded materials, assisted reading methods, hands-on games, drama, role playing, small-group work, and choices of high-interest reading materials.

Next, it's important to administer the Reading Style Inventory (RSI). The RSI is a questionnaire that produces student profiles containing information about the student's strengths and weaknesses, and recommends appropriate teaching methods and strategies. The RSI is available online at National Reading Styles Institute (NRSI).

Teachers conference individually with students so that they understand their own reading style and can accommodate it within the classroom and at home. Teachers also learn how to differentiate instruction with a variety of effective strategies.

EW:How does the program help older children after they learn to read?

Dr. Carbo: The NAEP research also indicates that reading motivation diminishes as students move up the grades, and voluntary reading diminishes. Knowing how to read is not enough. Students need to read to become good readers. CRSP strategies and materials motivate students to read voluntarily.

In one of our model schools, in Gilmer, Texas, library circulation increased from 8,263 to 52,394 books after two years of implementing CRSP. The program strongly emphasizes the use of high-interest reading materials and student choices, small-group work, dramatizations, reading in comfortable and relaxing environments, and accommodating students' interests. These strategies increase student motivation and enjoyment and keep kids reading. Our latest product is a series of comic-book versions of our science fiction chapter books -- all recorded for at-risk readers, of course.

This e-interview with Dr. Marie Carbo is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

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