ERIC Identifier: ED459972
Publication Date: 2001-12-00
Author: Reyhner, Jon
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Teaching Reading to American Indian/Alaska Native Students.
This Digest summarizes ways to help young American Indian and Alaska Native
(AI/AN) children become fluent readers--an essential skill if they are to
succeed in school. The extent of the AI/AN reading problem is indicated by "The
Nation's Report Card: Fourth-Grade Reading 2000" (Donahue, Finnegan, Lutkus,
Allen, & Campbell, 2001), which found only 43 percent of American Indians
reading at or above a basic level versus 73 percent of White students.
Teachers looking for ways to help students improve their reading are faced
with conflicting advice from the experts. Some recommend emphasizing "phonics"
while others promote a "whole language" approach. Phonics advocates ground their
approach in behaviorist learning theory and support their claims about its
effectiveness by pointing to comparison studies; likewise, whole language
advocates ground their approach in constructivist learning theory and base their
claims on ethnographic classroom studies (Chall, 2000; McQuillan, 1998). In
between the phonics and whole language camps, and often criticized by both, are
advocates of a "balanced approach," drawing methodology from both sides.
Complicating the choice of instructional approach is the fact that AI/AN
children often speak different dialects of English or, in some cases, they come
to school speaking only their Native language. Speaking in an Indian English
dialect can limit the number of words children can decode using traditional
phonics approaches, which are designed for standard English speakers. Students
taught to decode words that are not in their oral vocabulary end up parroting
what they read without comprehension (St. Charles & Costantino, 2000).
While early reading experiences can depend on learning how letters in words
relate to sounds (phonemic awareness) and how to pronounce those sounds,
students who later continue to focus on these sounds become poor readers. At
around the third grade, "learning to read" shifts to developing competency in
"reading to learn." "The Nation's Report Card" cited earlier indicates that the
majority of AI/AN students may be having difficulty making that transition.
PACKAGED READING PROGRAMS
For over a century, the main way
to teach reading in the United States has been through the use of graded sets of
relatively easy-to-use reading textbooks called "basal readers." These textbooks
typically include literature anthologies with instructional activities.
Responding to the reading controversy and other market demands, basal publishers
in recent years have added more multicultural content, systematic phonics, and
popular and classic "authentic" children's literature.
Besides basal readers, there are other widely marketed "research-based
reading programs." One gaining popularity is "Success for All," described by its
proponents as especially appropriate for students from low socioeconomic
backgrounds. Recently, however, critics have marshaled evidence that casts doubt
on developers' claims (Pogrow, 2000). This is a fairly common phenomenon in the
reading debates. The same sorts of claims and counter-claims have been made
about other reading intervention programs.
It may be that any program that spends extra time and money on reading will
tend to have positive results. The downside can be that less time and money are
available for teaching other subjects. Also, promoters of new programs tend to
evaluate them with tests that focus on the particular skills their programs
teach, and students usually show good progress, especially early on. However,
results tend to be less positive on more general standardized achievement tests,
and, while students do better, they usually don't catch up with national
One of the major criticisms of basal readers and programs like "Success for
All" is that the reading material is chosen for a generic American audience with
few, if any, stories that relate to the diverse experiential and cultural
heritages of AI/AN children. Further, phonics programs tend to presume that the
students know and speak the sound system of standard English.
LANGUAGE EXPERIENCE APPROACH
An alternative method of
teaching beginning reading is the "language experience approach." In this
method, teachers write down the actual words students use on a chalk board or
piece of chart paper, often after the students have participated in some kind of
activity. These "stories" are then used to teach phonics, vocabulary, and
grammar. Using the language experience approach can ensure that the words the
students decode are in their oral vocabulary, often not the case with commercial
materials. Sylvia Ashton Warner, a pioneer of the language experience approach,
emphasized using words with deep personal meaning for her students. Using
students' names, familiar stories, community oral histories, word games, big
books, and predictable books to teach reading lessons can be more effective than
using materials found in many commercial reading programs (Reyhner & Cockrum, 2001).
WHOLE LANGUAGE APPROACH
Kasten (1992) has argued that "whole language philosophy is compatible with many common Native American
beliefs and with the way in which American Indian children are typically taught
and socialized in their home environment" (p. 108). Her conclusion is supported
by Oglala Sioux educator Sandra Fox who calls it the "Indian way" of teaching
(p. 118). However, Fox takes a balanced approach that includes an emphasis on
"reading strategy instruction on pronunciation, comprehension, [and] critical
thinking" (1992, p. 168).
McCarty (1993) describes how at Rough Rock Demonstration School, the first
Indian-controlled school in modern times, "basic skills routines produced Navajo
students with near-perfect English diction, but with little comprehension of
oral English or text" (p. 183). However, by using "contextualized reading
strategies and a cooperative learning center system" developed by the Hawaiian
Kamehameha Early Education Program (KEEP), "rich, bilingual print environments
have been constructed as classroom walls, school hallways, and ceilings display
students' research hypotheses and findings, their creative writing, and their
artistic work." This was done by "focusing classroom inquiry on interests and
themes generated by the students themselves" (p. 185).
In addition, teachers can help students understand academic content better if
they integrate different subject matter into thematic units that are connected
to the social and physical environments in which their students live (Deloria
& Wildcat, 2001).
HELPING TEACHERS TEACH
A key issue in any reading approach
is how structured it is. Teachers need some structure, but too much structure
limits their ability to adapt to the special needs of AI/AN students. Less
structured methods such as the "whole language" approach can put a heavy burden
on teachers to plan and organize, which can be overwhelming and can lead to
chaotic classrooms. Some whole language teachers rely on the instructional scope
and sequence in a basal teacher's guide to provide structure to their teaching.
In balanced approaches, teachers can use a specific basal or other reading
program thoughtfully and supplement it with activities and reading materials
related to the particular background, needs, and interests of their students.
Ideally, readers would be available that featured elements of Indian students'
culture and experiences. However, the practicalities of producing such a series
are complicated by the presence of hundreds of tribes in the United States,
which share some commonalties but are also very different from one another.
Consequently, the more practical course is to seek community and tribal sources
for reading materials to supplement commercial readers.
Cleary and Peacock (1998) report that some AI/AN students exhibit resistance
to reading and writing because of continual correction of their attempts by
teachers, comprehension problems resulting from English idioms and dialects, and
the decontextualized nature of much classroom instruction. Reading materials
should be chosen to develop students' AI/AN identities as well as introduce
students to the wider world. For AI/AN students, it is particularly important to
supplement any reading program with local stories they can relate to.
EMBRACING LITERACY AND MAINTAINING IDENTITY
experience with literacy helped produce a positive view of reading and education
among people of European descent. Further, reading is central to Christianity
because of the importance of Bible reading.
However, some Native Americans have negative attitudes towards literacy
because of this very association with European "conquerors," Christian
missionary efforts, and repressive Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding
schools of the past. Native people who share this view see literacy as taking
them away from their Indigenous oral culture and assimilating them into White
society. However, it is mistaken to identify literacy exclusively with Europeans
or Christians, as Mayans, Arabs, and Asians can point out.
If AI/AN students are to do well in school, their communities need to embrace
literacy in English. Hopefully, they will support literacy in their Native
language, as well. There is growing evidence that using curriculum materials
written in students' Native language produces improved reading skills, in some
cases in both the Native language and English (Markowitz & Haley, 1973), and
improved attitudes toward school (Franks, 1988; Rudin, 1989; Radda, Iwamoto,
& Patrick, 1998; Demmert, 2002).
The 2000 National Report Card on Reading indicated that fourth graders who
watched less television, read more for fun, had more reading material in their
homes, and talked more about reading with family and friends were better readers
(Donahue et al., 2001). The best way for students to expand their vocabularies
is by extensive reading. Efforts, such as "sustained silent reading," that
promote free voluntary reading in school give students the practice they need to
become fluent readers with large vocabularies (Pilgreen, 2000). Unfortunately,
those students who read less outside of school usually also read less in school
and get fewer chances to visit libraries than do better readers (McQuillan,
Fox (2000) asserts that "reading to children is the single most important
activity that parents can provide to help their children succeed in school" (p.
3). For teachers, she makes the following recommendations:
Use reading materials that relate to children's lives, to help them understand
that literature is experience written down and that it is interesting to read.
Strengthen and expand children's language abilities by providing them many
opportunities to have new experiences, to learn new words, and to practice oral
language in English and in their Native language (p. 1).
Finally, it is important to note that traditional AI/AN stories contain
sophisticated vocabulary and can be used to teach reading to students who come
to school speaking their Native language. Stories can be read in English, as
well. Students who learn to read in their Native language can transfer those
skills to learning to read in English (Francis & Reyhner, in press).
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