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To Improve Comprehension, a School Tries Slowing Down

Tuesday, August 28, 2012 - 09:06 AM

During a math class this past spring at the High School for Language and Innovation in the Bronx, three ninth graders taking algebra were given a problem to solve by their teacher. But before they could put their pencils to paper, they had to read the instructions aloud, in unison.

"One, two, three," their group leader announced, "The sum of three consecu-"

The students only got as far as the fifth word: consecutive. They couldn't pronounce it, so Mahmudal Alam, their leader, forced them to stop.

"What does consecutive mean?" he asked. The students looked up the word in their dictionaries, and discussed how consecutive meant "in order" and "falling continuously." They returned to the math problem and continued reading in unison until they got to another word they didn't know: integer.

The students spend 15 minutes of every class reading something in unison, whether it's math, science or history. Most of the students at this school are newcomers to the United States who are still learning English. But the program they're using, which is called Unison Reading, isn't just for English Language Learners.

Instead, Unison Reading is supposed to help all students improve their comprehension and writing skills by forcing them to slow down, a rarity in today's high-speed connected world.

"What Unison Reading does is it emphasizes the process of careful reading," said its author Cynthia McCallister, an associate professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

"It gives kids an opportunity to really experience what it feels like to fully understand a passage," she explained. "All the strategies that are required to understand words in a fuller context. And how to use one another to reason through what words mean and what texts mean."

When students have to stop and explain a word to each other, she said, they're more likely to retain what they've learned.

Ms. McCallister is a former classroom teacher who developed Unison Reading after coaching in schools. Her program has been adopted by a few of the city's high schools and middle schools and it's beginning to show signs of promise. The program was used for four years at P.S. 126 Jacob August Riis, and school moved from a C to an A on its progress report. A few new schools are now using the program and an Urban Assembly Unison school for grades 6-8 will open in Brooklyn this fall.

During the 15-minute Unison Reading periods, students work together in groups of no more than five. There are no divisions according to ability. Struggling students are paired with those performing on or above grade level. Students choose the text they'll read together. The classrooms are stocked with magazines to provide lots of options.

At the High School for Language and Innovation, which opened last September, principal Julie Nariman said it took teachers and students a little while to learn how to slow down. But by the spring, she said they were used to the routine. In a reading class, one group of students chose a chapter from a geology book about plate motion for their Unison Reading period. They said they wanted to squeeze in extra science work. As they read the passage, Euri Cerda tried to explain the word "current" to the girl and boy sitting at his table. He showed them a picture with arrows over oceans. "These are cool currents and warm currents," he told them.

Bridget Obeng Boateng, of Ghana, said enjoyed learning this way. "I wasn't getting it and I felt like I would never get it," she said. "I had to calm down and let him explain it to me."

But in the math class, some students weren't as happy to lean on each other. Nicole Ventura, who was sitting with Mahmudal Alam, said she prefers having a teacher help her with problems instead of other students.

The school's principal, Ms. Nariman, said classroom teachers rotate among the students during their 15-minute unison groups. But this daily exercise in every class sets the tone for the school. "I knew I wanted a school where students took responsibility for their own learning," she said, explaining that this responsibility is a skill they'll need in college.

An intense focus on reading comprehension might make sense for a school with so many English language learners. It's easy to imagine teenagers at other high schools and middle schools feeling like they're back in elementary school if they have to read aloud to each other. But Ms. McCallister said that hasn't been a problem at the schools that have tried her program.

Unison is one of several activities in a curriculum Ms. McCallister calls Learning Cultures, which aim to foster a greater sense of community. She says it gives every student a chance to shine.

"People in high ability groups carry this inflated sense of smartness," she explained. But when the high achievers have to help those students who aren't as comfortable in school, she said, they often realize those students have other strengths. "That usually outshines what people who are bookish bring to the table. The playing field is totally evened."

She said the struggling students also wind up feeling like they've got something to contribute because they each take turns leading the groups and picking what they want to read for the 15-minute periods. "People feel proud of themselves," she said, "not marginalized."

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