Case Study

Introduction

As mentioned elsewhere on my blog, my name is Cassandra, and I am a post-BA student at Concordia University, Ann Arbor. This case study is an assignment for the class EDU344: Teaching Struggling Readers and Writers in the Elementary Classroom—a requirement for all teacher-candidates in the elementary program. My case study focuses on one particular kindergartener whom I will refer to in the following paragraphs as “Luc.” Luc is an English Language Learner (ELL), who struggles mostly with the use of English vowels. It consists of notes from twenty hours of observation in the classroom, as well as data collected from my own mini-unit that I conducted with this student. I used Thomas Gunning’s textbook Assessing and Correcting: Reading and Writing Difficulties (see appendix A at the end of this web page), as a reference point for many of my observations and for my lessons. I also located valuable information on various reputable websites, such as SEDL.org (see appendix B), which is a non-profit educational research organization based in Austin, Texas. Everything I practiced with Luc was backed by educational curricula.

 

Background on School

For my fieldwork for this course, I was assigned to St. Paul Lutheran School, a parochial Preschool-8th grade institution in Ann Arbor, MI (see appendix c). The school is part of the mission of the parish of St. Paul, a congregation that currently holds services both in its downtown location and at the school building. While the school is private, the administration is currently in the process of aligning the school’s curriculum with the Common Core Standards, which would seem to indicate that the school is receiving money from the government in some form. The school houses a diverse range of students from different cultural and national backgrounds, including a growing Asian population. As is the case with most Lutheran schools, the children learn about the Gospel and the Lutheran doctrine along with learning the fundamentals of education (i.e. reading, writing, arithmetic).

 

 Background on Class and Classroom

I was placed in the all-day kindergarten class with Mrs. Novak, a veteran teacher of twenty-seven years. The class is made up of eighteen students of various ages, ethnicities, and learning abilities. The oldest child is almost seven years old and is repeating kindergarten for the second time.

The class atmosphere is very literature-rich. There are bulletin boards and posters over three walls of the classroom, including some posters at eye level with the children, which is very effective. The one wall has a whiteboard that is used for both writing and for projecting images. On the wall to the left of the whiteboard is a bulletin board with the alphabet on it. Beside each letter is a colorful puppet that represents the letter. These puppets are a fun tactile tool used to introduce each new letter to the children. The first ten numbers are posted above the letters.

On the wall by the teacher’s work station, there are several ceiling high bookshelves with hundreds of books on it. This is the teacher’s own personal archive where she goes to retrieve the material for the day. At student level on lower shelves are the books the children read on their own. There is also a reading center, where the teacher sits in a chair and reads either Big Books or picture books to the children, who are seated on the floor around her.

It just so happened that the time I was available to meet with her ran during the Language Arts portion of the day. I saw a lot of good teaching and shared reading instruction while I was observing. Mrs. Novak is very adept at combining the tenants of reading, including phonics, comprehension, decoding, and print concepts with authentic literature.

Despite the fact that my students are kindergarteners, this class has produced ample information for my case study and mini-unit. In my day and age, we didn’t learn to read until the first-grade, since we didn’t have much time for reading instruction during our half-day kindergarten class. But because the kindergarteners at St. Paul are in school all day long, they have more time to develop their reading skills. From my observations and talking to my cooperating teacher, it would appear most of the students are already at Pre-primer, if not Primer level. After several hours of observation as well as discussion with my cooperating teacher, I honed in on several students who are behind the others.

 

Interviews and Questionnaires

I decided to interview the three students who had the most challenges with reading. I had 10 questions that I had written up, (see appendix D), which I asked each of the students. I also added the questions, “Does your family read?” And “What do they read?” I had to use smaller words for most of the questions because some of the phrases were too confusing for the three students. Before the interview process I was uncertain which of the three boys would be my case study. But after the interview, Luc quickly found his way into my heart. The following paragraphs are his answers to the questionnaire.

When I asked Luc what his favorite subject at school was, he said “playing with my friends.” He loves video games, especially those based off of movies and during our interview, he spoke enthusiastically about them. When I asked him why we read, he listed very methodical reasons: so we can learn new words and how to spell and so we can become smarter. He hasn’t grasped yet that reading is a useful medium to learn new knowledge and develop new ideas. Despite missing this connection, he still finds reading fun some of the time but also hard and challenging. He doesn’t find reading boring or a chore.

The types of books he enjoys best are those based on comic book characters and television cartoons, like Spiderman. Of course, at school he doesn’t get to read those books often, but Luc seems okay with this. He is not too fond of dry textbooks or “spooky” books.

Despite the fact that he is getting better at reading picture books on his own, Luc still prefers to at least have help from a teacher or parent when he stumbles upon words, or better yet, to be read to. This is understandable, given his struggles with reading. He admitted to me that he got words “mixed up” a lot.

After this interviewing process, I felt determined to help Luc overcome his trepidation and get to the bottom of his struggles.

 

Background on Student

Luc is an English language learner. One of his parents is Chinese, while the other is French, and they make the boy read and speak these two languages at home instead of English. While I admire the parents’ tenacity to keep their son well-versed in their native tongues, the boy is now struggling to understand English as a result. Luc does witness his parents reading at home and is read to by his parents, but not in English. If his parents don’t make an effort to read or speak English to the boy, they are basically sending a message that it’s not that important. Given how the primary language of American schools is English (not to mention it is still the lingua franca of the world), it is imperative he knows how to read and write in English.

Luc shows a propensity to play with his friends at school and on his computer and X-Box at home. He will talk incessantly of video games if you let him. Like most five year-old boys, he has a mischievous side which tends to get him into trouble with the teacher, especially when he becomes super hyper and fidgety in the classroom. When the teacher asks for volunteers to answer a question, he does not raise his hand. He will only answer if called upon. Occasionally I would catch him staring off into space or talking to his neighbor instead of paying attention to the teacher. I am not sure if this is related to any cognitive or physiological impairment or whether this is simply Luc behaving like a five-year-old boy. At this point he has not been tested for any learning disability, and his parents refuse to get him extra assistance for his English learning.

In the class, more than half of the students can tie their shoes on their own, but Luc is in the portion of the class that cannot. I don’t know if this is an indication of slower developing motor skills, which could also be linked to a mental deficiency of some kind, or if it is simply indicative of the fact that Luc is an unflappable boy who doesn’t care if he trips over his untied shoelaces all the time.

 

Student’s Challenges

Luc explained to me that reading made him feel like he was going around in circles or that the “room was tipping.” This dizziness sounds like a symptom of anxiety. Upon this declaration, my heart immediately went out to him. I had similar feelings about math when I was a kid. He could be suffering from a vicious cycle of self-defeatism. If he works himself into a panic whenever he is reading, he could be missing easy words not because he doesn’t know them, but because he is so nervous. And then the simple mistakes he makes just prove to him that he is “bad” at reading.

While I am not sure whether this boy suffers from self-defeatism, I do know he is still trying to learn the English language for the first time. He is very proficient in listening and talking in English, with only minor mix ups, but he still has trouble with reading and writing. I noticed he especially struggles with his vowels. While he can read words with the CVC pattern—that is, consonant, vowel, consonant—he gets confused when we add a finale e marker to a word, when the vowel is preceded or proceeded by an r, or when the word has a vowel diagraph—two letters sitting next to each that create a distinct vowel sound. Because of this boy’s struggles, I decided to focus on vowel sounds for my mini-unit.

 

Miscue Analysis/Running Record

For my miscue analysis/IRI on Luc, I used copied pages from the book Qualitative Reading Inventory, 5th edition by Pearson. First I asked him to read the words from the Pre-Primer 1 list, which included a bunch of sight words that the kindergarteners had previously learned. Luc did really well on reading this list automatically, missing just two words (can and was) and being able to self-correct the word can on his own. This put him at Independent level for this list. Then we moved on to Pre-Primer 2/3, which also include a lot of sight words but more complicated ones. Luc did not do so well on this list. He missed nine out of twenty words and was only able to self-correct one of those: the word some. I noticed that he struggled with words that had a final silent e on them, as well as words that featured the letter r either before or after a vowel.

Next we moved on to Pre-Primer 1 level stories, the first called “I Can.” First I asked the concept questions to get a look at his background knowledge. The questions were basic, like “what does it mean to jump, hop, sleep, and dream? Luc couldn’t offer precise definition for any of the questions, and for the jump question he used the word in his definition. His comprehension was about 50%. He predicted that the story would be about hopping and skipping, even though skipping wasn’t one of the words.

For some reason, I had not copied the first page of the story, which said, “I can jump. See me jump.” So we started with the second page. Luc did well on the story. He misread can again, but he self-corrected. He also misread lunch and self-corrected and inverted two words, but also corrected them. This meant that the story was at his instructional level, which is good. For the retelling portion, he remembered 5 out of 10 points, so his comprehension/memory was at 50%. Despite not remembering key points, he did make some inferences based on the pictures. For the comprehension questions, he missed the last one. I asked him what the boy can do while he is sleeping, and Luc said the exact opposite of what a person does when he is asleep. He said the boy was awake and reading books, which was very puzzling to me. Perhaps he did not understand my English.

I also would have been surprised by the lack of comprehension, except that Mrs. Novak had told me in a previous week that the majority of the students are still working on developing their comprehension skills.

Because he was at instructional level, I decided to have Luc read another story at the Pre-Primer 1 level. This story was called, “I See.” The concept questions were “what is a frog, what is a bug, and what is a pig? Luc was able to give 2-point answers, listing characteristics of each of the animals. He was also able to predict that the story would be about a frog and a pig. His prior knowledge was higher for this story, at 67%.

During the reading, he misread ant as nut, but he corrected himself. He also switched the order of two words, though he self-corrected. And he misread doing as logging. Doing was one of the words he had gotten wrong on the word list as well. Because there were fewer words in this story and he had one more miscue than the previous story, his level was at frustrational this time.

Interestingly enough, his memory for this story was way more accurate. He got 10 out of 10 ideas right in the retelling. He got all of the questions correct, too, including understanding some implicit ideas. He also figured out that the story rhymed even though this was not part of the assessment and I didn’t prompt him at all. He pointed out each of the rhyming words for me, and I praised him for figuring that out.

The only explanation I can think of for why his decoding and comprehension skills did not match up is his lack of understanding of the English language. Maybe both his reading and his listening skills can be affected by his language barrier.

 

Mini-Lessons

We started the first lesson by playing the Say, Move it game, where a student moves tokens below the designated line for every sound in a word. I started with easy CVC words, such as “cat, dog, hat,” etc. before moving on to more complicated words like “boat, tail, book, rain,” etc. I was doing this to assess whether Luc understood phonemes and graphemes or not.

After the exercise, I explained how some words have more letters than sounds. I showed the word rain as an example. There are three sounds, but four letters, because there is an extra vowel in the word. I demonstrated this for him, using little print-out blocks that had the letters of the alphabet on them, and spelled a few words that had more letters than corresponding sounds. I then showed Luc how to change the word by exchanging or adding letters. For instance, rain became train, train became trail, trail became tail, and tail became pail. As I switched out letters, I explained how the vowel sounds also change depending on the word. Rain is a long /a/ sound, while pail is closer to a short /a/ with a hint of a short /i/ sound.

We then worked together on other word building lists (see appendix E for lists). I explained about the different sounds the vowels make, depending on the word.

During this exercise, I would periodically pause and ask the student to find a letter to add to the beginning or the end of the word to change it. For example, during the first list, after changing the word to same, I asked Luc to grab a letter and change the word. He selected g, to create game. By the end of the exercise, Luc made five words of his own.

After we went through these word lists, I had him play the Say it, Move it game again, this time sounding out words like book and then counting out the letters. He saw that these specific words had a difference in letters and sounds, thanks to the vowel diagraphs in each of the selected words.

My second mini-lesson was on building “word trains.” First, I used flashcards that looked like train cars to see if Luc had any knowledge of vowels with a final e, vowels preceded or proceeded by an r, and vowel diagraphs. I made a mark on a sheet for each word he struggled with and also gave him tips on how he might sound them out.

After he read each word, Luc organized these “train cars” behind a cut-out train engine according to their vowel patterns. Each word group made a “word train.” These word groups came be found in appendix F.

Of the words, Luc missed or struggled with need, dear, under, river, storm, herd, corn, fame and paper. Some of them I expected, since they were multi-syllabic words, and the kindergarteners for the most part have only been learning one-syllable words. We talked about ways to recall proper decoding, such as remembering the “silent e” on fame. Luc told me his mother had been working on the “silent e” as well, which pleased me to know they were doing some English education at home. He seemed to really enjoy the lesson, despite the fact that I was drilling him quite extensively.

 

Final Assessment

The final assessment consisted of both a reading and a writing exercise to determine whether the student had improved his ability to read and understand vowels. First I had him reread the words he had missed last time we played the “word train” game: need, dear, under, river, storm, herd, corn, fame and paper. I also included other words he had gotten right last time. Like the previous time, he had to put these words into train groups by vowel. He missed storm, herd, corn and fame again. The “or” sound seems to be a major issue for him. He also really struggled with fame, which was odd because he read all of the other a words with a final e perfectly fine. I even told him to rhyme fame with came or same, but he couldn’t process it. We talked about the silent or “magic” e and that it turned the a into a long /a/ sound.  But despite this hints, Luc still could not pronounce the word. Eventually I sounded out the whole word for him.

The freezing on the word fame is very puzzling, and I am not sure what to make of it. I know his mother has been working on the “silent e” with him, and I also know that words like same and came are sight words for the class. So perhaps, he memorized some a words with final e by sight, and he has not mastered how to decode any unfamiliar words with this vowel structure.

After we finished our word trains, I had Luc read The Foot Book by Dr. Seuss. This particular text features quite a few of the vowels correspondences that Luc is struggling with, including vowels with a final e, vowels preceded or proceeded by an r, and vowel diagraphs. There were 131 words altogether, and he read 118 words correctly, including self-correcting most of the words he initially read wrong. His reading for this book was at independent level.

Some of his reading errors were due to thoughtlessness and rushing. For instance, he would see the word “foot,” but instead of closely looking at the middle vowels, he would just read it as “feet,” or vice versa. Also, later in the book he read “left” instead of “feet.” He had seen the e, f and t of the word “feet” and because the book had just used the word “left” he read the current words as “left” as well. I had him stop and reread this portion because he had made the same mistake several times in a row. I told him to really closely examine each word as he read and to slow down.

The final activity I had concocted was to have Luc play a word ladder game. In this activity, the student starts with one word at the top of the “ladder,” and he has to trade one letter in to create a new word on the rung below. For example, the “r” in read is traded in for a “b” to create bead. The “d” in bead is traded in to make beat, etc. This assessment is used to determine whether the student understands that spellings of vowels and consonants must change in order to create new sounds. Unfortunately, while Luc understood the concept of the game, he could not change any of the letters to form new words on his own. So I ended up just walking him through the whole process. I think part of his confusion was that he still hasn’t grasped that vowel combinations can make different sounds. For instance, Read can be read with a long /e/ as in feed, or with a short /e/ sound, as in bed.

 

Conclusion and Recommendation

While I feel I have seen improvement in Luc’s understanding of vowels, I have only scratched the surface of his challenge. The real challenge lies in inconstancy of the English language, which is still baffling for Luc. In many cases, he doesn’t know whether he is reading an English word correctly or not, because he has never heard the word before. At least for the majority of the other kindergarten students they have heard the word before and have schemata connected to each word. Luc is still building his schema of English words.

If real improvement is to be met, the teacher or a reading tutor should continue working with Luc in his problem areas. So far they haven’t been able to focus very much on his individual struggles because the parents have not agreed to any extra tutelage. They seem to not see his challenges as an issue. Perhaps the parents feel that as an ELL immersed in English, he will just naturally assimilate to the language and doesn’t require extra assistance? Whatever their rationalization, I hope that in the future, reading and writing do become easier for Luc, as opposed to harder. He’s a sweet boy, but I can already sense some resistance to learning, which could very well stem from feeling lost during the lessons.

 

Appendices

  1. Thomas G. Gunning, Assessing and Correcting: Reading and Writing Difficulties, rev. ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2010).
  2. SEDL: Advancing Research Improving Education. SEDL, 2013. Web. 07 May 2013. <www.sedl.org>
  3. The congregation of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Ann Arbor, was formally organized on January 20, 1908. A school building was opened in the fall of 1963, with additions completed in the fall of 1999. For more information, see their website.
  4. See Fieldwork Reflection #2 for list of questions.
  5. See Fieldwork Reflection #3 for lists of words.
  6. See Fieldwork Reflection #4 for list of words.
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