Early in my teaching career, I was baffled by the number of high school students who read text in large chunks clearly having no understanding of what they were reading. My students would read without paying any attention to the punctuation in sentences, paragraph breaks, or how texts were broken up into segments. And, as a secondary instructor with little training in reading instruction, I didn't know how to help them fix their problems with fluency.
A few years later, I earned my Reading Endorsement, which gave me some insight into the decoding and fluency problems my students were having. During my coursework, I tutored an ELL student who would enter high school in the fall. Our one-on-one sessions consisted of me listening to her read, identifying the problems in her reading and trying to figure out how to help her. Even with the training I was receiving and the vast amount of reading research I studied, I still didn't feel confident in the instruction I was giving this student. When our tutoring sessions ended, she entered high school still reading well below a 9th grade level, and I felt like there was still something missing in my reading instruction.
A few years after, a team of consultants earned a contract with my school district, and taught my colleagues and I about Phrase Breaking. I knew what Phrases were, but I'd never heard of Phrase Breaking before, at least not as it applied to reading. As these consultants trained us what to listen for, I began to understand how to better help my students by applying what they taught me.
What is Phrase Breaking anyway?
I begin my lesson on Phrase Breaking by using a text most of my students are familiar with, The Pledge of Allegiance. This gives them a little bit of background knowledge, which will help them connect the key points of my lesson to something they already know and have a lot of practice reading aloud.
I display The Pledge on my smartboard and remove all of the commas. I do I leave the period in place.
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands one Nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
Then, I ask the students to do a choral reading with me. What I'm listening for is where students are slowing down and where they are speeding up. I purposely try to make mistakes in my Phrasing so as not to remind them of how it goes.
After we've finished our choral reading, I ask for a student to read The Pledge solo. For those students listening, I ask them to pay attention to where the reader slows down and where the reader speeds up.
When the student has finished, I ask the class where they believe the reader slowed down. After each part, I place a slash, which looks like this:
I pledge allegiance / to the Flag / of the United States of America / and to the Republic / for which it stands / one Nation / under God / indivisible / with liberty and justice for all./
Then, I show them this text written a different way:
I pledge allegiance
to the Flag
of the United States of America
and to the Republic
for which it stands
with liberty and justice for all.
We then have a conversation about what they think a Phrase is. Their responses vary, but we all agree on the fact that a Phrase is a small group of words. I tweak this definition by adding:
A Phrase is usually...
- 3-6 words in length.
- begins with a small word.
- ends with a longer word.
- a small group of words about an idea.
Notice, I say usually here. Certainly there are some Phrases that are exceptions to this definition, and we will address why they might be a little bit different as students find them in the texts they're reading.
We then go back to The Pledge and look at it more carefully. We talk about how most of the Phrases in The Pledge follow the definition of a Phrase. I then point out that The Pledge is one sentence that consists of 31 words. Without breaking The Pledge in Phrases, it would be very difficult to read. I ask for a volunteer to read The Pledge as fast as he/she can without any Phrasing, which gets a good laugh and helps prove this point.
From here, we move into what good readers do when they use Phrase Breaking. This becomes our assessment criteria:
- Split sentences into smaller groups of words.
- Group words together by grammar.
- Put a little extra space between groups of words.
- Tuck the little words into the big words.
- Keep phrases shorter the harder the text is.
I ask students to copy this down in their reading journals and move into the next part of my lesson.
Problems with Phrasing
I share with my students that in listening to them read aloud, I not only listen for Speed and Accuracy, I listen for how they're grouping words together. Students who struggle with grouping words together often "sound" robotic and their reading seems monotonous. I identify problems with Phrasing in these ways:
- Reading word-by-word.
- Breaking phrases at odd boundaries.
- Reading so fast that your phrasing isn't audible.
Next, I'll read a sentence with each type of mistake. Currently, I'm reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone so I find a part I haven't read yet and read it word-by-word. It sounds like this:
"Transfiguration / is / some / of / the / most / complex / and / dangerous / magic / you / will / learn / at / Hogwarts," / she / said. / "Anyone / messing / around / in / my / class / will / leave / and / not / come / back. / You / have / been / warned" / (Rowling, 134).
You can imagine how long it took me to just type that, but think about how long it would take me to read that aloud to my students. Then consider that this book is 309 pages long! If I read word-by-word, it would seem impossible to finish. And, I imagine, I have students who read word-by-word who feel like this each time they read.
Then, I'll read the same passage and break it places that don't seem natural, which sounds like this:
"Transfiguration / is some of the most / complex and dangerous magic you will / learn at Hogwarts," / she said. Anyone / messing around in my / class will leave and not come / back. You have been warned." /
While this is slightly better than reading word-by-word, it still isn't quite right. Finally, I'll read the same passage as quickly as I can without taking a breath. When I finish, I'll dramatically take a big breath to show my students how difficult it is to read so quickly.
Before I try again, I reread the text to myself in a whisper and write in Phrase Breaks where they seem to "sound" right.
"Transfiguration / is some of the most complex / and dangerous magic / you will learn at Hogwarts,"/ she said. / Anyone messing around in my class / will leave and not come back. / You have been warned."/
To drive home the point about the typical length of Phrases, I then rewrite this text on the board with one Phrase per line like this:
is some of the most complex
and dangerous magic...
After I've done this, I reread the sentence aloud with my Phrase Breaks and ask students to pay close attention to how it "sounds". We talk about how Phrase Breaking helps us know when to slow down and when to speed up, which makes the English language sound "rhythmic", the way it's intended to be read.
As I've done with my two previous lessons in Speed and Accuracy, I ask students to find a sentence or a paragraph to practice Phrase Breaking with. I give them time to practice in their groups, where they evaluate each other using our Phrasing criteria. Then, I give them silent reading time during which I give my individual reading conferences making notes of those students who may need more practice with Phrase Breaking and those who have it figured out.
In using Phrase Breaking with my students, I find that, with practice, their fluency begins to improve. And, when they forget, all I have to do is say, "I pledge allegiance to the Flag..." and they know exactly what the problem is and how to fix it. Once I've taught them about monitoring their Speed, Accuracy, and Phrasing, we can move into monitoring their Comprehension, which is where good readers spend most of their time. In my next few posts, I'll talk about how I tackle the sometimes daunting, but not impossible task, of helping students adopt better ways to check their Understanding.
For more on Phrasing and What Is Good Reading, see READING ALLOWED: Making Sure the First “R” Comes First.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at firstname.lastname@example.org.