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Reader writes by Brian McNeece: Reading program works magic

December 28, 2001

Another semester has come to a close at Imperial Valley College.

My advanced students in composition have argued for counseling before marriage,

eye protection on motorcycles and women in fighter jets. They know their way around an argument.

My creative writing students have written about love, hate, betrayal, tragedy and what evil lurks in the hearts of men (and jilted women).

Both those groups comprise my students who are ready to transfer to a four-year university. They can whip out an eight-page paper discussing the comparative merits of traditional versus holistic medicine. They can write a 30-page "short" story and bring a handful of characters to life with words on paper. They can write.

And as all teachers know — if they can write, they can read.

But I also have another group of students. We call these students "developmental" students. I teach them reading. Most of these students are immigrants from Latin America. They've been in the U.S. two years, five years, eight years. What they do have in common is they don't read English as well as college students should.


I can relate to these students. Although I speak Spanish fluently, until recently I had never read a book in Spanish. Sure, I'd read a few articles in newspapers and had been required to read some short stories in a Spanish class, but never a whole book.

I realized this when I learned about a reading program that my own three boys were using called Accelerated Reader at Desert Garden Elementary School, Wilson Junior High and Southwest High School. Seeing how well it worked for my own

kids, I decided to give it a try at Imperial Valley College.

Its application to a wide range of ability levels seemed ideal for my developmental students who, like me in Spanish, had never read a book in English. IVC's library supported my Accelerated Reader project by buying books that these struggling readers could get through. Like me in Spanish, they needed books that they could navigate without having to stop to look up too many words. So we bought books with adult themes written in simpler language.

In the Accelerated Reader program, students choose books at their tested level of ability. They read the book on their own and then take a short computerized test about the book. If they pass the test, they accumulate points toward their goal. Good readers choose complex books and achieve their point goal by reading two or three books.

My poorer readers chose small, simple books, but they

achieved their point goal by reading 10 to 15 of them. Many get hooked on the power in the words.

An interesting experiment explains some of the magic that these developmental students are just discovering. Investigators asked adults to read the novel "A Clockwork Orange."

This sci-fi novel is peculiar in that author Anthony Burgess invented a language of 241 words. The book normally includes a dictionary in the back for the invented words. But the experimenters had torn it off, and the subjects read the book without the dictionary.

A few days later, the researchers sprang a surprise on the subjects. They tested them on the invented words. In spite of not having the dictionary, and not being told that they were going to be tested on 90 words

from the book, subjects scored from 50 to 96 percent, with the average score 76 percent. Readers picked up at least 45 words just by reading a book.

To give myself a dose of my own medicine, while my students read their books in English, I read in Spanish. At first I was tempted to go to the dictionary, but I resisted, and in a few pages, I was pulled into the tale of El Alquimista, so much that I eagerly anticipated those 15 minutes per class

when I could give myself the pleasure of the story.

It's the end of the semester. Alma Rosa beams at me as she leaves the computer terminal. She's just finished two more books, and she's hooked on

the magic of reading.

As for me, I'm on page 515 of "El Corazón de Piedra Verde," a novel in Spanish. The noble Spaniard Alonso Manrique is about to meet the woman of his dreams: the good and beautiful Aztec princess Xuchitl. I can't wait to see how Hernán Cortez is woven into their romance.

Imperial Valley College is one of the first community colleges to make use of the Accelerated Reader program. It's a simple, effective way to invite poor readers into the magic of reading. My prepared students have been given the gift of reading at an early age. We're trying to give that same gift to those who have come late to the banquet table of knowledge.

>> Brian McNeece is an El Centro resident who teaches English at IVC.

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