Saturday, June 30, 2007

Feeling Dumb

or, How Video Games Helped Me Understand My Students' Frustration With Reading.

For my birthday, my husband got me (or, well, encouraged me to select and purchase) a nice dance pad. We downloaded a free version of Dance Dance Revolution called StepMania. At first, it was awful. I had to hunt through the playlist to find the easiest possible song, and set it to the easiest level, before I could even pass. It took me days to be able to do so confidently. Fortunately, my husband is pretty smart. After ONE instance of sitting behind me and "coaching" me ("left, left, right, left, up, down, down"), he quickly realized I didn't like it too much.

A little over a year later, I have completely eclipsed him! HA. There were several hurdles involved - getting acclimated to the footpad's buttons, figuring out what the different color variations meant (different syncopations), and learning to time the holds (which always stay the same color, even when they're not on-beat). Regular practice allowed me to begin to see and respond to pattern sequences, rather than individual arrows.

It strikes me that this is similar to learning to read. Gaining familiarity with the pad was kind of like phonics - the left arrow meant step left, the up arrow meant step forward, and so on. After that, I could take it an arrow at a time, like an early reader goes word-by-word. Recognizing sequences instead of each arrow is like learning to read sentences as unified chunks of meaning rather than a string of words. That takes practice, more than anything. Once I was confident in my fluency, I could tackle songs with more difficult sequences and combinations, like reading works written in another time period, or with a higher vocabulary or deeper symbolism and imagery.

Two things really stuck out for me. First, recognizing sequences came before mastering combinations or syncopation, and it makes me wonder if fluency must come before effective use of higher vocabulary. It seems to make sense in my mind - if students are struggling with every single word, they're not going to absorb a new word when it comes along - even looking it up won't ultimately help if they don't understand its context. However, a student who otherwise understands the sentence can pause, look up the word, or maybe even figure it out from context.

Second, we were first introduced to the game almost a year before I got the dance pad. We were visiting some friends, and they had a pair of dance pads and encouraged us to try one of the easier songs. I was a little nervous, because I almost never played video games - but I figured that you didn't play most games with your feet, so being unfamiliar with the controls wouldn't embarrass me too much. There were probably lots of people who were a bit clumsy.

It was awful. I was awful. I was constantly having to look down at the pad to figure out how far left or right I needed to step, or where the back button even WAS. And of course, by the time I looked back up at the screen, even if it was only a split-second later, I'd completely lost my place.

Thinking back on that, I really empathize with my reluctant readers. I remember thinking, My Man can do this, and he's never tried it before either. Why can't I get it? I felt stupid. And then I'd chide myself: I'm not stupid. I'm just stupid at this. And that led to: THIS is stupid.

But most importantly, when our friends encouraged us to try again, I politely but firmly declined. However, as you may deduce - I really did want to play! I just didn't want to STINK! *laugh* I think that's where a lot of my struggling readers are - secretly, they want to be good readers. They don't want to feel stupid, ESPECIALLY in front of others. And, admittedly, they aren't too keen on doing the work it takes to develop fluency. (It was kind of annoying for me, too, having to practice with the ONE very easy song until I was good enough to move on.)But ultimately, they really do want to be able to enjoy a good book.

I don't know if this is something I'll spend time sharing with my students or not. For right now, it's just something to think about.


Dana Huff said...

I actually think this is a really interesting observation, and I think the students might find it interesting, too.

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