The power of stories and
At the River 
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Welcome to At the River News
March 2017

Spring is here in North Carolina! I hope you're enjoying the season. This month, I'll share about a thought-provoking session I attended at TESOL 2017 last week in Seattle. It was "The Neuroscience of Stories: Why Our Brains Love Them", presented by Curtis Kelly. I'll also offer some suggestions on how to capitalize on the power of story with our students who use At the River.

The TESOL convention was wonderful. It was great to meet many of you at the PCI and at the Scaffolded Reading session. I'll offer Scaffolded Reading again at the NC State ESL Symposium in Raleigh, NC on May 20 at 2pm. Hope to see some of you there. 

Feel free to forward this newsletter. New subscribers: send me an email and I'll add you to the mailing list. Remember that you can unsubscribe anytime. You can find previous newsletters in the archives:

I've included photos. If you don't see them, click on "view this email in your browser." 

Your feedback is welcome. Happy spring! 

Shelley Hale Lee
Author, At the River and Other Stories for Adult Emergent Readers
Many thanks to Dorothy Zemach and Maggie Sokolik of Wayzgoose Press for a great time at TESOL 2017 in Seattle. I'm looking forward to TESOL 2018 in Chicago and 2019 in Atlanta. 
The Neuroscience of Stories:
Why Our Brains Love Them

presented by Curtis Kelly at TESOL 2017

Dr. Curtis Kelly is a professor in the Faculty of Commerce at Kansai University in Japan. We all know that stories are compelling for our students, and Kelly explained the science behind it. Widrich (2012) said that the content of a story, but also the format (rising action, climax, falling action) has a great impact on learning because that is how our brains are wired. Widrich says that "we think in narratives" (2012). Kelly also presented Paul Zak's research about neurotransmitters that are released when we get emotionally involved in a story: dopamine, for drive, deeper learning, and reward; cortisol, associated with focus and distress; and oxytocin, for bonding (2015). These neurotransmitters work together in our brains to help us connect with what we are hearing in the narrative. Here's an example about teaching vocabulary: Kelly cited studies by Bower & Clark (1969) and Higbee (1977) about teaching new words. Students were given word lists for memorization. Half were told to memorize the words any way they chose, and the other half were told to put the words into stories. Later, the group that wrote stories remembered from two to seven times as many words as the non-story group. Kelly challenged us to think about ways to present new information through stories so that our students will retain more of what we teach. Read a brief paper by Curtis Kelly, with citations to research sources, here:
Phonics, decontextualized

In 2010, I was experimenting with teaching phonics in a class for adult refugees from Bhutan, Burma, Congo, and Afghanistan. I had been using stories from At the River, but I thought I'd try it another way for comparison. I presented pictures and words with short i such as fish, six, big, pig, dig, swim. Many of my students were farmers in their native countries so I thought the focus on animals would be interesting for them. I presented these sentences: The fish can swim. The big fish can swim. Six big fish can swim. The pig is big. The pig can dig. The big pig can dig. Six big pigs can dig. My students could read and write the sentences during the lesson, and the task seemed easy for them. The next morning, I put the same sentences on the board and asked them to read. I was surprised at how little they recalled. I believe that, because the context was not particularly meaningful, the learning did not sink in. They went through the motions in class, but did not retain what they had learned.

Phonics in context
When I taught stories from At the River, engagement was higher and retention of phonics/reading skills was much better. Students like the simple context of Bob and Pam's family and Jim and Jan's family. They can identify with the family situations, and the stories keep them interested. Our students can relate to these simple stories, and as we talk about our families and theirs, they realize that we have a lot in common. We do many of the same daily activities such as cleaning, cooking, shopping, and working. We care for our children and we value our family connections. It's important for newcomers to know that Americans' daily lives are much like theirs, and these simple stories help to communicate that. For years, I've known that stories help students learn; it was exciting to learn from Dr. Kelly about the neuroscience behind it. 
Maximize the power of story with "The River," p. 84-85 of At the River.

Lesson goal: Through visuals, listening, and speaking, students will build comprehension of key words before they work on decoding the text. 
*Note: students are not looking at the story on p. 84 yet. 

1. Look at pictures, listen, and speak: Use visuals to teach key vocab words and to tell the story. Put pictures on the board of Jan, Jim, Bob, Pam, walk, sit, river, water, trees, fish, sun, happy. Read the story as you point to the pictures. Ss should listen, not repeat. Do this a second time; this time, ss repeat after you. Repeat as needed until ss are very comfortable saying the words. 
2. Word cards: Hold up word cards for the pictures. Guide them in decoding the words as needed. Go through the cards without referring to the pictures. 
3. Go through the word cards again. This time, ask ss to read the word and point to the picture on the board. 
4. Hand out the word cards; ss match them to the pictures. Go over all words/pictures. Mix up the cards and ask ss to match a second time. 
5. Listen to the story: Read the story out loud, pointing to the words this time while students listen. 
6. Help me read: Read each sentence, prompting students to read the words as you point to them. T: "A lot of..." ss: "trees" T: "are next to the..." ss: "river." T: "A lot of..." ss: "fish" T: "are in the..." T: "river." Continue with all sentences. 
7. Label the picture: Ss use the words on the board (sun, trees, water, fish, river) to label the picture on p. 85. Optional: ss draw Jan and Jim walking next to the river, Bob and Pam sitting under the trees. 
8. Look at the text: Now, students look at p. 84. Ss listen to you read again as they track with the text. Or, they may be ready to read the story in pairs or independently right away. Either way, the visuals and guided listening/speaking helped them comprehend and visualize the main ideas before encountering the written text. 

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