Using The Pledge of Allegiance to Improve Reading Fluency
Every few years, it seems we experience a minor controversy in education around The Pledge of Allegiance. Should kids have to say it? Should it include the words “under God”? And so on. What do I think about this? I think The Pledge of Allegiance is one of the best tools we have in America for teaching kids how to read.
One of the most important skills we can help readers develop is fluency. Reading fluency is the ability to decode words automatically, to maintain a steady reading rate, and to read with expression. It’s the strongest predictor of comprehension and the quality we’re most aware of—whether it’s present or not—when kids read out loud.
When we first learn to read, we’re not very fluent. We speed up and slow down, stumbling over tough words in almost every sentence, sometimes reading in an irregular, halting word-by-word fashion. As reading teachers, we want to help kids smooth things out. And this is where The Pledge of Allegiance comes in.
I start by writing out the Pledge on the board in one long sentence:
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 we say it together. Kids know it by heart, including—and this is the key—where to pause between phrases. So after we’ve said it a couple of times, and we’re all sure where those pauses go, I put in phrase markings 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.
This is where things start to get interesting. Most kids have never given a second thought to how they say the Pledge. They just follow along each morning. The interesting things is that the Pledge is said with exactly the same phrase patterns everywhere. I’ve done this lesson with kids all over the United States and it always works the same way. There must be a reason for this. And that’s what we’re about to find out.
“How do we all know where to pause?” I ask the class. “The Pledge of Allegiance is one big long sentence. Why don’t we just read through all the way to the period at the end?”
After a few seconds of silence, a kid might say, “We just do”, or “Because we say it every day.” So I attempt to clarify: “If you didn’t say it every day, how would you know?” After a few more seconds, a kid will say something like, “Because of the commas.” Now we’re getting somewhere.
Now that kids are looking at the structure of the sentence, I can point something out to them that they’ve probably never considered. Pointing back to the sentence with the phrase marks in it, I say: “I count seven places pauses, but only three commas. So there must be another rule we use to decide where to pause.”
At this point, the kids are confused but also curious. What we’ve stumbled onto is the concept of phrasing, a universal aspect of reading and the key to helping kids fluent readers. Contrary to how every child in America has been taught, we don’t just pause at periods and commas, we pause at the end of every phrase. This is true no matter what we read. We also do it when we talk (though in casual speech, the pauses are very slight).
Now I write out the Pledge with the lines broken at the end of each phrase:
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.
I call this “phrase breaking”. Then I pick up a book and begin to read so I can demonstrate that readers phrase break all the time in everything they read. I also show them how my reading sounds when I don’t break phrases (too fast), when I read one word at a time without grouping words into phrases (too slow), and when I break phrases in the wrong places (awkward and difficult to understand).
Having demonstrated what phrasing is and why it’s so important, we go back to the Pledge to figure out the next big thing. “How do we know where the phrase breaks go?” I ask.
We start by looking at the length of a phrase. Most of the phrases in the Pledge are between three and six words long. If we take a look at other texts, we’ll see this is a pretty good generalization. Occasionally, we might see a two-word phrase, and in the Pledge there’s even what looks like a one-word phrase. In other texts, we might even find the occasional seven- or eight-word phrase. But this is not the norm. So we write this down:
- In general, phrases are three to six words long.
Now we look at how phrases begin and end. The first words of the first five phrases of the Pledge display an obvious pattern:
The pattern is even easier to see when we contrast them with the last words in each phrase:
From this we can make another generalization:
- In general, phrases start with little words and end with big words.
With older kids, I can bring in some grammar. The “little” words are called “function” words and the “big” words are called “content” words. Function words don’t mean anything. They merely show how content words function in a sentence. Function words help us figure out how content words relate to each other and what part of speech they are. Content words hold the meaning of the sentence; function words help to clarify that meaning.
The last thing we have to figure out is how phrases feel when we read them. To do this, we need to understand how accent patterns work in words and syllables. Earlier in the lesson, I read examples for the kids with poor phrasing: one example that was too fast, one that was too slow, and one in which I broke the phrases in the wrong places. In the “too slow” example, I read word-by-word like... most.. readers... do... when... they’re... first... starting... out. Some kids even put their finger on each word as it goes by.
In word-by-word reading, each word is read at the same speed and with the same amount of stress. Actually, every word is accented: LIKE... MOST... READERS... DO... WHEN..., etc. But our language doesn’t work that way. The basic rhythm of English is based on patterns of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables:
i PLEDGE al-LE-giance TO the FLAG
There are also variations on this pattern:
OF the u-NI-ted STATES of a-MER-i-ca
But we almost never encounter situations where several consecutive syllables are stressed. That would sound like shouting. Or like a young reader putting his finger on each word as he read it.
This discussion may be too technical for some kids but I go through it anyway because I know I can wrap it up with one thing everyone can understand: Just like they all knew how to phrase the Pledge without knowing what a phrase was, they all know how to read with the right rhythm because it’s the same rhythm they use when they talk. All we’re trying to do with this entire lesson is help them bring the fluency of the way they speak to the way they read.
To help them understand this in a more practical way, we make one more generalization:
- In general, tuck the little words into the big words.
The “little” words, or any part of a word that is unaccented, are read a little quicker and with a little less volume than the “big” words, or any part of a word that is accented. This is the last piece of the fluency puzzle we’re trying to solve.
Now that we understand phrasing, and how it helps us read more fluently, we can begin to practice it with everything we read. We do this first with choral reading where I can help them identify appropriate phrase breaks and we can develop a feel for phrasing by reading together. In their own individual reading, I will listen to them in conferences, helping them adjust their phrasing whenever necessary.
When kids aren’t phrasing well, we go back to the beginning of a sentence and try again. Repeated reading is the best way to get the hang of it. Often, kids can improve the phrasing of a sentence by just reading it over one additional time. If that doesn’t work, I will model the phrasing for them and have them read after me. If they’re sill having trouble, I’ll model one phrase at a time, having them repeat the phrase right after I say it, until they piece the entire sentence together on their own.
Phrasing is one of the most valuable reading skills kids can develop. Teaching kids to phrase, or to do “phrase breaking” as they often like to call it, has several significant benefits:
- Phrasing improves fluency. Good reading has a smooth and satisfying flow to it. But telling kids to read more smoothly rarely helps them achieve this. Phrasing is the key to smooth reading. Practicing phrasing using the skills we develop in this lesson is the key to helping kids become more fluent. It’s also the easiest and most accessible way to teach fluency explicitly and systematically; when we know how to teach phrasing, we don’t have to wait around hoping that kids will one day become fluent readers.
- Phrasing improves comprehension. Phrases naturally make sense to us in ways that single words can’t and that long sentences often don’t. Our language uses what linguists call a “phrase structure grammar.” This just means that words are grouped into phrases according to how they work grammatically. Reading word-by-word it’s often hard to recognize how words function in a sentence. And for most of us, most sentences have too many words to keep track of all at once. The size of a phrase (usually 3-6 words), and the structure of a phrase (one or two content words connected by function words), create a unit of language that is just the right size for us to understand as we read.
- Phrasing helps readers infer meanings of unfamiliar words in context. When kids encounter a word they don’t know the meaning of, they naturally focus on it to the exclusion of the words around it. But considering individual words on their own can make them tougher to understand. Re-reading the word as part of the phrase in which it occurs, along with the other phrases in the sentence, provides the context that helps readers infer meaning.
- Phrasing helps kids find “just right” books. As soon as kids understand phrasing, I can give them another way to know if the book they’re reading is “just right”. In general, a “just right” book is one you can read with good phrasing. If kids have trouble with phrasing, and they can’t improve it with a little re-reading, the book might be too hard.
- Phrasing makes reading more fun. Word-by-word reading is exhausting and hard to understand. Kids who read a million miles an hour miss important details. And readers whose phrasing is halting and irregular have a terrible time making sense of what they read. But well-phrased reading is very enjoyable. Phrasing is also the stepping stone to better expression which makes reading a more emotionally satisfying experience.
I can’t remember now the fortunate set of circumstances that lead me to the connection between The Pledge of Allegiance, phrasing, and reading fluency. But whatever it was, I’m convinced it was one of the best gifts I have ever received. I teach phrasing, using the Pledge, to every group of kids I work with, even kindergarteners. It’s especially useful with second language learners who don’t have the native language rhythms of speech to fall back on.
In addition to being a great thing to learn, phrasing is a lot of fun for me to teach. It sounds great when a group of kids reads together with good phrasing. And I love the “Aha!” reactions I get when I work on phrasing in individual conferences. For helping kids figure out the meaning of a complex passage, there’s no better activity than phrase breaking. Breaking long sentences into more manageable pieces, and then teasing out the meaning phrase by phrase, turns light bulbs on all around the room. Best of all, the skills associated with using phrase breaking to improve comprehension are simple enough for kids of all ability levels to use on their own.
Perhaps the best thing about adding phrasing to my teaching repertoire is that it requires no planning to work into a lesson. It works with any text at any time, and if I ever have to re-teach the basics, I know I can pull out The Pledge of Allegiance and be successful with kids of any age in any classroom in America.