A Research Teacher By Karen Bossick

Annette Wall’s interest was piqued when she saw Narda Pitkethly being interviewed on a Sunday morning news show about a new reading system that helped challenged readers learn to read in a couple of weeks.

“Narda said that one in four people don’t know how to read—that’s an alarming statistic,” recalled Annette, fifth-­grade teacher at Saint Paul School, Nampa School District.

Despite her skepticism, Annette couldn’t forget the newscast. She had students who didn’t know how to read, despite everything teachers had tried with them. And so, when she heard that Narda was going to be giving a workshop on Nardagani, she was first in line to see what the program was all about.

She sat enthralled as she listened to Narda describe how the Japanese put simple codes under the characters that represent their words to help them learn what sounds to make. And she became more intrigued as Narda described how she had done the same thing with English words. The symbols under the words are like a handrail, helping challenged readers know what sound to make in order to sound out the words correctly and easily.

Narda called her program Nardagani, in a nod to the Japanese system of Hiragana. “It was nothing I’d ever thought of,” said Annette. “Obviously, you can code everything. And then, after a while, once the student gains their confidence in reading, the need for the symbols falls away.”

Always on the lookout for new ways to teach basic reading skills to struggling readers, Annette and her fellow Special Education teacher Jody Braun decided to test Nardagani with students who had been held back because of their difficulties reading. They set it up as part of a teacher research class in a Master English teaching program at Boise State University with Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm.

“I was skeptical, but I had kids in fifth­ grade who didn’t know how to read despite all we threw at them,” Annette said.

Annette decided to try the program out with a seventh­-grader whom she had had in her class a few years earlier.

Jason (not his real name) was a quiet, polite boy who liked to ski, play video games with his friends and work alongside his dad in his wood shop. He was a bright kid who knew a lot about a lot of subjects, but he couldn’t read well.

He had struggled with reading since kindergarten and had repeated third grade, as a result.

“He hated reading,” said Annette. “He could only read 58 words a minute, which is really, really slow. He struggled with most of the words on the page. And, as he struggled to read, he would guess. He made guttural sounds. He jerked his head, pulled his hair and hit his hand against the side of his head.

“It was horrible, heart wrenching to watch him. And there was no discernible pattern to his struggles. As the years progressed, he was falling further and further behind his classmates.”

Annette asked the boy to meet with her after school. At first, Jason ran away from her. Finally, she cornered him outside the boys’ bathroom.

It took only a couple half­-hour lessons before he completely changed his tune. He began to show up for lessons eagerly—early, even. He stayed later than required. And he smiled as he worked, visibly enjoying the instruction and the games through which Nardagani is taught.

After eight lessons, he was reading 96 words per minute. And he was so excited that he even volunteered to help mentor another boy.

This helped Jason’s self­-esteem and confidence and boosted his fluency to 116 words per minute. He and the other student enjoyed it, trying to outdo each other in the words they made up in a Nardagani game called Memory Match.

“Jason tested proficient in reading on our standardized tests for the first time in his life. Jason’s mother cried, she was so happy,” said Annette. “We all cried!”

In addition, Jason’s literature grades went up. His grades went up in math, science and social studies, as well. His teacher noted that he became more attentive and engaged in class, and even began raising his hand to participate in class discussions.

“I expect his reading fluency will continue to increase because of his improved skills,” said Annette.

Nardagani sets students up to succeed, Annette noted. And it emphasizes that students should never struggle or guess at a word.

“Everything’s supposed to be fun—not frustrating. They’ve been exposed to enough frustration,” she said. “Struggle, struggle, struggle—that’s all many of these kids have ever done. But, they do not struggle with Naradagani. We’re helping them take success where they can find it and build from there.”

The simplicity of the program allows anyone who can read to teach the program,” Annette added.

“Traditional phonics programs are much more complex and take much longer to learn. The simplicity of Nardagani is not the only aspect of the program that makes it effective,” she said. “At its core, its simplicity is its strength and the idea of learners not having to struggle further makes it an approachable, attractive program for challenged readers. “

Caitie Sfingi