Reading Comprehension: Set Them Up to Understand

I’ve been immersed in the world of reading comprehension and strategies for teaching reading for quite a while now. My last post was about reading e-texts successfully, but for the next several weeks I am going to back up and write about reading comprehension itself, especially as it applies to secondary students and teachers. The next several posts are specifically for classroom teachers of all subject areas, but if you’re a parent reading this, the concepts and strategies I outline constitute a significant part of the reading comprehension instruction in an American classroom.

Did this ever happen to you? Your college professor told you to read a huge chunk of text by, say, Wednesday and come to class prepared to discuss what you read.  Because the topic was new to you, it was sometimes hard to figure out what to focus on. You got to class and found out you’d paid attention to things the professor didn’t think were important at all. High school and middle school students have problems like this, too. 

We teachers can set our secondary students up for success in the same ways elementary teachers do.  First of all, we can “preview” what’s important. Here are some ways to do that: 

New words: Think about the important vocabulary that the students will encounter in the reading you’ve assigned. If the words are technical, and they’ll be encountering them for the first time, you can increase their comprehension by explaining those words before they read the text.  For example. You might say, 

“When you read tonight, you’re going to come across these three words: ________, _______, and ________.  They’re really important to understand, so here’s what they mean.“

And then explain. 

When the student encounters these words in the text that night, it will be for the second time, not the first, and they’ll already have a little bit of “prior knowledge.” That will help them make sense of the new term in context. 

Create a Trailer: Alert students to a key scene in a story or a concept in non-fiction so they’ll know when they get there that this matter is important.  Naturally, you don’t want to spoil the suspense or give away so much they won’t read the chapter, but you might say something like “In tonight’s reading, Juliet is going to fake obeying her father. Pay attention to what he does next. It will be important to the rest of the story.”  

You can go farther than hinting at a significant scene and even dramatize an upcoming chapter. You still don’t give the ending away, though. The point of a trailer is to build suspense, not satisfy curiosity.

If it’s non-fiction and the students will be reading about a new concept–say a principle in biology–explain the basic concept first. When they read the details, they’ll already have the main idea and will be filling in the blanks.  

Refresh and Move Forward: Take a minute to summarize the previous day’s reading. That quick summary creates the flow that’s so necessary when you’re working with information that moves from one point to the next. 

Set a purpose: Explain to the students why they are reading something. Understanding skyrockets when students know the purpose and what they are going to be doing with the information. Here’s part of why: The reading method they–or I–employ usually matches the purpose for reading.

  • If I am reading for basic information, I may skim the selection.
  • If I am reading to understand an argument, I’ll read the selection carefully.
  • If I am reading for specific terms that I’ll be expected to remember, I’ll scan.
  • If I am reading to add to prior knowledge, I will make the connections as I read.
  • If I am reading for amusement, I’ll probably read in a comfy chair.

Make an explicit homework assignment: This is related to the purpose. If it’s basic information you’re after, supply a graphic organizer or a guided reading sheet or even a set of questions to direct the reading. Let students know they’ll be quizzed on the material (if they will). Let them know if you intend to go over the information or if you plan to take off from there on the assumption that they understand all the basics. If you’re not going over the reading, but they’re expected to understand it, they’ll read more carefully if they know that ahead of time. 

Even if you do intend to discuss the reading in class, without a task to complete–like filling in a graphic organizer–many students will skim the text, not read with attention. Here are some other ideas for explicit homework assignments.  Notice how differently a student would read a text for each of these assignments.

  • Select what you think is the writer’s strongest argument and explain why.
  • As you read, think of another story (or character, or situation, etc.)  that is like this and explain how they are alike.
  • Keep a timeline of significant events.
  • Copy 5 figures of speech the author uses in these ten pages and name the figure of speech.
  • Write down what you thought was the most surprising part of the story so we can take a class poll and discuss why these parts were surprising.

Make sure they know how to use the tools they have in their hands: Many secondary students still have trouble understanding the function(s) of the parts of their textbooks. They may never have been shown the index, for example, so they don’t know what it’s for. 

Here are the usual parts and common text features of textbooks:

  • title page
  • diagrams
  • sidebars
  • table of contents
  • labels
  • highlighted text
  • headings
  • illustrations
  • italics
  • photographs
  • graphs
  • bold print
  • tables
  • captions
  • color coding
  • charts
  • bulleted lists
  • bolded words

Secondary students generally have the most trouble understanding the difference between the Table of Contents and the Index. If they’ve never used the Table of Contents or the Index in their texts, they will not use these two tools well in a reference book that is NOT a textbook. In fact, they have to be explicitly shown how to use these two aides to understanding. So, if you are sending them off to research something, be sure to remind them that the Index will help them find a specific topic and the Table of Contents will reveal the organization of the book and the main ideas.

When a science teacher (for example) says “Read pages x to y,” many students think “read” means reading like a novel in English class. If you teach a subject that relies on charts, maps, diagrams, tables, and illustrations to deliver information, be sure to tell your students that valuable information is packed into these study tools and that they should pay attention to these parts of the text, too. Once again, the students have to be explicitly shown. 

Finally, obvious as it is to us, many students think the color coding, fonts, and different font sizes in a text are artistic flourishes. Even the text features like these are deliberate keys to understanding. Make sure your students are aware of these text features. 

All of these “before reading” strategies have been taught to students by their elementary teachers, but secondary teachers can learn from them: A little pre-reading instruction goes a long way toward understanding what you read.

 

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Thinking Made Visible

Used to be, when students would stare off into space, we wouldn’t know what they were thinking about. Now, with all the screens in front of their faces—and ours—we at least know the topic of their attention.

But what are they actually thinking? How can we get inside their heads to discern their thought process? If they’re on the mark, terrific!  But if they’re stuck, how can we know?

My colleague used these cool, washable markers and the tables in her science lab to do just that: Get inside her students’ heads.

 

We were co-teaching a lesson in AP Biology about food insecurity in Afghanistan—the primary and secondary causes and the various effects interruptions in growing and marketing food have on the health and well-being of the people in that war-torn country.  It’s a complex topic with complicated connections.

So after we set the stage by introducing new vocabulary, after we had shown a short film about microcredit and talked about food aid from foreign donors, after we’d discussed the topic as a group, we distributed a paper for students to read and a guided reading activity to accompany it. The weekend homework was for students to read the paper, which proposed some solutions to the problem, and think through the questions on the guided reading sheet.

Sure enough. Come Monday, several students hadn’t read the paper. Even more tripped up on the questions because what was called for weren’t easy, fill-in-the-blank, seek-and-find responses. The students had to think about what they had read and make connections. It was a tough assignment. The reading itself was daunting.

But what my colleague did next was not to berate the students or express exasperation. Instead, she put them in groups and asked them to draw the connections, as they understood them, between the causes and effects of food insecurity–right on her lab tables.

As the students sketched out the author’s ideas, my colleague and I were able to move from table to table and with a glance, see where thinking had gone awry, where gaps in understanding occurred. When we’d point out the exact place where the students had not understood, we could sometimes hear sucked-in breaths or audible exclamations. “Oh! I get it now!”

For us, this exercise was thinking made visible. Because of it, we could lead students to a better understanding of what had previously been confusing or even mystifying.

I began to think about where else thinking is visible and what kinds of opportunities teachers construct to make that happen. After all, a check for understanding isn’t meant to be a check for recall. It isn’t just about getting the right answer. A check for understanding is supposed to clue teachers in as to what our students actually have comprehended or taken away from a lesson.

In math class, teachers ask students to “show their work.”  That’s how the teacher can tell if the answer was a lucky guess or the product of a thoughtful approach to the problem.  If the teacher can see the steps the student took to arrive at the solution, the exact point of un-understanding is visible—just as in the table talk my colleague and I conducted with her students.  In fact, math teachers look at “showing your work” as a road map. The point where thinking breaks down is the precise place to apply the red pen—not just on the answer itself. Or, as the teacher in this video does, apply the yellow highlighter.

Geometry offers the same potential for revelation of thought.  Proofs are mental processes revealed. In evaluating a proof, the teacher has to follow, step by step, the student’s logic. That makes checking proofs time-consuming—just as, when reading students’ essays, the English teacher has to follow the student’s train of thought in order to make actionable comments.  But from heavy duty assignments like proofs and essays, teachers learn precisely what students don’t understand—or do, as the case may be.

Old-fashioned sentence outlines are also great revealers. Students prefer the bullet points of a topic outline, of course, because they can bluff their way through an outline check or turn in something when they haven’t really started thinking about their topic. But when ideas aren’t connected with transition words and complete sentences aren’t available for examination, the teacher can’t really follow the student’s train of thought. When a sentence outline has gaps and misunderstandings, the teacher can direct next steps.

One of my favorite lessons when I taught composition was an exercise in understanding how sentence outlines work. I’d find or construct a fairly complicated sentence outline of a research topic, cut the sentences into strips, remove the numbers and letters, and assemble sets of these sentences, all jumbled up.  Students would form groups, and I’d hand each group a set of the sentences. They’d spend the rest of the period figuring out the outline based on logic and the clues provided by transition words. Then, of course, I’d require them to construct their own sentence outlines.  

And when I really cast my thoughts far back into the recesses of my life in an American classroom, I remember sentence diagramming. I’m not advocating for bringing that back necessarily, but I do have to say, faulty diagrams revealed exactly what students didn’t understand about sentence structure.

Whenever a performance is required, whenever students do something, we see thought in action: Their level or degree of understanding is immediately evident in the performance of a musical piece, the execution of an art project, the preparation of a recipe, the construction of a garment, the reassembly of an automobile system. The problem is, when what we seek to understand is a mental process, it’s not so readily visible. Sketch notes help. Graphic organizers and graphic summaries help. Models and puzzles and other manipulatives do the trick.

But what else? Send me your pictures and tell me about the activities and processes you employ to make thinking visible.  I’d like to put together a gallery of thought-tracking possibilities.

And if you purchase some of those neon markers?  Be sure to get some Windex and a roll of paper towels, too. You’ll need them!  This activity is addictive!

Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?  

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific paper for students to read and dissect and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition,  qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us—for me, this kind of coaching—where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became  New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific abstract for students to read and dissect, and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, avoiding pronouns, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition, qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us. This kind of coaching, where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

Under Discussion: Reciprocal Teaching

Here’s a problem that teachers have to deal with all too often: Kids come to class not having read the assigned text, or chapter, or article.  What to do to move forward?

The solution for some has been to do an end run around such assignments by having the students read the piece in class instead. That takes a lot of instructional time and leads to strategies like Round Robin Reading (RRR) and its cousins, Popcorn Reading and Combat Reading.

RRR is not a comprehension strategy; it’s a management tool.  Kids keep quiet and listen because they might be called on next.  Worrying that they might get called on next means they’re not paying attention to what is currently being read. If the teacher is obvious about who’ll read next, the students know when their turns are coming and are rehearsing while someone else is laboring away at her chunk of the text.

RRR is not a valid fluency strategy, either: With no chance to rehearse what they’re reading, poor oral readers won’t do well—and on top of that, they’re modeling poor reading for others.  And, there’s the embarrassment factor. I can remember from my own schools days that some kids hated reading aloud because they anticipated stumbling, and the good readers hated it when the poor ones read for just that reason.

But after all these years, teachers still use RRR.  It’s primarily a management strategy.  Kids are quiet, occupied, and the assignment gets read.

So okay.  You still have to lick the didn’t-read-the-assignment-before-class problem.  What could you do instead?

How about trying this strategy: Reciprocal Teaching.

Like literature circles, Reciprocal Teaching (RT) depends on students assuming specific roles: Summarizer, Clarifier, Questioner, and Predictor. In their groups of four, students read the text—or chunk of text—in class and then discuss what they’ve read with each other.  Each student has a reading purpose. The Summarizer knows he’ll have to recap what happened in the story or outline the main points if the piece is non-fiction.  The Clarifier will keep an eye out for words or phrases that might be confusing. The Questioner asks like a teacher, probing the text not just with recall questions (especially if the students are secondary level) but with “What ifs?” and “I wonders…” and other idea extenders.  The Predictors make an educated guess about what comes next—they’re like “the weatherman” one student told me.

Naturally, the teacher needs to be sure the students understand the demands of the four roles.  With older students, that may only require a simple explanation.  At any age, it may require modeling or even a dry run or two.  As with any new skill, the students have to be trained or their conversations won’t be productive.

Reciprocal Teaching can be used with fiction, but it was originally designed for use with non-fiction: a chapter in a textbook, a newspaper article, an argumentative essay, a short informative piece. As they take turns leading the discussion, students practice summary skills, learn to think beyond the text, help each other discern meaning from context, and importantly, grapple with text structure.  This last is a significant challenge. Kids know the story arc well by the time they reach middle school.  Being the weatherman for a fictional piece isn’t hard because middle school students know how foreshadowing works, and they’ve had enough experience with stories to imagine plot turns and story endings that aren’t pat.  But they’ve had less experience with the structures of non-fiction.  Reciprocal Teaching gives them practice at discerning how a non-fiction piece is laid out—to learn about order of importance, problem/solution, cause/effect, comparison/contrast, chronological order, and other methods of organization–to predict what comes next in an informative or argumentative piece.

Website sources such as those listed at the end of this article spell out the details of structuring a Reciprocal Teaching lesson.  Bookmarks with question stems and note-taking sheets are provided on many websites.

Recently I’ve seen Reciprocal Teaching in action.  In fact, I modeled the strategy in a 6th grade classroom, which is where the “weatherman” quip originated.  The students were quick to catch on and excited to implement the strategy.  All the groups were reading the same book: Julie of the Wolves. The students loved talking through that day’s chapter with each other. Days later, after several rounds using the Reciprocal Teaching process as it has traditionally been practiced, the 6th graders suggested a new spin. Let the summarizers all talk together and choose the best summary, the clarifiers work through a variety of confusions to share with the class, the questioners ask questions of each other and then pose the best to the class, and the predictors to consider a variety of options and present their consensus to the class.  Another variation you might try is having each group of four make up a quiz over the assigned section and exchange quizzes with another group. You, the teacher, are the final judge of the quality of the questions: Students get all the points you’ll assign if their questions are thoughtful and carefully written.

Reciprocal Teaching 1Or, each group can read a different piece.  I also recently presented Reciprocal Teaching as a comprehension strategy and an alternative to RRR to a group of high school teachers.  After the workshop, one 10th grade teacher selected articles from internet and newspaper sources that all related to the concept of ambition. Each piece explored the topic from a different perspective. His students read the articles in small groups and then reported the gist of each to the rest of the class. All this was in preparation for a unit on ambition with Macbeth as the anchor text. His students staked out corners in the classroom, spots in the hallway, and tables in the cafeteria to hold their discussions.  I listened in and was reminded not of wooden Q-A sessions where the teacher decides what ideas to privilege and what details are important, but of adult book club conversations.

Another colleague, a high school health teacher, had been using RRR for years.  Once he learned about the advantages of Reciprocal Teaching, he deliberately reorganized his classroom, moving the desks from conventional rows into clusters of fours. His students—who definitely hadn’t been reading their assignments—had taken to the strategy immediately.  They’d developed independence as readers rather quickly.  The teacher found that he was able to circulate among the clusters and keep an ear on their discussions—a much better management strategy, he found, than casting an eye on the students from the front.

One of my colleagues, a high school music teacher and band director, used Reciprocal Teaching as a strategy for students to review for the final exam.  The students enjoyed the process and the conversations about the musical language he wanted them to understand and use on the final went beyond simply recalling definitions.  Watch this video to see what Dan Peo did.  Be warned: the process was noisy.  https://drive.google.com/a/tsc.k12.in.us/file/d/0B1xPdu7aOTwqVlFHWmo1bHcyZTA/view?usp=sharing

Reciprocal Teaching is, at its heart, far more than a strategy to manage the classroom, but if that’s the starting place, that’s okay.  Once teachers see how well Reciprocal Teaching works and how much students like the process of learning from each other, they choose RT.  It’s an effective way to build comprehension skills and teach text structures.  Instructional time is put to good use—and the assignments all get read.

 

http://eclass.uoa.gr/modules/document/file.php/PHS122/%CE%91%CF%81%CE%B8%CF%81%CE%B1/Reciprocal%20teaching.pdf

This is the original research reported by Annemarie Palinscar and Ann L. Brown (1984) in Cognition and Instruction. The authors developed the strategy, Reciprocal Teaching, and in this paper describe its effectiveness in improving comprehension skills among seventh graders.

http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/reciprocal_teaching

This explanation for elementary school teachers has clear directions and a video of a teacher modeling the process for a group of students. Downloadable bookmarks and a worksheet are provided.

http://www.readingquest.org/strat/rt.html

Another clear set of directions from a web site for social studies teachers. This site explains that the order in which the group members “present” is not fixed.  The teacher should prescribe the order that makes sense.

Under Discussion: Literature Circles

P1010150Literature Circles are old hat now. English teachers everywhere–from the elementary grades through high school—use this strategy to group students by interest or by reading level. Harvey Daniels, who popularized the concept and brilliantly refined it, has published at least five books on the topic. How-to websites abound, and Pinterest is a rich resource for the props that go with establishing literature circles: the “role sheets,” question cards, sentence starters, anchor charts, choice boards, discussion guides, and rubrics.

I came to literature circles quite by accident sometime in the early 90s—before Harvey Daniels and before roles for participants in the circle had been devised. I am sure I was not alone in figuring out for myself what to do when faced with a wildly disparate group of students. All these years later, I’m still a believer in literature circles—and I encourage the use of Harvey Daniels’ role sheets (plus some of my own devising) although I’ve learned that some educators think the role sheets are limiting.

But that year, whichever year it was, I was still fairly new to teaching high school English. The course, called “Trails West,” featured books about the American West.  My class was hugely mixed in readiness and in student interests.  A few students, whom I’d had in Honors 9 English, consumed books like cookies and cake; others read poorly, infrequently, and under protest. The course was nine weeks long and the curriculum specified that the students would read three books within that time frame.

Essentially, I decided to teach thematically and, for the first unit, selected three books on aP1010623 single topic: The Western Hero (aka, the Epic Hero). The books I chose (from what was available in the bookroom) were The Virginian, the classic by Owen Wister that established the cowboy as an epic hero; True Grit, in which a young girl sets out with a grizzled old lawman to avenge her father’s murder; and Shane, a book about as close to the epic pattern as anyone could imagine. The second “unit” was about the pioneer experience; the third, the Native American experience.

Every three weeks, students chose the book they wanted to read (Miraculously, I thought, no one tried to “read down” and a few challenged themselves to “read up”). Initially, they met in groups of four or five to lay out a plan for the number of pages they’d read before the three meetings I had pre-established for them to convene and discuss the book. I supplied the questions for these meetings—the same ones for each group since the themes were the same—and in between meetings, the students read, kept a list of self-selected vocabulary words, did a mini-research project, and took direct instruction from me on topics related to the book or on other relevant English class topics.

I made bookmarks for everyone, with spaces for page numbers, so they could establish daily reading goals. They divided the number of pages in their book by the number of days to completion. Some kids didn’t need that—they could hardly put down a book they liked—but the reluctant readers enjoyed checking off the little boxes on their bookmarks that indicated they’d accomplished their 10 or 15 pages for the day. They might stop mid-chapter rather than read one more page, a mind-set I admit drove me crazy, but the bookmark served as a kind of time clock for them. When they’d completed their number of pages, they could congratulate themselves, check off a day on their bookmark, and close the book. The strategy worked. One boy, a junior, told me at the end of the year that Shane was the first book he’d read cover to cover in his entire schooling experience.

I’ve seen literature circles work when all the students are reading the same book and in Lucy, Henry, Taylorsituations like mine where students chose a text, based on their interests or their reading levels. I’ve seen literature circles work in subjects other than English and with articles rather than whole books. The online Encyclopedia Britannica presents leveled versions of its topics, and NEWSELA, a free online leveled reading site, (www.newsela.com) sends daily articles relevant to science, sports, history, the arts, current events—all kinds of subject areas—each article written at as many as four to five grade levels. The site also offers complete text sets on topics of interest to teachers of every discipline.

However you choose to implement literature circles, at the heart of the strategy is the discussion: Kids talk about what they have read. The questions the students ask and answer  go way beyond study guides and recall and comprehension recitation. Nowadays, I’d have them take turns making up their own questions, trading around the responsibility for being the discussion leader. Another person’s role is usually to summarize the pages under consideration so that everyone in the group has the facts right, but eventually, questions about the author’s purpose, concerns  about the motivation and credibility of characters, and conversations about style emerge.

Lit circles are more like adult book club conversations than teacher-directed Q and A. They’re effective at drawing students in because the conversations are genuine and everyone gets a chance to say what they think. They work as a vehicle, too, for developing fluency in academic conversation and for inculcating the manners that are necessary for civil discourse (Hence, the sentence starters and conversation rules you see on Pinterest).

I had good luck with lit circles with Honors students and struggling readers alike. In fact, my favorite memory from those Trails West days is of Pencilhead (see my blog post:       https://sarahpowley.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/pencilhead/), at that  time a reluctant reader and would-be class comedian, pulling his chair up to another group deep into discussion of the same book his group had already discussed: He wanted to hear more.

Literature Circles get kids to read more. Literature circles get them to talking more. What could be better?

_________

This post presumes you know all about Literature Circles. Perhaps you are just getting started or even still thinking about the idea. If so, here are some starter websites:

http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/curr259.shtml A straightforward explanation of Literature Circles—what they are, how they work, why they work.

http://www.lauracandler.com/strategies/litcirclemodels.php Teaching suggestions including variations on the basic model of roles, role sheets, information on working with multi-leveled books.

http://www.litcircles.org/Overview/overview.html This site provides an overview of Literature Circles—structure, benefits, outcomes over time—in chart form.

Under Discussion: Fishbowl

Keelsing 1In my last post, I wrote about getting the students to contribute to teacher-led discussions. But sometimes, the best way to get them talking is to structure the conversation. A structured conversation, in fact, can engage students in a lesson in ways that a teacher-led discussion cannot.

The other day, I watched a master 7th grade science teacher, Miss Kimberly Keesling, lead her class through a Fishbowl debate. Her objective was a universal lesson in critical thinking: Beware of loaded words and emotional responses. Ask questions. Do your own thinking.

She drew upon a well-known hoax from the 1990s in which scientific “evidence” was deliberately used to mislead the public.

Miss Keesling distributed facts sheets to the students—papers she’d prepared listing the pros and cons of banning a mysterious substance, dihydrogen monoxide—DMHO for short. The strikes against DMHO in the realm of health alone are pretty severe. It’s

  • Colorless, odorless, tasteless
  • Accidental inhalation can be deadly
  • May cause severe burns
  • Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage
  • For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death
  • Has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients, but is not believed to be carcinogenic

Environmental issues are also serious:

  • Is also known as hydroxic acid, and is the major component of acid rain
  • Contributes to the “greenhouse effect”
  • Is found in almost every stream, lake, and reservoir in America
  • Has caused millions of dollars of property damage in the Midwest recently
  • Contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape
  • Accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals
  • May cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes

On the other hand, DMHO is used

  • As an industrial solvent and coolant
  • To generate power
  • In the production of Styrofoam
  • As a fire retardant
  • In the distribution of pesticides
  • As an additive in certain “junk-foods” and other food products

Miss Keesling gave the students five minutes to ask questions, study the fact sheets, and write out talking points on one side or the other. Then she took the pulse of the class. Those in favor of banning DMHO went to one side of the room; those against banning it, to the other. The Undecideds sat in the middle. She explained to the students that they were going to have a debate about DMHO, so they had to use facts.Keesling 2

It took only a few minutes then to explain the rules of Fishbowl:

  1. Three people—volunteers, one from each group—would be at the front of the room, seated on a comfortable couch. (Usually, Fishbowl is done with two concentric circles—an inner circle and an outer circle—but the rules are malleable.) Using their notes and the fact sheets, the students would take turns presenting their point of view about DMHO.
  2. When a speaker finished, if another student wanted to support that point of view, he’d tap the speaker on the shoulder and the first speaker would sit down. In that way, only three people at a time were seated on the couch.
  3. The speakers stood up to present their arguments.

Middle schoolers love to talk, love to debate, and these students did so brilliantly. Their arguments for and against banning the mysterious substance were cogent and fact-filled. Some students were direct and succinct; others became quite animated. Within 15 minutes, just about everyone in the room had spoken. I heard impassioned and powerful statements and effective transitions such as these:

  • Although it is used to generate power…
  • It’s a risk: But life is about risk.
  • Bottom line: It kills people.

Sophisticated stuff for 7th graders. At the end, my colleague asked how many of the students had switched sides because of the arguments they heard. Some had.

Then she made the Big Reveal: DHMO is water. She broke the scientific words down into their roots and prefixes: di (2); hydrogen; mono (1); oxide. A few students caught on, clapped their hands to their foreheads: H20.

Why, she asked the students, had they come down on the side they had? All the claims and counterclaims are true—but they had been duped. Who had even asked what DMHO was before they began?  No one. What had swayed them? They had heard the facts, stacked on one side or the other as they were—all of them true, all of them convincing—and formed an opinion, often a very strong one. Why?

What followed were insightful responses that boiled down to this: The use of strong, emotional words such as kill, severe tissue damage, withdrawal, “greenhouse effect,” found in tumors… It was easy to be led to a conclusion.

And that was her point. Scientists have to investigate dispassionately. Scientists have to examine the facts. Scientists have to ask questions. They can’t be swayed by emotional language.

And it’s not just scientists. These students were quick to point out that television, politicians, advertising—they’re all guilty of using emotional language to influence their audiences. Everyone needs to be vigilant. Everyone needs to think before they jump to a conclusion about something they know nothing about.

The Fishbowl strategy proved to be superior to recitation and far better than teacher questioning for a lesson like this. Because it was experiential, because kids were out of their seats moving and talking, because they took ownership of the lesson, they were engaged in the activity and Miss Keesling was able to make her point.

Granted, this particular lesson was a set-up. But the kids were good-natured about it. They understood the message and understood the value of it being learned in this way. In fact, the lesson will stick far longer than a paragraph in a textbook or a lecture by the teacher. But the method—a Fishbowl debate—was the perfect vehicle in a powerful lesson orchestrated by this experienced science teacher. Point made.

Fishbowl works for straightforward discussions about all kinds of topics. It’s especially useful if students are invested in a topic and eager to contribute, but even shy students will express their opinion when they can choose when to tap someone on the shoulder, decide for themselves when to take an inner circle seat.

Want to know more? Here are three websites explaining Fishbowl, offering other ways of structuring a Fishbowl conversation.

https://www.facinghistory.org/for-educators/educator-resources/teaching-strategy/fishbowl  (Facing History and Ourselves) A straightforward explanation of how to set up a fishbowl discussion.

http://www.learner.org/workshops/tml/workshop3/teaching2.html (Annenberg Learner) A lengthier description with alternative ways of structuring the discussion.

http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/activities/fishbowl.html (Multicultural Pavilion) Another good explanation of the set-up for Fishbowl.