Improve Their Reading While They’re Reading

You’ve set them up to read with understanding, but is there anything students can be doing while they are reading that will help them understand?  A lot of kids just seem to drift away when they start reading…

Students are taught “during reading” practices throughout elementary school. When they get to secondary school, teachers stop using the language of reading and stop reminding students to employ the practices their elementary teachers have taught them. Maybe we should take a step back. Here are several of those “during reading” practices that secondary teachers can encourage, too:

Self-monitoring: All readers need to stay on top of their understanding. Most of us do all right with stories, but when it comes to non-fiction, especially if the text is difficult, we can get lost–or drift away. One strategy that helps is to consciously summarize the text at the end of each paragraph or chunk of text. Many of us do this automatically. A teacher taught us the trick or maybe we learned it on our own.

So it is with students. If a student can’t articulate the main idea of the paragraph, then understanding is incomplete. Coach them to stop, summarize (to themselves) what they’ve just read, and then go on. That means reading will take longer. Tell them that taking longer is okay. Non-fiction, especially, is harder than fiction–words and concepts are new, not as easily assimilated as when you are reading a story.

This lack of understanding is also one of the main reasons plagiarism happens. The student doesn’t understand what he or she has read; thus, can’t summarize. What sometimes is called “laziness” or mistaken for deliberate cheating is really lack of comprehension. Have the student practice summarizing a chunk of reading aloud–as if explaining to a parent–before writing a sentence or paragraph for their research report.

Visualizing. Elementary students are taught to make a movie in their heads. If it’s fiction, they are taught to create a mental storyboard. If it’s non-fiction, they’re taught to diagram, chart, map, or create a mental table as well as storyboard the content. The very popular sketch noting, or visual notetaking, is a variation on this theme. Ask students to draw what they have read and see what happens. Some kids thrive on this way of processing information.

Relate to prior knowledge: When reading an informational piece, ask students to form hypotheses about the text (predict) rather than simply recall prior knowledge. They’ll read with the purpose, then, of discovering whether their hypotheses are correct.  Also, by NOT asking for personal experience stories (elicited by the “Have you ever…” question), their connections will be connections to real content, not just to the mention of a topic. For a really insightful description of this kind of questioning, read The Comprehension Experience. (If you’re local, borrow it from me.)

Make connections to the text as they read: This is similar to the concept of connecting to prior knowledge, but it’s about teaching students to make even more connections while they are reading than they already have. To consider how the idea they are reading is like, unlike, supports, contradicts, etc. something they’ve read, seen, heard, tasted, or experienced before. For example, any cook will tell you that when they read a recipe, they’re thinking not just about the ingredients for the recipe at hand, but how that recipe is a variation on another they know–how the addition of one certain spice and the removal of another will affect a taste they already know.

Recently, I watched a video of a teacher working with her 7th grade class on a percent problem. Before they ever learned the formula for solving the problem, the teacher asked the students to consider how this problem was like other percent problems they’d encountered and how it was different. Later, the students went on to solve the problem, of course, but first they considered “same” and “different” and that helped them make sense of the new problem.

Use text structures to help them understand: In fiction, text structure means the story arc. Students learn this structure from the cradle (if their parents read to them).  As humans, we’re “hard-wired” for story anyway. That means we try instinctively to make a story out of information we receive.

Except for chronological order (which is, of course, related to “story”), the structures of non-fiction aren’t so readily apparent: cause/effect, problem/solution, analysis, order of importance, comparison/contrast. Help students learn the markers for these structures so they can get a mental outline of the text before they start reading. For example, you can augment understanding by simply saying something like this: “In this article, the author discusses two different interpretations of this historical event and gives his opinion on those interpretations.” By outlining the article for the students, you’ve boosted their comprehension of it from the get-go. Probst and Beers eludidate non-fiction structures in their second Notice and Note book, Reading Non-fiction. (You can borrow this one from me, too.)

Question themselves: Do I understand? What can I do if I don’t? Where did I stop understanding? Should I go back? Should I slow down?  (The answer is “yes.”)

When a text is difficult because the content is new, or we’re tired, or too much is going on externally, all of us stop paying attention when we read. This can happen with fiction and non-fiction. Students have been trained to be conscious of having lost the thread. Most know to go back to the place where they last remember understanding and start over at that spot. As secondary teachers, we can remind them of that strategy for recovery.

Be conscious of skimming patterns: What students are liable to do when they first start drifting is to skim; that is, to puddle-jump across the lines of text, one line at a time. Skimming is a perfectly fine way to take in information when all you want is the gist or if it’s the first time through a piece of difficult text.  But all too often, this “academic” skimming turns into Z and F.

Z and F skimming styles are unconscious but entirely natural patterns of eye movement that web designers capitalize upon to ease our intake of social media and website content. Because so many of our students spend so much time on social media, these skimming patterns may have become second nature to them.

The layout of a social media page like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter is an F pattern. Google searches come back in an F pattern. Websites, especially places you want to order merchandise from, are set up to read in a Z. Neither of these skimming patterns is efficient for academic articles or for textbooks, whether print or electronic.

The task for us is to alert students to Z and F so they can monitor their skimming behavior and adjust to the kind of skimming that’s appropriate for academic texts and textbooks, whether in print or electronic: puddle-jumping.

 Reading comprehension is an amorphous, abstract thing. Our ability to understand what we read doesn’t grow in a linear fashion or at a measured pace. It’s hard to pin down–no different than holding on to a cloud. What we do know is this: The more we read, the more we understand; the more we understand, the more we bring to the next text we read. Learning how to help yourself understand what you read doesn’t end after elementary school, and there’s a lot we secondary teachers can do to boost our students’ understanding.

Advertisements

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.

 

Reading E-Texts Successfully: What It Takes

  • I’m not tech-savvy
  • I get headaches
  • My eyes hurt
  • Trouble navigating around the book
  • Can’t find the glossary or index
  • Lose my place
  • Forgot what I just read
  • Computer freezing or kicking me out of the program
  • Easily distracted
  • Don’t have Wi-Fi
  • Hit the wrong x and it closes me out
  • Words are too small
  • Flipping pages takes too much time

Sound familiar?  These are among the litany of complaints students have about e-textbooks. Teachers have the same complaints.

More importantly, current research is telling us that comprehension takes a hit with e-texts.  Some of that slippage has to do with navigational issues. For example, research tells us that when scrolling is required, comprehension suffers. When students have to switch screens—as opposed to flipping pages—comprehension takes another hit. Some of the hit is because of visual fatigue or issues with layout. It could be the screen is too bright or that the words are spread too wide across the page.  Fiction is less of a problem than non-fiction, but when an on-screen text exceeds 500 words, for all of us, comprehension generally decreases. Most of us print articles out when the text length reaches some personal threshold. Some people just miss the tactile pleasure of holding a book in their hands and may skim an e-text instead of really reading it.

So why don’t we just go “back to books?”

I’d sure like to—and most of the students I’ve talked to would like that, too. But e-textbooks are economical—ask any school district that has to expend thousands of dollars on textbooks every year. E-texts are cheaper and they don’t get worn, torn, or broken, either.

E-texts are portable and the content is accessible across devices. This is about the only thing most students do like about their e-texts. They don’t have to lug heavy books around all day and back and forth from home to school. In a pinch, they can even access the e-book on their phones.

E-texts are far more environmentally-friendly. Trees are our renewable resource, paper manufacturers like to say, but it takes an awful lot of trees to manufacture one textbook in the quantity needed by schools across the country. Here’s a shocking statistic.

E-texts can do things paper books can’t. E-texts offer interactive features such as pop-ups for vocabulary; pop-outs and mouse-overs for explanations of, say, features on a map; audio/video players; guided reading questions; additional problem sets; flashcards, highlighters, and other study tools.

In short, for all these reasons, e-texts have their merits—and their supporters—no matter how much students and teachers complain, no matter what the research says about comprehension.

So what’s a teacher to do?

One of the concepts I gleaned from a semester of reading original education research, magazine articles, academic websites offering advice to students, and books (in print) is this: When students read an e-text, each of them creates a unique reading pathway. The figures, tables, and charts they look at, the hyperlinks they click on, the order in which they click on those links, what searches they conduct, what options they choose from drop-down menus, whether they return to previous chapters and charts, consult the index or the table of contents, use the audio player or avail themselves of the study tools the text provides—all of those actions fall within their control. In a print text, the options are limited and students are accustomed to starting at the beginning and reading to the end. In an e-text, they’re in the driver’s seat.

It stands to reason that we should teach them the rules of the road.

My colleague, Mrs.Tasha Ploss, who teaches Honors Chemistry, and I set out this past semester to do just that.  We set out to learn what it takes to read an e-text successfully.

We classified what we learned about effective and efficient e-text reading into three categories:

  • Know Your Device
  • Know Your E-textbook
  • Know Your Mind

Know Your Device: We were shocked to discover how many of our students didn’t know some of the basic functionalities of their devices—in our district, those devices are Chromebooks.  

Many of the students’ initial complaints were about eyesight issues and headaches.  On a pre-instruction survey, 67.7% indicated they did not know how to invert the color on their screens—to make the print white-on-back (“night vision” as Mrs. Ploss calls it).  She showed them. There was an audible response from the students when the colors inverted right before their eyes. Fewer students—24.6%–didn’t know they could adjust the brightness levels on the Chromebook.

From conversations with the students, Mrs. Ploss also determined that many of the students simply could not remember quick keystrokes such as screen shot, using ctrl + “F” to find a word on the page, and select/highlight the full text.  A whopping 58.5% did not know how to split their screens—a move that would allow them to view two pages consecutively, two pages from separate sections of the text, or even the text plus Google docs for the purpose of notetaking. It isn’t that students haven’t been taught many of these skills somewhere before, but kids forget. I forget a keyboard stroke or shortcut I haven’t used in a while. It’s natural that kids would, too.

Mrs. Ploss taught or reminded students of all of these keyboard strokes and many more. That helped—and students reported that once they learned these “new” moves, they began using them in other classes, with other e-texts.

Know Your E-text:

The e-textbook Mrs. Ploss uses for Honors Chemistry has many bells and whistles. The study tools section includes, among other things, premade flashcards for academic vocabulary, keyed to each chapter. Skill builders and problem sets, answers and explanations for those sets, pop-ups in the text for vocabulary, figures and diagrams and charts hyperlinked internally, built-in highlighters—all were among the features she pointed out or demonstrated for the students.

To teach these to the students, she had to learn how to use them herself. And that’s a key point about e-texts. Just as teachers need to point out the location and function of the features of a print book—the table of contents, the glossary, the index—and what the text features—colors, font, size of text—mean, so in an e-text, the teacher needs to be familiar with the features and know what each of them does and how to find it or activate it. And then show the students how that particular e-text “works.”

Although her text has built-in notetaking and highlighter tools, Mrs. Ploss taught her students how to take notes using Google.docs with the split screen option.  She walked them through the process of accessing Add-ons like the highlighter tool so they’d know how to do that when faced with an e-text without so many tools.

Know Your Mind: This lesson was really all about metacognition. To be a successful e-reader, a student needs to consciously think about or monitor what’s happening in his head as he’s reading. So, Ms. Ploss told the students, “Remove the distractions: Put the phone away, close any irrelevant tabs, and pay attention as you read.” Metacognition is important in print reading, too, of course, but the distractions presented by a screen call for extra alertness to stay on task and process information.

Should you be skimming, scanning, or reading?  Many students didn’t remember the differences among these three strategies for accessing information: Skim to get the gist, scan to find a discrete piece of information, read to understand. Students are taught in elementary school, over and over again, to be conscious of their purpose in reading and then to choose to skim or scan or read accordingly. They need to be reminded of purpose and different reading strategies when they’re in high school, too.

We also taught the students to beware, when skimming, of using Z and F skimming patterns. These are natural skimming methods that web designers take advantage of to design web pages and social media. These patterns permit rapid assessment of content, but they’re poor substitutes for the kind of skimming called for in a textbook–puddle-jumping across the page and through each line of a paragraph. We taught the students about the Z and F patterns and asked them to consider whether they are using either of those patterns when they skim. Many discovered they were.

And finally, the hyperlinks. The Honors Chemistry book is a “closed” environment. All of the hyperlinks connect to locations within the book. Some students had never clicked on links that would have been helpful; others were distracted by clicking when they didn’t need to. On the Internet, an “open” environment, hyperlinks are a much more difficult problem. It’s easy to “rabbit hole” (as anyone who’s ever visited YouTube can tell you),  so Mrs. Ploss created a flowchart to help students stay on track: Have I read the whole article? Will the hyperlink expand my knowledge or sidetrack me? Is the link reputable?

Most importantly, part of what makes e-texts so difficult is that every reading and study skill students have ever learned carries over to reading on a screen. If you’re a poor reader to begin with, the problem is only exacerbated by the panoply of additional skills needed to read efficiently and effectively.  

Here’s a list of those skills—and we’ve probably missed some. It’s a miracle that anyone ever learns to read in the first place (just read Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid if you want to be awed); the list of things you need to know to read an e-text well is daunting.

Helping our students become successful is our mission. That’s exactly what Mrs. Ploss and I have tried to do by teaching students how to navigate their e-texts and reminding them of strategies they may not have been taught or may have forgotten that will help them be more successful e-text readers.

We have not created a magic bullet for reading e-texts. Reading comprehension is way too complicated for that. Our goal was to help the students be more successful than they were.

Mrs. Ploss surveyed her students at the end of the e-text reading lessons. She asked if they felt they could read their e-texts better after all the instruction.

91.6% said they could.

That’s a win.

 

For further reading:

Business Insider:A new study shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens”

The New Yorker: “Being a Better Online Reader”

Tim Shanahan “Is Comprehension Better with Digital Text?” (blog post)

Z and F patterns: “How to Use F and Z Patterns in Your Landing Page Design”

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!

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.

Harper Lee’s Enormous Gift

For thirty-one years, my school year began with the opening sentence from Harper Lee’s matchless story of courage, compassion, and coming-of-age, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was nothing short of privilege to introduce 9th graders to Jem and Scout, their father Atticus, and their playmate Dill; to rural Alabama in the 1930s; to racism and injustice in the days of Jim Crow; and to the idea that in coming face-to-face with an unvarnished and painful reality, one comes of age.

Sometimes that moment of truth is called a “confrontation experience.”

When the trial is over and Tom Robinson is found guilty, Jem is confused and upset. He cries first, then broods, questioning Atticus intently as he puzzles through the injustice of the verdict. Miss Maudie, the children’s insightful neighbor from across the street, bakes a cake the next morning, but alters her custom of preparing three small cakes—one each for Jem and Scout and Dill—and makes only two. Jem’s portion is to come from the big cake. In this way, she signals her understanding that Jem has grown up: He has emerged from the experience of the trial, changed. Many students—as Jem himself does—miss the significance of that culinary symbolism.

So just after my students have read Chapter 22, the chapter with the cake paragraph that begins “It was Jem’s turn to cry,” I introduce this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I project it on the ENO board and read it aloud once, all the way through.

One Wants A Teller In A Time Like This

One wants a teller in a time like this

One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.

One cannot walk this winding street with pride
Straight-shouldered, tranquil-eyed,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.

One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:

Put on your rubbers and you won’t catch a cold
Here’s hell, there’s heaven. Go to Sunday School
Be patient, time brings all good things–(and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)

Behold,
Love’s true, and triumphs; and God’s actual.

Occasionally, a student will “get” the poem immediately, but the majority of my 9th graders are mystified. Why am I introducing this poem? What does it have to do with the story? Focused on the verdict itself—which they are eager to talk about even though they had predicted it—they don’t think of the impact of the decision on the children.

“Who in the story do you think this poem could be about?” I ask.

“Atticus,” someone always guesses. “He lost the trial.”

So. They got the gist of the poem. It’s about someone who is depressed.

“But Atticus knew he would lose—and he thinks they’ve taken a step forward because the jury deliberated for two hours,” someone else corrects.

“Tom? He lost and now he’s going to prison.”

“Boo.” Another guess.

“Miss Maudie.” A wilder guess.

Funny—if they’d examine their own reactions—shock, outrage, grief—when the verdict is announced, they’d see immediately that the poem points to Jem.

But Jem is not the “hero” of the story—or even an important protagonist like Tom Robinson or Boo. We’ve talked as a class about the symbolism of the mad dog and related rabies to the mental disease of prejudice. We’ve focused on character development and identified Atticus as the hero. We’ve examined Atticus’ definition of courage in the Mrs. Dubose chapter. But, besides noting that the children are catalysts for action and establishing that Jean Louise (the adult Scout) is a reflective narrator, we haven’t talked much yet about Jem and Scout. So far, they haven’t been a thematic focus.

I suggest that we take the poem apart, line by line. From this moment on, I am largely silent. I simply cover the poem and proceed to expose one line at a time. With its lovely “reveal” function, the ENO board helps me with this technique, but I used to do the same thing with an overhead projector. Baring even that, I could write the poem on the board, one line at a time. The strategy captures my students. They are good detectives, and they eagerly put their skills of observation to work.

First, the title: enigmatic, evocative, puzzling. Why the capitalized ‘One’? And then, it turns out, the title is the first line. The first line stands alone, the students notice. Why?

Then the phrase, “One’s not a man, not a woman grown.”

“So it’s not about Atticus.”

“But what is ‘this enormous business’?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Whoever he is, he’s walking a crooked path.”

“He’s lost.”

“Unsure.”

“Confused.”

“He—or she—can’t find his home, maybe doesn’t have one.”

“Is this about a homeless person?”

“No, I think it’s about safety. Home is safety.”

“It’s about certainty. This person is uncertain.”

“Something terrible has happened.”

“Look at those words–‘if or when or how.’ Those are question words. This person’s questions are unanswered.”

“But why is ‘Teller’ capitalized in the next line?”

“He wants someone to answer his questions. To tell him the answers. A Teller.”

By this time, several students realize it is Jem’s reaction to the verdict that I am focusing on. I can barely contain them from blurting out their epiphany, and epiphany it is: They squirm in their seats; their arms pump up and down; their faces convey urgency. Others catch on. The class knows.

But what is this last stanza? Look: The font changes. And how are all those things connected?

“‘Rubbers’ are boots,” someone says. “What do they have to do with Sunday School?”

“’Heaven and hell’.” That’s Sunday School.”

“They’re opposites. Like black and white, or right and wrong.”

“Oh I get it! The new font is the Teller talking!”

“Yes! The Teller is telling the person what to do.”

“What to think.”

“How to behave.”

“That’s what he wants. A Teller.”

“Yes. A Teller makes things simple.”

But then the font changes back.

“What’s ‘balm’?”

“Like lip balm. A salve.”

“Oh! It’s ‘One’ again—questioning the Teller. It’s ‘One’ not finding an answer.”

“Not accepting an answer.”

“And the Teller speaks again, telling him everything is okay.”

“Except he doesn’t believe it. Whatever has happened is so bad, he even questions God.”

“Wow.”

And then, silence.

When we resume talking, students are quick to say—and confident now in saying—that “One” is anyone, so the poem can apply universally. “This enormous business” is unspecified for the same reason—and that means the poem can apply to many situations.

Too many of my students have already experienced tragedy, grief, and despair in their own lives. They make the jump to divorce, separation, untimely death, to betrayal by a friend, to abandonment by an adult—to myriad experiences that could force a person to confront an unpleasant truth—and come of age.

And then they know how Jem felt.

Silence again.

Quite often, someone in the class offers a final idea.

“You know, this may be about growing up, but even adults feel this way sometimes. My mom did when my dad left.”

How right that observation is. There is no time limit on innocence, no age limit on hope.

“So it could be about Atticus. He could have felt that way and then resolved his feeling by thinking the two-hour delay in the verdict was a step forward.”

It could be, indeed. Enormous business can level us all, even a hero.

I love teaching this lesson and the technique of “unveiling” a poem. As students pick out the clues, they build meaning and expand their understanding beyond the text. They see the relevance to the story we are reading, but they can apply the meaning of the poem to their own lives as well. They think deeply about an idea—in this case, the transformative effect of a confrontation experience.

What else is wonderful is that they figure the poem out for themselves.

I don’t tell them anything.

The Text, The Students, and Me

“Mrs. Powley! How do you know all this stuff?”

I sometimes heard that question when I was the teacher at the front of the room, leading my students through Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby…and a library of other literary staples in the English Language Arts canon.

Such a remark was gratifying to hear because what it really meant was that the students had been awed by the text.

“I’ll never be able to read a book like that,” they would say.

“Yes, you will,” I’d answer. “It takes practice.”

And I had to be honest: “Do you think all this comes to me the very first time I read a book?”

I reread the text, I told them, every single time I taught it.  And every single time, I picked up on more subtleties, developed more insight, made more connections within the story and to the world outside my classroom.

“That’s what I’m trying to teach you,” I’d say. “How to read.”

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about an instructional strategy called “close reading.”  It’s the opposite of reading to get the gist of a piece; that is, reading to summarize.  The Common Core Standards document sets out as its aim that students should be able to “deeply” analyze a piece of “rich text”—it doesn’t matter whether fiction or non-fiction—in order to understand how an author has constructed meaning.

A close reading of text is a rereading of a small slice of a story (or something that is short to begin with, like a poem or an essay)—perhaps rereading it many times. Then, through careful inspection of words, sentences, paragraphs, and the way they work as parts and together as a whole, the teacher leads the students to discern the author’s meaning.  Students are guided to provide “textual evidence” that the author’s meaning is what it is. They can’t  guess, based only their prior knowledge and a cursory look at the words on the page, what the author intends.  This means, practically, that a Cliff Note’s acquaintanceship with the text won’t cut it.

The more I have read, these past few months, about “close reading,” the more familiar it has seemed to me. That’s because, in the very best of my literature lessons, that is what I had been working at for years.

Reading about this “new” instructional strategy has set me to thinking about my long journey through pedagogy and practice, about all the strategies and instructional supports I’ve used throughout the years as I’ve tried to help students make meaning of words on a page.

When I began teaching, the hardest thing for me was to get a good class discussion going.  I didn’t seem to ask the kinds of questions that led to scintillating discussions of life, death, and everything important in between, the kinds of discussions star teachers reported having, discussions where the classroom rhetoric soared and kids came away with life-changing notions about the universe and their place in it.

My questions were the standard ones—and don’t get me wrong, they weren’t unimportant—about the plot of a story, the characters in it, the symbols, point of view, setting, and how they all contributed to the themes of whatever book we were reading.  I’d plod along, chapter by chapter, and it seemed to me the conversation was stiff.  I wasn’t sure where discussions might go, what kids might say, so I pretty much stuck to the script.  Still, kids read the books and told me they enjoyed them.  (Some didn’t, I’m sure.)

I thought maybe the stiffness came from the way I was approaching the stories, so for a while I depended upon the textbook to set the pace. Sometimes, I found, those questions were fine, but sometimes I thought they required the kids to make fantastic leaps of insight.  Other times I thought they didn’t emphasize what was really important.

Like a lot of novice teachers, I used to think the textbook company was the authority on curriculum and instruction. I guess I imagined the editors sitting around having deep conversations about theories of writing instruction and seminal works of literature and the evolution of the novel as an art form.  Presumably, those fervent conversations ended with the editors scurrying to their office cubicles, like monks burning with the faith, to annotate a text and develop the accompanying questions.

Eventually, thank goodness, I realized that the editors were concerned with real things—like wooing customers and cutting production costs—and that the actual writing of the text and the materials to go with it were contracted to consultants.  Thus, the questions in the textbook were only as good as the consultant who wrote them.  And that consultant was a human being—just like me.  With that bit of enlightenment, I felt justified in choosing not to use the questions at the end or to use only some of them.

I tried various “frames” for asking questions. One that teachers use frequently to develop comprehension skills sorts questions into a three-tiered hierarchy. The first questions are “right there” in the text—a student has only to skim and scan for the answer; the second ones require making inferences—the student finds two (or more) bits of information and puts them together in her head. The third tier questions require the student to make a connection to something else she has learned in English class or in another class or even to something she knows from life experience.  Not bad, this frame, but it didn’t always serve my purpose.

There are 4-level frames and other 3-level frames, too, but none of them were fail safe structures. Besides, I’m an English teacher, and what I really wanted—increasingly so as the years went by—was for kids to see how the metaphorical language worked, how the word choice mattered, how images supported meaning, how rhetorical devices helped the writer accomplish his or her purpose.  I was interested in how the author made meaning, in the craft of writing.

I grew to dislike the 4-pound literary anthology that, for the most part, gave students snippets of text (the last one devoted exactly one page to Moby-Dick), the easiest or shortest story an author had written, and poems that were perhaps the most accessible to students but not necessarily the richest.  Today, a typical anthology is accompanied by an even heavier teacher’s edition, the pages so packed on the sides and along the bottom with suggestions for teaching that the literary text in question is condensed to 8-point type.  I could barely read it.

And that doesn’t include the ancillary materials supplied by the publisher—supplementary vocabulary instruction, grammar exercises, practice tests, overhead transparencies, writing prompts, and daily oral language items (DOL, as we say in the business)—that escalate the cost of these anthologies. So much help for the teacher is provided that I found it paralyzing.  Too many choices.

I yearned for it to be just the text, the students, and me.

And that is how I came to “close reading,” even though I had never heard the term.  I stopped plodding through the anthology, stopped trying to create artificial discussions, stopped trying to cover everything.  From a chunk of text that I believed was pivotal in terms of the story or central to developing the themes of a book or key to understanding the author’s style, I’d ask questions that demanded a close look at word choice, at sentence structure, at metaphorical language, at rhetorical devices. Slowly, sometimes dramatically, big ideas would emerge. Then kids would say, “I get it!” or “Wow!” or “Oh, my gosh.” They’d grasp the beauty of what the author had accomplished and appreciate—really appreciate—how she had accomplished it.  Sometimes we made connections from there—to their own worlds or to other things we’d talked about or they’d learned elsewhere—but these connections stemmed from real knowledge of the text, not from idle remarks, snatched from thin air.

Of course, “close reading” is not all that I did in the classroom.  And I wish I could say this kind of epiphany happened every day and every time I taught a poem, an essay, a story, or a passage from a book.  It didn’t.  But when it did, it came about from something deep inside the text, the students, and me. And it came often enough that I know this “close reading” strategy isn’t just another instructional fad.

Besides, the best teachers I know do the very same thing.  They bring their students face-to-face with the words in the text. We don’t all follow the same procedures or choose to emphasize the same thing, but we get the same results: Kids learn to read, really read.