Sunday, August 11, 2013

Text Dependency is Too Low a Standard

Common Core advocates make a big deal out of the idea that questions should be text dependent. This means you shouldn’t be able to answer a question without reading the text. By all means ask questions that require reading.

However, this is a very low standard. Many text dependent questions simply aren’t worth asking.

Last week I met a teacher who was trying to generate every literal question she could—long lists of questions. She was interpreting close reading as “thorough reading” and she was making sure that her first-graders missed nothing; no detail was too trivial for her text dependent questions.

However, close reading does not necessarily require this kind of intensive, thorough, literal reading.

Close reading asks readers to understand what the text says, how it works, what it means, how it connects up with other texts, what value or quality it has… but none of this requires the reader to come to terms with every fact in a text.

The key is to ask questions that are not only text dependent, but that guide the reader to accomplish those interpretive goals. To do that the questions have to emphasize what is important in the universe of the text.

For example, in some literary texts the names of the characters really matter. In Steinbeck’s East of Eden the brothers’ names are Caleb and Aaron and their initials correspond with those of another set of rivalrous brothers, Cain and Abel. It is a literary allusion and recognizing it is essential to interpretation. Likewise in Moby Dick, all of the characters share names with Biblical figures; again, allusions. And, it matters that the betrayed wife in The Great Gatsby is called Daisy, since nature serves as a key symbol in that book. 

But character names don’t always carry deeper meanings. It doesn’t really matter much that Tom Sawyer is named Tom or that Becky Thatcher is Becky. If they were Bill and Lizzie, it wouldn’t change much. The same is true for Bigger Thomas in Native Son.

Thus, asking about the names in East of Eden, Moby Dick, and Gatsby would make sense because there is some chance that these questions would encourage the readers to notice these key interpretative details, while asking about the names of the characters in Tom Sawyer of Native Son would emphasize text dependent, but trivial information.  

Ask questions that are text dependent by all means, but make sure they help students to accomplish the key interpretive goals, and that focus on important ideas.

5 comments:

readndr said...

And this is why I am putting Common Core on my ongoing list of "Good Ideas Gone Bad" in the world of literacy education. The potential for misinterpretation and misunderstanding is rampant. I have heard teacher after teacher equate "text dependent" questions with the lowest levels of Bloom's Taxonomy or - if you're a QAR fan - the "right there" types of questions. Asking a well-developed and insightful text dependent question, like the significance of Daisy's name in Great Gatsby will be dependent upon having insightful, well-read teachers. I'm afraid these are few and far between.

John Brandt said...

Combine this with ubiquitous ScanTron (ScornTron) machines in faculty lounges and students will think reading involves lower level questions, not analyzing, predicting, contrasting and/or evaluating.

John Brandt said...

Combine this with ubiquitous ScanTron (ScornTron) machines in faculty lounges and students will think reading involves lower level questions, not analyzing, predicting, contrasting and/or evaluating.

Anonymous said...

this is why a comprehension CONVERSATION with a child allows the teacher to make a judgement about how well a child is understanding a text they've read and what strategies they use for understanding further. fascinating what you teachers are doing in the united states.

Anonymous said...

I define text dependent as having children analyze and make observations on the text that they can use the text to support...not on answering low level questions. When you read about text dependency it doesn't emphasize low level questions...but actually higher level questions that might not be answerable before reading the text but are after reading the text. This gets away from the text and me questions...which can be very difficult for our disadvantaged youth. Example...Write about a time you had to stand up for something in your life. Most fifth graders have never had that opportunity. A text dependent question might be, "Why was Abraham Lincoln's fight to end slavery so controversial? What outcome do you think he sought and what outcome did his choice lead to? Use evidence from the text to support your point of view." (Lincoln's Last Days would be the anchor text.) I guess it is all in how you interpret text dependent.