Showing posts with label Reading comprehension. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reading comprehension. Show all posts

Monday, August 25, 2014

To Teach Comprehension Strategies or Not to Teach Them

I don’t hear anything about comprehension strategies anymore. Was that idea just another fad or are should we still teach those?

Your question raises an interesting point about American reading instruction. We tend to chase fads. Instead of building on past reforms and improvements we instead ride the pendulum back and forth.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was lots of interest in teaching students how to think effectively about the ideas in texts. There was lots of research on how to engage prior knowledge, summarize information, ask questions, monitor understanding, and so on—and lots of interest in bringing these strategies into classrooms.

Strategies engage readers in thinking intentionally—rather than just reading a text and hoping something sticks, the reader enters the enterprise aware the text is like a mountain to be scaled or a problem to be solved. In such situations, you take actions that help you to reach the goal.

Thus, readers may preview texts ahead of time to increase anticipation and to ensure that relevant prior knowledge will be at the ready. Readers may set purposes too—like turning headings into questions to be answered. As they read, they may stop occasionally and sum up the information provided to that point—rereading if there are apparent gaps.

In the strategy world, readers need to be “meta-cognitively” aware. That means, for instance, that they should notice when they are not understanding something and to do something about it (such as rereading the pages that you you phased out on, looking up a word in the dictionary, or asking someone for help).

The whole language movement has been pilloried for nudging phonics out of the primary classroom, but—something not often noted—it booted comprehension strategy teaching, too. Strategy teaching tends to be direct instruction—the teacher explains what the strategy is, how to use it, and why it’s important. Then the teacher may demonstrate the use of a strategy and engage kids in a heavily scaffolded version in which the teacher does much of the work (“This would be a good place to ask a question about what we have read. If you ask and answer questions you’ll remember more of the information later.”). Over time, the teacher would fade the support with kids doing it more and more on their own.

Strategies came back a bit during the 2000s, probably as a result of the National Reading Panel’s review of more than 200 studies showing that we could effectively teach students to comprehend better by teaching such strategies.

As your question reveals, now strategies are on the retreat, yet again. The reason this time is almost surely due to the fact that the Common Core State Standards don’t include any comprehension strategies. They don’t prohibit the teaching of comprehension strategies, but they don’t require them either.

I’ve long been a proponent of the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies, and yet, there is a part of me that says their omission is not that big a loss.

The reason for my skepticism about strategies? I’m well aware of the fact that many students—perhaps the vast majority of students—don't actually use these strategies when they read. They use them when teachers guide the process, but they don’t do so on their own. I don’t believe, for instance, that “good readers” make predictions before they read a text, even though I have no doubt that good readers could be induced to make such hypotheses under controlled conditions.

The problem is that comprehension strategies are only useful for helping readers to make sense of text that they can’t understand automatically. Many texts are easy for me to read; they are comfortably within my language and knowledge range. This morning I read USA Today and didn’t feel the need to look up a single word or to stop and summarize any of the information.

But if you asked me to read a chapter on theoretical physics—and you were going to evaluate my understanding somehow—that would be a different story altogether. Now I’d have to suit up for heavy combat, which would mean doing various things that I don’t do in my daily reading (like taking notes or turning headers into questions).

What I’m saying is that in the past we taught strategies—overtaught strategies???—but we then asked students to apply them to relatively easy texts (texts at the students' instructional levels). Now, the new standards are asking us to ignore strategies while assigning harder texts.

Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

I would encourage you to continue to teach comprehension strategies as a scaffold for dealing with challenging text. The point would be to make it possible for kids to make sense of truly challenging texts; the use of strategies could be enough to allow some kids to scaffold their own reading successfully--meaning they might be able to read frustration level texts as if they were written at their instructional level.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Grammar and Comprehension: Scaffolding Student Interpretation of Complex Sentences

I'm a fourth grade special education teacher in NYC. Our school has acquired a new reading/writing program and has discontinued a grammar program we've used for several years. In the new program the grammar component is virtually non-existent. On a gut level I feel that students are struggling with test questions, even math ones, due to lack of practice/knowledge of grammar. They simply don't understand what the questions are asking. I was wondering what your opinion/research shows as far as the relationship between grammar instruction and reading comprehension. Do you have any preference as far as grammar programs/teaching methodologies go?  

Great question. There is a lot of evidence showing the importance of grammar in reading comprehension. Studies over the years have shown a clear relationship between syntactic or grammatical sophistication and reading comprehension; that is, as students learn to employ more complex sentences in their oral and written language, their ability to make sense of what they read increases, too.

Also, readability measures are able to predict how well students will comprehend particular texts on the basis of only two variables: vocabulary sophistication and grammatical complexity. At least for the Lexile formula, grammar is much more heavily weighted than vocabulary. This means that the text factor that is most predictive of comprehensibility is how complicated the sentences are grammatically.

There are also experimental studies that show that there are ways that grammar can be taught formally that improve reading comprehension. For example, teaching students to combine sentences seems to improve how well students understand what they read. Clearly, it makes sense to guide students to understand how sentences work.

Studies of metacognition and theories of reading comprehension suggest the importance of students having a language of grammar (knowing the difference between a noun and a verb for example), and common sense would suggest that it makes sense to help students to unpack sentences that confuse them.

That doesn’t necessarily justify a lot of grammar worksheets and the like, but it does argue for teaching students about sentences as they meet them. For example, look at the following sentence from Nikki Giovanni:

“The women of Montgomery, both young and older, would come in with their fancy holiday dresses that needed adjustments or their Sunday suits and blouses that needed just a touch—a flower or some velvet trimming or something to make the ladies look festive.”

It is a long sentence (44 words), and it has lots of embedding (witness the author’s use of 2 commas and an em-dash). I surmise many students would struggle to make sense of this sentence primarily because of the complex grammar. How would you deal with this?

First, I would have the students read this page from Giovanni’s Rosa and one of the questions I would ask would be, “What did the women of Montgomery do?” Perhaps I’d find that the students weren’t as perplexed as I assumed in which case I’d move on. But let’s imagine that they couldn’t answer my question... then I’d show them how to break this sentence down.

For example, I would point out that the phrase between the commas, “both young and older,” adds an idea but that I want to set it aside for now. That would simplify the sentence a bit:

“The women of Montgomery would come in with their fancy holiday dresses that needed adjustments or their Sunday suits and blouses that needed just a touch – a flower or some velvet trimming or something to make the ladies look festive.”

Even with such a simple change, I bet more kids would understand it better, but maybe not. Let’s go further:

As with the commas, the word “that” (which shows up twice here) signals the inclusion of a separate or additional idea, and as a reader that is another point of attack that I can use in trying to interpret this sentence. And the word “or” is another good place to separate these additional ideas.

Let’s slice the sentence at the first “that” and the first “or:”

“The women of Montgomery would come in with their fancy holiday dresses”

“that needed adjustments”   

"or their Sunday suits and blouses that needed just a touch–a flower or some velvet trimming or something to make the ladies look festive."

Obviously, we could keep breaking this one down, but again, many kids would get it at this point: The women were bringing in their fancy dresses… Which women? The young and the old. Which fancy dresses? The ones that needed adjustments. What other kinds of outfits did they bring in? Sunday suits and blouses. Which suits and blouses? The ones that needed just a touch—something that would make them look festive.

The point of this kind of exchange would not be to teach grammar per se, but to help students to untangle complex grammar so that they could independently make sense of what they read. Frankly, few of our children know what to do when they confront this kind of text complexity. Kids who know something about sentences and parts of speech will be at an advantage, but they still will not necessarily be able to interpret a sentence from that alone. This kind of scaffolded analysis is aimed at both untangling the meaning of this sentence and in giving students some tools for unpacking such sentences when they are on their own.

Your reading program should provide some instruction in grammar, and it should provide you with some support in providing students with instruction in parts of speech, sentence combining, and/or the kinds of scaffolding demonstrated here. It is pure romanticism that assumes that children will just figure this kind of thing out without any explicit instruction (and it is even more foolish to assume that English language learners will intuit these things without more direct support).

Monday, February 11, 2013

Too Fluent by Half

I am a Reading Specialist at a parochial school.  I wonder if you can give me some advice regarding one of my 4th grade students. She reads very fluently, however, her comprehension is poor.  We have worked extensively on vocabulary and visualization skills.  Can you make any recommendations?

Let’s assume your description of the student is correct (that is not always the case: sometimes teachers tell me that a student is fluent, but what they mean is that the student reads the words accurately, though often too slowly and without it proper prosody or expression).

If she is a fluent reader, but not understanding the text anyway, then try something I call intensive questioning. Have her read the first sentence of a text… and before allowing her to read any more, ask her a ton of questions;

Sentence 1: “We got back from the grocery store and found the house a mess.”

1.       Where were they?
2.       What do you think they were doing?
3.       Then what happened?
4.       What did they find?
5.       Do you think they were surprised? Why?
6.       Where were they first? And, then where were they?

Then she reads a second sentence.

Sentence 2: “I had neglected to close the bathroom door again, and our Saint Bernard, Bernie, had left chewed toilet paper all over the house.”

1.       Who had caused the mess?
2.       What allowed him to cause the mess?
3.       What did he make the mess with?
4.       How did he get the paper?
5.       What kind of paper was it?
6.       What was the Saint Bernard’s name?
7.       What kind of a dog was Bernie?
8.       What did Bernie do to the toilet paper?
9.       What was the person who is telling this doing while Bernie was making the mess?

Etc. As she gets better with that, start stretching her out to read  longer segments, but still with this thoroughness of attention to meaning. (You can also turn this around getting her to generate the questions about the sentences—then trying to answer her own questions). The idea is to keep her so focused on the meaning that you break the habit of simply calling the words.

Stay with silent reading with her too, not oral (except to show evidence)… and don’t have her spending any time at all practicing fluency. But for interactive sessions, limit the amount of text (1 sentence initially) and keep the emphasis as much on recalling and interpreting the ideas as you can. I would also encourage writing, but again, with a heavy emphasis on the content that she is writing about.

Good luck.  

Recent Presentations

Here are the presentations that I made last week at the Colorado Council--IRA and the one I made at the Chicago Principals & Adminstrators Association meeting.

Friday, February 1, 2013

How Can I Teach with Books that are Two Years above Student Reading Levels?

I teach 4th grade general education. I have read several of your articles the last few days because I have a growing frustration regarding guided reading. I believe a lot of your ideas about what does not work are correct, but I don't understand what you believe we SHOULD be doing. I am confused about how to give students difficult text books to read without reading it to them. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I do not know how to scaffold science or social studies text for students that are 2 years behind without reading it to them. I also feel pressure in these subjects to read it to them because I thought it was more important for them to understand the information thoroughly by reading the text aloud, having thoughtful discussions, and follow up activities. Every time I think I know what I should be doing, I read another article and realize that I am doing that wrong too. So, please give me guidance on how to best teach nonfiction and fiction text to my class whole group. What strategies and types of activities are the best?

I feel your pain. What would it look like to scaffold a fourth-grade lesson from a social studies book with children reading at what formerly we would have referred to as a second-grade level? I think there are a number of possibilities.

First, I would “level” (pun intended) with the kids. That is, I would not try to hide from them that I was going to ask them to read a book that we would in the past have said was too hard for them. The point here is motivation. People like a challenge and kids are people. When you ask them to take on something really hard, let them in on the secret so they know to be proud of themselves when they meet the challenge.

Second, and here I have to be a bit experimental, trying some choices that might turn out not to work—or, more likely, that turn out to be not as efficient as some of the other choices. My first attempt would be to read the chapter we were going to work with, trying to identify anything that might trip the kids up: specific ideas that I thought were especially complicated or subtle or abstract, key background information that they might not know yet, essential vocabulary, sentences that might confuse, cohesive links among the words that could be hard to track, organizational structure that might require highlighting, and so on. Basically, what makes this text hard to comprehend? With that information, I would now make a decision: is the difficulty something to be prevented or monitored?

Sometimes, I will think that a problem is so big that I must get out in front of it. If there is something that you are certain the kids can’t figure out that might discourage them or that wouldn’t be worth the time, then by all means intervene early. If I think the key to understanding this page is a particular vocabulary word, I very well might explain that word before having the kids attempt the page. But often, I would rather have the students give it a try; there is nothing wrong with trying something and failing the first time. I can monitor their success with questions aimed at revealing whether they got that point or not, and I can follow up with assistance. So, if the students don't connect a particular concept and process appropriately because of a confusing cohesive link (like not recognizing that “it” referred to the planentary ring and not gravity), I will get the kids involved in trying to connect the various references throughout the text.

Third, the scaffolding described above will likely require some rereading—either of the whole chapter (fourth grade science and social studies chapters are surprisingly short, so rereading the entire chapter is usually not that big a deal). Thus, they try to read it; I question them and help them work through the problems; and then they reread it (perhaps more than once), to see if they can figure it out the second or third time.

Fourth, let’s say I have tried that and the process has been really slow and labored or the kids are being tripped up, not by the ideas, but by their struggle to recognize and read the words. If this is the case, before I even get to the reading and scaffolding and rereading described above, I would have the students do fluency work. For example, I would have the students mumble read the text (or a part of the text) at their desks. Or, I would partner them up and have them engage in paired reading, taking turns reading one page aloud to their partner, and then listening and helping as the partner tries the next page. That kind of oral reading practice with repetition can be a big help in raising the students’ ability to work with that text. Once they have read it like that once or twice, you’d be surprised at how much better they can read it for comprehension. Thus, they would then be ready for step two above. As I said, you have to be experimental—trying out different combinations and orders of fluency work, reading, scaffolding, and rereading.

This can be painstaking. But, in the end, the students will have read the material that formerly you would have protected them from. They will have both the science or social studies knowledge, but it will have come about because of their own interactions with the text, rather than because you read it to them or told them what it said. By engaging in such efforts (and this is a real effort—it involves a lot of teacher planning, modeling, explaining, etc.), the students become better able to handle harder text than they could at the start. Over time they build the strength to handle more challenging language with less teacher guidance.


Friday, June 22, 2012

We Zigged When We Should Have Zagged

I’ve been fielding a lot of complaints recently about the lack of comprehension strategies in the common core state standards. And, in fact, no reading comprehension strategies are included in the common core.
I’m asked how that can be if comprehension strategies are research-based? If the common core is aimed at making students better readers, how can they leave out instructional approaches proven to advantage students?

The fact is the National Reading Panel concluded that teaching reading comprehension strategies was beneficial. Later, the What Works Clearinghouse allowed a group that I chaired to recommend the teaching of reading comprehension strategies to K-3 readers—and they rated that recommendation as being based on strong research evidence.

Why would the common core neglect this evidence? The reason that these strategies were not included in the standards is because the standards are learning goals. That is, they are the learning outcomes that we are striving to for students to accomplish. Strategies are not an outcome. Neither the PARRC or Smarter
Balanced tests will test students’ knowledge of strategies; they will test ability to read and interpret text.

That makes sense to me (though it is somewhat inconsistent with the common core stance on “close reading,” certainly a method for teaching students to read text in particular ways). But it is a peculiar situation:
For years, we have taught students to read with relatively easy texts and have taught reading comprehension strategies. This is puzzling since the purpose of strategies is to help you to make sense of a text that challenges your linguistic skills – in other words, strategies help you to read hard text, not easy text. 

Now we are pivoting to teaching reading with challenging text, right at the point where strategies are being made optional (you can teach them if they help students to read better). We zigged when we should have zagged.

I have no problem with strategies being omitted from the standards – they are not outcomes, but tools. But they are tools that I would definitely include in my teaching regimen, particularly when dealing with challenging text.  

Monday, June 18, 2012

What is Close Reading?

The common core standards are encouraging teachers to engage students in close reading. Much of the focus of discussions of close reading have emphasized what teachers should not do (in terms of pre-reading, or types of questions). I am being asked with increasing frequency what close reading is. 

Close reading requires a substantial emphasis on readers figuring out a high quality text. This "figuring out" is accomplished primarily by reading and discussing the text (as opposed to being told about the text by a teacher or being informed about it through some textbook commentary). Because challenging texts do not give up their meanings easily, it is essential that readers re-read such texts (not all texts are worth close reading). A first reading is about figuring out what a text says. It is purely an issue of reading comprehension. Thus, if someone is reading a story, he/should be able to retell the plot; if someone is reading a science chapter, he/she should be able to answer questions about the key ideas and details of the text.

However, close reading requires that one go further than this. A second reading would, thus, focus on figuring out how this text worked. How did the author organize it? What literary devices were used and how effective were they? What was the quality of the evidence? If data were presented, how was that done? Why did the author choose this word or that word? Was the meaning of a key term consistent or did it change across the text? This second reading might be a total re-reading or a partial and targeted re-reading of key portions, but it would not be aimed at just determining what the text said (that would have already been accomplished by this point).

Finally, with the information gleaned from the first two readings, a reader is ready to carry out a third reading—going even deeper. What does this text mean? What was the author’s point? What does it have to say to me about my life or my world? How do I evaluate the quality of this work—aesthetically, substantively? How does this text connect to other texts I know? By waiting until we have a deep understanding of a text – of what it says and how it works—we are then in the right position intellectually and ethically to critically evaluate (valuing) a text and for connecting its ideas and approach with other texts.

Thus, close reading is an intensive analysis of a text in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means. In one sense I agree with those who say that close reading is about more than comprehension or about something different than comprehension, since it takes one beyond just figuring out an author’s stated and implied message. On the other hand, many definitions of reading comprehension include more than just determining a stated and implied message; such definitions include the full range of Bloom’s taxonomy in one’s thinking about and use of a text. If one subscribes to such definitions of comprehension, then close reading is just a description of a process one uses to arrive at such comprehension. 

I think with this brief description of the essentials of close reading (e.g., intense emphasis on text, figuring out the text by thinking about the words and ideas in the text, minimization of external explanations, multiple and dynamic rereading, multiple purposes that focus on what a text says, how it says it, and what it means or what its value is), teachers can start to think clearly about a number of issues in close reading.

Should I give the students a preview of a text? 
No, you probably should not, but it is not unreasonable to have students do their own look over, allowing them to get the lay of the land.

Is it okay to set a purpose for student reading? 
Yes, it is very reasonable to give students a purpose for reading (read to find out the differences between lions and tigers, or read to find out how this character deals with hard choices). But these purposes should not reveal a lot of information about the text that the students can find out by reading the text. Of course, if you are reading a text multiple times, each time for a different purpose, you might provide a lot more information on later readings. (This text used a lot of metaphorical language to describe how the characters felt, let's re-read those sections and discuss what the author was accomplishing by doing it that way.)

Does close reading require that every text be re-read? 
Yes, it really does, but that doesn't mean that every text should be given a close reading. Some texts should still be read only once; that is all they would be worth.

What if I am unsure whether to discuss prior knowledge before reading a text? 
If you think there is key information that students need to know before they read the text (something necessary for making sense of the text that isn't stated in the text), by all means tell it. If there is no  pre-information necessary, then don't make such a presentation or discussion. If you are uncertain, then let the kids have a chance to make sense of it. If it goes well, fine. If not, then add the information before the second reading. (I was just looking at an article on forest fires. "It is only partly true that 'only you' can prevent forest fires." That is a cute beginning, but I'm not sure all of the second-graders will recognize that it is referring to a Smokey the Bear line from a once-common public service announcement. I might want to clarify the source of that before students dug in. But if I didn't do that, I would definitely ask a question about this sentence, and would tell that info during the discussion. Sometimes I will anticipate and tell, but whether I do or not, I can always clarify it on discussion.

Comprehension Question

From time to time, I get letters from teachers in the field, requesting some advice. I don't always know how to reply to such queries, but here are some recent attempts:

Question 1: 
For students who struggle with comprehension, and do not seem to grow in ability to think abstractly despite HUGE amounts of scaffolding, knowledge building, etc. what course of action could you recommend?  I had a 4th grade student who could not get past text written on a 2nd grade level, despite the fact that he could decode  and read with fluency on a lower 4th grade level.  I worked with him 1-1 several times a week.  We set background, acted out information, discussed vocabulary, etc….it just seemed beyond his grasp.

This is a knotty one... and one I'm not entirely sure how to answer. It is certainly possible that the student is just low in IQ generally and consequently struggles with abstract thinking. I would certainly have to know more about what this child could or could not do (sometimes teachers tell me a student is fluent, but when we test him we find out that the fluency lags, too). Let's assume in this case that the student is smart enough to do this work and that the reading basics are in place and there is sufficient scaffolding, background knowledge, etc. I'm puzzled, but would suggest the following.

I would try to engage this child in intensive questioning (initially the teacher asks the questions, but over time, you can shift the responsibility to the child):

Sentence 1: There are two groups of planets in our solar system.
Questions: How many groups of planets are in our solar system? What is a planet? What is a solar system?
Sentence 2: The planets closest to the Sun--Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars--have a solid surface made of a mix of rocks, dirt, and minerals.
Questions: Which planets are closest to the Sun? What do Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars have in common? What is a solid surface? What is a solid surface made up of? If these are one of the two groups of planets in our solar system, then what is the second group?

Essentially you engage the student in thinking as thoroughly and deeply about the ideas in text as possible. You don't allow him/her to treat the text like it is just a source of word recognition practice? you don't allow them to get tripped up by any idea that might be confusing or that they might skip over? By engaging them in thorough thinking about the ideas (and their interconnections) you can identify any and every problem as it comes up (the student didn't know what a solar system was, so you had to explain it; the student forgot about the two groups of planets when he was reading the second sentence, so you steered him back to it before going to sentence 3). Over time, students get better with this and they can take over the intensive questioning themselves--until they don't need it.

Question 2:   
In creating a framework for ELA blocks in school districts, what are the essentials?  

The ELA framework that I use requires regular instruction in four components of literacy:
1. Word knowledge (knowledge of how to decode/spell words and parts of words, and knowledge of word meanings).
2. Oral reading fluency 
3. Reading comprehension/Learning from text
4. Writing

I would argue for 2-3 hours per day of reading and writing time, and each of the these components gets a quarter of that time. (You can also slice this into 5 and add oral language). These components are included because instruction in each has been found to improve overall reading achievement.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Part 2: Practical Guidance on Pre-Reading Lessons

Recently, I commented on the pre-reading advice of David Coleman and Sue Pimentel, indicating that I would soon follow with practical advice. In this entry, I fulfill that promise. Thank you to David and Sue for instigating these ideas, and for reacting to them along the way. I take full responsibility for the ideas expressed here (especially for any bad ones), but I appreciate the encouragement and debate that they provided (I'm sure it sharpened up the good ideas).

Currently, I am a principal investigator on the National Title I Evaluation. In that role, I have had to watch lots of classroom video over the past couple of months. These lessons are for preschool through Grade 3. Sadly, the previews to text are so thorough – painstaking and painful – that the only possible thing that students could be learning from them is that reading is unnecessary. I have watched 20-minute set ups for 5-minute reads. The blood is so sucked by these Dracula-like pre-reading sessions that the texts become lifeless. Why read if you already know everything that the text can possibly say?

Such lessons do not make me a big fan of pre-reading, so I have increasingly been won over by those who want to throw kids into the pool and get on with it. However, the common core will require that we use challenging texts and many students will struggle. Various supports, scaffolds, and motivation will be needed to allow students to read hard texts successfully. Furthermore, we need to remember that these are teaching sessions; it does not make sense to treat every text in the same way. There are times when teachers will want to focus student attention on certain aspects of a text, to try to strengthen particular reading muscles; revealing some text information ahead of time may guide that kind of heightened focus.

What counts as pre-reading? Let’s limit the discussion of pre-reading to explorations of relevant “prior knowledge,” purpose setting, contextualizing the text, previews of the information in the text, and any advice for the reader (“pay special attention to” or “ignore”). I would not include in pre-reading supports aimed at building decoding skills, fluency, grammar, or vocabulary. Such supports are beneficial and will be especially needed with common core, but preparation in these skills rarely ruins a book for the readers. Guidelines will be needed for those, too, but I will post such advice separately in a future blog entry.

There is a wealth of research showing the benefits of pre-reading. For example, providing students with information relevant to a text or making students aware of already-known relevant information improves their comprehension. The idea of providing students with or reminding them of relevant knowledge is not a bad approach, but it has run amok in America’s classrooms. I think in far too many cases, the “background” or “prior knowledge” step has become just a preview of what’s in the text—so the kids are seeing this information the second time on their first reading, or (just as bad) this information is only tangentially related to the text and therefore is useless in helping students meet the challenge of the text.

The lessons in which the teacher just tells her students the information from the text as a prior knowledge review are readily observable. Those previews that emphasize information that is irrelevant to figuring out the text may require some examples. I would include the previews that I’ve seen for The Old Man and the Sea. Kids struggle to appreciate that book, but I promise you no matter how much pre-reading information is offered about deep sea fishing or Joe DiMaggio, students will continue to struggle since that pre-reading information fails to address what is actually hard about that Hemingway classic.

Some texts may require no review of background knowledge, since the texts are reasonably complete, self-contained, and accessible. We might appreciate a particular aspect of such a text more with certain information provided, but, even without such information, we could still understand it quite well. Some texts are hard because they presuppose that a reader will have access to certain information or experiences, which is why I wonder about The Old Man and the Sea—few kids have the emotional experience to appreciate the old man’s regrets and resignation—which is why they can often retell the book, and still shrug, “so what?” I wonder if there would ever be enough time in middle school to sufficiently fulfill Hemingway’s very adult presuppositions; so, perhaps, that lovely book is a poor choice form middle school despite the tantalizingly-easy Lexile ratings. But, if it were to be used, then the type of background information to provide/elicit should be much more emotional, psychological, and inside-the-head.

So what guidelines make sense for pre-reading? Let’s try these:

1. The candle has to be worth the game. The amount of pre-reading should be brief and brevity should be determined in proportion to the amount and duration of the reading. If the text is a major undertaking (perhaps the students are reading a novella over the next 4-weeks), then devoting a half hour or more to pre-reading may not be overdoing it depending on the text. However, most texts are briefer than that and they are unlikely to require more than 1 week of lessons… in such cases, 5-6 minutes may be a lot. Definitely the amount of pre-reading time should be, proportionately, small when compared to the actual amount of reading. (In these examples, pre-reading sucks up less than 3% of the reading time—a tiny expenditure, if well done).

2. Let the author do the talking. There are exceptions to this guideline (see below), but basically teachers should try not to reveal information that students could gain simply by reading the text. Repetition may help learning, but if the text is just a repetition of what the teacher has already said, then students are missing out on the basic learning experience that reading provides. Repetition through discussion after the reading is a different breed of animal, that doesn’t spoil the quest that reading represents.

3. Pre-reading should provide a sufficient amount of information to give students reason to read, perhaps arousing their curiosity or sense of suspense. Look at these brief previews from a recent New Yorker magazine (the New Yorker usually provides the title of the article, a one sentence tease, and a one sentence caption of a photograph or drawing—thus, two sentences are the entire preview):

Profile: You Belong With Me by Lizzie Widdicombe
"Taylor Swift’s teen angst-empire."
"Swift hooked a previously unrecognized audience: teen-age girls who listen to country music."

The Obama Memos by Ryan Lizza
"The making of a post-post-partisan Presidency."
"Hundreds of pages of internal White House memos show Obama grappling with the unpleasant choices of government."

The Secret Sharer by Jane Mayer
"Is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state?"
"Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency, faces some of the gravest charges that can be brought against an American citizen."

These masterful introductory blurbs tell essential facts about the articles, they provide a reason to read, arouse interest—and do so very economically. Each one of these previews is helpful in that it reveals the topic (though more a topic sentence than a topic), it would allow one to determine whether or not to read the text, and it would give the reader an anticipation set to start making sense of the text immediately. Imagine coming across great works of literature by accident and knowing none of the background; I wonder how many of us would have kept going with Moby Dick beyond chapter 2 or Ulysses beyond the first few sentences?

4. When you do reveal text information, be strategic. There are times when I may want to reveal something about a text ahead of time—not to ruin the reading experience, but to allow for greater focus on some aspect of reading that my students need to develop. For the same reason, there will be times, albeit more rarely, when I may want to hold back information commonly available to a reader prior to reading.

An example of this strategic reveal can be taken right from television… Colombo. Here is a traditional murder mystery, except it isn’t traditional at all. The show revealed who the murderer was in the first minutes of the show. Even the densest viewer would know who did it, who they did it to, when they did it, where they did it, how they did it, and why they did it. Crazy kind of mystery, except that strategic reveal shifts the viewer/reader’s attention away from trying to solve the crime to trying to anticipate how Columbo will solve it. Having this information so early, focuses your attention on the clues differently and, consequently, you end up with a different relationship with the protagonist—you’re no longer competing against him, but are collaborating with him instead—neat trick.

If I take David Coleman’s now-famous Birmingham Jail lesson and I want the major emphasis of the reading to focus on King’s authorial choices, I might give the students background information about how King provoked his own arrest in this case and in many others, explaining his provocation strategy and the kind of response it was intended to provoke in his opponents and his audience. I might have the students read the letter not to figure out what it says, but to find examples of statements aimed at two audiences (to provoke unreasonable anger from one audience, while eliciting empathy from everyone else).

You could say that I am short-circuiting the reading experience by jumping right to that issue, but I cannot teach every text the same way and I have to recognize that sometimes a text will only be used to get at some particular aspects of learning. David is correct that if a teacher is going to devote 8 days to this text in an English class, reading it multiple times with minimal outside information is a brilliant choice as it would focus student attention on how to scale such a challenging and worthwhile text. On the other hand, if this is one of six items in my social studies text set on civil rights, students will not only read it fewer times, but the lesson may require that they read both King’s letter and the letter that elicited it, and maybe even viewing the video of Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses. In the English class this might seem like a cheat—I’ve given the students background that they may be able to infer, while in the history class the idea might be to better understand King the tactician, so weighing his response choices may be the better way to go.

Obviously, my point is that there is not a single pre-reading approach that is appropriate. There could be many such approaches, each of which could be intellectually sound and pedagogically valuable. An evaluation of the quality of such pre-reading approaches would require knowledge of the text, a grasp of the purpose of the lesson, and an understanding of what students can already do.

David Coleman, and his colleague, Sue Pimentel, fear that such strategic focus can take over the whole reading experience for students (with the teacher or textbook always pre-ordaining some narrow or partial approach to reading). They rightfully are concerned that if every, or even most, readings are carried out in such a focused manner that students will never gain the power to scale, under their own power, the intellectual peaks of a text; that the student will always be dependent upon a Sherpa (the teacher) and special climbing equipment (the textbook apparatus) that will no longer be available when the school day ends. If you always conduct pre-reading in the same way, you are probably weakening rather than strengthening the reader.

5. Pre-reading can conceal rather than reveal. I have an activity I call, “Inventing the Author.” Students read a text with all authorship information stripped away. Their job in this lesson is to read the text, and only using information provided by the text to construct a biography of the author: Is it a man or a woman? Black or white? Young or old? Democrat or Republican? Somebody with whom you’d like to have dinner? How would this author feel about the Afghan war or global warming?

Again, each “fact” that is created has to have text evidence behind it. I’ve used this with kids as young as 7. We rarely read text without some information about the author, but if you want to get at issues of persona, voice, tone, or authority, giving students less information can be provocative and useful in forcing attention to these features.

David cautions that such a lesson may point students too far out of a text, because they obviously must rely on their understanding of people and not just on the text information. I look to the research on critical reading and see that it develops in response to children’s growing awareness of human intentions and their understanding of how people behave towards each other. Good reading requires an awareness that texts are created by intentional human beings and I find that such lessons help kids to bring their knowledge of the world to the text, in very appropriate ways.

6. Not all pre-reading has to take place before reading. Okay, obviously I’m cheating a bit here. I’m playing with the fact that we can read text in parts. Let’s say we have a 10-page story, and we read each page separately, stopping along the way to discuss the journey up to that point. Those pauses might look back (summarizing, talking about what the author has revealed so far), or they might look forward (hypothesizing, predicting, girding for the next part of the reading). Thus, “pre-reading” could take place after a considerable amount of reading has already been accomplished.

Why is that important? That a lesson might include several small pre-reads rather than a single big one allows the teacher to be wisely responsive in pre-reading choices. Back to Birmingham Jail: David Coleman distributes the text to students and has them read the first two paragraphs without discussion or teacher presentation (in other words, with no pre-reading). After a few minutes, he asks who King was writing to and why he is writing this letter. The students struggle to answer those questions and rather than just telling them, David might have them re-read; but for this second reading there was a bit of pre-reading preparation—that is, the students now have a specific purpose for reading. The answers are better on the second attempt, but their vagueness may reveal that the students don’t know much about King or what he did. At that point, David might choose to provide a few biographical facts that are not in the text, as that might help the readers appreciate the value of taking on King’s arguments.

You might cluck, “I would have done that from the beginning—I know my students.” And, you might have done so wisely. Perhaps. But the point is that having the students doing the reading without training wheels, so to speak, was not only respectful, but it gave them a chance to flex their reading muscles. In this example, it didn’t work out, but worse things can happen than falling off your bike when you are learning to ride.

The example should make it clear that no matter how smart we may be, we will not always anticipate correctly, but that such errors are correctible. Anticipation is only one arrow in the teacher’s quiver; responsiveness is another. I surmise that the teacher who always anticipates that students will require lots of pre-reading background preparation is a teacher who is likely to be weak in responsiveness. Pre-reading for the first segment has to be anticipatory, but the pre-reading provided as the reading proceeds has to be responsive to the changing landscape. (Thus — a point made forcefully to me by David Coleman — forging connections of text with background knowledge is essential, and yet, these connections do not always have to be made in advance of the reading).

As with the other guidelines offered here, this one has some cautions too. You might like the idea of no pre-reading preparation to start, only offering needed information along the way. And, why not? The image of a teacher so thoughtfully guiding students, never giving away too much, always being there in the nick of time with just the right amount of info is a heroic image. But if you always were to rely on this approach, you may be less likely to stretch students out, that is increasing the amount of text between the aid stations (and, if you don’t anticipate any gaps and simply turn the students loose on a long piece without any pre-reading supports, then the time cost of frustration and re-reading go up).

7. Teachers have to read the text first. To make any of these choices, the teacher has to know the text. This might seem obvious, but way too often teachers forego reading the text ahead of time, relying on a teacher’s guide to carry them along. (This approach is one of the reasons some of our colleagues oppose core program materials; they think it fosters this kind of laziness). In fact, even with a really good textbook, the teacher has to (a) read the selection, (b) decide what the purpose of the reading lesson is, (c) think about what the students bring to the text, and (d) decide what pre-reading information to provide and when to provide it to accomplish the purpose. This process might be made easier by a good core program, but adjustments, choices, and responsiveness are always necessary. (This planning process would be even better if undertaken by a group of teachers rather than each one in solitary.)

So, briefer, more strategic and more responsive pre-reads should be the hallmarks of common core reading lessons.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pre-Reading or Not? On the Premature Demise of Background Discussions

Recently, there has been hubbub over whether we should spend time on pre-reading activities. Pre-reading refers to the stage setting that typically precedes shared and guided reading in elementary and secondary classrooms. David Coleman and Sue Pimentel who ably spearheaded the English language arts common core have been telling teachers not to engage in pre-reading activities and as a result some districts and states have already started banning the practice.

Why is this such a big deal? The background reviews and purpose setting of pre-reading are truly mainstays of American reading education, and many teachers wonder whether kids are going to be able to make sense of text without these supports. It’s times like these when many teachers start grousing about whether these experts have ever taught school (they have).

I disagree with the idea of banning pre-reading preparation, and I’ll continue to tell my students and my publishers to stay with the practice, but I fully appreciate why David and Sue would want to eradicate it. (I myself have occasionally thought about punching out a teacher during picture walk.) Prereading is often so badly implemented that it could not possibly have any good result. However, rather than ban a beneficial practice badly used, I will argue for a sound implementation. (In fact, I received emails from David and Sue just last week admitting that they have been, perhaps, too vociferous in their opposition to what could be a good approach, and we will continue a conversation towards giving my supportive counsel to teachers on this point in the future).

The idea of pre-reading has a long history in American education. In the first third of the Twentieth Century, the reading of literature in the academy was rife with author study; the idea being that one couldn’t read and appreciate fine works without a rich awareness of the author’s biography. This approach dominated high school and college classrooms and the publishing industry itself (the inclusion of extensive forewords, introductory chapters, and other similar apparatus were the norm). The New Critics bridled at this “read everything but the text itself” approach (which eventually imposed its own over-bearing rules for reading—like the requirement of avoiding the “intentional fallacy,” as if author’s don’t have intentions that can be considered interpretively by readers).

In elementary classrooms, pre-reading became a touchstone upon the publication of the teacher’s guide in basal readers. Previous to the 1930s, teachers were pretty much on their own when it came to lesson support, but the basal reader teacher’s edition changed all that. The directed reading activity (DRA), typically introduced the child to some background information, pre-taught the hard vocabulary, and provided a specific reason for reading the first page(s) of the selection. Of course, this scheme that started with basal readers in the 1930s, is now the normative practice recommended in pretty much all textbooks for teaching anything at any grade level. (In many programs, the pre-reading steps were referred to as background and motivation).

In the 1960s, winds of change (sort of) began to blow with Russell Stauffer’s ideas on prediction and anticipation as the basis of pre-reading. His directed reading-thinking approach (DRTA) didn’t so much overturn the DRA as redirecting. Instead of the teacher providing relevant background information and a reason to read, she would now guide the students to preview the material and make predictions (the predictions being the new purposes or motivation—read to find out if you were right).

The by then shop-worn practice gained an important boost in the 1970s and 80s with the research on schema theory which showed how important “prior knowledge” (that is the information that someone has prior to reading). The idea was that the more relevant knowledge you had, the better you would understand and remember the new information (P. David Pearson’s “building bridges between the new and the known”). Schema theory and prior knowledge research provided intellectual support for pre-reading instruction; research showed that previews could improve recall, inferencing, disambiguation, and put readers in a better position to recognize problems in a text.

The practice gained even more adherents with the advent of “guided reading” (this is where the “picture walk” comes in). Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell have pushed hard for strong pre-reading preparation for young children.

So, with such a venerable history, why would Coleman and Pimentel (and Shanahan) be so disgusted with the practice? Let me suggest five reasons.

1. Pre-reading takes too much time away from reading.
I recently watched a primary grade pre-reading that took 20 minutes—the reading itself only took 5. I wish I could say that kind of thing was the exception, but I see many instances of bloated, overly extended pre-reading sessions in classrooms at all grade levels (pre through high).

2. Boring!
Much of the pre-reading set up that I see is deadly boring. The kids would get a good laugh if they knew that these activities were meant to be “motivation.”

3. Pre-reading commonly focuses on the wrong information.
There is no question that some texts pre-suppose particular knowledge on the behalf of the reader. A good preview or background session can make sure that kids have such knowledge available so they can engage in a reasonably strong first reading of a text. Unfortunately, teachers and publishers often provide background review focused on information that doesn’t actually need to be reviewed. (My favorite example is having middle school students read “The Old Man and the Sea.” That book is tough for 12-year-olds as they lack the emotional experience of the old man. You can review deep sea fishing, the Florida Keys, and Joe DiMaggio until the cow comes home and it won’t improve their understanding of the old man and his human plight).

4. Previews can ruin the reading experience.
A good background review can be motivational, creating a useful anticipatory set. Too often, unfortunately, the background reviews that are provided just tell the student what the text says (and sometimes even what it means). For too many kids, the challenge of a reading lesson is trying to remember what the teacher told you the text said/meant all the way to the end of the reading so they can tell the teacher back what she told them in the first place. If the information is in the text, then let the kids read it in the text. Telling them the information ahead does not increase motivation, but instead removes any legitimate reason for reading the text at all.

5. Previews are rarely purposesful.
What you know before you read a text can have an important shaping influence on where you put your mental attention. A good introduction can give kid valuable support for engaging in a particular kind of reading (and remember we are trying to teach kids how to read effectively, we are not just reading). Too often, the pre-reading activities are generic, repetitive, and fail to provide students with any guidance that would increase their power with text. Somebody has to read the text ahead of time and make a determination of what is hard about it and why it needs to be read. That information should guide the shape and focus of the pre-reading (should we tell students anything about the author or should that be an outcome of the reading? Is it better to know the genre or to try to describe the genre based on this specific instance? etc.).

Now that you see the problem, in my next blog entry I’ll try to give some positive guidance for pre-reading lessons that I would encourage (and that I think David Coleman and Sue Pimentel could support). No reason, in my opinion, to ban this venerable practice, but there is much reason to try to sharpen and focus it to the benefit of students.