Showing posts with label complex text. Show all posts
Showing posts with label complex text. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Eight Ways to Help Kids to Read Complex Text

Teacher Question:
My district is currently "grappling" with the idea of asking students to read complex text if they are significantly below the grade level. As an example, within one fourth grade class, a teacher identified that more than half her class is 1-2 grade levels below the expectation for reading (using multiple measures). Her response is to change the level of the text, and try to move the students forward. The common theme in our schools is that growth is what matters, not proficiency.

However, our new reading series expects students to perform in more complex texts. Even the "approaching" level books are above what we typically would ask struggling students to read. Could you give some specific examples of how to scaffold, when students are unable to read half the words on a page?  

Shanahan Response:
            First, if students are reading like first-graders—that is, they are struggling with decoding (and the statement that kids can’t read 50% of the words in their book sounds like kids who are more than 1-2 years below level)—then you definitely should be trying to teach them out of easier books, not grade level ones. Indeed, the complex text prescription is not for them. However, if they are that low, you should be doing more than placing them in low demand reading books. You also should be providing them with substantial amounts of phonics and fluency training in class as well (like 30 minutes per day of each), and, perhaps providing them additional training in those outside of class. 

            However, if your fourth-graders really are reading like second- or third graders then teaching them with grade level materials makes sense. It not only means that you would be teaching your students what your state has committed you to teach them, but you would be exposing them to content or ideas more appropriate to their intellectual functioning and interests.

            Second, vary the reading demands on these students who will be working with, what for them, will be challenging text. They should be doing what athletes do, which is varying the degree of difficulty when they train. Some texts should be easier, some harder—with less scaffolding and support with the easier ones, and more with the harder ones. Traditionally, experts have argued that all instructional reading should be at the instructional level; I’m suggesting that it should vary, both up and down for maximum impact. Harder texts give students opportunities to negotiate the features of text that can be barriers to comprehension, while easier texts give them the opportunity to consolidate that learning.

            Third, let the kids in on the secret. Tell them what you are doing. Make sure they know that instead of teaching them out of second grade books or other baby stuff you will be teaching them to read out of a fourth grade book; it will be harder, but also more interesting and more respectful. In my experience, which matches a lot of research on motivation, kids like challenge, especially if you’ll help them to succeed with it. The point isn’t to scare the students, but to let them know what’s going on, why you are doing it, and assuring them that you intend to make them successful. 

            Fourth, if students are far behind, reverse the order that you normally use with guided reading and fluency practice. Most teachers will have kids read a selection for comprehension in the reading group and then have them practice reading that text aloud afterwards. That way, kids can quickly accomplish fluency with a text, since they have already read it once or twice and discussed it with the teacher. However, with kids two or more grade levels behind, it makes sense to reverse things. Give those kids a chance to read the text aloud once or twice before doing the comprehension reading in the group. (This can be done lots of ways: tape recorders, parent volunteers, paired reading, echo reading with the teacher… whatever).  If kids have tried to read through the text once or twice before hand they will be in much better shape for trying to make sense of the harder text. Even though the emphasis of the fluency work would not be on comprehension, they’ll figure out more of the ideas than you might presume and, most importantly in this context, they will have figured out enough of the decoding to have “raised their level” with that text by at least a grade level.

            Fifth, preteach vocabulary that the author does not explain or define. If a word is explained in the text or you think kids can figure it out from context, do not take time to preteach it. But words that you don’t think students will know, tell them ahead of time. With fourth graders it is usually enough to give them a glossary for those words.

            Sixth, when reading the text for comprehension, chunk it into small sections (a paragraph, a page)… Asking questions at the end of each and guiding rereading when kids can’t answer the questions. As they get better with this, stretch them out, by giving them larger chunks.

            Seventh, go through the text and identify particularly complicated sentences (e.g., long sentences, sentences in passive voice, sentences with multiple clauses). During discussion time, ask a question about the ideas expressed in those sentences. If students can’t answer them, then take them back to the sentence in the text and show them how to break it down to make sense of it. It’s amazing that teachers, who are often willing to guide kids in breaking down multi-syllable words, don’t provide similar support with complicated sentences.

            Eighth, pay special attention to cohesion… kids get lost in synonyms, pronouns, etc. Get students to be explicit about who “he” is, or what animal was being referred to as “the mammal.” There are exercises that can be done to strengthen these skills, like drawing connecting lines between those words, but it can be enough to question kids closely about those relations.

            Even more can be done, but those supports are substantial and effective. There is an extensive body of research supporting their effectiveness, both in improving student reading achievement and in transforming frustration level text into instructional text.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Fine Mess: Confusing Close Reading and Text Complexity

We just started close reading in our district last year. Our second graders were given text that was a grade level above their reading level. We were told to let them figure it out. They could not even read the first sentence it was too hard for their reading level. The reading coaches said they will learn to read it by letting them struggle with it. The kids would become so upset and began to hate reading because of they were so frustrated at how the district was making us implement close reading. For it to be of any value should the text not be on their instructional reading level?

            A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers, and says, “Five beers, please.”

            What do these two stories—the one about close reading and the one about Roman numerals—have in common? They turn on knowing what you’re talking about.

            If you don’t know that the Roman numeral for five is a V and that holding up two fingers looks like a V, you won’t get the joke. It won’t be funny.

            And, when district leadership doesn’t understand what close reading is or what it’s connection to complex text might be, the results aren’t funny either.

            One more story and I’ll provide some explanation that might help.

            A curriculum director invited me into her district. “I want you to make two presentations. One has to be on close reading, and do you have a suggestion for a second talk?”

            “Yes, I’d suggest that I talk about complex text.”

            “But that’s the same thing as close reading, isn’t it?”

            I’ve had that exchange several times over the past two years. I think for too many reading leaders, the two concepts—close reading and complex text—are confounded. I think it’s that confusion that’s leading to such bad decision-making.

            Let’s clarify both concepts… and see what that suggests for classroom practice.

            First, close reading. Close reading is an approach to literary interpretation—though it can be applied to at least some informational texts, too. It is an approach proposed for literary critics, and it is one widely taught in American universities. As such, it doesn’t focus on issues like word recognition or decoding, or even on basic reading comprehension, only on high-level interpretations or analyses of text.

            Originally, close reading was a push back against the idea that one had to study an author’s biography, or the historical period that a text came from, or even what the words meant at the time they were authored.

            To read a text closely one must only rely on the words in the text and their relationships to each other. They don’t turn to other sources. Close readers learn to notice metaphors or symbols, interesting juxtapositions of information, ambiguities, and the like (clues authors might have left behind to reveal the text meaning to those who read closely).

            The Common Core State Standards require that we teach students to be close readers—to not only grasp the literal and inferential meanings of a text, but to understand how an author’s word choices and structures convey higher-level meanings; how to figure out the subtler aspects of a text.

            As such, close reading only makes sense is if texts have deeper meanings. If there aren’t deeper meanings requiring such text analysis, then close reading would have no value. That means close reading requires certain kinds of text complexity.

            And what do the standards mean by text complexity? Like close reading, it isn’t explicitly defined in the standards, despite being central to them. A close reading of the standards and their appendices suggests at least two meanings of text complexity.

            One of those meanings is particularly relevant to close reading. We want our children to read high quality literary and informational texts. These texts should have depth. If we only read such texts carefully, but without conducting a close reading, we would likely end up with only a superficial understanding. Thus, in the past, if students read the “Three Bears,” we’d want them to be able to conduct a retelling of the story or to complete a story map with all the key plot details.

            A close reading of the Three Bears, however, might lead us to examine language that is used repeatedly (“someone’s been…), or why Papa and Mama Bears’ belongings are always inappropriate for Goldilocks, or the significance of the special relationship Goldilocks seems to have with Baby Bear’s possessions (she breaks his chair, eats his porridge, and falls asleep in his bed). The Three Bears would be appropriate for close reading because it includes words, structures, and literary devices that one can analyze to figure out what the story means and how it works.

            But I said there is a second definition of text complexity. That second definition has to do with language complexity—how well a reader could make sense of text features like vocabulary or grammar or how ideas are linked across the text. These features have more to do with how well an author’s language choices match up with the readers’ language proficiency. Thus, if the author uses words like ebony, porridge, clearing, latch, and peeped to tell the story, readers might get tripped up just following what was said if they don’t even know what those words mean.

            The first kind of complexity—the literary, symbolic or poetic complexity—is not measurable with Lexiles, Atos, or any of the other schemes for predicting how well readers will do with a text. The second kind, the linguistic complexity, can be measured or predicted by tools like Lexiles. We might say a text is fourth-grade level because texts with language like that are usually understood by fourth-graders; it is a kind of prediction. When you say the text was a grade level beyond your students, that’s what you are talking about.

            Now here is where people get tripped up. The standards require that we teach kids to read complex text closely—which means exposing them to texts that have symbolic or poetic complexity. Those texts could be easy to read (in terms of recognizing the words and knowing what they mean and being able to handle the sentences), but hard to interpret. The standards do encourage kids to struggle, but the struggle that is intended is a struggle to make sense of those more complex ideas and those more subtle aspects of how an author tells something.

            The standards also call for kids to learn to read text that has more sophisticated language. But that requires that we gradually ask kids to read a series of texts that stretches them while providing them with any necessary scaffolding that well help them to figure out what a text says. These supports may take the form of phonics guidance to help them decode particular words, the preteaching of vocabulary, or supports in making sense of the grammar of a sentence.

            Your coaches seem to be mixing these concepts up… So…

  1.       Make sure that close reading is focused on texts with the appropriate kinds of depth. These texts do not need to be “hard to read,” but, indeed, they might be confusing or frustrating to students. Don’t give into that frustration by just telling them your interpretation of the text but definitely engage them in a productive struggle with those big ideas.
  2.       Make sure that kids are getting opportunities to read texts that are at the specified reading levels set by your standards. These texts are likely to be somewhat hard to read—in terms of decoding, vocabulary meaning, grasping what the author is explicitly saying. As such, they might not be the best texts for close reading.
  3.       When you do ask kids to read texts that are hard to read, you need to be prepared to scaffold—to give students supports that will help them to make sense of the text; helping with decoding, preteaching vocabulary, breaking down sentences, connecting pronoun referents, making sense of organization, etc. A productive struggle here means helping kids with the difficult stuff so that they can learn to figure it out on their own.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Further Explanation of Teaching Students with Challenging Text

Last week I pointed out that from grades 2-12 it wasn’t necessary to match students to text for instruction to proceed effectively. Research has not been kind to the idea of mechanical “instructional level” criteria like 90-95% accuracy (e.g., Jorgenson, Klein, & Kumar, 1977;  Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, Morris, Morrow, et al., 2006; Morgan, Wilcox, & Eldredge, 2000; O’Connor, Swanson, & Geraghty, 2010;  Powell, & Dunkeld, 1971;  Stahl, & Heubach, 2005;  Stanley, 1986).

            Language learning doesn’t work that way.

            That got lots of response, online and off. Some of it quite angry, too. Although I answered many queries and shout outs, I thought a little more formal response this week might be in order. Here are some key ideas when thinking about teaching kids to read with more complex text than we might have dared to use in the past:
1. No, easier text is not more motivating.
            Several respondents thought it only common sense that students would be frustrated by harder texts and stimulated by easier ones. I know that feeling. I shared it much of my career until I analyzed the evidence.
            One thing researchers have found repeatedly is that student readers tend to select books at their frustration levels for independent reading (e.g., Donovan, Smolkin,  & Lomax, 2000). Of course, with really low readers, what else could they choose? But this appears to be the case for the better readers, too. I guess their curiosity about the content of the harder materials outweighs their fear of failure. Looking back, I did a lot of that kind of frustration level reading myself as a boy—not always fully understanding what I read, but learning much from the struggle.
            Researchers thought students would lose motivation when reading harder texts (Fulmer & Tulis, 2013). Reality has been more complicated than that. Readers’ motivation does vary across a text reading—but degree of difficulty doesn’t seem to be the source of that variation.
            And, the idea that we want students to be challenged, but not too much—they can miss some specific number of words, but only that number and no more—just hasn’t panned out. When learning and book placement have been studied there has usually been no connection at all or the harder placements have led to more learning (in other words, our relatively easy book matches may be holding kids back, preventing them from exposure to more challenging features of language and meaning).
            If we are going to make these decisions based on our imaginings of how children must feel, then not only should we think of how frustrating it might be to struggle with a text that contains many words you don’t know, but we should consider how boring it must be to always deal with content aimed at younger kids who already can read as well you can.

2. No, not all texts need to be at an instructional level.
            If one challenges the idea of placing kids in instructional level books to facilitate learning (e.g., guided reading, Accelerated Reader), why is the alternative to only place kids in frustration level texts? The idea that all reading should be at the instructional level is wrong in part because of the inherent notion that all reading experience should be at any particular level. Text difficulty should vary; kids should move across a range of texts from easy to difficult.
            In the teaching of most skilled activities (e.g., foreign language, dancing, bicycle racing), the idea is not to protect the learners from harder applications of those skills, but to vary the routines between relatively easy challenges and those that scare and potentially embarrass the learner. If you have any doubt, go learn to do something.

3. No, text level is not the only feature of the learning situation that can be varied.
            Not only should texts vary in difficulty, but the amount of help, guidance, explanation, and scaffolding ought to vary, too. When kids are placed in frustration level texts they need greater support than when they are reading instructional level or independent level texts—just the opposite of what many of our instructional routines provide.
            I should intentionally place kids in easier or harder text and should add or withdraw support based upon need. When kids are in easy texts, the training wheels can be taken off. When they are in harder texts, as a teacher I need to be prepared to offer greater guidance and support. That means easier texts when reading with 30 kids, and harder texts—certainly beyond the normally prescribed levels—when I’m sitting closely with 6-8 kids and can monitor more closely and intervene more easily.
            If your teaching skills are so limited that the only way to protect kids from failure is to keep them always in the shallow water, then so be it. But for most of us, there is a greater range of pedagogical response available that would allow kids to swim often in deeper water without drowning.

4. No, more challenging text will not disrupt kids’ development of decoding skills.
            I heard from some last week that if you placed kids in more challenging texts then they just guessed at words. That might be true if you were to do this with beginning readers, but grade 2 is not beginning reading. Kids should be placed in relatively easy texts initially (grades K-1), texts that have clearly decodable or consistent spelling patterns.
            Then when they start taking on a greater range of texts—when they can read a second grade text, you will usually not see that kind of guessing based only on context. In any event, whatever patterns of reading behavior are elicited by such challenging text matches at that point, they have not been found to slow kids’ reading development or to disrupt their growth in decoding ability from that point. In fact, O’Connor and her colleagues (2010) have not even found it to be an issue with our most struggling readers—those older learning-disabled students who might still be trying to master many of those beginning reading skills.
            I understand the concerns and discomfort in putting kids in frustration level materials given all the reading authorities that have told you not to do that. But a careful review of that advice reveals a shocking neglect of studies of doing just that. No one, however, is saying just throw kids into hard text and hope they make it. One wouldn’t do that with beginning readers, and when kids are ready for such immersion tactics teachers have to teach—it isn’t like those routines where you hope the text is easy enough for kids to learn with a minimum of teacher help. And, finally, much learning comes from practice under varied levels of complication and difficulty—just because traditionally you were told all reading instruction should be at the instructional level doesn’t mean that when teaching with more complex text that you should aspire to such uniformity.

Donovan, C. A., Smolkin, L. B., & Lomax, R. G. (2000). Beyond the independent-level text: Considering the reader-text match in first graders’ self-selections during recreational reading. Reading Psychology, 21, 309-333.

Fulmer, S. M., & Tulis, M. (2013). Changes in interest and affect during a difficult reading task: Relationships with perceived difficulty and reading fluency. Learning and Instruction, 27, 11-20.

Jorgenson, G. W., Klein, N., & Kumar, V. K. (1977). Achievement and behavioral correlates of matched levels of student ability and materials difficulty. Journal of Educational Research, 71, 100-103.

Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., Morris, R. D., Morrow, L. M., Woo, D. G., Meisinger, E. B., Sevcik, R, A., Bradley, B. A., & Stahl, S. A. (2006). Teaching children to become fluent and automatic readers. Journal of Literacy Research, 38, 357-387.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., & Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113-119.

O’Connor, R. E., Swanson, L. H., & Geraghty, C. (2010). Improvement in reading rate under independent and difficult text levels: Influences on word and comprehension skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 1-19.

Powell, W.R., & Dunkeld, C.G. (1971). Validity of the IRI reading levels. Elementary English, 48, 637-642.

Stahl, S. A., & Heubach, K. M. (2005). Fluency-oriented reading instruction. Journal of Literacy Research, 37, 25-60.

Stanley, N.V. (1986). A concurrent validity study of the emergent reading level. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Florida.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

On Climbing the Mountain: Four Ways Not to Deal with Complex Text

            Anyone who has taught reading—or really any course that requires a textbook—knows about kids who struggle to make sense of the text. Often they don’t even try. The text just looks hard and they’re ready to run.

          We’ve been talking a lot about complex text since the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) burst on the scene. But most of that talk has focused on how to find texts that meet the complexity requirements of CCSS. Or how to ask questions that probe that complexity.

           I’d suggest thinking about complex text the same way that your students do. “It is just a big formidable SOB of a mountain and I might not be able to get to the top—so it isn’t even worth giving it a try. I didn’t want to learn about science anyway, or this darn story about talking animals. All that I know is that it makes no sense and I’m going to just look stupid if I try.”

           Of course, our own feelings as teachers complement the kids’ anxiety darn well. “I want this lesson to move along. I want to make sure that everyone understands what the Louisiana Purchase was, how Nick felt about Daisy, or how even Templeton contributed to what the animals were trying to do.”

            Accordingly, teachers, both good and bad, have come up with a set of routines for dealing with those challenging text situations. Routines well honed for disguising the fact that the kids can’t climb that mountain. It’s a vicious co-dependency. We don’t want the fluidity of the lesson to be interrupted, we want our kids to walk away with the required info, and we want to do it on a tight timeline. And no one should have to work too hard or be embarrassed by the failure; a tacit agreement not to teach as long as the kids don’t make us look bad. (And from their view: we agree not to make them look bad, by bothering them with our darn teaching).

            Not good for anyone.

            What routines have we developed that we need to avoid?

1.    If a text is challenging, find an easier one.

            I’ve written about this before, but it’s probably enough to say that, beyond beginning reading levels, there is no evidence that kids have to be taught with a particular level of text.

            Imagine trying to climb a mountain, and the teacher says, “That’s all well and good. I’ve got a hill over here for you to climb.” That doesn’t satisfy. In fact, it just makes sure that the kids don’t get to take on texts that are at their intellectual or developmental levels.

            What if we changed it up? If a mountain is high, we simply help them to climb. With appropriate supports and scaffolds, it can be done. The next time you think about moving kids to an easier text, think about what you could do to get them up the real mountain rather than the instead one.

2.    If a text is challenging, read it to them.

            I’m a big fan of reading to kids. I never taught a day of elementary school in which I didn’t read to them, and I read to my daughters until they were in 7th and 8th grades.

            However, there are books that are perfect for reading to kids, and there are books that they are supposed to read. If there is a social studies textbook, the kids are supposed to read that. If there is a core reading series, that’s on the kids too. Reading it to them, or doing the round robin thing—having other kids read it to them—will not get them up the mountain either.

           Oh, they’ll know more about the mountain if you read about it to them, but they won’t actually know because they won’t be able to get there.

            If you want to transfer information to the kids, then read it to them. If you want to teach them to get information independently, then teach them to read it.

3.    If a text is challenging, tell them what it says.

            This is very popular in the upper grade content classes. Teachers often tell me that they can explain the concepts more clearly than the textbook can. And, man are some of them good at ‘splainin’ and powerpointin’. But ultimately this suffers the same problem as reading the challenging texts to the kids. It just tells them what’s on the mountain without allowing them or enabling them to summit for themselves.

           Telling someone what a text says is just a good way to make the text not matter. Why read the text if you already know what it says? (Teachers who do this often tell me that the kids are “allowed” to read the texts. My response: “Good luck.”)

4.    If a text is challenging, ignore the problem.

           I see this one, too, though not as much as I used to: Teachers who assign a text and ask questions, calling on the hand-raisers, and moving on. They don’t usually manage to get anyone to the top of the mountain who wouldn’t have gotten there anyway and they leave a lot of kids at base camp—with neither any idea of how to rise or even sense that anyone cares that they get there.

           If you want kids to learn to read complex texts, you are going to have to let them try to read complex texts. Without reading those texts to them. Without telling them what they say. But, you do have to provide them with guidance, support, scaffolding, explanations, and any other help that will allow them purchase on the techniques that will allow them to make progress up the mountain.

           Let’s swear off our avoidance techniques. Let’s break the co-dependency. And let’s teach kids to read demanding text. It’s time.