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

Friday, January 24, 2014

Close Reading of Informational Text

     "Close reading" is a colloquial term used by scholars in several fields of study. Prior to its re-emergence as a big idea since Common Core has lionized it, Cyndie Shanahan and I did a study with mathematicians, historians, and chemists. Several of these disciplinary experts mentioned close reading, though they clearly didn't all mean the same thing. Only in literature or, more exactly, literary criticism, is close reading used as a term of art.

      The conception of close reading that is embodied in the Common Core standards is the one drawn from literature. However, it is not a particularly doctrinaire version of the concept, so it really can be applied across the curriculum, though it will require a bit of stretching here and there. There is more need for stretching with some texts than others. For example, in some ways a literary close read is sort of an attempt to read stories and poems in the way mathematicians read math, so math reading wouldn't require much of an adjustment. However, history reading tends not to be so single text focused so some variation is in order.

      One basic idea often stressed in discussions of close reading is that the teachers' role is to ask questions about the text. However, let's not take that too literally. That could be questions that guide a discussion, but it also could be tasks that require students to analyze the same information, such as a writing assignment or some other kind of task, like the one in the attached Powerpoint. I was asked by Lesley Morrow (Rutgers University) and the New Jersey ASCD to speak to a group of New Jersey educators about informational text and close reading. Here is the presentation.

Powerpoint Presentation

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

How bad are the Common Core lessons on the Gettysburg Address? and other insights


My friends at the Thomas Fordham Institute asked that I weigh in on the controversy over the close reading lessons being touted by School Achievement Partners. I wrote a blog for their site and have included a link to it here. You might be interested in my assessment of those lessons and on some of their claims about close reading. Here it is:

Commentary on Gettysburg Address Close Reading Lessons

Since I was posting that article, I thought it would be a good time to provide a couple of other links. This fall, I had an article in American Educator about how Common Core is changing reading lessons:
American Educator article on Reading Lessons and Common Core

I also published an article in Educational Leadership on the emphasis on informational text in the classroom.
Educational Leadership Article on Informational Text

I hope you find these links useful. I appreciate the generosity of the Thomas Fordham Institute, the American Federation of Teachers, and the ASCD for making these available to you.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Some Recent Questions, Explicit and Implied


Aren’t non-fiction and informational text the same thing?
No, they are not. Informational text is factual, but that isn’t the point (or it isn’t the only point). CCSS is emphasizing the reading of literary and informational text to ensure that students are proficient with a wide variety of text. If the distinction was just fact vs. fiction, then text could be limited to narratives. Kids need to learn how to read exposition and argument as much as stories. Each of those types of text has different purposes, structures, graphic elements, text features, etc. And, that’s the point: exposing kids to all of those elements.

Isn’t close reading just highly accurate reading?
There are many good synonyms for close reading: analytical reading, critical reading, deep reading… careful reading is certainly included in each of these, but it is not a very good synonym. Close reading engages students in making sense of what a text says or implies, but it is more than this. A close reader makes logical inferences, but is aware of the inferences and recognizes the evidence and reasoning on which they are based (good readers can distinguish what they have been told from what they have assumed). Close readers don’t just get what a text says, but how it works, can evaluate the accuracy, quality, and value of the text, and compare the text with others.

My school uses Gates Foundation Units. That means that they are aligned with the Common Core, right?
While it is true that the Gates Foundation generously supported the development of the Common Core that doesn’t mean that everything that they support aligns with Common Core. Various Gates supported curricula have been appearing, and they have nothing to do with Common Core (they represent the interpretations of the common core of the individuals who got the Gates funding).

We don’t have to worry about implementing the common core because the states are dropping out?
Actually, no states have dropped out, but a few have talked about it and one (Indiana) has put it on pause to study whether to drop out. Also, Alabama has decided not to be part of either testing consortium. However, these “second thoughts” don’t have anything to do with pedagogical judgments (can we teach these effectively?), kids’ educational needs (are these appropriate for what we want for our own children?), or even the economic needs of our society (how well do students need to read, write or do math to grow our economy?). The disagreements have been about states rights and politics—this isn’t really an issue of deep political concern, but clearly some politicians hope that it will be. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Diane Ravitch v. Tim Shanahan: Informational or Literary Text

Yesterday, I debated the literature-informational text mix recommended by Common Core with Diane Ravitch on Minnesota Public Radio. Not a bad discussion all in all. A few observations: (1) Press and media are starting to get wise to the fact that the common core does NOT require that we diminish literature in the curriculum, but they still want a contention hook as the price of admission for their attention to common core. (2) Many of the observers up in arms over this issue claim that literary interpretation transfers to all other life pursuits. Thus, if you can read Ulysses, you will have no problem with DNA, microchip design, or relativity; or if you want to invent you must be imaginative, and you can't be imaginative unless you read fiction or poetry (I know the latter would surprise many scientists and engineers who do an awful lot of the world's inventing, but are usually a little low on things literary). Literature reading is, indeed, valuable, but so is science and history reading. Here is the recording of our Public Radio discussion:


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Willful Ignorance and the Informational Text Controversy


Recently, I wrote here about the issues of informational text and literature. Since then, there seems to be even more controversy and teacher confusion.

In the past, most states required the teaching of literary and informational texts, though they were not very specific about this imperative. The National Assessment has long used a roughly equal mix of literary and informational texts in their testing, a feature replicated by many state tests. During the past decade, elementary reading textbooks have been rebalancing their selections, including more informational text all the time.

Nevertheless, there has long been an imbalance in the coverage of literary and informational texts in American classrooms. My advisor, Dick Venezky, was writing about this in the 1970s, and even earlier Nila Banton Smith documented how much we have protected children from various kinds of texts durig various eras of American educational history.  

Reading teachers as a group tend to love prose fiction and they want everyone else to love, too. Not surprisingly the international comparisons have found that U.S. kids do better with literary texts than informational ones (not the pattern among our trading partners). That’s imbalance is troubling because informational text includes the reading of science, history, mathematics, business, health, finance, engineering, journalism, anthropology, political science, economics, and environmental sciences.

Why so much hubbub about common core encouraging greater attention to informational text? Initially, I think it was due to honest confusion.

The standards said that 50% of elementary reading should be informational and by high school this grows to 70%. But does that pertain only to the English Language Arts? How precise do we need to be in accomplishing that division of coverage? And how do we count it?

Let’s take these questions one at a time. The first question is extremely important to high school English departments, where, not surprisingly, there has been great concern about this requirement. They need to understand that these requirements govern not just the ELA class, but students’ entire school reading experience. Thus, how much informational text students need to read in any class is somewhat dependent on what they are doing in their other classes. There would be much less informational text burden in ELA if kids are reading in their other classes.  In most schools, an English class makes up about 15-20% of the students’ instructional day, say one of six periods… they will have to read a lot of literature in an English class to ensure that 30% of their reading time is literary. Bring on the poetry, short stories, novellas, plays, etc.

Another thing that teachers should not be worrying about is whether the mix is actually 55% or 72%. These numbers are approximations, meant more to give a general idea of emphasis rather than a strict prescription. Personally, I would vary from these depending on how the kids were doing.

Finally, the counting problem is something I have wanted to write more about since last I broached the subject. I explained the problems with counting words, pages, or selections. Sue Pimentel, one of the authors of common core, wrote to me (I will soon print some parts of our communication on this) indicating that this division is expressed in terms of time. Thus, we are speaking less about a program or a set of materials, and more about student experience.

Yesterday, the Huffington Post reported on a critique of this aspect of the common core by Sandra Stotsky. Sandra has been upset about this issue and believes that the common core will lead us straight to hell because it will disrupt the literature curriculum. This is important, according to her, because students learn to think when reading prose fiction.



Today, Sue Pimentel provides a well-reasoned response to Stotsky’s commentary showing that there is still a major emphasis on literature in English classes within common core.



Although I appreciate Sue’s attempt to clarify this matter, I doubt it will do much good. Sandra’s opposition is not due to a lack of understanding of the standards, but to “willful ignorance” or the willingness to ignore any facts that may stand in the way of her arguments.

She knows, for example, that the 50% and 70% guidelines have to do with students’ school days rather than their English classes alone. I’ve explained that to her myself, and she has acknowledged it. Nevertheless, she writes as if this guidance is only for the English teacher and as if students should only be reading in the English class (which certainly contradicts the fine work she herself has done on the value of civic literacy).

Stotsky herself believes that English teachers should guide student analysis of rhetoric (in speeches, essays, and criticism), but indicates that it doesn’t matter how much of the informational text is made up of such texts. In other words, she is all for the use of informational text in the English classroom, but she doesn’t provide any guidance as to how much of this might make sense.
One of the problems is that Stotsky embraces an idea that has long been rejected by psychologists. She believes that students develop the ability to think analytically from the reading and discussion of literature, much as educators a century ago believed that it arose from the study of Latin. Edward Thorndike slayed that dragon by showing that teaching something specific like Latin does not change us cognitively in general ways. Enabling someone to analyze Latin grammar doesn’t improve their ability to analyze other kinds of ideas (in fact, getting learning to transfer continues to be a staggering problem in teaching).

The problem with willful ignorance is that it attempts to win the argument by confusing the subject. When I was on the National Reading Panel there were critics who claimed that our report said  phonics was the most important aspect of reading instruction or that we were trying to reduce the emphasis on reading comprehension and vocabulary. The problem is not just that these criticisms were wrong, but that those who leveled such claims often knew they were wrong. They wanted to stir up opposition by spreading already-disproved claims.

In any even, I, too, am committed to the teaching of literature (one of my daughters even majored in English at Kenyon no less)… but while literature is valuable, so is history, economics, political science, biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. There is no empirical evidence showing that reading texts drawn from any of these fields of study will enhance your general thinking ability—but they all teach you how to think about certain aspects of the world. 

And isn’t that the point? The truly educated man or woman is not knowledgeable of Twain and Shakespeare while being ignorant of Darwin and Einstein. Students need to develop power over ideas—and those ideas should not be drawn from a narrow pool.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Informational Text: Or How Thin Can You Slice the Salami


As most of you know, the common core state standards (CCSS) make a big deal about informational text. Unlike typical state standards, CCSS treats the reading of informational text as being as important as reading literary text. That is a wonderful shift and one that could bear real benefits for children.

Of course, this is not a new issue. When I was in graduate school (a long time ago), one of my advisors, Richard Venezky, published a wonderful article entitled, Crossing a Chasm in Two Leaps. In it, he detailed how children were confronted by the problem of literacy. They first had to learn how to decode and read literature and then if they accomplished that successfully, they then had to master informational text. His not-too-subtle point was that when jumping over chasms one should try to get all the way across on the first jump: students needed to have more experience with informational text from the get go.

Importance of Informational Text 
Why is informational text so important? First, is its role in learning. Look at a typical high school curriculum. Students take an English class where they read literature, but they also take a World Culture class, a biology class, an Algebra class, etc. In other words, most academic learning opportunities involve the reading of text that is not literary. Of course, it is even clearer in the workplace. When was the last time your boss asked you to read a novel, short story, or poem? From the most basic health and safety forms, to the detailed reports and specs of various jobs, one finds nary a poem.

Another reason is that many kids prefer informational text to stories. That one upsets many reading teachers and English teachers because we so resonate with a good story. It is hard to accept that many kids prefer to curl up with a good book about computers or dinosaurs. It takes all kinds.

Needless to say, I’m happy the CCSS emphasize info text (and the new assessments are going to treat informational and literary texts as co-equals, too).

However, I’m getting queries from educators about the right mix of texts. David Coleman and his crew put out specifications telling what percentage of daily reading needs to be informational, and all of a sudden I’m hearing that reading textbooks have to be 50-50 or 60-40 in their mix of literature and information. (The Chicago Tribune even did a front-page story on this because it is such a big deal in the schools).

What does the research say is the best mix of text to foster optimum student learning?

Research on the Mix of Literary and Informational Text 
The research is silent on the issue. No one has any evidence that one mix or another is best or worst. It is certainly clear that our predominant emphasis on literary texts in elementary schools and English classes makes no sense, given that our kids do worse with informational text than literary text (according to PISA, the international comparisons). Earlier in the decade analyses indicated that elementary reading textbooks were about 80-20 in their emphasis on literature, and in schools where textbooks weren’t used, the imbalance was often even worse.

When someone tells you 60-40 or 50-50 or anything that specific you can be absolutely certain that they made it up. Ignore made up statistics or at least ask for a source of evidence. Given the certainty in these prescriptions I’m surprised we haven’t been told that the right mix is 53.65%-46.35% (with rounding of course).

Let’s get down to basics. The whole idea is to provide kids with a really good mix of literary and informational reading experiences so that they have sufficient opportunity to gain both sets of skills.

Coleman and company called for a 50-50 split between literary and informational text in the elementary school. But that doesn’t mean a core program has to include a 50-50 split of materials, since Coleman’s estimate has to do with all classroom reading, including reading subject matter materials in science and social studies.  

Text Throughout the Curriculum 
In other words, you can’t just look at the books themselves. How much reading are students actually doing throughout their school day? This is often quite limited–even just a few minutes a day according to some studies (teacher’s often don’t use textbooks in those other subjects—some districts have even stopped providing such texts; and even when they do the teacher may be doing the reading—which doesn’t count).

It is a rare school district that has any idea how much reading its children are engaged in throughout the day in the various subjects—and it varies quite a bit by classroom. To ensure a 50-50 split in student experience would require knowing those statistics (in fact, studying the classrooms would be every bit as important as studying the textbooks themselves).

In a classroom with lots of other reading, it would be okay to have a reading program that had a larger proportion of literary text than informational, while in a classroom with little such reading, something more in the range of 50-50 would be essential to give kids anything like the envisioned experience.

What is Informational Text and How to Count It
Another complication is that not all non-fiction selections are informational text. Informational text is text that provides information about the social or natural world, and deals with classes of objects and experiences rather than individual instances. Thus, an article about spelunking would be informational, but a narrative that tells the story of someone’s actual spelunking adventure would not be. Or, an article on porpoises and how they communicate would be informational, but Flipper’s life story falls into the literary pot (even though it might be a true story). In many cases, people are counting up all their non-fiction and claiming it as informational. Frankly, the skills needed to read a fictional story and a true life story are not so different; making sure that kids get a lot of non-fiction reading experience won’t suffice. Of course, if educators and publishers don’t know the difference between non-fiction and informational text, any text counts they provide will be misleading.  

Another counting complication has to do with whether you count words, pages, or selections. Two programs may have a 50-50 mix of literary and informational text when counted by selection, but even with that students could end up spending too much time on literary text because the literary selections average 20 pages each and the informational ones only 5. If the short reads are informational and the extended ones literary (including biographies, autobiographies, true narratives), then your program is not balanced.  

I think the notion that there is a specific mix of texts that has to be included in a program is just too simplistic and it trivializes what the common core is getting at (remember there is no research on what the mix should be in terms of kids learning). Coleman put out those 50-50 estimates to emphasize the equal value of these texts in student learning, and that reading/literature programs could not continue to be as imbalanced as they have been.

The Real Point
The real point is that students must be engaged in a substantial amount of reading experience with both literary and informational text. If a program obviously provides that it would be foolish spending a lot of time trying to make sure that they are balanced in any particular way. It is essential that we beef up informational text learning, and kids have been getting too little experience with such texts (perhaps some imbalance will be needed for a while to allow kids to catch up with informational text). But the common core does not require any particular mix of texts in a reading program or a literature program, nor should it.

That the elementary reading experiences should be substantial and roughly balanced in its attention to informational and literary text is fair guidance. As is the idea, that secondary reading experiences should be even more substantial, and should accord even more attention to informational text (perhaps two-thirds to 80%).

If you are an elementary teacher or principal and you are trying to select a textbook or to assemble your own units, you need to ask yourself:  Given the amount of reading that our students are engaged in throughout our curriculum, will this new material be sufficient to ensure that students will learn to deal with both literary and informational texts. No one can tell you the exact mix that should be there and counting all of this is complex, but I would say anything in the 60-40—40-60 range is likely to be appropriate depending on how much reading students are engaged in all of their subjects. Trying to come up with something more exact than that is like slicing the salami so thin that it can’t be tasted.

In terms of high school literature anthologies, again, attention must be given to how much students are reading in their subject area classes. If they are reading very much there, then a literary anthology would only address perhaps 20-40% of the students’ school reading. If I do the math right, then by the guidelines being bandied about, an anthology could include zero to 25% informational text. But that would be problematic, too, since 0% might mean that students would get no experience in analyzing the rhetoric of speeches, and the reading of essays, journalistic writing, and literary non-fiction. That obviously is too little even though it falls within those general guidelines. But 25% seems too high to me; in such a school that needed to devote a quarter of English instruction to those types of text, I would work harder to get the rest of the faculty to beef up their text use rather than reducing the reading of stories, plays, and poems.

Please pass the bologna.