Monday, February 18, 2013
Question: I have taught elementary and currently teach middle school language arts. One thing that has been bothersome since I began teaching middle school is a lack of differentiating instruction to students’ needs. I am trying to research best practices and lead an action plan for my school as I work towards my masters. I understand that students are now expected to read at a more difficult and complex text level with CCSS. I can’t imagine handing out a text of the same difficulty level to 30 students and expecting the same results. There still needs to be varying levels of text in a classroom. How would you suggest meeting the varying levels of students in your classroom? How should the lesson delivery look? I have been concluding that small group explicit instruction, with more complex text would be somewhere to start with students who are my least capable readers. It would be a goal to confer with these struggling readers daily if possible. Other research I have conducted states that one-to-one or homogeneous small group instruction garners the best results for teaching. I would provide more freedom with my more accomplished readers knowing they already have the skills and understanding of how to dissect a more complex text. Do you believe whole class direct instruction is a best practice for teaching our readers? I have been arguing that our classroom teachers need to homogeneously group students and target specific reading skills that they are lacking. There has been a lot of discussion about guided reading and CCSS, I believe what I have discussed adapts elements of guided reading to meet some of CCSS. Thank you for your response.
What a thoughtful set of questions.
I would say that while you can’t imagine handing out text of the same difficulty level to 30 students, you might want to give it a try. Ask yourself: If everyone has to learn to read this text, what supports are different students likely to need to read it? In other words, I think in reading we’re all in a bit of a rut when it comes to differentiation. You can vary more than the text itself. (If we were having kids practice for the 50 yard dash, we wouldn’t have some of them work on the 25 yard dash, but we might give them different supports and encouragements).
For example, let’s say that I have some lower students who are going to struggle to read this like text; that is they are going to struggle with word recognition and fluency. Perhaps you could have those students working on their fluency with that text, prior to the group lesson. Paired reading/partner reading, repeated reading, reading while listening, etc. could be a real help to them. It may also be helpful for you to parse the text for them, showing them where the pause boundaries are. That way when these students start to work on this text for comprehension sake, they will read it at a much higher (and closer to the others) level.
Then, when you do bring the group or class together to take on that text meaning, you will have to have various supports and scaffolds ready. How are you going to divide the text up to work through it? With an especially varied group, shorter segments are best. Which vocabulary are you going to preteach? Which sentences do you think the grammar will trip the kids up? Which cohesive links are hard to follow? Anything about the structure that you will need to draw to the students’ attention? Is the tone important? Subtle? What help could you provide with it—without telling kids what it means or how it works? Some students will, indeed, need more of these supports than others, but that is the kind of guidance that will be necessary.
Is it best to teach whole class or small group? They serve different purposes. Large group/class lessons allow me to cover a lot of information with everybody in an efficient manner, but it is difficult (though not impossible) to monitor success or to drill down and help individuals (again, there are important exceptions).
Small group is best for lots of interaction and response, you can maximize individual participation and really hold participants more accountable. No question about it; I would rather work with a small group of students who are struggling with a hard text, than a large group of students, some of whom are struggling and some are not. At least when my goal is to maximize the support.
I don’t think there is a best way to teach when it comes to small group/large group. They serve a different purpose and we need to move between them with some frequency. I would say the same thing about dealing with challenging text: you don’t want all the text to be really hard or really easy; you want kids to have a range of reading experiences even within each day. Push them through something really difficult and challenging, and then ease off the pressure by having them read something relatively easy.
Friday, February 1, 2013
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.