Saturday, August 13, 2011

Blocks, Chunks and Breakthroughs

In my last blog, I compared the importance of the key strategies within the complex processes of reading, writing, and problem solving to the microchips within a computer -- faulty microchip, malfunctioning computer. See if the key strategy lesson below could be a useful addition to the repertoire of intervention tools you bring to your class this year. The following blog post is an edited excerpt from my book Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners.

The reading workshop is underway in Ann Daley‘s 4th grade classroom. This morning Ann is launching the study of an important reading strategy. The entries in the students‘ reading response journals and the observations she has made during literature discussions demonstrate that many of her students have difficulty remembering what they read. They need to reread in order to respond to the text, and their recall is sketchy and lacks cohesiveness. Disorganized ideas and the absence of indented paragraphs in the students‘ writing confirms her supposition that many of them have not developed an awareness of the organization of text. Several strategies can address her students‘ poor recall, such as visualizing, questioning, and predicting. However, Ann has decided to begin mediation by teaching her students to summarize or chunk information while they are reading. 

Organizing ideas is central to understanding and remembering. She decides to make this core strategy the focus for the explicit strategy lesson of her next reading workshop. Her lesson is based on the analysis she did of the steps we take when we organize text. (See Learning for Keeps, Chapter 4 for a tutorial in unpacking the steps in a strategy.)

Explicit Strategy Lesson with Concrete Materials


When everyone is gathered, Ann begins by telling her class that sometimes when she is reading, she gets to the bottom of the page and realizes she doesn’t really remember what she read. She asks the students if that ever happens to them, and there is a silent chorus of nods. She adds that this is particularly true when she is reading something she isn‘t really that interested in. This last statement generates enthusiastic agreement and knowing smiles. She tells her students she is going to show them one way she helps herself understand and remember what she reads.

Ann explains that understanding and remembering is always easier when we put things together and organize them in some way. She reaches into a plastic bin beside her chair and takes out a box of assorted blocks, which she dumps out on the table in front of her. She asks the students if they would be able to describe what is in the pile. “Can you tell how many colors there are? Is it clear if there are more red ones or green ones? How many blocks are there all together?” She asks them what they would do to make the pile clear and easy to understand. Ann tells the students, all of whom have already raised their hands, eager to reply, to turn to a neighbor and share their answers with each other.

After the class has shared their ideas and agreed how they would organize the blocks, Ann invites her students to put their hypotheses to the test. Students take turns separating and organizing the blocks by their shared characteristics. Ann smiles to herself over the wonder of kids in the computer age clamoring to get their hands on a few blocks. When the matched blocks are arrayed in columns, Ann emphasizes the difference organization makes by asking some questions that require gathering information and making comparisons the students could not have made when the blocks were in one big pile. She relates these observations to other places where objects are organized, such as rooms, drawers, libraries, and supermarkets. (She would extend the experiences with manipulative materials if the students‘ ages or cognitive ability warranted it).

Ann then tells her students that we can also group or chunk information in the text we are reading to help us understand and remember. She instructs her class to watch and listen as she chunks the familiar story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. She tells them that because they know the story, she is going to tell it very quickly, and when she is finished, she will ask them to tell her what they observed. Ann picks up a marker and places a stack of 6 x 8 index cards in front of her. Speaking quickly, Ann tells the story; however, when the tale transitions from one scene to the next, she stops and exclaims, “Wait a minute. That sounds like a new episode is starting. It‘s a new scene. It‘s different from what was happening before. Let me stop there and think about what I found out.” She reviews the details and asks, “What are all those details talking about” Ann thinks aloud as she makes the connection. Then she writes a summarizing sentence on an index card, such as “Goldilocks helps herself to the bears’porridge.”

When Ann has finished modeling the chunking of the story and has placed the index cards on display, she asks the students to retell what they observed. She records the steps of the strategy so they are on view. Then she asks her students to think, pair, and share the answers to these questions: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? While the students are responding, she circulates and listens for their ability to articulate what they are learning and makes notes regarding which students need more time, coaching, and practice to process the concept of chunking information

Following the group share, Ann prepares her students for the transition into two groups--one will receive guided practice in summarizing text and the other high-ability group will resume work in their literature response circles.

Differentiated Group Practice


Ann’s teaching is grounded in her commitment to enable her students to be self-guided learners. The structure of her program, the nature of her interactions with her students, and her responses to their challenges are always geared to build their awareness of the behaviors they need to succeed and to release control of those behaviors to her students.

The guided reading portion of the reading workshop puts her students in the driver’s seat as soon as they are aware of what they need to do and have an understanding of the processes needed to do it. Therefore, instead of preparing students for their reading by guiding their predictions, clarifying new vocabulary they will encounter, and anticipating the literary devices the author uses, Ann asks the students to apply the strategies she has modeled and select the behaviors that will serve their purposes before, during, and after reading. She provides support by coaching her students through the challenges that arise.

The students who have demonstrated a need to improve their recall remain in the gathering place with Ann. She tells them that they are going to work together to get practice in organizing or chunking a story. She has picked a piece of material that is well within their independent reading level. After briefly reviewing the strategy, the students in the group take turns reading aloud and stopping when they think a new episode or chunk has started. When there is a difference of opinion, Ann encourages a dialogue over the decision process, knowing that the separation of the episodes is not as important as the students‘ conscious attention to organizing information.

Before the students draw a picture representing the thrust of each episode along with a main-idea statement, Ann takes them through a rehearsal. She wants to mediate their processing of the text and encourage visualization. She asks, “What will be in your picture? Where will you place the characters?” She notes the students’ ability to generalize ideas from the details. While her students are busy selecting markers and drawing, Ann checks in with each child by asking, “So could you teach me about what you are doing?”

When Ann and the students have finished collaborating on the chunking of the story, she has them reflect on the use of the strategy and ask any questions they may have. Ann tells her students they will have an opportunity to recall and discuss the story the next time they meet. At that time they will evaluate the use of the chunking strategy and she will give them feedback on the difference in their ability to remember what they read.

During the weeks to come, the guided reading blocks will move from teacher-directed activities to cooperative group activities and then independent work. Ann will model how to use the chunking strategy to mark episodes with highlighting tape, map a story, take notes, and summarize. She will ask the students to evaluate their recall and understanding and compare what they are doing now with what they used to do.

Differentiated Cooperative Group Practice


The literature study block of the reading workshop enables students to work in small groups and share their reactions to thought-provoking children‘s literature or informational text. Ann is confident that she can balance both the aesthetic enjoyment of reading good literature and the investigations in expository material with instruction that builds expertise. She uses the extended text as a stage for the students to select and apply the strategies they have been learning. The global and interpretive questions she poses focus her class‘ attention on higher-level thinking, deep processing of information, and the search for meaning.

Ann joins the students who have been working in small collaborative circles on the books they have selected for literature study. After conferencing briefly with each group about their work and coaching students who need support, she gathers the small groups and poses the question, “What devices does the author use to hold your interest?” She asks these more able students to apply the summarizing strategy to an analysis of their book‘s plot structure. They will need to identify the main episodes as they read and record them on 8 x 10 index cards. By attaching the sides of the cards with yarn, each group will construct a story line that reflects the rise and fall of tension in the plot. They will have to locate the literary devices the author uses to move the story along such as a surprise, suspense, or disaster. The groups can use their completed story lines for a book sharing with the whole class. (See Learning for Keeps,Chapter 5 for examples of independent practice, application, and transfer of strategies.)

I hope this lesson will spark conversation and ideas about explicit strategy instruction. I would love to hear from you.