Sunday, June 7, 2015

The How and Why of Teaching the Reader and the Reading

When it comes to planning reading comprehension instruction that will result in metacognitive, self-guided, (oh well, I’ll use the term) deep readers, it is not uncommon to be stymied by an assortment of barriers. Two related questions teachers grapple with were cited in the research reported in Grant Wiggin's blog series on teaching comprehension:
  • Is there a necessity for emphasizing specific strategies if the goal is reading as an active search for meaning?
  • How can teachers teach strategies without subordinating the content?

This blog will attempt to remove the doubts those questions implyThe conclusions and observations I am about to share with you about explicit strategy instruction and its effect on students' reading comprehension, are based on my experience mediating the literacy learning of primary and intermediate at-risk students. Working with many of my students over multiple years, I was able to observe the cumulative effect of embedding my literature-based program with procedural knowledge. Facilitating reading and writing workshops in classrooms and working with students on all levels of academic ability, provided more grist for the mill.

I first plunged into teaching strategies by reading aloud and thinking aloud to my fourth grade students. I told them I was going to let them in on the things I do inside my head when I read  - things that help me understand and remember. It was my show and tell. After reading, we did a retelling of my responses and we labeled those behaviors (e.g. questioned, predicted, fixed-up confusion, inferred). After following this format for a few days, my normally passive readers were jumping out of their skin. They wanted their predictions, questions and inferences heard too. Those responsive reading behaviors were the prelude to gradually releasing control and the beginning of student-guided book discussions that became the norm.

Once the language around reading strategies was embedded in our conversations, I felt the time was right for launching my first explicit strategy lesson. High on my list of priorities was wanting to clarify what students could do when they were stuck on an inference question. However, I had reservations; I didn't know if they would get it and there was the issue of taking time away from covering content but the train had left the station. My students did get it and to say they were highly engaged is an understatement. That explicit strategy lesson never needed to be retaught. From then on when they were challenged to infer what was not stated, they were aware of what was required of them. Instead of declaring, “It doesn’t say” they moved into problem solving mode using the process they had learned and practiced. 

I realized that as long as I made teaching the reader central to my agenda, it became very natural to move back and forth between conversations about behaviors of learning and the content of the curriculum. Teaching process and product, it turned out, is a symbiotic not a dichotomous paradigm. Content is the indispensable conduit for process instruction. Before, during and after reading, we are mining text for information, ideas, concepts, author’s craft and message. The reading (content) is the focus. While in pursuit of making meaning, we learn where students’ understanding breaks down. I prefer to address those obstacles (teaching the reader) with on-going metacognitive dialogue at the point of use and then present clarifying strategy lessons during a designated time and for designated students. 

If, for example, some of your students demonstrate very poor reading recall and you are confident they are not on overload because of readability, concepts or vocabulary (easy to check), the problem could be inadequate attention to the text. A student who cannot paraphrase one or two sentences immediately after reading them needs strategies for improving his or her engagement while reading. Those strategies can be taught separately and explicitly during a mini-lesson. I start by telling  my students, "When you are reading with purpose, have a pencil in your hand. If you are not paying attention your page will be blank." Then I model a variety of ways to respond to text. Some of those responses are: 
  • Draw what you visualize
  • Draw a stick figure for each character, "collect" or infer describing words for each
  • Build a graphic organizer while you are reading
  • Jot down questions and predictions
  • Answer the questions and check the predictions
  • Chunk information 
If the recall problem is a result of perceiving the words on the page as just so many trees and students never see the forest, they need to be shown how organizing things helps us understand, remember, and locate what we want to find. Then demonstrate the strategy for chunking information using a hierarchy map (main topic, subtopics and details). It is the footprint for a paragraph or a chapter.

So here is a snapshot of  instruction that starts by teaching the reader and moves back to teaching the reading:
  • At a time set aside for explicit strategy instruction, tell the children, “I noticed you are having difficulty remembering what you read and isn’t that a bummer. Nobody wants to have to read everything 2 or 3 times. I can show you a way to fix that.” The students  tune in because the lesson will have an impact on them that they can appreciate.
  • Model the strategy for organizing while thinking aloud. Use manipulatives first, such as assorted blocks and then move to using text that is not challenging.
  • Provide guided practice with the whole group.
  • Students then continue to practice using the strategy with a buddy and being coached as needed.
  • Move back to the reading. Apply the organizing strategy using the text students find challenging to recall.
  • Students evaluate how or if using the strategy was beneficial.
The research has not been conclusive regarding how teaching students to use self-monitoring behaviors and comprehension strategies switch to auto-pilot or if, indeed, they do. However, because of my students' demonstrations of understanding, their metacognitve dialogue and the feedback received from their classroom teachers, I propose that the following teaching behaviors are  key to the transfer and application of strategy learning: 
  • Explicit intention: Don’t keep it a secret. You want students to know how to help themselves when they don’t know. You want them grow their intelligence. Let them know that in addition to all the other neat things they are going to learn, you are going to teach them those things too.
  • Thinking aloud and clarifying demonstrations: Always tell what you are doing and why you are doing it. Make the strategy lessons enjoyable, memorable and engaging. Using concrete objects increases attention and brain activity. Among the materials in my “tool box” are: blocks, Play Doh, puzzle pieces, a bag of dry garbage and fake money for a treasure hunt. These lessons stick. They create the kind of clarity that leads to control and autonomy.
  • Keep the processes of reading in plain sight: The same strategies will resurface over and over, subject to subject. We want students to see that many strategies are being used recursively as we read. Keep the dialectic conversation going between process and product.
  • Non-directive prompts: You’ve taught your students with intentionality, which you shared with them. You’ve supported them in their practice and application. It’s time to stop telling them what to do. Instead of directing students to organize the material they are reading, use an open prompt - “While you are searching your source material today to locate information for your project, what do you plan to do to help yourself understand and remember what you read?”
  • Reading response journals: These are journals where students exercise choice. They select the strategies and the modalities that work for them. The journals reflect their independent reading processes. They provide a lens into each child’s growing repertoire for processing text and meeting challenges that can be viewed by teachers, parents and very importantly, themselves.
It cannot be stated too strongly, incorporating explicit strategy lessons for understanding the Habits of Mind used by people who are highly successful at what they do, are key to cultivating success in reading. More often than not, deficits, particularly in flexibility, thoroughness, accuracy and persistence, are the underlying reason for a wide array of difficulties students face. Children can demonstrate great comprehension when speaking spontaneously about their reading but fail miserably when responding to questions and other tasks because they are impulsive or unable to work through challenges.

We have a history in education of thinking higher-level thinking behaviors belong to the high achievers. It’s important to remember, the behaviors that have been identified over the last 35 years as the essential work of reading (e.g. questioning, inferring, summarizing, synthesizing the message, and fixing up confusion) are naturally occurring mental processes. (With the exception of summarizing. Primary grade children list events, they don’t categorize them.) Walk into a Kindergarten room. The students are asking questions about the stories, asking questions about things they do not understand, inferring and getting the story message. I’ve never met a Kindergartener who didn’t synthesize the message of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

While the explicit teaching of strategies, in this paradigm, is a response to demonstrated need, strong readers should have the benefit of consciously knowing the steps of the strategies they usually use without conscious effort. That way they have a backup when they are challenged by text. They can know what to do when they don’t know. Regardless of the capabilities of the students, the strategy mini-lessons and the weaving of process into content discussions does not in any way interfere with thorough and memorable explorations of books. You can read more in my book Learning For Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners

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