Teaching the Kids to Read, Again
I've struggled with content-area literacy for years. I've tried out many strategies - previewing, teaching lots of vocabulary, looking for main ideas, etc. - and found them helpful, but only to a point. The kids still have a lot of trouble learning new information from a non-fiction text.
Last week, I talked to them about checking your own understanding as you read, and we explicitly practiced this technique. I had them discuss the text with a partner in order to make them slow down and check their understanding, and because two heads are better than one, especially when you're learning something new.
I noticed that their notes ranged from quite organized and useful to very disorganized and not useful. Some students wrote answers to the focus questions that I provided in such a way that, when they do not have the questions in front of them, they will not be able to understand what they were writing about. For example,
"because it isn't moving in the direction of the force"
I realized that I needed to model notetaking for them, possibly by showing them several examples of notes on the same passage, and having them discuss which ones would be most useful for studying at a later point.
As I began thinking about today's lesson - another reading-oriented lesson, this time about machines & mechanical advantage - I realized that there are several aspects to successful content-area literacy. The goal is that the students will be able to learn new material from a text with little support from the teacher. The first thing they need to be able to do is figure out what's important in the text. Then they need to be able to reflect on it and play with it in their heads until they are sure they understand it. Finally, they need to write down the most important points and whatever supporting details they need in order to remember and review it later on.
Last week's lessons were concentrating on the middle step - checking your own understanding, grappling with new material. I had a plan for the final step - using examples of bad, better, and good notes to help the students improve their own notetaking. I needed a plan for the first step, figuring out what the key ideas are in a non-fiction text.
I've struggled with this in the past. I'll ask kids for the definition of a word that is clearly defined in the text. If the definition takes more than one sentence, they will often write down only the first part of the definition. If it is located before the word itself in the paragraph, or anywhere except immediately following the new word, they will sometimes miss it completely, writing down whatever follows the word in the sentence. The same is true with new concepts. They have a hard time figuring out where the explanation of the concept begins and ends. In science texts, a concept may take more than one sentence to explain, yet they will often write down the very first sentence that seems to relate to the concept. They have a hard time differentiating between definitions, concepts, and examples, and will interchange the three in response to questions about the reading.
There is an element here of lazy reading, and sometimes an element of inappropriately applying reading strategies taught in earlier classes. You can imagine teachers telling students to look for the definition after the word - often true, but not often enough to make this a surefire strategy. Anyway, how much more powerful it would be if the students understood how to recognize a definition wherever it might be located! But the students' trouble with these texts is more than just laziness and misusing strategies: the task is hard! They don't have the strongest reading skills, and I'm asking them to simultaneously intuit the structure of the article and learn the content of the article. Structure helps us unlock meaning, and meaning helps us grasp the internal structure of what we're reading. Not knowing either is pretty hard!
How could I teach them to see the structure of the textbook chapters without over-simplifying? Outlining is tricky; when I've used it in the past, I've found that the text doesn't fit neatly into an outline - the books will use different color and size headings inconsistently, even within a single chapter. So much for that. And in order to keep us from jumping out of the window in boredom, the authors mix-up the writing style. Some paragraphs do not begin with a topic sentence and end with examples. Words are not always defined immediately after they are introduced. Examples may be given before or after a new idea. So, there aren't any simple rules to help them locate certain kinds of information.
In the end, I made a list on chart paper:
The Textbook Contains...
1. Introductions to catch your attention
2. New vocabulary & definitions
3. New concepts/ideas
4. New formulas
5. Examples to help you understand
6. Diagrams & pictures to help you understand
I talked about each item on the list, giving examples from recent reading. We discussed which of these you should always write down in your notes (#2, 3, 4) and marked them with a green dot, which you should sometimes write down in your notes (#5, 6) and marked them with a yellow dot, and which you don't need to write down in your notes (#1) and marked that with a red dot. What I like about this list is that it will be easy to add to if I discover any other kinds of information contained in the text, but it's still a fairly concise list.
Then I had them read one paragraph. After we read, I asked them which items from the list were included in that paragraph. They correctly identified the sentences that were introductory, the sentences that were definitions, the sentences that provided examples. From there, it was easy to model what to write in one's notes, given that we'd already talked about which categories of information should be written down.
We continued this process as we read the rest of the page, one paragraph at a time. It was slow-going, but in a way that emphasized for me exactly how hard this task really is. When you take the time to use the structure of the text to find the important points, and then you take time to discuss them or think about them until you understand them, and then you write down organized, useful notes, well, that's a lot of tasks to manage while still following the flow of the text.
I can use this lesson plan again and again over the next few months, giving them more independence and building their skill in figuring out what is important and how the text is structured. It is explicit and prescriptive, but I think flexible enough to apply to many kinds of texts and many different reading levels. And it feels real, helping them learn to think the way people really think when they read. It might be just me, but most notetaking systems feel really artificial even if they are useful. I want them to become fluent readers and learners who can internalize a system for figuring out any text without needing to fold their paper any particular way or force text to fit a rigid outline structure.
An extension might be to give students a photocopy of an article or a section of the textbook, and have them highlight or underline different types of text using different colors. For example, they might highlight all definitions in pink, all examples in yellow, all concept explanations in blue. I have some students who will probably struggle with using language clues to recognize each of these types of information, and I think marking it visually might help them. We'll see.