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Monday, May 27, 2013

Charts and Worksheets in the English Classroom: Use with caution!

        When was the last time you sank down into your favorite couch with a good book in one hand and a Starbucks Frappuccino in the other?  If you are an educator, you will probably need to stretch your memory back to sometime last July when you were not bogged down with suitcases of essays and catalogs of grades to record.  But try to recall a time when you were all set to lose yourself inside the pages of another world when you suddenly realize that you did not have an inference chart and pencil handy. Leaping from your comfortable position on the sofa , did you head to your computer to print out that inference chart, complete with three distinct columns --your background knowledge, your text evidence, and your inferences-- before you could even fathom beginning that book?  
             Most of us would never even briefly entertain the possibility of filling in an inference chart while pleasure reading.  The process would be intrusive, time-consuming, and  downright irritating.  Why, then, do we require our students to do just that?  Back when I taught English I know I was one-hundred percent guilty of asking students to fill in charts, logs, and complex bookmarks to prove to me that they had taken time outside of class to do the unthinkable:  read for pleasure.  And what was the outcome?  Those students who despised reading refused to partake in these assignments.  And do I blame them? Not only did they have to participate in what they perceived to be the detestable act of reading,  but they also now had to do the one thing they abhorred more than reading:  they had to write about it.  For these students, it was a no-brainer: they didn't complete the reading or the assignment attached to it.  And the students who already read voraciously, hiding novels inside their textbooks during science class?  These students completed the required work and resented me for it, perhaps enjoying their pleasure reading a little less.
         So if my ultimate goal was to increase pleasure reading and foster lifelong reading habits in all of my students, I would say that I failed miserably.  I am sure I would've had much more success if I had instead provided more authentic ways for students to learn about new books that they might find interesting:   book talks, student blogs, and informal discussions. I could have shared with them "book hauls" on you tube that depict teens chatting about the books they've purchased and read, and I could have even encouraged (but never required) students to create their own book hauls to share with others.
Book Haul Example by Katytastic

   Or, if I were feeling really creative one day, I could even have transforms my classroom into a quaint restaurant and given students an opportunity to participate in a "book tasting" as pickshel from flicker has, setting the latest titles in the middle of each red-checker-lined table for students to "taste" and explore. 
picture by pickshel

 I am sure that  even doing something simple like giving students time to --gasp--read in reading class would have also helped increase students' desire to read for pleasure.  In fact, I am positve that anything would have been better than the system I had used to hold students "accountable" for pleasure reading.  Accountability and pleasure?  Do we typically need to be help accountable for things we enjoy?  If I had focused on the enjoyment more, the accountability would have taken care of itself.  When was the last time any teenager anywhere needed to be forced to do something he or she enjoyed? 


             Outside of pleasure reading, however, there will come a time when you want to teach the inferencing process explicitly to students, and what better way to do than with that same three column chart I'd used during independent reading time?  After all, students who struggle with reading may not necessarily know how to make an inference if explicit modeling of the process  does not occur.  Thus, I would agree that a chart could work.  However, I would like to argue that anytime we introduce a chart or worksheet in our classrooms, it is our specific job as educators to teach students how to wean themselves off of this same chart.  After all, what is my ultimate goal when introducing the inference chart with students?  I want them all to be able to make appropriate inferences while reading independently.   My ultimate goal is not to produce students who are great at completing charts.  So, if  introducing a chart or worksheet in a class is necessary,  I make sure to do the following:
  1.  I explain why we are using the chart in the first place.  Even if I think that I have already explained this several times, I can guarantee at least one student in the class has tuned out and is under the impression that the chart is just my way of buying time for the next twenty minutes of class:   "Now that we have discussed what the term inference means, I have created this inference chart as a way to remind you of the steps you should take when making inferences as you read."
  2. I model my use of the chart with students.  Even if using the chart seems to be completely obvious, I can guarantee at least one student might be confused by the process.  Have you ever tried using another teacher's lesson plans without talking about them first?   How did it go?  Students need to see and hear you using the chart, to understand how to use it:   "Let me show you what goes on in my head as I am making an inference and how I can use the chart to help guide my thinking..."
  3. I tell students explicitly that  it is my goal for them to stop using the chart as soon as possible:   "I do not sit at home and fill in a chart every time I make an inference while reading. I would hate that.   The chart is only here for practice.  Once I see that you are making inferences on your own, you will no longer need to use this chart.  You will still be following the steps in the chart, but they will be done inside your head."
  4. I slowly remove the chart from individual students,  when my anecdotal notes suggest it is appropriate.  For example, if students are filling in the chart appropriately, I may suggest that they use the chart but now speak their inferences aloud to a partner.  The next step may be for students to read and code a text, annotating the places where inferences were made on their own with the chart inside a folder to be used only if needed.
  5. I make sure I revisit the skill, even after the class has completely weaned itself from the chart.  If we have moved on and are now discussing context clues, I am sure to remind students that good readers use multiple strategies as they read, and that they should still be making inferences every time they read.   I have found that if I don't explicitly remind students of past skills, they either forget they exist or think that they only need to be executed at the teacher's request.
        My ultimate goal:  to make students more self-aware of their own thinking while reading.   While I am not completely against charts and worksheets, I believe that we need to be careful about how and why were are using them.