Friday, July 19, 2013

How Does a Teacher of Literacy Approach Close Reading and Common Core Targets?

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       While channel surfing the other day, I stumbled upon an old Family Ties episode where teenaged daughter, Mallory, finally decides to stop her usual procrastinating behavior and study for finals.  Michael J. Fox's character, Alex, awakens at two a.m. to find Mallory asleep with her head in her textbook.He calls her out on her slumber, and not willing to admit it, Mallory spits back, "I was still studying.  I was just reading closely."  Obviously, the close reading that Mallory was participating in is not what the creators of the Common Core had in mind for students and was in no way helpful in making Mallory a more skilled and critical reader.  My worry is that unless we, as educators, make it a point to understand the our role in the process of close reading, students may not get much more out of reading closely than Mallory did using her textbook as her pillow.

        In his blog entry "Close Reading With Adolescents," Tim Shanahan reminds educators that close reading is not a teaching technique;  Instead, it is an outcome.  What does this mean, really?  Well, it means that teachers cannot simply announce to students, "Class, today we are going to read closely!" and expect miracles to ensue.  Simply requiring students to reread the same piece multiple times, especially if the piece is quite challenging, is not enough to develop literacy in our students. To illustrate, my ten-year-old son recently was struggling with understanding the directions to a Lego building kid.  He couldn't figure out what he was being instructed to do.  If I had simply told to go back to his room, reread the piece three more times, talk to his brother about it (who I believe knew less than he did) and then write about it, I doubt he would've understood what to do any better than the first time through. He needed explicit instruction from me.  I needed to help him to navigate the text features, and break down some of the complex sentences into pieces that made sense. Please do not misinterpret what I am saying to mean that no value exists in reading the same thing multiple times.  On the contrary, I believe that this experience is essential for students when delving into sophisticated passages.  In fact, in previous blogs, I have actually advocated for this experience and have witnessed magic happen when a student finally is able to put the pieces of a challenging text together.  However, I agree with Shanahan that it is the tools that teachers help students develop that lead them to be able to read closely when provided with the opportunity to read a complex piece multiple times.       
          What tools and strategies will you give to your students so that they can better navigate texts, understand what to do when meaning starts to wane, and organize their thinking about the text so as to understand it on a deep level?  If you are unsure,  my recommendation would be to begin to read books like Close Reading of Informational Texts by Sunday Cummins or Notice and Note by  Beers and Probst and decide for yourselves which strategies would work best for your students.  Ideally, of course, it would be best if these decisions about which tools to use were made at the building level so that students would become familiar with a common language from class to class and year to year.  Consistency between subjects and grades is always what is best for students.
         To summarize, we need to remember that we are teacher's of literacy and not teachers with literacy.  In other words, requiring students to read and write daily in our rooms is important but also need to be accompanied by explicit instruction and modeling of reading strategies.  Consider the following sixth grade CCSS informational text learning target:  CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.2 Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details;  If I am a teacher with literacy I may spend time creating the perfect graphic organizer for students to list out main ideas and supporting details.  I will model how to fill in the chart for students.  I will give them plenty of time to practice and collect their work to assess how they are progressing on this particular target.  I will undoubtedly find that some students master the target easily and others continue to be confused about the central idea and appear to have misconstrued the author's message.  So I give them more practice and more charts. I might ask myself:  why are they still not getting it?  I may grow frustrated when the same students continue to misinterpret the text, list supporting details as central ideas, and still appear to struggle with this learning topic.  I may even complain to my colleagues:  "I just don't get it!  I've been teaching this same target for weeks! I've modeled how to complete the chart!"   As I write this, I cringe remembering the times that I've found myself the teacher in situations very similar to this one. I'd been  a teacher with literacy.
          On the other hand, a teacher of literacy, recognizes the need to help students interact with text before immediately moving to the target-aligned graphic organizer. Modeling the chart is not enough just as asking students to closely read without giving them tools to do so is insufficient. In Close Reading of Informational Texts, Cummins recommends modeled lessons on annotating and analysis of text features, prior to introducing the THIEVES strategy which helps lead the students to deciphering the central idea. Students need to understand how to interact with the text while reading and be given explicit instruction on using text features to their advantage if they wish to determine the central idea of a text.  It is only after these key lessons are taught successfully, that the teacher of literacy, might move to the targeted lesson:  using the THIEVES (title, headings, introduction, every first sentence in each section, visuals and vocabulary,  end-of-the-article questions, summarizing thinking) strategy to help students decipher the author's main message.  
        Will there still be students who struggle?  Probably.  But the teacher of literacy will already have determined who these might be and have devised a proactive plan to support each of these students.  For example, he/she might elect to visit them first when independent work time occurs, or he/she might ask them a few guiding questions prior to asking them to complete the chart.  In any case, those who struggle will be fewer because they will have been explicitly taught the subskills needed to achieve the Common Core learning target.  The creators of the Core have told us again and again that the outcomes are non-negotiable, but how you get there is up to you.  Make sure the journey you lead your students through is paved with plenty of opportunities for literacy growth. 

Click the link below to join in close reading discussions with colleagues.
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