Hopefully I’ll be catching several of you at my presentation later on today at the Minnesota English Learner Education (MELed) Conference where I’ll be discussing the dynamic duo of syntax and close reading! However, do not despair as my blog entry this week summarizes my thoughts made and strategies shared at the conference. And a bonus! Conference attendees (& everyone else!) can download the 2 handouts with no log in required. But do so quickly, as I’ll be storing the resources in the members only section by next week! If you miss the deadline, no problem - simply register as a member of the site for your free access to the materials.
As discussed in previous blog entries and as we all know anecdotally from our own teaching experiences, teaching students to comprehend complex text using metacognitive strategies alone is not always sufficient for our most struggling students. We know these comprehension strategies are really more about demonstrating comprehension than learning to comprehend. Kamhi & Catts (2012) go further to say, “Although comprehension strategies may be helpful in facilitating comprehension, they do not address deficiencies in background and language knowledge or motivational factors that research has shown are the most significant causes of comprehension problems (Guthrie, Wigfield, & Perencevich, 2004; Hirsch, 2006; Snow, 2010). Language matters. “Readers must be able to recognize individual words, understand grammatical and semantic relationships between words, and integrate ideas in the text and with past knowledge to make inferences to aid integration and fill in implicit information (Kahmi & Catts, 2012). For students to be able to “summarize” text, identify the “key words,” discern the “most important” ideas, the vocabulary, text structure and syntax need to be understood first. For many students, this language needs to be explicitly taught before they can demonstrate their comprehension of the content text.
One of the most neglected of these text microstructures in schools is syntax, o therwise known as grammar. Grammar has been a taboo topic for years in education as many wanted to distance themselves from the rote instruction most prevalent in the 1950s-1970s in which grammar was taught in isolation, with no function or meaning applied. However, the pendulum has swung so far that we now very rarely make explicit any grammar, even though the syntax, or word order, of school text can be very complex, vary widely between subject areas, and does not match the language most familiar with many of our culturally and/or linguistically diverse students. The language of school, the syntax of school language, best matches that of students representing the “mainstream,” and so language may not an issue for these students. Teachers hopping over the language of the content isn’t a problem for these students. However, it is a significant roadblock for students whose language experiences do not match that of the language of school.
So, yes, teaching language, teaching syntax is important. But how do we do it with meaning? How do we teach these grammatical structures, not in isolation, but in a functional way that allows simultaneous development of the content objectives? One popular pedagogical structure we can utilize is close reading. Close reading is defined by students conducting a deep analysis of a short, complex piece of text. They reread this text several times over the course of multiple lessons. The purpose in each of these rereadings is defined by a text dependent question that is tied to the content and varies for each rereading. Students deepen their understanding by having collaborative conversations with their peers which focus on the text dependent question. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey have provided four text dependent questions that can frame our analysis of text:
In my work with struggling readers, I developed a template for a close reading cycle that I have found very successful in teaching reading comprehension skills while making explicit the language features of the text. The cycle incorporates 5 lessons over the course of a school week. Syntax was analyzed under the question of “how does the text work?” A blank template of the syntax close reading lesson is found below as well as the sample lesson I presented at the conference today in which nouns, verbs, adverbials, and anaphora were made explicit to students in order for them to identify the main idea of the text.
As teachers do this type of close reading, or text analysis, with students, they will start to see certain language features surface in connection with particular comprehension skills. For example, in order to identify the setting in a story, readers need to know who is in the text (nouns), and where and when the story is taking place (adverbs of time & place). Or to compare and contrast characters in a story, the author will most often use relating words, or “to be” words such as am, is, are, was, were to describe the characters. John was happy. Jill was sad. These words then become “red flags” to readers that something is being compared in the text. I have included below one of my most treasured documents for your free use and download. This document details the syntax patterns most often tied to particular comprehension skills. This is a very valuable resource in that it’s a quick reference when developing language teaching points in close reading lessons. Please enjoy!
MELed 2016 Powerpoint Presentation
Blank Lesson Template for Syntax Close Reading Lesson
Sample Lesson Template for Syntax Close Reading Lesson
Quick Reference! - Syntax Teaching Points to Teach Common Comprehension Skills
Language development objectives are nothing new in the EL world. At the university level, we work diligently to ensure our ESL teacher candidates leave the program writing strong language development objectives and understanding that language is taught through the content in order to make the content accessible to students learning English. However, learning how to write language development objectives is typically not part of coursework for non-ESL teacher candidates. Mainstream teachers often have had very little, or no, training in writing these language objectives.
So, what role do language objectives have outside of EL? Is it necessary for mainstream teachers to understand and develop language objectives in their content lessons if they have EL students in class? What if there are no EL students in the class?
Typically, we think language instruction falls on the EL teacher. This is valid as this person is the specialist specifically hired to teach English to non native speakers. However, EL students, typically those in low incidence schools, often are taught a majority of their day from a teacher who is not licensed or certified in ESL, and, like all teachers in American monolingual schools, the mainstream teacher uses English to teach his or her content objectives. There’s simply no way around it; he or she will either speak about their content, have students listen to the content, have students read or write about the content. This is how we communicate. Language is the vehicle for the content instruction. If a student is not fluent in this vehicle, which is delivering the content, there will be no opportunity to communicate the content; and thus, the content cannot be learned. It is impossible for an EL teacher to design every mainstream lesson. Thus, to be an effective teacher who teaches all learners, every content teacher must be a language teacher.
What happens when a mainstream teacher has no EL student in class which often occurs in low incidence schools? Is language still a concern?
Language, even for native speakers, is something teachers should always be thinking about, particularly when students are not meeting proficiency standards. We have to look at how the instruction is being delivered, which is through language. Yet, most of us rarely think about the language as it is part of our subconscious. The language of school is the language of the academic middle class which represents the teachers themselves. So, the language of instruction is second nature to us as teachers. Yet, it is not second nature to many of our students, who may represent culturally and/or linguistically diverse backgrounds, native English speaking students included.
The answer is yes, while EL students have unique needs that native speakers may not need, language development objectives do have a place in the mainstream classroom. All teachers are language teachers. All teachers must be thinking about what language needs to be explicitly taught in order for students to access the content.
Click here for your FREE copy: Writing Language Development Objectives: A Mainstream Teacher's Quick Reference Guide
Bridget Erickson or Erickson Educational Consulting has worked with the following organizations:
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