Comprehension Monitoring, Predicting, Graphic Organizers, Questioning, Summarizing
These metacognitive strategies are typically a significant part of any educator’s instruction when teaching students how to comprehend text. And for good reason – it’s repeatedly been proven effective (National Institute of Child Health and Development [NICHD], 2000; Vaughn , Gerseten, & Chard, 2000), but the same number of educators who find success with students using these strategies, also hit major roadblocks with other students. Unfortunately, these students are the ones who struggle most with reading.
This was my story. . . I had Harvey & Goudvis’ Strategies That Work dog eared with the accompanying sticky notes to break down the text into meaningful parts, record their questions, predictions, monitoring, and then, Nessel’s Thinking Strategies was always there with excellent graphic organizers to organize all of this great thinking. And it worked! Beautifully worked with a majority of my suburban, mainstream class. Yet, each year, I would have a small number of students who just didn’t get it. After all of this scaffolding and support to demonstrate their thinking, their metacognitive strategies, I would ask these students to tell me what they just read, and all I got were blank looks. With my bag of “research based best practice” tricks empty, how did I respond? Well, what else was there to do. but move on to a more capable, or who I thought was more capable, student who gave me the answer I was looking for. But I cringed as I knew it was my lack of knowledge, not the students, that was holding them back. And I cringe now knowing I built myself back up as a teacher, as a practitioner, by finding a reliable student who could demonstrate my teaching was still “good,” even though the previous student just showed me loud and clear that it was not.
But, now, I know better. No longer can I accept success when my middle and high fliers show success. My success can only be defined on the success of all students. We must dig deeper and find ways to make text accessible for all students.
So, why isn’t strategy instruction enough? Why can it not be our stand alone, go to when teaching students to comprehend text? Kamhi & Catts (2012) explain it perfectly, “finding the main idea or making a summary is more likely to be the product or result of comprehension rather than the cause. Although comprehension strategies may be helpful in facilitating comprehension, they do not address . . . background and language factors or motivational factors that research 2010] has shown are the most significant causes of comprehension problems (Guthrie, Wigfield, & Perencevich, 2004; Hirsch, 2006; Snow, 2010). The students who were able to tell me a strong summary of the text were simply demonstrating their comprehension. They already got it. I was not teaching students how to comprehend.
Before we can teach metacognitive strategies that demonstrate comprehension, we need to teach students how to comprehend. To do this, we need to teach students how to unlock the language of the text. How is it organized? How is it ordered? How is it connected? We need to show students how text works at a broad level (the discourse level). If that’s too complex, then we drill to the sentence level. If that’s too difficult, drill to the clause level. Move down to the word level if needed. Focus on language to ensure comprehension.
Where do we begin? How do we teach this? Thanks to people like Beverly Derewianka and other scholars dedicated to the work of making the language of school explicit has made our job easier. Through their work from the Sydney School, they have analyzed thousands of texts, and determined the key text types, or academic genres, that most occur in Western schools. We not only know the type of texts students are expected to comprehend and learn from, thanks to Derewianka and others such as Maria Estela Brisk, we also know deeper details like the language & text organizational features students will encounter in each of the these genres. So, writing our language objectives couldn’t’ be clearer or easier. And once we know the students understand the language, they will have full, equitable access to the content objectives.
Free to you is a comprehensive list of the most common academic genres used in western schools that details how each genre is organized & the language features of each genre. This will be your go-to guide when making text accessible to all students. To access this free resource, be sure to subscribe & register to www.ericksoneducationalconsulting.com!
Story Circles: An Oral Language Development Strategy that Makes Space for All Students’ Language Traditions While Also Making Academic Language Explicit
In language, we have four modalities of communication: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. In schools, we are often most focused on developing reading and writing, not as much on oral language development (maybe thinking the vast majority of our students are coming to us speaking and listening just fine so let’s get them reading & writing!) However, what we may forget is that the language spoken is most likely social language, or what Cummins calls Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) which will not have the same language patterns as academic speech. To teach reading and writing, we need to bridge students from oral to the written language. If we don’t explicitly teach the structures of academic oral language, then, we are building a bridge from the social oral language to the academic written text of school which we may not find very successful, particularly with students whose oral discourse patterns do not match the academic discourse patterns of school. Consequently, a gap in reading and writing achievement is born.
While we want to make the language of school explicit, we also need to recognize that these language forms in academia are based on middle class European American language traditions. The diverse language traditions students develop at home may not reflect the mainstream; however, their value is not any less. For example, the language of school incorporates two common forms of storytelling – a recount and observation, both of which convey experiences in a linear fashion. Another method of storytelling not modeled in schools is a more “topic-associating style” that is more episodic and thematic (See below for examples). However, all three styles successfully communicate experiences; thus, they should all hold value in the classroom.
Erin Elizabeth Flynn details in the latest September 2016 issue of The Reading Teacher a great classroom strategy that not only explicitly builds students’ academic oral language but also incorporates and values the diverse language traditions of all students, thus creating a multilingual and multiethnic classroom. While her focus is on its use in the early childhood classroom, this strategy could be modified to be incorporated into any age classroom that is building reading and/or writing skills. A description of her technique is included below.
Story Circle Strategy with Examples of Common Storytelling Forms Adapted from Flynn, E.E. (2016) Language-Rich Early Childhood Classroom: Simply but Powerful Beginnings. The Reading Teacher, (70)2, 159-166.
Just as important as making schooling explicit to all students is making space for the cultures of all students in our schools. One impactful way we can do this is by allowing students to see themselves in the literature they read - making books accessible in which the main characters may look and act like children like themselves. As a teacher, the trouble is this is often easier said than done. Beautiful award winning chapter books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry or The Watsons Go to Birmingham or picture books such as Ruby Bridges can quickly come to mind when we think of multicultural children’s literature. These books are often easily found at the chain bookstores or Scholastic Book fairs. Yet, while these texts are wonderful, the trouble is they are not “just right” books for most elementary students to read independently. Additionally, while the content is historically very relevant, they may not be relevant to the contemporary daily lives of today’s 7-11 year olds who may be looking for an easy, fun read about kids their age doing things they like to do. As a literacy specialist, I made it a goal each year to seek chapter books, particularly series, that showcased main characters of color in which the majority of elementary students could read independently. Here is a list of texts I found my students have enjoyed over the years. The list is, of course, always evolving as additions are made, and so will become more comprehensive over time. I am always looking for ideas - Please send suggestions my way!
Multicultural Chapter Book List Independent Levels - Elementary