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To Read or Not to Read: That is the Question

In terms of teaching literature, I live in two worlds. I am an English-language arts teacher and a reading specialist. Although the two worlds would seem to be quite complementary, this is not always the case.

As an English-language arts teacher, I love teaching the nuances of the author’s craft. I live to point out allusions, symbolism, and an occasional foreshadowing. I am ecstatic when I am able to lead my students into the “ah ha” experience of how a passage reinforces the theme of a novel. I believe that we English-language arts teachers do have “content” to share with students. Go ahead… try to convince me that being able to identify the omniscient point of view is not a critical life skill. Make my day… My students need me; they are dependent upon me to teach them this content.

However, as a reading specialist, I also believe in the skills/process side of reading. In this world, my aim is to work my way out of a job. I have to change dependence into independence. The more students can do on their own to understand and retain the meaning of text, the better I have accomplished my mission. I need to train students to become successful independent readers in college, in the workplace, and at home.

Which leads us to our dilemma. When we teach a novel or short story, how much of our instruction should be teacher-dependent and how much should be teacher-independent? My thought is that we English-language arts teachers tend to err too frequently on the side of teacher-dependence and we need to move more to the side of teacher-independence.

As a reading specialist/staff developer at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels, I have had to opportunity to see hundreds of teachers “in action,” teaching a novel or short story to students. From my experience, the predominant way that English-language arts teachers work through a text is by reading and dissecting the entire text out loud (an in class).

The reasons that we hang on to the teacher-dependent mode of reading out loud (or via student popcorn reading/CDs) and dissecting the text are varied:

1. We want to earn our pay-checks by being the ones responsible for student learning.

2. The text is too hard for students to understand it on their own.

3. We like being the “sage on the stage.”

4. Students lack sufficient prior knowledge.

5. Reading out loud is a behavior management tool.

In sum, we distrust the readiness of students to handle the challenging tasks of reading and thinking on their own. We know that we do a better job of understanding the text than our students.

The way we casually describe what we are teaching is informative: In the staff room, a science teacher asks what we are teaching. We respond, “I’m half-way through teaching Julius Caesar,” not “I’m teaching my students…”,” nor “I’m teaching Roman history through…”, nor “I’m teaching these reading and literary skills through…”, nor “My students are learning…” We tend to view the literature as our curriculum and not as an instructional vehicle. When the literature is treated as an end–in-itself, we are ensuring that our instruction remains teacher-dependent. After all, we are the keeper of the keys. We know “Julius Caesar” better than the students (and probably Will himself). A high school colleague of mine literally had memorized every word of the play and worked her students through the play from memory. That’s teacher-dependence.

How to Move toward Teacher-Independence

1. Lose the Guilt

We really need to relieve ourselves of the self-imposed or colleague-imposed guilt that we are not really teaching a short story, poem, or novel unless we read and dissect every word out loud.

2. Become a Coach

We need to become coaches, not spoon-feeders. Let’s coach students to become effective independent readers by giving them the skills to understand the text on their own. Here are some effective reading comprehension strategies that will move students toward that independence: http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/how-to-teach-reading-c…

3. Get strategic

Some reading out loud and dissecting text is essential. But when to do so and when not to do so?

A good guideline to help us decide how much to read out loud, with explanation and gap-filling, is word recognition. Simply put, if the novel, story, etc. is at 95% word recognition for the vast majority of students, then there should be less reading out loud, i.e., the reading is at the independent reading level of students. If there is lower word recognition, then more reading out loud/working through the text will be necessary (or the book selection is inappropriate for the students) for this instructional reading level. For more on how to use word recognition to inform instructional decisions, see my blog at http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/how-to-get-students-to… As a relevant aside, I feel that word recognition is a much better indicator of an appropriate student to text match than a lexile number.

4. Trust Your Judgment-Not Just Data

Of course, using this rather clinical criterion of word recognition has its limitations: maturity of theme, unfamiliar historical context, amount of allusions or figures of speech etc. After all, we all know students who “read” the last Harry Potter book and Twilight with enjoyment, albeit limited comprehension, when their word recognition rate was at the instructional end of the spectrum, so motivation is an important factor in determining what can be left to independent reading.

5. Focus on the Pay-offs

Independent reading of text has significant pay-offs. Reading independently at the 95% word recognition level of text will expose most readers to about 300 unknown words in 30 minutes of reading. Learning 5% of these words from the surrounding context clues of the text is realistic. This means that students will learn about 15 new words during a typical reading session.

6. Experiment with Alternative Instructional Approaches, But…

Reciprocal teaching, literature circles, GIST strategies, partner reading, jigsaw. Yes. But don’t leave out what should be the primary instructional approach: independent reading.

If our goals are to foster the abilities to read independently with good comprehension/retention and to inspire young adults to read for purpose and pleasure as lifelong readers, then we’ve got to cut the cords and become more teacher-independent and less teacher-dependent.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

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How to Grade Literary Discussions

The longer I teach, the more I become a capitalist in my ELA classroom. Although I would love to have students participate in rich literary discussions out of their love for reading and passion for truth, it’s a rare student who speaks up out of such pure motives. Over the years, I admit it. I have succumbed to incentives and with good results. Life is compromise.

Students need to know that their participation in class discussion is an important part of their overall grade. Otherwise, many will avoid participation or perceive the group discussion as being of minimal importance. In the school setting, rewards such as grades, extra credit, treats, stickers, privileges are all weapons which the creative teacher can employ to motivate class participation in discussions. Short term, explicit rewards tend to work better than long term ones.

Here is how I organize a graded literary discussion. I select a student to record the points that classmates will earn. The recorder writes tally marks for positive discussion contributions on my class seating chart. The recorder gets two points for this task, but he or she gives up the opportunity to participate in the discussion. I have no problems finding student recorders for this task.  Having a student recorder frees me up to lead the discussion without worrying about properly crediting responses. After a correct student response, I signal the recorder with my index finger and the recorder places a tally mark next to the name of the student. If the response is particularly insightful or directly responds to the response of another student, I may signal two fingers, for two tally marks. The latter must, of course, be accompanied by a resonating class “oooh!”

A good feature of this graded discussion technique is that it tracks student responses. During class discussion, I can survey the tally marks to determine who is failing to contribute or who is contributing excessively. I let students know that I will call on them, whether they raise their hands or not. I can also ensure that I am “calling on” male and female, ethnic sub-groups, etc. fairly. For the next graded class discussion, I have the recorder use a different color pen to differentiate the separate discussion grades.

Students perceive graded discussions as being fair and objective. Try announcing that the class will have a graded literary discussions the next day and students might just “cheat” by reading the assigned text and anticipating/preparing for your questions at home. What a shame! Of course, you could provide your discussion questions in advance and level them according to Costa’s Levels of Questioning, Depth of Knowledge, or Bloom’s Taxonomy, but the students might wind up teaching themselves. What a shame!

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

 

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