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Teaching Reading Comprehension

As more teachers are teaching reading strategies (all helpful) to help students access, understand, and analyze text independently, let’s not overlook the obvious: How to Improve Reading Comprehension.

As a reading specialist, I am constantly surprised by teachers who tell me that they have never learned how to teach reading comprehension or think that reading strategies alone will do the job. If you’ve never learned how to teach reading comprehension, the following advice and FREE Resources are just what the doctor ordered.

Despite what many believe, reading is not a natural process; it needs to be taught, and not just caught.

A reader’s comprehension of any text (narrative or expository) depends upon the quality of the internal dialogue between the reader and author. “Talking to the text” significantly increases reader comprehension and promotes retention as well. Tons of reading research on this. Check out my Pennington Publishing Blog for dozens of articles on this. However, reader-author dialogue is not a skill acquired by osmosis. It requires instruction and practice. Doesn’t everything?

The most effective approach to helping students learn to interact with the text is to teach students how to begin and carry on the conversation with the author. Specific cueing strategies prompt the reader to talk to the text and the author. These cueing strategies assign readers a set of tasks to perform while reading to maintain interactive dialogue with the text.

I’ve developed five cueing strategies, using the SCRIP acronym, which work equally well with narrative and expository text. The SCRIP acronym stands for Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict. Teaching students to question the text they read by prompting themselves with the SCRIP strategies will help them understand and better remember what they read. Click here to get three great resources absolutely FREE: 1. SCRIP classroom posters 2. Five one-page fairy tales to teach each of the SCRIP strategies 3. SCRIP bookmarks.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

Here’s how to use those resources: Do a Think-Aloud to teach students how you carry on the conversation with an author. Start with the each of the five fairy tales to focus on one SCRIP strategy per lesson.

  1. Tell students that you are going to demonstrate what good readers do as they silently read.

    1000 ELA and Reading Worksheets for Grades 4-8 Teachers

    Every teacher needs back-up!

  2. Read a few lines out loud and then alter your voice (raise the pitch, lower the volume, or use an accent) to model what you are thinking. Stop and explain what the voice altering meant and keep this voice altering consistent throughout the Think-Aloud.
  3. Prompt your dialogue with the focus SCRIP strategy. Use this specific language of instruction.
  4. Don’t over-do the amount of your Think-Aloud thoughts. Once or twice per every paragraph is about right. Don’t interrupt the flow of the reading.
  5. Have students read the same fairy tale as a “pair share.” One student reads a paragraph out loud and does a Think-Aloud, referencing their SCRIP bookmark to prompt their dialogue with the author. Then the next reads a paragraph, etc.
  6. De-brief. Ask students if they think they understood the text better because of your verbalized thoughts (and theirs) rather than just by passively reading without talking to the text.
  7. Select your own reading and do a Think-Aloud, using all five of the SCRIP strategies

Mark Pennington provides teacher-created and kid-tested assessment-based curriculum to help students “catch up while they keep up” with grade level instruction.

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How to Teach Critical Thinking

Students are bombarded with content. Knowledge increases exponentially, and the entire storehouse of human knowledge gained over the last six thousand years is now doubled every five years, or less. The old educational philosophy of filling empty heads with the cumulative wisdom of the ages is yielding to a new pedagogy. Knowledge as a product is now being replaced with knowledge as a process.

This is not to say that our accumulated knowledge is irrelevant. Quite to the contrary, it is essential. Without the inductive and deductive reasoning developed by the Ancient Greeks, and without the scientific method, refined by the Enlightenment thinkers, we would have no foundation upon which to build a new process-centered design, commonly referred to as critical thinking.

However, we must begin to practice what we preach. If we are to equip Twenty-First-Century students with the tools they need to add to our “knowledge pool,” we need to re-evaluate how we spend our time in the classroom. The standards-based movement, prevalent in many American schools today, is primarily product-driven. Despite much talk about differentiating instruction, according to the needs of students as indicated by diagnostic assessments, the primary delivery of knowledge in most classrooms remains product-centered. And all students learn the same product, the same way, and on the same timetable to perform (hopefully) the same way on standards-based assessments.  The pressures on teachers to conform to this antiquated model of knowledge acquisition are formidable.

Change Their Way of Thinking

One way to implement change is incremental. A small, but effective way to start introducing critical thinking into the classroom is with the traditional “opener” activities. These “bell-ringer” activities can establish an important framework for learning and a mind-set for the day’s activities, even if they are product-centered.

To accomplish their process-centered mission, critical thinking openers can help a teacher teach a schema for thinking that students can learn, practice, and apply with the coaching assistance of their teachers.

The word schema comes from the Greek word “σχήμα” (skēma), which means a mental planning process. The schema that I propose is not original, by any means. It involves four simple steps: Observation, Interpretation, Application, and Revision. Observation is What do you see? Interpretation is What does it mean? Application is How can it be used? Revision is How can it be changed?

Teaching Procedures

To provoke process-thinking, students need a context from which to explore the schema described above. One great way to stimulate young minds is with famous literary quotations from the greatest thinkers and writers of all time, including contemporary minds from all knowledge disciplines. The web is filled with great quotes (as are some of your students). Simply post the quote and explain the context and/or vocabulary as is necessary. Introduce the critical thinking schema one at a time.  Then, have students take time to think, write, and interactively discuss the components of the critical thinking schema in response to the literary quotation.

Explore individual responses, paired responses, cooperative group responses, whole class responses, and your own responses as teacher-coach. Combine instructional methods. For example, starting off with a teacher “think aloud” on the Observation will stimulate paired written responses on the Interpretation, which will provoke terrific whole class discussions on the Application, which will engender creative and original individual ideas on the Revisions.

Teacher Think Alouds

To learn the four critical thinking schemata, teacher modeling is essential.  Creative thinking and problem-solving is certainly not exclusively a natural process. Developing thinkers do not have a priori understanding about how to effectively observe, interpret, apply, and revise. Thus, teachers play a crucial role in helping to develop good thinkers.

Teaching students to carry on an internal dialog while they think is vitally important. As “talking to the reader” significantly increases writing coherency and “talking to the author” significantly increases reading comprehension, so does internal dialog significantly increase effective thinking. In fact, good thinkers are adept at practicing internal metacognitive strategies.  Students who consciously practice these self-monitoring strategies develop better problem-solving skills than those who do not. Students need to learn how to flexibly adapt these strategies by observing teacher modeling and then practicing what has been demonstrated.

Think Aloud Sample Lesson

1. Select a short, high interest literary quotation from a story familiar to all students. Post the quotation on the board, LCD, Smartboard®, or overhead projector.

2. Tell students that they are to listen to your thoughts carefully, as you read the quotation and that they are not allowed to interrupt with questions during your reading. Read the quotation out loud and interrupt the reading frequently with concise comments about the vocabulary, word choice, syntax, and historical context. Re-read difficult parts and make comments about the ideas that are presented. Ask questions of the author, especially about parts of the quotation that you do not fully understand. Some teachers like to use other voices for the internal dialogue and their normal voices for the reading.

3. After reading and thinking out loud, ask students if they think they understood the quotation better because of your verbalized thoughts rather than just by passively reading without active thoughts. Their answer will be “Yes,” if you have read and thought out loud effectively.

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.

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

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.

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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How Not to Teach Context Clues

To most intermediate, middle, high school, and college teachers, teaching context clues means helping students consciously identify and apply strategies to figure out the meaning of unknown words through hints in the surrounding text. These hints include pictures, syntax, text format, grammatical constructions, mood or tone, mechanics, and surrounding words that provide synonym, antonym, logic, or example clues

Many of these teachers would also label the structural analysis of the unknown word itself as a context clue. Using morphemes (meaningful word parts, such as Greek and Latinates), syllabication strategies, grammatical inflections, and parts of speech also can help students figure of the meaning of unknown words. Some teachers would also include using hints outside of the text, such as prior knowledge or story schema in their definition and application of context clue strategies.

Teaching context clues for the purpose of contextual vocabulary development is widely accepted and practiced. However, there is another application of context clues that is not as widely accepted and practiced. This use of context clues is highly controversial and stirs up intense debate about how to teach reading.

Because the initial task of teaching students to read largely falls upon the shoulders of primary teachers, these teachers tend to be more familiar with this debate than their colleagues who teach older students. However, the underlying issues of this debate are just as relevant to intermediate, middle, high school, and college teachers who teach “reading to learn.”

The issues of this debate involve whether context clues should be used as the primary strategy for word identification. Word identification generally means the process of pronouncing words by applying reading strategies. Word identification should be distinguished from word recognition, which generally means the ability to recognize and pronounce “sight words” automatically, without applying reading strategies. The role of  context clues in word identification is the crucial issue behind the Reading Wars.

On one side of the battle are the “Phonic-ators.” These “defenders of the faith” believe that teaching phonemic awareness and phonics should be the primary means of teaching word identification. Fair to say, these teachers place more emphasis on the graphic cueing components of reading, that is the alphabetic code, syllabication, and spelling, than do those on the other side of the battle. The “Phonicators” de-emphasize the use of context clues to “guess” the meanings of words and teach students to decode words in and out of context. These graphic cueing folks are easily identified by their sound-spelling wall posters, their phonics and spelling worksheets, their assessment data matrices, their spelling workbooks, and their decodable paper-book stories. Their file drawers are filled with Jeanne Chall, Marilyn Adams, and Keith Stanovich article summaries.

On the other side are the “Whole Language Junkies.” These 1980s and 1990s “holdouts” believe that extensive shared, guided, and independent reading teaches students to read as the readers gradually acquire the reading strategies (with a heavy emphasis on context clues) to identify words in the context of reading. Fair to say, these teachers place more emphasis on the semantic (meaning-making) cueing components of reading, such as the use of context clues, than on the graphophonic (visual and phonemic) components of reading. These folks are nowadays less easily identified, because their side is currently re-trenching in today’s phonics-centered Common Core State Standards environment. But, you usually can tell who they are by their CLOZE procedure worksheets, their vast collection of miscue analyses, their personal class library of over 1,000 books (crowding out the spaces set aside for spelling and grammar workbooks), and their signed wall posters of Ken Goodman and Stephen Krashen.

Is there any common ground between these two groups? Although the generals argue over tactics, the strategic goals of both sides have much in common. Both believe that their tactics should lead to independent meaning-making, that is, reading comprehension should be the objective. Both agree that reading automaticity (fluency) is important and that their teaching methodologies, that is, the sound-spelling connections for the “Phonic-ators,” and the  “psycholinguistic guessing games (Goodman)” for the “Whole Language Junkies,” will best lead to efficient, accurate, and “unconscious” word recognition. Both believe that reading is a complex and interactive process, in which prior knowledge and cognitive ability are important variables to actively address.

So, having identified the two camps and their respective uses of context clues… here’s my take on using context clues for word identification:  My view is that we shouldn’t teach students to use context clues strategies as their primary strategy for identifying words. I personally tend to lean on the research that proficient readers rely more on the graphophonic (visual and phonemic clues) as their primary strategies for word identification, while struggling readers tend to rely on context clues as their primary strategy for word identification.  Kylene Beers, in her book When Kids Can’t Read, summarizes the problem of using context clues strategies for word identification: “. . . Discerning the meaning of unknown words using context clues requires a sophisticated interaction with the text that dependent readers have not yet achieved.” The proof is in the pudding: if good readers do A, and bad readers do B, then teachers should teach A more than B.

It does makes sense that readers need to learn a variety of strategies for word identification so that when one method fails, they have other back-up methods to assist. Explicit graphophonic instructional strategies should serve as the first line of attack and semantic instructional strategies, using context clues, should serve as back-ups. Teaching a limited number of sight words, the common rimes, and syllabication skills certainly makes sense.

Download this strategy and two accompanying worksheets with answers.

Get the Context Clues Worksheets FREE Resource:

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

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.

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