Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Teaching students to closely read texts

The International Reading Association (IRA) has a vested interest in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as half of the standards are about ELA. The CCSS push reading into the hands of not just our traditional reading teachers, but of every teacher within the school. The IRA is working hard to help get information on how to meet these aggressive goals out to the teaching public. One such article is "Teaching Students to Closely Read Texts: How and When" by D. Lapp, B. Moss, K. Johnson and M. Grant from Rigorous Real-World Teaching and Learning Fall 2012.

One of the CCSS reading goals is to enable students to "undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature" (CCSS, 2010, p. 3). The first question is what is close reading? The article's authors use Anderson and Pearsons 1984 definition which incorporates the need to "analyze and scaffold textually based inferences" which includes "understanding the language of the passage" and then using "context clues to support an even more precise understanding of the intent of the language" (p. 2).

My students with disabilities are not merely confronted with the need to understand the literal definition of the word, something that often baffles them, but the implied meaning. Students with language difficulties, whether ELL or language delayed obviously struggle with the first. Students with memory or processing issues struggle on both ends of the formula. Then you take the kids who struggle to interpret the squiggles on the page that we easily get meaning from and the kids with social difficulties who do not make inferences or connections easily and you have a pantheon of kids who are going to see this goal as an unclimbable mountain.

The author's suggestion is the inclusion of companion texts. This is not merely replacement texts, but companions. The purpose of such texts is to help build context around which meaning can be drawn. Their approach has the students starting with the complex text and noting areas of confusion and difficulty. (I think about Kelley Gallagher's article of the week idea and highlighting what you don't get.) Sticky notes, bookmarks, or even simple paper could be used as well. Before introducing companion texts, the teacher needs to use this first read to assess if the entire class needs some concrete or visual experience to help build background knowledge. Videos, demonstrations, field trips, realia all could be used to address holes in background knowledge that need to be filled.

Then you present your companion texts which will be used to scaffold learning. There will probably need to be at least two companion texts, one significantly below grade level and one moderately below level. They should include short passages that offer progressively more complex understanding of the theme, topic, issues or messages and use the same key vocabulary. Poems, songs, newspaper articles and lower level textbooks may be used, but teachers may have to write their own passages sometimes. (For help with identifying the readability of a passage based on vocabulary: is a website that allows you to enter the text and then evaluates its readability. Be careful though because this is a measure, not an absolute assignment of how considerate a text is or how approachable it is to a student.)

Teachers will need to model how to use the lower level texts to make connections to the complex text, to understand vocabulary, and to ensure active reading. After reading the companion text, the complex text is read again, making notes on where confusions are cleared up and perhaps, where new confusions occur. If more than one round of companion texts is needed for a group, then they repeat the process, gradually working up to the complex text. Discussion can ensue and understanding enhanced.

The major challenge with this approach is time. Teachers have broad curriculums to wade through and completing this approach for each reading is completely unrealistic. This is where teachers need to be judicious. Sometimes readings need to be at the students level so that material can be read, processed and then acted on. Other times, however, the complex material needs lots of dedicated time. This often means that instead of reading the entire text closely, only a short critical segment is read closely. Higher level students might be assigned the entire reading while companion texts are used for struggling learners. If once a month each teacher from the special areas, math, science, and social studies selects a text to read closely, the burden of teaching the skill is spread out and students can see that reading in all areas requires close attention. This does, however, require school-wide cooperation, training and dedication. Starting with a few non-ELA types and slowly spreading the idea through other areas based on success and testimonials is probably the way to introduce the strategy. Teachers may need help finding and developing appropriate companion texts. This is time consuming, especially at first. Resources may need to be redistributed, and creative solutions sought.

As a special ed teacher, I have used lower level readings to support my students' understanding of the course content. I know that this can be done. It is just another way teaching is changing to address the needs of all students and the new challenges our society is presenting to us.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Guiding Readers Through Text

Karen D. Wood, Diane Lapp, James Flood, and D. Bruce Taylor's book, Guiding Readers Through Text: Strategy Guides for New Times, Second Edition, recasts the study guide for modern times. They embrace the broadening of the definition of literacy to include all forms: from textbooks to Internet and podcast to environmental print. Using this broad idea of literacy, they have sought out ways to expand study guides from use purely with textbooks to use with information gathering. In our information age, we obtain information from many sources and our students need to be prepared to efficiently and effectively do so as well. In addition they need to integrate it with their prior knowledge and evaluate it. The Common Core ELA curriculum writers would concur.

The book is divided into three main sections: an introduction of what strategy guides are, a large section describing different strategy guides in about 6 pages each, and an appendix with sample reproducibles. Each type of strategy guide is presented with 1-3 examples, tips for diverse learners and references. The tips for diverse learners are fairly repetitive and non-specific; after reading the first few, there is not much call to read others. The examples cross many curriculum strands with the fewest in math and the most in humanities. Although many of these strategies would be appropriate in grades K-12, there is significant over-representation in the intermediate and middle school examples.

The authors admit that this book is more valuable as a resource than a cover to cover read, and I agree. Reading the introduction, first two chapters and the final chapter would be useful for all. After that, teachers should probably read the first page of each strategy for the authors' summary of appropriate grade levels, subjects and classroom contexts to identify strategies that could be useful.

This book would be quite useful for PLC use. A small group of professionals could identify a strategy they would like to learn or refine, read the description, do additional research for implementation information, design and carry out lessons, and report back to the group on how it worked. Then they could trouble shoot together and practice again. If a lone teacher was unfamiliar with the strategy he wanted to utilize, either additional research or a mentor could be very important.

Although the language, font size and sentence structure lend the book to be characterized as an easy read and the short chapters make breaking it up simple, reading the book cover to cover was slow because I just wanted to try something before I read the next section. Many of the strategies I was familiar with. Often in presentations of things I am comfortable with, my attention starts to wander. This book did not allow for much disengagement because a) it contained 21 different strategies of which I did not know them all, b) each strategy was covered briefly (if I knew it I could read quickly, if not I could read more carefully or reread), and c) the examples were well done (I am a sucker for reading vignettes of well taught lessons).

As a result of this text, I will definitely try some new things and haul out of the dark recesses of my mind some old ideas. The authors achieved their objective.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Who Moved My Cheese and Change

We tend to forget that the entire act of learning is change. While we acknowledge that change is hard for adults, we often discount this for our students. We want them to start using a planner/agenda --> change= hard. We want them to show work on math problems when they haven't before --> change = hard. We want them to unlearn a misconception --> change= very hard. Some people find change easier than others. People with autistic spectrum disorders tend to be more rigid and opposed to change than others.

Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson is a book that has appealed to the business world. Organizations such as Kodak, Xerox and Exxon have praised the insightful parable and its advice:

  • Change happens
  • Anticipate change
  • Monitor change
  • Adapt to change quickly
  • Change
  • Enjoy change!
  • Be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again and again
This advice is not limited, however, to business. It applies to all areas of life, and I think, especially to education. Adults need to model the acceptance and adaptability that we want our children to demonstrate. We need to encourage flexibility and work with our youth to develop strategies to manage our lives in a flexible manner.

I work part time. One unfortunate thing about teaching is that part time employees are the unwanted stepchild. If there is a need to adjust staff, the part timers are the first to go. The private business sector does not work that way. Family friendly business practices encourage a variety of employment options, including part time, telecommuting, job sharing and flex time. Schools often get more from their choose to be part time staff because the professionals put in the work that needs to be done. If that means in a week, extra time is needed,  teachers will stay a little late, go in early, etc. The employees are not overworked, have time to replenish drained resources, and have a more positive attitude. Due to a staffing cut, my position was eliminated. The quality of my work was irrelevant.

I knew I was vulnerable. The call was not a huge surprise. I was disappointed and am bitter, not necessarily at my employer, but at my profession that believes time served as a full time member is the only important factor. I did see it as an opportunity to explore new things. My husband and I are moving slowly developing a phone skills curriculum and hardware to implement it. The change irritated me, but I moved on. This is the message of the book.

I was rehired three weeks later. Not with the high school population that I know and love or the building I had spent years working at and developing relationships in, but with upper elementary and middle school students in three diverse buildings, mostly teaching reading. This is a huge departure from the upper level content I was comfortable with. I am excited to learn new systems and refine my skills. I am modeling what I want my students to be- open to change, embracing learning, and enjoying life.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

College success for students with LD

College Success for Students with Learning Disabilities by Cynthia G. Simpson and Vicky G. Spencer is written for students to use to prepare for college. Although it focuses on late high school and freshman year of college, it does have a timeline of activities starting in 8th grade.

Eighth grade is the time for all students to begin to think about post high school experiences. Developing a rigorous high school course load, participating in extracurricular activities and community service and thinking about jobs and their role in adolescences are all important to consider. Families need to be realistic about cost and opportunity. College should not be eliminated because of cost for any child. Work and savings, scholarships, grants and loans can make the experience possible, perhaps not at the 4 year institution of choice, but somewhere. Good grades, academic skills and a solid work ethic, however, are a foundation that need to be built.

The authors of this book have structured it for students. Parents, guidance counselors and teachers may have the background knowledge to see the text as simplistic and need more details than provided.  7 Steps for Success: High School to College Transition Strategies for Students with Disabilities by Elizabeth Hamblet is a more comprehensive text that I reviewed in an earlier blog. It offers much more detail on the legal aspects of transition and provides more scripted examples of how to go about some of the things Simpson and Spencer just tell you to do.

The book is structured so that  "learning to ask the right questions" sections punctuate areas. Although the questions are important to address, they may be intimidating and individuals with disabilities may need help pursuing the answers. Some of the areas are ones that need to be taught and discussed with all students, others are full of self-examination and reflection while others require research into student and region specific opportunities. The book does not provide guidance in locating services outside of school for support.

Each chapter ends with student interviews, resource documents and websites related to the chapter. The student interviews are with two education majors. This is a significant limitation of perspective. Education professors are likely to a) be the best instructors in a college or university because of their training in teaching and b) be most familiar with instructing students with disabilities. Furthermore, the programs are more likely to be full of students who are most likely to be motivated to react positively to peers with disabilities. Students in other courses of study may not be well represented by these two interviews.

The resource documents are useful, but the text offers limited advice on what to do with them. Chapter 3, for example is on picking the right college. It includes a two page preferences document on  pages 66-7. Individuals are instructed to fill it out and use the information on their search. They offer limited advice on how to find the information out or even how to use it when you have it. Students may need lots of support to complete this.

Overall this book is a good beginning and very accessible. It is not, however, very deep and further information will definitely be required. Good transition planning at the high school level will be invaluable to student success. Families, students and schools need to work together in the research and teaching that go into getting ready for post-high school experiences.