Wednesday, August 10, 2016

I read it, but I don't get it

One of the big moves of the nineties was that every teacher was a teacher of reading- yes, it truly has been around at least that long. We came to realize that children needed to continue to be taught how to read and access information in every class in every grade. Clearly we have not fully embraced this idea, but we are making progress. In 2000, before Common Core and NCLB, Cris Tovani wrote I Read it, but I don't get it: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. This classic book make it to my summer reading this year and I was amazed at not only how pertinent the ideas are today, but how we have shifted our thoughts in some areas in response to these developments.

One of the first big ideas that Tovani presents is that piece of literature, he can make connections to it and understand it better" (p. 16). At some level we all accept this. We know that if you bring that prior knowledge in to the picture the reading is more relevant, comprehensible and memorable. If we think of Taylor Swift's song, "Love Story," or a soap opera's long triangle before reading Romeo and Juliet, our student's will find the play becomes more comprehensible. If we bring a monarch caterpillar into the classroom and watch its transformation into a butterfly, metamorphosis makes much more sense. If we talk about riding on a roller coaster, Newton's laws become clear. If we are reading about a current event, we might talk about the situation preceding the event that we know about now. We know that this is how we build knowledge. Unlike the assertion that CCSS authors present that students should read only within the walls of the text, we know that such an approach is highly limiting. I worked with a student on a reading test comparing two passages about Paul Revere. Students who had a working knowledge of Paul Revere had a huge advantage on this assignment. IN order to get something out of text, we innately use what we have- by we I mean good readers. Poor readers are often not adept at using what they know when they read. They need to be taught that what they know helps to unlock what is Teaching our struggling readers this skill is important.

Tovini talks about teaching accessing background knowledge with annotation. A BK and a note in the margins when you see something that connects to what you know is helpful for teaching and developing the skill of connecting what you know to what you read. One interesting thing is that she advocates teaching one annotation technique at a time. If kids have a laundry list of annotation symbol those that struggle often will not be able to learn to do any of them with skill. By focusing on one at a time, they can really learn the skill.

Another of Tovani's points is around comprehension monitoring. We all have had the experience of reading something and then realizing it made no sense. Perhaps we were too tired to read, bored with the content or the reading level and the content combined to be too challenging to be easily comprehended. Good readers recognize this and have strategies to fix things up when they go awry. Struggling readers often do not even notice that things do not make sense. Many a time I have had a student come to me with no idea of what was read. She offers a set of six signs to these students that meaning is being lost.
  • Our personal voice is no longer interacting with the text.
  • The camera shuts off- we are not visualizing what we read.
  • The reader's mind wanders.
  • The reader can't remember what was read.
  • The reader cannot answer clarifying questions.
  • The reader reencounters a character and has no recollection of them.  p. 38
Giving kids a way to recognize they are lost is important. I have read and written about fix it strategies. Kids need the clues to figure out when they are lost. So much of what they experience leaves a struggling learner lost. They are, in many ways, comfortable there. We need to shake them up and get them on board with keeping track of what they are reading. These ideas need to be taught carefully and slowly. Posting a list and reading them off is not enough.

The third biggie that Tovani includes is questioning. Reciprocal teaching includes this idea. (You can see my thoughts on Reciprocal teaching here and here.) So do strategies such as SQ3R and Reading for Meaning (see here and here). Tovani shares that adolescents often have lost the skill of questioning. We need to get students to learn to ask good questions. This helps them set a purpose for reading, keeps them actively engaged in reading and helps with retention of information. Teaching questioning leads to inferences. We can figure out what the text helps us to know- literal clarification- and then what else we might need to know. Students need to be aware that "they need to go beyond the words and supply their own thinking" (p. 93). When we think about what we know and apply it what we read, we better understand what we read. We need to help students become more active readers and this is perhaps one of the simplest and useful activities a reader can engage in.

Overall a great book. Tovani takes the reader into her classroom, discusses the problems struggling readers have and then presents some ideas to fix them. Many people may want a more prescriptive strategy. Some of the ones highlighted above fit that bill. Do be wary. When teaching a strategy, start with accessible reading. Starting with stuff that is too hard for an individual is not a recipe for success. Different articles that students read based on their reading levels is a great beginning point. SQ3R is not a strategy that is successful for students reading below grade level. Save this useful strategy for on target kids or have all the reading at the individual's level.

As the Common Core has rolled out, reading has taken on a new priority among our secondary programs. We are supposed to be adding rigor to our reading shelf. If students lack the comprehension skills to access this more challenging material, we need to teach them strategies to use to move closer to where they need to be. Tovani's book highlights some important insights in this arena. We need successful readers. We need to reach these kids who read it but don't get it.

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