Tips for using ‘Reading A to Z’ texts for close reading

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Reading A to Z is a common classroom resource for leveled informational texts. There are some good texts in this collection – I would just be cautious, read for quality, and choose with clear objectives or text-dependent questions in mind. Below I describe how a group of teachers and I chose excerpts from Reading A to Z texts for close reading and then I offer some tips.

This week I visited a school where the teachers are accessing Reading A to Z texts to teach comprehension of informational texts. For a lesson I observed, the small group of students read “George Washington Carver” – the level O text. This short text covered a large chunk of Carver’s life and was relatively well written, but…okay…wait…I have more to say about that below.

Let’s start with what happened when the whole text was used. After a first read of the whole text, the students had a very general idea of the author’s main ideas, but they were not at the point of being able to describe the key details related to one idea. There was just a lot to grasp – and conceptually, for 2nd grade students, some of it was very difficult. But that was not a deal breaker!!!

So we planned a second lesson with this text thinking the following would help –

  • clear text-dependent question set as the purpose for reading – What did Carver achieve?
  • clear definition for achievement – “a successful result brought about by hard work”
  • JUST 3 PARAGRAPHS to read and think about carefully during the lesson (pages 9-10).

ALSO A HUGE HELP was that the teacher was leading a larger unit of study with the whole class on historical figures and their achievements. So the students brought relevant background knowledge to the table.

When we went to choose a chunk of this text to answer the question “What did Carver achieve?”, we realized that many of Carver’s achievements were listed or grouped (like what he achieved in his childhood all in one paragraph) and not really described in detail (the “how” of achieving or the impact). There was only one section that really included any kind of depth on the details around a particular achievement – the initial problem, the solution, the potential impact- so we chose that. (See image below.) These three paragraphs focus on one problem and Carver’s solutions – the farmers were becoming poorer and poorer because the soil on their farms was worn out and the crops were shrinking. Carver teachers them how to create free fertilizer and he also sends out information about how to grow and cook crops other than cotton. The other parts of this text move quickly through time or topics and do not provide enough information for the reader to really grasp an idea. Do you know what I mean?

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After the guided reading lesson, we were very excited about how the lesson went and decided to plan another lesson for a higher reading group with a Reading A to Z Level S text, “Barack Obama.” We wanted to use the same text-dependent question since it related to the unit of study, but we were disappointed because even though there were several pages, the achievements were “listed” rather than described in detail. The best choice of text was one paragraph that described why Obama decided to become a politician and what happened as a result. There’s a lot of content in this one paragraph, but we thought it was decently

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We changed the question to – “Why did Obama decide to become a politician? And what happened as a result?” These two questions and this chunk of text get at his achievements.

So here are my tips for choosing texts from Reading A to Z:

  • Read the whole text. Does the author get at any idea in depth? (Like the Carver selection)? Discard the text if it’s no good–if it just covers a lot of information, but none in-depth, if there’s no explanation of “how” or “why,” if there just seems to be a list of events or facts. But remember for close reading, you only need a small chunk of text — so if there’s a short chunk that’s decent, go for it.
  • Create a text dependent question to help the students focus (preferably related to a science or social studies unit) while reading. Our young readers and striving readers may not be able to read for importance without a clear text-dependent question.
  • Choose a chunk of the text that can be read closely to answer this question. (This might happen in reverse – like it did for us with the Obama text. First we found the best chunk and then we wrote the questions.) BEWARE! The child should not be able to answer the question with one sentence in the text. That’s why we created a two-part question for the Obama text! The question should require the child to grapple with whole chunk of text chosen.
  • Also – if your students are reading in general at let’s say “level S”–choose a lower level informational text from Reading A to Z. The concepts are frequently difficult – as I’ll describe when I post about the lessons we gave.

Okay…more on Reading A to Z and on the lessons we gave with the Carver and Obama texts…soon.

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