Tag Archives: teaching close reading with informational texts

“Why do we have to annotate?”

“Why can’t I just highlight?” Ever heard that from a student? A few weeks ago I had the honor of teaching a class of 5th grade students with the objective of convincing them that annotating is a powerful way to make sense of a source–I did this by helping them realize the value of annotating AND by teaching them what they might include in an annotation.

Why do we annotate? I don’t have to convince you of the value of annotating, but we do need to remind students that annotating a source can help us make sense of the details and remember what we read. AND if we can understand and remember what we read, then we are more likely to be able to engage in critical thinking.

What types of notes should we jot when we annotate? This is the bigger (or real) question for students. Many (maybe most) do not know what to write in an annotation. They do not realize they can sketch a concept that is being described, write notes about what they don’t understand, note the type of detail the author has used (e.g., comparison, cause-effect, process, etc.), highlight or draw a box around important terms of the topic of a paragraph or section, and so forth.

Notes about the lessonThese students were studying the conservation of matter in science so I located a NEWSELA article that described condensation, boiling, and evaporation. Below are images and notes from the first two parts of a three phase lesson.

During Phase 1, I introduced the vocabulary word “process” –which is in the first sentence of the source. Understanding this word helps a reader understand many parts of this source better. I wrote the definition on the board and then we discussed briefly (see my notes from my lesson plan). We briefly previewed and made predictions and then I gave them a purpose for reading, “You have been studying condensation and evaporation in science. As you’re reading, I want you to think about new information you are reading that you can add to what you already know.” I encouraged them to put a + sign by new info, but to not spend energy on annotating yet.

As the students read the article, I leaned in to confer with several. I noticed that while they were able to name the topic they’d read about and give a few general details, they were not describing, in detail, what they’d learned. One student stuck out to me – he seemed very confident. He’d pushed the article away and was on to other things. When I leaned in, he informed me that he’d read the article twice and, basically, understood it all. I asked him to describe to me the process of evaporation and noticed he was probably drawing from his background knowledge to respond. Then I asked him to describe to me how the author explained evaporation. (The author uses a real life example of a puddle of water that appears to be shrinking but in reality…) The student had nothing to say, could not recall how the author did this. Together we went back and reread and discussed.

I closed by asking them to turn and talk with a partner about a new piece of information they’d learned from the article.

During Phase 2, I started by asking one students to come up and be the teacher while I pretended to be a student. I handed him a sticky note with a prompt a teacher might use to check for understanding – “Describe the process of condensation that you learned about in this article.” I asked him to ask me this question. When he did, I paused and looked out at the group with a bewildered look. I said, “Well, I think it’s about how water goes up in the air.” I looked at the students and said, “Is that about what you can say???? There was a lot of information in this article and that’s all I can really recall.” Most of the students agreed enthusiastically – “YES!!!” While we were laughing at me for not remembering more, we were also making it okay to say, “Hey, I need to go back and read and think through important parts closely to make sure I understand what I read and remember what I learned.”

They were with me!!! So then I introduced an anchor chart with the question “What are types of annotations we can use to help us make sense of details (in a source) and remember what we learned?” (See below.) 

I modeled thinking through a sentence in the source (with the article on a doc camera) and annotating and then we collaborated on deciding what to underline and jot down in the margins. As we annotated, we stopped and thought about what kind of annotation we’d made and began to list these types of annotations on the anchor chart. The students gave annotating with a partner a go. I quickly realized, that for many, they would need lots of additional opportunities with the teacher as a guide. Still there was good conversation about what they might jot down to help them make sense of the source. In the end, we only closely read and annotated two short paragraphs and that was plenty!!!

I closed by asking the student who’d played the teacher earlier in the lesson to come back up and ask me the same question. I modeled using my annotations to explain what I’d learned:

I learned that evaporation happens when a liquid is heated in some way.  The water molecules at the surface of the water start moving more quickly and they break away from the other molecules and move into the air as a gas. Evaporation is the effect and the liquid being heated in the cause. The author used a real life example–a puddle of water and what happens to the water to help me understand how this happens every day.

I looked out at the students and said, “How did I do?” There was a resounding cheer! They recognized the difference in what I could say – but more importantly in what they could say as a result of thoughtful annotations. Then I asked them to turn to a partner and use their annotations to explain what they’d learned. I probably could have asked them to put away their annotated text and talk about what they’d learned and observed positive results as well. They just understood and remembered the details better.

Woohoo!!!! So much fun!!!

Hope this helps.

 

On the power of inquiry charts…my kids surprised me when…

Recently I had the honor of talking with Sara, a teacher in Iowa, whose students have started using inquiry charts. In a nutshell, these charts help students determine what is important and organize their notes as they read-view-listen to multiple sources. (If you’re not familiar with inquiry charts, please check out an article I wrote for ASCD’s EL The Case for Multiple Texts or this blog entry.)

Sara’s students were engaged in a shared inquiry into the giant squid. This was their first experience with an inquiry chart – so everyone was using the same research questions and the same sources. Below are two examples of their charts. Notice the questions are across the top and the sources are listed in the first column.

I asked Sara to share what she noticed about the students during this experience and as we talked, two important points jumped out at me.

*The questions on the inquiry chart should be revised if your students realize the questions are not clear enough or are too big. Sara started with the question, “How does the giant squid catch and eat its food?” As they read-viewed the sources, though, they realized there was too much information to take notes on and explain in response to this question. Sara and the students reformulated the question to “How does the squid use its tentacles to catch prey?” The students were okay with changing the question–because it made the task more manageable and helped them determine what was important. More importantly, the students LIKED that the first question didn’t work, they got to see their teacher problem-solve and they had the opportunity to help her problem solve. Formulating and reformulating the questions together has become a part of the process for the students.

BTW – this happens a lot. In my experience, developing “perfect” questions for the inquiry chart is hard. I have changed many a question once I’ve seen what students do with it. Totally okay. We want them to see the process and engage in this for themselves.

*Some sources may have more to offer students than we realize–especially when our students have started thinking across sources. I have looked at sources and thought, “Oh, no. They won’t get anything from that” and then been super surprised at what they noticed (that basically I didn’t!!!) Sara wanted to show the students a video of a giant squid. Finding a good video is hard when there have only been a few sightings of this mysterious creature. (Most of what we know is from examining dead squid that wash up on shore.) She found a video of a giant squid eating a fish. The video is raw footage taken by scientists with no narration or other helpful features. Sara thought it would be hard for the students to glean any new information from this, but it would be cool for them to watch. She was surprised at how wrong she was. They noticed all sorts of details in this video — because they had already learned so much from other sources.  Students noticed that the fish didn’t appear to change much in size over the course of the video, but then one reminded the others about how they’d read that a squid only eats grape-size pieces. Yes! That would explain what they were seeing. A few minutes later when the squid let the dead fish float away they did notice small tatters on the dead fish. This might have been where the grape size pieces were eaten away. They also surmised that the tatters might be from where the suction cups on the squid’s arms – these suction cups have razors around the edge. Woohoo! The students were using what they already knew to help them make sense of a new source. The power of reading multiple sources on a topic!!!

BTW – when the students were done with their research, they used their notes to create a life size squid in the hallway, complete with captions detailing what they’d learned.

I discuss these issues and more in a chapter on inquiry charts in my new book with Heinemann – Nurturing Informed Thinking.

Okay. A BIG THANKS to Sara for sharing stories from her class with me.

Hope this helps.

Sunday

Our students know so little if…

When our students read just one source on a topic, I would argue they still know almost nothing about that topic or issue. I know you know this. It’s not until they read, view, listen to multiple sources on that topic that their understanding is transformed. This is not a new point. My argument is that students should read more than one source on a topic on a regular basis. I’d even argue that every time they consult a source on a nonfiction topic or issue, they should consult another source or two or more.

Give yourself a moment to do this.

Last summer my husband and I discovered a tide pool with sea stars in it.

(Photo taken by Sunday’s husband.)

I was immediately captivated and wanted to know more. There was also a little spousal argument about whether the sea star is called starfish (my husband’s term) or sea star (mine) 😉 That night, on National Geographic’s website, I found the following:

Marine scientists have undertaken the difficult task of replacing the beloved starfish’s common name with sea star because, well, the starfish is not a fish. It’s an echinoderm, closely related to sea urchins and sand dollars.

Okay. I learned something new, right? But I wanted to know more. I searched again and found this time-lapse video of a sea star eating a clam. It’s 30 seconds.

Cool, huh? Now I knew a little bit more. The sea star wraps itself around its prey to eat it. Now    I wanted to know even more—particularly about how the sea star eats its prey so I found the diagram below. What do you notice?

(Sorry – this diagram is by Pearson; couldn’t find the original source; it’s all over the internet at different sites.)

Okay. My understanding expanded. The sea star has a stomach in the center of its body (now the video makes more sense) and the sea star has tubular feet that help it grasp prey like the clam. I wanted to know more so I went back to National Geographic’s site and read this:

Unusual Feeding

Most sea stars also have the remarkable ability to consume prey outside their bodies. Using tiny, suction-cupped tube feet, they pry open clams or oysters, and their sack-like cardiac stomach emerges from their mouth and oozes inside the shell. The stomach then envelops the prey to digest it, and finally withdraws back into the body.

Fascinating, huh?

With each source I consulted, my understanding of the sea star developed depth.

I wanted to know more of course.

Then I came upon these photos (UC Santa Cruz). Take a moment to look closely.

These were taken over the course of three days (photo credit on the site to Kit Harma). This is sea star wasting syndrome that is devastating populations of sea stars on the west coast. With my understanding of the sea star–its physical features and how it eats–I had an even better understanding of how this is a horrific problem.

I kept reading because I wanted to know more and in the following days, my husband and I would check on our sea star several times–hoping that it still looked healthy and understanding so much more about what we were seeing.

My point is—What if I had stopped after reading the first source? I wouldn’t know that much. How did my learning grow because I read another source and then another?  My understanding was transformed.

 SO

How can we make this happen for our students? How can we nurture this type of informed thinking on a regular basis? Given how much misinformation is out there, this is an imperative, huh?That’s what I explored with several colleagues and wrote about in my new book Nurturing Informed Thinking: Reading, Talking and Writing Across Content-Area Sources published by Heinemann. As we explored teaching with more than one source, the students’ excitement got us hooked on doing this. It’s hard to go back to using just one source after we observed this.

In this book, I write about so much of what I learned (selecting sets of sources, making it all manageable and so forth) plus I include nine sample lesson ideas in Chapter 3.

Here’s a lesson idea for now. Use these sources on the sea star with your students to reveal the power of consulting more than one source. As they consult each source, pose questions like, “What did you just add to your learning?” Close with a question like, “Why consult more than one source?”

Hope this helps.

Sunday

Explode to Explain

Are your students citing “text evidence” without really having control of the meaning of the quote they choose? Do they state “in the text it says” and then fill in the next blank with a quote they may not really understand? Do they forget to explain further or elaborate?

Here’s an idea a group of teachers and I tried last week. After a lesson that provides time for the students to read and discuss the article, give them the luxury of time to contemplate what one quote from the text means – to explode the meaning of this quote in order to explain it further. One sentence in an informational text can be loaded with a lot of meaning – it’s worth the time for students to slow down and really think about what the author is talking about and the implications of what the author is saying.

For the first small group lesson (20 minutes), I introduced a NEWSELA article about the eco-boats that were hired to clean garbage from the Rio Bay in preparation for the Olympics. My introduction included defining and discussing the difference between garbage and sewage (important to understanding the article), previewing and making informed predictions about the content of the article, and then the students reading while I conferred with individuals.

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For the second lesson, we talked about one of the main ideas – “Water pollution is a problem in the Rio Bay” – written in purple ink in image below.  (Remember – this is just one of the main ideas in this article.) I shared a supporting quote from the article with them – written in blue ink on chart- and we worked our way through the details in that particular quote. In the image below, notice how I jotted what the students were thinking in red ink.

I modeled talking about what this quote means using the notes in red to help me explain my thinking. Then I asked a student to do the same. THEN I asked partners to turn and talk to do the same. My goal was for them to speak fluently about what they understand this quote to mean–and then be able to write about it.

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I closed this lesson by asking the students to explode an additional quote from the text that supports the main idea – “Tons of garbage and raw waste flow down rivers each day.” They wrote this quote in their response journals and attempted to explode.  I conferred heavily. They will continue to need support doing this for awhile.

For a day 3 lesson, we reviewed the notes on the quote we’d exploded together and engaged in a shared writing to explain that quote. See the image below. Then they returned to the quote they’d exploded, orally rehearsed with a partner what they planned to write and then wrote.

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Notes – I determined the main idea we’d use. I chose the two quotes. This is more about saving time and cognitive energy to get to the heart of what we needed to do–thinking through and explaining “text evidence.” Later the students can take on more of this. During these three lessons, this small group of students just began to get what we were talking about as far as explaining. They need to do this a LOT to get a grip on explaining the text evidence they are citing.

In the end, there’s a lot of power in this exercise–increased comprehension, increased content knowledge, and being able to speak and write more fluently (and knowledgeably) about what they’ve read.

A big thanks to the 3-5th grade teachers in the NKC School District who went on this day long journey with me and to RENEE for being my think partner!!!

Hope this helps.

S

“I underlined all the words! They’re all important!”

When annotating, do your students underline most of what they’ve read because they think “it’s all important”? Maybe they’ve underlined that much because they don’t know how to determine what is important? Below are a few tips and photos from a demo lesson I gave to tackle this issue. And, yes, I used the pasta analogy 😉

The article for this lesson was about a village in Costa Rica that has chosen to raise and sell butterflies instead of clear cutting the rain forest. This movement started at a school with students taking the lead on the project before their parents and other community members became involved.

Tips

  1. I started by describing the reading strategy we would be using and introducing the pasta analogy. We are going to be reading an article very carefully and underlining key words and phrases that help us answer a particular question. You can read more about the pasta analogy in a previous blog. I use this analogy to help students understand that key words and phrases or “key details” are like pasta which we want to eat and the other words are like the water you boil the pasta in – which you don’t want to eat.Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 7.11.41 AM
  2. Then I moved to activating (for some) and building (for others) prior knowledge by briefly discussing three photos related to the content of the article. I shared a map of the western hemisphere and pointed out where Costa Rica is in relation to the United States and then a photo of the rain forest in Costa Rica and a contrasting photo of what a rain forest looks like when clear cutting happens. There were no photos to support this in the article (I found all three online) and I felt like it was very important for students to understand where this takes place and this concept and how it influenced the village’s decision.img_7374
  3. Then I shared the purpose for reading which was posted on the front board and said something like: We are going to read an article about a village in Costa Rica that decides to NOT clear cut the rain forest. Butterflies help this community in some way. I engaged the students in reading the purpose posted on the front board. img_7369
  4. In the ideal world the students would read the article in advance of this lesson to get a basic idea of the content. This was not the case for this demo lesson. Instead I asked the students to spend a moment using the THIEVES strategy to preview and make informed predictions about what the text would be about.
  5. With the text projected, I modeled reading the first paragraph, then rereading to think aloud for them about key words and phrases – including thinking aloud about why these were important words or phrases. img_7372
  6. The students had pieces of blank paper folded into quarters and I drew four quadrants on the dry erase board. (When we don’t have copies of the text to mark on, this is an alternative.) I wrote the key words and phrases for the first paragraph as I thought aloud. The students caught on and started contributing words to the list. They also copied these words onto their papers. img_7373
  7. I stopped and modeled using my key word list to summarize aloud what I’d learned–I did this with a student partner who brought her notes to the front.
  8. The class and I did a shared think aloud for the 2nd paragraph and listed words together. We stopped and thought aloud about what we’d learned in both paragraphs – with a partner – using the key words we’d written. student-pasta-2
  9. I released responsibility to pairs for the 3rd and 4th paragraphs. They listed key words and stopped to summarize aloud with each other. Eventually, THESE NOTES CAN BE USED TO WRITE SUMMARIES OR HIGHER LEVEL THINKING RESPONSES TO THE TEXT.
  10. We wrapped up by discussing what we’d learned as well as the strategy of determining what is important.

The classroom teacher finished the next day by coaching the students in determining what was important for two more paragraphs. The text was an eight page article. That’s TOO LONG for this kind of reading and note taking. If you’re working with a text this long, I’d suggest jigsawing the following sections (after you’ve done one section together like we did)  – assigning small groups to read a section of a text (from one subtitle to the next) and determining key words. Then when they jigsaw, they have to share what they learned with their new group. Another option is to choose a shorter text OR because they’ve read carefully the first section, ask them to finish reading without listing key words. That careful reading of the first section should launch them towards better understanding.

Hope this helps.

S

Are your students tired of writing summaries and analytic essays?

I’m shaking up how students respond to informational texts. I’m experimenting with letters, Hall of Fame posters for a bulletin board in the classroom entitled “People Who Have Changed the World,” designing and writing content for a book entitled Did You Know, and classified ads. Regardless of the format, though, I’m still  REQUIRING students to tap and explain text evidence related to a main idea.

I tried this a few weeks ago with several groups of 4th and 5th grade students during small group guided writing lessons. (I was giving demo lessons–as a consultant in a school district.)  Here’s the routine I established for the series of lessons (4 lessons at about 20 minutes each):

  1. Lessons 1-2 closely read for a clear purpose 1-2 short informational texts and annotate or take notes. By short, I mean 1-3 pages of text. For example, one group of 4th grade students read two pages of text in their anthology on the work of public officials like city council members. The second text was a one page article from Scholastic News on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s plan for the water crisis in Flint, MI. Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 8.49.07 AMScreen Shot 2016-02-26 at 8.49.07 AM                      The essential question was How do public officials accomplish things to help people? They took notes on a two-column chart.                               Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.01.14 AM                                                                                During these two lessons, there were several opportunities for students to turn and talk to a partner about what they were learning–this is a very important bridge to writing!
  2. Lesson 3 – Start with 5-10 minutes of conversation. I asked the students to review their notes and turn and talk with a partner about what they’d learned about how public officials accomplish tasks. With this group, I noticed that they needed more support in talking in depth about this topic versus just listing what they learned off their notes. So I pulled the group back together and we had a “conversation” –this means no one raises their hands. We just talk and as needed I prompt students to ask each other for clarification, to ask for more details from a peer, or to build on what a peer said. As they did this, I took notes (based on what they were saying or my interpretation of their comments) on a small dry erase board – for the students to refer to as they talked (see image below).                                                            2016-02-04 15.15.15
  3. Lesson 3 – Set a purpose for writing and develop criteria – 5 minutes. For each format I explored with students, we developed criteria. For the hall of fame poster and the Did You Know book, I used a mentor text (that I found on the Internet) which I showed them on a small laptop (see below).  For the poster and the DId You Know tasks, I asked partners to collaborate.                                                                   Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.08.31 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.08.42 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.08.58 PM                                                                         Below are examples of criteria we co-developed and referred to over and over again as the students wrote.                                                                                   2016-02-04 15.17.542016-02-02 10.16.33 2016-02-03 15.30.27For the 4th grade lesson with texts on public officials, the students had to write a letter to someone they think should run for public office and explain why – with reference to the texts they’d read. Notice that part of the criteria is the student must refer to the texts read–tying a main idea from the text into the letter as well as text evidence and an explanation.  For the hall of fame poster, we decided they would refer to text evidence and explain how the two historical figures (Gus Garcia and Frederick Douglass) in the top right hand corner of their poster. For the Did You Know two-page layout, they would refer to what they’d learned from texts in the text under the question and then integrate throughout the graphics, side bars, etc.
  4. Lesson 3 – Engage in shared writing – 5 minutes. Below is an example of shared writing with the students who read about public officials. I chunked this. So we picked a person to write a letter for together and then they picked their own person. We wrote an intro for our shared person letter and then they wrote one for their own person. We wrote about text evidence for our shared person letter and then they wrote about different evidence for their own person.                                                                                      2016-02-04 15.16.28
  5. Lesson 3 continued and then Lesson 4 – Students write independently (or with a partner) – 25 minutes at the writing table with me there to coach. Students continue writing their pieces – in particular, the part where they have to refer to the text and explain. These may not be completely done by the end of these lessons but I’m not worried about taking these all the way to publication. What’s important is that quality time at the table with me present to coach while they write for 25 minutes.
    They can finish independently and I can confer with them briefly about finalizing later.
    Below are examples of students’ drafted letters. Notice how they integrated information from two texts into their letters.                                                     Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.16.20 PM                                                                                               (BTW – Mr. Taylor is the principal at that school! Another student wrote a letter to his mom and two chose friends they thought would be good public officials.)                                         For the letter below, the group of students read a text about Jane Addams and about Gus Garcia with an essential question regarding how these historical figures advocated for people. The author of this letter chose to write a thank you note to her teacher–thanking her for advocating for students and for teaching students to advocate for others – similar to Addams and Garcia.                                                                      Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.18.57 PM                                                                                           There are all sorts of letters students can write – thank you, encouragement, inquiry, requests, etc.  One group read about how scientists collaborate and then they wrote a thank you note to a classmate who’d collaborated with them in some way (to build a bridge in science, to complete a math word problem, etc.). They had to include what they’d learned from two texts about the power of collaboration.    

If you’ve tried shaking up responses to informational text done at the guided writing table, I’d like to hear about it!!!

Hope this helps.

Sunday

 

 

The Coding Strategy – Helping Students Self-Monitor while Reading Info Text

Do you have students who read a text and are clueless about what they read? Or when you prompt them to share what they learned from a text, they frantically look back at the last sentence they read and then spit it out verbatim?

Before we get into conversations about main ideas, author’s point of view, summarizing content and so forth, we may want to provide time for students to grapple with questions like:

  • What did I understand or learn in this text (or section of text or even just this sentence)?
  • What did I not understand?
  • I didn’t understand this, so what can I do to figure it out?

I use the Coding Strategy (Hoyt, 2008) to introduce or reinforce self-monitoring with students. After each sentence or paragraph or section of text, students stop, think, and code the text with one of the following:

*I already knew this information.

+ This is new information.

? I don’t understand this part or I’m wondering about…

! Wow this is interesting and this is why I think so…

This is an image of the bookmark I give students. I’ve attached a PDF here.  CODING BOOKMARK 11_12_15

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Here’s an easy lesson procedure:

  1. Explain the skill and strategy. Self-monitoring means to keep track of what we are and are not understanding and then to use fix-up strategies to repair meaning. Then explain the strategy. When we code our thinking, this means we read, stop, think & jot a code and write a few notes.
  2. Model using the Coding Strategy to self-monitor. Read aloud from a text projected for all students to view and write aloud codes with notes about your thinking. When I introduce this strategy to students, I read aloud, think aloud, and write codes and notes – before the students did this on their own. See image below for a lesson I did with 5th grade students.  Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 6.45.20 AM
  3. Direct students to read a chunk of text and stop to write a code with a few notes on a sticky note.
  4. Ask students to talk with a partner about what they learned from the text as well as their codes and notes.
  5. Proceed in a similar fashion with additional chunks of the text, coaching students during individual conferences, and providing time to stop and talk with a partner. Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 6.53.29 AM
  6.  CLOSE – Students can end up with very fragmented thinking if they just code like crazy and don’t also think about how all of the details they are reading are related. During conferences and at the end, I pose questions that require synthesis like “So looking at all of your coded notes, what do you think the author’s purpose was for writing this text?” or “So what did you learn from reading the whole text that was important?” Ask the students to think across their coded notes. At the end, ask the students to place their notes in the middle of a sheet of paper and draw a frame around. Then ask them to write the main idea in the frame. For more information on the frame analogy for teaching main idea, see a recent blog entry I wrote.

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Caution!  Beware. Students will use all of your sticky notes, putting just a code on each, and then not be able to recall what they were thinking when they wrote that code. Make sure they jot a few words to help them remember what they were thinking at that point.

ALSO, when you model or confer with individuals, think aloud about parts of the text you did not understand (with a ? code) or that you might not understand if you were their age. Most students do not code for what they don’t understand – and need prompting to do that. I haven’t elaborated on this here – but you need to help them articulate what they can do to repair their meaning making. Have a list of strategies in your mental pocket for this.

If you want to read more about this including looking at sample lessons and a rubric for assessing students’ coding, check out Chapter 6 “Self-Monitoring While Reading” in my book Close Reading of Informational Texts or send your questions to me by email at sunday@sunday-cummins.com.

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Hope this helps.

Sunday

The Pasta Analogy-Helping Students Determine What’s Important

Do your 2nd-8th grade students struggle with determining what is important when reading informational texts? Are they unsure of what to underline and annotate? I remember one fifth grade student saying, “Well, I underlined the whole text because it was all important!”

Two suggestions.

  1. Make sure there’s a VERY CLEAR PURPOSE for reading & determining what is important.

Here are a few sample purposes –

Purposes Related to Specific Content

  • How was the scientist Norman Borlaug innovative? Why was this important?
  • What have we learned about Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, that we never knew before? Why might this information be “exciting” as the author states?
  • Why might we consider Mary Fields extraordinary?
  • How should we be prepared for severe weather? Why?

Purposes Related to Skill Building

  • What is the author’s purpose in this text? What details in the text make you think so?
  • What is the author’s main idea? What details in the text support this main idea? (Okay…as clear as this one is, it’s still hard. You might consider liberating your students by providing the main idea – see my recent blog entry on this.)
  1. Introduce the PASTA ANALOGY to help students think about what might be important and what might be less important.

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To introduce the pasta analogy, this is a quick conversation I had recently with a small group of students:

Have you ever made pasta before? (Pause. Students nod their heads.) So to make pasta you have to boil it in water until it’s soft, correct? (Heads nod.) And then you eat the pasta, correct? (Usually, students continue nodding their heads.) Wait! Don’t you have to drain the water first? You don’t want to eat the pasta with the water, right? (Students shake their heads emphatically.) The pasta is what’s important to eat and digest, not the water. It’s the same way when you are reading to determine what’s important. There are pasta words or phrases that we want to eat and digest and then there are water words that are less important.

You can figure out what words or phrases are pasta by thinking about your purpose for reading. Today we are reading to find out how the scientist Norman Borlaug was innovative. Remember innovative means to introduce or use new methods or a new idea. So we are only reading to locate details—or pasta words & phrases—that help us understand how Borlaug was innovative.

This is an easy introduction to the skill of determining what’s important as well as to the strategy of close reading. As the students read each sentence, they stop to think, “Are there any pasta words in this sentence, words that help me think about my purpose for reading?” As I confer with students, I refer to the purpose for reading and ask them, “What are you learning that might help you understand how Norman Borlaug was innovative? What are pasta words or phrases in this sentence that might help you?”

Below are artifacts from lessons I’ve given recently – when I introduced the pasta strategy and engaged students in underlining/annotating text OR in lifting pasta words from the text and listing them on notes.

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The image above is of a 5th grade student’s annotated text – when locating “pasta” or details that helped him/her think about how Norman Borlaug was innovative (purpose).

2nd grade shared writing of pasta

For this lesson, the students were reading in a text about weather and one of the main ideas in this text was that we need to be prepared for severe weather. We identified pasta or key details related to this main idea. The image above is of the purpose for reading and the shared writing of “pasta” details we did together. The image below is one student’s “pasta” notes taken during guided practice.

2nd grade student's pasta

Of course, this always leads to orally summarizing or composing and then writing in response. Students use their annotated texts or their lists of words/phrases to orally respond to the purpose for reading – with a partner, to practice saying aloud sentences they will write, and to write.

BTW – An educator stopped me one day and told me he was using the pasta analogy with first grade students reading above grade level!

If you want to read more about this, check out Chapter 7 “Determining Importance in a Text” in my book Close Reading of Informational Texts. I provide sample lessons and a rubric-like-continuum for assessing students’ codes.

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Hope this helps.

Sunday

 

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.

Is “text evidence” becoming a fill-in-the-blank?

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A few weeks ago I had the honor of working with a class of students who were writing an analytic essay in response to a text about Frederick Douglass. During this lesson, I’d posed a text-dependent question and we’d carefully read the article and taken notes.  When we moved from taking notes to using those notes to think about writing, I asked the students, “How should we start our essay? What do we need to think about doing first for our reader?” (In my mind, I was thinking, “We need to let the reader know the topic” or “We need to write an introduction”). Several hands went up, but one student’s hand shot up especially straight, her eyes wide and bright with a response. Pleased at her eagerness, I called on her. She quickly shouted, “TEXT EVIDENCE!”

No kidding. And this happened again later in the week in a different class.

For me this is worrisome. I worry that we are talking about and hammering “text evidence” so hard that students are becoming mindless, thinking that “text evidence” is the most likely answer to whatever question we ask. This mentality is popping up in their writing, too. “And the text evidence is….” is part of their responses as though they are filling in a blank. I don’t think we meant for this to happen! And I’ve been pondering how we can turn this around for students and keep them in the mode of “I need to think through this-I need to reason through this-I need to think about why I’m thinking this.”

A couple of suggestions–approaches I’ve been playing around with in my practice and thinking –

1.  If you are asking students to share textual evidence, the text-dependent question needs to require some kind of inference or interpretation of or grappling with ideas in the text; the answer should not be is stated explicitly in the text. For example, in the Frederick Douglass article, the students read–the question written by the publisher was “What did Frederick Douglass do to change the lives of African Americans?” This was answered clearly in several spots in the text — he spoke in front of audiences, he wrote his autobiography, he started a newspaper. I wouldn’t ask for text evidence to this question–why? Because the response would be, “Well it says it in the text.” Instead, a better question would be, “What character traits did Frederick Douglass exhibit in his advocacy for African American rights? What makes you think so? Use textual evidence to support your reasoning. Remember to explain why this is evidence that supports your reasoning.”

2.  Ask students to explain why text evidence is evidence that supports their reasoning–out loud with a partner and in writing. Hopefully, this forces them to think about what they are saying, to think through their reasoning. Below is a chart from a 4th grade lesson. This was from the shared writing portion of the lesson – we collaborated to develop a reason and identify evidence; then I asked small groups to talk about why this was evidence and then write on their own notes (a blank piece of paper folded into thirds).

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In a fifth grade class, we used a piece of paper folded into thirds to take notes. Below are the shared writing notes that we composed together before the students were gradually released to take notes on their own. This particular piece of paper was under the doc camera and projected for all students to see.

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3.  Model this thinking for them.  Think aloud, think aloud, think aloud.

4.  Provide lots of opportunities for students to just talk through their reasoning and thinking about textual evidence. This may eliminate some of the “fill-in-the-blank” language that is popping up in essays.

5.  As needed, provide language for students to appropriate in their discussions and their writing like:

  • When the author stated ___________, I was thinking…
  • When the author writes______________, the author suggests that__________
  • The author implies ______________ because she/he says/wrote________
  • The author uses an anecdote/example/metaphor to ______________
  • I had a strong reaction when I read__________because I knew the author was___
  • I wasn’t sure what the author meant when he wrote_______________but I’m thinking____________
  • I’ve been thinking about the question we are supposed to consider and the way I would respond is________________. My reasoning behind that is___________.

6.  When you start to see mindless use of phrases like “In the text it says…,” BAN those phrases and ask, “How else can you say that?” or “What are you trying to say? Let’s think through this and consider a different way to reveal this to our reader.” In one classroom, I wrote “The evidence is” on the board and drew a ban sign around it! The students gasped aloud!

7.  Reduce the cognitive load. Provide the answer to the text-dependent question and the reason and let the students just focus on grappling with identifying and explaining text evidence – orally in small groups and then in writing. It seems like we always start from the beginning in writing analytic essays. There’s no reason why we have to do this.

8.  Limit the use of formulas for writing responses.

9. Go through the process of reasoning and supporting for yourself or with a group of colleagues. I know we are crazy busy, but for many of us, this kind of thinking and writing might be less familiar. How would you answer the text-dependent question? What reasoning would you give? What would be your text evidence and why? Do it for yourself so you can coach students in thinking more deeply about what they are doing. Below are notes a group of teachers and I created in preparing to teach a lesson.

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Okay…just thinking. Hope this helps.

Sunday