Category Archives: Reading Comprehension

Reading: Using all the clues?

In Catching Readers Before They Fall, Pat Johnson and Katie Keier explain on page 52 that “when proficient readers solve words, they do not depend solely on phonetics.” Instead, they use a combination of information sources:

“Meaning: Knowledge that includes any background knowledge, information gained from pictures in the text, or ideas gathered from the context of the sentence or story. Readers think about what makes sense.

Structure: Knowledge that comes from being familiar with spoken language, English structure, and how it sounds. Readers choose words that sound right.

Visual: Any letter/sound correspondence knowledge a person has. Readers check to see if the word looks right.” (53)

The authors go on to say: “When students are just beginning to learn to read, they are often unable to use all three sources of information simultaneously…” These early readers “need teachers who can… Show them how to integrate and balance meaning, structure, and visual information.” (53)

I was struck that this would seem to parallel the idea of strategic reading for comprehension: that proficient readers use a number of strategies, including looking at pictures, colour, font size, font colour, shapes, icons and clip art in order to make meaning.

 

Can this parallel be drawn: whether it is decoding or comprehending, real reading involves drawing meaning from a number of different sources?

Reading is a complex, multi-faceted process that requires a number of learned skills to operate simultaneously, nimbly and quickly, starting at the word level and working up to comprehension and beyond.

What implications does this have for my teaching?

If I put a text in front of a student, Johnson and Keier would seem to reinforce  the idea that powerful learning happens when a teacher explicitly explains what is happening in a text as well as what strategy to use; models how they would navigate this text; and then gives students time to practice this type of reading to increase proficiency.

In one of her DVDs, Cris Tovani relates a story of when she informed one of her high school teachers that she wasn’t understanding a text, the teacher responded by saying “Well, just read harder” or “Read between the lines.” Being unfamiliar with the text as well as reading strategies, Tovani says she went back and looked between the lines of print and discovered that this white space yielded no meaning. It would appear, however, that it is incumbent upon me, as the teacher, to make learning visible by showing students reading strategies, including how to navigate a text.

 

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David Bowie’s Top Songs? According to…?

With the surprising passing of David Bowie just a few days ago, I have come across a number of tweets from websites and publications proclaiming “The 24 Best David Bowie Songs” or something similar.

While I understand that these lists are the opinion of the publication or of a David Bowie fan, I find that this ‘these are his best songs’ reaction resonates for me as a high school English teacher because of the nature of ‘English class’ in high school.

Allow me to back track a little: how could there ever be a list of ‘David Bowie’s best songs’ — or any other artist, for that matter — when music is so very personal? For me, as a teen in the 1980’s, I was surrounded by David Bowie’s music, and while I liked some of his songs to a certain degree, it never really spoke to me in my gut (or soul or heart or whatever that place is when a song explodes inside you.) At that time, the music that made my cells thrum was Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, The Grateful Dead, and Santana to name a few.

The amazing group of friends I had in high school were a group for reasons other than our music tastes, which included my 60’s / Deadhead list, while others listened to death metal, ska, punk, new wave and indie rock. I can remember wishing that David Bowie spoke to me in my gut / soul because I sensed that he was an ‘important musician’, but for whatever reason, whatever my mixture of genes, background knowledge, upbringing, emotional sensibility, teen headspace, etc., David just never found a place in my heart. And that is okay.

And so, when I read about ‘David Bowie’s 24 Best Songs’ today, I remember that wishing his music spoke to me and then remember that it’s okay for not everyone to love his music.

How does this connect to high school English? I wonder what effect limiting students to reading only what have been deemed ‘the best or important novels’ will have on them? Kelly Gallagher, in his book Readicide, explores the idea that we, as teachers, should remember that while these core texts in English may be important, creating lifelong readers is more important.  Neither Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Nancie Atwell nor other promoters of reading would suggest that we ignore these important texts, but Gallagher fears that force-feeding ‘classic’ texts that only speak to some (if not only a few) students will undermine or even kill a students’ desire to read for the rest of their lives. Woah.

If I, as an English teacher, am worried about students being exposed to proper syntax and grammar, as well as building their vocabulary, Stephen Krashen’s seminal meta-study, The Power of Reading, submits that free-voluntary reading is the most efficient and powerful way to build those elements of language arts. After having read these amazing works by respected authors and thinkers, I confess it has given me much to think about.

(To go one step further, Jim Trelease and Dr. Stephen Layne also write about how reading aloud to students at all levels (including PhD students) is also a very powerful tool for exposing students to the beautiful intricacies of the English language. But that is perhaps for another post…)

Penny Kittle  echoes Gallagher’s idea and worries that if students are only exposed to academic reading in a boot-camp setting, they will turn off reading, and that is a much
greater problem than whether or not they were exposed to the ‘right’ or classic texts.

David Bowie’s music never took up a place inside my soul. That is okay — even though he is ‘one of the most important musicians of all time’. How would I feel, I wonder, if I had been forced to listen to his music, to dissect it, to analyze it, to discuss it, for weeks at a time, over multiple years?

Is it more important that I be able to critically analyze any piece of music or just David Bowie’s?

Kittle goes on to wonder whether we can balance students’ interests and needs with our responsibilities and goals.

 

Twitter for Teachers: Tweet Chats

Last night, I participated in a Twitter (or tweet chat) hosted by educators in Ohio under the hashtag #OCIRA.

What is a Twitter or tweet chat, you may ask?

According to Forbes.com:

A tweet chat is a live Twitter event, usually moderated and focused around a general topic. To filter all the chatter on Twitter into a single conversation a hashtag is used. A set time is also established so that the moderator, guest or host is available to engage in the conversation.

 

This #OCIRA Twitter chat was hosted by none other than noted literacy author, Tanny McGregor.

Twitter is a powerful tool for teachers searching for unique and vibrant professional learning. In this case, I was able to interact with other educators, including Tanny herself, in real time on the topic of reading comprehension.

 As McGregor was the moderator, she steered the discussion by way of 7 or so questions, all focusing on reading comprehension and literacy, the subject of her work as a speaker and as a teacher.

Over the course of the hour-long discussion – which flies by, I might add – I had the opportunity to contribute my own ideas and experiences, and then read about the ideas and experiences of other educators.tanny mcgregor twitter chatAnd what a thrilling (yes, thrilling) experience to have other educators from another part of the world acknowledge and even affirm my ideas and experiences. Indeed, how thrilling it was to have Tanny McGregor herself like and retweet some of my posts. Amazing.

Where else could I exchange ideas and learn with an edu-guru such as Tanny McGregor?

For educators, Twitter can be a powerful tool for learning, connecting, and sharing professional ideas and experiences.

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If you would like to participate in a tweet chat, searching “tweet chats education” will bring up this list and schedule of tweet chats as well as this web page from Cybrarman.

If you want to explore other ways teachers are using Twitter, then type “Twitter for Teachers” into Google.

Plus: Twitter Cheat Sheet for Educators

Reading Aloud to students is the Swiss Army Knife of Effective Literacy?

In his book, In Defense of Read-Aloud, Dr. Steven Layne quotes another professor, Brian Cambourne, who, in a position statement, explores the notion that reading aloud to students is the “Swiss Army Knife of Effective Reading and Writing Pedagogy”. Cambourne discovered in his research some of the following benefits of reading aloud to students (p. 17, In Defense of Read-Aloud, Steven Layne — Quoting Position Statement by Brian Cambourne):

  • Demonstrates power of stories
  • Provides insights into how reading works
  • Shows how to search for meaning
  • Demonstrates how to make connections and inferences
  • Develops new vocabulary and syntactic awareness
  • Stimulates imagination
  • Exposes students to a range of literature
  • Helps distinguish different genres
  • Encourages a lifelong enjoyment of reading
  • Helps learner-writers identify and transfer the literary devices authors use in their writing

It is interesting for me to read this because, in my experience, reading aloud to students is typically seen by both high school teachers and students as an activity that is the purview of elementary schools. Indeed, parents and administrators might further echo what Layne himself has encountered, that they see reading aloud as not “real teaching”.

Furthermore, I have had conversations with teachers who feel that they have been “reduced to” reading aloud to their high school students, due to perceived disengagement and laziness.

Layne, a university professor in Illinois, explains that he reads aloud to students wherever he is teaching: from kindergarten classrooms all they way up to graduate courses.  And as my mind began to question whether this book is just someone’s personal theory, I discovered that Layne’s excellent book is, as Regie Routman states in the introduction, “grounded in solid extensive research that definitively shows the positive effect of reading aloud on student engagement, thinking, and reading achievement” and, in addition to quoting research, is filled with testimonials of educators from all levels of the education system — K to PhD. —  who explain how they use read- alouds in their classrooms.

This gives me pause.

My question for my teaching practice is now: it time for me as a high school teacher to explore, as Regie Routman suggests, making “reading aloud a cornerstone of every teaching day regardless of the age level, subject matter, or discipline we teach”? Is it time to weave this Swiss Army Knife into my practice, possibly on a day-to-day basis?

If so, I now have so many questions…

Exploring The Orenda — Part 1

Exploring The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

Picking up the book:from amazon.ca

Confession: I am not drawn to books I “should” read — although, to contradict myself,  the book Echo by Pam Nunoz Ryan was recommended as a “should” read, which I read and loved.

Reflection: Perhaps placing obstacles or challenges in front of my thinking, hurdles for my brain to jump over, is good — provided they are appropriate challenges. A medical textbook, while obviously a challenge, would be far too difficult for.

The cover of The Orenda is, to be frank, not inviting to me. The art seems a bit abstract and unhelpful.

The stickers on the cover that say that is was considered for prizes such as The Giller and The Canada Council for the Arts are, for me, intimidating. The CBC Canada Reads program says that this book is a winner, an important FNMI book by an important FNMI author — what if I don’t feel the same way? What if I don’t think it is “good”? (What is “good” anyway?)

Better to remain silent and be thought a

Worse, what if I don’t get it? (Perhaps I should heed Abe Lincoln’s advice and should not be admitting this.)


So, I will attempt to go back to basics, to walk the walk of a proficient reader:

What doattack the text 6es a proficient reader do when faced with potentially challenging text? How do they ‘attack the text’?

Activates and Provides Background Knowledge: What do I already know before I start reading this book? What do I need to know before I start reading? (See below.)

Asks Questions: What questions do I have before I start reading? (See below.)

Set a Purpose for Reading: Why am I reading this book? (Still stuck on the “I should read this because it is an important book by an important author” — as opposed to “This book really touched my heart / soul / life and, knowing you, I think you would really like it.” Perhaps only semantics, but it would seem separated by a chasm. And I can feel the difference.)

How can I activate and provide background knowledge for myself? What questions do I have before reading?

  1. What is the book about? What is the basic story?
  2. Why is it so “award-winning“?
  3. Have I attempted challenging reads before? Have I overcome any?
  4. What predictions are bubbling to the surface before I start reading?
  5. Re: Predictions: Being that this is not a Middle Grades book or a Young Adult book, what challenging narrative devices can I predict that author will employ?
  6. What are professional reviewers saying about this book?

I think I will start with #6…

Building Background Knowledge with Oobleck? Part 3

From my last post about Bartholomew and the Oobleck by Dr. Seuss, I left off with a qFrom amazon.cauestion:  if I am reading this book to my daughters (or any other book), I wondered about how much I point out certain ideas or concepts so as to deliberately build their background knowledge.

While on Twitter, I discovered Mem Fox’s Ten Read-Aloud Commandments for parents. Although the ‘commandments’ are geared towards parents of young children, elements of the list are applicable to reading aloud to teenage students, I should imagine

For reading to my girls at home, Fox’s Commandment #9 states:

“Never ever teach reading, or get tense around books.”

From this commandment, I think I take that it is my job to simply to expos664px-In_the_evening_they_were_read_aloud_to_Cornelia_(The_Works_of_J._W._von_Goethe,_Volume_5)e them to a lot of ideas and words and characters and stories with animation and enthusiasm and positivity, and if they ask for clarification about something organically, then I can explain or elucidate.

But if they don’t ask, I infer that Fox is saying don’t make the reading aloud about learning; instead make it about enjoying reading for the sake of enjoying reading.

So, then, if my girls just listen to stories for the sake of listening to stories, how is their background knowledge being built indirectly?

In a different article (Building and activating students’ background knowledge: It’s what they already know that counts), Fisher and Frey go on to suggest how wide reading indirectly builds background knowledge:

“Reading is an excellent, indirect way to build background knowledge. Through books, readers meet people they otherwise would never have met, visit places and times that they would not have otherwise been able to visit, and interact with ideas that shape their understanding of the world.”

In Deeper Reading, Kelly Gallagher quotes David Sousa:

“…much like a tree growing new branches, tree-576847_640everything we remember becomes another set of branches to which memories can be attached. The more we learn, the more we can learn and retain.” (34)

Gallagher continues:

“The more branches I grow, the easier it will be to add new ones.” (34)

Gallagher also notes:

“…reading comprehension is tied closely to what the reader brings to the page — to what the reader knows before reading.” (26)

If this is true, then hopefully, when faced with challenging reading, my daughters may have the story of Bartholomew and the Oobleck bubble to the surface.

Oobleck: A Lesson in Leadership?

While From amazon.caexploring Dr. Seuss’ Bartholomew and the Oobleck as a text for my children, I was struck with an idea:another lens through which I could look at this book. My Learning Coordinator colleague, A. Gilbert, and I have put forth the idea to secondary teachers of reading picture books in high school English classrooms, and this book might work.

Specifically, it might be interesting to explore the nature of leadership. Jeffrey Wilhelm promotes the idea of re-framing our lessons through an essential question, as explained in his book Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry.

Perhaps this book could be used to set up an exploration into the nature of leadership and the essential question: What is the nature of good leadership? What, then, is bad leadership?

Another essential question could be: What is the role of the ‘common person’ when faced wiboss-vs-leader-800x800th ‘bad’ leadership? What is my responsibility when faced with injustice?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to use this question and then Bartholomew and the Oobleck for Grade 12 students who then studied George Orwell’s 1984 to find out those answers? And then possibly studied Hamlet with the same essential questions?

Bartholomew, for example, confronts King Derwin of Didd,

“You may be a mighty king,” he said. “But you’re sitting in oobleck up to your chin. And so is everyone King-Derwinelse in your land.  And if you won’t even say you’re sorry, you’re no sort of king at all!”

It might be interesting to ask students: is this what good leadership looks like? Is this confrontation the responsibility of Bartholomew?

And we could explore the nature of leadership by way of sites such as Leadership Freak or Modern Servant Leader.

IMG_1727Indeed, the more I think about this book, the more I sense it was written as a commentary on leadership. (And this is also supported by the fact that some of Dr. Seuss’ books are meant to be commentaries on certain topics, such as fascism in Yertle the Tertle or destroying the environment in The Lorax.)

I think the commentary on leadership was driven home to me when I happened to look at the back cover of IMG_1710Bartholomew and the Oobleck, which depicts a person having the Oobleck land on their head, to their obvious dismay under the words “Beware the Oobleck!”

If the Oobleck is a metaphor for a ill-conceived idea from a detached and capricious leader, then what might be the lesson for teachers and leaders in the education system?

Is this a commentary by Seuss about how the common person must pick up the tab, so to speak, and bear the brunt of the short-sighted, common-sense-defying ideas of a power-wielding leader?

I wonder if this book should be required reading for leadership and teacher candidates…