Friday, November 29, 2013

Creating Success for the Unsuccessful

Recently I had a request from a science teacher who asked me if I had any tricks up my sleeve to help her students read and comprehend their science text books.  She reported that even after doing read-alouds as a class and two-column notes that many of them space out or don't fully understand what is being read.  Sound familiar?  I know it did to me . . .

Ironically I had just finished (that evening) rereading some notes I had taken weeks ago from another of Cris Tovani's workshops at the Day of Reading Conference, and I immediately went back for another read-through with the request in mind.  This science teacher was most concerned about her inclusion classes, classes where students with IEPs are placed along with a paraprofessional to give additional support and communication to the classroom teacher (often our students who receive tier two and three reading interventions are placed in these classes purposely as well).  Basically you're looking at a class where more than half of the students sitting in there are probably reading slightly to significantly below the reading level necessary to easily manipulate and extract information from the tricky text found in the science text book used in this class regularly. 

My plan is to meet and collaborate with this teacher, but I figured the situation would make a nice blog, as well, so below are some suggestions (some from Tovani's workshop) I'm going to consider as we discuss possible supports that we can implement in her classes.
  • Active engagement in the reading is key for kiddos who struggle with difficult text.  I'm a firm believer that students CAN comprehend material that is considered at "frustration" level, but they're unlikely to have the motivation to wrestle with it until they make meaning (in other words - they choose not to), and THIS is why they space out and don't understand what they're reading (or not reading, which is probably more accurate). 
  • Require students to be actively metacognitive.  Teaching them to close read may help, because that is what close reading is - recording what you're thinking as you're reading.  And when I say this, I'm not suggesting that we ask our students to jot down things as they come to mind; I'm suggesting that we require students to stop after every sentence or two and record their thoughts (on sticky notes, photocopied pages from the text book, or response journals).  If they're not recording thoughts, they're probably not making meaning because they're not thinking.  This may mean that you, as a teacher, need to narrow down what it is that your students read or you'll never get through what you need to cover. See the next bullet point for more details.
  • Taper down what is expected to be gained from reading so that students begin to feel success with smaller chunks of reading.  The idea is not to work slower, but to work smarter.  What can you get away with skipping so that your students can do a close read of two pages rather than five?  What things can you present to them in different ways other than reading?  You don't want to eliminate reading because there are so many benefits that can come out of teaching your kiddos to read text in your content area, but can you find better methods of presenting some of the material?  Does your text book have an adapted version?
  • Give students specific purposes for smaller chunks of reading.  For example, "After reading the first two paragraphs on page 95, tell me why you think that solar energy is not used more than it is today."  Allow students to work in pairs or trios and expect all group members to have the same response (require them to formulate answers together).
  • Use a timer, chunk their reading into small sections, and stop them after about seven or eight minutes to reset them and then set them off again.  For kids who struggle, unless you see that they are fully engaged and would be better off left alone - continuous resetting will be necessary due to low attention spans.  In instances where the text is SO tough that the simple act of reading the words on the page is horribly frustrating, how can you group kids so that they can work with you or another adult to hear it being read so that the struggle of decoding is eliminated?  What about setting it up so that students can listen to the book online if this is available, but still chunking the text and expecting engagement?
  • Make the content matter.  FIND a way to relate the content to their lives and make it matter to them somehow.
  • Use strategies such as the Read and Say Something.  This is good for kiddos who are auditory/aural learners.  Partners read (aloud or silently) a small section (a paragraph) and then one restates, summarizes, or comments on what he read to the other one orally.  Then partners switch roles and the second partner reads the next small selection, restates, summarizes, or comments.
Sometimes when teaching content-area material, we know that reading in the content is important and we LOVE us some content-area reading - but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our kiddos.  The likelihood of a struggling reader loving them some science info straight from the tap is a big fat ZERO.  Ok, maybe not zero, but those students who love reading their science or social studies text books are few and far between - and are even more scarce when all they've done is encounter failure.  It's easier to zone off and choose to fail than try and fail anyway.  Our job is to create situations that create success for these kiddos so that they begin to want to succeed more often.  If you've ever been a teacher, you've seen that moment where a student has a glorified moment of success (with you or with a colleague), and then that student changes her tune for that one teacher - possibly for the remainder of the year.  By using some of the strategies listed above, the likelihood of this happening with one or more of your students grows, because you're purposely setting your kiddos up to have small, successful moments. And that, friends, is what teaching should really be about (yes, I just ended my sentence with a preposition).

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