Saturday, February 22, 2014

Building background knowledge to create a foundation before reading

One of the key Principles of Project CRISS is Background Knowledge - be it accessing it or building it.  It is not an original thought that if you have background knowledge on a topic, new information is more likely to stick.  We call this schema.  Students who struggle with information and reading in school suffer partly because, more likely than not, they lack background knowledge, or schema, (and this includes the basic vocabulary) on the academic subject.  As I perform reading inventories individually, part of the assessment is to determine the level of familiarity the student has with the text by asking basic questions about the main topic, vocabulary, or theme.  If a student scores less than fifty-percent on the pre-assessment, the passage is considered unfamiliar.  My problem is that no matter what passage I have pulled this year, all the way down to a grade three passage, very few of the passages had friendly text with which any one of my strugglers was familiar!  Imagine trying to read one hundred percent of your required material in school with little to no familiarity of the text.  What a daunting task, and one that would cause immediate stress and anxiety.

So in my last blog I mentioned that I would be working on a social studies activity this week in a U.S. History class.  It was wildly successful, in my opinion, so I thought I would share exactly what we did and give you some ideas as to how you can adapt this type of activity to your own curriculum.  

My lovely example of the organizer
We used the visuals from the text book in Chapter 16.1 to start.  I had the students create an adapted form of the organizer that a respected former-colleague showed me from the Library of Congress teacher-resources website.  I'm kicking myself now because I have a copy of the organizer that I created for them as a model, but I didn't take any pictures of completed student organizers!  So unlike me!  I'm of the mindset where the fewer organizers you give your students, the better prepared they will be.  Creating their own gives them a sense that they can do it on their own rather than waiting to be handed ways to think.  

In the organizer set up by the Library of Congress, students are asked to observe, reflect, and question.  I made mine a little  more user-friendly for our struggling readers, and we asked the kids to write "What I see (observations)", "What I think (inferences)", and "What I wonder (questions)".  I demonstrated using a map of Fort Sumter, talking my way through it and explaining how challenging it was for me because I generally skip the visuals in a select piece of text and dramatically overreacting when I found things I would have missed had I not looked at the visual.  I'm certain the kids think I'm crazy.  

One of the biggest struggles we have in this class is differentiation. We have a comparable population of gifted students and students with IEPs, and most of the rest of the class is composed of struggling readers.  Keeping the gifted students engaged is a tough line of business, and we were delighted to see that they maintained engagement through the entire activity!  When it was their turn to try their hand at the observation of the next visual (a color coded map of the United States during the Civil War), our strugglers took more time to read the visual.  We walked around, pointing out captions and helping them interpret what some of the images might be.  The gifted kids took the ram by the horns and wrote detailed descriptions. Inferences?  Even better!  We supported some of our struggling readers by giving them sentence starters if they needed them (This makes me think . . . ) while the gifted students and some others were able to infer more deeply and support those inferences with details.  Even the level of questioning varied, which was really fantastic!  My colleague and I agreed that we needed to do more activities like this one to keep all engaged (our strugglers were forced to participate because we put them into pre-determined groups where they were equally matched, skill-wise, so they couldn't really depend on their partners to do all the work).  Finally, after performing a third observation on a graph of the resources of the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War, we asked students to write a prediction of what they would learn in the section.  This helped to bring the information together and set us up to read the summary the following day.

As a bell-ringer activity the next day, my colleague had her students read an adapted version of the section (two brief pages) with some directed reading questions thrown in for kicks.  Before they read it, I suggested that they circle or underline things that they remembered from the section preview the day before.  Words such as Fort Sumter, border states, and West Virginia were great reminders of the visuals we had seen in the section during the preview.  Students read the two pages, we went over some of the directed questions, and we were ready for their note-taking activity.  

After the two background knowledge builders, the actual note-taking went relatively quickly.  All students created another organizer and got right to work (we had them work in pre-determined groups again).  I also will point out that we did not ask students to read the entire selection of text, but we created a purpose for reading and took the five page section down to three for easier manageability.  All-in-all, I was very pleased with how things went this week, and I'm looking forward to more hands-on work in this class.  The idea of using visuals to preview the material made it easy to differentiate and allowed both our visual students and our students who were read/writers to use those skills.  It also allowed those of us with a weakness for visual learning to sharpen that skill.  

The skill of observation can be applied to just about anything:
  • artwork in history, geography, art, foreign language, language arts, or music classes
  • album covers in music, art, language arts, or history classes
  • photographs in any subject
  • 3 dimensional art in social studies, language arts, or art
  • science demonstration setup, art setup, or a demonstration itself in art, PE, science or technical studies
  • graphs, charts, or tables in science, math, social studies, PE, health etc.
  • equations in math or science
  • grammar in sentences in language arts
  • plants or animals in science, health, language arts, or social studies
  • rocks or fossils in science, language arts, or social studies
  • human beings in social studies, language arts, art, PE, health, etc.
The possibilities are so endless!  You could really require this type of studying of anything for a pre-determined purpose.  Take a look at a lesson for next week.  Can you take five minutes and ask students to notice something, write it down, and then make an inference (start out their thinking by saying, "What do you think about it?")?  The more practice our kiddos have in doing this type of exercise, the more observant they will learn to be.  By using this skill, our students are more likely to access or build their own background knowledge, which ultimately leads to more independent learners with a higher academic self-esteem.

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to add that I thought the inferencing activity was brilliant, as it was cross curricular to what was being assessed in Language Arts this quarter. Additionally, it allowed some shared inquiry among students and made the differentiation within the classroom so much easier. It is great to see skills applied in other subject areas.