Friday, January 27, 2012

An Epidemic of Poor Comprehension

This week, at a teacher training for using conversation to lift student comprehension, an exasperated teacher raised her hand and asked, “I’m concerned because my students seem able to have really thoughtful conversations about books but when I turn around and give them a “test question” about it, they bomb!”

This question set me thinking—a lot.  

Is the problem the topic of the conversations students are having?  Is it that their conversations aren’t going deep enough?  Do their ideas dance around the periphery of the real meaning of the text?  Or is the problem something different all together?  Is it an issue of vocabulary?  Or careful reading or interpretation of the questions themselves?  The fact of the matter is this: when this teacher asked this question, I had no idea how to respond because it felt like the answer rested with  any one of a series of infinite possibilities. 

But here’s the good news.  As a follow-up to this training, I have started visiting classrooms in this district and together with the teachers who echoed the same sentiment voiced by this exasperated teacher, we’ve begun to take a close look at this lack of transference. While the jury still seems to be out on the absolute answer to this question, the observations we have made have been fascinating. 

One behavior that we saw time and again was the inclination to make snap judgments. Test questions require that we fully absorb all aspects of what is being asked.  They require that we not only read the text closely and carefully, but also that we take the time to fully reason and consider what a question is really asking.  What we saw were students who seemed to be skimming the questions and answering according to what they knew instead of using the information provided in the text.  For example, when we asked the question “What does the word prise mean in the first paragraph of “The Great Mouse Plot” from Roald Dahl’s Boy, many children saw the word knife and immediately concluded that the best definition for this word would be cut.  When we asked a question about Roald Dahl’s relationship with his friends, they saw the word truthful in the line that read “When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful,” and immediately thought that their relationship was based on honesty. When asked how Roald Dahl felt when he was placing the mouse in the jar, students said “proud” in spite of the fact that at the point when he places the mouse in the jar the text says his “heart was thumping like mad” and his “hands had gone all sweaty.” Instead of honoring those words,  they keyed into the last sentence that read it was marvelous to be so popular and called it a day.

Instead of reading closely and carefully, the students we looked at read lightly and literally.  And what I’m wondering is why?

When I was first introduced to the Common Core State Standards, specifically the idea of being able to read increasingly complex text through close readings that emphasized text-based questions, I was somewhat skeptical.  When I heard David Coleman speak about it, I felt that he was disparaging strategy instruction and as a teacher whose entire career has reflected the ideas espoused by Ellin Oliver Keene’s Mosaic of Thought and Harvey and Goudvis’ Strategies that Work, this felt a little blasphemous (amazon affiliate links).  However, what I have observed in the last few days is enough to convince me that aspects of our strategy instruction may well be counterproductive.  I sense that we may overemphasize things like making connections and predictions and underemphasize things like synthesis and determining importance.  And in so doing, students’ thinking dances around the periphery of the text never quite making it to the core.  And as a result, we’ve got kids who answer test questions based on what they think as opposed to what they know from the text they are reading—and you know what that means: bad scores.  But what’s worse than that is this: We’re grappling with an epidemic of poor comprehension and that’s a bigger problem. 

The question now is what can we do it about it?  I know that’s what I’ll be thinking about in the coming days but I’d love to know what you’re thinking, too.  What are you doing to help students achieve “close, careful analysis” of text?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reading is NOT an Option

As someone for whom reading is like eating, a necessary part of human existence, not wanting to read is a perplexing occurrence.  When I feel the pull to do other things, anything besides read, I wonder, “WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME????”  The weight of my distraction is disturbing, in fact, so much so, that even though I choose not to read, I am burdened with guilt for feeling that way.  Eventually, the guilt becomes overbearing enough to compel me to pick up my reading and muddle my way through a couple of chapters until I find that stride that reconnects me with my “other” world. And usually, I am not disappointed.  And when I am, I know I will keep trying because for me, reading is not an option. 

When I think about my own inner struggles with an engaged and active reading life, I can’t help but turn my thoughts to students. With the advent of the Common Core, our focus and attention has turned toward figuring out how we are going to raise student reading proficiency.  In thinking about this, our focus has turned toward instructional strategies and practices. What do we need to do to TEACH these children better?  As I think more about this, I am wondering if perhaps we are barking up the wrong tree.

The scores aren’t telling us that students can’t read, they are telling us that they can’t read well enough.  When we don’t do something well enough, is it because we haven’t learned what we need to know or is it because we haven’t practiced what we learned? I don’t believe that our problem is illiteracy, it is aliteracy.  We have far more children who can read and don’t than we have children who simply can’t read.

But unlike me whose lack of reading induces feelings of malnourishment, most children (and dare I say alliterate adults as well) are unburdened by a less than robust reading life.  THIS is cause for alarm.  THIS is what is causing scores to stagnate.  And THIS is where we need to look long and hard if we are going to figure out how to breathe new life into scores that have flatlined for over thirty years.  If we want to change test scores, we shouldn’t only be looking at HOW we teach, we must also be looking at how we MOTIVATE children to want to read MORE.   In the same way that it is unconscionable to think that a sports team would improve their game simply by hiring the best coach, we can’t be lured into the false belief that our problem in reading lies solely with instructional practices.  Good coaches know that positive game results require that players get out there and kick the ball around. And as educators we need to recognize that positive test results require more than good coaching: readers need to read. My question is this:  What can we do to make kids WANT to read?  And as classroom teachers, how do we fit more time for reading into an already jam-packed schedule?    

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Need It to Make Sense? WRITE!!!

One of the things that I preach to teachers when talking to them about deepening student understanding is the importance of writing in response to reading.  I tell them about the research that correlates higher reading scores with frequent writing.  Everybody nods in polite agreement but there is that small piece that remains skeptical.  After all, how often do we, as sophisticated adult readers, stop to write something after we’ve read?  Surely deep understanding is possible without picking up a pen???

So, in spite of the lingering doubt, we resolve to make sure to have students write more in response to reading.  Why?  Because it’s important.  Why is it important?  Well, because the research says so. 

And then it happens.  Sweet epiphany.

As I went about my daily life as a literacy coach helping teachers improve the practice of having conferences, I wrote vigorously as the teachers talked to the students. As I wrote word-for-word what they were saying, I couldn’t help but start to analyze what was happening.   Oooh, I thought to myself, she’s doing what I do when I get nervous that students aren’t saying anything.  I bombard them with a string of questions that might prompt SOME sort of response.  And that was but one of MANY of the thoughts that occurred to me as I wrote.  And as I wrote, I thought…and then, I thought some more and that’s when I realized why it’s so important that we have students write in response to reading—a pen becomes an extension of the brain and when we have it in hand, we can’t help but begin to think things that we would not have had we not touched the pen.  The literal extension morphs into a figurative one and that is what we want to happen to our students: we want them to S-T-R-E-T-C-H themselves.  We want them to reach deep and extend their thinking.    

Writing is a reflective practice.  It forces us to slow down and carefully consider all of the noise that resides inside of our heads.  It’s the reason that I blog.  It helps me to make sense of my professional life and as for students, writing can help them make sense of many things, books just being one of many.