Teaching Techniques That Are Proven to Work
I chose a student whom I have been seeing issues with. She struggles with the weekly vocabulary lessons and whole-class read aloud sessions. This student has articulated to me that she studies very hard for the vocabulary quizzes, yet she still does quite poorly. Also, while reading aloud, something that she seems to enjoy doing on a daily basis, she has a tendency to mispronounce a significant amount of the higher-level words in the text. With that in mind, she is not a low-achieving student. I chose her, not to research her grades, but to attempt to figure out ways to better understand a moderately achieving student and the issues that she is having with the texts we are reading and the vocabulary words that they are learning. In doing this, I will better understand how to assist my lower-level students that are having the same issues as her. I want to understand where the disconnect lies between her comprehension skills and her reading and vocabulary skills
Lesson One Summary:
Lesson one occurred at the very beginning of a new unit. We had just finished reading The Giver, by Lois Lowry, and the students were working on an opinion paper; they were asked to decide whether they would rather live in the main character’s world or ours. Simultaneously, we were beginning a unit where we were going to read The Skin I’m In, by Sharon G. Flake. My reasoning for teaching this book, an easy read, is due to the fact that it offers up quite a few opportunities for theme-based discussions. The themes within this book are numerous. I chose to focus on individuality, conformity, and decisions. “Teachers in the upper-elementary and middle grades may be unaware of certain easy-to-read chapter books that are also complex and engaging enough to provide students chances to develop and practice their comprehension strategies” (Ivey, 2002, 237). I believe that this book falls under this category. As far as the exploration of these themes go, we will be exploring the questions:
• What does your face say to the world?
• How are you an individual?
• Why is it important not to conform (to be unique)?
• What are some important decisions that you regret or would change from your past?
At the beginning of each novel-based unit, I have my students fill-out an anticipation guide. “Anticipation Guides are used to make students aware of what they know and do not know about a topic or text under study. Typically, they are used as a pre-reading strategy, they help students access prior knowledge. Used with informational or narrative text, they consist of a series of teacher-generated statements about a topic or storyline to which students respond prior to reading” (Writing to Learn:English Language Arts, date unknown, 9). Each of the guides that I create asks questions that relate to the themes within the book. Also, they ask the students to relate their own experiences to certain themes within the book; themes that they have not yet read about or explored. “A number of theories and studies support the notion that students are more motivated when the literacy activities they engage in are connected to their own lives and their cultural identities” (qtd. in Gambrell, 2004, 197). I learned about anticipation guides from my mentor teacher, during my internship year at MSU. Since then, I have used this tool religiously. At times, I find that my students do not grasp the reason for these guides, but after diving into the books, they are able to pick out the themes, which have already been discussed in class. These moments are called “ah-ha” moments, and they are created (or come about) because the students have been provided with a solid base of background knowledge about the themes within the book. Reciprocally, background knowledge is important because it “could affect monitoring in several ways because:
1. Simply knowing more about the topic makes reading easier; there is less new information to process…
3. Knowing about the topic helps readers know what to notice. Therefore, it is possible that [all] literacy students could monitor better if they had enough background knowledge to allow them to make inferences and knew what to pay attention to in the text” (Cromley, 2005, 190).
The proper use of this prior knowledge then leads to the “ah-ha” moments that I spoke of above. These “ah-ha” moments are ones that show me that anticipation guides work. After taking this class, my love and devotion to anticipation guides have been further solidified. I have learned that “substantial evidence shows that activating and building students’ prior knowledge before reading a text improves their reading comprehension” (qtd. in Ehren, 2005, 315). With that said, when my students are able to remember the questions and discussions from the guides, they are proving to me that they are comprehending the major themes within the book, as well as the book itself. “Unless teachers employ instructional practices that support the solid construction of background knowledge, other reading comprehension efforts will prove to be ineffective” (Ehren, 2005, 312). That is a big reason why I push myself to create anticipation guides for nearly every unit that I teach.
After discussing the anticipation guide, we moved right into reading the book. Before passing out the books, I passed out the chapter handout for Chapters 1-3. This handout served many purposes. The first purpose was to introduce new vocabulary from the reading. “Reading is probably the most important mechanism for vocabulary development as children get older” (Ehren, 2005, 312). That is why I draw vocabulary words from the reading that the students will be reading in the near future. I know that the best way to learn and understand vocabulary is to learn it in context. Also, this technique helps students to become independent word learners by showing them how to learn the meanings of words by breaking down their meaning within an individual sentence. This idea was discussed by Barbara J. Ehren when she said, “Vocabulary instruction…should include skills and strategies that help students become independent word learners” (2005, 313). Also within this first packet is a section that asks the students to recall the characteristics of new characters within the three chapters that were read. Also, they must provide at least five significant events and place them on the timeline. I include this section so that the students have a reference, for each chapter, when they are asked to fill-out a timeline for the book as a whole. Lastly, they are asked questions that help them to test their comprehension of the reading. After I have gone over each component of the handout, students are given the choice to read aloud or silently. Most often, my students choose to read aloud. As this occurs, I help my students to fill-out their handouts. Also, before students dive into this packet individually, we work together to sift through any issues that they may have with each section. Working together will also teach those struggling readers how to thoroughly complete the handout. For instance, when students must choose significant events for the timeline, they must know which events are truly significant.
“Poor readers often choose important information on the basis of what is of high interest to them. They may make decisions about what to include in summaries on a sentence-by-sentence basis, rather than using textual cues to identify important information.” (Ehren, 2005, 316)
In most cases, modeling how to pick out important information will serve in correcting this issue.
Lesson One Critique:
As for the effectiveness of this first lesson, I feel as though it went quite well. Most students were able to fill-out the anticipation guide and handout #1 (Chapters 1-3) without any major issues. The selected student did a good job responding to the anticipation guide. I would have hoped to have seen more self-reflection, but it still served the purpose, for the most part, that it was put together for. The purpose of this guide was to teach the students about the themes in the book (individuality, conformity, and decisions). Also, each of the questions dealt with issues that the main character, in The Skin I’m In, had to face. In a perfect world, this student would have thought critically about how she felt about each of these questions, in turn, helping her to better understand her feelings about the book’s themes. Also, she would have answered them thoughtfully, and she would have dug deep into her feelings about each question. For example, there was a bit of disconnect between the student’s choice on question number three (a multiple choice question about what she would do if she was bullied) and her explanation. Despite her choice, which did not surprise me because I know her and her personality, she seemed to be able to articulate her reason for this choice. I feel that I could take care of this issue by explaining, in greater detail, my reasons for using this tool; that way, students will find it more meaningful, she will think more critically/thoughtfully about her answers, and it will become even more effective. According to Jennifer G. Cromley, “Students need to know not only how to use the strategy, but also why it will be useful because they will put a lot of effort into learning it” (2005, 198). Also important is the fact that I may not have followed the guidelines for introducing a tool of this nature.
“Research supports a general pattern of explicit instruction that includes the following elements: (a) Explain how to use text structure awareness strategically to assist with comprehension; (b) Tell the importance of the strategy; (c) Model how, when, and where to use the strategy and how to evaluate the effectiveness of its use by including “think alouds”; (d) Provide guided and independent practice in strategic use of text analysis; and (e) Teach for transfer and evaluation by making sure that you have students independently apply new strategies while reading their regular books (qtd. in Ehren, 2005, 315).
To clarify my placement of this information, and my lack of explicit instruction, I introduced this strategy, very briefly, expecting that handing them this guide, and telling them that the questions/statements dealt with themes from the book, would be enough to get set them on the right path toward critical thinking. What I did not do was help them to see why this technique is important. Also, I did not further teach them why it is important for them to ask themselves questions of this nature while reading the text (The Skin I’m In) and their independent reading novels. If I would have done this, I think that they would have put a bit more effort into completing the task. For instance, the student that I studied only provided surface answers; ones that almost seemed expected. If I would have scaffolded her learning of this task better, she may have dug deeper into her prior knowledge and given answers that truly critiqued the questions/statements. For example, when she was asked to complete the statement for question #5 (In order for me to be myself I must be able to_______________.), she said, “Express myself.” This is a thoughtful answer. But, with a bit more scaffolding, and attention to my expectation of the task, she may have gone deeper and explained what she meant by the word ‘express.’
As for the handout. I feel as though this student did a good job answering the questions and filling-in each required section. I feel that her success was due in part to the fact that the work was modeled first. “Teacher read-alouds can be a good starting point for comprehension. That is, by just listening first, students can focus on the strategy being introduced without actually having to read.” A plan that works well “is for the teacher to model his or her own mental process as he or she reads aloud to students” (Ivey, 2002, 241). Although each section of this handout did its job, I decided to add a few to the next handout in order to incorporate literacy strategies that are proven to enhance comprehension (prediction and visualization). I hypothesized that my incorporating these strategies would further assist this student in understanding the text.
Lesson Two Summary:
Lesson Two was carried out in much the same way as Lesson One. For starters, a discussion was held at the beginning of the class period. This time, the discussion was over the handout from Lesson One (Chapters 1-3 handout). We went through each section, in order. Students offered up their answers as I helped them to muddle through any mistakes they made or any quick fixes that they could make to enhance their thinking, with regards to each question. After a thorough discussion, students were given the handout for Chapters 4-6. I proceeded to go over each section of this handout, focusing more closely on the new sections (prediction and visualization). After all sections were discussed, and questions were answered, students were given a copy of the book, and Chapters 4-6 were read aloud. During reading, I stopped to ask questions in order to check for comprehension. This reading strategy is important because “One way to measure metacognitive monitoring is to ask people to “think out loud” while reading” (Cromley, 2005, 191). Also true about this tool is the fact that “Evidence shows that talking about what has been read increases the readers’ knowledge of reading processes and written language conventions, as well as the interpretation of text” (qtd. in Gambrell, 2004, 196). These reading sessions also consisted of time where I would read aloud (at the beginning), in hopes of getting the students into the day’s reading. This is effective because when teacher do this it “Makes books more accessible to their students” (Gambrell, 2004, 194). After reading has been completed, students are then asked to complete the handout (Chapters 4-6 handout). Within this handout, students were asked to define vocabulary words, list characteristics of new characters, place five events on a timeline, answer comprehension questions, predict what is to come in the book, and visualize/draw a section of the reading. I feel as though the tasks of prediction and visualization (two strategies which I have not utilized in about 3 years) have the potential, and may have been the most effective. After analyzing the responses from my students, with regards to the questions that contained these tools, I noticed that I could gauge their comprehension skills quite effectively. With that said, most students predicted what was to come very easily and correctly. Also, they drew pictures, although not very detailed, about the most important events in the day’s reading. I used these two techniques for the following reasons:
• “Good readers create pictures in their minds. They use their senses to connect to the characters, events, settings, and ideas. While reading students should note the places where images are clear and distinct” (Writing to Learn, date unknown, 65).
• Prediction is an “Informational text strategy [which] scaffolds students into discipline-based reading. It encourages reflection on reading processes needed for learning information” (Writing to Learn, date unknown, 38).
Although I was not sure if these reasons would hold up and stay true with relation to my students, I was able to prove the research correct and find that these strategies do in fact work.
Lesson Two Critique:
I have already discussed my thoughts, about parts of this unit, in the above paragraph. Now, I want to take the time to discuss the individual student’s (the one that I observed closely) progress during this lesson. For the most part, I feel that she did a good job as far as comprehension goes. She was able to answer, accurately, each question that I asked. With that said, she did not answer them as thoroughly as I would have liked (a fact that I stated during my critique of Lesson One). For instance, when filling out the timeline, she seemed to choose random events that may not have contributed to the overall meaning of the reading. An example is the first event. This student wrote, “Goes to class.” Although this is true, the main character did go to class, it was not at all the most important fact during the close reading that we did. Also missing is a better explanation of the event; important or not, the event should at least have a character’s name with a more thorough explanation of what happened. I feel as though this lack of critical thinking and thorough explanation is due to the fact that I did not, yet again, scaffold this student (all of my students for that matter) enough to train her how to choose significant events from a text. I needed to train my students how to find meaning in the text and understand what events created this meaning. “Simply telling students that reading is about meaning, without also…building background knowledge…and teaching other comprehension strategies, may not be very helpful” (Cromley, 2004, 190). It is my job to help my students to see the significance in all of the text that they are reading. This cannot happen if I do not equip them with the skills to do so on their own. As the timeline entries progress, this student’s responses get better. When the teacher, Miss. Saunders, asked the students, “What does your face say to the world?” a light bulb should have gone off in this student’s head that this was a significant event; I am assuming that this happened. My reasoning for this is because this question was on the Anticipation Guide. This fact is also important because it has the potential to prove that the anticipation guide’s purpose was hard at work; the student used her prior knowledge from the guide to realize that this event was significant.
Comparing Lesson One and Two:
Lessons One and Two employed two similar handouts. My reasoning for using two lessons that were so similar was because I wanted to compare the changes in comprehension after incorporating new skills (prediction and visualization) into the second handout. As for my findings, I noticed that my students, including the one that I was monitoring more closely than the others, seemed to gain more insight into the text after completing the second handout. This insight came from the prediction and visualization questions (numbers 11 and 12) on the second handout (Chapters 4-6) . As I had stated earlier, my students chose important events to draw for the visualization question. These choices can be compared to the timeline events that they chose to place on their Chapters 1-3 timeline. On this timeline, the important events that they chose were not always important. After some thought, a few more chapters read, and a bit more practice, my students were beginning to learn what important events consisted of (occurrences which had the potential to make a wave for the protagonist, for the bad or good). Although this was not my main goal for using these handouts, it was a goal that contributed to the bigger picture (comprehension and hightened literacy skills).
During the first novel unit, this year, I used reading logs to keep track of students’ reading and their comprehension. Within these reading logs, students were asked to provide explanations of three significant events from their reading. Also, they were asked to provide two thought provoking questions about the reading. In theory, this tool should have worked quite well. I scaffolded the use of this tool, and gave them a significant amount of time to complete their reading during class time. With all of that said, I found that students were simply copying random events from the reading, as opposed to consciously choosing events that they believed to be significant to the chapter(s). Also, they generally did not come up with questions that were thought provoking; they asked ones that were surface and generally could be answered with a simple, “Yes” or “No.” I feel that the problem with this tool was in the fact that I did not reiterate, enough, how to use these reading logs. “Students need support, or scaffolding, while learning to use strategies. Scaffolding may include hints, questions, reminders, explanations, or other supports” (Cromley, 2005, 198). Maybe if I would have taken more time to re-teach the use of reading logs, I would have found them to be more useful, and I would have used them during this unit. For that reason, I changed-up my approach for this unit, and I restructured my reading comprehension tools. I took from my reading logs the choosing of significant events. I changed them from summary to putting them in timeline form. As the unit progresses, I will be able to see more clearly if this change has become effective. In order to gauge their effectiveness, I will have to check to see that my students are choosing significant events. The element of these reading logs, which I did not transfer to these chapter handouts, for The Skin I’m In, was questioning. Although quite important, I felt that it would be better if I asked the questions in order to ensure that the right questions were being asked.
Cromley, J. G. (2005). Metacognition, cognitive strategy instruction, and reading in adult literacy.
Ehren, B. J. (2005). Looking for evidence-based practice in reading comprehension instruction. Topics in Language Disorders, 25, 310-321.
Gambrell, L. (2004). Literacy motivation: Implications for urban classrooms.
Ivey, G. (2002). Building comprehension when they’re still learning to read the words. In C. C. Block & M. Pressley (Eds.), Comprehension instruction: Research-based best practices (pp. 234-246). New York: Guilford.
Michigan Writing Across the Curriculum. Michigan Department of Education. (pp. 1-148)