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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Helping Students Track Complex Texts

Q: How do you keep students on track while reading long, complex texts? My students often can't recall previous events, and they're reluctant to search through dozens if not hundreds of pages to find proof for the claims they're making.

With shorter texts, readers typically rely on their memories to recall "what happened" in the text, with a fair degree of accuracy. But what happens when a text is particularly long, involved, and read over an extended period of time? How can we help students better recall and access earlier events?

I rely upon annotating the text directly, and I recommend that for online passages and shorter texts which might be legally copied. But unless your students own the books they're reading, this isn't a practical technique.

For books, I would recommend Page Titles.

The Short Game

Upon our return from winter break, we resumed reading Newbery Honor author Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now. I realized that students wouldn't recall details of what they had read two weeks ago, so I asked them to number a page in their notebook from 1 to 100 (or, three pages, as it turned it). Students were then directed to skim each page we had previously read, and to devise a title which would 1) help to summarize that page, and 2) identify what was most memorable on that page. I modeled the first two pages, and we then completed two more as a group. After that, students were off to the races.

At first some students struggled to choose short titles which yielded a uniquely identifiable summary of the page, but I allowed quiet discussions between partners; these conversations helped students to persevere with the task and be successful.

Once I observed some signs of fatigue, I stopped students and announced that we were going to play a game. I asked each student to mark three favorite titles. "Choose titles you feel are clever, or especially descriptive of that page. The titles should be so accurate that anyone in the class will be able to identify the exact page you're describing."

I called on the first student who announced, "My Mother's Smile." Immediately hands shot up all over the classroom, and when I asked for the choral answer, nearly every students replied, "23!" Each student who was correct tallied a point in the margin of their page, including the student who shared the title, since he was successful in guiding everyone to the right page. Note that only a few students had the same title, but nearly every student had a similar idea which allowed them to determine the page. By calling out the same page number, they were successful.

Okay, Keith, cool game. But what's the point?

The Long Game

This turned into an excellent lesson on skimming and getting the gist of a text. Skimming and scanning are two tools that are indispensable for readers, especially in the context of nonfiction texts. In fact, skimming and scanning are likely used more often in everyday reading scenarios for adults than reading of complete texts.

After a long day sight seeing in the city, for example, we might stop at several restaurants and skim the menu posted in their windows. What type of fare does this restaurant offer and what prices are we expected to pay? That's skimming. Once we choose our restaurant and are seated, each of us might look quickly over the menu, me for cheapest option, my friend for a vegan option. That's scanning. Once I located the burger of my choice, I would then read closely to see that all of its ingredients were to my liking. That's my complete reading.

Nearly every day, we as teachers demand that students "read carefully and closely," but with skimming we demand that students do the exact opposite. And not surprisingly, it doesn't come naturally to students. In my classroom, we needed to discuss several times what we as readers could do to avoid the temptation to reread every page.

Students also learned not to be "too creative." Some students who devised an overly creative or funny title for a page soon discovered that no one else had any clue what page they were referring to. Classmates also argued that certain titles, one hundred pages from now, wouldn't make sense once the reader had forgotten the clever connection. Therefore, during the game, students were permitted to change their page titles if they heard another that they preferred.

When we played the game a second day (focusing on pages 30-75), I took the time to suggest alternate "poor" titles for each page, challenging students to explain why these titles weren't as effective as those they had created (some were redundant, others too general, etc). I also began setting them up for the final day's prompt, when I would ask them to describe the benefits of the the Page Titles technique. I asked, "What evidence can we find in the story that our protagonist Doug Swieteck appreciates beauty?" Using their page titles, students were able to identify several examples, from an icy bottle of coke to his mother's eyes to the flowers he plants in the yard to the Audubon images he admires in the library.

The Longer Game

As with all techniques introduced to my class, I provide students with a rationale before introducing the steps. The rationale for Page Titles was "to recall earlier events and ideas in a lengthy text."

But after two days in which we had completed one hundred page titles (roughly half of them at home), I wrote the following prompt on the board (student ideas follow):

What are the benefits of writing Page Titles?
  • to summarize the primary ideas or events of the page
  • to review pages which were read some time ago
  • to help locate pages quickly
  • to find where you left off
  • to easily locate text evidence
  • to remember important quotes
  • to identify important passages or events
  • to recognize patterns or recurring events 
  • to compare and contrast events
  • to refer to a certain page that a classmate discusses
  • to better help you understand a character's motives or actions
  • to eliminate the need to reread every page, every time
  • to focus your attention on what you've read
Students admitted that the last bullet (which I needed to provide myself) was particularly important, since we sometimes "read" to the bottom of the page, and see every word on that page, but then ask ourselves, "What did I just read?"

In the highly recommended Reading Strategies Book, Jennifer Serravallo offers several strategies for students to use in order to maintain engagement in a book. But can students always tell that they've broken engagement with a text? Struggling to create a page title is a clear indicator that you, as the reader, haven't read a page as closely as needed, or you have failed to make a connection between what you've read here and what you've read before. Creating a page title forces you to be mindful of each page.

For you, the teacher, this technique pays off big time. For reluctant readers, this strategy allows a painless way to review the text and cement understandings. For all readers, Page Titles allow students to more quickly access text evidence in order to respond thoughtfully to class discussions and writing prompts. Strategies such as Serravalo's Piling Together Traits to Get Theories (Strategy 6.21, page 186) or Notice a Pattern and Give Advice (Strategy 7.1, page 194) or Respond to Issues that Repeat (Strategy 7.20, p. 213) are made less intimidating when the scavenger-hunt aspect is removed from identifying direct evidence in a lengthy text. So the Page Titles technique isn't an end in itself, but in fact a tool that achieves loftier goals in the classroom.

Give it a go. I would love to hear about your students' experiences in the classroom!

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