Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Using informational text to engage all learners: Part 1

Using diverse informational texts is challenging. Real-world informational texts – e.g, newspaper articles, court decisions, and scientific abstracts – often are very long, have difficult vocabulary, and include material not relevant to instructional goals. Moreover, teachers working in classes with a large number of or composed solely of students with special needs may worry that their students cannot negotiate the challenges of this kind of material.


Susan’s recent experience working with an English class in her school validated this belief. The small class of just five classified students was studying Lord of the Flies, and the teacher agreed to co-teach our lesson that uses a New York Times article on a scientific study of male aggression in fruit flies to prompt student thinking about the violence in Lord of the Flies. We published a version of this lesson for The New York Times Learning Network, and the full-length version is featured in our volume Connecting Across Disciplines.

While classified students may sometimes be given low-level work and material that does not challenge them, fortunately, that is not always the case. This second-year teacher consistently has his students grappling with rigorous texts, and he welcomed the opportunity to incorporate a new instructional model into his practice.

The teacher began the class with a do-now prompt asking students what kinds of issues or situations annoy them and how they respond. One student’s response offered a perfect segue into the main focus of the lesson. He admitted that he sometimes struggles to control his emotions: “that’s just how my mind is; my body runs really hot.”

Susan and the teacher then moved into the lesson by showing the short, fun video created by the New York Times that accompanies the article on the fruit fly study. We first played the video straight through, then played it again, stopping several times to discuss and check for understanding. Though our students are always absorbing media, we know they sometimes do so passively, so multiple viewings of a media clip, perhaps with prompts for what to look for as needed, are key in using media clips to hook student interest successfully.

The teacher had prepared the students for reading the article the previous day by working on the vocabulary exercises for the text (in our Connecting volume). The value of this work was evident when we began reading the article; students were confident in their comprehension of the words they had studied the day before – e.g., hypothesis, neuroscientist, suppresses – and seemed to be quite willing to tackle other challenging words in the article that they had not learned previously.

During the 46-minute lesson, we read and discussed the excerpted version of the Times fruit fly article aloud as a class, using the sidebar questions designed to prompt student thinking about the text. Excerpting and using sidebars are key elements to our approach. We use excerpts and cut anything from the readings that might distract students from our instructional goals. And we create sidebar questions that prompt active reading: scaffolding for students the process of thinking and asking questions about what they are reading along the way.

As we worked through the text, an interesting trend emerged. When we asked students high-level questions about a particular phrase or sentence of the text (e.g., “The article indicates that Anderson and his colleagues identified ‘a tiny group of neurons ... that can control aggression.’ What is the idea here? Why would scientists be interested in studying aggression? Why would they care that a small group of neurons control aggression?”), they were engaged and willing to think out loud.

However, when we approached a fairly long paragraph in the article, the teacher clearly became concerned about keeping students engaged and turned away from the sidebar questions to ask students easier comprehension questions (e.g, “What is substance P?”) as we read the paragraph aloud. But when asked this kind of low-level comprehension question, the students tended to look at the text for a few seconds, make a guess, and then clam up in frustrated silence.

This of course was the opposite of what the teacher intended, but such a result makes sense. Basic recall or identification questions are often harder than they seem, especially for students who struggle with reading comprehension. If the answer is not explicitly stated in the text exactly the way it is framed in the question (“Substance P is ...”), a struggling student is likely to stare at the long block of text that contains the answer somewhere and then guess. If the student isn’t supported by the original question or follow-up questions to think about how the language in the relevant phrase or sentence works, the student’s guess is likely to miss the mark, no matter how long they stare at the text. What seems like an easy comprehension question to a teacher can often be perceived as a more challenging question to a student.

And the higher-level question, which promotes deeper engagement with big issues, can in fact be easier, even when a student has some basic reading comprehension problems. Just because a student might struggle with reading words on a page, that doesn’t mean he or she can’t think. The key is to craft questions that simultaneously supply what is needed to support students’ thinking about ideas and language and remove any unnecessary barriers that might impede that thinking. Getting students who have difficulty with reading and writing to talk and supporting them in thinking out loud are essential to helping them improve their reading and writing skills.

Though we much prefer thought-provoking, open-ended discussion and writing opportunities, we also use multiple-choice questions as part of our working through a reading for two main reasons. First, they are an inescapable part of our students’ reality, so we feel obligated to give them low-stakes opportunities to tackle such questions, especially in the often very challenging two-part formats posed by the Common Core-aligned and other high-stakes assessments. Second, they are a relatively quick way to check for understanding.

So, after our successful reading of The New York Times article excerpt, we grappled with a few multiple-choice questions, talking through them aloud as a class, during the last few minutes of the period. This gave us an important opportunity to not only check for understanding in anticipation of moving on to written responses to the article the following day but also to reinforce effective test-taking strategies and build confidence with the kinds of questions our students often struggle with on standardized tests.

The students were game for tackling these questions after reading the article and discussing the sidebar questions, especially after we explained that we would do them together. We asked what strategies they used when attempting multiple-choice questions. They said they would eliminate obviously wrong answers first; they also said they would plug the answers into the question to see if they fit. We used process of elimination to answer the first part of the main idea question. The students quickly identified the main idea of the excerpt: “Studying aggression in male fruit flies may help us understand aggression in humans.” We then asked the students what they would expect to see in a piece of evidence that supported our answer. They said that a strong piece of evidence would talk about studying aggression in male fruit flies and aggression in humans. We then used these criteria to select the three best pieces of evidence from the quotes given in the answer choices. After successfully completing this task, we reiterated to the students that whenever they see a two-part question, they should use the second part to help them check their answer to the first part.

We were so pleased by the students’ level of engagement and demonstration of high-level thinking throughout the class, we were very eager to build on our success the next day.

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