The Power of Three: Prior knowledge, reading purposes, and rereading

It’s no mystery. The more a reader knows about a topic, the better his or her comprehension and recall of a complex text will be.

You can teach your students to build their own prior knowledge of short texts by showing them how to preview. Start by thinking aloud. Read the title and ask: What do I know about this topic? If the answer is little to nothing, slow that reading down. Now read the first and last paragraph of informational text and only the first paragraph of a narrative. Model in a think-aloud how you have an in-the-head conversation about the details you recall. Write these details on the chalkboard and explain that writing is a topnotch way to assess recall and understanding.

Next, show students how to set a purpose before they read. Having a purpose provides students with a strong reason to read deeply and carefully, and a benefit is they’ll remember more details. Model two ways for students to set their own purpose for reading: (1) turn the title of the selection into a query or (2) reread the prior knowledge notes to develop a purpose for reading.

When turning the process over to students, use a gradual release model. Pair-up students and have them preview, discuss the preview, write prior knowledge notes in their notebooks, and set a reading purpose.  Continue partner practice until students can work independently.

Armed with prior knowledge and a reading purpose, have students read for the gist, a main point, keeping their reading purpose in mind. Once groups have discussed the gist and their reading purposes, ask them to reread and move deeper into the content and themes. Here’s where you’re likely to meet resistance. It’s time to launch a discussion on why students watch movies and videos multiple times. “I see more. I hear talk I didn’t get the first time. I remember more.”

“Great reasons,” I tell students, “and all apply to rereading.” I like to have students return to a text several times after the second reading. Do this by offering authentic reasons for skimming and rereading sections such as: discussing text dependent questions; making logical inferences; explaining why a character or person changes; pinpointing the central idea(s); and understanding how text structure improved their comprehension. 

Three is a magic number. These three strategies move beyond magic to research that clearly illustrates the power of prior knowledge, reading purposes, and rereading to improve students’ comprehension of complex texts.

Visualizing the jobs of tomorrow for today's students

We must educate today's students for the jobs of tomorrow - jobs we can't even envision yet.  Teachers, I think you've heard this a time or two, right?  It is a resounding and very real chorus.  If we have learned anything from the past, it is that the world is changing very quickly.

If you look at the industrial period, the precursor to the boom of national pride and the American middle class, manufacturing was king.  Made in the U.S.A. was everywhere.  In today's world, manufacturing is now pictured along side struggling towns and out-of-work factory workers.  But, I just read a fascinating article about how that is changing and for the first time in quite awhile, manufacturing jobs and factories are on the rise-they just don't look the same.

I've had the pleasure of going to the Ford Motor Co. F-150 plant to see the truck assembled and it is so cool.  It is conflicting with the traditional imagery of factories that we grew up with from our history books though - no dust or oil, no scary machines but rather clean, safe and sophisticated. TIME took a look at manufactoring companies in the U.S. and they are thriving in many cases, adding space and jobs. GE's battery business is a prime example of products coming out of NY state and ideal to explain even one step further what is so different in today's manufactoring world. 

While the "factory worker" may still be scarce in comparison to the old days, the exchange is on research and development jobs.  And within the factory, parts are literally speaking to each other and the manager via the Internet and censors.  And the creation of parts companies have formally been forced to go oversees is increasing due to the visionaries behind 3-D printing. 

What I loved about this article - and it is an in-depth article - is you can start seeing the future that today's children will enter.  And it is an educated future!

Rethinking the 'five finger rule'

I bet most of the educators out there have heard this pearl of teaching wisdom before: Don’t smile before Christmas. Yes, we’ve all heard it, and thankfully we mostly reject it.

Here’s another directive you might have heard (one we’re supposed to tell our students) that’s widely accepted even though I believe it, too, can be misguided: “Every time you encounter a word in the text that you don’t know, stick out a finger. If, by the time you reach the end of the page, you’ve popped out all five fingers, close the book. It’s too hard for you to read independently on your own.”

Known as the five-finger rule, this advice doesn’t jibe with what the Common Core Standards now ask of us regarding complex text, nor with what we know about language. Simply put: language is redundant. The information in every sentence is signaled in more ways than one. Indeed, language circles back on itself, creating cohesive chains of meaning that readers can follow across a text, picking up clues, not unlike Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs through the dark woods.

When we cut kids off after just five missed words, we short-circuit their search for meaning. We stop them from attempting to make sense of the text before them.

Linguist Steven Pinker makes the point with this exercise:

Thanks to the redundancy of language, yxx cxn xndxrstxnd whxt X xm wrxtxng xvxn xf  X rxplxcx xll thx vxwxls wxth xn x.

Or, consider this sentence: The girls are feeding their chickens. We encounter four cues that signal plurality: the <s> on girls, the are form of be, the plural possessive pronoun their, and the <s> on chickens. As language educator Kenneth Goodman notes, “Redundancy is one way language makes up for ambiguity; it provides extra cues to the same information.”

And this brings us to another nugget of conventional wisdom that’s also all-wrong and deserves to go the way of the grumpy teacher who refuses to smile before Christmas: Reading is getting the words. I disagree. Reading is a process of constructing meaning from the complex, naturally redundant network of syntactic, semantic, and graphophonic information that comprises written language. Hence, in the grand scheme of a whole text, each individual word that makes up the text is relatively unimportant.

Consider this passage from the Armstrong Sperry story, “The Ghost of the Lagoon.”

The island of Bora Bora, where Mako lived, is far away in the South Pacific. It is not a large island—you can paddle around it in a single day—but the main body of it rises straight out of the sea, very high into the air, like a castle. Waterfalls trail down the faces of the cliffs. As you look upward, you see wild goats leaping from crag to crag. Mako had been born on the very edge of the sea, and most of his waking hours were spent in the waters of the lagoon, which was nearly enclosed by the two outstretched arms of the island

If we require our students to follow the five-finger rule, they might not make it past the first two lines. After all, island and castle are relatively low frequency words—and Bora Bora, Mako, and South Pacific are proper nouns, which kids need to learn how to read around (consider how you handle the Russian names in Dostoyevsky!). Each individual word embedded in this particular opening passage, which reflects Sperry’s brilliant efforts to establish the setting of his story, work together to create a highly supportive network of meaning. What a shame to deprive kids of the riveting “Ghost of the Lagoon” just because, in the first two lines, they encounter five words they might not know! If they’re allowed to press on, the additional text provides more support, making it easier—not harder—to construct meaning and yes, eventually crack open even the unknown words.  

As Ken Goodman pointed out years ago, it’s easier to read a whole text than just a paragraph; easier to read a paragraph than just a sentence; and easier to read a sentence than a single word. More text provides more support for the reader.

Take for example twelve-year-old LaTeesha; she didn’t recognize the word coyote the first time she encountered it in the story “Sheep Dog.” But as she read deeper into the story, following cohesive chains of meaning that included predator, hunter, and attack—she suddenly exclaimed, “I know! Coyote!” 

When readers encounter words they don’t know, they should ask themselves, “What would make sense here?” If they don’t know, they can backtrack and see if it helps to review the text they’ve already processed—or, they can forge ahead. All readers have their best shot at comprehension when they’re immersed in whole, cohesive text. Indeed, in this way, even words that stumped them the first time may—just like LaTeesha’s coyote—suddenly make sense.

What do you tell your students if they come to a word they don’t know? What strategies do you suggest they use?

For more about the importance of working with whole text, see Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment available through Scholastic.

Looking Ahead: Family Engagement in Education Act of 2013

As part of the critical effort to provide a comprehensive reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act/No Child Left Behind, the Family Engagement in Education Act was introduced this month.

As a recent article in the Wall Street Journal notes, “The Family Engagement in Education Act prioritizes family engagement by targeting federal resources -- a small portion (.3 percent) of Title I administrative funds -- for state capacity building and the establishment of at least one Local Family Engagement Center to serve the highest-need areas. The legislation would also increase the investment in family engagement locally for qualifying local agencies. With the proper funding and tools, those closest to America's schools would have the decision-making ability to systemically embed a lasting family engagement infrastructure that is research based and results driven, but flexible in its application.”

This is an important step toward providing the increased and necessary investment, funding and tools around family and community engagement.  Looking ahead to the next step, what kinds of innovative and comprehensive strategies do you think will help ensure the most effective use and implementation of resources like Family Engagement Centers?


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