Author: Evan Robb

Teach Kids to Build Their Own Prior Knowledge

By Laura Robb

“Build prior knowledge.”

In the Common Core era, these three familiar words of advice cause frustration in teachers, and their frustration trickles down to students. Why? Because many state education departments have requested that teachers not build students’ prior knowledge before reading.

The Common Core recommendation that supports this stance is that students need to engage in close reading to comprehend unfamiliar, complex texts. “Let students read a text three or four times—even more if necessary—reading closely until they can unpack its meaning.” That’s the advice teachers hear today.

This strategy, reading without prior knowledge, developed because the Common Core’s goal is for students to be able to read grade-level complex texts by the end of the school year. But it is untenable. As P. David Pearson points out:

“It is not as though prior knowledge was an ‘optional’ cognitive move that one could turn on or turn off at will. A reader cannot build a text base or a situation model without invoking relevant prior knowledge; there is nothing voluntary about it.”

(from “Research Foundations of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts, p. 255, In Quality Reading Instruction in the Age of Common Core Standards, Newman & Gambrell, Editors, 2013, International Reading Association).

To Build or Not to Build Prior Knowledge

Catherine E. Snow, professor of education at Harvard Graduate School, calls reading unfamiliar texts with no prior knowledge “cold close reading.”

Dr. Snow tried cold close reading on an unfamiliar topic. Here’s what she said about her experience:

“…cold close reading was often unproductive. It was discouraging. I found I couldn’t read about the unfamiliar topics for more than a few minutes at a time, and that I was exhausted at the end of such efforts.” (Reading Today, June 6, 2013).

If Catherine E. Snow – a brilliant researcher, teacher, and writer – had difficulty with cold close reading because she lacked prior knowledge, why have the framers of the Common Core recommended this reading practice for elementary, middle, and high school students?

Having taught middle school students for more than 40 years, I recognize that if a task is too difficult and the material is not relevant to students’ lives, their attitude becomes “Why bother?”

Moreover, a close reading of the students in any public school classroom across the United States reveals a diversity of experience and reading expertise. Mandates among states for cold close reading not only frustrate and greatly diminish motivation and engagement for grade-level readers, but they are particularly damaging for English language learners, special education students, learning disabled students, and students reading two or more years below grade level.

I am all for raising the bar; I am for helping students think deeply about texts and explore multiple layers of meaning. I am not for discouraging students by pushing them to “read” texts with vocabulary, content, and syntax demands far beyond their instructional reading levels.

If we want to stretch students’ reading ability by developing their reading skill, then it’s important to set the stage for reading complex, unfamiliar texts by helping students build prior knowledge before reading, so close reading becomes a positive and engaging experience that’s within their reach. Snow calls this a “warm close reading.”

For our students, a warm close reading should also mean that they are reading complex texts at their instructional level—texts they can comprehend. Because we teachers know that if students can’t comprehend a text, they can’t learn from it.

Teach Students to Activate Their Prior Knowledge

After Common Core proponents announced that teachers should not spend time activating and/or constructing students’ prior knowledge, I felt frustrated and angry. Why? Because teachers and educational researchers recognize that prior knowledge and experiences, stored in the brain as schema, improve students’ comprehension.

Once my anger and frustration over the CCSS cold close-reading recommendations abated, I directed my energy to developing a method that would put students in charge of activating their own prior knowledge. As I tested the method among students, I learned from their reactions that they prized the strategy because it developed independence and supported the reading they did on mandated state tests.

Tips For Modeling the Prior Knowledge Lesson

Use an anchor or teaching text to think aloud and show students how you activate prior knowledge. Anchor texts are short and relate to the theme or topic you’re teaching. You can use a picture book, a short text such as a myth, or an excerpt from a long text. Throughout the unit, you’ll be able to return to the anchor text to review a skill or strategy you’ve modeled with students.

Follow the steps for activating prior knowledge listed below; you’ll also find a handout for students at the end of this article. I suggest that you immediately engage students in the lesson so they invest in the strategy and listen to your think aloud. Here’s how you can involve students in the model lesson:

  • Read the title out loud. Ask: “Do I know anything about this topic?” If you don’t, then tell yourself to slow down the reading and reread confusing parts.
  • Read aloud the preview sections: the first two paragraphs and the last paragraph if the text is nonfiction.
  • Organize students into partners.
  • Have partners turn and talk about all the details they recall from listening to the first two paragraphs and the last paragraph.
  • Start writing the prior knowledge notes on chart paper or a whiteboard.
  • Ask students to volunteer to add details to the prior knowledge notes.
  • Have partners use their prior knowledge notes or the title of the selection to set a purpose for their first reading.

Model the process for students until you feel they can build their own prior knowledge with an instructional or independent reading text. Ask students to turn and talk about details recalled from the preview for three to four months.

Next, tell students that talking to a partner is a dress rehearsal for in-the-head conversations with themselves because that is what they will do on mandated reading tests.

I recommend that teachers stop paired conversations about three to four months before the state tests and have students practice in-their-head discussions independently. (You can also find the following handout on page 9 of this PDF.)

Closing Thoughts

Students can build their own prior knowledge and set purposes when reading longer texts as well. With fiction and nonfiction, they read the title, study the cover illustrations, and read the first chapter.

Not only does the strategy develop independence with learning, but it also offers students a way to build prior knowledge on a topic they know little to nothing about.

You’ll find guidelines for this lesson, 45 complex texts, teaching units for seven genres, and much more in Unlocking Complex Texts: A Systematic Framework for Building Adolescents Comprehension by Laura Robb (Scholastic 2013). See a MiddleWeb review here.

Laura Robb is a Literacy Coach at Powhatan School in Boyce, Virginia where she coaches teachers in grades K to 8. She also teaches students all year in public schools in and around Winchester VA. Robb is a veteran educator with over 43 years of teaching experience to her credit. Her many books weave classroom strategies with research-based practices. Visit her website.

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Our #1 Reading Problem: Persistent Inequalities

Our #1 Reading Problem: Persistent Inequalities
Originally Appeared in MIDDLEWEB ·

By Laura Robb

In early March I spoke about reading in the era of the Common Core to a group of administrators in an urban US school district. During my visit, I had lunch one day with English teachers at a school named after President Obama to discuss the teaching of reading.

We met in their library, a facility both uninviting and unused. With no librarian, neither teachers nor students can check out the few available books. I learned that most of the books had been ordered by a third party, not by staff who would have made wiser fiction and nonfiction selections.

Sorry-we-are-closed

During our conversations, I also discovered that there are few books in teachers’ classroom libraries — ten to fifteen is typical. As a result, the largely African American and Latino student population of this school does not have access to high quality texts written by multi-ethnic authors about diverse characters and topics.

Because of the lack of resources for students, the school has far too many developing readers — learners who lack the skill to unpack meaning from complex, grade level materials. I was told that many students are reading three to five or more years below grade level. I believe a major cause is the lack of access to motivating and engaging print and e-books.

In addition, English classes that aren’t special education have 35 to 45 students packed into classrooms. Teachers are sad, worried and deeply concerned. Sad because they know their students can’t meet the requirements of the Common Core. Worried because they recognize that based on students’ test scores, they will receive poor evaluations. And they’re deeply concerned about sending students on to high school without the necessary skills to read, write, think, and thrive.

Who cares about these kids?

When I returned to my hotel room, I wrote to the governor of the state and to President Barack Obama. In both letters I mentioned that, in 2013 alone, states spent 3.5 billion dollars to develop tests for the Common Core – leaving little available funding to actually improve schools.

The teachers I met with that day gave up their lunch to learn; they are hungry for professional opportunities to grow. They desperately want wonderful books that can engage and motivate their students to learn how to read complex texts and find pleasure in reading. They care deeply about their students.

This school is not a lonely outlier in our nation’s public school system, but one of many schools in such distressed, heartbreaking circumstances. Visit schools in the rural South or in large urban centers such as Detroit and Chicago and you’ll find conditions very much like those I witnessed in this school.

So what do the leaders in charge say? The Governor has not yet replied to my letter of concern, even though I requested an answer.

I naively believed that since the school I visited was named after President Obama, my letter might catch the attention of a knowledgeable person assigned to sift out such correspondence. By including my website and the fact that I’ve written 20 books on reading and writing and have over 40 years of classroom experience, I felt hopeful that I would receive a thoughtful response.

I was mistaken.

I received a canned reply “from” President Barack Obama—a reply that never even addressed the situation I discussed in my letter—a reply filled with promises like “investing in our teachers” and the President’s agenda to “fund our schools, revamp our classrooms, uphold high standards, train the best educators, and stand behind them.” Achieving better schools, the letter said, “means providing pathways to excellence that allow teachers to practice their craft with creativity and passion.”

It was discouraging to receive this platitude-filled response in light of the plight of high poverty schools throughout our nation.

There’s something very wrong

Obama’s initiatives have done little to close the gap between schools in poor urban and rural areas and those in middle and upper class areas. To level the learning field in thousands of schools in the United States, all children need access to outstanding books and materials, and class sizes of 40 students and more need to be reduced significantly if we expect teachers to improve students’ literacy skills.

There’s something very wrong with our priorities when states give over 3.5 billion dollars to companies designing the Common Core tests (and the test prep programs to go with them) and then don’t have the funds to lift children out of poverty through education that knows how to engage, inspire and empower students to learn .

Perhaps the administration’s vision needs to move beyond educational initiatives that focus on testing, competition, and computers to tackling these issues:

► attracting to and keeping the best in the teaching profession;

► funding ongoing professional study that prepares teachers to effectively integrate technology into instruction;

► providing the professional books and research on how children learn — and the time teachers need to explore and apply best practices with colleagues.

But it’s the children themselves who need to be at the center of educational initiatives. We must insure that students from diverse economic and cultural groups also have access to the finest books and reading materials, attend schools with inviting central and classroom libraries, and are not packed into classrooms where the sheer numbers exceed any teacher’s ability to support all learners.

How can we move beyond platitudes?


The Implicit Benefits of Explicit Reading Instruction

By Laura Robb
“But what does an inference look like?” This question, posed by a fifth grade student struggling to get a grip on making inferences represents the confusion many students experience with that strategy. An effective way to support all learners as they work to understand and apply a reading strategy is for you, the teacher, to show them what the process of understanding and applying the strategy looks like. You can easily do that by reading aloud a passage from an anchor text, thinking aloud, and making your process visible as you infer and identify unstated meanings in texts.
Teach Reading With an Anchor Text
An anchor text is short and usually complements the genre and theme of whatever unit of study you’re carrying out. If your students are reading biographies, for example, then the anchor text could be a picture book biography such as Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull or an excerpt from a chapter book such as The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin. You can evaluate the length of an anchor text by deciding whether you can complete the modeling in about ten class periods by reading aloud each day, two to three paragraphs. The strategies you model should first and foremost give students the thinking tools they need to read well and perhaps help them meet state and Common Core State Standards. Think-aloud and show students how to:
• use context clues to figure the meaning of unfamiliar words
• build prior knowledge by previewing a text before reading
• apply reading strategies such as making inferences, finding themes, and determining important ideas
• link figurative language, literary elements, and informational text structures to a theme or big idea in a text.
• discuss the genre characteristics of the anchor text
• foster collaborative discussions of the anchor text
• answer text-dependent questions
• use close reading to solve reading challenges
The strategies that you model with an anchor text should be the same strategies that students practice applying to books at their instructional reading level. Anchor text lessons can offer students multiple opportunities to build and/or enlarge their mental models of how specific strategies work, so they can use those strategies on their own to become better readers.
Anchor Text Lesson on Figurative Language
The purpose of this lesson for middle school students, which is based on the Emily Dickinson poem below, is to help students understand and identify an extended metaphor and then show how the metaphor enhances a theme in the text.
She sweeps with many-colored brooms,
And leaves the shreds behind;
Oh, housewife in the evening west,
Come back, and dust the pond!

You dropped a purple ravelling in,
You dropped an amber thread;
And now you’ve littered all the East
With duds of emerald!

And still she plies her spotted brooms,
And still the aprons fly,
Till brooms fade softly into stars—
And then I come away.

1. Make sure students understand that an extended metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that’s woven through several sentences, paragraphs or, as in this case, most of a poem.
2. Read aloud the poem twice. Before the second reading, ask students to listen for the extended metaphor.
3. Think aloud and explain the metaphor. Here’s what I say:
Dickinson compares sunset to a housewife and includes housewife imagery in each stanza. In the first stanza, words like sweep, housewife, and dust conjure pictures of a woman cleaning. However, instead of cleaning house, she’s cleaning away daylight and preparing for sunset.
4. Invite students to turn and talk and identify housewife imagery in the second and third stanzas. Here’s what students say:
Second stanza: ravelled, littered
Third stanza: brooms, aprons
5. Next, pose a question that can help students connect the extended metaphor to the poem’s theme: Why does Dickinson compare sunset to a housewife?
6. Ask students to turn and talk to explore that question. Here’s what two students said when I carried out this lesson recently in an eighth-grade classroom:
• A housewife never finishes her work—like with nature always having to do sunset and sunrise.
• My mom’s got routines—like she does stuff around the house on different days. That’s like sunrise and sunset ‘cause different things happen.
7. Wrap up the lesson by celebrating students thinking and recapping what you’ve taught them about extended metaphor.
Suggestions for Using an Anchor Text to Teach Reading
The more you plan and practice anchor text lessons the easier delivering them becomes. You might consider practicing with colleagues to boost your comfort level. Then, plunge into offering your students explicit anchor text lessons using the guidelines that follow.
Process Guidelines for 10 to 15 Minute Anchor Text Lessons
Model a strategy that students are learning in guided reading. When you align your whole-class teaching with what students are learning in small groups, they stand a better chance of understanding and internalizing the strategy.
1. Tell the students the strategy you’ll be modeling for them.
2. Explain the strategy, how it helps readers, and how readers apply it
3. Read a short passage from the text and model by thinking aloud, how you apply the strategy.
4. Involve the students. Have them turn and talk to apply the strategy to a different passage from the text. When they’ve finished, ask volunteers to share their thinking.
5. Wrap up the lesson by retelling students what you and they did. Repeat the strategy’s name and how to apply it.
Present the interactive anchor text reading lesson using different parts of the same text four to five times a week. Start by carrying out the lesson with the whole class and repeat it as necessary in small groups of students who require more time to absorb it. Short, focused, interactive anchor text lessons can show your students what terrific readers do as they unpack a text’s meaning.

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Creating Engaged and Motivated Learners

By Laura Robb

Throughout my career, I’ve observed that the more teachers talk, the less students learn. To help me explore alternatives to teacher talk from students’ perspectives, I recently surveyed students in grades four to eight with this question: What do you think teachers should do to engage students and make the learning more interesting? Below is a summary of their responses:

  • Let us choose books for independent reading.
  • Have us solve problems and do research with a partner or in a group.
  • Let us discuss books in small groups.
  • Use podcasts, book talks, journal writing, fan fiction, pamphlets, readers’ theater, and dramatic monologues for grades—not always tests.

Traditional Teaching Methods

Recitation, discussions in which teachers ask questions and students provide the correct answers, and lecturing are instructional practices that are prevalent in middle and high school. Occasionally, student-centered practices are mixed in, but in my opinion not often enough.

When I surveyed the same fourth to eighth graders about traditional practices, they described lectures as boring and claimed to “stop listening after fifteen minutes.” They gave low ratings to recitation and to completing worksheets. Their comments raise an important question: How can districts  transition teachers from traditional methods to student-centered methods?

Changing Practice

Even though research suggests that engagement and motivation increase when teachers use student-centered units that invite collaboration and active- learning, there is resistance to change. It may have something to do with the message administrators send to teachers: students’ achievement should be teachers’ primary goal. Too often, achievement means that students score high on standardized tests. In this era of accountability, I find that many teachers fear shifting instructional practices will lead to lower test scores.

Here are suggestions that can fuel positive change and prompt district leaders to rethink the message they’re sending:

  • Get the principal and other administrators on board; their support is crucial for success.
  • Ask teachers who have developed student-centered units to coach peers during planning times.
  • Have teachers design and implement one student-centered unit, adding one to two new ones each school year.
  • Schedule ongoing professional development at the building level that includes how to plan units in which students actively learn and collaborate.
  • Provide technology support that shows teachers how using digital devices can enhance student-centered learning.
  • Enlist the support of a coach or resource teacher to boost the confidence of a teacher embracing change.
  • Familiarize teachers with the research on independent reading. Help them understand that when students choose and read thirty-to-forty books a year they can ramp-up their reading achievement.

One Teacher’s Changeover

The student-centered independent reading project described in this section and launched by Ms. James and me dramatically improved students’ engagement with books. By trusting in students’ inherent desire to learn when they designed their independent reading curriculum, we also increased their motivation to read.

Sixth-grade students swarmed the hall, talking as they retrieved books from lockers for their next class. I noticed Diego handing a book to Ben, pointing to it as he talked. (All names are pseudonyms.) Quickly, I jockeyed myself into a position where I could hear the conversation.

Ben:                         Did you finish the book about Merlin yet?

Diego:             Yeah. It’s yours. We gotta talk about it–maybe after the first four chapters.

Ben:             Sure! What are you reading next?

Diego:            The last [book] in the Merlin series. Then, I’ll read the Percy Jackson series. Richie says they’re great.

Independent reading is not a typical between-classes topic for middle school students, but it was for students in Ms. James’s classes. Ms. James teaches two sections of sixth grade English, each with sixteen students, at Powhatan, an independent K-8 school in Boyce, Virginia. Sixth graders experienced a solid instructional curriculum, but students were not required to read independently. In my role as consultant, I invited Ms. James to help me organize a student-centered independent reading curriculum, and she agreed to adjust her teacher-centered style.

Specifically, we transferred the decision of how much independent reading to complete from teachers to students. After surveying students for their reading interests, we gave booklists to the school librarian so she could support students.

Two words describe the new curriculum: choice and trust. Four times a week for thirty minutes, students read or discussed books with a partner or in a small group. Students opted to create PowerPoint presentations about genres or authors and complete a journal entry on a book. Everyone chose one book and composed and presented a reader’s theater script or dramatic monologue. Ms. James and I were always available to listen, confer, and provide tech support.

Students created a classroom culture where they were reading and sharing beloved books in ways that were meaningful to them. Because they had choices and interacted with peers, and because we teachers valued their ideas and decisions, sixth graders were involved in their work! By the second month, everyone was reading at school and at home and recommending books to one another. From January to May, each student logged between twenty and fifty books into their notebooks.

Concluding Thoughts

With the kind of support Ms. James had, teachers can create a coherent vision of student-centered learning and gain the skills and experiences that enable them to transform a class of disengaged and unmotivated learners into engaged and motivated learners.

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