This workshop activity is useful for a study group, staff meeting, or mentor meeting where the topic is reading instruction. Over the past two decades, comprehension research has focused on analyzing how proficient readers make sense of difficult text, and how we might teach those strategies to students.
Yet many teachers rarely, if ever, read texts that are truly difficult. The month of April might be the exception to this rule, when many of us are grappling with the intricacies of tax forms. Even that annual rite is waning, as computer programs reduce or eliminate the amount of reading and analysis needed for these forms.
In this workshop, participants are taken back into their memories of when reading was difficult, what makes reading hard, and what strategies they use to make sense of challenging text.
Materials and Readings
The materials you need for the workshop are highlighters in two colors (one of each color for each participant), and some difficult text. A terrific source of challenging text can be found at the “Free Medical Journals” site. If you click on the links, you are brought almost instantly to text that is incomprehensible:
For example, even the authors’ names in this journal article require a footnote. Talk about a challenging text!:
Before the workshop, make a photocopy of a page or two of difficult text for each participant. At the start of the session, explain that one way to understand what a struggling reader experiences is to grapple with difficult text. Pass out the excerpt and markers, and ask that everyone read the pages silently. As each participant reads, they should highlight in one color (yellow) the text they understand, and highlight in another color (blue) the text that is confusing or difficult to understand.
After they have finished reading the excerpt, they should make notes in the margins about why the reading they marked as difficult was hard to understand. Was it a lack of background knowledge? Vocabulary? Writing style? Ask everyone to discuss with a partner or in the whole group what they learned about themselves as readers through the experience, and what they can take back to their work with struggling readers.
As an alternative, you can distribute copies of a text that may be a difficult read, but for different reasons. Poetry is well-suited for this purpose. The “Poetry 180” site includes many possibilities:
For example, there isn’t any vocabulary that is difficult in the poem “Bad Day” by Kay Ryan. Yet some readers easily make sense of it, and others will struggle:
Make copies of a poem of your choice that you think might challenge some of your colleagues. Distribute with the markers, and have everyone complete the same task, noting what they understand and where they get confused. You might talk as a group about the different demands of different genres. Who is most confused by the poem? Who is most confused by the scientific writing? What does that say about each participant’s reading style and experience? What does that say about how we need to work with struggling readers?
Extending the Learning
Follow-ups to the workshop might include trying out the activity with students using age-appropriate difficult text, or trying the same activity with a different tool. For example, you might distribute post-its instead of highlighters with challenging text, asking participants to stop and note when comprehension breaks down. This can lead into a discussion of how comprehension aids like highlighters, post-its or double-entry journals have different uses.