Recently Tammy visited New Mexico and had the opportunity to hike the Petroglyph National Monument. It was amazing to see that even thousands of years ago literacy was alive and well. It was clear that the symbols of animals, humans, spirals, and suns etched into the rocks were used to communicate with nature, the gods, or other humans. In Change Over Time: In Children’s Literacy Development, Marie Clay asserts that “Reading is a message-gaining problem-solving activity.” These petroglyphs document that reading has been about meaning for a long time. As we see and hear about what is happening in schools across the country, we are wondering if our education system is losing sight of this basic fundamental understanding around literacy.
Assessments and programs are focusing so much on surface level skills in isolation that it is difficult for students to see how they are to derive meaning from texts. Assessments are measuring students’ abilities to quickly produce sounds and decode nonsense words. While decoding is important, it becomes worrisome when the curriculum focuses on teaching only these skills. We need to be certain that regardless of the curriculum we are using or the assessments we are administering, we teach everything as a means to an end and that end is meaning. If the lesson is not bringing our students closer to making meaning from text then we need to think about ways to adjust the lesson so that it helps our students understand how readers think about and understand text. Here are some suggestions for adapting lessons to focus students on reading for meaning.
Why Am I Learning This and How Does It Help Me as a Reader?
Researcher Robert Marzano in Making Standards Useful In The Classroom concluded that if teachers simply included why students were learning what they were learning and how it would help them as a learner in every lesson, then student understanding would increase by 80%. This is powerful research that can be applied to any curriculum, program, or set of standards. We find that when teachers explain the purpose of the lesson to their students and tell them how it will help them as a reader, students have a better understanding of how to use the skills being taught strategically to make meaning from text.
Many of our struggling readers are confused about concepts of print and the larger purpose of literacy. They often do not understand how the lesson they are sitting through has any connection to reading. For example, they do not see the connection between the lesson on short “a” and the application of that knowledge when they come to a word in a book that they do not know. We need to make these connections for our students.
When we are explicit with our students about the purpose behind our teaching and give them a window into our thinking about how this will support their reading development, it helps set them up for learning. Students do not need to spend the first five minutes (which may exceed their attention span!) trying to figure out what a lesson is about. They need to be explicitly told so they can set their mind to the topic at hand, activate their schema on that topic, and ready themselves to accept new knowledge. It is easier for students to see reading as a “message-gaining” activity when they understand the message we are trying to teach and understand how this message can help them solve the problems they encounter as they read.
Identifying Important Reading Strategies — Can You Say “Watch Me”?
If we want our students to view reading as a “problem-solving activity” then we need to model how we use skills and strategies to make meaning from text. Many of our students cannot infer how we are decoding and understanding text as we read. We can make this implicit process explicit and show our students what it looks like to read in a “problem-solving manner.” As we plan lessons, we think about how we identify what we want students to learn and how that can be taught within the context of authentic reading. When we work with teachers to plan lessons, we begin by having teachers identify which specific reading skill/strategy the students need to learn. We then think about how the skill/strategy will help students problem solve and extract meaning from text by exploring the following questions:
1) How will learning this reading strategy help your students understand the text they read?
2) How can we model this skill/strategy in a manner that will show students how to use it when reading an unfamiliar text?
Sometimes after answering these questions, teachers decide that the skill they were going to teach (often based on a reading scope and sequence) would be better taught in isolation. For example, teachers may choose to teach adjectives in isolation – knowledge students need to have, but something that is used strategically. One teacher reflected, “I used to have my students go find all the adjectives in the text they were reading during independent reading. Now I see that is not what readers do to make meaning from a text, so I should not have my students do this when they are reading.”
When we do begin planning lessons with groups of teachers on the skills/strategies they want to model, participants are often surprised that we spend the longest amount of time thinking about how we model the strategy and explain our thinking. The following is an example of a lesson planning session with a group of teachers who are thinking about how to model summarizing with students:
Teachers: The students are having difficulty summarizing. They either tell us every single detail or only give a few important events. We need to help them put the big ideas into their own words.
Tammy and Clare: Let’s think through two important questions together:
Question 1. How will learning this reading strategy help your students understand the text they read?
Teachers: They are reading longer books and more nonfiction. They need to move beyond retelling and begin to pick out the important information and say it in their own words. They need to be able to read and take notes on the important ideas.
Tammy and Clare: Question 2: How can we model this skill/strategy in a manner that will show students how to use it when reading an unfamiliar text? How do readers do this?
Teachers: First we need to identify important ideas/events in the text. We need to show them how readers stop and notice when they read something they think is important. Then we can help them see how to put their thinking into their own words, take notes, and summarize the big ideas in the text.
Tammy and Clare: Let’s look at the text you chose and think together about how to model stopping when we notice something we think is important in the text. We want to make sure we show the children the thinking we do to determine if something is an important idea/event so that they can use this strategy when reading any piece of text.
Finding a way to teach complex, abstract ideas to young, concrete learners is not easy. Curriculum programs and standards focus mainly on what we need to teach. Our time needs to be spent on thinking about how to teach this content in a way that supports our readers in making meaning with text.
One teacher told us that she now keeps a post-it note on her easel that says, “Watch Me.” It reminds her that if she doesn’t say “Watch me” during her lessons then she knows she has not modeled it. Explaining our purpose, modeling our thinking, and showing students how strategies can be used to problem solve will help us keep the end goal of “reading for meaning” at the forefront of our teaching.