Why reading must come before analysis OR why the essay writing project may never happen…
If you are interested in reading my previous posts on the essay writing project they can be found here.
Rewind and start from the beginning
I have hit a stumbling block in my quest for a better approach to teaching essay writing. A major one. Actually it’s not a stumbling block, it’s a person. Me, mostly me and how and what I teach.
I have realised (yes – belatedly) that if I am going to teach students to write better essays, then they must first have more and greater things to say about the texts we are studying. If scraping by with a basic PEE response isn’t going to cut it anymore, then we need to find some truly interesting things to say about texts.
So before I begin to tackle teaching essay writing, I need to look again at how I teach reading. Specifically reading, comprehension, understanding and inference.
Up until recently, I had worked on the assumption that if students could read the words on the page and knew what those words meant, then this would automatically result in comprehension and understanding. For example if you read:
Wow, it’s pretty cold today.
Almost all of you will have understood that I mean it’s pretty cold today. That’s how it works right?
But for struggling readers there is no guarantee that they would find this meaning first time. Not only do struggling readers often find single-syllable or multi-syllable words hard to decode, they often read haltingly – one word at a time – which means they do not (or perhaps can’t) hold in their conscious minds the meaning that is created over a series of words.
Now I could ask a student several times to re-read the text above and they would, no doubt, find the meaning soon enough.
But what happens when we encounter longer, less simple texts?
In her book What Teachers Can Do When Kids Can’t Read, Kylene Beers includes one such example.
You can see here that as Mike struggles to sound out some of the more challenging words in the text, he loses his ability to create accurate meaning from it. He loses confidence and then gives up.
We all have moments like this, we read a short text then pose the question “Ok, who can summarise that for me?” and young Mike shrinks back looking slightly ill. But the odds are not in his favour and I call on him anyway and he looks down, chooses one word at random or begins to read the first sentence aloud. Before too long, hands are waving desperate for the opportunity to share the correct answer. Once this is given, Mike no longer needs to create meaning from the text for himself. Someone else has done it.
The more I think about these moments, the more I realise that this is where my focus should be. I am keeping my fingers crossed that the number of dreaded PEEs kids will have to churn out for the new GCSE will be slightly less.
But the chances of them having to read something like The Gift of the Magi and understand it, well that’s something they are going to have to be able to do. There won’t be anyone that Mike can rely on the help him understand the unseen texts in the exam hall. He’s on his own from step 1. Now that I think about, why haven’t I tackled this step to begin with?
So it’s back to step 1 I am going. And thinking about how I can intentionally and explicitly teaching struggling or less confident readers to do what seemingly comes naturally to confident readers.
Beers’ book tackles this issue head-on providing a collection of strategies that help student create meaning on their own. Her aim being that if students learn and use these strategies, turn them into skills, then there isn’t any text that they can’t grapple with.
Her first challenge is to articulate intentionally what we do as readers every time we read. Beers calls it Think Aloud.
The think-aloud strategy helps readers think about how they make meaning. Think-alouds help struggling readers learn to think about their reading and to monitor what they do and do not understand. As students read, they pause occasionally to think aloud about connections they are making, images they are creating, problems with understanding that they are encountering, and ways they see of fixing up those problems.
This is what my Think Aloud for the first sentence of Jekyll & Hyde looks like. Here’s the text:
Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable.
Here is a transcript of my Think Aloud:
Wow. Confident readers do a lot of work as we read. We:
- figure out what’s confusing us
- pause and re-read
- ask questions and clarify
- think about what words mean
- summarise or rewrite using our words
- build pictures and visualise ideas and action
- make connections to our own knowledge and to the world we live in
- make connections between words and phrases
- link what we have just read with what went before it
- use what we are reading now to help inform what we will be reading next
Think Alouds are just one way that we can help students become confident, independent readers. If my students were able to “think” the above, then imagine how they could use their thoughts to write an epic PEE.
You can find a short run down of Think Alouds here.
I’ll be sharing my progress with using Think Alouds and other strategies, as well as hopefully seeing some impact on essay writing!
Thanks for reading.