Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Close Reading – Writing from Sources – New Literacy Challenges

Years ago The Ford Motor Company had a tagline that went like this, “At Ford, safety is Job 1.” In my school we said, “At (our school), learning is Job 1.” In our new Framework for ELA and Literacy, R.CCR.1 is Job 1; this first reading standard is close reading of text and this standard intersects directly with W.CCR.1 & 2, informational writing, or more accurately, writing from sources. This reading-writing connection may really be our new “Job 1”.

What is Close reading?
There are instructional/learning activities connected with close reading of text. These may or may not be understood by the simple statement, “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly [emphasis added]…” There are very specific steps involved in the close reading of texts. Let’s consider the big ideas.

When students arrive at Harvard, they are admonished to have or develop a way of marking text as they read. As Harvey and Daniels say, “Leave tracks of your thinking.” (p. 93). The first type of instructional activity involves teaching each student to read the text and mark it up – mark the text itself or write notes that can be placed at particular places in the text with comments that record thinking/learning, questions, and surprises. When we read with a pencil/highlighter in hand, we understand that reading requires thinking.

After students have had a chance to grapple with and initially mark the text, the teacher reads the text aloud. While reading aloud, the teacher may also think aloud with some emphasis and connected queries. The teacher may point out and teach students to notice patterns – repetitions, contradictions, and similarities. After a second reading the teacher, will facilitate an opportunity for students to generate their own questions (R.CCR.1) in anticipation of a facilitated and structured instructional conversation. Details specific to the language and organization of the selection are highlighted; no generic questions or prompts are used. The standard continues, “…cite textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” The standards are clear in supporting purposeful reading in order to present ideas through speaking and writing and in insisting that these ideas come explicitly from the texts.

Therefore, the next phase of the lesson involves the kinds of formal and informal classroom conversations that help students clarify thinking and help teachers prevent the persistence of misconceptions. Research highlights Instructional Conversations, Accountable Talk, and Questioning the Author (QtA) as structures that facilitate rigorous classroom discourse (Duke, 2011). Questions and statements must reflect only what is stated or inferred by the text. Once students are confident with discussion skills, the teacher may set up small groups of students that collaborate and that bring insights back to the whole group. Students need time to reflect on the answers to their own questions as well as ideas that resonate with them for various reasons. What comes next is the reading-writing connection.

What is Writing from Sources?
The standards state,” Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts [emphasis added] …” and, “Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information…” Informational writing as called for in these standards is not the business-as-usual persuasive essay. While there are many types of persuasive texts, for example, brochures, letters to the Editor, blogs etc., to address this first standard, students are required to have read/heard/studied and understood several pieces of text. Understood here means analyzed and synthesized information. This relates directly back to the exercise of close reading that requires thinking, questioning, and discussion of more than one text on the same topic or idea.

The second writing standard similarly calls for “…analysis of content”. Although a recipe, directions, sequence of steps in an experiment may be considered informational forms of writing, they are what the standards refer to as subgenres (see footnote on p. 23 of the Curriculum Framework). The explanatory writing called for by the second writing standard requires examination (close reading) of more than one text. The writing standards refer to “…a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences”. These are considerations that inform every opportunity for writing that students are given.

The Challenges
My point here is that reading and writing are deliberately connected in our new ELA and Literacy Framework. As we begin to explore the instructional implications, it makes sense to examine where those opportunities for connections already exist in our curricula. It may make sense to ask where we can provide those connections if they do not currently exist. In addition, we may want to ask how often close reading actually occurs in our classrooms. If we realize that we need more emphasis or professional collaboration in order to increase emphasis on close reading, how will we support teachers in making that transition? We may also want to begin thinking about the implications for writing as students learn to express ideas through analysis and synthesis of multiple texts.

This is the area of professional development that I am interested in and working on now. I hope to be able to work directly with some of you that are our Regional DSAC districts in this very important area. As I develop materials I hope to make them available to all our districts through the DSAC and through our ESE website. In the meantime, I hope I have encouraged you to look even more closely at our new standards, given you some food for thought, and supported your understanding of the implications for teaching and learning that our new Curriculum Framework provides.

Duke, N. K. (2011). Informational reading and writing and connections to the Common Core. Presentation for Massachusetts Literacy Partnership. Marlboro, MA.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Rothenberg, C. (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse language learners. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.
Graham, S., and Hebert, M. A. (2010). Writing to read: Evidence for how writing can improve reading. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York
Harvey, S. & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension and collaboration: Inquiry circles in action. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Kain, P. (1998). How to do a close reading: For the writing center at Harvard University. Retrieved from www.fas.harvard.edu/~wricntr/documents/CloseReading.htm on 09/17/2011.
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (2011). Massachusetts curriculum framework for English language arts and literacy grades pre-Kindergarten to 12 incorporating the common core state standards for English language arts and literacyin history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Malden, MA.
Mason, G. (2011). My tips for close reading of texts. Retrieved from http://mason.gmu.edu/~rmatz/close_reading.htm on 09/17/2011.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

New Year, New Standards, New Opportunities!

Happy New Year to All! Many summer days and some September days have been spent working with teams of teachers and administrators on getting to know our new Framework and the standards it includes. Some educators have followed the process for the past two years and some have seen the Framework for the first time on the first day of school this year. Whatever your experience, the work of understanding and using the new standards has begun.

How should the school or district begin? It may be helpful to consider the main shifts that may be needed in teaching and learning. Common Core Standards author, David Coleman, tells us there are six important shifts to consider. They are balancing informational and literary texts in grades Pre-K through 5, building content knowledge in grades 6 through 12, the staircase of text complexity through the grades, emphasis on text-based evidence in reading, speaking, and writing, writing from sources, and development of academic vocabulary.

Balance Informational and Literary Texts in Pre-K-5
Many of our early elementary classrooms have far more literary texts available than informational texts. An opportunity exists to examine the number and complexity of existing texts and begin to plan for additional texts that support the developmant of knowledge about the world. Our Pre-K and K teachers know how much our young learners love finding out about Nature and the way things work. However, the extraordinary emphasis of the last ten years on increasing math and literacy basic skills has unintentionally led to the loss of time for and emphasis on science and social studies. At the elementary level, it may be enjoyable for teacher teams to develop coherence between literary and informational texts, reclaiming the opportunity for the teacher to be that facilitator of world knowledge. They may wish to explore the suggestions for informational reading in Appendix B, matching some of them to the existing science and social studies curriculum.

Build Content Knowledge 6-12
The Framework emphasizes a shared responsibility for student literacy development. Content teachers will want to pay close attention to types of text, for instance demonstrating the differences inherent in primary and secondary sources for the students. They will want to be explicit with students about how and when differeent types of texts are used, will want to share the expertise they have developed through years of study and experience, and will want to emphasize the use of evidence when reading, speaking, and writing. Eighth grade NAEP scores have been flat and falling for forty years. Only those students who have the stamina and understanding to deal with primary sources and synthesize information from more than one source have succeeded. According to the Common Core Standards authors, our students need experience with a variety of complex texts and the content-related literacy expertise of their teachers in each discipline to achieve better results.

Staircase Complexity
The authors tell us that research shows that we have underestimated the complexity and volume of college-level and technical (those used in careers) texts. In addition, one of the underlying assumptions of the Common Core Standards authors was that we have over-corrected for struggling learners. The suggestion is to read less (in volume), but more complex texts closely. The implications are that work with certain texts will slow down, will consider portions of the text in a close reading that includes re-reading, teacher read-alouds, guiding questions, rigorous discourse, responsive writing, and access for all students. This may be a difficult, even frustrating, exercise at times, but the authors have determined that it is the only way all of our students will be adequately prepared upon graduation from high school. The idea of increased text complexity will certainly be a challenge for teachers and students but David Coleman calls it a civil rights issue. Teachers may wish to work at grade level and across grades using the Appendix B selections to try out some of the ideas of the staircase complexity.

Text-Based Evidence
This may be the most critical area for professional development and professional collaboration. As teachers we appreciate our responsibility for providing all learners with the confidence to take the risks needed to learn. The standards ask us to add or renew the discipline needed to teach our students to depend only on the precise evidence that is available in the text, and to do so from the earliest grades. Only after examination of what is specific to the text, can we make those connections to individual experiences. To that end, questions will be very focused on the text being read, to the exclusion of generic questions such as, "What is the main idea?". Text-based evidence is required for close reading, discourse, and writing in the new standards. Teachers may want to practice preparing lessons together using some of the exemplars available in Appendix B.

Writing from Sources
Analyzing texts and synthesizing ideas from a number of texts, are important and challenging skills. These are life-long competencies, the very thing we ask voters and jurors to do. When a group of college professors got together to examine the writing of high school seniors who were perspective college students, they found that 95% of the writing was narrative and 95% was not considered college-ready. As a result, students may submit writing to the Ready or Not Writing site where a college English professor will review it and provide advice. https://www.centerforcollegereadiness.org/readyornotwriting/
Informational writing requires precision, accuracy, and clarity.

Academic Vocabulary
Academic vocabulary provides the opportunity for students to competently use the terms that have meanings across content disciplines. This is particularly important because the nuanced use of these terms is required for technical work, for college study, and for navigating through our complicated, global society. Teachers will be asked to be very strategic in the choices they make for instruction and for how they provide opportunities for student use of the terms. Knowing a word means knowing what it is in various contexts, what it is not, and what ideas are related to it. This may be another opportunity for teams of teachers to work on a shared vocabulary development to support student achievement.

While last year was the time to understand the history, causes, and organization of the new standards, this year is a time for experimentation and an opportunity to refocus some of our materials and instructional routines. District and school leaders may want to provide time for grade level groups and cross-level teams to consult and plan together for the necessary changes. Any lessons designed now to focus on the rigor and shifts required by the new standards will prepare students for achievement in future study, in current statewide assessment, and in life. So, dig in, make plans, and enjoy the sense of renewal that our new Framework provides.