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.