Reading Comprehension, Resilience, and Identifying Aboutness

I don’t know about you, but I am noticing quite a drop in students’ ability to read for information. We are experiencing a lot less resilience and a lot more rebellion against reading activities. Students complain “this isn’t English class,” when asked to engage with text in their other subjects. Thus, some teachers and I are reviving an old lesson in strategic reading as students prepare to undertake background research for their science fair projects.

I would love to hear how you are handling these challenges, as I think about how to repurpose the following lesson.

An age-old problem, of course, is a lack of reading-level appropriate materials on certain topics, especially for our middle school students. Two years ago, our seventh grade science teacher asked me to help students tackle navigating a slightly too hard article to learn some necessary information. My then-TA Anna came up with a lesson that met with great success.

Each group of students were assigned one article from a series taken from a single source. For homework, the skimmed the article. In class, we gave them a second copy of their articles and a specific prompt:

What are the abiotic factors (of your topic) and how do they interact with the biotic factors in the ecosystem?

We asked them to go back to their article and identify which parts of the article would help them answer their prompt. They were to note the text that looked useful and cross out any text that did not appear to help them answer their question.

Students stared at us, open-mouthed. We explained that they would only be working to read closely the parts of the article that had the information they needed (remember, they had looked at the entire article already…though they probably had not understood large parts of it), so we needed them to cross out anything that would not be helpful so they would feel freed from the need to read and understand it.

They continued staring at us. We next reminded them that each student had a second, clean copy of their article. If they crossed something out by mistake, it would not be lost — they had a back-up copy. (My TA had been very clear that fear of missing something would keep students from eliminating unhelpful text, and they needed the safety blanket of the ability to retrieve text, if necessary.)

Finally, they stopped starting, and started crossing out. With vigor and glee.

We then moved on to comprehending significantly smaller chunks of text, and the students felt gratified by the practice. They were able to speak to their prompts by the end of class. Our learning specialist even adopted the strategy to teach to specific students across the grades.

It is a tricky thing, balancing the need to know the context in which your needed information appears with the ability to target your reading successfully. It is my hope that employing this technique again this year will help students view reading for information not just as something being done to them, but as an incisive tool they can wield as needed.

But I would be really grateful to hear, if you have encountered similar challenges, how you responded!

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