Short texts show students way into literature

July 18th, 2008

Assigning a full-length novel to a group of middle or high school students is probably met with a lot of eye-rolling and groaning. Many students will struggle to complete the book and those who do may read it quickly and superficially. Teachers often find themselves sacrificing valuable classroom time to allow students to read the book, leaving little time for discussion.

Members of the Mosaic Listserv — a discussion group devoted to teachers who want to help their students become thoughtful, independent readers — recently participated in an online discussion about a book that suggests using shorter texts as a way to expose students to a wide range of literature while deepening their comprehension. In Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Grades 6-12, Kimberly Hill Campbell encourages teachers to look beyond novels to engage students, and embrace a richer variety of literature, including graphic novels, short stories, and essays.

She argues that not all students are ready — or in many cases willing — to take on a full-length novel and that short stories provide most students a way into literature. “When students are confronted solely and consistently with texts that are complex and lengthy, there is resistance, a tendency to disengage and to look for shortcuts that may help complete a required assignment but that circumscribe or even totally avoid actual reading,” writes Leila Christenbury in the book’s foreword.

Many of the teachers participating in the Mosaic discussion found themselves in that situation: trying to coax middle and high school students into reading lengthy pieces of required literature in a limited timeframe, and engage them in meaningful discussion about the piece. Leslie Popkin, a literacy coach from Bellerose, NY, shared that “as a coach in a K-8 building, writing a curriculum for the upper grades that is workable and meaningful has been a challenge. The reading of Less Is More couldn’t have been more timely.” She added that the strict time constraints faced by middle school teachers makes fitting all the components of balanced literacy into the confines of a middle school ELA program very difficult. “This book is a superb source for high school teachers,” Popkin wrote, “and a good one as well for middle school teachers.” She considers the book a “must-read” for teachers of grades 6 through 8 and thinks that the strategies from the book can be used at almost any level.

Heather Rockensock, a literacy coach from Holmen, WI, shared that she had a hard time helping her reading and writing teachers integrate learning strategies into their teaching. “As soon as I read this book, I knew that I had a solution to my problem,” Heather wrote. Instead of struggling with trying to fit full-length novels — and the time it takes to read them — into the allotted time, Heather and other teachers are now adding shorter texts to their library. Rockensock’s students in the eighth grade are beginning their study of the Holocaust. Reading the usual required texts — The Diary of Anne Frank and The Devil’s Arithmetic — “would take forever,” she said. “I am excited to say that we are adding picture books, short stories, and graphic novels to our collection…I can’t wait to see how this enriches our discussions because now we will have time to actually have discussions!” The eighth-graders will also write a memoir as part of the unit and Rockensock says that she can already see the advantages of exposing students to various forms of literature.

Donna DeTommaso, an ESL teacher from Hatfield, PA, said that she likes to use short texts to provide her students the opportunity to reread the piece multiple times and to dig deeper into the text. Inspired by the book, DeTommaso read the story Charlie by Shirley Jackson to her students. “Sometimes I get so hung up on having them muddle their way through it that I don’t choose to do this. Kimberly inspired me to back up and do more it,” she said. She then asked her students to reread the story on their own and used Campbell’s strategies to teach the class about foreshadowing and inferring.

Amy Windus, a fifth-grade teacher from Scio, NY, is also faced with trying to fit a lot of material into a limited amount of time. She believes that the strategies in Campbell’s book will not only help alleviate the time issue by using shorter texts, but will also allow students to read, re-read, and truly engage with the text in a meaningful way. “In my opinion, this is actually one of the greatest benefits of shorter texts,” she said. “Once they’ve been read and students understand the content, you are then free to re-examine them from any number of lenses, depending on the skill, strategy, or craft that you want students to understand.”

Entry Filed under: Reading

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