April 14th, 2009
This week’s Quick Tip comes from one of Tony Stead’s books, Reality Checks: Teaching Reading Comprehension with Nonfiction, K-5. “In Lisa Elias Moynihan’s third-grade classroom at the Manhattan New School many of our learners wrestled with recalling and reciting all the information they read,” writes Tony. Students often just copied the text they read as a way of dealing with the massive amounts of information they came in contact with. Tony and Lisa came up with a way to model the process of note taking to help these fluent readers develop the layers of thinking and understanding this skill requires.
Lisa and I had been experimenting with ways to help our learners take notes and decided that the first step was to demonstrate the strategies we use. We knew that for children to be successful with this, they first needed to learn how to deconstruct text, then use their notes to reconstruct.
As part of a unit on animals, we used a book titled Creatures of the Night to demonstrate this process. We used a retelling web to demonstrate how we selected key words and phrases to help us remember relevant information. We broke the whole-class mini-lessons into four parts as outlined below, and did each in a different sitting so that we did not overload the children with too much information at one time. I believe this is a major reason why learners struggle with processing demonstrated information: we never take the learning apart and concentrate on small, manageable pieces. The common cry of “But I’ve shown them how to take notes and they can’t do it” is a reflection of our teaching practices rather than children’s cognitive abilities. Attempting to demonstrate everything in one sitting only frustrates and overwhelms the majority of our learners.
Session 1: Teacher Modeling—How to Deconstruct and Reconstruct Information
During this first session we knew it was important to establish the purpose of the whole-class mini-lessons so that the children understood how note taking could help them as readers of informational texts. Our next step was to show them how we achieved this goal through thinking aloud so that children could hear and learn from our thought processes.
Tony: I’ve noticed that often when you read nonfiction, you find it hard to remember all the information the author has told you. Would that be true?
Rosania: I find it hard to because there is so much and after I put the book down, I kind of forget.
Tess: That always happens to me, and then when Lisa calls us to a conference, and says to us, “So what did you find out about” from whatever it is we read and I just look at her and think I don’t know. I forgot most of it.
Tony: That’s what Lisa and I have noticed, so we thought we’d show you one way to help remember some of the information. Would that help?
There is a chorus of yes’s from the children.
Tony: Great! I’m going to use this book Creatures of the Night because we’ve been looking at night creatures as part of our unit of study. We’ll be able to use some of this information for our class report. But before I show you how I take notes so that I can remember the information presented by the author, I need to ask you why I don’t just copy the author’s words.
CJ: Because they’re not your words. It’s a bit like cheating.
Tony: Talk to me more about this.
CJ: You need to be able to talk about it yourself.
Marielle: Yeah, CJ’s right. Just because you copied them down doesn’t mean you understand them.
Tony: That makes so much sense. I’m going to start by just reading this section to you about how creatures of the night taste their way at night.
I then read them the following from page 10 of the book:
Tasting Their Way
A few nocturnal creatures use their sense of taste to help them survive. As catfish swim along the bottom of rivers, using feelers called barbels, they can taste tiny particles of a food source upstream. A snake’s tongue “tastes” the air. By flicking the tongue out to collect small particles, the cottonmouth viper can pick up the scent of a mate or an enemy.
Tony: Now I need to read this information again. This will help me think more deeply about what I have read.
I read it again.
Tony: Now I need to stop and think about what ideas and facts are important for me to remember. I’m going to use a retelling web to help me. Let me see, I think I want to write down the word survive because this is an important word. It is the main idea of this page. I am also going to write the words catfish, feelers, barbels, and water. I’m putting an arrow from survive to these four words because I want to remember that a catfish that lives in water survives by using its barbels to taste. I’m writing the word feelers next to barbells in case I forget what they are because this is a new word for me. Now over here I’m writing the words snake, tongue/flicking, small particles, and enemy. This will remind me that snakes taste the air by flicking their tongues and tasting particles in the air. The word enemy will remind me that this helps them know if an enemy is nearby. Now I’m going to put the book away and have a try at retelling the information using just my organizer. This will help me say things in my own words. Okay, here I go. Let me tell you about night creatures and how they use taste to help them survive. The catfish that lives in water has feelers. These are called barbels, and the catfish uses these to taste food in the water. Snakes taste by flicking their tongues. They can sense when there is food or an enemy just by using their tongues.
I went back to the text and reread what the author had said and asked the children what they noticed about my retelling. They were impressed by my abilities to retell using the organizer, but Michael wanted to know why I didn’t use the word mate on either my organizer or in my retelling. This brought a few giggles but also lots of confusion, because obviously many of the children had no idea what this meant. I had intentionally made no reference to this word on my organizer for obvious reasons, but children miss nothing. They awaited my reply with anticipation, eager to see how I would wiggle my way out of this one. I simply told them that I didn’t think it was that important and moved quickly to the next teaching point, giving them little chance to reply. Thankfully this strategy worked, and I found myself breathing sighs of relief as I moved into the next part of the demonstration.
Having successfully avoided the subject of reproduction, I invited Lisa, the classroom teacher, to have a try at this strategy using a different page of the text. Having the children watch multiple demonstrations is always advantageous because it gives them time to process and think more deeply about what has been initially demonstrated. The librarian or a second adult, such as a parent, in the classroom is a wonderful resource to tap when attempting to show multiple demonstrations by adults. I concluded the session by reflecting on what we had learned about note taking and charted the children’s responses. (See the steps below.) I am a great believer in not only taking time for reflection at the conclusion of a demonstration but also recording thoughts and understandings so that learners have a point of reference for future
Ideas for Taking Notes When Reading Nonfiction
■ Make sure you read the text at least twice so that you really understand what the author has said.
■ Write down key words or phrases that you think are important on a retelling web.
■ Put the text away.
■ Using only the retelling web, try to retell the information.
■ If you have problems retelling, look at the text again and see what extra words you need to include to help you remember.