Quick Tip Tuesday: Finding the time for meaningful comprehension lessons

July 21st, 2009

In her book, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading, Cris Tovani shows how teachers can expand on their content  expertise to provide instruction students need to understand specific technical and narrative tets. In this week’s Quick Tip, Cris talks about what teachers need to think about when faced with the decision of what to give up in order to make time for more meaningful comprehension lessons.

Not Having Our Cake and Eating It Too
I know the biggest issue for any high school teacher thinking about making changes or additions to the curriculum is time. I hear this from almost every high school teacher I’ve met with over the last few years. What we’re being asked to do is almost impossible. We’re being asked to teach ridiculous amounts of material. We’re being asked to teach kids how to read and write and think in sophisticated ways, and we’re given a very, very short time in which to do it. Something has got to give.

An English teacher recently said to me, “I want my kids to read eight novels, but they’re not doing it. What should I do?” I don’t know if he was just expressing frustration or asking me for an easy solution, but I don’t have one to give. My reply to teachers with these concerns and frustrations is this: I want to lose 30 pounds and eat chocolate cake all the time. It’s not going to happen. I have to decide if I can eat chocolate cake once a month, or cut back in a different way to lose weight.

It’s a trade-off. Only you can decide whether it is worth giving up some content for the time it takes to design comprehension instruction that means something to your students. If you don’t value the thinking strategies, you won’t give up content. If teaching kids to memorize what is in the textbook is most important to you, then this type of work won’t be very successful.

We are also putting pressure on ourselves to cover vast amounts of content. Many state standards don’t tell us that we have to teach certain novels in English classes. State standards don’t always specify what years of U.S. history we have to cover in the history curriculum. Many students will dutifully complete any strategy assignment from a teacher. After all, that’s how I found myself one night facing a desk covered with sticky notes and banal comments. But that doesn’t mean the assignment truly has any value for students, or is pushing them to think harder as readers.

I don’t know if teachers can work any harder than they’re already working, so we’ve got to find ways to make students carry more of the thinking load in our classrooms. As I walk out of school with my colleagues at the end of each day, we’re all tired. We’re carrying heavy bags of books and papers, and our shoulders are slumped.

Meanwhile, our students bound past us to the parking lot, running and jumping down the steps two at a time, full of energy. I once heard someone say, “School should not be a place where young people go to watch old people work.” We’ve got to figure out how to work smarter, because what we’re being asked to do is really a challenge.

A young teacher from my district recently came to visit my classroom. He had told his teaching teammate he was coming in to see me teach. His teammate had read some of my work and said, “Take a lot of notes and find out what she does that’s supposedly so great.” This young teacher shared that request with me. He then smiled and said, “You’re really not doing anything great. What you’re doing is something I can take back and do in my classroom.” Then he got a bit flustered and his face turned red, because he had said something that might be perceived as unkind.

I took his words as a compliment. What I’m doing is not unique or revolutionary. I use simple principles of good teaching to design comprehension lessons, activities, and materials. I give students models, time to practice, and time to think. It’s common sense, and a lot of it comes from my own process as a reader.

What Works

1. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” and “How will it help students think, read, or write more thoughtfully about my content?”

Teaching Point: Good readers use reading, writing, and talk to deepen their understanding of content.

2. Remember that strategies are only options for thinking. One comprehension tool is not more important than another. There is no specific order, sequence, or template for introducing strategies to students.

Teaching Point: Good readers have a variety of ways to think about text. They can make connections, ask questions, infer, and visualize, as well as sift and sort the value of different pieces of information.

3. Ask yourself as the expert of the content and the best reader in the class: “Is this activity authentic?” Would a mathematician, scientist, historian, or artist ever read in ways that approximate what you are asking of your students? If not, how could you make the activity more genuine?

Teaching Point: Good readers don’t need end-of-the-chapter questions or isolated skill sheets. They ask their own questions, based upon their need for a deeper understanding of specific aspects of the text.

4. Don’t isolate strategy instruction into discrete, individual activities from day to day. Plan lessons based on student work from the previous day, using student response as a way to analyze how thoughtfully kids are approaching text.

Teaching Point: Good readers reread and return to text to build and extend their knowledge of specific concepts, or to enhance their enjoyment of texts they have enjoyed previously.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Reading

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Mrs. V  |  July 21st, 2009 at 10:43 am

    I loved Tovani’s I Read it But I Don’t Get It, and I refer back to it often.

    I can relate to her comments about the amount of time teachers spend on curriculum, and that is something that I have really been reflecting on last year and this summer because I spent a lot more extra hours than I would have liked at the school since I have two young daughters that needed my attention as well. This year my classroom will be set up differently, and I am hoping I will spend less time, but my instruction will actually be better. I have thought through each and every piece, as I did last year, but having one additional year helps me to reevaluate what worked well and where I was losing valuable time.

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