I have the privilege of working with teachers across the country and I often hear the refrain that too many students are just not reading on level.
Students’ lack of background knowledge and text analysis skills inhibits their ability to grasp critical concepts and content in the history classroom. Teachers sometimes try to work around this challenge by providing other (non-text) media or alternative readings to convey the desired content to their struggling students. However, these accommodations also have the potential to inhibit students from learning how to deal with more challenging texts. In the recently published California State Social Studies Framework this concern is directly addressed. It states:
“Teachers should not avoid texts as sources of knowledge with students who find them challenging and rely exclusively on non-text media and experiences. Replacing texts with other sources of information or rewriting them in simpler language—in spite of the intention to ensure access to the curricula—limits students’ skill to independently learn with texts in the future.” (page 174 – California History/Social Science Framework, 2016)
Students need to confront difficult texts
What can be done? We need to engage students with texts that they might find difficult so that they can “stretch” themselves to become more successful readers in the future. We need to make explicit the “close-reading” skills that more successful readers implicitly know and use when encountering a difficult text.
What is close reading?
Close reading refers to a “careful and purposeful reading” of a selection of text with the goal of discovering deeper comprehension and understanding of the material.
Strategies for developing close reading skills
Here are eight close reading strategies that can be used by students in any content area. Pick a single paragraph from a larger context and have students do a “deep dive” into that reading by utilizing some of the following ideas. The key is to keep the text excerpt short enough so as to not overwhelm students and then give them time to read it and reread it in order to extract the essential content.
Note: These are written towards the student so that you can print this list and use it directly with the class.
1. Word Picture
Read the selection carefully, looking for vivid and expressive words that the author uses to describe the topic. Write the words down. How do these words help emphasize the main point of the selection?
2. Pull Quotes
In order to attract the reader, editors frequently “pull” and box an important quote from
a story. After rereading the selection, identify a significant statement from the reading as a pull
quote. Write a short statement in which you justify why you selected that particular statement.
Why is it significant?
3. Activity: Action Verbs, Synonyms
Action verbs are words that denote some sort of action. Highlight the action words in the selection, then write a synonym, or a word with the same meaning that can be used to replace the highlighted word.
4. “Read with a Pencil”
Read the selection. As you read, jot down questions and key points that you believe are
important to your understanding of the reading.
5. Perspective, Point of View, Cite Evidence
Read through the selection. Based on what you see in the reading, what is the point of view of
the author? In other words, explain how the author describes the effect of XXX on
YYY and ZZZ. What evidence can you show from the reading to back up your view?
6. “Wrecking the Text”
Reread the selection, then rewrite it, summarizing the main points in your own words.
Irony is making a point by intentionally using language that expresses the opposite of one’s meaning, sometimes for humorous effect. For example, Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” Does this quotation fit the definition of irony? Work together with a partner to write a short paragraph explaining whether the quotation does or does not. How is irony used in the passage selected?
8. Paradox, Point of View
A paradox is a statement that appears to contradict itself but ultimately proves to be true. Many of us are familiar with the notion of “a shot heard round the world.” How is this statement an example of a paradox? What do you think is the author’s point of view in this statement? What is the paradox in the statement you are reading?
Take some time throughout the school year to employ some of these strategies with your struggling readers in order to train them how to conquer difficult texts rather than avoid them. They will need these skills to be college and career ready. Find short excerpts that are related to the content that you are covering and let the students “go deep.”
Did you like these ideas on how to help students confront difficult texts?
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Dr. Aaron Willis is the chief learning officer for Social Studies School Service, where he has worked in the field of interactive and digital education for more than two decades. His primary areas of interest include brain-based imaging, hands-on learning, and evidence-based reading and writing strategies. Dr. Willis oversees the development of Active Classroom with an eye toward implementing the latest pedagogic strategies in a manner that is intuitive and easy to use for both teachers and students. Based in Los Angeles, California, he travels frequently to work with teachers, focusing on practical solutions to their professional challenges.