Teaching reading is a complex endeavor at any stage, but I love working with my emerging readers in high school. There truly is nothing better than watching a student enjoy a book for the first time, or figure out a complex passage all on their own. I’ve written tons about reading on this blog, so here is a collection of some of my best posts in three different categories, including my popular Teacher Tools!
Teacher Tools for Teaching Reading:
Using Commentary for Teaching Literature (Teacher Tools included!)
Literature Document-Based Questions (Teacher Tools included!)
Checklist for Reading Conferences (Teacher Tools included!)
What does it really mean to teach reading to high schoolers?
What better time to relax, reflect and rejuvenate than the summer months, with their long days, warm nights, and time away for the daily grind of teaching? Here I have collect my top four posts related to summer learning and professional development for teachers.
The Top 4 Reasons why Summer’s Off Make Me a Better Teacher. Check out this post to discover the “4 Rs” that make me a stronger teacher in the fall, even when I put ALL my work away for the month of July!
Of course, many of us also do more official summer professional development. For my thoughts and learnings about that, check out Read more…
I first started this blog as a way to write down my thoughts and reflections about teaching. Soon after it morphed into a place to record successes (and occasionally less-successful) classroom moments. In that vein I have used this Reading Modes Series to share the framework I use to shape most of the reading that happens in my ELA classroom. In the last few weeks I’ve described the three reading modes that create a reading framework in my classroom: Comprehension, Analysis, and Reading as Rehearsal for Real Life. I’ve focused on the relationship between the three in each post, such as
There are two principles I hope that all my readers have taken away from this series:
1. There must be a BALANCE between these reading modes in the classroom. An over-emphasis on one or the other can lead to disengagement or miss a rich understanding of the text.
2. An INTEGRATED use of these modes will enhance the understandings, insights, and connections our students make with the text.
Now I’m hoping this series inspires new growth for this blog: more sharing from all the amazing educators out there! Today I’m making an unashamed plea for comments so that I (and my readers) can learn from YOU! If you read even just part of my Reading Modes Series, please share your ideas for how these reading modes work (or could work) in your classroom. Not sure what to say? Here are some questions that will spark ideas:
- How do you already address these reading modes in your classroom?
- What kinds of activities or lessons do you use to get students to engage in comprehension, analysis, and/or “big idea” reading
- Which reading mode have you had the most success with in your classroom
- What new ideas do you have for your classroom in the fall after reading these posts?
Please comment and leave your thoughts and insights, for me and the other readers! As always, thanks for reading and learning along with me!
At this point in the series I hope it is clear that all three the modes of reading I have discussed actually work together to increase students’ depth of understanding about a text. In this post I will discuss the final relationship between analysis and “big idea*” reading.
As I discussed in post 2 of this series, having students investigate the meaning of various literary devices can actually help illuminate a deeper understanding of characters and plot. Similarly, a close analysis of literary devices (or “writer’s moves“) in text can also illuminate theme or personal connections to the text for students. A close study of the lines where Iago compares jealousy to a “green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on” gives students opportunities to think about how jealousy can take them over at points in their life. This will lead to a nuanced understanding of jealousy than simply asking the to write about a time they “felt” jealousy independent of this complex metaphor.
I have also found that focusing on a “big idea” in the text that is related to students’ own lives gives them a real purpose for investigating literary devices. Using this same example, students are for more interested and invested in figuring out the meaning of Iago’s metaphor when the point is to compare his meaning to the meaning of jealousy in their own lives. Just deciphering the metaphor for the sake of deciphering a metaphor simply does not hold the same power as when they can see the process as part of their rehearsal for their real lives.
Using short passages of text for analysis has been a powerful tool in my classroom for many reasons and this relationship between analysis and “big idea” reading is one of them. When I have students just analyze short passages from larger texts that we read, there were always some kids who were purely interested in the puzzle of it, the search for the literary devices or the untangling of metaphorical meaning. However, when I started to tie this puzzle to their own lives I found much more engagement. One of example of this is the story The Lottery which we start the year with, mostly because our Essential Question is partially focused on the influences of society in our lives. The Lottery really makes a point about why societies do what they do, and why some problematic practices persist under the guise of “tradition.” One part of the text where this message is readily apparent is in the first description of the lottery box.
The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything’s being done. The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.
I could have students simply analyze this text and explain what literary devices are at play here (especially the description in the last sentence). They could probably identify a literary device or two. But without explaining the point of the literary device, the exercise seems to be mostly a waste. When I am able to have them make a connection between the use of description and the idea of traditions, a theme about traditions is illuminated. When they start by writing about traditions in their own life, and then use this passage as a mentor text in order to write a description about a traditional object in their lives, suddenly the start to think more deeply about the role of tradition in society. This, of course, is ultimately the point of “Reading as Rehearsal for Real Life.” When students make connections between the big ideas in the text and how they live and understand their own lives, we are fulfilling the promise of literature to not only entertain, but to make us think and ultimately be empathetic and thoughtful people
*“Big Idea” reading is another term I use when speaking about “reading as rehearsal for real life“
As I discussed in part 1 of this series the “Reading as Rehearsal for Real Life” reading mode (also called the “Big Idea” reading mode) is where one is reading in order to think about the big ideas in life, developing empathy through identifying with the characters, or even just rehearsing one’s real life decisions through the characters choices. In this post I will discuss the relationship between comprehension of the text and understanding these “big ideas” that readers use to rehearse their own lives.
At some level it is obvious: you must have a basic comprehension to make connections between text and big ideas. For example, you have to know what the characters are doing in order to compare your choices to theirs. This is why you can show students the movie based on a book, or have them watch a play, and they can still have discussions, or do writing, about real-world connections with the story, even if they never actually pick it up the book. But what about a deeper level of comprehension, one that requires you to make inferences about character motivation, to understand the relationship (through subtle dialogue) with characters, or even just descriptions of setting that create a certain tone about a place, which in turn develops theme? Well, what I have found is that this level of comprehension enhances students ability to “rehearse for real-life” with a text far more than simple plot awareness. Once students move toward a deeper understanding of nuances in a text, the real-world connections become far more interesting.
On the flip side, one of the most obvious ways that real-world connections support comprehension is that making personal connections to the text provides motivation and interest for students. When students read The Hunger Games a discussion or writing assignment about Katniss’ motivations at every point in the book can lead directly to questions about what motivates students to make difficult decisions in their own life. When students read Desdemona’s speech at the end of Othello, where she plans to stay with him even as she has reason to fear him, amazing insights can ensue about why she will essentially “stay” with him, and gives students a reason to consider what to do when they feel uncertainty about all types of relationships. By connecting the text to their own lives students are encouraged to find deeper understand of character motivation, character development, or even just thoughts about what things like pride, love, or jealousy mean in both their text and their world.
So, comprehension at a deeper level, especially around character development, can enhance a student’s understanding of how a text connects to their lives, and motivate them to read in the first place. On the flip side, a focus on the big ideas or character motivation in the text can help students reach this understanding. If students have a deeper understanding about what a text is saying about abstract ideas like love, hatred, dehumanization, joy, power, etc. they will be better able to see how the same ideas connect to their lives. If students are being asked to compare a time they felt pride with Othello’s speech about falling in love with Desdemona in Act 1, they have a reason to read closely and figure out what the speech is really saying. If students are being asked to compare a time they told a lie to the way Katniss and Peeta present themselves at rallies in Catching Fire then they have all the more reason to figure out the nuances of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship. In this way a focus on “Big Idea” reading actually motivates and enhances comprehension of more subtle points in the text.
So, the question is, how to capitalize on this relationship between comprehension mode and big idea mode in the classroom.To be perfectly honest, this is something I am still struggling with as I often find myself getting bogged down in comprehension and pushing students back to the text to find meaning rather than just sharing personal experiences they think are tangentially related to ideas in the text. Essentially, I am constantly watching out for the trap where “rehearsal for real life” discussions fall into the trap of being just about life, and not being informed by the text. However, I have found that a pattern of read, write, discuss works well to have students make these connections between the books we read and their own lives. It seems somewhat obvious, but I have students start with the text. They might do one of the following:
- choose a line that stand out and explain why
- translate a complex Shakespeare passage into “modern” English
- find a line of dialogue that illuminates something about a character
- put a star next to something interesting/surprising
Then, students write. They may write just their opinions of the section of text and/or character, they may try and connect the text to a specific event in their lives, or I might have them explain the connection between that section of text and a “big idea” (like love, pride, jealousy, dehumanization, societal pressure, etc.). One of my favorite ways to do the writing this year was my commentary assignment. But the key step is discussion. Be it in small groups, whole class, inside-outside circle, etc. students use discussion to bounce their ideas off each other and really start to make those new real-world connections. To be totally transparent, discussions (especially whole class ones) is an area of my teaching I’m very focused on improving next year because I struggle with them. But what I found fascinating in the last couple years is how many students vividly remember our discussions at the end of the year, even if those discussions were infrequent and inadequate in my opinion. Discussions stick out to students, and also help important ideas stick in their heads, which makes them the perfect vehicle to get students to make the link between comprehension and reading as rehearsal for real life.
In this second post of the “Reading Modes” series I will discuss the connection between “comprehension mode” and “analysis mode.”
Like so many other folks I know, I used to believe that students needed to comprehend a text fully before they could analyze it. Often we would read a whole-class book all the way through and discuss each chapter in painstaking detail before I would even think of asking them to go back and analyze any part of it, let alone the work as a whole. However, after I started working on analysis through short, focused analysis paragraphs about short, focused passages, I realized something interesting. When I asked students to analyze a passage of a longer text, they would often come to some kind of comprehension realization as they analyzed. For example, this year my students read Night by Elie Wiesel. Here is an excerpt of one of the passages students analyzed:
“The night was pitch-black. From time to time, a shot exploded in the darkness. They had orders to shoot anyone who could not sustain the pace. Their fingers on the triggers, they did not deprive themselves of the pleasure. If one of us stopped for a second, a quick shot eliminated the filthy dog.
I was putting one foot in front of the other, like a machine. I was dragging this emaciated body that was still such a weight. If only I could have shed it! Though I tried to put it out of my mind, I couldn’t help thinking that there were two of us: my body and I. And I hated that body. I kept repeating to myself: ‘Don’t think, don’t stop, run!'”
The prompt I gave them to drive the analysis was:
In this passage Wiesel is describing the effects of all the dehumanization and suffering he has experienced. What does his use of figurative language suggest about the ultimate effects of dehumanization?
In the act of investigating the figurative language in this passage student noticed that Wiesel was comparing himself to an automaton, and that he referred to himself and the other concentration camp prisoners as “filthy dogs.” This was in contrast to earlier passages when they had noticed the SS soldiers as the only ones making these dehumanizing comparisons. Through the act of analyzing Wiesel’ use of figurative language in this passage students came to understand how Wiesel is showing internalized dehumanization in the memoir.
Now, this passage represents an important shift in the book as we start to see the way Wiesel is internalizing the dehumanization he has experienced. This is normally something I would want a student to pick up on during a “first read” of the book; essentially, it is something I think they should get when in comprehension mode. However, I have rarely seen students pick up on this transition in previous years as we have read this section in comprehension mode. In this instance the act of analyzing actually enhanced their understanding of the flow of the text, even as it also pushed them to explain the meaning of figurative language in this section.
Now, it could be argued that students might have also picked up on this transition if we had simply paused and read this section more closely in class, even without the analysis focus. However, I will say that many students really found the way Wiesel was internalizing dehumanization only after analyzing these specific metaphors. Other students who picked a different part of the passage to analyze did not pick up on the transition so readily. It seems that the act of analyzing the text also enriches the students understanding of the text overall. When we pause to analyze specific passages students are sucked in by the author’s use of interesting language and literary devices. Many feel like they are solving a puzzle as they start to see how figurative language here, and alliteration there, work together to develop a tone or message. In this way the act of analyzing while also “reading to comprehend” enhances both the analysis and the comprehension.
So, how do I negotiate between these two modes in my class, especially considering that I have to set priorities? What I am currently working with is a system where we read the beginning of the text as a whole class and pause to analyze specific passages along the way. Sometimes all the students respond to the same prompt about the same passage. Sometimes I give them a choice about which passages to analyze and then their share their learning with the class. Often as we move to the end of the book students find passage that stand out to them and then analyze those based on which writer’s moves they noticed in the passage. Either way we constantly move back and forth between comprehension (which is always needed at some level) and analysis as we move through the book. I’ve learned that analysis can’t wait until we are “done” with comprehension. Instead, it is a vital part of the reading process.
As an English teacher I am tasked with the goal of teaching my students how to read, understand, and analyze a wide variety of texts. As one of my colleagues often says, a major struggle for English teachers is the “all-at-once-ness” of it, and the teaching of literature is no exception to that. I used to think that having students do “literary analysis” consisted of three steps:
- read the text
- re-read sections of the text to “look for evidence”
- write a paper using the evidence to say something about theme, character development, etc.
However, the longer I teach and the more I learn, the more I see that this is not a linear process, but instead a recursive and spiraling one. The task of reading, and then writing about what they read, requires students to engage in distinct modes of reading, but often simultaneously.
As I’ve puzzled through issues around reading in my classroom, I’ve begun using a framework based on three major mode of reading. These three modes have become organizing principles for my classroom, and have helped me make sense of the way I am asking my students to get through the texts we read in a meaningful way.
This post is the first in a series about these modes of reading in which I will explore how my students use these modes when engaging in the text, and how thinking about reading through this lens heightens the interconnectedness between modes of reading, rather than seeing reading in a linear fashion. In this post I will define the modes of reading as I see them.
Mode 1: Comprehension
This mode is the most obvious. Readers are in comprehension mode, most, if not all, of the time. This applies to reading for pleasure (such as the thriller I couldn’t put down last night) or reading for academic purposes (such as an essay by Alice Walker in one of my college courses). When we are reading in comprehension mode, we are trying to understand the basic plot or argument in the text. We are also making inferences, some that are more obvious, and some that are less obvious and require more in-depth thinking. A mis-conception that I used to have is that reading had to be done in comprehension mode “first” before any deeper thinking or different modes of reading about the text could occur. However, the longer I teach, the more I realize that other mode of reading can support comprehension, which shifts comprehension out of the role of “first step” and makes it part of an ongoing process.
Mode 2: Analysis of craft
There are many example of type of “analysis” that happen both in and out of English classes. However, the type of analysis I focus on most in my class is a close-reading related to author’s craft. Essentially, when my students do analysis they are looking at the way the author use specific literary or rhetorical devices (aka “writer’s moves“) to further a point, develop a character or theme, etc. Often this involves focusing on specific short (1 page or less) passages from the text, and reading and re-reading them closely to discover these interesting literary or rhetorical devices, and the writing about and discussing the effect of those devices.
Mode 3: Reading as Rehearsal for Real Life
The name for this mode is taken directly from Kelly Gallagher. In his book Readicide he argues that one of the main benefits for teaching classic literature is that it provides students with opportunities to grapple with real human dilemmas, allows then to develop wisdom and essentially provides them the opportunities to go through imaginary rehearsals for the real world. This is the mode of reading that I both think is most important, and that I also often find myself skipping when we are pressed for time in my class. It is an interesting paradox. The ultimate point of reading, in my mind, is to develop empathy, to become a part of a larger society, to have a deeper understanding of the world around us, to become better citizens, etc. Essentially, reading should make us more human and more connected with our world. Obviously comprehension and analysis are part of this process, but the idea that we read because it is enriching and helps us understand more about ourselves should be a cornerstone of the work that happens in English class. I both believe this deeply and have to remind myself to build this mode of reading into every text we read, because it is too easy to let it slide when we are stuck in the weeds of figuring out which character said what and writing analysis paragraphs.
These are the three primary modes of reading that my students and I use to engage in the texts we are reading. We sometimes focus on one more than the others for certain texts, or even just at different points when reading a long texts. We do not move through these modes in a linear fashion. Instead, I use their interconnectedness to move through a text in a meaningful way. In the next few posts I will focus on the way in which these three modes are interconnected and support one another in my real-life classroom.