Let’s face it, so many high school teachers missed out on training in literacy – specifically, how to approach a text. ‘Doing’ a short text – be it an article, an excerpt, a story or poem – can be daunting even for the best of English teachers, so I hate to think how teachers of other subjects feel. We can’t ostrich our way out of this though. When I found myself in front of a Year 7 class (at a Year 7-13 school) years ago, two things shocked me:
1. OMG they were losing teeth in my class! They were so little!
2. Oh, they really are still learning to read! … OMG, I don’t know how to teach reading!
Taking myself off to the local primary and intermediate school I spoke to several teachers, observed them in class and was grateful for the resources and ideas they shared. I researched. I thought about where I would want these year 7s to be by Year 9 and Year 11 – good benchmark years I could understand. I bashed out notes, steps and templates. Best of all, I began to take what I learned into the teaching of my older, high school, year levels. Several years later, I finally had a guide I was happy with, and so my ‘Literacy Lifesaver’ was born.
Said lifesaver included 20 approaches to the reading of a text – 6 that could be completed prior to reading the text, 14 for afterwards. Note: ‘could be’. There’s no way you’d go through all 20 steps, but some I did make compulsory for myself. You choose for that text which steps you want to ‘do’ and plan accordingly. Yes, you really do have to plan for reading if you’re going to do it well. Here are my 20 steps...
Prior to reading:
Approach: This step is just for me. First, I needed to decide how I was going to deliver this text. Would this be a guided reading episode with smaller groups.? (Yes, I had to learn about guided reading too!) Perhaps I’d read the text to the class with them following along. Maybe students could read in pairs first – alternating paragraphs, then read silently themselves after that? This first step included having to decide if I was going to give everyone the whole text, some just part of the text, or some a re-written simpler version. Download here an example of how I did this for my Year 10 class with reading ages from 6 (yes) to one gifted student.
Purpose for reading: Tell the students why they’re reading this text.
Prior knowledge: You know the drill. What do students already know? Mix it up a bit by asking not just what they already know about the topic, but about the genre, the author, the era…
Make predictions: Give them the title, the first sentence, the genre. What do they expect to find? Consider things like language, structure, points of view etc. Write this up and save it for step 2 post reading.
Students plan questions: What questions do they have that they think this text will answer? (I admit I avoid this one.) If you’re doing it, write these questions up and save them for later.
Identify and discuss new vocabulary: This is one I made compulsory in my planning. What vocabulary will students find in the text that they might struggle with or that they might find interesting. There are plenty of strategies for this such as word maps and clines.
Summarise or retell: Try to build visuals into this, for example with a labelled diagram or flow diagram. Oral language too – tell a partner what you remember.
Predictions: Go over the predictions students made in step 4 prior to reading. Discuss.
Relate to self: Find ways to get students to relate some aspect of the text to themselves. This can include firsthand experiences as well as emotive responses.
Students’ own questions: Return to the questions students developed in step 5 prior to reading. Can they answer them from what they learned in the text?
Reading ON the lines: There are so many strategies for this! These are the questions students find explicitly answered in the text. This can include looking at vocabulary again and picking it to bits to discuss synonyms, antonyms, vocabulary in context etc.
Language features: Bet you thought I was going to say reading BETWEEN the lines here! Nope. I like to look at language features first, and for seniors, this includes evaluating those features.
Structure: Motif, flashback, sentences, sub-headings, stanzas... all that!
Reading BETWEEN the lines: With their new understanding of language features and structure, students are now better equipped for this.
Purpose and audience: Now we’re into the nitty gritty. The best part where we discuss points of view and the context in which the piece was written.
Ideas: Push students to start with using the word ‘that’ in their sentences about idea. “The theme is love in the teenage years” is too vague for my liking. Nor does it make sense when you think about it. Rewrite it to say, “The idea here is THAT love in the teenage years can be a tangled mess of extreme highs and lows” to explain what it is about that love we learn about from the text. Take it further by looking at what’s missing from the evidence provided to elicit this idea, discussing the fairness of the idea and so on. Alternatively, these aspects of deeper thinking can be discussed in step 9 – purpose and audience – above.
Relate ideas to the wider world: Of course, angle may have been covered already as a natural next progression in 10 above. I included it in my checklist to remind myself in my 'early years' though!
Relate to human behaviours: Love this one. Blimey we’re a greedy, power-hungry, gullible species! Hehe!
Relate to other texts: Here is where those ‘Connections Across Texts’ come in. In my experience, students get quite excited about this. An easy Venn diagram here works a treat.
Process what you understand: Processing information means putting it into another form. Keep in mind:
a. The purpose for reading you identified in step 1 prior to reading.
b. Things like Bloom’s Taxonomy
c. Different learning styles
d. Practice or preparation for upcoming assessments.
For an outline of these steps that you could glue into your plan book or stick on your classroom wall, click here.
For plenty of strategies to help you with some of these steps, download Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9 to 13 from the TKI website. Remember that ugly brown book that arrived in schools for every teacher (yes, literacy across the curriculum!) that barely registered with most of us? Thank goodness for the internet because now we’ve all got access to it!
If you want further methods, strategies (including suggested page references to the Effective Literacies book) and a planning template, to get rid of the overwhelm, grab my Literacy Lifesaver. These steps are also available as actionable close reading cards to sit on students' desks.
I promise you’ll get quicker and more confident at planning for reading the more you do it. For added help, read about 4 vital classroom habits that improve literacy. (Set your class up from the beginning of the year with these habits and you won't look back.) Good luck!