I must confess, I am thrilled about the opportunity to be a first-time contributor to this blog. We are living in a time when we can be professionally connected all over the world, and I love being able to share and learn from such a diverse online community of educators.
Being a High School English-Language Arts (ELA) teacher and author, I tend to get a bit wordy. Often, in the midst of blogging, there’s a voice inside my head, a writer’s voice I suppose, haunting me, “For Blog’s sake John, get to the flippin’ point! Folks want to learn in 140 characters or less…stop getting lost in the words, the semantics, the parallel structure, the bold ‘new’ ideas…you are not writing a PhD Dissertation.”
I just heard the voice….
With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the research validating the need for children to read, read more, and read again, I have really been doing some teacher soul-searching in recent years. I am in the midst of a series of blog posts regarding my experiences in helping and supporting high school ELA students embrace complex texts. About a year ago, the curriculum coordinator in our school district introduced me to a few reading strategies as outlined and demonstrated by Kelly Gallagher. As a 16 year educator of High School ELA, I found these strategies accessible, appealing, and, quite frankly, refreshing.
By putting Gallagher’s strategies to use, I have adapted Gallagher’s complex text approach to the demographics of our students as well as my own strengths and weaknesses as an educator. The first step in the process is to Access and/or Build Background Knowledge. The next step, as Gallagher identifies, is First-Draft Reading.
Here are a few strategies that I have found work best to support our students in first-draft reading, some of which are directly connected to Gallagher’s theories while others I have adopted and adapted through trial and error:
- Post-It Notes: Because the books are owned by our school district, my students are not allowed to annotate in the margins of the text. As an alternative, I hand out small packets of post-it notes to all students. I invite students to mark their confusion and show close reading by asking questions and/or commenting on the reading bu using the post-it notes. Some students have multiple notes per page and, when turning the book in, take 10 minutes just to remove their post-its. I keep a supply of small post-it notes in my room at all times; students will consistently request more sticky notes as we progress through the text. As part of small group or large group discussion in class, I will have students share their confusion and questions to gain clarity on the reading.
- Reading Journal: I have my students utilize their reading journals for various close reading strategies. One way is to use their reading journal, or notebook, as an alternative to the post-it-notes. Another option is to have students create T-Charts for selected sections, chapters, stanzas, and/or Acts of the reading. On the left hand side of the t-chart are questions raised from the reading; on the right side, students will answer their questions or resolve their confusion as they read or through in-class discussion. While reading complex texts I have my students complete quick-writes. In a normal five-day week my students have three quick-writes. The prompts are both text specific (for comprehension and understanding) and reaction specific (for connection and reflection).
- 20 Questions: The majority of this activity is taken directly from Gallagher. Students are asked to write 20 open-ended (not yes/no) questions for a given reading assignment. In small groups, I invite students to share and attempt to resolve their questions. Each small group is then asked to categorize and articulate in a short statement the nature of their remaining unanswered questions. I record these categorical statements to revisit in our second-draft reads.
- Focus Groups: Another great strategy from Gallagher…. Specifically design small groups based on strengths and weaknesses of students. I usually create seven to ten groups of no more than three students in a group. I provide each group with a specific focus (i.e, [for The Odyssey] extended simile, the journey of Telemachus, the journey of Odysseus, Penelope’s emotional state, various characters influencing Odysseus, etc.). This is designed to help students focus as they read as well as makes them accountable to their peers. Once or twice a week each group will conference with me then share their findings with the rest of the class. The entire class is responsible for the information shared by each small group.
Okay…I just heard the voice again…four first-draft reading strategies are enough for now….
I highly recommend Gallagher’s book, Deeper Reading, for further exploration of embracing complex texts. I hope something here is beneficial to you as an ELA educator. I know, firsthand, using these strategies have increased reading interest, comprehension, understanding, relevancy, and real-life application of complex texts.
John Steltz is a high school ELA educator who has a passion for helping students become better communicators through writing and speaking. He enjoys sharing great books with his students and does not consider his teaching work. Read other articles by this contributor on his personal blog. Connect with him on Twitter @jpsteltz.