Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hey...is this thing on?

The first time I remember struggling as a reader was in college.   The textbook on the history of the English language was probably a good one, but I just could not get my brain to turn on as I read.   This became obvious when I attempted to take the quizzes that went with each lesson.   In short, I didn't do well.   I decided that I needed to trick my eyes into staying focused on the words by slowing down my pace.   I took a blank, white note card and moved it down the page as I read.   Honestly, this is the only change I made...suddenly, I was understanding everything and doing well on the assigned work.

This cheap trick may work for some of your students.   For readers who need even more of a line-by-line focus because the words tend to move on the page as with dyslexia, the E.Z.C. reader strips may be the ticket for you.   They are sold in sets of 30 at http://www.reallygoodstuff.com/product/ezc+reader+strips.do

Another good skill for all readers is active reading.   Remember how you wrote in some of your textbooks in college?   That's all active reading is.  

You may need to help your students develop a shorthand code for some of the common reader-text interactions.   Put a ? to identify confusing bits or new vocabulary.   Put a :) next to your favorite part, or a passage that made you laugh.   Put a :( next to sad moments.   Underline figurative language.   If it's a simile, circle like/ as to distinguish it from the metaphors.   Box personification and draw a stick figure in the margin.   Box hyperboles and draw a fish in the margin.   Put a ! next to something that surprised you.   In my teacher dreams, I imagine coming up with a bookmark on bright card stock, so they can find it in their book bags.

You can develop any system that works.   When I copy short fiction for them to read on their own, sometimes I add in my own questions in the margins, so they can check for comprehension as they read.   My advanced students appreciate this when we tackle something stylistically difficult like Washington Irving's classic "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."   Here's an article about the same big ideas from someone else's experience:

Robert E. Probst's questions from "Dialogue with a Text" easily build choice into student work and are an quick route to interacting with the words on the page.   A link to his English Journal article is here and includes questions for readers to consider.   I typed the categories and questions up using a landscape layout (giving credit to Probst, of course) and asked students to staple the sheet to the inside cover of their reading journals.   You may need to model using all of the questions with a story that the whole class reads together.   I use Gary Paulsen's "Stop the Sun" because it's a great story, it fits easily into all of the question categories, and it's in the literature book. 

I feel that the strongest part of my reading program is self-selected independent reading, and I'm always looking for ways for students to respond to the text that they are reading on their own.   This activity fits easily.   I don't have them do all of the questions every time I give them a sustained silent reading period.   I usually have them choose three or four topics to address.   Building in choice is a great way to get good, thoughtful, meaningful work from 8th graders.   It helps students if you write a stop time on the board for when they should get to their questions.   Some students like to work on the questions as they read, but most prefer to get lost in their books for a while.   That means that they are becoming readers!

In 8th grade, it's important to "give up" some of your class time to independent reading.   It will be difficult at first, but you will see the payoff.   If you don't, then students who are working towards earning that Oscar for pretending to read, just may stay on that path all year.   It's best to start this in September, so you can find these students early and solve the mystery of why this child is not on task.   More on possible interventions later...

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