Teaching High School Students to Read Challenging Material
In this Education Week article, Catherine Gewertz reports on work being done in 18 New York City high schools to gauge the difficulty level of reading material and give their students the tools to unpack and understand dense, challenging content-area texts. The goal is to help students climb beyond the plateau of mediocre reading skills at which many are stuck and develop the reading and writing proficiencies they will need to succeed in college – especially the ability to dissect information from complex texts and build evidence-based arguments.
Gewertz describes one meeting in which teachers discussed whether Huckleberry Finn was more appropriate for high school or college, analyzing it on five dimensions:
- How daunting is the text on the page?
- How easy and natural is the language?
- How circuitous is the plot?
- Does it have multiple, elusive layers of meaning?
- What prior knowledge is required to understand it?
Teachers flatly disagreed on whether the novel should be taught to their students or held until college.
The group then listened to reading experts Timothy and Cynthia Shanahan on what’s demanded of high-school students in different subject areas:
• English – Students usually read a story or chapter all the way through and then go back to analyze and discuss themes and structure.
• Mathematics – Students need to read and re-read a few lines of text – “close reading” – to extract the precise meaning.
• History – Students need to make connections among events, evaluate information from multiple sources, and discern the author’s point of view.
• Science – Students need to absorb information from diagrams and formulas as well as from the prose.
In addition, each subject has its own vocabulary and “grammar.” For example, in math, A + B is equal to B + A, but in science, H20 is not the same as OH2.
Timothy Shanahan says that expecting 14-year-olds to grasp high-level material in different subjects is like dropping them off unaccompanied in different countries and expecting them to manage. “That’s what we do every day in schools,” he says. “We move them from the land of math to science to history with no guides.”
The teaching challenge is helping students climb the “staircase” of increasingly complex texts in each subject. “You can’t build knowledge without reading sufficiently rich and complex text,” says David Coleman, who worked on the Common Core State Standards. Teachers also need to resist the tendency to oversimplify texts. “Too often,” says University of Michigan professor Mary Schleppegrell, “teachers simplify rather than dive deeply into it. On the secondary level, you can’t really make it simpler and still maintain the level of content. You have to amplify instruction around it.”
Measuring the difficulty level of texts is important for teachers, and the New York City group looked at the three-part model suggested in the Common Core Standards:
- The quantitative dimension – Word length, sentence length, and text cohesion as measured by computerized readability formulas;
- The qualitative dimension – Purpose, levels of meaning, structure, language conventions, clarity, and knowledge demands, which can be ascertained only by an attentive human reader;
- The reader and task dimension – The motivation, knowledge, and experiences students need to read a text successfully – best determined by teachers who know their students and subject well.
Pegging the difficulty level of texts helps teachers to figure out how to escort their students to higher levels of comprehension, which gives them access to content knowledge contained in the material. This realization has helped enlist math, science, and history teachers in their schools’ literacy effort.
In one New York City school, science teachers had students read an article from a science journal aloud and mark the parts they found easy and difficult and then looked at how they tackled Regents test questions. Students could read aloud quite fluently but there were gaps in their comprehension – especially with acronyms and appositives. That helped teachers formulate strategies for upcoming lessons.
Background knowledge is especially important for high-school students. “Teachers are going to have to pay attention to developing the underpinning concepts that kids need to read well and get engaged in informational text,” says Barbara Kapinus of the National Education Association. “Where we brushed science and social studies aside in the early grades to focus on math and reading, we can no longer afford to do that. That’s a change in the whole focus of schooling.”
“Teachers Seek Ways to Gauge Rigor of Texts” by Catherine Gewertz in Education Week, Mar. 16, 2011 (Vol. 30, #24, p. 1, 12-13), http://edweek.org