Chapter 8

Teaching text and task-specific strategies: How does

the shape of a text change the shape of my teaching?

Chapter Contents

Teaching Different Kinds of Texts

Working with “struggling” readers

Teaching task-specific ways of interpreting specific kinds of texts: poetry, stories, myths/fables,

drama, expository texts

Assessing students’ use of reading processes

Case narrative

Script reading: Andrew and Jamie

Jamie Heans is an extraordinary teacher. He works in the PDS site in Maine where Jeff worked for several years. He is particularly adept at reaching kids who are considered reluctant or resistant.

One wintry night, Jeff had taken Jamie out to dinner in downtown Bangor. They were walking back to Jamie’s house crunching through the snow that filled the empty streets. The next day was one of those special pick-up days when you could leave out pretty much anything for the garbage men to cart away – furniture, stereo equipment, appliances, etc.

It was cold and Jeff thought he would freeze to death because Jamie kept stopping to paw through piles of people’s cast off belongings. “This speaker could be fixed!” he’d tell Jeff. “You just need some new wiring!” Or “this chair could be cool if you would just recover it.” Sometimes he would think of wild new uses for something: “You could take the shelves out of this bookcase and it would probably make a good sandbox!”

Jeff had a flash of insight. This was why Jamie was such a great teacher. He saw the possibilities in everything! He saw the potential of every student and what they could be become. He sometimes referred to kids as “rough diamonds” as if he knew with the right care they could become something special. He expected to have to tinker and to work carefully and attentively with his students as individuals. A cookie-cutter approach to teaching was not something that worked for Jamie or his students.

Later that spring, Jamie had a problem. He was teaching Romeo and Juliet to his basic and average English classes, as required by the curriculum. The kids were not into it. They didn’t get why they were reading this text. Some complained that it was “in a foreign language!” Yes, Jamie replied, that would be late-middle English. But what seemed particularly troublesome for them was that they didn’t know how to read dramatic scripts. “It’s just people talking to each other!” one boy complained. “You have to go back after every page and figure out who said what to who! And even then you don’t know enough to know what the heck is going on!”

Jamie is not the kind of guy to push on mindlessly when things are not working. He likes to figure out with the kids what they could do differently.

“Ok, guys,” he told his class, “we have to read this play. What can we do to make it easier and better and more fun?”

They came up with a lot of excellent ideas. To give their reading a purpose close to their hearts, they framed their reading of the play around the inquiry question: what makes a good relationship. To help them with translating and understanding the language, different groups of kids took on the mantle of the expert to become video documentary makers. Each group was assigned a scene, and their job was to take an assigned literary term, reenact a part of the scene in which this device was used, explain the scene and the use of the device in modern language, and explain how the device contributed to the meaning of the scene. The kids took to their roles of video designers with relish and panache, and did exciting and creative work which they could not wait to show with their classmates.

Teaching Different Kinds of Texts

In this chapter we ask the question how we need to change our instruction to meet the demands of unique kinds of texts. Jamie knew he had to help his students understand the conventions of scripts, so that they could be helped to both read Romeo and Juliet (and all other dramatic scripts) and to write the scripts for their videos.

Dramatists rely entirely on dialogue and extra-textual directions because they cannot take advantage of the same textual features that novelists or other writers can. This is because scripts are intended to be performed. Therefore students are confronted with textual conventions they may not have seen before. If students don’t pay attention to these conventions, they will be missing a major part of dramatic work, and will miss much of the meaning.

Jamie found out that the drama theorist Esslin (1987) identifies 22 basic elements used in dramatic scripts that no other kind of text uses. Esslin divides these 22 elements into 5 basic categories: framing systems, systems at the actor’s disposal, visual systems, the text, and aural systems. David Anderson (1987) has adapted these systems for viewing drama to make them useful to reading drama. These conventions require what could be called “text specific” reading strategies, since the demands of scripts require readers to make very particular meaning-making moves that are specific to this text type or genre.

Anderson’s categories are pre-reading, descriptions of settings, technical stage directions, the character’s words, and stage directions and character descriptions.

Pre-reading strategies help students to build background that will guide them in reconstructing and visualizing the action in their mind. They need to know what kind of script it is and how it is intended to be performed (radio, television, proscenium stage, etc.). They will need to look a the title, the genre (tragedy, comedy), lists of characters, names and titles, and character descriptions.

As they read, students will need to know how to ascertain important information and make inferences from descriptions of settings, which imply tone and mood, reveal character as well as social and historical perspective. They also need to know how to read dialogue, understand speaker designation, and understand that in scripts, dialogue will be expected to convey mood, tone, symbolism, setting, and clues for story and character development. And, students need to learn to visualize stage directions describing sounds, lighting and properties, and the movement of characters and properties. Finally, students need to learn how characters are represented through the dialogue – their own and others – and how characters are represented through stage directions and descriptions.

Most textbooks and resources on reading only identify “general” reading strategies, i.e. those strategies that all good readers use any time they read anything at all. General process strategies include activating schematic background; setting a purpose for reading; decoding words;

visualizing settings, scenes, characters, events and ideas; summarizing and bringing meaning forward throughout a reading; predicting; and asking questions.

Finding out about your students’ perspectives on reading. In the beginning of the school year, it is often helpful to find out about your students’ perspectives on reading—how they define reading and what they like or dislike about reading—by conducting brief interviews with them and/or asking them the following questions:

  1. What do you think reading is—explain what you do when you read?

2. Why do you read?

3. What sorts of things do you like to read (interest, choice)? Why do you like those texts?

(this includes reading inside and outside of school)

4. What kinds of things do you read that your friends are also reading?

5. What reading assigned in school do you like? Why? Explain

6. If you could pick topics to read in school what would you pick? Why? Explain. If you

could pick topics in this class to read about, what would you pick?

7. How do you read difficult texts? How do you read texts in this class, particularly ones that

you think are difficult?

8. How do you know if you are reading well? How do you know if you are having problems

with reading? How do you know if you are having problems reading texts in this class?

Answers to these questions provides you with an awareness of individual differences in

students’ notions of reading. In some cases, they may perceive reading as simply decoding words, while others may perceive it as understanding larger meanings. Some may express few if any things/topics, suggesting that they lack an interest in reading or using reading to learn about new things or topics. Some may also have difficulty knowing how to address difficult texts, for example, by applying context cues to understand unfamiliar words. Knowing about these individual differences can then help you build your curriculum around redefining notions of reading as meaning-constructing, providing types of reading and topics that interest students, and modeling ways of addressing reading difficulties.

Think-alouds. Another way of finding out more about your students is through think-alouds. In doing a think-aloud, you are asking students to verbally report on what they are attending to as they are reading. They do not describe or explain what they are doing when they are reading; they simply report what they are attending to as they are reading through a short text or section of a longer text (O’Brien, 2004). You can work with students individually or have them work in pairs with the other students simply providing encouragement to the students doing the think-alouds. Here are some sample instructions you might use:

As you read today, I am interested in what you say to yourself as you read. So I can know what you are thinking and saying to yourself, I want you to actually talk aloud. I want you to say out loud, everything that you say to yourself silently. Just act as if you are alone in a room speaking to yourself. If you are silent for too long, I will remind you to keep talking.

Because think-alouds can seem artificial, it is important that you allow students practice

doing thinks alouds, helping them learn to focus on reporting their thinking rather attempting to describe or explain their thinking. Students will want to summarize what they are reading rather than thinking aloud or reflect and interpret rather than just talk aloud. By modeling your own use of think-alouds with a different text, you can demonstrate what you mean by reporting thoughts.

You can also use think-alouds to focus on certain reading processes (O’Brien, 2004):

Think-aloud before reading. For example, what do participants think the selection is about by looking at the title, headings, and skimming through the text?

Tell me what you think this is about.

Talk about what you expect to learn from this.

Talk about why you think it might be useful to read this.

Tell me how you think using this might be useful in the class project

Think-aloud during reading (online comprehension): What is the participant understanding from the text; what is difficult about the text (comprehension or problems with words, vocabulary); what are they doing to make sense of the text; and what strategies can they use? What parts of the text are particularly important or relevant to their purpose for reading?

Talk aloud about what you are thinking as you read the text

Talk about what you think is most interesting as you read

Tell me what you are thinking about difficulty/what is hard—or what is easy about the text

Talk about what you are doing to try to understand it—what are you doing to figure out the difficult parts?

Think-aloud while monitoring. What is the participant aware of as they read: are they aware of whether they understanding the text? Does it connect to their prior experiences and is that helpful as they read? If they are having problems reading (words or understanding) do they know what the problems are?

As you are reading, tell me what you are thinking about your understanding.

In the beginning, you talked about what you expected this to be about and what you expected to learn—talk about whether this text seems to be what you expected it to be.

As you are reading, talk about what this text reminds you of (like things you know, interests, other things you have read)

Now that you are actually reading this, tell me about how you think it will help you in your work on an assignment or project.

Using think-aloud data. Listening to the students’ think-alouds should provide you with an understanding of their ability to construct meaning from texts, information that may be consistent with their answers to the questions about reading. In some cases, the students’ reports may reflect a focus on attempting to comprehend the words without attempting to infer larger meanings or ideas. These students may need help in learning to infer larger meanings or ideas.

Monitoring comprehension and using self-correction strategies

These strategies are necessary to all reading tasks. So if students do not use these strategies, they need to be taught and assisted how to do so. Teaching students these general process strategies has huge transfer value because they will use these strategies any time they read.

However necessary these strategies are, they are insufficient to engage in expert reading. Your students could use all of these strategies expertly and still be stymied by almost every text they are faced with in middle and high school. That’s because there are sets of strategic demands called “task-specific” demands, i.e. strategies that are required by certain conventional codings like symbolism or irony that run across different types of text or genre conventions specific to argument, extended definition, satires/parodies, classifications, ironic monologues, fables, lyric poetry and the like (Smagorinsky & Smith, 1992). For example, in interpreting the meaning of an argument formulated in a newspaper editorial, a reader applies their knowledge of how writers make effective arguments—the fact that a writer objectively reformulates the position they are opposing and then critiques that position with counter arguments or evidence. This interpretation process differs markedly from interpreting a parody in which readers apply their knowledge of language and style to adopt a seemingly serious pose to ridicule some phenomenon. Reading these two different genres requires applying their knowing-how ability to apply different conventional ways of understanding acquired through practice in reading those genres. Someone without experience of reading parodies may believe that the parody is based on actual events. All of this suggests that, contrary to labels applied based on high stakes standardized reading tests, there is no such thing as a “poor” or “good” reader—readers’ ability varies with what they are reading given differences in their knowing how capacity.

Working with “Struggling” Readers

In working with students who seem to be “struggling” or “poor” readers is that you may assume that if they are having difficulty with decoding vocabulary, then they will not be able to understanding the texts you assign them (VanDeWeghe, 2004). If someone is stumbling in reading aloud a story, you may assume that they will not be able to make any thematic interpretations of that story. In a study of English teachers’ perceptions of students’ reading, Fred Hamel (2003) found that teachers may underestimate students’ capacity to interpret texts based on narrow measures of “reading ability,” and thereby have low expectations for their potential success. At the same time, he also found that literature teachers need to recognize that students will need help with reading comprehension as not something that’s distinct from literary interpretation. Helping students with reading comprehension means more than just assisting them with decoding; it means having students engage in think-aloud activities as they are reading a text to determine the ways in which they can make interpretations as well as difficulties they are encountering. (In reporting think-alouds, student simply describe their thoughts in a spontaneous mode as they are reading a text, as opposed to reflecting on or interpreting those thoughts.) You also need to place yourself in the mind set of a student reading a text for the first time, bracketing out the fact that you may have read it many times and that you’re bringing years of experience as a literary reader to your experience of the text.

While students acquire these conventional ways of reading largely through reading, you can certainly model or scaffold their experience in encountering new text genres by making explicit the strategies you employ with these texts. For example, when the class is reading a Jonathan Swift parody, you can describe how you identity his use of language and a mock-serious tone as signals that he’s engaging in parody.