Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Engaging students with texts

During my recent Cycling project (my first attempt at PBL), I really tried to consciously drive literacy through everything I did.  I've recently seen the benefit of stepping away from my reliance of text books and using alternative resources instead.  I've also tried to include extended writing tasks wherever I can and make the move away from short ended and sometimes meaningless 'activities'.  I have to be honest and say that using a wider range of sources and getting my students to challenge themselves with a piece of writing has truly seen the benefits.  Examples and answers in lessons have become contextualised and more authentic, and the level of their answers for long answer exam questions (essay style) has come on leaps and bounds.

One of the simplest things I did when working on that project was carefully select a number of articles and texts for students to read.  The idea behind these sources was to allow my students to learn the content I was covering, but at the same time use something more current and relevant than excerpts from our standard text book.  I spent hours tracking down articles and news reports from various news media websites.  I delved into the deeper world of cycling and found reports and texts on various technological developments or political debates within the sport.  Now some of these texts went into far more depth than needed, but what they did with a Year 11 GCSE class, was give them authentic examples and stories to support their knowledge.  The fact that many of them used what they had read in their own work and in discussions was amazing to see.

But then I had a conversation with a colleague that made me think.  At our recent INSET day we had the second part of our Literacy seminars.  I signed up for 'Accessing and engaging with texts' with our amazing English teachers Sarah Paige and Polly Williams.  The first question they asked us was along the lines of 'Before you even analyse a piece of text, or even get students to answer questions on it, what is it that you do to get your students to engage with it?'.  I was stumped and the only thing that came to mind was a conversation with one of my students who (when we looked at these text during the project) said that he hated reading.  As he was the only one that actually said this I worked with him one to one but never considered the way I had introduced the text to him.  Did I have a strategy up my sleeve to help him read it?  Did I sell the text to him to make him motivated to read it?  The answer is probably no and mainly because as a PE teacher these questions had never crossed my mind.  I took the word of the majority of my students (who happily got on and read) and forgot those who may need extra support.  In fact, the only strategy I could think of at the time was to 'silently read it' as a way to engage with the text.

The seminar really inspired me and as a group we came up with a number of ideas to first and foremost get students to read texts in your class.  What is about to follow is a list of ideas that was created on the day and some additional ideas from my project.  I will apologise now.  I am sure some of these ideas will have a few teachers shouting at their screen, considering whether they are gimmicks or devalue the process of reading.  I am sure some of them are but the aim is to share ideas.  What they are though are ideas to get students to initially engage with a text (before setting analysis or comprehension tasks) and get them reading it.

Finding interesting texts:  So obvious.  Now I know some people will say that unfortunately, sometimes students just have to get on and read something even if it isn't interesting.  I agree.  Some of the most insightful and educationally beneficial text can sometimes be a bit tedious.  But as a hook to the project  I tried very hard to find a number of very interesting texts to use with my students.  I looked for articles that talked about the most fantastic technological developments, insights into the workings of a cycling team, scandals regarding sponsorship and role models in the sport.....  In fact I tried to find as many different perspectives about the topics I would be covering in order to enthuse students about the topics and then engage with the content that was within them.  Maybe to initiate the reading process, some lead in articles with high interest levels could be the way forward.  The 'heavy' stuff can come later.

Differentiating texts:  This is something I was doing clumsily and will do more consciously in the future.  I now realise that my class is full of different reading abilities as well as comprehension levels.  It would therefore be beneficial to seek out similar articles for your students that vary in language use, vocabulary and depth of content.  Allow students to choose the article of their choice and move up or down difficult reading as they require.  Another way is to simply assign different levels of texts with the different sets of students in your class.  Those that need extending can work on the detailed and technical text, whereas those that need support can use a similar text which is pitched at a lower reading level.  If using the Internet, Google advanced search has a 'reading level filter' which can help distinguish the difficulty of texts.

Google reading level filter:  Google has for some time had a 'reading level/age' tool.  Simply use the search bar to find sources of a particular topic.  Then using the search tools drop down menu, click on 'all results' and then 'reading level'.  This will then allow you to select advanced, intermediate and basic texts on the subject you were searching.  Teach students how to use this and they can differentiate the texts for themselves.  A link to Google's support centre explaining this tool can be found here.

Varying texts:  When searching for my cycling project articles I tried very hard to find a variety of different writing styles to share with my students.  I found some very technical articles, some that came from tabloid press, some that came from cycling enthusiast blogs, some from cycling teams own webpages (Team Sky).  The idea for this was to allow students to experience reading a variety of different styles, but also obtain similar information from a type of writing that they preferred.  In the background this type of selection allowed students to experience different viewpoints and perspectives but that's another post!  By finding a medium that engaged them and allowed them to access the information, students could happily read the text given to them.  Had I given everyone the same text, some students may not have been captivated by it and the opportunity might have been wasted.

Finding their own texts (which they want to read):  Teaching your students how to find texts and articles is a great thing.  After I used my 'lead in' articles, students could see the standard of writing that I was looking for.  I then explained what content needed to be found and students went off a searched for a similar standard of text.  By bringing articles back to the class, we had a new bank of resources, selected by students, meeting the criteria I required and would ultimately appeal to other students in the class.  This ownership of a text engaged them with reading and fulfilled the purpose.  It also led to new reading when peers recommended an article.

Silent reading: Obvious as it is, sometimes asking the class to silently read a text is a simple process.  By asking individuals to read in silence, distractions are minimised and the students attention should be fully focused on what is in front of them.  It also comes with some obvious pitfalls when students with low attention and inability to manage distractions means that the task becomes pointless for a few.  It is also worth considering how you would cater for those who struggle with reading without bringing attention to them from the whole class.

Paired reading:  Reading a text in pairs can help break up the challenge of reading from some.  It offers a chance for an individual to be supported by a peer.  It also allows the opportunity for a student to break up a challenging text into sub sections with a partner.  Taking it in turns also allows good reading to be modelled providing the process is taken seriously.  It also actively engages with the words as they are verbally spoken (and not skimmed or glazed over which is normally followed by re-reading what has already been covered). Obviously the pairing up process and expectations of this task must be well structured otherwise distractions can occur and the reading element is lost.

Whole class reading:  Organised by the teacher, students are delegated elements of a text to be read.  The students take it in turns to read their section and then the next follows on.  The whole class listen to the reading and take their turn when ready.  This process usually requires those not reading out aloud to follow the text and therefore engages them as well.  There does come a problem with reluctant readers, those who struggle, those who lack confidence with public speaking and those fixed learners in your class.  These individuals may not welcome the pressure of whole class reading so involving these may need to have a safe and supportive environment set up.

Reading an excerpt (teacher):  A text may be introduced by the class teacher.  Carefully choosing an excerpt and using this as the 'hook' with your class may compel them to read the rest of the text in front of them.  Choose your excerpt carefully and leave the text on a cliffhanger if possible.  By doing this you have modelled good reading and given the students a taste of the book which should hopefully motivate them to carry on.

Dram it up!:  As students enter the room, create an atmosphere.  If the text you want students to read has a dark undertone or element of horror, dim the lights, have some atmospheric music playing, take on a character and really 'dram it up'.  Read the first excerpt of the text and hopefully this will enthuse students to engage with the text and read the rest for themselves.  By creating a sense of excitement towards reading, the engagement should increase.  As a pitfall, it does take the right group and confidence to do this.  It could also detract from the process of reading if done poorly.

React to the text:  Have the text read out by individuals or yourself.  The remainder of the class will follow the text from their books.  Set up a structure where students interact with the text as it is being read out.  The interaction could be for a particular character, a theme that occurs, an opinion that comes up frequently, taking sides with characters or whatever your text requires.  You could also have students interact when the writer uses a particular style of writing or grammar.  At these times, students can boo, cheer, keep a tally, heckle and so on.  By getting them involved in the text, they will need to be actively engaged in it and read it as it goes.

Characters assignment:  Obvious but a classic.  In small groups or in a whole class set up, students take on the role of a character or narrator.  Students will all need to follow the text and read it in order to know when their section is coming up.  By actively reading out aloud, students are again engaging with the text.  The difficult process of reading is supported by the ability to hear the words (from your peers doing their sections) as you read them for yourself.

"Pass to":  Have students read in pairs or small groups.  Each student has a "pass to" choice which they use only if they are really struggling (can't be used for laziness).  Students have to read a section or specified amount out aloud.  If they find it incredibly difficult they can use a "pass to" where they literally pass the responsibility of reading that section to another peer.  This will allow that reader to be supported.  Because that student used a "pass to" they will have to finish their reading allocation elsewhere in the text.  Be vigilant and stop lazy readers (who are more than capable) of using the "pass to" as a get out option.

Hackasaurus:  Introduced to me by @JOHNSAYERS and @janeyb222.  A great web tool.  Simply go to the website and install the Hackasaurus 'X-Ray Goggles' into your bookmarks bar.  You are then able to go to any website and edit what is on there.  Don't worry, you aren't actually editing the real web page.  All you are doing is changing what you see in your browser.  So why would you do this?  Well there are a number of reasons.  You may wish to edit a particularly difficult article or text found on the web into something more accessible to your students. You can simply read the article yourself and change some of wording or terminology into something simpler.  The article still has its authentic element.  Just make sure you don't lose the core of the article.  You may also wish to create a 'spoof' piece of text but using an authentic website such a the BBC.  This allows you to get your content across but with the trick of it looking authentic.  This could be an effective way to engage a normally uninteresting piece of text.  It really is a versatile tool.

If there are any other ideas that people are using in their lessons, simply for the purpose of starting the process of reading texts (without having to look for key points or answering comprehension questions or so on - this is the next post) then please let me know.

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