Thursday, July 10, 2014

Guided Reading and Common Core: Can They Co-Exist? Thinking About Text


At the beginning of the lesson, children previewed the text and recorded what they noticed and wondered as partners. They continued this practice throughout the reading as well. 

Qualitative Analysis of Text & Planning

As I sat down to write this post about the co-existence of guided reading and the Common Core, I was reminded of work I did as a consultant in March with 4 second grade children from Newark, NJ.  I have worked with these children since they began first grade, so I was able to use what I know about them to help me create a multi-day set of 'guided' literacy lessons designed to engage students with the text, Stitchin' and Pullin': A Gee's Bend Quilt authored by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera. The text has neither a guided reading level, nor a lexile level. Now I must confess that when I think of the term, guided reading, I think of it as small-group intensive teacher-led work in which I have selected a text that students will likely not be able to manage initially and will need my guidance in order to comprehend.  I rarely spend much time thinking about guided reading levels or lexile levels as these are not the measures I often use when thinking about text selection. I focus instead on the qualitative aspects of a text, the readers I will be working with, and most importantly I think about the curriculum the children and I are making together as we learn. (See here for a post about curriculum as complicated conversation.)


During a previous meeting with the four second grade teachers, they said that the children were having difficulty naming and supporting theme across multiple texts. I have worked with these teachers for more than two years and will continue to work with them next year too. This continuity of working together builds trust.  I have failed in front of them, beautifully and we have learned together. I respect the work they do with children and their deep commitment to learning.

On this day, the teachers indicated that they were concerned that their students were not attending to the text closely enough and were settling for responses based on unimportant or incomplete details. They had spent the prior week reviewing data and this was the big take away. RL.2.9 and RI.2.9 were concerns.  They had asked if I would design a few lessons that they could observe where I taught students how to attend to closely to details and begin to name common themes across texts. I asked each teacher to observe and make notes about one student during each lesson so that their notes could help us to think about next instructional steps.  Just as I wanted the children to build community knowledge, so too did I want us to do the same.  The lesson was an hour. (These engagements are longer than typical small-group instruction).


Stitchin' and Pullin', a picture book, tells the story of Baby Girl who grows up  during the late 1950s and 1960s in Gee's Bend, Alabama learning how to quilt alongside her grandmother and the other women from the community. The text chronicles Baby Girl's maturation from toddler to young woman during the Civil Rights era and includes historical information about the women quilters from Gee's Bend and the art they make, a time Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Gee's Bend to preach, voter suppression, and how African-Americans registered to vote.  The text is told through a series of free-verse poems and includes outstanding illustrations that I knew would help students to problem solve figurative language.  When I previewed the text I thought a lot about the genre and knowledge demands and decided that I would design lessons that used community knowledge as a way to build interest and scaffold learning.


Skylar & Isamar's notes while previewing and reading.
The Lesson

At the beginning of the lesson, children previewed the text and recorded what they noticed and wondered as partners for about 10 minutes.  These children are practiced at listening to and reading beautiful, culturally relevant, and interesting books (see these post1post2 for lists of books used at 2nd grade). Building world knowledge through high quality text is very present at this school. 

I wanted the children to talk to their partners and make meaning together.  So although each child had a book, they had only one chart paper per partner. I prompted this process by noticing what they were talking about and recording and at times posing a question that required them to look again at an illustration or poem or asked for clarification. At the end of previewing the text, I reshuffled the partnerships so the children worked with a new partner and asked them to discuss what they thought they might learn. I then asked them to connect what their partner had said to what they said and to then write a statement in their notebooks. Isamar was partnered with Aiden who had said he thought he would learn about knitting in the old days. Isamar told him the book was about quilting and showed him a few pages in the book that showed quilts.  She too thought she would learn about life in the old days.  When I asked them what old days the text suggested, they both said slavery. When Isamar wrote her note she wrote: 


"I think I will learn that even if you are a different raise (race) you can let yourself fly free."


After sharing what they thought they would learn, the children and I read the first poem, "Gee's Bend Women." I read it solo and then we read it in unison. We had fun reading the poem as line-around.  I wanted them to hear the poem as poetry is first , an oral art. 

After the children referred to the stanza as a paragraph, I asked the them to learn three key terms (stanza, line, and speaker) that would help us talk about the first poem. They were able to quickly understand the similarity between a speaker in a poem and a narrator in a fictional story and after sampling a few poems where there were multiple stanzas they were able to understood line and stanza. Aiden summarized for us that stanzas were the way poets organized poems.  I taught only what was necessary so that we could speak about the poems as needs arose.  I had prepared explanations for terms I thought we would need and did teach subject, tone, and theme.  


My notes & explanations
It was critically important that we begin to think about who was telling us about Gee's Bend women in the first poem. Who is the me in the poem? The children studied the lines and the illustration and many thought it would be the little girl. In order to confirm, we read on. After the third poem, I was able to release greater responsibility to the students. They identified Baby Girl and her grandmother and with lots of rereading the children were able to name that this was a book about Baby Girl growing up. I pushed them to reread the 3rd poem, "Beneath the Quilting Frame" and to find the lines that helped us to know literally what Baby Girl was doing in the poem.  We had to reread and study the illustrations to figure out what the poet meant by the phrases: "nine-patch" and tented playground.  One student spontaneously acted out what the poem described which led to another child reading it aloud again.


Third poem in the text. 
Illustration on facing page of "Beneath the Quilting Frame"
When I asked them about the tone of the poem, they were baffled, not so much by what the term meant, but how they might determine tone from the poem. I agreed with them that this type of work is tricky and Kiyara told us that we needed to reread.  So, I asked them to partner, reread, and to quickly say in two words what attitude they felt while rereading the poem.  We had practiced this strategy before. They said things like: loving family, girl loved, singing family.  

We agreed after hearing all of our two-word phrases, that loving family best described the tone. Next, we reread again and marked the words that showed this tone. Skylar was able to make the large leap from what was on the page to what was suggested by those words when she told us that Baby Girl must have been loved because she got to play beneath the table and learn from her mama and grandma by listening to them. Isamar added that she also got to sleep there and that she fell asleep by her mama singing to her. Aiden told us that meant she was safe. 

I asked the students to think about which poems they would like to read next.  They browsed and then marked with a post-it, two more poems. I asked them to read them during their reading time and/or at home. I reminded them that they would need to reread the two poems several times for the poems to make sense.  

Debriefing the Lesson

After the children returned to class, the teachers and I met and they shared their observational notes. Whereas everyone was pleased with the children's attention to detail as a result of rereading, inferring, and using illustrations to support meaning making, we also identified the need for the children to understand historical time. During the previewing we learned that the children thought Dr. King has lived during the slavery period in the United States. This knowledge demand allowed me to refocus the next lesson on building a physical timeline with the children (we used adding machine tape so we could roll out the paper) beginning with their current age, birth, and then moved back in time.  I wanted them to see the distance between the current day and the time when the text is set and the text setting and slavery. The rolled out paper helped them to begin to grasp this. The second issue we planned for was how to privilege writing during the reading.  The teachers indicated that they had lots of children who wrote at very different rates and the annotation process which we all agreed was important took so long as they waited for everyone to finish before moving on.  They had noticed that I invited the children to write at will throughout the lesson using the two column chart. I did not need to have every child paying attention to me throughout the lesson. In fact I wanted students to become so immersed in their thinking and writing that they shifted attention to these acts.


When I planned, I knew that I wanted to deepen children's knowledge about the Gee's Bend quilters and of the historical time the text is set so I brought two very different books with me for the next class--books I left with the children and their teacher. I brought Paul and William Arnett's art book, Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt. I wanted the children to see photographs of the actual quilts as they wondered about why Baby Girl was at a museum. The second book, Belle, The Last Mule at Gee's Bend: A Civil Rights Story, a children's book was one that I read aloud and then left with them for rereading.  This second book helped us to name the time period and to fill in our timeline with more specific information and dates.  This text chronicles Dr. King's visit to Gee's Bend, voter suppression, and how the Gee's Bend residents stood up and registered to vote. Throughout the read aloud, the children were able to make important connections between the poems and the story.  

Writing While Reading


Back of Kiyara's Response Sheet
Front of Kiyara's Response Sheet

In order for the children to connect what they were learning from the different sources, I provided them with a response sheet that asked for three kinds of information: wondering, predicting, and something the author didn't tell me (inferring). On the back of the sheet, students recorded big questions they would like to answer. Whereas, Kiyara was very quiet the first day, she led the group on the second day, and made great use of the reading response sheet generating a full page of questions she wanted to research mostly about race relations.  The children wrote while I read aloud Belle, The Last Mule at Gee's Bend: A Civil Rights Story.  Their writing and talking led us back into the poems and the children read the poems they selected to their partner.  I asked the children to reread their response sheets and the notes they had made about the poems and to think about what messages Patricia McKissack might have wanted us to learn from her book. The children reread, talked and then wrote responses that mostly discussed trying and not giving up (persevering)--a theme one could well support with this text.

During the subsequent weeks, the teachers returned to the important task of helping the 2nd graders connect textual details with themes in literature and textual details and main idea in non-fiction texts. We modified and used David Wray and Maureen Lewis's writing frames. Guiding the children's writing (a part of the guided literacy lesson) took several weeks for students to grasp, especially as the children wrote in response to multiple  literary and non-fiction texts. By the end of the year most of the students in these classes were able to read two texts, compare themes or topics, make assertions and support those assertions with some text evidence.  Closures were still a bit rough. This is hard work in 2nd grade.

Selecting Texts

Guided reading and the Common Core can co-exist and do so in primary grade classrooms where teachers attend to the emerging and often times divergent needs of learners.  The issue between the use of leveled texts and what the CCSS authors call, complex texts, need not limit this instructional practice especially when beneath guided reading and close reading of 'complex texts' rest planning questions that allow us to analyze a text qualitatively and to think about the children we are teaching. Here are some questions I consider depending on the text and the context.  (BTW: I would love if you comment if you add some questions you think about while planning or provide a link to a post with your questions.  Perhaps we could crowd source this?!)



Text Questions: 

When I review potential texts I ask myself some of these questions. These questions shape the planning I do.


  1. What makes this text easier to read and for whom? (i.e., syntax, known vocabulary, known sight words,  relevant prior knowledge, prior experience with text structure & genre, familiar author, familiar story, pictures match text...)
  2. What's tricky about this text and for whom?  (i.e., knowledge demands, text structure, author style, genre, length of text, syntax, vocabulary, sight words, split dialogue, inflectional endings, unusual format, literary text, multiple text structures, multi-genre, full pages of written text with little picture support, intended ambiguity, figurative language...)
  3. Are there requisite knowledge demands that I need to scaffold? What naive understandings might my students bring to this text?
  4. Are there terms students need to know in order to manage the content?
  5. Will students misunderstand concepts in the text and if so how might I address that?
  6. Is it important to couple related texts together in order to help students build deeper understanding of a key concept?
  7. What genre is the text? Are children familiar with that text structure and can they use that knowledge to help the comprehend the text? Is there something here I need to pre-teach?
  8. Are there multiple expository structures in the text?  If so, is that a consideration for me to think about when planning?
  9. Can any key terms be defined contextually?
  10. If I preview the text with students, what words, phrases, or concepts might I anchor?
  11. Based on notes I have about the high frequency words the children know, which words in this text will children most likely know? Which words do I need to anchor?
  12. Are there important sections of text that students will need to reread in order to comprehend? 
  13. What textual gaps are there as I read the text that I fill in?  What textual gaps do I think my students might experience? 
  14. Are there key text features that students can rely on to problem solve?
  15. What task will students be doing and is this text a good match for that activity? Does form and content match?
Reader  & Pedagogy Questions
  1. Which students do I think can read this text individually or with a partner?  Which students need more assisted instruction? How might I structure this?
  2. What reading behaviors are well controlled by these students?  Which behaviors are they learning? Is this text a good match given what I know?
  3. How might I chunk this text? What would make sense for these learners?
  4. Do I need to introduce this text and if so, what would make sense to say? 
  5. What purpose will I establish for reading this text or is purpose self-evident?
  6. What do students already know that will help them comprehend this new text?
  7. What resources might students need while reading to aid their comprehension?
  8. How might I complicate the children's reading?
  9. Given this text, what strategy might I model that will help children when they are problem solving?
  10. Would an audio recording I make be helpful for some learners to listen to (match voice to print) as they reread? Would partner reading be beneficial?
  11. Are there previous experiences with problem solving that I want to call to the students' attention before reading?
  12. Is there a specific coding of the text that would be most helpful that I want to highlight? Have I modeled this clearly? Do students need support with this practice?
  13. What role will talking play? What role with writing/drawing play? Is this a text that can be physically enacted?
  14. How will I make note of the ways children problem solve at points of difficulty? What and/or who will I want to focus on?
These questions are of course, incomplete. Depending on the learners and what stage they are as readers, I am cognizant about different aspects of text.  I have found that Fountas and Pinnell's reading behaviors are useful when teaching emergent and early readers and I like to have on hand a set of leveled texts (1-12 or A through G) as potential books. Specifically, I tend to privilege stories (not informational text during the beginning levels), books with overt use of sight words, and ones that children can use their knowledge to problem solve. I have often used Lee & Low's Bebop books and Rigby's PM Readers with beginning readers. As children mature as readers, the text selection process becomes much more varied.  For example, these 2nd graders learned science largely from Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading (they actually would cheer when it was time for science). The collection of texts from that series were books the children loved to read and these were used in small group and partner reading. Additionally, as the children became such fine readers many of the read aloud texts were refashioned for small group work.

The Use of Quantitative Information

The ways we scaffold children's learning--the thinking and planning we do prior to instruction and the revision we do during instruction-- are significantly more important than adhering to guided reading or lexile levels of text.  We need to analyze the texts we plan to use with students, as well as the tasks. Readability information can be helpful, but it is not as critical for learning as the qualitative analysis we and our peers do. This has always been the difficult and necessary work of teaching. Having a lexile level to me is akin to having a guided reading level--as each offers an incomplete understanding of a text read.  

Most readability formulas rely on a measurement of syntax length and vocabulary. The longer the sentence and the more rare the word, the higher the lexile level. Yet, this method does not always hold up as matters of dialogue, content vocabulary, ambiguity, and art disrupt such formulas giving false lows and highs. For example, William Faulkner's The Sound and the the Fury, Toni Morrison's Beloved, James Joyce's Dubliners and Arthur Dorros's picture book, Rain Forest Secrets, all have similar lexile levels (870 - 900). I've read, enjoyed, and taught with these texts. The first two were with high school seniors (and boy did we struggle), the third was with English majors, and the last was with primary grade children. It doesn't take much to notice there are important differences among these texts. Simply open them and read the first page. And perhaps that is where we most need to start. Reading. Talking with each other. Planning together.

So is there a use for quantitative information, such as lexile levels and leveled texts? Yes. Lexile levels and other readability formulas afford us a general sense of text difficulty. But quantitative measures alone are very, very incomplete. Frankly it worries me when I hear principals, teachers, and district leaders talk about text selection based on lexile level.  
P. David Pearson and Elfrieda Hiebert (2013) in an important paper, "The State of the Field: Qualitative Analyses of Text Complexity" write:

qualitative analysis will necessarily trump quantitative analyses of texts, and second, the analyses we engage in for structure and task will be focused on the goal of making texts more accessible to the broadest possible range of students. Such a focus will also put quantitative analyses in proper perspective, for we will recognize that the key elements of quantitative inquiry, long words and complex syntax, are nothing more than symptoms of challenging content. Armed with that knowledge, we will be better positioned to figure out how to help students manage that content, which is our most important job as teachers (p. 28). 
So during guided reading, text choice needs to be a thoughtful and negotiated process hopefully with a child, not for him/her especially as readers mature with an eye to how we are supporting leaners as they learn from texts. What is most important is to be mindful about the text we have selected, the reading tasks a child will be undertaking, the text difficulty (relationship between text and child), and how we are planning to support the child to problem solve at points of difficulty.  This is important and doable work.



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