Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Knowledge and Reading: What Happens to 4th Grade Readers Who Struggle & Positive Role of Robust Reading Aloud

I was reading Gina Cervetti and Freddy Hiebert's article, Knowledge, Literacy and the Common Core, (Language Arts, 92 (4), 256-269) and thought a lot about the fourth grade children I have been working with who are in the middle of a study of Greek mythology and how their increasing knowledge of myths helps them to learn more about mythology and to read increasingly challenging texts. As Luis and others in the class have told me, we're Greek mythology experts.

In the article, Cervetti and Hiebert argue well that knowledge and comprehension are synergistically related and do so by providing four claims that are all research-supported.  Specifically, they find:

  1. "...knowledge of the topic has been found to influence comprehension" (p. 257).
  2. "...general world knowledge, not simply topic- or domain-specific knowledge associated with a text has also been found to aid comprehension" (p.257).
  3. "...knowledge supports inferring and higher-level comprehension processes, not simply remembering information from a text" (p. 258).
  4. "...while knowledge aids comprehension for all students, having a knowledge base can be particularly beneficial for students with lower levels of reading skill...Knowledge about a topic can compensate for reading skills" (p. 259).

Whereas all of these statements are interesting, it is the last claim that most interests me as I think about some of the students and how reading aloud first followed by small group comprehension conversations has proved valuable. In the design of the unit, we privileged reading a variety of Greek myths aloud first, along with independent reading (managed choice of texts) before beginning small group comprehension conversations. As I was modeling for teachers the process for comprehension conversations, I worked with the highest performing readers in the class in one group and the most struggling readers in a separate group. The text I had selected for the children who most often struggle as readers was Joan Holub's The One-Eyed People Eaters: The Story of Cyclops. The text has a lexile level of 400 and also is coded as a guided reading text level K (beginning of second grade). The four students in the group (2 boys and 2 girls) have a history of reading difficulty and all receive special education services.

Comprehension Conversations

A comprehension conversation is a scaffolded method for guiding students' reading.  Students read a text or portion of a text and write answers to a few questions the teacher has prepared. This helps the teacher to ascertain the children's understanding of the text and to prepare for the conversation she or he will have with students. Specifically, the teacher prepares factual, inferential, and when appropriate critical questions for students to answers and then reads the students' responses prior to meeting with them. The student responses help the teacher to determine the content of the conversation, by seeing how well students understood the factual aspects of the text and more inferential understandings. Some questions that help are:

  1. What did the children understand about what actually happened in the text? Did anything disrupt this understanding? What are my theories?
  2. When asked to infer, to what end were children able to do this?  Did anything disrupt this understanding? What are my theories?
  3. When asked to think critically across a text, were children able to do this?  Did anything disrupt this understanding? What are my theories?

Based on the interpretation of students' answers, the teacher then crafts an engagement with the students that will help to explicate the areas of comprehension strengths and challenges the students showed. Usually, I want to anchor a group's reading of a text before engaging in a such a conversation. In this case, I wanted to make sure the children could actually manage the reading before setting them out to read and respond to a few questions. 

The children's significant knowledge of different Greek myths and how they are related has impressed me as I've worked with this small group. Their knowledge of Odysseus allows them to understand the Holub book with greater ease.  Although they had not read about the Cyclops and how Odysseus outsmarts it, they did know about Odysseus, the Battle of Troy and the Trojan Horse.  So when Holub's book opens, we are met with a tired Odysseus who is making his way home after the Fall of Troy. The children's understanding of the text at a factual level allowed me to set a task for them that would help me to see how they inferred about Odysseus based on his actions and dialogue.

Tomorrow, I'll try out the charts with students and then use what they generate to inform the conversation we have on Friday.  In addition, I'll be sharing a collage by Romare Bearden, The Cyclops from his work, Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, so we can discuss how Bearden portrays the Cyclops.

Romare Bearden's Cyclops.

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