Recently I observed a very good high school reading teacher leading a lesson that did a lot of things well. But the lesson also struggled with some very common challenges, especially around the idea of Close Reading (a topic we discuss extensively in our forthcoming book Reading Reconsidered) and it got some of us at TLaC Towers talking.
The class was reading and discussing a pretty demanding nonfiction text about abuse of children in Afghanistan as part of their study of The Kite Runner. As a discussion of public policy challenges it was good; as an exercise in practicing and learning how to read difficult texts it was less successful. In a nutshell, students had a “gist discussion”: they understood the basic argument of the text and talked about its implications– whether or not the US military’s response to abuse was right or wrong. But as I watched I was increasingly convinced students couldn’t really generate meaning directly from the text. Colleen and Erica and I discuss this idea in our forthcoming book Reading Reconsidered: Knowing the main idea is great but insufficient, especially when you can pick up the basics from class discussion.
The requirements of reading at the college level (and beyond) are such that grasping the main idea—“This is a document about the rights of citizens!”—is insufficient. The specifics must be mastered—which, rights, say, specifically and as defined how and by whom. Getting the gist is not enough.
Advanced students need to understand not just “what a text is about” but the details of what it says and how it says it. For example, a sentence in paragraph seven of the article students were reading in the class I observed, “Nascent democracies are susceptible to corruption, and often feature weak judicial systems, corporatism, and the absence of rule of law.” Did they understand what “rule of law” is, why it was absent, what nascent meant, that it was in reference to Afghanistan’s government and that it explained why the abuse was increasing? Did they know that the word “feature” means “are characterized by”?
They were able to discuss the “gist” of the article but I would wager heavily that they understood almost nothing of that sentence. And there were a dozen sentences like that.
Anyway, that got Maggie Johnson, Colleen Driggs and me to talking, and the result was 1) a great blog post by Maggie and 2) a useful everyday Close Reading tool she developed that teachers can use to get a bit more balance and rigor into their reading lessons as a matter of habit…
“Rigor” may just be the most commonly used word in education today, but if you ask a bunch of teachers what a rigorous classroom looks and sounds like, you’re likely to hear a lot of different responses. As a fledgling reading teacher, I would have bet my last dime that rigor meant challenging my students with lofty theoretical questions about topics raised in the great texts I had chosen for them. This, I thought, was how I could challenge them to learn about unfamiliar subjects and think in ways they hadn’t before. But the reality didn’t live up to my expectations. We would read one fascinating passage after another, but rarely were my big questions met with big insights. In truth, I was frequently faced with discussions that were unmoored and uninspired.
It took some experience (and some great feedback) to realize that what I had perceived as apathy on the part of my students was really puzzlement— they didn’t know how to engage with the big questions I was asking them, because they didn’t fully understand the texts I was asking about. In the name of rigor, I had favored broad capstone questions over smaller, more targeted text-dependent questions that would guide my students in making meaning of what they read—a prerequisite to thinking about texts and topics more critically. So, I decided to insert more pause points into whole-class reading to reinforce basic comprehension and train my students to read more closely. The more difficult the passage, the more frequently I would pause to help students establish meaning: “Who are the women?,” “What is the meaning of the phrase innocent as the child unborn?,” “Paraphrase the second sentence in John Proctor’s monologue,” “What does ‘McCarthyism paranoia’ describe?” I was struck by how challenging these kinds of questions were for my students to answer, but once they did, they were much more inclined (and better equipped) to engage with rich, analytical questions. I also added many more opportunities for writing, so students would wrestle with complexity on their own before hearing their peers’ thoughts. Not only did pausing for moments to write increase the quality of my students’ reasoning, it was a reliable way to avoid the kinds of vague discussions that happen when students are gleaning answers from each other, instead of from the text and their own thinking. Students were proud of the meticulous and sometimes intense readings they performed, and it showed. This, I realized, was rigor.
The teacher in the lesson Doug discusses above was thinking in a similar way. She provided students a tool that we’ve seen in other classrooms, to help them interface with the text. It’s sourced from the College Board (an organization we like and admire) and, at least one expert claims, is aligned to AP Lit standards. It’s called SOAPSTONE, an acronym for subject, occasion, audience, purpose, speaker, and tone. Basically kids get a SOAPSTONE rubric and evaluate a text’s subject, occasion, audience, purpose, speaker, and tone after everything they read.
SOAPSTONE has some benefits. Because it’s applicable to almost every nonfiction text, students can practice using it over and over. You can give them the SOAPSTONE rubric, they can use it to respond and learn to think that way as a matter of habit. However, we’re not so sure it builds the right habits, and the framework has some significant limitations. Readers using SOAPSTONE aren’t required to unpack a writer’s language or genuinely understand the specifics of what they are reading, for example. In fact, the biggest problem with it is that a student could likely identify all of the elements of SOAPSTONE by simply understanding the gist of the text:
Subject: Child abuse in Afghanistan
Occasion: A newspaper article written in reaction to the abuse.
Audience: American citizens and readers who care about international policy.
Purpose: To inform.
We in fact are filling this out pretty well in our offices right now. We’d get good marks from most teachers. But that’s kind of the point, because we haven’t actually read the article. And of course students can do the same thing, making it impossible to measure their understanding of the text. Get the gist, listen to the conversation; go all SOAPSTONE on it! And never, by the way, be able to read sentences like, “Nascent democracies are susceptible to corruption, and often feature weak judicial systems, corporatism, and the absence of rule of law”- the kinds of sentences that are make or break. In fact, if a student wasn’t able to identify the main idea, it would more likely be because he or she was defeated by a variety of critical sentences like the one above rather than that they needed more practice sussing out Main Ideas.
So we started toying with the idea of an everyday reading response tool to help build student comprehension and attentiveness to critical portions of text. As we didn’t love SOAPSTONE, we wondered what a replicable and rigorous tool for daily Close Reading might look like.
To try to answer this question, we chose a non-fiction passage about the Russian Revolution that would be useful to embed into the first chapter of George Orwell’s, Animal Farm, to give students background knowledge to understand the novel. We thought it would be valuable for students to reflect on the text at four different levels that we think are critical to good Close Reading: word/phrase level, sentence level, paragraph level, and passage level. So we created a template that required students to answer one question at each level. This rubric conditions students to make a habit of attending to small and large aspects of reading comprehension and to see the connection between them, while expending most of their effort on the most critical points in the text.
And though it doesn’t put the entire process of Close Reading on students’ shoulders, the template causes them to practice some of its key skills and, because it is so easily reused every day, to practice them regularly. This is important as we give students more and more opportunities to close read on their own, or “Solo” as it’s called in Reading Reconsidered. Soloing complements teacher-driven Close Reading lessons and together they support the ultimate goal of students independently making sense of the work of the abstruse writers they will meet in college like William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Sigmund Freud, and others. Using this rubric when students Solo helps to minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of students reading unproductively as you remove supports on the path to their autonomy.
Here’s a blank template (Four Levels of Reflection_Blank) in case you want to steal it. (We hope you do)
And finally, a coda on the questions we chose: The first question (word/phrase level) targets the phrase “means of production.” This phrase demands attention not only because it appears twice in the paragraph and is relatively domain-specific, but it’s used to define two other key terms that are foundational to Marxist theory: proletariat and bourgeoisie. We want student walking away knowing what “means of production” are, who owns them, and ownership of them leads to power. The second (sentence level) question focuses on a key sentence that is both syntactically and conceptually difficult. Asking students to paraphrase the line forces them to rephrase two important expressions, “social form” and “fruits of their labor.” Paraphrase questions typically offer valuable opportunities to practice Art of the Sentence task, making it a strong candidate for Show Call and revision. The third (paragraph level) question asks students to assimilate one part of the article with the whole, and pushes students closer to an conceptual understanding of the entire piece, in this case, how Marx’s ideas helped to precipitate the Russian Revolution. The final question asks students to make use of the background knowledge they’ve just acquired by applying a historical framework to the primary text, Animal Farm. This questions shows the double benefit of embedding non-fiction; not only have students gained knowledge by close reading a difficult piece of non-fiction, they’ve increased their understanding (or absorption rate) of another text in doing so. This final question lends itself so beautifully to an Inside the Box discussion about the allegorical nature of the novel.