Research Suggests Every Teacher Should:

  1. Build disciplinary and world knowledge.  (AKA Background knowledge)
  2. Provide exposure to a volume and range of texts.
  3. Provide motivating texts and contexts for reading.
  4. Teach strategies for comprehending.
  5. Teach text structures.
  6. Engage students in discussion.
  7. Build vocabulary and language knowledge.
  8. Integrate reading and writing.
  9. Observe and assess.
  10. Differentiate instruction (Samuels & Farstrup, 2012, p. 52).

This list comes from my  new favorite book, What Research Says About Reading Instruction.  I just discovered there’s also a What Research Says About Vocabulary Instruction which I’ve put on my Amazon wish list.

I don’t think any of this is new news to anyone teaching reading, but it is wonderfully affirming news.  I realize that my weakness has been teaching text structure in non-fiction reading.  I’ve busily been collecting information on structure so I can work with it more than usual next year.  Last year my focus was student discussion.  I’ve been preparing a website at Collaborative Classroom to have my students have online discussions as “boardwork” when they enter the room, exit tickets before they leave the room, or in-depth discussions in the middle or for homework.  I love online discussions as it makes it possible for the teacher to monitor all the discussions not just those in earshot.

Samuels, S. J., & Farstrup, A. E. (2012). What research has to say about reading instruction. (fourth ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Revolutionary War/My Brother Sam is Dead/Social Studies Textbook/Roots Mash-up

roots-vol-i-DVDcoverI’ve just started a unit on slavery, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War, leading to a study of the Civil Rights and Human Rights.  I know, I know.  Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew.  I keep explaining to the students that it is all intertwined and we can’t separate these issues of freedom and slavery.

Our word for the unit is dilemma. We’re trying to look at the dilemmas that the slaves faced, the people faced leading up to and during the Revolutionary War, the slave-owners faced, and the people faced leading up to and during the Civil War.  What would they have done?  Would they have chosen to throw themselves off the slave ships as some slaves did or chosen to survive if at all possible?

We’re reading My Brother Sam is Dead to get a taste of the Revolutionary War.  Not all of the students are spell bound, but many are due to the extreme engagement of a few deep thinkers who are also class leaders.  We had an extended discussion on whether Sam was right when he said we need to be ready to die for our principles.  What a dilemma.  (Many preferred the idea of speaking against their principles rather than dying.)

We’re reading sections of the social studies textbook and then summarizing using sticky notes or writing about the dilemma faced in that particular section.  Then, we watch Roots–the perfect movie to build background knowledge and show how these events are intertwined.

I know after we finish building background knowledge using these resources that we will involve ourselves in some sort of inquiry that will have us focusing on non-fiction reading and writing for a while.  I’m not sure where we’re going with this, but the ride is more than satisfactory.

Note:  I have to spend quite a bit of time covering up frontal nudity in the first movie and masters bedding “wenches” in other sessions, but it is quite worth it.  We also have to discuss some of the language, but I feel this is a good thing for my students to know.

Update #2 on Using Harry Potter Book and Video

Harry-Potter-And-The-Chamber-Of-Secrets-Oh my gosh, this is the best thing I’ve ever done to engage students in reading.  Even my non-enthused ELL students, and my new ELL student who hardly understands any English have been engaged.  We read through Harry Potter 1 and 2:  Officially known as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Doom. We read several chapters, then watched that portion of the movie.  In between we worked on vocabulary using the Latin roots of spells and names to jump start us.  I got the idea from an amazing web site by Susan Jones.

Although reading has always been the highlight of my day, using Harry Potter brought it to new levels.  I focused on teaching the strategies of inferring and visualizing during these two books.  Every once in a while after a read aloud I asked them to draw what we had just read.  Thanks to the background knowledge provided by the movie, all students improved in their ability to visualize.  Sometimes I let them know that they were going to draw after I read, and sometimes I told them afterwards.  Soon, the results became quite similar as they improved their active listening skills and their engagement.  We connected implying to inferring and so the questions I asked varied from, “What is J.K. Rowling implying here?” to “What do you infer from what I just read?”  Students were able to make a transference to their writing.  Joy!

I was tempted to throw my historical fiction curriculum to the wind and continue reading the series, but my students revolted.  With the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, my students wanted to read the books as quickly or slowly as they wanted and in the order they wanted.  I count that a success.

Strong Background Knowledge to Velcro Learning

I like to think of background  knowledge like velcro.  The more  we have, the more little stickery hooksvelcro we have to connect to our reading.  We understand what we read and remember it better.

All of us need a working knowledge of basic fairy tales, myths, and Bible stories to be able to be successful readers.  I also encourage parents to talk about current events at the dinner table, have their children watch shows on the  Discovery channel, rent historical fiction movies, and subscribe to magazines and newspapers.  Museum visits, travel, and virtual trips on the Internet also increase our background knowledge.

Photo credit:

Update on Background Knowledge and Visualization

A few weeks ago I wrote about using a passage from Deathwatch and I finally got around to trying the exercise!Chimney It was very interesting.  I decided to try the first sample without providing background knowledge and although the kids got the gist of it, none of them were able to get a full picture.

I wish you could have seen my class;  I had kids trying to act out the scene where Ben climbs up the chimney rock all over the classroom!  Some were inching their way across the back of the couch, others reenacting falling into the “V” of the chimney, but not knowing what to do next.  Acting out a scene is a powerful tool for visualizing.

Later this week we’ll try the second sample, but provide some background knowledge first.  Hopefully, the students will see the benefit of building their background knowledge when they can’t make the movie in their head.

Photo credit:

Visualizing and Background Knowledge

Last night I read the YA mystery, Deathwatch, by Robb White.  It was an interesting survival-in-the-desert-while-being-hunted novel, but I had great difficulty visualizing two scenes. deathwatch The clunks bothered me as I felt they held the key to whether the book was realistically written or not.

To solve my clunks I realized I needed to beef up my background knowledge on rock climbing, and then almost physically re-enact the scenes.  I decided to enlist my class in solving my clunk and so made copies of the pages: Building background knowledge to visualize a difficult scene

Monday, they’ll go online to investigate climbing chimneys and funnels, then use that background knowledge to help them visualize and sketch the scenes–working in small groups.   On Tuesday, I’ll give them even a more difficult task, that of building background knowledge for another difficult scene and determining whether or not the scene is realistically written: Building background knowledge to visualize a difficult scene2

I’ll let you know how it goes.  Do y’all have any ideas to share about helping students visualize when they read?

Photo credit:

More about building background knowledge

I teach my students how to use the Internet to build background knowledge.  When Salvador  read The Thief Lord, we looked up photographs of Venice so he could visualize the city.  We found maps so he could picture the actmetion.  We could have gone to Google Earth and gotten a birds’ eye view of the city.

When we read a book that the students “get” but really don’t have much background knowledge about–like The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which we are still working through–I have them make quick group PowerPoints to build their background knowledge.  They love it and I hear cries of, “I found the most beautiful picture of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” and, “Ohhhhhh, that’s what an automat is!”  Although I only mentioned putting photos and titles in their PowerPoints, the students are crafting chapter synopses as we move through the book.

I love anything that builds background knowledge, as it will affect all reading and understanding.

Photo credit:…/Metropolitan/124_2485.JPG

Building background knowledge

I teach at an international school in Guayaquil, Ecuador.  My students come in with incredibly varied levels of English and of background knowledge of the world.  I have students who’ve lived all over the world and students who have never left Ecuador and whose families do not have a culture of literacy.

I’ve found that the easiest way to help students build background knowledge is to create a short PowerPoint to show them before each classroom read-aloud.  I’ve found I can throw something together in about 15 minutes that will work, although The_Sign_of_the_Beavera well-crafted PowerPoint takes me about an hour.  Here are some examples of both extremes:

Sign of the Beaver ppt

Stone Fox ppt

Esperanza Rising ppt

Hope Was Here ppt

It’s fun to find good images and saves a lot of student confusion.  The PowerPoints also help the students visualize the story as we read it.

I know the argument that students should be free to create their own mental movies, but I always remember the student who drew a picture of me roller blading in a bathing suit when I had told a story about ice skating in layers of clothing.  She just did not have the background knowledge to visiualize the story.