3 big mistakes to avoid when helping readers grapple with challenging text – 71Bait

Students make faster progress when asked to read difficult texts – but this can be a daunting task for teachers working with students who have reading difficulties.

In a recent online discussion with the nonprofit Read WashingtonTim Shanahan, founding director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Literacy and distinguished professor emeritus, highlighted avoidance tactics and offered teachers better alternatives to help students navigate difficult texts.

1. Don’t focus on meeting a student “at their level.”

Beginners to read in the first grades Benefit from repetition and easy-to-understand words – think Dr. seuss Green eggs and ham or Eric Carles, Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?— but research suggests that students who master basic decoding make faster progress when grappling with more complex texts.

Research suggests that students learn rather with more difficult texts, as long as they have didactic support. For example, a study from 2017 found that third graders who started as weak readers outperformed even good readers when using texts written two to four grades above their starting reading level as part of paired reading exercises.

More difficult texts may have more academic vocabulary and syntax, or require a better understanding of literary devices and practices in different genres. Shanahan found that in the long run, even for those with reading difficulties, it is more helpful to acquire tools to break down difficult texts than to use simplified reading passages. To do this, students could be asked to paraphrase each sentence in a difficult text to check the meaning; or to rewrite a passage containing sentences with multiple clauses, phrases, or brackets.

2. “Don’t precede the author”

The better a student understands the topic of a text, the easier it is to read it – even if the text itself is difficult. In fact, studies suggest that a poor reader who is knowledgeable on a particular topic can often make up for a lack of understanding simply by relying on their own background knowledge.

Supporting information can increase students’ tendency to use their background knowledge rather than their comprehension, particularly if it results in the text being repeated rather than merely providing context. For example, Shanahan recalled working with a high school teacher in Illinois who was preparing her class to read works by William Shakespeare. Shanahan agreed that the students might need context about cultural differences in plays written 400 years ago, but “she said, ‘We’re reading ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ So, to prepare them, I explained to them that there are these two families, and the two families fight, and the boy and the girl fall in love.’ … And I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not prior knowledge. That’s the story they’re about to read,'” Shanahan said.

Explaining words or concepts that can be gleaned from the text itself gives students less opportunity to practice “reading to learn,” he said.

Instead, he suggested brainstorming with a class what they know about a topic before reading the text, or asking students to write down how what they read relates to what they knew beforehand about the topic. Doing this with a partner can also help build student understandingaccording to a 9th grade study.

3. Don’t overload the vocabulary

Low academic vocabulary is one of the most common problems for reading difficulties, but Shanahan cautioned that teachers should be careful when choosing the words they should define for students.

“We want to build an encyclopedia or dictionary in everyone’s mind, and we want that list to get longer, deeper and richer as they go through school,” he said. “But we’re also teaching vocabulary so they’ll understand the text that we’re about to read, and those are two really different goals.”

Rather than pre-teaching extensive vocabulary lists for each text, Shanahan said it’s more important that students learn to recognize when they don’t know the meaning of a word and it’s affecting their ability to understand a text. Students should also learn to figure out word meanings themselves, either through hints and careful reading of the text themselves, or through external tools such as dictionaries.

For example, he suggested teachers use more passive vocabulary scaffolds, such as a glossary or vocabulary wall, and provide exercises in which readers explain clues in a text that show the meaning of a particular word.

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