Text Complexity: how to go from buzz words to best practices
By Alex on September 27th, 2012
With all the buzz around the Common Core State Standards we thought what better time to hear from one of our fabulous authors. Wendy Murray from the Scholastic Teaching Resources team talks with Jennifer Serravallo to get some answers on teaching fiction and nonfiction.
The movers and shakers of the CCSS didn’t invent text complexity—we have Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and virtually all authors to thank for that—but the CCSS sure have put the topic on the front burner of reading instruction. What does it mean for classroom teachers, right here, right now, who want to put it into action? We turned to Jennifer Serravallo, a former teacher and staff developer, and bestselling author to get her take on how to turn up the heat on reading complex fiction.
Murray: How might a teacher approach teaching fiction now and shift from “old think” to “new think”?
Serravallo: When I was teaching, the emphasis was on story elements. Teachers would teach characters, and maybe how they changed, and they would teach the basics of plot, and so on, but it was rare to find a teacher of older readers who possessed a deep knowledge of text complexity. The shift teachers need to make now is that they have to be better informed about how texts get complex, so they can anticipate the challenges students encounter as they read books at different levels. Book recommendations, whole-class read-alouds, mini-lessons, students’ independent reading activities, reader’s workshop–all need to be informed by this knowledge. Teachers and students alike need to expect shifts from level to level and talk that talk. I have been doing some research and teaching around these shifts, and the metaphor I find most useful is an Up escalator. As students mature as readers, the demands of text naturally escalate. There aren’t always neatly defined steps–the increased challenges from one level to the next aren’t always neat and tidy.
Murray: Can you give us an example?
Serravallo: Sure. For example, with Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series, it would be appropriate and sufficient to take away the idea that characters have a small handful of like traits, and that a character’s feelings can change. But if a student applied this relatively simple concept of story to, say, The Great Gilly Hopkins, he or she would be missing out on a lot.
So what does this mean for teaching? Don’t worry, not everything gets tossed out! Story elements continue to be a framework for talking to students, but the CCSS are asking us to be, well, a little more literary and make sure our teaching reflects the higher levels of books students are reading. If teachers are uncertain about literary elements, it’s time to polish their know-how. Teachers need to help readers be hyper alert to all the wonderful, challenging features that make a work of fiction “work” — from flashbacks to fickle characters with conflicting, evolving traits. For example, any reader who can fully understand The Great Gilly Hopkins is able to grasp how secondary characters inform the plot and influence the main character, how characters change both internally and externally, how characters’ traits are now complex, making them multi-dimensional, and so on. Again, most students need to be taught to recognize that this way of thinking about character is not only possible but is expected, and they need to be taught the strategies and analytical thinking involved to deeply comprehend their books. Clearly, the kind of teaching a teacher would do for Frog and Toad would no longer work. This new approach is a great opportunity to roll up our sleeves and get even closer to the mechanics behind the magic of complex fiction.
Murray: What about teaching nonfiction?
Serravallo: Nonfiction reading is often done in the service of learning content. “We are going to pull out our text book for science to learn about batteries and I am going to teach you how to get the facts out of it”—that kind of approach. Nonfiction is a tool for getting information. Or, our students are encouraged to pick a research topic—and they get out a couple of books and read and take notes. But what needs to shift with the CCSS is a real attention to teaching how to read nonfiction regardless of what the content is.
Sure, we want them to have the content knowledge but they won’t get it unless we teach them to use skills and strategies they know from fiction. For example, in fiction, we teach kids to retell. What you’re mind is doing when you retell is sorting through different events and setting them back in sequence. In nonfiction, the related mind work is being able to synthesize and using supporting details to identify the big ideas.
Murray: How you model this?
Serravallo: I’d read aloud and think aloud from a nonfiction book. I’d pause and say after reading a section, “What is the big idea and what details support that essential idea?” I’d think aloud my process and in time have students try it. This is something that kids need to learn to do. They don’t do it naturally. They aren’t able to reiterate in their own words the main idea—which is what Standard 2 is all about. In this amazing information revolution, when anyone can find facts with the click of a mouse, it’s not enough to use nonfiction to find facts. We have to teach our students about text features, how to evaluate facts and information, and deeply understand what the “whole” of a nonfiction text is bringing to a topic. Overall, the CCSS as I read them make a strong case for nonfiction comprehension instruction and are less concerned with merely absorbing information.
image via ~Brenda-Starr~
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