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Response: 'Teachers Know A Lot About Scaffolding' For Complex Texts

(This is the last post in a two-part series on this topic.  You can see Part One here.)

Bill Younglove asked:

The Common Core State Standards' final draft settled upon this phrase: "Scaffolding, as needed." How best can a teacher gauge students' "need" when dealing with complex text?

Part One featured responses from three educators: Wendi Pillars, Amy Benjamin, and Christopher Lehman.

Today's post includes three joint commentaries from Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher; Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan; and Aaron Brock and Jody Passanisi.

Response From Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher

Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher are teacher leaders at Health Sciences High & Middle College in San Diego, CA and the authors of Rigorous Reading: Five access points for comprehending complex texts (Corwin, 2013):

The Common Core State Standards contain a number of hints that help us understand when scaffolding might be needed. The first comes from the discussion about text complexity itself. In the three-part model of text complexity, quantitative, qualitative, and tasks are each considered. In the past, when quantitative information was used in isolation, teachers understood that a text was complex, but not why that text was complex. As noted in the standards, "Qualitative dimensions and qualitative factors refer
to those aspects of text complexity best measured or only measurable by an attentive human reader, such as levels of meaning or purpose; structure; language conventionality and clarity; and knowledge demands" (National Governors Association, Appendix A, 2010, p. 4).

When the teacher knows what contributes to text complexity qualitatively, he or she can make decisions about the various teaching points that must be made. For example, if a text is complex because of an unreliable narrator, as is the case in The Life of Pi (Martel, 2001), students will likely need support to comprehend the text. Alternatively, if a text is complex because of the levels of meaning, as is the case in Animal Farm (Orwell, 1945), scaffolds will likely be necessary. A careful analysis if qualitative text complexity is required to determine which teaching points are likely important for a given text. It's no longer that teachers can rely on comprehension strategies in isolation. Predicting, visualizing, summarizing, and so on will not likely unlock the secrets Siddhartha (Hesse, 1922), which is complex because of the cultural knowledge required of the reader.

The third aspect of text complexity, reader and task considerations, also provides insights into the types of scaffolds students might need. The discussion about task considerations includes information about teacher-led tasks, peer-led tasks, and independent tasks. Based on the text selected, the teacher has to match the tasks. Some texts are best read aloud, as is the case in a kindergarten class reading Tomás and the Library Lady (Mora, 1997). A group of 7th graders might collaboratively read A Wrinkle in Time (L'Engle, 1962), relying on peer support as they do so whereas a group of high school juniors may need significant teacher-led instruction to grasp "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe (1846).

In part, the type of scaffolding students' need is based on a careful analysis of the text itself and the instruction design for the lesson. But the standards offer a bit more advice about this. As noted in Anchor Standard 1, students must "Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text" (NGA, 2010, p. 10). The process of close reading is in and of itself a scaffold (Fisher & Frey, 2012). For an example of close reading, see the Fisher and Frey channel on YouTube. For example, 4th grade teacher Melissa engages her students in a close reading of a complex text as they learn about the characteristics of inventors.

During close reading, students re-read the same piece of text several times, often for different purposes or to find specific information. Literacy research suggests that this is a valuable scaffold for comprehension. In addition, as part of close reading, students annotate the text. This scaffold ensures that students slow down and think about the information they are finding in the text. Students can use their annotations in responding to teachers, discussing the text with peers, or writing responses to performance tasks. Students respond to text-dependent questions, which are another useful scaffold. These questions drive students' attention to specific parts or aspects of the text. In responding to these questions, students provide evidence from the text and evaluate the information contained in the text, comparing that with their own knowledge and experience. Finally, close readings involve a great deal of discussion. As students interact with their peers, they evaluate the perspective and understanding of others, which is a great scaffold for learning.

This has been a rather long response to the question. A quicker response might have been to say that teachers know a lot about scaffolding that they should not forget as they implement the Common Core State Standards. The difference between then and now is when the scaffolds are deployed. Historically, we have used front-end scaffolds, meaning that the support was provided before students read the text. This was often done in the form of frontloading, pre-teaching vocabulary, and explaining things. We realize that these front-end scaffolds have removed the need for many students to read, so now we're focused on distributed scaffolds and back-end scaffolds. In other words, rather than provide a lot of scaffolding upfront, we use those scaffolds between each reading of the text and then determine where understanding has broken down.

Importantly, scaffolds are not verboten when implementing the Common Core State Standards. Teachers have to analyze the texts they are planning to teach, they have to determine instructional arrangements, and then they have to guide students through close reading. When these systems are in place, students feel supported and challenged, which is the main policy goal of the Common Core State Standards.

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Response From Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan

Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan have been working in the field of professional development for the past eighteen years. They run a private staff development business Teachers for Teachers. Their book Assessment in Perspective: Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers was published by Stenhouse in 2012:

Gauging how students read complex text is, in itself, a complex task. It brings to mind what Fountas and Pinnell taught us: "Matching books to readers depends on three interrelated sets of understandings, all of which are critical to effective teaching: knowing the readers, knowing the texts, and understanding the reading process." Each text presents different factors of complexity, and each reader brings different strengths and weaknesses to the text. Observing the interaction between the reader and the text helps us understand what scaffolding each reader needs. Although there are many published systems that help us determine the complexity of a text, those systems do not take the reader into account. We need to make certain that the reader is at the forefront of our decision making when we think about the scaffolds a reader may or may not need to deal with a complex text.

The Common Core State Standards are asking us to expose our readers to a range of text complexity, and we think the word range is critical. When we decide to expose a reader to a higher range of complexity, we need to think about how we can scaffold the text. Sometimes we scaffold by thinking about how to balance the challenges and supports of a text with a reader's strengths and weaknesses in mind. If the text level will challenge a reader in terms of decoding, we might choose a topic of high interest for that reader. If the text is going to push a reader in terms of comprehension, we might choose a short text to scaffold. We want our readers to know that they may need to slow down their rate and reread more frequently when they are reading at the higher range of text complexity. We think it is important that readers experience both easy, fluent reading and more challenging reading, but in both instances we must ensure that our readers know we read for meaning. If meaning breaks down, our readers need to understand the importance of seeking support to scaffold their understanding of the text.

To us, the phrase scaffolding as needed is about how we use these "interrelated sets of understandings" to assess and instruct our students.

When we authentically assess our readers in the process of making meaning from a text, and talk with them about how the reading process is going for them, we can better gauge their needs and determine the appropriate scaffolds and next instructional steps.

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Response From Aaron Brock and and Jody Passanisi

Aaron Brock has been a social studies teacher in the Compton Unified School District for five years. Jody Passanisi has been a teacher at a Los Angeles independent school for nine years. They both blog for MiddleWeb's Future of History. This response is adapted from a post that was published there:

We both teach history in the Los Angeles area - Aaron in Compton USD, and Jody in an independent school. We have the same goal for our eighth graders: We want our students to read, comprehend, and analyze text. But we want to make sure that the process is scaffolded.

In order to see what the students' needs were, Aaron used the previous year's English data and written samples collected during the first week of school to divide students into three tiers. Students were given slightly different instructions based on the amount of support they would need to comprehend, summarize and analyze texts in class.

The tiers were fluid; as students demonstrated mastery of the skills associated with annotating historical texts, they were moved to higher tiers. Students who struggled were moved to a tier more in line with their skill level. Tier 1 and Tier 2 instructions were more focused on vocabulary and reading comprehension strategies, whereas the Tier 3 instructions were geared more toward analysis and evaluation.

Although Tier 3 students were asked to do more sophisticated analyses of the assigned texts, their workload was less than that of the other tiers. This not only provided additional scaffolding for the students who needed it, it also encouraged students with stronger skill sets to push themselves (too often, more advanced students feel they are punished for displaying their talent with additional work).

We are glad that we implemented a more disciplined way of attacking text. Our students reflected at the end of the year, and while they didn't always enjoy it, they said that it helped them to understand how to read text better.

The differentiation allows students to reflect upon and measure their own progress with reading challenging text - increasing motivation and giving them something to work toward.

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Thanks to Nancy, Doug, Tammy, Clare, Aaron and Jody for their contributions!

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