Tag Archives: Reading

Sticky Learning

I recently gave a TEDx talk about this topic but for those of you who like to read….

Tradition and intuition play a big role in how we teach but our observations of student learning and research suggest that we might be wrong.  Traditionally we teach in units:  2, 4, or 6 weeks (albeit they sometimes stretch into 8 or even 10 weeks).  We think that if we teach the kids all they need to know about one subject (multiplication, persuasive writing, levers, time, the colour wheel etc) and give them lots of practice about this one topic, over and over again in a 2-4 week period of time, then they will learn the stuff.  Except, they don’t.  Students don’t tend to retain concepts they only learn once a year very well.

Our observations of student learning show us that this is true.  If you teach fractions, usually taught in a 4-6 week unit in the spring, you know this.  It feels like every year is like starting over.  I’m sure that you can think of many other concepts where the learning done last year doesn’t “stick”.

There is cognitive research that does tell us a lot about how people learn.  Two concepts, spaced learning and interleaving, are well-documented in the research but hold little traction in real classrooms.

We typically teach in a “massed” practice where we teach kids everything about one topic in a short period of time and then test them.  Students do well in testing situations immediately following the learning, but test them a few weeks later and they don’t remember very much.  However, when material is learned spaced over time, retention of concepts is much greater.  This positive effect has been documented in the literature since 1885!  John Hattie, in Visible Learning, listed it as the 13th most positive effect on learning out of 138 possibilities.  You may wish to consider what would happen if you took a big topic, like fractions or division or proportional reasoning, and instead of teaching it all at once, you spaced the learning out over multiple  opportunities over the course of the year.

We have found spacing the learning out to be very beneficial to our students.  For example, instead of our intermediate students reading just one novel over 6-8 weeks (and really, as a real reader, who does that except maybe for War and Peace?) our students read between 6 to 10 novels over the course of the year, spending between 2-3 weeks on each.  They learn all the same skills about analyzing literature, but they have multiple opportunities to practice the skills over the year.  We do the same in mathematics, returning to problems in proportional reasoning, for example, a few times every month instead of in a 3 week unit.

The other piece of research that has huge benefits for learning, but doesn’t really hold much traction in our school system, is interleaving.  We tend to block the curriculum into discrete units of study, studying each topic one at a time:  addition, subtraction, multiplication, division ; OR, fractions, decimals, percent; OR, persuasive writing, descriptive writing, report writing.  The problem, when students learn this way, is that they don’t learn to see the similarities and differences between the topics.  We hope they will make connections, but really it is left up to them to do it on their own.  When we teach like this it is called “blocked practice”.

But if you interleave the learning, you teach similar concepts all at the same time.  A writer’s workshop model allows students to explore a variety of forms of writing all within the context of writer’s craft.  If students were faced with problems in mathematics involving addition, subtraction, multiplication and division at the same time then they would be forced to develop an understanding of how the concepts are related and to know when to apply each concept.

I call teaching in this spaced and interleaved way spiralling.  While provincial and state curriculum  say they “spiral”, meaning that students learn about fractions, for example, once every year, I argue that the spiral loops are too big.  If we tighten the spiral so that students have many chances to learn the big ideas over the course of the year, I think we get to learning that is sticky.

Of course, spiralling is not easy to plan for.  Teachers like their units.  They like to be “done”.  Spiralling the curriculum really requires that teachers adopt a new mindset about curriculum design.  It isn’t easy…but the teachers that I work with wouldn’t ever go back to teaching traditionally in longer units.  Not only do we get sticky learning, but our students are much more engaged.  Every day is a new challenge for them and they have to apply their learning to specific and varied contexts.

If you want to give it a try, think about doing just a bit at a time instead of revamping your entire curriculum.  Try something new; no one will die.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under inquiry, pedagogy, school culture, school improvement plannig, Uncategorized

Responses to Reading

When kids are reading we want them to spend most of their time reading, thinking about their reading, talking about their reading and writing about their reading.  But, there are lots of ways to get kids thinking and talking and writing without resorting to the typical comprehension questions.  The problem with comprehension questions is that it is the teacher who has determined what the most important things to think about, talk about and write about are.  While teachers certainly want to guide kids to determining deeper meaning, what is more meaningful for students is to determine and construct their own meaning.

Here are some ideas:

  1.  Readers’ Notebook letters allow you and the teacher to recreate that “dining room conversation” about books that you wish you could have but can’t due to time constraints.  The trick is to write back like a reader, not like a teacher.
  2. Students can write letters to other students in their readers’ notebooks who have read their book.  This works well when students might be reading a second book from a literature circle.
  3. Students can write in their readers’ notebooks as the main character or as a secondary character.   They are still writing to you, the teacher.  If the author is using a particular writing style (I’m thinking about the voice in the BFG by Roald Dahl, they can try writing in that voice).
  4. Students can blog about their reading.  Teachers may wish to start the blog with an open-ended question, or not.
  5. When doing a read aloud students can record their think marks in Today’s Meet or on little white boards that they hold up (white plastic plates work, too) as you read.
  6. If you are reading aloud and want students to be thinking about the character’s feelings (inferring) they could use Today’s Meet, or they could write in thought bubbles on a piece of scrap paper and then share after the reading.
  7. Have a student be a character during a read aloud and sit in the “hot seat”.  Every once in a while, stop the reading and ask the “character” some questions.  Other students could also ask the “character” some questions.
  8. If you are reading nonfiction text, the student in the hot seat could be the “expert”.  At this point you are helping to bring out the content of the text.
  9. In a similar vein, as you are doing a read aloud, within a grouping of students, one student is a character and when you stop, the other students in the group ask questions.
  10. If you have multiple characters and you want students to explore the relationships between them, assign groups of students to be different characters.  When you stop reading at strategic points, the students stop to talk in character.
  11. Instead of having the student in the hot seat be the character, have them be the author.  At this point other students or the teacher can ask questions about why the author made the choices s/he did in writing the next. (e.g.  Why did you make the character seem so unlikeable?)
  12. Readers’ theatre is another way for students to demonstrate their understanding of a novel or text.  As literature circle groups are just beginning their reading, ask them to choose a passage with a fair amount of dialogue which is pivotal to the beginning of the story.  Students turn it into a reader’s theatre to present to the class.  They will have practiced their reading fluency but will also have to determine important parts of the text, how the characters speak, and understand how dialogue works in a novel.
  13. Students can do the same activity at other points in the novel to show where a cliff hanger is in their novel, a section which exemplifies a character’s personality, a scene which shows a problem, the most exciting part of the novel and so on.
  14. When students are reading nonfiction they can create a reader’s theatre that is an interview between a TV reporter and the expert.  This is also a good way to review content before tests.
  15. Students can create “found poems” about the setting, problem, or characters by lifting words and phrases from their book and turning them into a poem by how they put them together and/or arrange them on the page.
  16. Fifteen second book reports are when students stand up and give a summary of their book, the plot, the author’s message or the characters in only 15 seconds.  They don’t need to finish their thoughts and, in fact, should stop mid-sentence as this will make other students interested in the novel.
  17. In order to get students thinking about the background knowledge required to understand a text, ask them to do some research about the time period or issues/theme of the their book and create a powerpoint presentation or photo collage.
  18. Have students, individually or as a book club, determine important quotes from the text and record their thinking in double column format to explain why they chose the quote.
  19. Students can keep an ongoing diary of one of the characters in the novel.
  20. Students can make an iMovie trailer of their book.  Think about asking them to focus their trailer instead of just doing a plot summary.  It could be about the problem, the theme, the characters, the setting.

BUT DON’T DO EVERYTHING FOR EVERY BOOK.  Over the course of the year students can have opportunities to express their thinking in a variety of ways.  The best way to kill a story is to work on it for too long.  And, don’t forget that modeling the activity or doing it as a class first is always best.

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Filed under Literature Circles, Readers' Theatre, Reading Response

Book Clubs and Non-fiction Text

I am guilty, as a female, of reading mostly fiction.  So when someone asks what I am reading, I invariably default to the novel in which I am engrossed despite the fact that at any given time, I am probably perusing at least 2-3 nonfiction texts as well,  the internet daily, and a few journals or periodicals. On a daily basis, I probably share more about my nonfiction reading with friends and colleagues than I do my novels.  We know as teachers that we need to engage our students in both fiction and non-fiction text.  We also know that many of the boys in our classrooms may gravitate towards nonfiction more readily than fiction.  A friend of mine was wondering about literature circles with nonfiction text and how those discussions might look.  And, as a teacher, how might one respond to reader’s notebook entries about nonfiction text.

As always, I began to think about how real readers (usually me) interact with nonfiction.  We need to treat our students like real readers and give them the same authentic experiences.  When we read nonfiction we are generally looking for information.  So when students discuss that information they might:

  • discuss the cool and interesting things they discovered
  • talk about how their new learning fits in with what they thought before
  • reread any confusing parts and try to make sense of new information or things they don’t understand (often we reread nonfiction many times as we grapple with new concepts)
  • talk about how the diagrams or pictures support their new learning
  • evaluate whether they think the author is reliable (and this is very important when doing research, reading websites, looking at primary sources)
  • think about other texts or places to gather information that they may now wish to know since their interest has been sparked

If part of your literature circles or readers’ workshop is to have students write letter to you about their reading, the above points could also be part of their letters.  As a teacher, it is important to write back as a reader.  When other readers tell me about their nonfiction reading, I usually relate it to things I already know about the topic, questions I might have about the information, and why the person is interested in the topic.  So if a student was reading about hurricanes and had written to me, I might respond back with some comments about the facts s/he had told me, some questions I may have about hurricanes, and maybe a confusion that I might have.  I could ask the student to tell how his/her interest in hurricanes had come about and what, if anything, they were planning to do with this new information.  I might relay some information I had about hurricanes and wonder if it were correct according to the student’s source.  We could even chat about whether depictions of hurricanes in film and literature were truthful according to the facts.

Don’t shy away from talking about nonfiction text with your students just because your comfort level is fiction.  Next time you are reading some nonfiction, think about yourself as a reader and how you are interacting with the text.  That is always the best way to guide how you can help students to learn to be a proficient reader as well.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, Literature Circles