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Reading & Literacy Opinion

4 Educators Share Their Favorite Reading Lessons

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 11, 2023 15 min read
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I’ve shared many posts on reading instruction over the past 12 years.

Today, four teachers share their favorite reading lessons.

Two of today’s contributors, along with another veteran teacher, talked with me about this topic as guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

‘Complex Text’

Raquel McGee is a literacy teacher and instructional coach at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Illinois and is interested in evidence-based, practical and structured secondary literacy instruction:

The most effective reading lessons that I have taught (1) utilized complex text worthy of instruction, (2) provided direct instruction of both disciplinary and text-specific academic vocabulary, (3) sped up or slowed down for both close and wide reading to keep the pacing brisk, and (4) demanded text-dependent understanding from students at frequent intervals throughout the text.

If I am not using complex text that requires teacher-led instruction, then I am not using my instructional time effectively to provide adequate challenges for growth. If students could readily access the text without my scaffolding, then that is a text for independent reading and not instruction.

One of my favorite texts for this purpose has been “Antigone” by Sophocles, due to the nature of its fast-paced narrative, relatively short length, and meaningful complexity for analysis. I will briefly describe a possible instructional sequence.

I might start out a lesson by introducing two vocabulary words that will be meaningful for us in the first part of the tragedy and one disciplinary-specific vocabulary word. We’d verbally practice the usage of those words immediately with deliberate questioning, soliciting both voluntary and cold-called responses, using questions like: When is it appropriate to be reverent? How is a tragedy distinct from a comedy? For the next 10 minutes of the lesson, I might then read aloud the first one to two pages of the text and then model effective summarizing, using a prompting question: Summarize what has happened to Antigone’s family, limiting yourself to three key events.

Students might then switch to paired reading of a specific passage for about 10 minutes, at which point we would stop and respond to a text-dependent question that demanded they make meaning of their reading.

The text-dependency is important here, so I might have them address these kinds of questions in their pairs: How might the passage change if Antigone called Ismene anxious instead of cowardly? What does Ismene mean when she says that it would be awful to “die outside the law?” Compare and contrast Ismene’s attitude toward human authority vs. Antigone’s attitude toward human authority. I’d then call on pairs to check for their understanding, address their misconceptions, and stretch the sophistication of their thinking.

Finally, we’d dig back into the reading, with students reading independently for another 10 minutes, and then write for a more extended period of time in response to another text-dependent prompt: Why is reverence more important to Antigone than following the law? Provide textual evidence to support your assertions in 4-5 complex sentences. I’d once again call on students to share their responses aloud, in order to check for their understanding, address misconceptions, stretch the sophistication of their thinking, and evaluate the quality of their evidence.

I might then assign about five pages of the text for students to read for homework, with 1-2 high-leverage guiding questions: Who are “those who matter most,” and why is Antigone more concerned with their approval than that of Creon? Why does Antigone use the phrase “a coward’s death,” and what does this suggest about her views on duty?

This entire sequence follows the key principles articulated in the beginning: direct vocabulary instruction and reinforcement, close and wide reading, and frequent opportunities to check for text-dependent comprehension. For more about the principles described above, please refer to Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction by Colleen Driggs, Doug Lemov, and Erica Woolway, which provides a robust discussion of how to structure effective reading lessons. I owe a great deal of my instructional practices to these literacy leaders and I highly recommend adding this to one’s professional library.

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Making ‘a Real-World Connection’

Jeremiah Short is an educator with seven years of experience as a classroom teacher and currently serves as a reading interventionist. He also is the author of Phenomenal Intervention: The Playbook and the host of The Phenomenal Student Podcast:

Over my seven-year career as a classroom teacher and reading interventionist, I’ve taught several lessons to diverse student populations. During those learning sessions, my goals are relevance, engagement, and rigor. Success has accompanied that approach as students engage with the content and critically discuss it.

Many stand out, but only a few are favorites.

1. Intro to Character Traits

To begin an analyze characters unit, I introduce character traits.

First, I play a characters’ song and then transition into handing students an anchor chart with character traits terms. Scholars are instructed to put a check by the words that they know and X by the words that they don’t. After they finish this task, I define the unfamiliar character traits.

Second, I conduct a read-aloud (Recess Queen or Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters) or play a short Pixar film (“Lifted” is a popular choice).

Next, I ask the scholars to share character traits of the main characters. They’re not allowed to use the words “nice,” “mean,” or other low-level character traits.

Following that, I place students into partner groups to identify the character traits in a few short passages.

Finally, students are asked to identify character traits independently.

It sets students up for character traits with evidence, character feelings, and analyze character change and relationship lessons.

2. Inference: Drawing Conclusions

On day three of my inferencing unit, I teach students how to draw conclusions utilizing a commercial: True Move.

Before commencing the lesson, I tell students to pay attention to every detail. As the commercial progresses, I prompt the students with several think-alouds while intermittently having them dictate their answers to a few questions.

Sample Think-Aloud Sequence

Prompt: What is the relationship between the girl and man?

Answer: Father and daughter.

Evidence: He calls her sweetie.

At the end, they’re asked if they think “Giving Is the Best Communication” is a good message for the commercial.

I enjoy this lesson because it combines social-emotional learning, differentiated instruction, and critical thinking—three important facets of any good lesson.

3. Explain: Author’s Purpose

On day two of my author’s purpose unit, I take my students through a Google Slide comprising many examples of author purposes: a book cover, commercial, how-to’s, news feature, advertisement, and fictional PSA against bullying to reinforce the persuade, inform, entertain, explain, and describe.

Differentiating according to content affords me the opportunity to bring the concept to life.

For example, I play the Minecraft commercial and ask the students what its author’s purpose is. Sometimes, students say inform but share that it’s trying to get you to buy the game, so it’s what …

Students: Persuade.

Letting the students have a little fun, I share a “How-to Floss” video. They easily determine that it’s explain and supply evidence to support it.

In addition to playing videos, I display photos—such as a Butterfinger advertisement. Students usually don’t have trouble establishing that it’s persuade.

At this point, I extend the conversation by asking scholars what stands out to them and discussing the numerous ways advertisers appeal to adults and kids alike.

To conclude the lesson, I play a bullying PSA video. I tell them that the author purpose is entertain but ask them what it could be informing them about. (Of course, bullying). Also, the PSA describes or shows what a person being bullied goes through.

Ultimately, I want my students to understand that author’s purpose comes in many formats, media, and modalities.

Combining real-world connection to key literacy concepts puts the teacher and students in a win-win situation. Students aren’t bored but engaged and learn the given standard.

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News Summaries

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and civics and is the associate head of school at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom(Routledge) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse):

The most effective reading lesson I’ve taught was one I didn’t initially know I was teaching.

For the past decade in my 8th grade U.S. history and civics courses, students have brought in a current events article approximately once a week. They can choose from a wide variety of articles—just not those solely focused on sports, entertainment, or random acts of violence. Three to four students present summaries of their articles and conduct a brief class discussion, and everyone else either annotates a couple of pages of an article (in hard copy or on Google Docs with comments), then writes a couple of sentences on why they chose it.

I began this weekly tradition because I wanted students to keep up with the news. Our school has bulk subscriptions to both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal (I wish the Los Angeles Times would offer a similar package to schools!), and most students pick their pieces from these papers. Such consistent weekly interactions with what’s happening in the outside world heighten these middle schoolers’ awareness of key issues, enough that they sometimes return years later and say that they miss following the news as much as they did in 8th grade.

What I didn’t realize at first is that their reading comprehension skyrockets as well. At the beginning of the year, some struggle with the newspapers’ language, but by May, they can unpack complex sentences—so much so that I usually include a couple of newspaper articles on the final exam as part of a mini-DBQ (Document-Based Question) on war and social reform, two of our major units.

Finally, I want to mention the sustained work Kelly Gallagher has done to inculcate similar reading and news—following skills in high school English students. Kelly is the author of many wonderful books including Readicide and (with Penny Kittle) 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. His Article of the Week webpage lists in real time the headlines of all the articles he asks his students to follow each year, giving students a “foundation of knowledge” that makes the news comprehensible.

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Drama

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is Distinguished Professor of Literacy Education at Boise State University. His latest book, Planning Powerful Instruction: 7 Must Make Moves, explores the approach taken by his democracy-building project:

Drama is a transformational and underused strategy for enlivening and improving student reading.

A plethora of studies show the importance of using engaging, interactive, hands-on techniques for developing new processes of meaning-making (e.g., strategies of reading and all forms of composing) as well as deep conceptual understanding,

The data on engaged learning and on the achievement of deep understanding make an additional case for the importance of developing and using imagination. Imagination is essential to all learning and especially to reading. We must be able to imagine what it was like to live in a different time or place, to imagine what might happen if we extrapolate data patterns, to imagine a story world or a mental model of how feudalism would affect us or how inertia works.

Most importantly, perhaps, we must be able to imagine ourselves as the kind of person who would want and be able to use what is being learned (while reading or studying anything) when we are out in the real world and we must imagine ourselves doing so. We must be able to imaginatively rehearse making a difference through who we are and what we are learning to become.

One way to work toward these ends is to reframe all content-area curricula into problem-oriented inquiries.Another is to make use of interactive strategies that meet kids’ current needs for personal relevance, social and disciplinary significance, and that develop and use imagination.

One set of such interactive strategies is provided by drama—in education. Drama and visualization strategies that support imagination (as well as supporting many other reading, composing, and problem-solving strategies) are among the most underused and powerful techniques in our teaching repertoires. In Commonwealth countries, drama in education courses are often required for teaching-candidates in all subject areas. Not in the U.S., where most people don’t even know what they are.

Drama is not theater. It is not staging some kind of production. Drama is short, scriptless, and often spontaneous. Drama, quite simply, is “imagining to learn” (Wilhelm & Edmiston, 1998). Drama strategies consist of eight families of tools, and each family actively promotes deliberate practice with specific reading strategies with which many students sometimes struggle.

Basic drama strategy families and their uses

Reenactments: Reenactments can be used before, during, or after reading/learning. Reenactments prepare and assist students to figure out and represent the literal and implied meanings of a textual episode by reframing it into a script or simply enacting it. Characters can be frozen and talked to about their experience in a particular moment. This strategy will help students figure out what texts are explicitly and implicitly saying, and are not saying, and how a different construction would change the text and what THE TEXT MEANS.

Role-Play: Students assume the different perspectives of characters, objects, forces, or ideas and interact with others, also assuming some kind of role. Students are provided with a dramatic situation and something to discuss, achieve, and be able to deliver or report on after the role-play. Role plays are typically quite short (60-90 seconds) although they can be extended as students get more experience.

Hotseating: Hotseating intensifies role-playing by putting students “on the spot” so they can be addressed, advised, interviewed, and questioned in role as a character, force, or idea by a forum of students also in role, as journalists, other characters, or interested parties, et al. This technique helps students improve their ability to analyze characters, infer, elaborate, and think on their feet. A “lifeline” group can assist the person or people on the hotseat, as needed. Good and bad angels can visit the character to offer ways forward with the current dilemma.

Discussion Dramas: These techniques support student talk and conversation about issues that matter by putting them in role and in a small or large group of other students in role, perhaps in a radio show format. This frees students to explore issues and express opinions that they want to deal with, but without being personally responsible for these viewpoints since they are expressed “in role”.

Correspondence: These enactments are any writing the student does while in role. Prompts provide students with a purpose, meaningful information, a situation, and an audience. Writing diary entries, social media posts, letters, or choral montages in role also helps deepen a student’s awareness of how different types of text are constructed.

Tableaux: Tableau is derived from the French word for visual presentation. Tableaux (plural) help students visualize and explore both the text and the subtext of a narrative, including setting, scenes, situations, characters, relationships, and meanings. Students can ALSO represent vocabulary and create mental models of complex concepts and procedures.

Mantle of the Expert: The term means to wear the cloak of a more expert person and to operate in the “story world” or imagined real-world context with this more expert person’s knowledge and power. This technique helps induct students into the ways of engaging, knowing, thinking, and doing that experts use to understand, produce, represent, and use content knowledge.

A few of the most powerful features of action/drama strategies: They put teachers in the role of facilitating and guiding targeted kinds of student activity and focused strategy and practice and understanding. They help reframe instruction as highly relevant and connected to student experience as these strategies foreground students’ current state of being, their interests, and their engagement but move them toward new and deeper understandings. Drama provides an imaginative rehearsal for living through problems and is a form of inquiry and problem-oriented play.

Drama fosters different kinds of classroom interactions since we can speak as someone else and give voice to silenced perspectives. Drama foregrounds our personal human connections to studied material. Drama helps students to give personal voice to universal issues.

But whether you use drama or not, the point is to continually experiment with and reflect on the use of various techniques for the purpose of improving our students’ educational experience. This, after all, is the life work of a teacher, and worthy work it is.

For an elaborated version of the chart and other resources showing the strategies and variations in action in different teaching contexts see here and here.

dramais

Thanks to Raquel, Jeremiah, Sarah, and Jeffrey for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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