Dr. James Baer & Others-Reading Textbooks
Faculty Reflections & Exchange on .....
"Getting Students To Read and Effectively Use Textbooks for Positive Results."
Dr. James Baer, Professor of History; Dr. Barry Selinger, Professor of Reading; Ms. Kathy Wax, Associate Professor of Developmental English; and, Ms. Janet Giannoti, Assistant Professor of English as a Second Language.
Overview and Insights on Reading Textbooks-James Baer
Jim Baer opened the workshop by describing the grant he received from the Northern Virginia Educational Foundation the previous fall. He used his reassigned time from one course to set up a tutoring program for students in Western Civilization courses as part of a study on student textbook reading skills. Few students came to the tutoring sessions, perhaps due to scheduling conflicts, a fear of exposing their weakness or the feeling that reading was a simple skill and tutoring was not necessary. But the students who came to tutoring sessions gave Jim some good insights into their habits.
Some students reported they did not read the textbook thoroughly before class. Instead, they skimmed the chapter just to see what it was about. Then they went to class and took notes on the lecture and discussion. After class they looked over these notes to identify the most important topics discussed. Then they turned to the textbook and read only those parts of the chapter that pertained to the topics emphasized in class. Not surprisingly, these were some of the better students. Jim explained that he had assumed the best students would read the text thoroughly before coming to class. He gave out study guides to identify important topics and wanted students to come prepared to discuss the themes highlighted.
The issue of students' ability to read and use textbooks effectively raises several important questions. How good are our students' reading skills? How effectively can they use the textbook in a course? What techniques might instructors use to make students better readers? How can we incorporate this into our courses without taking any time away from the content area? And, finally, what is the proper approach since there are so many theories?
Jim introduced the three participants in the colloquy: Barry Selinger, Janet Giannotti and Kathy Wax, all from the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences at NVCC-Alexandria campus. Barry teaches developmental reading and has studied the topic extensively. Janet teaches English as a Second Language and has conducted research on reading. Kathy teaches English and ESL, and has studied learning styles. They presented information on their findings that sparked much dialogue with the audience.
Improving Retention Through Writing Plans and Conceptual Maps-Barry M. Selinger
There is a body of research demonstrating that teaching readers to detect the organizational plan a writer uses to organize information aids in recall of that information. In addition, reading research suggests that representing information in the form of a conceptual map helps college students retain information from texts. There are five types of super ordinate discourse plans used by writers to convey information. They are description, sequence, comparison/contrast, cause/effect, and problem/solution. At the Alexandria campus, we teach students to use visual templates corresponding to each plan to map the main ideas of popular newspaper and magazine articles. A graphic representation of each king of plan helps students detect the structure and locate the main ideas in expository writing.
Because students will have difficulty detecting the structure of an article and creating maps that include the main ideas, it is suggested that students be given ample opportunity to practice these skills. The following is a good way to help students master the procedure: 1) Present each plan by giving its definition, examples of the kinds of writing that typically employ a particular plan, the signal words that suggest a particular plan is being used, and what each plan's main ideas contain; 2) Give students an article that employs each plan and its corresponding completed map; 3) Provide an article with a map template for each plan and have students complete the map; and, 4) Give students written feedback after they complete their maps.
After students learn to use this method to understand the top-level structure of different kinds of text, further instruction can help students apply this knowledge to academic tasks. Students can easily be taught to convert their maps to outlines. This can be valuable because many professors require formal outlines for various projects. Students can also be taught to write formal summaries to communicate their understanding of a text to others. Finally, they can be taught to use their maps to retain information for exams.
Helping Students Become Better Readers through Scaffolding, Modeling, Think-Alouds and Graphic Organizers-Janet Giannotti
The material that a reader encounters can be roughly divided into three levels. A student can read Independent Level materials on his or her own, at a normal reading rate. At the Instructional Level, a student can read to gain information, but the rate is usually slower and the student needs some support. A student can not gain information from the text at his or her Frustration Level.
Most of what we present our students with is probably at their Instructional Level. This means that we must offer support to our readers. Before examining that support, it might be helpful to see what goes into making a good reader.
What Makes a Good Reader?
First, a good reader needs to read fluently. When we read, we tentatively interpret words as they arrive, but they are only fully digested when we pause slightly at the period that marks the end of the sentence. At the end of the sentence, the reader works out the meaning of the chain of words held in short-term memory. If the reader reads too slowly the beginning of the sentence may be lost before the end is reached, and this affects comprehension.
Second, automaticity gives a reader fluency, which influences comprehension. A fluent reader recognizes words automatically, using very little cognitive capacity. This leaves more cognitive capacity to use in comprehending, criticizing, reflecting on, and elaborating on text. The need for automaticity points to actively teaching the vocabulary of a discipline so those words become automatic for readers.
And finally, comprehension is linked to background knowledge. Good readers bring their prior knowledge to the text they are reading. They use their prior knowledge to construct meaning from new texts. In our diverse classrooms, there is often a large gap between what our students are studying and their prior knowledge. One way to overcome this is to "turn your lesson upside down." That is, instead of assigning a reading and then discussing it in the next class, you can have the discussion first - perhaps with some visuals like a video or a Power Point presentation. Then assign the reading. This gives students some background as well as a purpose for reading the text.
Scaffolding the Reading Process
The support we offer to our students while they are reading at their Instructional Level is called "scaffolding." While scaffolding is essential for Instructional Level materials, students for whom textbooks are Independent Level can also benefit.
In scaffolding, teachers support readers and show them how to use strategies that will lead to independent learning. In other words, teachers can demonstrate and model strategies that students should use later on their own.
Reading as a Three-Stage Process
As was stated earlier, when we scaffold a reading, often we "turn the lesson upside down" and have the discussion before assigning a reading. If we use pre-reading situations that cause doubt, perplexity, or puzzlement, readers will be motivated to seek resolution; the brain is wired to make sense of things and to resolve conflict. We can also preview material with our students and help them not only predict what the material will be about, but also to think about what they already know about the topic and then to establish a purpose for the reading.
During reading, a good reader will visualize, or form a mental picture. This can be scaffolded by using a think aloud strategy. That is, a teacher can choose a difficult paragraph from the text, read it aloud, stop and tell students what he or she is visualizing during the reading. Students can be given worksheets to use along with readings that ask them to stop at certain points and try to visualize.
Good readers will also vary reading speed, mark texts, and monitor comprehension. Again, this can be accomplished with think alouds, or with simple worksheets that direct students' attention or give instructions for how to mark texts. For example, a worksheet might say: "A new term is defined in paragraph 10. Highlight the term and underline the definition." Worksheets can also help students see text structure with hints like: "Paragraph 11 shows cause and effect. Circle the cause and underline the effect." Or, "Paragraph 5 gives examples. How many are there?____ Write "examples" in the margin next to paragraph 5."
Finally, after reading students should evaluate their understanding of the text and should review and recall the ideas presented in the selection. Summarizing, free writing, short quizzes, and class discussions can help students evaluate their understanding. In addition, students should organize what they have learned. Graphic organizers such as cluster maps, Venn diagrams, or charts can help students organize ideas. Teachers can produce blank or partially-filled diagrams or charts that students can complete, or students can be asked to generate their own graphic organizers.
Considering that most of the material we present to our students is at their Instructional Level, we can offer support throughout the reading process. We can actively teach the vocabulary of our discipline, turn our lessons upside down so that we discuss a topic before students read about it, and help students both monitor comprehension during the reading and check comprehension afterwards with worksheets, writing assignments, and graphic organizers.
Helping Students Develop Specific Learning Strategies That Match Learning Styles-Kathy Wax
Research indicates that success in college is directly linked to reading ability. While problems in writing are often very obvious, reading difficulties may remain hidden. Students with reading problems are often defensive about their difficulties or may not even be aware of the extent of their problems until they are faced with assignments in college-level texts. One problem for instructors is that in any classroom, there may be a tremendous range of reading abilities, and some students may have skills that are far below the college level. In addition, community college students come from very diverse backgrounds with varied experiences. AS a result, there is no one method of instruction that will meet the needs of all students, so it is important that students and teachers work together to find ways that will maximize reading performance.
Students must first understand that they need to become active learners. Unfortunately, many students are passive learners and do not completely engage themselves with the text or the teacher. To help them become active readers, community college students might benefit from instruction in how to determine whether they are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. Once they have identified their learning styles they can then develop strategies to maximize their particular learning strengths. Studies indicate that there are increasing numbers of auditory and kinesthetic learners in classrooms, and their needs may be quite different from those of visual learners. For example, physically active students may require frequent breaks and "white noise" for reading, while other students may be able to sit and study for long periods of time in a quiet room.
Acquainting students with a study system like SQ3R can be beneficial, also. The classroom teacher should "walk through" a textbook chapter with students to show them how they can employ different strategies. Students should be reminded of the value of reciting main ideas and key concepts at the end of every paragraph or page. Research indicates that readers who spend a great proportion of their study time in the recitation process have much better comprehension than readers who spend very little time reciting. Writing is the preferred method of recitation because the student then has a record of what was learned, but oral recitation is very beneficial, too. In summary, students need to find reading techniques that suit their individual needs.
About the Presenters:
James Baer is professor of History, campus representative for the Center for Teaching Excellence, and recent recipient of the Chancellor's Fellowship. Jim coordinated a special project to study how to get students to effectively use textbooks. Jim also has special research and study interests in Latin America and specifically Argentina. He is co-author of the book: Cities of Hope, People, Protests and Progress in Urbanizing Latin America, 1870-1930 (with Ronn Pineo), Westview Press, 1998.
Barry Selinger is professor of Reading at NVCC-Alexandria campus. A recent recipient of the President's Sabbatical Award, he is currently working on a model summary writing training program that professors can use to develop their own materials. Barry is interested in research demonstrating the relationship between summarization and reading recall and conducted an experiment at NOVA in 1992, which demonstrated that community college developmental students can be trained to adequately summarize textbook material. He has been an active member of the Developmental/ESL Reading Assessment Working Group at NOVA since its inception in the 1980s.
Janet Giannotti is an assistant professor of English as a Second Language at NVCC-Alexandria campus. She teaches reading and writing in the academic ESL program. She is currently completing coursework for her M.Ed. in reading education at the University of Virginia. She is author of a series of ESL textbooks used to support students in reading popular literature. Her current project is developing a writing textbook. Janet's main research interests are helping students become better readers through scaffolding, modeling, think-alouds, and graphic organizers.
Kathy Wax is an associate professor and assistant dean for Developmental English at NVCC-Alexandria campus. She has a Master's in Reading and teaching English as a Second Language and Developmental English. Kathy is the Perkins Grant coordinator on the Alexandria campus and is recruiting tutors for students enrolled in ESL and Developmental English classes. Her special interests in reading instruction include assisting students in identifying their individual learning styles and developing study strategies that most effectively utilize their particular strengths.