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November 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 3

Reading for Real

A teacher in a rural school finds connecting texts to outdoors exploration and service work entices students to read.

My students are reading a complex informational text: a New England forest. Contained in its pages are human history, biology, ecology, and geology, all written in a language the uninitiated cannot read. Armed with journals, students look deep into the forest and jot down notes. Some identify the trees around them, some feel the soil, some look for scars on tree trunks. They are learning to read a forested landscape, a feat that requires them to understand the types of trees that grow in wet or dry habitats; the scars that fires, disease, and logging produce on trunks; and the signs that indicate whether a forest was once a pasture or a field of vegetables.
These students are reading the landscape to make an interpretive ecology map of the trails around our campus. Of course, to read this forest they had to first read many written texts—the kind of complex informational texts that the Common Core State Standards mandate. In my classroom, students use complex informational texts to help them acquire the skills they need to complete real-world tasks and projects. Through explorations like our mapping project, texts that might seem irrelevant in isolation become gateways to authentic work and experiential learning.
The experiential component is essential because when students are given informational text to read, one of the greatest barriers to understanding can be boredom. Few high school students really want to read a random article about tree habitats, and when articles like these are assigned out of context, it's unlikely that many students will engage with them.
For years, teachers have relied on teen-friendly books to make reading appealing in hopes that students will find themselves among the pages. This kind of self-discovery is less likely in informational text. The challenge is compounded by the fact that serious thinkers who express important ideas don't always worry about whether their work is fun for teens to read. It's the teacher's job to empower students to access these texts.
Authentic projects that require students to do sophisticated reading and research fuel such empowerment. Within the context of projects, informational texts are not exercises, but necessary pathways to a desired understanding.

Stepping into a Complex Text

I designed the trail map project for my Nature Writing class, an English elective for 9th to 12th graders in my rural public school in North Berwick, Maine. Forty-two percent of students at Noble High School receive free or reduced-price lunch. We created the class after our principal called for experiential classes that could appeal to our kids most at risk of failing or dropping out. Because we spend half our time outdoors, the class attracts many students who don't care for school. It also appeals to other types of students; in a typical semester, the group includes students from our alternative school, students who dream of being foresters or scientists, and students in the top 10 percent of their class.
The text for Nature Writing is Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England by ecologist Tom Wessels (Countryman Press, 1997). This book has a Lexile level of 1490 and was written for an adult audience. Academic and scientific vocabulary appear frequently. Here's a typical sentence: "Our New England ecosystems have evolved with nature's disturbances—fire, blowdowns, and beavers—through millions of years, but they are just beginning to adjust to recent human alterations in the form of agricultural activity, logging, and introduced forest pathogens" (p. 18). It's an excellent book for teaching people how to read natural history from the forest, but it's not written for kids who failed sophomore English.
A series of steps—from high-interest introductory activities to formative assessment—empower students to read, understand, and internalize the concepts in this book. I describe these steps below. The most important one is the last: activities that provide immediate, real-world application of the text's ideas.

Priming Activities

Although Nature Writing is designed to be exciting, we often use a predictable routine. Class starts with a quick activity designed to lead into the day's reading, one that enables students to access the knowledge they already have and formulate questions the day's reading might answer.
For example, on the day we read a chapter that describes how Native American forest management techniques shaped the New England landscape, I use a journal entry prompt to ask students to ride a time machine and describe what our school's campus looked like 700 years ago. Most students describe a lush continuous forest, which enables me to pester them with questions: Why do you think it was all a forest? If you wanted to prove you were right, what evidence could you look for? Are there any other possibilities?
This primes them for the day's reading, which provides a more informed view of what a time traveler to Maine in 1313 might see. When the text includes many unfamiliar words, the introductory activity also introduces this vocabulary.

Guided Reading and Group Work

When the students are ready to enter the text, I often read the first paragraphs aloud. Many of my students struggle to pull meaning from the printed page, and they reap tremendous benefit from hearing this complex text read with fluency and excitement. I never read the whole text aloud, because students need to develop fluency for themselves, but I use my own dramatic reading to get them rolling. Students hear my own—and Wessels's—excitement about the ideas on the page because I agree with Shirley Brice Heath that "the single most important condition for literacy learning is the presence of mentors who are joyfully literate people."
Students next read silently, using a text guide that provides a glossary and requires them to answer questions or illustrate ideas in the chapter. Silent, guided reading of print is an essential strategy for helping students engage with complex informational text. It's crucial to make time for such reading in class. In this day of smartphones and multitasking, it may be the only time my students engage uninterrupted and undistracted with a text, without any online sources that offer a digested version of the information.
As students fill out the text guide, I circulate and assess each student's understanding, stopping to discuss challenging passages. The guides contain some questions that assess comprehension and draw attention to important passages (Why do beech trees have smooth bark?). However, each guide also contains questions that press students to apply the information to the forest we walk in each day (If we go outside and find beech trees with knobs, cracks, and bumps on the bark, what will that tell us? What might be the next step for these trees?).
Often, one question requires students to draw a diagram or cartoon of a concept:
In the space below, create a series of cartoons or drawings to illustrate the sequence that the author describes on page 24. Label these pictures "Young forest with closed canopy," "Young forest with gaps in canopy," "Middle-age forest with age discontinuity," "Old-growth forest."
This exercise provides a quick formative assessment. If my students can read Wessels's explanation of forest succession and turn his written exposition into visual images, they've understood the text. If they get stuck while drawing, the act of creating an image makes it easier for them to articulate exactly what they don't understand. As Cris Tovani points out, this ability to pinpoint just where comprehension has broken down is an essential part of successfully reading informational text.
Jigsaw activities, in which small groups each read a section of text and then teach others in the class what they've learned, also help students pinpoint where their understanding has stalled. I require each group to create an outline listing the most important concepts in the text and make expository notes or illustrations for each concept.
Most students can figure out the key concepts, but they struggle with exposition. Because they've listed the central ideas, however, they don't just look up and say, "I don't understand this!" They can express their confusion precisely ("I don't understand what a commensalistic relationship is"). After identifying their precise question, students use a series of strategies to reenter the text; they can highlight the exact paragraph that will give them their answer, read it aloud to a partner, look up unfamiliar words in the paragraph, and rephrase the paragraph in their own words.

Stepping Outside

The most important step in understanding Wessels's text is to apply the principles it describes to the woods outside our doors. I take my students outside at least once a week during this unit. I challenge them to use the clues Wessels has taught them to make inferences about the natural history of our campus—to figure out which areas were logged, which were pastured, which have been forested for a long time, and which have been affected by forest pathogens. They try to make predictions: Which areas of our woods are most susceptible to forest fire? Which are most likely to host certain birds and mammals?
This step is essential because it motivates; when students know that we're reading to gain understanding for an upcoming experiential activity, they are motivated to work efficiently. It also boosts understanding. There's a tremendous difference between reading a paragraph explaining that tree roots send up multiple shoots after the trunk is cut off and going outside, looking at an area filled with multiple-trunked trees, and answering the questions: What happened here? How long ago? When students can call on information from a text to answer real-world questions, they have truly understood what they read.

Service Projects: From Field Guides to Policy Briefs

A final step I often take with students in exploring complex texts is a community service project, in which students use what they learned to create a useful product. One year, my Nature Writing class published a field guide to our campus; another year, we produced a large wall map explaining the ecology of our trails and fields. In this excerpt from our field guide, a student shares knowledge gained from Wessels's book:
A coppiced tree is a tree that has many trunks. This is mostly caused when someone cuts down a tree, but the root system does not die. So the tree tries to come back, but instead of coming back with one tree trunk, it comes back with more, so it will have a better chance of surviving.
On another theme, students in my AP Language and Composition classes did a service project that put them in the role of education researchers and advisers. They read and discussed articles about practices common in U.S. high schools and current issues in schooling, graduation, and college completion. Each student researched a question of his or her choice and presented that research to classmates. After reading profile articles from magazines (as exemplars of creative nonfiction), students went into our community, interviewed alumni from Noble High, and wrote profiles focusing on these former students' lives beyond graduation.
After discussing their profiles and research, students worked together to create a white paper of policy suggestions for our school. It was circulated to the administration, faculty, and school board.
The texts students read during this project—reports from think tanks, articles from Education Week, and academic journals—were written for professionals and policymakers. Had such texts been given to students out of context, the students would've likely been unmotivated to read them.

Authenticity Is Key

Authenticity is one reason students will read challenging texts. The education-themed project let students pursue their own interests, gave college-bound students experience in scholarly research, and had a genuine effect within our community. The trail map project helped them learn the contours of woods they saw daily.
Students' feedback forms often refer to this authenticity as a motivator for struggling with texts not intended for adolescents:
I really enjoyed researching this project, which surprised me; it was cool that I got to answer my own question. … It was fun to research this because it represents my life so well.

Thinking About Our Students

Engagement with complex texts is made possible when a teacher thinks about his or her students. Who are they? What skills do they need? What local problems could they address, or to what local effort could they contribute? How can I ensure that their contribution will require research, discussion, and reading relevant informational text? What product can they create that will push them to truly understand a text?
Projects designed in response to these questions enable students to grapple with challenging texts in an environment where the texts are connected to meaningful enterprise. By creating these environments, teachers enable students to achieve the vision of the Common Core English language arts standards—that students will learn to read carefully; think deeply, undaunted by complex texts; and use their minds to produce work of substance.
End Notes

1 cited in Calkins, L. (2010). A guide to the reading workshop, Grades 3–5. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

2 Tovani, C. (2000). I read it but I don't get it: Comprehension strategies for adolescent readers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

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