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I Read It, But I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers by Cris Tovani

IReadItThis book was classroom-changing for me when I first read it. The timing could not have been better. The book was brand new and I was in my first year of teaching. My master teacher told me that I should read the book I Don’t Get it: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers.

Right away I was drawn to the practical nature of this book. With classroom snippets and student dialogue, Cris Tovani illustrates her points about reading comprehension issues in the classroom – not at the elementary level but at the junior-high and high school level. This resonated with me as I was teaching four sections of 11th grade students, and most of the them had an independent reading level of 8th or 9th grade. They struggled with our American Literature McDougal Littell textbook. When I foolishly assigned “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as a homework reading assignment, not one of my students was able to write a coherent summary of the reading. I looked at their homework – and they did try – and I was crushed. I knew they were struggling but I was at a loss for how to help them. I knew how to create lessons plans and address the standards. I could write summaries and read to the class but I knew there was more I should be able to do for my students. Cris Tovani showed me exactly what I needed to do to help my students.

So what will you find in this book?

Fake reading. Yep, Cris Tovani discusses what so many teachers see in their classrooms every day. Students “fake” read and make it through the assignments and discussions without actually reading – or comprehending. So what is there to do? First of all, we need to understand the realities of what reading really is and “redefine” our perception of reading. Reading is not just about decoding words. Reading is about constructing meaning and using cueing systems in our to comprehend challenging texts.

Right away, Cris doesn’t want teachers to feel overwhelmed by this information and the thought of teaching cueing systems. She quickly points out two absolutely fundamental ideas that all teachers can do to help their students improve their reading comprehension: 1. Become a passionate reader of what you teach. 2. Model how good readers read. Both of these ideas permeate her book as she discusses specific strategies that will help teachers improve reading comprehension in their classroom.

This leads us to strategic reading. Good readers have a purpose when they read. Having a clear focus on a reading assignment will help students stay focused and cue in to the important information. With a vague purpose (“You will have a test on this chapter tomorrow.”) students have difficulty zeroing in on what the important information and making sense of the concepts in their reading assignment. Thinking aloud and modeling the reading process will help your students see how a good reader makes sense of text, makes connections, and determines important ideas and questions. Marking the text also helps students connect, engage and interact with the text. Following up on marking text, double-entry diaries (as well as other interactive, dialectical journaling) can help students make sense of challenging texts.

What happens when a reader gets confused? First off, we need to teach students how to recognize when they are stuck and confused. Students who struggle with reading don’t always realize the point where they lose track in the reading process. Before they realize it, they finish the entire chapter even though they stopped interacting with the text pages earlier. Helping them identify the point where they first encountered confusion is the first step. Now what? Here is where we encounter fix-up strategies. Rereading is something students are often told, but there are many other fix-up strategies beyond rereading. Cris Tovani will walk you through a multitude of strategies, such as making text connections, making predictions, stopping to think about what you already know and read, asking questions, writing, visualizing, retelling, recognizing patterns in text structure, reading rates, and other ideas that will help your students repair the confusion.

Perhaps most important is Tovani’s discussion of how to teach reading strategies to your students. Not just creating lesson plans that utilize modeling, double-entry diaries, or comprehension constructors. Teaching students how to use these important strategies will help them beyond that particular lesson where you ask your students to make text-to-self and text-to-text connections in a double-entry diary. The strategies will help them become better readers in all of their classes and beyond.

Most of all, Tovani’s book resonates with optimism, energy and enthusiasm for her students and her teaching. When I finished the book, I was energized and excited. I was no longer in despair about my students reading abilities; I had a text in hand (and highlighters – I bought about 100 highlighters in 3 different colors after I read this book – I was so excited to teach my students how to mark and annotate a text!). I had multiple fix-up strategies to add to my reading toolbox. I set off with my highlighters, started posters with reading fix-up strategies and my students and I continued to make amazing improvement over the course of the year. And years later, I still find myself referring back to this book, rereading paragraphs and sections. It is an excellent reminder of the reasons we teach and the possibilities in the classroom, each and every day.

Have you read Cris Tovani’s book? What are your favorite reading comprehension textbooks for the classroom?

Reading Strategies: What is a Text Set?

So what exactly is a text set? And can it be used in the secondary classroom?

I first encountered text sets while sitting in the classroom of my master teacher. It was my first year of teaching and needless to say, I was overwhelmed. The conversation was centered on my American Literature 11th grade English class. We were supposed to follow the textbook, in chronological order, meaning that we started the year with very challenging literature (Puritans! Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God! The Crucible! The Scarlet Letter! Oh my!) and many of my students were not ready for such difficult texts. At this point in time, I was definitely in the “consciously incompetent” phase of initial teaching – that is to say that I was fully aware of the fact that I did not have a clue how to teach these difficult texts. I distinctly remember my master teacher (a gifted teacher and reading specialist) asking me “What are the barriers for your students? What do they need to know in order to read this material?” And she gently guided me toward the idea of text sets. The first text set that I ever created was centered on the idea of the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, to accompany our reading of The Crucible.

bookmagstackIn her book Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?, Cris Tovani writes about the importance of connecting students with accessible texts and how text sets can be used in the single subject classroom. Text sets are not new in the elementary world. But they are not as common in the secondary classroom, and Tovani points out that text sets are a great opportunity for several reasons. This textbook alternative connects students with a wide variety of texts, introduces different options for discovering new material, new viewpoints, creates as opportunity to connect with current events, and helps students build background knowledge. Tovani writes:  “Text sets are not designed to catch kids who aren’t reading. Text sets are designed to give reluctant readers a choice of interesting and accessible text. They provide opportunities for learning and practicing reading strategies.”

A good text set will include a variety of information and reading in different structures (informational, narrative, poetry, etc), different lengths, but will maintain a common theme or topic. The idea is to help your students get information, make valuable text connections, and achieve a deeper understanding of the selected topic or theme.

There are numerous ways to use a text set in your classroom. I have been in some elementary classrooms where the teachers have multiple text sets available to all students at all times and they are in constant motion! It’s amazing. Here are some ideas for how I like to use a text set in the secondary classroom. When creating a text set, there are several criteria that I like to keep in mind.

4-5 pieces of text. More than 5 pieces of text can be overwhelming for students. Keep this in mind as you will need to allow reading time in class for the text set. I think 4 is a good minimum as you want to include enough pieces to allow for multiple text-to-text connections. Of course these numbers are flexible and a lot depends on what you are including in your text set. If you have more than one visual piece, you may want to include 6 or 7 pieces. On the other hand, if you have a lot of text for students to read, you may want to stick with only 4 pieces of text. Or you may want to create multiple text sets (5 or 6 sets, each different with 20-30 different texts total) and rotate them through your class over a two week period. This could be especially practical and useful when tackling a subject such as World War II in a history class.

Visual. This may be a picture or a piece of artwork related to the theme or topic of your text set. This visual may speak to your student artists, who are able to make a connection and discuss the artwork. Another important point to including a visual in your text set is the absence of language. Asking the students to describe and discuss this visual will help them develop their own academic language. This process can be illuminating for students who have not previously thought about the possibility of analyzing and discussing art. It is one more way for students to make a connection.

Poetry. Can you find a poem on the same subject or theme of your text set? You may have some poets in your classroom who would love to read a poem. You may also have some students who are wary of poetry and discussing a poem is an intimidating idea. In both cases, it is important for students to have multiple exposures to poetry and yet another opportunity for discussion and connections.

A short, simple narrative. This may be achieved by including a picture book or short story. A narrative structure can be very important. I think this is especially important if you are asking students to read a significant amount of informational text. If you are a content area teaching who is creating a text set on a topic that will complement your primary textbook, this may be especially important for a successful text set. Reading a challenging chapter in a biology book is intimidating for many students. Reading a simple story of a virus may give them just the right window to make a connection and help them understand some of the academic language used to discuss viruses in their high school level textbook. Remember, a good text set includes reading at a variety of levels. This isn’t meant to take away from your challenging reading or “dumb down” your curriculum; this is meant to enhance your topic and give your students information at multiple levels so they can engage with the reading. (Curious about more picture books for text sets? Read more about Picture Books, Not Just for Kids!)

Possibilities for text sets:

  • Poetry
  • Short Stories
  • Vignettes
  • Magazine articles
  • Newspaper articles
  • Picture books
  • Biographical information/short biographies
  • Maps
  • Photos
  • Artwork/Paintings
  • Song lyrics
  • Journals or letters
  • Brochures
  • Charts or graphs
  • Almanacs

Another question that I hear from teachers is “can I use a text set if I’m not an English teacher?” The answer is yes, absolutely! I have seen text sets used in high school science classrooms, history, home economics, business, computers, foreign languages, even math – the possibilities are endless! In working with content area teachers and English language arts teachers, I have read teacher-created text sets on a wide array of topics and themes, including

  • Ancient Greece
  • Marketing
  • Civil War
  • Japanese Internment Camps (to accompany reading of Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne & James Houston)
  • Homelessness and mental health (to accompany reading of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls)
  • Solar System
  • Inventions of Mesopotamia
  • Roman Gladiators and the Colosseum
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Race and identity
  • Ecology of rainforests

As you can see, the possibilities truly are endless. Text sets can be used to help students connect with accessible texts and so much more. It is possible to use text sets as jumping off points for reading a new novel, group projects, essay assignments, journal writing, presentations – be creative in your classroom! How can you use a text set?

Have you used a text set in your secondary classroom? Please share!

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