Diagramming Difficult Concepts

Have you noticed that some readers can give you a routine synopsis of a text they have read, but not be able to explain many details with any depth? Students might confuse a concept or idea the writer presents which keeps them from understanding key themes or layered ideas. They may still struggle understanding some concepts and details even after rereading. What can you do about this?

When rereading a section of text, give students a specific question to read to answer or a definitive type of information to search for that will requiring them to put information together to reveal an inferred or suggested idea.

Another strategy that may be combined with the previous one or stand alone is to read several texts over the same topic. Students should build up a deeper understanding of the topic and start to understand information that may have been confusing to them at first. This has been called creating reading ladders among other names. Students can code the texts with a pencil or mentally  noticing information they already know versus new information.

 

+ = new information

*= I already knew this

When reading a second or third text on a topic or concept, it is important to help students notice that writers often share the same information as other authors but add more details to it. Students may end up coding a sentence with both a + and a *  when a writer broadens a readers understanding in this way. When students read multiple texts about a topic, they should be able to read increasingly more difficult texts because they are becoming familiar with content specific words and gaining background knowledge. Therefore writers will give more in-depth information that should build a students expertise. Students are reading up the ladder in two ways. If you are not increasing the difficulty of text then students will mostly likely not gain much new information they can add to their schema.

Readers need to notice when writers add on to their understanding of a topic or concept as they read more about it. They need to train their brain to notice and note differences which may include contrasting information and more in-depth information so they can add it into their schema.  If we do not instill in our students a mindset to read to gain knowledge and figure things out about life, they often do not do this. Striving readers often do not have this mindset. Students may have this mindset in other areas of their life but not for reading. This mindset has to be modeled and noticed and named in students’ own books as they do it.

Another way to help students understand more difficult or abstract concepts is to have them draw a diagram of the elusive concept or idea you noticed comprehension breaking down with. This is something that can be done in conjunction with the other strategies I have talked about.

This is something that does not work with every book, but can be helpful when the idea lends itself to being drawn. Start with a discussion. Notice and note key words and add in any of the strategies I have already mentioned. Then you can have students draw a diagram representing their understanding. I did this with a group a striving 2nd grade readers.  They were reading the level J book All About Bats by Donna Latham

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Students were understanding the basic information about bats the writer shared. Information like bats being nocturnal and mammals or an animal that roosts. Some of this information they could have already acquired from other sources. When it came to the concept of how bats use echolocation to find food, students understanding broke down. To help with this I shared a video, which showed an animated diagram of echolocation taking place. When you read across a topic, it can include videos, podcasts and stand-alone diagrams or infographics.

Then we went back into the text and reread the section on echolocation and looked closely at the diagram the writer included in the text. The video added a layer of depth to the students understanding, so when rereading that section students were able to turn and talk to each other and explain echolocation with me helping them pull out some key words to use.

Students then drew their own diagrams and explained them to each other. I then had students write a description next to their diagram.  This really help them understand how echolocation works.

 

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     I did not focus on spelling with this part of the lesson. My focus was for students to write show their understanding of echolocation. They were able to verbally talk about their understanding more accurately then writing about it. My lesson objective was for students to use details from the texts to verbalize and write about how bats use echolocation. This group of students was able to understand echolocation with more depth than other previous groups.  I aways change one or more aspects of a lesson to make it meet the current groups needs and to improve upon it from previous teachings after careful reflection. I write a new lesson plan each time I teach a book no matter how many times I have taught it. I use the notes I took on the previous one as my guide.

 

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The bat sends a high sound and the sound bounces back to the bat and the bat eats the insect.

As you can see this student mixed up the words bat and insect, but was able to verbally explain echolocation correctly. This was first draft writing. I can build off of the strengths in his reading and writing.

You can even pull out certain sections of other texts that include the concept you want to focus in on with students. Students do not need to read entire texts when you know where and with what concept their meaning was breaking down.  As teachers we need to make those instructional decisions of where to focus student thinking. Sunday Cummins inspired me to dig into this type of work through her book : Nurturing Informed Thinking: Reading, Talking, and Writing Across Content Area Sources.nurture

Troy

Backwards Planning for Writing in Response to Reading.

To help students dig deeper in to their understanding of what they read I have been requiring more of students writing in response to texts. I believe that when students can express text understanding through writing, they can strengthen that understanding as they write.

One strategy I use to set students up to write using fiction books is to think from the writer’s perspective to help deepen their understanding. I teach my students to ask questions like, why did the writer make the character do that or say that? Or, what does the writer want you to think/feel here? If they think about what the writer is attempting to get readers to feel and understand as they read, then it can deeper their thinking and help them make those sometimes-elusive inferences. I want my students to get beyond the generic understandings and ideas to the deeper ones that are more inclusive to text details not clearly stated but implied. It also gives them more than one lumped together sentence to write about.

 

In the text: Thin Ice by Anne Sibley O’Brien, the main characters are cousins.

Thin Ice

 

Rosa is older and often babysits her younger cousin Manny. On their way home from school one day during the beginning of a spring thaw Rosa is fretting about a story she has to write while Manny is carefree and creating adventures for himself. Rosa wishes her life was more exciting, more like Manny’s. Manny pretends he is a hockey player, darts over a fence and heads for a pond. Rosa yells to him that the ice is to thin to walk out on, as he grabs her notebook to use as a hockey puck. She tries to grab it back and it slips from his hands onto ice. Manny quickly goes after it. He falls through and so does Rosa trying to rescue him.

Readers in my guided reading typically explain the book being about falling through the ice. As Rosa eventually pulls herself out of the ice and helps keep her cousin from going under students start to think about Rosa being a hero. There is a deeper meaning to this story, however. It focuses on Rosa feeling sorry for herself and worrying about what she could write for her story because her life is so boring. She states all she does is babysit. The ending of the book helps clarify this theme when Rosa appears to not be upset about what Manny caused because it gave her something to write about. My striving readers easily overlook this deeper theme that can be built up into explanation of what the writer wants readers to understand about life.

 

I planned my lesson for this book through backwards planning. I planned what I wanted students written response to focus on and thought about what strategy would help students be able to notice the underlying theme.  I want a better written response then simply saying this is a book about a girl saving her cousin when he fell into a pond, which is technically right but readers can figure most of that out from the cover of the book. We need to be able to go much deeper.

I chose to have students focus on Rosa and how she was feeling about her life at this point in time as they read. They would have to be able go deeper than the rescue itself to understand what the writer wants readers to understand about Rosa, beside her being a hero.

After reading the text through one time, I asked students to reread specific sections, underline sentences and words that can help them understand how Rosa was feeling that day. Then annotate the text making notes about the why of what she was feeling and to jot down some of their inferences. They will use their notes to help them write in detail about what Rosa was feeling about her life that day. I prompted with questions like I mentioned above, “what does the writer want readers to think here?” or “why would the writer make that happen?”as students marked their text.

Readers will use their notes to help them make a plan for writing and then as they write I confer with them and help them stick to their plan or lead them back into the book so they can clarify something. This will lead to a much more in-depth understanding of the text then I use to get and a clear purpose for students to keep in mind as they read knowing they will be writing about Rosa.

It often appears that teachers will make a plan for student writing as they are finishing up the text readings. This is not something a recommend doing. This makes your lesson objectives isolated and your writing disconnected from your teaching points. Backwards planning with the end in mind will help striving readers make the connections they need to and not practice strategy instruction in isolation where reading becomes about strategy use along and very general understandings of text. Readers will not end up reading for meaning and building meaning through writing.

If the lesson is not planned to set students up for the type of writing you want, then they will not be able to build on and extend their understanding of the text in a cohesive and manageable way through writing. Your reading and writing objectives for the lesson must be aligned, even in your lower level guided reading groups. As the teacher you will possibly end up providing them with the details you decided you wanted them to write about.

Troy