Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reading to Learn: Using 'Text Sets'

A former university student, who I taught almost 20 years ago emailed me recently. She asked for some information on a curriculum idea - the 'Text Set' - that I had developed in the 1980s, and which she recalled me talking about in classes. When I tracked my only written reference to it in my book 'Pathways to Literacy' (pp 92-93) I thought I'd do a blog post on it. I wondered at first whether it might be less relevant now because the idea was developed in the 1980s when the Internet was just being conceived for mass use - 'Google it' wasn't part of our vocabulary! In a way, the text set in the hands of the teacher, offered a teacher selected Google search in a box. I have no idea who had the idea first, but the stimulus for my development of the concept was seeing something like it in a classroom linked to Professor Jerome Harste's Graduate research program when I was working with him as a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University (Bloomington) in 1984. My own work on 'Intertextuality' (I'll do a future post on this topic) also informed its development.

A 'Text Set' consists of a collection of texts that are usually (but not always) books that deal with a single topic that children use for research and writing. It is accompanied by instructions that students follow to guide their research and writing. The theme might be transport, war, mammals, Iceland, global warming, marine life, racial understanding, poverty, space, dinosaurs, the history of.... and so on. The books collected might include non-fiction of varied kinds, fictional narratives, pictures, maps or even poetry (sometimes we would add videos and tapes). A task for children aged 7-10 years might look like this:

Using the non-fiction books on space travel, the poem 'Outer Space' by Carole Weston, and the boy's the scrapbook ('One Small Step') included in the box, write about one of these things:

How did space travel begin? (Which countries? Which people?)
Why would you like to travel into space?
Write about one interesting astronaut (where did he grow up, why did he become an astronaut, where did he train, what has he done as an astronaut...?).
What part do animals play in space travel?

You can supplement tasks like the above with complementary skill sheets that reinforce specific study and research skills that you have been teaching your children (I've listed a helpful link for doing this below).

Children don't learn literacy in a neat serial way. While in the first few years of life their literacy acquisition (at the written word level) tends to be additive, they learn a few letters, some sounds, then some words etc, once the foundations of literacy are laid, progress explodes and development occurs in multiple directions. As well, the development of literacy and their growth as learners and laguage users becomes increasingly intertwined. As children learn about literacy and language, they learn through literacy, their world and themselves as people (see my previous posts on the 'Power of literature').

As children grow as literacy users, reading and writing to learn, not just learning to read and write, they need to acquire more complex study and research skills. These include:
Where do I find the information that I need?
How do I identify the information that relates to my topic?
How do I judge the relevance of information and its truth and accuracy?
How do I make notes in my own words not just copy slabs of text?
How do I synthesise the information and present it in a form that others can access?
Children need help with all parts of the research process and they need to learn these things as they do research. The 'Text Set' is a way to introduce children to the research process in a controlled way. It works well with children as young as 6 years. Obviously the texts that you choose will need to be appropriate for 6 year olds (which will be a challenge). I should comment that applied linguists don't necessarily like a strategy like this one that encourages children to use varied written genres (or forms), because they believe that it can lead to children writing in hybrid forms rather than (for example) a traditional expository form. My view is that you can let them use varied writing to learn and you also teach them specific written genres like exposition as well.

The great value of the 'Text Set' is that it allows you to present children with multiple written genres which then act as resource for students to explore the topic. The approach also capitalises on the natural process of intertextuality, where children make connections between the things they read, hear, see and experience. The aim is to stimulate their interest as learners and to use a varied range of textual resources to help them along the way.

Why not just do a web search?

As I've already said, the 'Text Set' is a bit like a Google search in a box, so why not just do the Google search? Couldn't you just give your students a web link that directs them to a prepared list of resources online? Yes you could and it may well achieve some of the same outcomes, but the library will have resources that you can't get online and it offers more control for the teacher of the learning process and the chance to teach study and research skills along the way.

My view is that the Google search for the young child will often have as its focus searching to find information, rather than reading to learn. As well, we know that readers behave differently online - they tend to 'bounce around' almost randomly, there are quick decisions based on a few words in a link, and the behaviour is rather volatile. The skills required for online literacy are different to traditional study and research skills. A more controlled strategy like the 'Text Set' allows a more systematic treatment of basic research skills that require careful sifting of information, considered judgments about the quality of the content, and organization of what is being learned not just cutting and pasting other people's information.

While children will learn some of these as they explore the Internet themselves, they won't necessarily acquire the research skills without teacher help.

My preference is to teach children basic research skills as they learn to use the Internet. At times this will require non-web lessons that focus on the research process. At other times, you will plan web-based tasks and you might even combine the two. For example, a good variation to my 'Text Set' idea would be to supplement the task above with some web-based resources. For the task above on 'Space', you could add the following list of links:

Lots of space poetry (here)
Check out these images from the Hubble Telescope (here)
Check out the NASA - 'Kennedy Space Center' site (here)
Phoenix Mars Mission (here) - don't miss the Kids Section (here) and Mars 101 (here)
Follow 'Diary of an Astronaut' (here)
Have a look at this video on board the Space Shuttle as it blasts into space (here)

Related links and resources

For an excellent summary of the research process for children check out 'Big6 Kids' (here)

See my previous post on comprehension (here)

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