Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Improving Comprehension: Using Routines or Strategies

There are many ways to think about instructional approaches to reading comprehension. One approach is to distinguish between Content-based approaches and Strategy-based approaches. Content-based approaches use varied activities to focus student attention on the content or meaning of the text. For example, previous posts on 'Sketch to Stretch', 'Reader Response' and 'Map Making' are very much content-based. There are many other approaches that try to help readers understand the content of a text and demonstrate this by recalling lots of information, being able to summarise the passage, answering varied questions and so on.  I also use some of the above as part of what many would call strategy-based approaches that was the focus of a lot of research in the 1980s. So using categories to describe comprehension is tricky.

The approach commonly referred to as 'Strategies' involves teaching children procedures or routines that can be re-used and applied in varied tasks by the reader or writer.  This approach arose from the work of psychologists like Ann Brown and Annemarie Palincsar and was related to the study of 'Metacognition' (a term first used by James Flavell in 1976).  In simple terms, metacognition is thinking about thinking, including mental activities like reading comprehension. Taylor (1999) has defined metacognition as “an appreciation of what one already knows, together with a correct apprehension of the learning task and what knowledge and skills it requires, combined with the agility to make correct inferences about how to apply one’s strategic knowledge to a particular situation, and to do so efficiently and reliably”.

As a result of metacognitive research a number of researchers began to explore the type of strategies that could be taught to children that would improve reading, writing and learning.

Reciprocal Teaching

'Reciprocal Teaching' developed by Palincsar and Brown (1984) was an early example of a strategy-based approach (Annmarie Palincsar's photo opposite). It involves teaching students four key comprehension strategies: prediction, questioning, seeking clarification and summarising. This technique has some basic steps:

Step 1 - The teacher begins by discussing the topic of the reading or study and calls for predictions of the content based on the title. If they have read it before the teacher (instead of the initial prediction) asks the students to recall the main points of the material read last time.

Step 2 - The teacher breaks the class into pairs (although you could use groups of 3 or 4) and then assigns one of the students to the role of teacher. They then read the first paragraph silently. After this, the student assigned as the teacher poses a question about the passage and then tries to answer it themselves. He or she then predicts what might be going to happen next or seeks clarification from others if confused or if they need help. Students then take turns as teacher or student for about 30 minutes.

Step 3 - The students then seek to clarify their understanding. This involves helping each other or asking questions of each other. At any stage, if the student in the 'teacher' role is having problems, the classroom teacher can intervene to offer support. As the lesson proceeds the students are reminded that the strategies that they are using (questioning, summarising, predicting and seeking clarification) will help them to understand what they are reading.

Step 4 - Students are finally encouraged to summarise or make sense of what they have learned. This step requires the reader to decide what was important and what was not.

The above is just one example of an approach that attempts to model strategies, teach them to readers and then have them apply them to real reading and study. What distinguishes Reciprocal Teaching is its highly structured nature and the way the teacher scaffolds support and effectively trains the students to think about the way they think about (and process) text, and use this understanding in future independent reading activities.

An approach that I've used

Once you have a framework in mind you can vary the nature of the tasks within each of the steps. Here's how I have used a strategy approach based on a piece of literature with children aged 9-12 years.

I always commence by demonstrating a full cycle of the strategy lesson to the class. Using a text that all students can see, I put myself in the role of the reader.  I would then explain each of the following steps. Once this has been done once I repeat it again with at least 2 other examples, inviting student help as we work through the process as teacher/reader. Here is the framework I have used. To make it more relevant I have based it on the hypothetical use of the picture book 'Fair's Fair' by Leon Garfield. I will share the first paragraph to give a greater sense of how the process works.
Jackson was thin, small and ugly, and stank like a drain. He got his living by running errands, holding horses, and doing a bit of scrubbing on the side. And when he had nothing better to do he always sat on the same doorstep at the back of Paddy's Goose, which was at the worst end of the worst street in the worst part of town. He was called Jackson, because his father might have been a sailor, Jack being a fond name for a sailor in the streets round Paddy's Goose; but nobody knew for sure. He had no mother, either, so there was none who would have missed him if he'd fallen down a hole in the road. And nobody did miss him when he vanished one day and was never seen or heard of again. It happened when Christmas was coming.....
Step 1  'Prediction based on prior knowledge' - Using, cover image, title, and/or the first paragraph of the text predict what it might be about. At this stage the reader uses the title 'Fair's Fair' to predict what it might be about; then considers the cover, and finally the first paragraph. Demonstrate how readers ask questions of themselves to gain some sense of what this book might be about.

Step 2  'Generating questions' - Demonstrate how even just the cover, title and first paragraph can generate many questions. What might 'Fair's Fair' mean? Where might this boy come from? Where is the boy going? What might it mean, "he had no mother"? Why might he have vanished?

Step 3  'Seeking to remove confusion' - The reader then moves on. Read the next paragraph or two and refer back to some of the questions generated above. Your audible thinking might go like this: "It happened when Christmas was coming.." and it's snowing (!), so it's not Australia where it's summer at Christmas. He's sitting on the doorstep and a "big black dog" comes, "Oho", what's it going to do? Is he after his pie? Where did he get the pie anyway? Jackson tells him to 'Shove off!' and then he notices something.  'Hullo! You got a collar on! You must belong to somebody. Hullo again! You got something under your collar. What you got?' What has he got? And so on.

Step 4  'Stimulating imagery' - A well written story will be stimulating imagery already just through the power of the language (e.g. the dog was "Huge: as big as a donkey, nearly, with eyes like street lights and jaws like and oven door..."), but sometimes I try to give this a push by getting children to draw (see 'Sketch to Stretch'), talk, write or (with younger children) dramatise the scene.

Step 5  'Generating more questions' - at this point I will often use questions again to predict what might be coming next. What might happen with this do? What could the key be for? Whose key is it?
Step 6  'Summarisation, recall or response' - Depending on the text type I might complete the strategy cycle with summarising (verbal or in writing), free recall (remember all you can) or probed recall (where you use prompts or questions to encourage recall), or maybe just use a variety of response formats (e.g. drawing, mapping, semantic webs etc). All these are designed to recap or summarise understanding of the text, to go over the meaning they have comprehended as part of the process.

The above cycle is not strictly consistent with the metacognitive approaches that researchers like Brown, Palincsar, Pressley and Paris pioneered, but it has worked for me in varied contexts. In trials with readers aged 10-12 years I have found greatly increased recall of texts when compared with traditional question and answer strategies.

References and other resources

Taylor, S. (1999). Better learning through better thinking: Developing students’ metacognitive abilities. 'Journal of College Reading and Learning', 30(1).

Peirce, W. (2003). Metacognition: Study Strategies, Monitoring and Motivation.

All posts on comprehension (HERE).

Monday, May 17, 2010

Newbery & Caldecott Children's Literature Awards 2010

The major children’s book awards in the USA are the Newbery and Caldecott Medals. The winners of both awards were announced earlier in the year but it has taken me a little while to finish my annual post on the winners. The Newbery Medal is without doubt the most prestigious award for children’s literature in the USA and is known internationally. It was first awarded in 1922. It was named after the eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) awards it annually. It is presented to the author of the book judged to have made the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. The books can be works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. The author must be a citizen or resident of the United States and the work written for children up to and including 14 years.

The Caldecott Medal was named in honour of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is the most significant award for picture books in the USA. The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) also awards it annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. The awards commenced in 1938.

Caldecott Medal 2010

Winner: The Lion & the Mouse, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney is a brilliant illustrator who has received many awards including four New York Times Best Illustrator Awards and a nomination for the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award. He is also five-time recipient of the Caldecott Honour and the Coretta Scott King Award. 'The  Lion & the Mouse' is an adaptation of the Aesop fable of the same name, but with a difference, this is a wordless version (even the cover!). The stunning illustrations are done in watercolour and coloured pencil.

Honour Books

All the World, illustrated by Marla Frazee, written by Liz Garton Scanlon.

This is just the second book for the author Liz Garton Scanlon. The text is a wonderful poem of 18 couplets all of which use the title 'All the world' as the refrain. Marla Frazee's astonishing illustrations give a depth and richness to the work. The verses take us from an unexplored beach to a family room filled with music and then a still moonlit night.  Frazee's subtle full colour double page spreads are beautiful and add greatly to the poetry that is also outstanding. Marla Frazee's also had a Caldecott Honour book in 2009 for the work 'A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever'.

Above: One of the double page spreads from the book

Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, written by Joyce Sidman.

Zagarenski’s playful illustrations support and enrich Sidman’s wonderful poetry as she explores the seasons and their colours. Zagarenski uses computer illustration and mixed media paintings on wood. These combine rich textures, varied graphic elements, stylised figures and rich colours. Sidman describes each season of the year with a series of poems that sometimes use the predictable colours of the season (e.g. green for spring), but sometimes she uses colours that surprise you. The scenes in word and illustration offer many a surprise (just like the seasons) as a red bird flies above singing the seasons.

Newbery Medal Awards 2010

Winner: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Twelve-year-old Miranda encounters shifting friendships, a sudden punch, a strange homeless man and mysterious notes that hint at knowledge of the future. These and other seemingly random events converge in a brilliantly constructed plot.

This is a deep and challenging book suitable for children aged 12 to 14 years.

Honour Books
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice written by Phillip Hoose

This book is based on extensive interviews with Claudette Colvin and many others. It tells the story of a teenager who on March 2nd 1955 was sick of the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation and refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The protest led to further injustice for the young women who is eventually brave and determined enough to challenge segregation as a key plaintiff in a legal case that became known as Browder v. GayleSuitable for teenage readers.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate written by Jacqueline Kelly

Set in 1899 this is an enjoyable story about a girl trapped by time and circumstances. "Callie" (as she is known) lives with six brothers, her parents, her grandfather, and other household staff on a Texas cotton plantation. While her mother wants her to be a young lady, her passion is science and the natural world.  Her grandfather is a founding member of the National Geographic Society. Callie begins a deep friendship with him when as discovers her interest in the natural world and she sees his passion for the same things. She has to deal with the challenges of Darwinism and witnesses the arrival of the first telephone in town. But she also has to deal with the mundane like brothers who sometimes annoy her, learning to cook and sew and learning about herself.

A good book for girls 11 years and up.

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg written by Rodman Philbrick

"Although he is underage, Homer P.  Figg’s beloved older brother, Harold, is illegally sold into the Union Army by their ruthless guardian. Now Homer must run away from Pine Swamp, Maine, and his wretched home to find his brother and save him from the war, before it’s too late.

In a story filled with adventure, humour, and danger, award-winning novelist Rodman Philbrick tells of the turbulent, passionate times–from rural Maine to the Battle of Gettysburg--in the Civil War. Here is historical fiction at its most engaging, portraying the 1860s through the observant eyes of a backwoods boy who is both courageous and funny–and always willing to stretch the truth to his own advantage. A master of plot twists and vivid characters, Philbrick sweeps readers into the unpredictable events - both colourful and tragic - of this powerful turning point in American history." This book is suitable for children 9-12 years.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon written by Grace Lin

This book is inspired by folktales of China. It tells the story of a young Chinese girl named Minli who lives in a poor village near a barren mountain. She is unhappy with her life and so heads off to find the Old Man of the Moon to seek a change in her fortunes. The story tells of her epic journey where she encounters many people and events. This fable-like story should be enjoyed by younger readers 8-12 years old. 

Related Links

OUT NOW!! 2011 Newbery & Caldecott Medal Winners HERE 

All posts on Awards (HERE)

The full list of all previous Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners and honour books can be found (HERE).

Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) '2010 Notable Children's Books' (HERE)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Australian School English Curriculum

Non-Australian readers of this blog won't be aware of the move in recent times to institute a National School Curriculum in our country for the first time. Australia's parliamentary system consists of has 6 states and 2 territories, all of which have their own separate curricula in all subjects. Many Australians, especially business groups and some parents, have seen this as a problem. While it would seem to make sense to have a national curriculum the existing system of State curriculum and syllabus documents has served Australia well so teachers have been resistant to change. While there are things that could be improved in Australian schooling, such as the results achieved by Indigenous students, overall we have an enviable record in school education.

Results from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) show that the performance of Australia's secondary students in mathematics, literacy and science is outstanding.  The program is an initiative of the OECD and the 2009 program assessed 15 year old students across 68 OECD and non OECD countries in the three key curriculum areas. The PISA program assesses all three areas every 3 years and focuses on one in depth as well as assessing functional skills across the curriculum such as learning strategies, computing and problem solving. The program commenced in 2000.  Australia has ranked in the top 10 nations in all subject areas since the program commenced (here). In the last reported year (2006) we ranked 6th in Reading, 8th in Science and equal 9th in Mathematics. This places our school performance above many developed nations like the USA, UK, France, Germany,

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has released a draft curriculum that covers English, Mathematics, Science and History.  Draft material for other curriculum areas will follow in 2011. ACARA is seeking public and professional comments on the draft materials by 23rd May 2010.

1. What does the National Draft English Curriculum look like?

The Draft Consultation Document for English K-10 curriculum is organised around three interrelated strands. The draft document describes them as follows:

Language: The Language strand involves the development of a coherent, dynamic and evolving body of knowledge about the English language and how it works.

Literature: Students learn to interpret, appreciate, evaluate and create literary texts such as narrative, poetry, prose, plays, film and multimodal texts, in spoken, print and digital/online contexts,

Literacy: Students apply their English skills and knowledge to read, view, speak, listen to, write and create a growing repertoire of texts.

The document commences with a brief half-page rationale and then an even smaller section on aims preface the content descriptions. This is then followed by a brief paragraph description of the three strands and short statements and introductions to the achievement standards, what is meant by texts, grammar, spelling, handwriting, English as an additional language dialect, general capabilities expected, and cross curricula activities.

The major part of the document consists of the Content Descriptions organised by grade (Kindergarten to Grade 10) and within the three strands (language, literature, literacy) and the Achievement Standards.

2. Some Things I like about the Draft

a) The place of literature - One of the best things about the draft curriculum is that it has identified literature as worthy of its own strand. Readers of this blog will appreciate why I see this as so important. While literacy is very much a multimodal activity today, with varied online forms of literacy and increased emphasis on images on video and film, literature is still vital. As I have outlined previously (here) narrative has special significance and literature is a key way for children to learn about language and the world (here & here).

b) An emphasis on language - Having a special strand for language is good, although as I will comment below the current language section is a little limited (see below). Language must never become just an object of study (although close study of language is important). As Michael Halliday taught us, we need to recognise that children need to learn language, learn through language and learn about language. It's good, for example, to see greater emphasis on grammar (as one aspect of language), but the way it is included in the content descriptions is problematic (see below).

c) Content descriptions are generally good  - They are reflective of what teachers do in classrooms, and seem overall to be age appropriate, although there are issues with sequencing across the grades (see below). The Achievement Standards are also generally consistent with common practice. Some teachers will struggle to apply grade rather than stage standards but parents want grade level standards.

d) Elaborations - I liked the elaborations that gave added depth to the curriculum and enabled the content descriptions to be understandable, frankly without them some content is less meaningful. For example, in the Literature strand of the Kindergarten content descriptions we read under the heading 'Recognise and Responding' that our programs might encourage children to "Recognise and respond to familiar literary texts". This doesn't mean much until the 'Elaborations' are added:
  • accessing a range of texts to listen to, read, view and browse independently
  • choosing and revisiting texts
  • explaining preferences for texts
  • bringing favourite texts from home to share and discuss, including texts from their own culture
  • recognising familiar texts. This may include oral traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples represented in art forms (eg dot paintings).
3. Things that are problematic

I have a variety of concerns with the draft curriculum but these are the most significant ones:

a) An inadequate rationale - While the Curriculum has a rationale and assumes that various State syllabus documents will sit beneath it and will offer much practical guidance and direction, the curriculum lacks an adequate description of teaching and learning. This is imperative to ensure that the implementation of the curriculum is done well. As the document stands it has an implied pedagogy that might well be misinterpreted as a fragmented curriculum based on 3 separate strands, each with many separate elements to be taught. This is in contrast to what we should be communicating; that is, while English has three strands, we must not lose sight of its integrated nature. The elaborations do not have this same implied pedagogy and are much richer in their interpretation of what English is. I'd like to see a simple (and strong) introduction to the curriculum that stresses that language is not simply a set of discrete strands that can be taught in decontextualised ways. Grammar, for example is not taught well as a series of isolated activities. Rather, grammar is best acquired as children use language in all its forms and as teachers give direction and content that helps them to understand how the English language works.

b) Lack of attention to creativity - While there is brief mention in the 'General Capabilities' section at the introduction to the Curriculum, and the non-mandatory elaborations show evidence of the importance of creativity and imagination, it is lacking in the content descriptions and the rationale.

c) Lack of recognition of first-hand experience - The curriculum content also fails to recognise that first-hand experience has significant power to stimulate learning, especially with the young. Experience stimulates language use and at the same time provides real purposes for learning.

d) Emphasis on enjoyment and love of language - Children need to love learning and see English language as more than just a tool. There is a lack of emphasis in the content descriptions on enjoyment, loving literature, playing with language, experimentation etc.   While it is more evident in the elaborations these are not a mandated part of the curriculum.

e) A lack of evidence of purpose and audience - Literacy has a number of important purposes (e.g. learning, communication, enjoyment and expression) and is used with varied audiences in mind (e.g. self, teachers, examiners, friends, employers etc). All these need to be seen and stressed in the curriculum content. To allow purpose and audience to be submerged in a curriculum is to run the risk that English will be used and taught as an isolated school subject disconnected from wider learning. If this happens, children end up simply 'learning about language', rather than being active language users 'learning through language' and applying it for varied real life purposes.

f) There is a lack of sequence across the grades - The curriculum content lacks a consistent sequence across the grades. The writers need to trace every content description across the grades to make sure that the progression is logical and consistent with what we know about children's development. As a simple test, readers might try to track (for example) 'listening and talking', 'Writing' and 'Reading' in the respective strands of Language, Literature and Literacy across the grades. You will find that at times these disappear in specific grades, or that there is inappropriate progression. This aspect of the curriculum needs a lot of work.

g) The language section is very passive and fragmented - There are at least two problems in the language section. First, in listing all elements of grammar in this section it might well imply that it needs to be taught as a series of lessons rather than in the context of language use. Second, the description of language elements fails to tap the important integration of language and its power to amuse, challenge. rebuke, hurt, express love, ridicule and so on. Language teaching should be more than simply isolated elements of instruction in grammar, vocabulary, phonics and word knowledge and text structure as the content descriptions suggest.  While I'm not suggesting that the writers of the Curriculum are suggesting this, the way the content is described could well be interpreted in this way. Once again, the 'elaborations' help but they aren't mandatory!

h) Cultural Diversity - The Curriculum Rationale makes the statement that it "places an emphasis on understanding the cultures of Asia". This seems muddle-headed to me. While Asia is important to Australia and many immigrants have become citizens after arriving from Asia, surely our aim should be to encourage our children to have a broad understanding of the whole world and its people and cultures. They also need to have tolerance and understanding of all the ethnic groups who have joined us and a special understanding of our British and Indigenous foundations of Australian culture.

4. In Conclusion

Overall, I feel that the curriculum writers have done a reasonable job within the constraints that they have been given. With further revision and the linking of existing state syllabi, teachers will find the curriculum to be workable.

5. How can you comment on the Curriculum?

If you'd like to comment on the curriculum you need to go to the ACARA website (before the 23rd May 2010), register, explore the curriculum and then respond.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Top 100 Children's Books

My Lists of Good Books

Regular readers of this blog will know that I've offered many lists of good books to read to and with your children, or for children just to read themselves. Some are grouped by theme, topic and genre, while others are grouped by age, author, gender and so on.  For example you can find:
  • Books on key themes like the environment HERE, conquering fears HERE, humour HERE and death HERE (all my Key Themes you can find HERE)
  • Chapter books for girls 6-12 years HERE
  • Chapter books for young readers HERE
  • Historical fiction HERE
  • Books for boys HERE
  • Books by specific authors HERE
  • Shortlisted books and winners of major Children's Literature Awards HERE
  • Science & Technology Books for Children 3-12 years HERE
I also have a list of 200 Great Children's Books on my personal website HERE

US Top 100 Books

An excellent new recent list has just been put out by the School Library Journal. Elizabeth Bird has worked with readers of her site to come up with what they judge to be the 100 Top Children's Novels. The list is mainly of US books but you'll notice that most of them make my '200 Great Children's Books' list.

Helping to Create an International Top 200+

I'd like to try to add to my own list of '200 Great Children's Books' and want your help. I hope to create separate lists for novels and picture books. I'd also like to have a more international flavour with the best books in the English speaking world, including the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Would you like to help? If you'd like to help build the list simply offer your Top 10 books in a comment. I'll collate them. You might also encourage others to do the same. I'll also offer a book prize to the reader who ends up with the most books in the final Top 10 of the long list.   The US Top 10 on the School Library Journal was as follows:

1 Charlotte's Web by E.B. White  
2 A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
3 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
5 From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
6 Holes by Louis Sachar
7 The Giver by Lois Lowry
8 The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
9 Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
10 The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Related Posts

Complete list of 'Children's Literature' Posts HERE

'Key Themes in Children's Literature' HERE

'Author Focus' posts HERE