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No More "Baby Stuff"
February 9, 2017 | Volume 12 | Issue 11
Table of Contents
The Differentiation Equation: A Tool to Develop Independent Readers
Marie Aurea Garrido
Faced with the pressure to teach more rigorous texts to meet higher expectations, teachers often respond in one of two ways:
Classroom 1: The 8th graders in Ms. Jeffries's class are quietly reading the poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and answering a set of questions that come from the textbook. The students, a mix of on-level and struggling readers, are having difficulty with the vocabulary and meaning behind the poem. Despite that, Ms. Jeffries is satisfied that 80 percent of the class has earned a 60 percent or higher score on the assignment.
Classroom 2: Ms. Andrews's 7th grade class of struggling students are in a circle, listening intently as she reads aloud an editorial about smartphone privacy issues that relates to the unit on privacy versus security and the U.S. Bill of Rights. The students follow along and listen as the teacher connects the concepts to the unit and defines key words for them. The exit slip at the end of class shows that all of the students can explain that day's class content.
In both classrooms, the teachers are having students read and respond to complex text, but neither instructional method is helping students become independent readers. Ms. Jeffries in Classroom 1 assigned her students complex text, but even though she knows that her students are struggling, she does not employ any strategy for vocabulary and comprehension to help them improve in these areas. This is what I call "under-scaffolding." Under-scaffolding occurs when teachers assign, rather than teach, demanding reading material. It is often given as independent work with a sink-or-swim philosophy. All students are going to have the same test, so I need to get them ready for that, these teachers rationalize.
Ms. Andrews in Classroom 2 is doing all of the meaning making for the students. Although all students were able to explain what they read together, this is an assessment of their memory, rather than their reading comprehension. I call this "over-scaffolding." Over-scaffolding happens when teachers help students through the hard stuff by chunking it into the smallest possible bites to spoon-feed their students. Students stay on the same page as the teacher and often wait for the teacher to provide the explanation or the right answer. This is too hard for my students, these teachers say. This is the only way they can understand it.
Both approaches often come about from good intentions—an effort to get students ready for college and career or to help students understand something that may be too hard. The fact is, every teacher has erred on one side or the other by either over- or under-scaffolding. It is hard to get it just right. My approach combines student data and text complexity measures into a "Differentiation Equation;" a tool to help teachers provide just the right strategies for students reading a particular text. The Differentiation Equation assists teachers in considering two variables when planning a lesson with complex text to build independence: student needs + text demands.
We have an abundance of student reading data in classrooms. Formal measures like standardized test scores, diagnostic testing, and teacher-made tests as well as informal measures like class assignments, exit slips, and other formative assessments can strategically scaffold reading instruction based on need. Ideally, teachers will constantly look at student work and interactions, and mine formative data related to the following areas to determine next steps.
The Common Core State Standards Appendix A makes reference to the "text complexity triangle," made up of three factors: quantitative factors, qualitative factors, and student and task considerations.
Most quantitative measures of text complexity, including Lexile, use word frequency and sentence length. Teachers are often surprised when a book traditionally taught at the high school level, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, has a low Lexile measure. They think that this book can't possibly have a Lexile measure of 860, which is appropriate for 4th to 5th graders. In fact, it makes perfect sense that a book told from the point of view of a narrator remembering her childhood is filled with common words and short, simple sentences. Other factors of the book make it a challenging read and thus suitable for a high school audience.
Language, structure, themes, and background knowledge necessary to access the context of a text can make it more or less challenging to read. For example, readers of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird will grapple with
Student and Task Considerations
The last portion of the text complexity triangle considers what students bring to the text (strengths, areas of need) and what they are being asked to do with it in a given assignment. This interplay of student, text, and task helps teachers make instructional decisions for how to prepare students for challenging assignments involving complex texts.
Sum: Scaffolds for a Complex Text
When a teacher considers both the needs of the students and the complexity of the text, he or she can plan exactly which strategies to use to scaffold and build student independence by finding the gap between what the students can do and what they are expected to do with the text. Let's go back to Classroom 1 and reimagine the lesson using the Differentiation Equation. The following table shows how I identified student needs and text demands, and aligned these two sets of data inputs to determine the most effective strategies and scaffolds so that all students in an 8th grade intensive class could access a complex text (the poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade").
Table. The Differentiation Equation
What are students' decoding,fluency, and vocabulary needs?
Data indicates more than half of the class has decoding and fluency needs (scores below the 30th percentile).
Vocabulary scores mostly on grade level (40-60th percentiles)
What are the Lexile grade bands?
Poems are not assigned Lexile grade bands, but this one includes uncommon words.
Which strategies will bridge the gap between students and text?
Prereading: Students skim the poem and circle unknown words and phrases. Students discuss the circled items in groups, using context to determine meaning.
What are students' comprehension needs in the areas of central ideas and purpose/perspective/bias?
Students struggle to identify central ideas and often retell the interesting details instead.
Students really understand the concept of bias, and some students even notice examples independently. They also correctly answer questions about bias and perspective on their common formative assessment (CFA).
Based on the Qualitative Measures of Text Complexity rubric, what are the text's meaning and purposedemands?
The purpose and meaning is straightforward, but the poem includes a lot of figurative language that develops the central idea and theme, which students may find difficult.
During the first reading, students write margin notes about the action taking place in each stanza. During the second reading, students identify figurative language and discuss in groups the "special effects" the author creates by using those devices.
What are students' comprehension needs in terms of structure and organization?
Students know the basic text structures and key words, but experience difficulty when the text does not have a defined structure or uses multiple structures.
Based on the rubric, what are the text structure and organization demands?
The poem follows a narrative structure that is familiar to students, and each stanza builds on the action of the previous one. Students may have difficulty understanding foreshadowing as a concept.
During the figurative language discussion, students discuss the role of the repetition (to foreshadow the defeat of the Light Brigade).
What are students' comprehension needs for syntactic knowledge, and vocabulary?
Students have scored low (between 15–40th percentiles) in syntactic knowledge.
Students are good at identifying figurative language, but have difficulty interpreting it as determined by CFA and class discussions.
Vocabulary recognition is roughly at grade level.
Based on the rubric, what are the text's language demands?
The language has rhythm, uses domain-specific words, and is very rich in figurative usage.
See the figurative language activity above.
Based on pre-assessment data, what are student background knowledge needs on this topic?
Students are currently learning a unit on war and revolution in their social studies class.
Based on the rubric, what are the text's Knowledge demands?
Familiarity with war and battle concepts and vocabulary would provide context.
Prereading: Show students the painting, The Relief of the Light Brigade, to help them draw connections between the war imagery in the text and their learning from social studies class.
We can solve the problem of exposing all students to complex text and helping them become independent readers by using the Differentiation Equation to select appropriate strategies. By design, the tool guides students to grapple with the hard parts of a text by helping teachers identify areas where students are likely to struggle, based on their needs and the features of the text. As you use the tool over time, you will become more fluent in rigorous lesson planning, and begin to internalize the thought processes behind navigating student needs, text demands, and the supports that will bridge the two.
Marie Aurea Garrido is an instructional specialist in secondary literacy in Broward County Public Schools, Fla.
ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 11. Copyright 2017 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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