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February 1, 2017

The Case for Multiple Texts

Students grasp more information, think more critically, and learn to synthesize when they read many texts on one topic.

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Credit: © Juice Images / Alamy Stock Photo

If we want students to be able to engage in thoughtful conversations and write fluently about a topic, reading one text on that topic isn't enough. When students read multiple texts on a topic, their understanding of that topic expands, and they can use knowledge they develop reading the first text to help them comprehend a second and third. What's more, readers can begin to think critically about what's being shared in each of those texts because they've read multiple texts.

Let me further this case with a quick example.

In the picture book Trapped! A Whale's Rescue by Robert Burleigh and Wendell Minor (Charlesbridge, 2015), the author describes the rescue of a whale trapped in fishing nets off the coast of California in 2005. As you read this excerpt, consider what you're learning about the whale's struggle.

But wait—danger haunts these waters.

Unseen nets, left by crab fisherman, drift through the dark sea.

The whale feels the tickle of thin threads. She plunges on. She tosses. She spirals sideways as spidery lines tighten around her.

The struggle begins. The web of ropes cuts into her skin.

She flails, starts to sink, fights for air.

With each thrust of her tail, she tires.

Her sides heave. She flops. She flounders.

At last the great whale shudders and lies still.1

Because you read this, you have a better understanding of what happened when the whale got tangled in the net. You probably noticed the powerful language the author uses to reveal the whale's struggle—"web of ropes cuts," "flails," "sink." You might also sense the potential gravity of this problem.

Now let's read an excerpt from a news article about the same event. Again, note what you're learning about the whale's struggle as well as its entrapment.

About 20 crab-pot ropes, which are 240 feet long with weights every 60 feet, were wrapped around the animal. Rope was wrapped at least four times around the tail, the back and the left front flipper, and there was a line in the whale's mouth. … At least 12 crab traps, weighing 90 pounds each, hung off the whale, the divers said. The combined weight was pulling the whale downward.2

In the excerpt from Trapped!, we learned that the whale was entangled in ropes from a fishing vessel. In the news article, however, we learn more about these ropes. They were hundreds of feet long and attached to crab pots that weighed 90 pounds each! With this new knowledge, we can infer that entanglement in the ropes was only part of the problem. The crab pots were pulling the whale down, keeping it from being able to breathe through its blow-hole and endangering its life.

Reading the second text expanded our understanding of what happened. We have a clearer picture in our minds. We know not only what happened, but why.

Needed: More Practice, More Guidance

Traditionally, reading multiple informational texts on the same topic has been reserved for writing research reports, a big production that may occur only a few times a year. Although doing major research projects is grand, reading multiple texts on the same topic a few times a year isn't enough practice for students to master the skills required to synthesize information from multiple sources.

Another flaw in many research assignments is that students are often asked to locate their own sources with little guidance. I remember talking with two 5th grade girls who were excited to be researching hedgehogs. When I asked them to tell me about their research, one exclaimed, "We read a WHOLE book about hedgehogs!" When I asked them to tell me what they were going to write in their report, they paused. Then the other proclaimed, "We're going to write about the whole book on hedgehogs!"

When students are left to their own devices to locate sources and then read and think across those sources, what happens? Some students can figure out how to synthesize information and select the best parts. But many tend to take notes on everything or just copy excerpts into their final papers. Some get overwhelmed and shut down.

In my work with teachers in the field, we've begun to explore how regularly reading more than one text on a topic might benefit students and how teachers can support students as they grapple with multiple texts. Here are five supports we've identified.

1. Establish a purpose.

The students doing the research on the hedgehogs needed a tighter purpose for reading. They needed a few research questions like, "What role does the hedgehog play in a healthy ecosystem?" and "How does the hedgehog's diet support its health?" These questions could lead them to scan multiple texts for important excerpts they might read more carefully.

A purpose for reading, stated as a question, acts as a guide as students tackle multiple texts. With a 3rd grade class studying simple machines, the teacher first introduced several types of details authors use to describe these mechanisms, like function, physical description, and real-life example. Then the purpose for reading she gave the students was, "What types of details are we learning about simple machines?" The students read short excerpts like the following from David A. Adler and Anna Raff's Simple Machines: Wheels, Levers, and Pulleys (Holiday House, 2015):

A wedge is thin at one end and wide at the other. It's a simple machine that helps break things apart. Your teeth are wedges. When you bite into an apple, the sharp, thin end of your teeth split the apple.

Asking students to think about the types of details Adler uses gave them a clear purpose for reading and annotating. They began to understand that the author was trying to describe the physical characteristics of the wedge ("thin at one end and wide at the other"), the function of the wedge ("helps break things apart"), and an example of a wedge ("teeth"). When the students talked with partners, they could make comments like, "I learned that the function of a wedge is to break things apart." More important, as students read additional texts on the wedge and other simple machines, they began to notice similarities ("This author gave another example of a wedge!") and differences ("This excerpt included details about how ancient people used the wedge.")

2. Select a set of short texts.

A middle school teacher shared with me how he'd asked students to read a book on a topic and then compare it to an article on the same topic. He was clearly disappointed in the results because students gave general responses like, "Both are about Holocaust survivors." Frequently, students are overwhelmed by the amount of information in longer texts. Cognitively, they can't hold on to and then compare or contrast so many specific details. The result is generalization.

My colleagues and I have found it helpful to provide short texts for students to analyze. A "text" can be an excerpt from a news article, a short video clip, a paragraph from a trade book, or a diagram from a reliable source on the Internet. When a 5th grade teacher and I were planning to launch a unit on ecosystems, we chose four texts to use—a one-minute clip of a longer video, two diagrams, and one section of a short book.

There's also a place and time for reading whole texts. Sometimes it's important for students to get a sense of the whole text, the gist, or the big picture before they think carefully about an excerpt from that text. In the simple machines unit described earlier, the teacher, Nicole, read aloud all of Simple Machines before engaging the students in close reading of excerpts. When I use a video with students, we watch the whole video (if it's not too long) and then listen closely to a short excerpt from the video and take notes. When I use a magazine or news article, students read the whole text first; then we zoom in to one section of the piece.

3. Model making connections between texts.

Some students need support as they begin reading and thinking across multiple texts. Many educators have gotten into the instructional habit of modeling for students how to read an excerpt of text closely; we also need to model our thinking when we begin to read an additional text and compare or contrast it to the first one.

An Inquiry Chart, or I-Chart, helps students think through what they pick up from different texts and compare details.3 Students list their research questions across the top row of the chart and their resources down the left-hand column. Figure 1 is an example of what an I-Chart might look like at the beginning of the research process. Notice the three questions in the top row, the first resource used in the left-hand column, and the initial notes taken in response to the questions.


Figure 1. Sample Inquiry Chart

The Case for Multiple Texts - table

Student's name

Question #1 What is an ecosystem?

Question #2 What are the critical elements of an ecosystem? Why?

Question #3 What are examples of ecosystems?

What I already know about the topic•  I think it's an area in a park or in the woods and all the animals that live there•  I don't know•  photosynthesis?
Resource #1 Ecosystems, by Nancy Finton (National Geographic Learning, 2007), pp. 7–9•  soil, rocks, plants, water, animals, and all the processes that connect these things •  the living things are adapted to the climate and land•  the living things in the ecosystem rely on each other for food •  sometimes they share the same home, like when snakes and lizards live in abandoned prairie dog tunnels •  sometimes they help each other, like when insects spread pollen from flower to flower•  dry grass prairie east of the Rocky Mountains with bison, prairie dogs, short grasses, sunflowers, butterflies, etc.
Resource #2
Resource #3
Summary

An inquiry chart (I-chart) helps students keep track of what they learn from reading multiple texts on one topic during research.

One 6th grade team of teachers used the I-Chart to help their students organize their research on a major geologic event. The teachers, Shannon and Micheline, each chose their own event and modeled the process of using the I-Chart to read, learn, and take notes. This included thinking aloud about how they generated questions, how they skimmed texts looking for key details, and how they determined what to write in their notes.

As students engaged in their research, Shannon and Micheline provided additional guidance. Throughout the process, they stepped back in to model how to think about content in multiple texts—talking through how they were making connections between texts, determining whether a piece of information was new or was a detail that was already in their notes from another source, and deciding when they'd read enough texts to answer a particular question.

4. Help students discuss.

We know the value of students talking together in response to one text. It's equally valuable when students discuss multiple texts on a topic. In the 5th grade class studying ecosystems, I asked students to turn and talk about what they had learned from the two diagrams and video clip we'd analyzed. I was surprised when they tried to talk to their groups without even looking at their carefully taken notes.

I stopped the activity and asked a student to model a conversation with me. I placed my inquiry chart on the document camera and demonstrated looking at my notes for all three sources and thinking about what to share: "I have notes for all three questions, but I think I'm just going to share what I learned for the first question. From the first source I learned that an ecosystem is all of the living and nonliving things in a particular environment, and from the second source I learned that an ecosystem is not just all of those things, but also how those things interact." Next, I prompted my student partner to share by asking her, "What can you add to what I just said?" After she shared, I modeled looking back at my notes and thinking about what to contribute to the conversation next.

When the students turned to talk in small groups I leaned in to coach, using prompts like,

  • How can you combine information from more than one text to respond to what your partner just said? Let's look at your notes and try it together.

  • In your notes, it looks like you've noted some similarities between these authors' perspectives. How can you use your notes to say something about this to the group?

5. Integrate sketching and writing.

As students determine what to sketch or write in response to multiple texts, they must think carefully about all that they've learned and make important decisions about what to include in their illustrations or written pieces. They may have to clarify their understanding of details, review the texts, and revise their notes. The process of writing about their learning can deepen their understanding.

Whether writing or sketching, students need a purpose. A group of 4th grade students I worked with who'd read two texts about how teams of scientists collaborated to achieve a goal wrote thank you letters to partners who helped them design and build bridges. They had to explain to their partner what they'd learned from the texts about the value of collaboration and how that resonated with their own team experience building the bridge.

Multiple Benefits

Whether it's part of a larger unit of study or a short series of lessons, there are many benefits to reading multiple texts on a topic. The layers of knowledge students develop when they read multiple texts can help them contribute productively to real conversations—the kind that lead to deeper understanding and innovative thinking. Writing becomes easier because students have depth of knowledge to draw from when considering what they want to express.

There's a bigger point, though. In one classroom where I collaborated, the teacher and students were engaged in a conversation about the trapped whale texts discussed earlier. Questions started to surface about the event. Suddenly a student shouted out, "Ms. Ballew—We need to find another article!" The other students immediately agreed. After months of reading multiple texts on each topic they studied, these students had developed a sense of agency. They knew how to become informed and answer their own questions.

End Notes

1 From Trapped! A whale's rescue. Text copyright © 2015 by Robert Burleigh. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Wendell Minor. Used with permission by Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc.

2 Fimrite, P. (2005, December 14). "Daring rescue of whale off Farallones/Humpback nuzzled her saviors in thanks after they untangled her from crab lines, diver says." Retrieved from SFGate.

3 Hoffman, J. V. (1992). Critical reading/thinking across the curriculum: Using I-Charts to support learning. Language Arts, 69(2), 121–127.

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