Literacy Moves: Reading with the paper version of Explorer magazine

by Jim Bentley, fifth-grade teacher, National Geographic Fellow and Explorer

Paper Reading: Strategy Share

In my last post, I shared a couple of strategies on how my students and I navigate the digital version of Explorer magazine. In this post, I’d like to go “old school” and share how I facilitate my students’ interaction with words on paper. The driving question for this post is: How can we empower students to interact with text independently without a teacher’s guidance? 

A few years ago, I stepped back and took a hard look at the adopted reading programs I’d used over the years. All of them had teacher’s editions loaded with massive amounts of marginalia, directing me to “show,” “explain,” “tell,” “share,” “point out,” or “demonstrate” to students something about the story we were reading. The problem with that is interacting with a text becomes teacher-centered. I, the teacher, focus students on different elements within a text one text at a time. So then how are students supposed to navigate a text on their own? 

Strategy share: Teach students to question text and not just find answers. When I work as a National Faculty member for PBLWorks training teachers how to implement project based learning in their classrooms, I show a short video entitled “Rubik’s Cube: A Question Waiting To Be Answered.” My favorite part is when Ernő Rubik describes what he perceives to be the problem with many education paradigms. They rely on “teaching answers” he says, yet “questions are probably more important today than the answers,” Rubik argues. 

What questions should students ask when reading a text without a teacher to facilitate their reading experience? 

Kylene Beers can help. In her book Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies, Beers provides students a shortlist of questions to ask when they encounter one of five “signposts.”

Contrast and ContradictionWhen you see a difference between what you know and what is happening, STOP and ask, “What is the difference and why does it matter?”Suggests: opposing or comparing ideas; details that reveal main idea; cause and effect relationships; understanding author’s purpose; a generalization
Extreme or Absolute LanguageWhen you see language that leaves no doubt, exaggerates, or pushes to the limit, STOP and ask, “Why did the author say it like that?” Suggests: startling fact; intensity of a problem; author’s point of view; exaggeration; bias; deception
Numbers and StatsWhen you see specific numbers, number words or amounts, or statistics, STOP and ask, “Why did the author or filmmaker use these amounts?”Suggests: A comparison, conclusion, inference; important details, facts, evidence; visualize the size or scale of something. 
Quoted WordsWhen you notice a Voice of Authority, a Personal Perspective, or cited Other’s Words, STOP and ask, “Why did the author quote or cite this person?” Suggests: Author’s point of view, purpose, bias, or conclusions; a perspective, facts, opinions, or a generalization. 
Word GapsWhen you hear a word or phrase you don’t know, STOP and ask:1. “Do I know this word from someplace else?”2. “Does this seem like technical talk for experts of this topic?” 3. “Can I find clues in the sentence, paragraph, or section to help me understand the word?”

The beauty of this approach is that when a teacher guides students to notice signposts, students no longer rely upon a teacher to facilitate independent  interactions with a text. 

For example, when reading about endotherms and ectotherms, we encountered a sentence that read, But the difference is stark when you look at thermal infrared images.” 

Photo by Jim Bentley.

After we finished reading the paragraph, I stopped and asked if anyone noticed a signpost. I had just taught students what a “Word Gap” was and anticipated somebody would indicate the Tier 2 word “stark” or Tier 3 phrase “thermal infrared image.” (Check out this Edutopia article to learn more about Isabel Beck’s system for categorizing vocabulary into three tiers.)

 Sure enough, several students indicated these terms as word gaps. This is how we worked through the Word Gap questions for stark as a whole class the first time:

  • Students were prompted to ask, “Do I know this word from someplace else?” 
    • Stark. Tony Stark. Iron Man. Students inferred we were not talking about Marvel superheroes. I pointed out the transition word “but” signals a contrast or difference between two things. 
  • Students were prompted to ask, “Does this seem like technical talk for experts of this topic?” 
    • They agreed “stark” sounded technical and not something they would hear in casual conversation. 
  • Students were prompted to ask, “Can I find clues in the sentence, paragraph, or section to help me understand the word?” 
    • First, students looked at the sentence following the one containing stark: These images show how cool or warm an object is by measuring the amount of heat it gives off.” Students noticed the text pointing out pictures in the article showing a visible difference between warm endotherms and cold ectotherms. 
    • Second, students looked at the two sentences before the one containing stark: “The ectotherm’s body temperature is likely lower than yours. You couldn’t tell that just by looking at the animal, and you probably wouldn’t be able to feel a difference, either.” Students identified “that” to mean “temperature difference.”
    • Last, students focused on the pictures. The lizard was really blue, or cold, according to the spectrum at the top of the picture. The hand was really red, or warm. There was a big difference visually. 
  • Students came to a conclusion: Maybe a “stark difference” means a “big difference.”

Whenever students read text, they take on the role of explorer. With Explorer magazine, students can go on an expedition and study wildlife, our human story, or our changing planet with real National Geographic Explorers! But if we—and I mean well-intentioned teachers—constantly “guide” students through a text, we’re depriving them the opportunity to “use their own map” and navigate text independently. When we constantly facilitate how students interact with reading using marginalia from text books, it’s like always using GPS navigation to drive. We rob students of the chance to think, because we’re metaphorically showing students how to keep a blue dot on a purple line as a navigation map moves around based on whatever the teacher does. 

Reading strategies like signposts offer students their own map and compass. And if students get stuck or lost, they can always radio a teacher back at basecamp to provide support. Let’s get our students out there roaming those jungles of words and ideas!

In my next post, I’ll share some tips on how students can “blaze a trail” through text with annotations and how they might use “sciku” or “scitanka” to summarize key points along the way.

Spring subscriptions of Explorer magazine are available until November 15. Full-year digital subscriptions are available until January 15. More information is available at Subscriptions for the 2020-2021 school year will be available in February 2020. 

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