Friday, December 9, 2016

Modeling Critical Reading

Critical reading is a skill developed over the course of years; a school-career, in fact.  For some students, the holy grail of reading comprehension is a '5' on the AP English exam, an exam for which 45% of the score is determined by a multiple choice reading test.  I don't know that I have ever had a student who has scored perfectly on the multiple choice section, but I do know that there are one or two in every class who come close.  These students all share a key trait in common: they are always--without exception--voracious readers, and have been since elementary school.

These are students who read a variety of material outside of class--not only young adult novels, but also classic works; not only fiction, but also books and articles about politics, economics, science, or math.

These are students who question and seek to verify what their teachers say in class, who will look up claims, studies, or books mentioned by their teachers, sometimes even on the spot, on their laptops.

These are students who know what it is to read something deeply, to struggle tirelessly for understanding, and who have the stamina and resiliency to parse through peer-reviewed studies and scholarly articles when doing research projects, or preparing for debates.

I don't really prepare them for the reading on the AP exam; they're already prepared, and likely have been for a while.  Their skills are the accumulation of years of reading for fun, coupled with years of reading to learn (a distinction which has blended with time).  What began as a love for reading has developed into a particular way of thinking and approaching the world, and they are the richer for it.

As their AP teacher, I simply provide them with practice tests that signal to them the type of reading that they will need to undertake on the AP exam, and which inevitably affirm that they will achieve a high score on the actual test.

What about students who enjoy reading, but feel they do not have the time to read independently?  Or, students who have never enjoyed reading, but are hard workers?

I contend that if students are not reading on their own (that is, outside of class), and have not been reading on their own for the majority of their school careers, they come into AP test preparation at a distinct disadvantage.  They have had neither the practice, nor exposure to variety that their voracious reader classmates have had.  They have not built up the stamina or ingrained the critical reading skills second nature to their classmates who are regularly reading challenging texts.  These students may be high-achievers--they may work hard and attain top grades.  They may be bright and intelligent and talented in a variety of other areas.  What is missing is the breadth and depth of independent reading over the years that a select few of their classmates have had.

Last week, I had a group of students approach me, asking for more support on their reading comprehension.  I was caught off-guard; I've never had students ask for more help on reading before, and frankly, I have not done much in the way of specifically teaching critical reading skills to my AP students.  My unspoken mentality has been "either you've got it by now, or you don't", and I've opted to put 90% of my teaching energy into developing their writing skills instead.

However, when this group of students approached me, the ball was in my court--the question before me was "can I equip these students with the skills and habit of mind necessary to succeed on the AP test?"

Honestly, I don't think so--with any kind of standardized test, there are far too many independent variables to guarantee a certain score: how the student is feeling on the day of the test; whether they slept well the night before; whether they have interest or background knowledge in the passages they read; whether they suffer from test anxiety; whether the questions ask about literary terms or concepts I did not anticipate.  Even subtracting independent variables, could any amount of effort or creative teaching on my part substitute for years of independent reading practice?  No, I cannot guarantee a high score on the AP exam.

However, what I decided I can do is try to train my students to deepen their critical reading ability, and I whole-heartedly believe that time spent on this endeavor cannot hurt, only help.  Moreover, critical reading is a skill far more important than the judgment issued by the CollegeBoard.  It is a life-skill that will prepare my students to be stronger thinkers and consumers of information.

I decided that the place to start was to model critical thinking while reading.  I invited any AP students who were interested to a meeting during lunch yesterday.  15 out of my 29 AP students showed up!

I borrowed an idea I found in "Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response" by Jennifer Fletcher: having the students fill out a checklist while I did a think-aloud.

I chose a fairly engaging, recent piece to read through: "A Confession of Liberal Intolerance" by Nicholas Kristof.  I printed copies for each of the students, but also projected the article onto my whiteboard.  I then distributed a checklist of critical reading actions that I wanted the students to watch for while I read and thought out loud.

Before I started reading, I even wondered aloud what the title, date, and author might tell me about the piece.  I then began to read, one or two paragraphs at a time.  I would pause regularly and comment or ask questions.  I would critique or praise Kristof's use of studies to support his point; wonder about the quality of his sources; highlight his writing strategies--analogies, use of anaphora, etc.

In 20 minutes, I only made it halfway through the article.  When I asked the students how I'd done on their checklists, they told me I'd done everything except disagree with Kristof.  The students seemed to appreciate the activity and several thanked me afterwards.   I told them I'd try to model thinking aloud again using a more challenging piece by Henry David Thoreau after Christmas, and then have them practice thinking aloud together in groups.

It was fun to do the think-aloud; I'd read the article when it was published back in May, so I knew generally what Kristof had said, but I hadn't prepared what I was going to say for the think-aloud, as I wanted it to be spontaneous.  I actually picked up on some new aspects I'd missed the first time around, and even appreciated Kristof's writing more as I verbally worked through the article.

I may not be able to prepare my students to internalize these skills to the extent that they can apply them effortlessly while reading passages quickly on the AP exam, but if I can help them to dialogue with the author as they read, if I can help them to think and ask questions as they engage with a text, I can sleep well at night.

I wish I'd thought to do this sooner--I am definitely going to do this type of modeling more in the future!

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