Welcome to CELA!   Center on English Learning & Achievement

SIDEBAR to Development: A Vital but Often Neglected Part of R & D

Janet Angelis and Elizabeth Close

As part of a MiddleWeb listserv project on using Reading Workshop, an approach to teaching middle school reading, Long Beach (CA) reading teacher Juli Kendall is keeping a weekly journal. In January, she posted the following entry to the listserv.

Week #16 Envisionments: Helping Students Improve Literary Understanding

During November, when it was easy to be coasting and I was searching for inspiration, a fascinating pamphlet arrived in the mail. Published by the Center on English Learning & Achievement, "Improving Literary Understanding Through Classroom Conversation" is based on the work of Judith Langer. In it, she and her colleague, Elizabeth Close, give a thumbnail sketch of the concept of envisionments and some strategies for classroom use to improve literary understanding.

Since our instruction focuses on how reading is all about understanding, I found this definition compelling.

"Envisionments are understandings – the wealth of ideas that people have in their minds at any point in time. Envisionments include related ideas and images, questions, hunches, anticipations, arguments, disagreements, and confusions that fill the mind during every reading, writing, speaking, or thinking experience." (p. 6)

To see how our Reading Workshop measures up to these ideas, we used the three "strategies that support struggling readers," listed on page 12 of the booklet, as benchmarks. By reflecting on our teaching, we discovered what we are and are not doing. The information we gathered will improve our instruction and help us develop models of understanding for our students.

1.       Involve all students in all aspects of class discussion.

We reviewed what we do in our class discussions: We ask students to make predictions before reading based on their prior knowledge and experiences. Students share the connections they make to the text with the whole group, as we read aloud. We ask students to retell the story and share their connections with their reading partner. They use their post-its to list the connections in their Reading Journals. But what evidence/student work do we have that can tell us whether all students are involved in all aspects of the class discussion?

2.       Help students focus on ideas by providing guiding questions that will deepen the discussion (avoid questions with yes, no, or one-word answers).

         What might you do in a similar situation?

         Why do you think the character did it her way?

         What is the character feeling? How might this affect his actions?

         How does the setting help you understand the character's feelings?

         If you were telling this story, how might you end it? Why?

         How might this story be different if it happened in another time period?

After running records, we sit with students individually and ask them to retell the section they just read. We also ask them questions such as "What will happen next?" "Who is telling the story?" or "What is the problem?" We use their story retelling and their answers to the questions to see if they comprehend what they read. But what evidence/student work do we have to know that students focus on ideas by using guiding questions that will deepen the discussion?

3.   Provide direct instructional scaffolding with guided activities that help students develop envisionments.

The authors mention six types of guided activities. "Design activities to support students' ideas and questions" is the first suggestion. We use paired readings on a daily basis. Students use note taking while reading by writing on copies of text or using post-it notes. We include journal writing every day. But we do not make use of quick writes. This might be a good way to document if all students are involved in all aspects of the class discussion.

"Provide alternative ways to access material" is next. We use books on tape. Janet Allen's books, There's Room for Me Here and Yellow Brick Roads, encourage their use with less proficient readers.

"Asking questions that help students make connections with the full text, with their own experiences and other readings" is one of our strengths. Our work with Mosaic of Thought (Keene & Zimmerman) and Strategies That Work (Harvey & Goudvis) has really helped us with making connections. However, we want to do more about "encouraging students to listen to and respond to the ideas of others." Questions like "Does anyone agree or disagree? Why?" will help us get started.

We need to improve in providing "opportunities for students to engage in related activities in multiple formats that make the thinking of their peers visible and develop their understandings of the work." Of the five suggestions listed (role-play, think-aloud, dramatic presentations, fish bowls and art representations), we only include think alouds on a regular basis. We want to find more opportunities for these activities.

The last suggestion is to "provide individual copies of guiding questions" using bookmarks or sticky note reminders. We created laminated bookmarks that include the guiding questions. Everyone has several copies in different colors. We're excited about the possibilities for using them both in independent reading and partner reading. But how will we know that students focus on ideas by using guiding questions that will deepen the discussion? We'll need to develop some new performance tasks that include questioning.

There is much work to do, especially involving all students in all aspects of class discussion and using guiding questions. As we incorporate more of these strategies into our Reading Workshop, I hope we will find that "when less proficient readers engage in thought provoking literary discussions, they perform more like proficient readers because the thinking of their peers is visible to them and they have models for building understanding." (p. 13)

Find out more about this project at http://www.middleweb.com/mw/workshop/R_W_Project.html

image/reddot.gif (35 bytes)
The Center on English Learning and Achievement