Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Article of the Week

January 2011 issue
This week's article is from the January 2011 issue of Language Arts, a professional journal for elementary and middle school teachers and teacher educators, published by the National Council of Teachers of English.

I chose the article "Search for the answers" or "Talk about the story"?: School-based Literacy Participation Structures written by Diane Santori.
Abstract: This paper explores how five third-graders constructed meaning in three school-based literacy participation structures, also examining teachers’ invitations and the space they make for students’ talk and students’ comprehension practices.  High-stakes assessments and mandated reading curriculum influence how comprehension is framed and how students are invited to engage in discussions about text. Students’ opportunities to exercise textual agency are often limited. However, when students had greater control over the discussion and the authority to evaluate the written text and their peers’ comments for accuracy or plausibility, their comprehension was strengthened. Students actively constructed meaning as they considered multiple, possible interpretations, while also taking into account their own personal experiences and other valuable social and semiotic resources.

I chose this article not because it presents ground breaking information, but because it confirms what many of us already know: children need time to discuss the books they are reading in ways that allow them to authentically and independently use the comprehension strategies they are learning in other instructional structures. Santori uses the term "textual agency" to describe the type of literature discussion in which children need to participate. Textual agency is defined as,

...the ability to control the discussion by initiating and changing topic, and the capacity to exercise interpretive authority--that is, being able to evaluate the written text and verbal comments for accuracy or plausibility (p. 198).

Santori's year long research in a third grade classroom found that students' participation in shared and guided reading were primarily teacher driven, with little time for student-centered talk. "The teacher controlled the topics of discussion and held interpretive authority" (p. 203). These structures have an important place in classroom instruction. However, the goal of all of this instruction should be for children to be able to draw upon the skills and strategies they are being taught and tested over when reading independently and to use flexibly when talking with others. When does this happen during the instructional day? In this classroom and in classrooms across the country, the curriculum is tightly tied to a pacing guide, which is tied to a basal series, which is tied to benchmark tests, which is tied to the state mandated test. Each instructional structure has a limited amount of time and a specific skill/strategy to be modeled/scaffolded/practiced.

Santori believes that students' interpretive needs and interests "can and should sit alongside the strategy and skill instruction commonly occurring in [shared and guided reading]" (p. 205). Is it possible for students to control the conversation during the discussions within these structures while maintaining the focus and staying within the time constraints of the lesson?

In the classroom in which Santori was a participant/observer, she worked with children in a third participatory structure, Shared Evaluation Pedagogy (SHEP).
In the SHEP structure, students had significant control over the discussion and their interpretation of the text; they were able to exercise greater textual agency. I did not provide a list of rules or procedures regarding students' participation. Most discussions began with me asking someone to tell the group what the story was about...As students shared their ideas, others quickly joined the discussion to build on their peers' responses, question a response, or offer an alternative viewpoint. I primarily entered the conversation to probe students' responses, ask them to provide evidence for their theories, or--very rarely suggest a new topic of discussion (p. 204).

Across the three structures (shared and guided reading and SHEP), Santori looked at students' "talk moves." "Moves are the actions students take in order to construct meaning and to participate in the literature discussion" (p, 201). She found nine different "moves" across the three structures: hypothesize, recall, connect, genre, clarify, summarize, synthesize, vocabulary and other. She found that students in the SHEP structure participated in a significantly higher number of "moves" in the areas that require higher level thinking (such as hypothesize, connect, clarify, and synthesize) than the other two areas and students in the shared an guided reading structures participated in a significantly higher number of "moves" in the lower level thinking areas.

Again, this is not surprising. It makes sense that if students do not have interpretative authority in shared and guided reading, then the opportunity for higher level thinking is limited. However, that is not the point of the article. Santori states,

My goal was not to compare the literacy participation structures in order to identify which one is better, but to examine what notions of comprehension are forwarded in each and how students made meaning of texts across structures. The discussions that occurred in each structure contributed to students overall reading development: in some contexts, by exposing them to a variety of skills and comprehension strategies; in other, by providing students with an opportunity to employ those tools int eh service of their own inquiries (p. 199).

In other words, ALL of the structures, including literature circles or book clubs, must take place in order for children to fully benefit. Yet, as I go into classrooms, I rarely see students participating in literature circles or book clubs. It could be due to a lack of value for textual agency, but more likely it is due to a lack of time and understanding of how to organize and manage student centered literature discussions in an effective and efficient way.

What do you think? How can teachers integrate more student control into discussions within shared and guided reading? How can they create time and opportunity for literature circles or book clubs? Leave your responses here or join in an online discussion at The Joy of Children's Literature Ning.

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