Comprehension Instruction for Digital Natives

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How shared reading and cooperative learning are transforming two diverse New Zealand classrooms.

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  • 1. Comprehension Instructionfor Digital NativesHow digital shared reading and cooperative learningare transforming two diverse New Zealandclassrooms Neale Pitches
  • 2. Page |2 know that while children generally developThe Problem sound reading skills when they first beginYear after year, Kyran Smith Deputy school, many later find that they are no longerPrincipal and Literacy Leader of Wellingtons able to apply those initial reading strategies toMiramar South School faced classes full of more demanding texts. At this point, contendsgrade 5, 6, and 7 students who struggled with Canadian sociologist Keith Stanovich, goodliteracy. Kyran was a competent teacher, so readers get better while those less wellwhy wasnt she managing to make inroads equipped fail to progress. The prevalence ofinto her students flagging reading this veritable phenomenon led Stanovich tocomprehension? brand it the Matthew Effect, applying the Biblical reference to the haves and theFarther south in Christchurch, high-school have-nots in terms of literacy wealth.English teacher Laura Borrowdale was askingherself the same question. Over the course of While this fall-off in comprehension rates is an18 months, shed tried many approaches to attested fact in many Western nations,improving the low literacy rates of her grade 8 including Australia and the United States,and 9 cohort. But even with the in-class Kyran and Laura refused to accept this fate forsupport of a specialist literacy educator, their students. Questioning their approach toLauras students progress was too slow. teaching rather than the students capability to learn, the two educators discovered a newThe two teachers could have decided their mixed-media comprehension system designedstudents were inherently poor readers. Kyran precisely to target this problem.could have invoked the low socio-economicstatus (SES) and ethnic backgrounds of herstudents, predominantly from Pasifika, The Interventionindigenous Mori, and refugee/ELL families. Neale Pitches is the CEO of South PacificLaura could have likewise blamed the Press, in New Zealand. He is an educationalbehavioral problems of her mostly male 14 resource developer, and a former teacher and15-year-old students at Hagley Community principal. He is not willing to accept theCollege, an inner city school known for taking inevitability of middle years literacy failure.in last-chance learners. Neale found a willing joint-venture partner in Jim Connelly, President of Pacific Learning ofBut Kyran and Laura refused to believe that California, and began work in 20052006their students were destined to the low developing a resource, grounded in bestliteracy rates, and decided to keep trying for practice and robust research, to providethat elusive progress in literacy. instructional support leadership even to teachers and students in grades 3 to 8 andBoth teachers were in fact dealing with a above. Neale brought together a team,more fundamental problem that goes beyond including New Zealand educator Meryl-LynnSES indicators and beyond New Zealand Pluck, publisher Matt Comeskey and, for theborders: the slump in reading comprehension first year, Pacific Learnings Toniin the middle years of school that occurs in Hollingsworth. Over a period of two years thethe USA and throughout the OECD (Mullis, team developed CSI ComprehensionMartin, Gonzalez, & Kennedy, 2003; OECD, Strategies Instruction, the acronym2001). Research indicates and teachers well deliberately chosen to underscore the Neale Pitches, Comprehension instruction for digital natives 2011 South Pacific Press
  • 3. Page |3similarities between reading comprehension provide many of the literacy challenges toand forensics with which popular culture has middle years students.an enduring fascination, due in part to thesuccessful television series of the same name. In their recent publication Lets Start LevelingNeale was convinced that the deliberate and About Leveling, (2011) Glasswell and Fordexplicit teaching of comprehension strategies conclude that there needs to be a balanceas advocated by, for example, Harvey and between texts that are cognitively challengingGoudvis (2000; 2007) and P. David Pearson in and those that are emotionally supportive.the context of a strong engagement factor The CSI project team had the same(advocated by US academic John Guthrie philosophy, believing that students would[2001]) would yield the accelerated progress benefit from on-grade-level texts if they hadthat was needed. That engagement factor the support of their teachers, their peers, andwould need to be a mix of pedagogy, texts, the digital scaffolds that are all features of theand technology quite a challenge. CSI project.The pedagogy was influenced by the findings This challenging yet supportive design hasof researchers Graham Nuthall and Adriene been endorsed by both Kyran and Laura, whoAlton-Lee, but especially the work of Nuthall, have reported how well students havewhose research Neale allied to his own views responded to more difficult texts, and howthat a childs educational performance was much they engage with and enjoy being ableheavily influenced by classroom practices, and to read, think, talk, and write about the on-that there was no inevitability about low SES grade-level texts.effects on student literacy learning. Pitchessynthesized the big idea in Nuthalls research Harnessing interactive whiteboard and otheras all students can learn difficult concepts as advanced technologies, half of the CSI textslong as they have several exposures to the (those designed for explicit teaching) areconcept in different ways while the concepts interactive digital texts which include hyper-are in working memory. The CSI project, linked glossaries and video footage. Theaccordingly, adopted a learning model which student cooperative texts are hard-copyinvolved text-based, explicit instruction of a format accompanied by audio files. This is anew concept, followed by text-based peer new approach to differentiated instructioncooperative learning of that concept that was whereby students differences arefurther extended: not only do students work accommodated through scaffolding rathertogether as learning partners, but they work than leveling. The strongest scaffold is explicitas a learning community entire classes work teaching, where the teacher reads and thinkstogether on the same text. aloud and encourages student interaction as, together, the teacher and class work throughIn two further decisions the CSI project team the text.determined that teachers and students woulduse texts that were on-grade level and that 80 Kyran and Laura believe that this is key.percent of all texts to be used would be Although the CSI package includes guidancenonfiction, and three quarters of texts would and lesson plans for teachers, both teachersbe from the content areas of science, math, now feel sufficiently experienced andand social studies. The research indicates that comfortable with the method to the pointit is the content area and nonfiction texts that where they dont need to follow the lesson Neale Pitches, Comprehension instruction for digital natives 2011 South Pacific Press
  • 4. Page |4plans. Kyran, for instance, no longer even aware of their thought processes and thepre-reads passages before class. In displaying strategies they employ to understand a givenan unseen text, she can emphasize to her text. Whats more, they develop skills instudents that she and the students are all the monitoring and evaluating the effectivenesssame in that neither have seen it before, but of these approaches when assessing theirthey all share their thinking strategies in trying levels of understanding. As a result, theto understand it. This equal footing is students take ownership of their reading andempowering for the students, Kyran says. become more independent, more confident readers.After reading the text aloud together, thestudents and Kyran show each other how Not only do the students become moremuch they feel they understood the text, on knowledgeable about themselves, but theiran imaginary sliding scale with their hands. breadth of world knowledge increases, too. Clearly the content of the texts and the quirky, thought-provoking and inspiring topics provide much-needed background knowledge as well as motivation to read. They variously present young people as heroes, raise moral and ethical questions, or take poetic form, all authentic examples of the sorts of text that students meet every day. In terms of content literacy, the exposure to such a wide range of material seems to add substantially to the students vocabularies and their ability to handle more complex texts.Kyran Smith and a Miramar South student show Indeed, experience with a variety ofeach other, and the class, their levels ofunderstanding of a CSI text, which has been stimulating texts is increasing not only theprojected onto an interactive whiteboard. baseline of cognitive skills that students master on their own, but also their ability to operate at higher levels without guidance.Kyran then talks the class through her own This is evident by the strong increases inway of processing the text, while making sure comprehension evidenced by the post-testing.to reference the particular CSI readingstrategy (or strategies) the class is working on: Furthermore, the students are up for theThis is what I do as a reader. Ive never been challenges of more demanding texts. Theto space so Im making connections to the domain-specific vocabulary, and the conceptsworld, from what Ive seen on TV *. . .+. Im included in the texts are purposefully tough ingoing to show you what I do using the places. In Kyrans experience, however, thevisualizing strategy. Im picturing a cloud of students thrive on the challenge. If they aredust that looks like a flower . . . Working with unable to draw on any prior or backgrounda learning partner, the students then discuss knowledge, they draw inferences or use otherand apply the strategies for themselves. comprehension strategies, working togetherThe metacognitive principles on which CSI is as a learning community. While Kyran admitsbased encourage learners to become critically that she would never have given her students Neale Pitches, Comprehension instruction for digital natives 2011 South Pacific Press
  • 5. Page |5such difficult texts in the past, she nowrecognizes that the texts need to stretch the The Outcomeslearners high- and low-operators alike so The excitement and engagement of Kyransthat they can see the strategies working. and Lauras students are borne out in the results of pre- and post-tests for literacyLaura voices this exact same opinion. In many le...