Last week I shared a story from my own reading life to explore ways of helping students negotiate texts with challenging vocabulary without automatically pre-teaching a long list of words in order to ensure that students don’t become overly dependent on us or think that meaning hinges on knowing every single word. There are, of course, times when we do want to introduce vocabulary before students read. What’s important, though, is finding the right balance between teaching students vocabulary and giving them time to build their reading muscle, which is what a group of high school teachers I worked with recently tried to do as part of a workshop on incorporating more complex texts in the content areas.
To get a feel for the kinds of complex texts the Common Core Standards are asking us to integrate into our curricula, I turned once again to the exemplar texts listed in Appendix B. As I said in a previous post, I don’t think we have any obligation to use those particular texts (and I can’t imagine ever having a whole class of New York City 8th graders read Little Women as the Appendix suggests). But we do need to be aware of how they differ from the texts we typically expose students to in order to make sure that we’re providing students with a rich and diverse reading diet.
When it comes to nonfiction, one thing seems clear: The exemplars tend to present information in far more varied and indirect ways than many a classroom’s standard fare. They mix-up modes, moving back and forth between narrative, exposition, description and persuasion, and they use the kind of literary techniques and devices more often associated with fiction and even poetry. In addition—or perhaps because—of all that, many of the texts defy the strategies we frequently offer students, such as scanning and skimming, identifying keywords, using text features to predict the content and, when it comes to vocabulary, thinking about prefixes, suffixes and roots and looking for context clues. This was certainly true of the text I decided to use for the workshop, “Gravity in Reverse: The Tale of Albert Einstein’s ‘Greatest Blunder'” by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which was first published in the journal Natural History and subsequently included in both The Best American Science Writing 2004 and the CCS Grade 11-12 list of Informational Texts for Science, Mathematics, and Technical Subjects. As you’ll see below, it begins with a song, speaks directly to the reader and is chock full of metaphors, allusions and challenging vocabulary.
After reading and discussing it first as readers to share what we made of it and how, we moved into teacher mode and began to talk about instruction by first thinking about which words we’d want to pre-teach and why. Here’s the beginning, which I invite you to read considering the same question:
Initially teachers came up with a long list of words—phobes, cosmology, “negative gravity”, exponentially, theorist, model, “thought experiment” and tantamount—which they said they’d need to pre-teach because the students wouldn’t already know them. Then I asked them to try to sort the words by considering the following three questions:
1. Which words might not be critical to a first draft understanding?
2. Which words might they want to have students hold on to and wrestle with as part of the meaning making process (paying particular attention to those that we, as readers, had to grapple with ourselves)
3. Which would be truly necessary or serve a larger academic purpose?
With those questions in mind, we whittled the list down to two: cosmology, because of its importance in the discipline, and phobes so that English Language Learners wouldn’t feel adrift right at the start. Exponentially and tantamount weren’t really necessary for a first draft understanding, they decided, though they were good words (or in the lingo of vocabulary instruction, “Tier Two” words) to return to later on, using some of the strategies offered by educators like Isabel Beck, Janet Allen, and Robert Marzano.
“Negative gravity”, theorist, model, and “thought experiment,” on the other hand, were all words or phrases that the non-science teachers among us (including me) had to really think about. How, we wondered, did a theorist differ from an experimenter and how did that affect the scientific method? What did a ‘model’ in this context look like? And if “negative gravity” was the “mysterious and universal pressure that pervades all space,” where did it come from? How did it operate? And what did it have to do with Einstein?
These were also all words that seemed to lie at the heart of Tyson’s exploration and view of both Einstein and cosmology in general, and in each case we were able to construct those words’ meaning by connecting them to other details in the text. You could say that we used context clues, as we did with “negative gravity” above, but we did so on a grander scale than we usually teach students to do. That is, we didn’t just look at the sentence before or after the unknown words; instead we kept revising, refining and deepening our understanding of those terms as we continued reading, with some of us—i.e., me—not really ‘getting’ all the physics until much later on.
Thinking about those words across the whole text—and acknowledging our uncertainty about them—allowed us, as readers, to dig deeper into the piece. And we thought that if we let students wrestle with them, too, rather than just handing them over, they’d come away with both a deeper understanding of the content and a stronger sense of agency as readers. Plus they’d pick up some vocabulary words that they were likely to retain because they’d discovered their meaning.
A different group of teachers might have made different choices because, in the end, there’s no right or wrong. It’s all about knowing your texts and your students, considering your purpose and embracing productive struggle—and finding that balance between teaching words and meaning making, knowing the two aren’t the same.