“First, there is no one answer to understanding why an adolescent struggles with reading. For there to be only one answer, there would have to be only one cause, and for there to be one cause, all students would have to be alike, learn alike, have had the same experiences. Instead, there is no single template for the struggling reader. Second, while there is no single answer, there are answers. My chant of ‘These kids can’t read,’ wasn’t the wrong chant—they couldn’t read. What was wrong was using that as an excuse for not teaching them. Once I was willing to add the question, ‘They can’t read, so what am I to do?’ then answers—not one, but many—began to emerge.” Dr. Kylene Beers, When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers 6-12 (2002, p. 7).
I first heard Kylene Beers speak in 2004. I was in the first year of my teacher education program and we were encouraged to attend the Language Arts conference Reading For the Love of It here in Toronto (aside: if you are from the Toronto area or are anywhere near Toronto during the month of February, you MUST attend this conference! The entire event is phenomenal and I have learned so much over the years). My friend and I were looking over the various presentations and one of them immediately caught our attention—”Reaching Reluctant Readers.” We sat there for the next hour completely mesmerized by Kylene Beers*. She was phenomenal. She was inspirational. And she knew what she was talking about.
During her presentation, she went through various strategies to use with reluctant readers; however, I found the following activity very powerful and I have used it with my students very often. It involves two strategies: pointed reading and a SWBS chart.
What is pointed reading?
Pointed reading is a three step process:
1. The teacher reads the selected text (I’ve always used a poem, but I’m sure this could work with other texts as well) aloud, while students follow along on their own copy.
2. The teacher re-reads the text aloud, but this time students underline about 5 words or phrases that they like, are meaningful, or just stand out to them for some reason.
3. The teacher re-reads the text aloud, but now students join in at the parts they have underlined.
The effect of this pointed reading activity is astounding, as there is an ebb and flow of voices throughout the third reading of the poem. Students will notice that at some points the poem is loud, as many voices have joined in on the reading, and these places usually signify the main idea or message of the text. I’ve used this strategy so many times and it has never failed to pinpoint the key parts of a poem where the theme is predominant.
Here’s a document that provides the activity in more detail: http://www.asdk12.org/MiddleLink/LA/tips/PDF/18_Pointed_Reading.pdf
But there’s more!
I’m sure many of you have heard of the Somebody Wanted But So (SWBS) framework. If not, here’s a brief description.
After pointed reading, fill in the SWBS chart with your students. Once the chart is completed, the teacher can use the following prompts to help students apply the elements of a story to the SWBS chart:
- What do we call the people in a story/poem? (character)
- What part of the story tells you what motivates a character or what the character wants? (plot)
- What do we call the part of the story that deals with a problem the character is facing? (conflict)
- What do we call the solution or lack of solution to a problem? (resolution)
Here’s an example using the Langston Hughes poem “Mother to Son”:
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor –
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now –
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Ask students to summarize the SWBS chart into one general statement. For the above example, it may be something like: People may encounter obstacles or challenges in life, but they need to persevere in order to succeed. This general statement then becomes the THEME of the text!
One of the greatest things about the SWBS chart and the pointed reading activity is that the loudest part of the poem (where the majority of the class has joined in to read the section of the poem aloud) relates directly to the theme. Students really get this activity and enjoy it! It makes understanding poetry (as well as other texts) much easier!
* Kylene Beers is the author of the phenomenal book When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers. 6-12 (Heinemann, 2002), for which I will be providing a resource review soon! You must get this resource! It is excellent!