4.3 Designing Coherent Instruction in the area of Learning Activities: All of the learning activities are suitable to students or to the instructional outcomes, and most represent significant cognitive challenge, with some differentiation for different groups of students.
As a reading teacher, significant cognitive challenge means ensuring that student responses to texts always involve critical thinking. But in order to think critically about what they are reading, students need to read it. Occasional quizzes motivate students to keep up with required reading, enabling them to participate fully in class discussions and maximize the benefits of in-class instruction and support.
But reading quizzes should require more than plot summary and character identification. As Daniels and Zemelman (2014) explain, “All these mental acrobatics remind us that readers actively build and construct meaning from a text. Meaning does not simply reside on the page” (p. 30). Textual understanding requires an ability to take apart and analyze different components of a piece of writing, then reassemble them to produce meaning for the individual reader. Our reading assessments, like our reading instruction, ought to focus on these complex (“higher order” in Bloom’s taxonomy) analysis and synthesis tasks.
This past fall, our 10th-grade Honors class included a unit on Voice and Protest. Naguib Mahfouz’s Fountain and Tomb, a collection of vignettes set in early 19th-century Cairo, served as the common class text for this unit. Many students found the genre unfamiliar, and struggled to make sense of individual stories while still identifying connections among them. We wrote the following reading quiz to assess whether students were able to understand those thematic connections and apply them to specific vignettes. According to the reading schedule, we were about a third of the way through the book. As students entered class the following directions awaited them on the screen.
The reading quiz clearly required higher-order thinking skills, including application of the concept of theme, synthesis of at least two different stories from the collection, and analysis of literary evidence to support a claim. We had provided some direct instruction around themes in literature, including having students keep a set of notes organized by thematic category. But we had not yet differentiated between theme (a recurring “big idea” in a text) and theme statement (what a text says about that big idea). In addition, I noted that students who had honors Language Arts as ninth graders were more facile at identifying themes in our previous novel, The Kite Runner, than students who had taken a general education 9th grade Language Arts class. So rather than asking students to identify or name a theme independently, I gave them three themes to choose from. In this sense, the task began with a “mid-level” thinking skill, application of a concept, then required students to synthesize two (or more) stories in order to explore the concept and to explain how specific aspects of the text supported their understanding of theme.
Quiz results demonstrated strong ability to find a common theme and to identify the theme “at work” in at least two separate stories, no surprise since we had outlined several pertinent themes. Most students were also able to identify textual evidence that related to the theme and supported their claim that “this theme is important in this story.” On the other hand, many students did not refine their presentation of the theme or explain what those individual stories told us about how politics or class or coming of age impacted the characters’ experiences or the author’s choice of words or narrative structure. On the basis of this assessment, we decided to devote more instructional time to close readings of individual vignettes. The following week, students worked in groups to present tableaux of assigned vignettes. Their tableaux demonstrated increased understanding both of plot and character, and of refinement of theme. For example, each group accurately chose and inflected a thematically central piece of dialogue for characters to “quote” as they acted out their tableaux.
One thing I would change on a future reading quiz for this book would be to allow students to choose their own theme, rather than providing a choice of preset themes. I circulate throughout the classroom during quizzes, and could easily provide scaffolding in the form of hints or further questions to help struggling students name a theme they felt was important in the book. This change would lead to more student ownership of the task, and require students to create their own understanding of one important idea at work in the text.
Reference: Daniels, H. and Zemelman, S. (2014). Subjects Matter: Exceeding standards through powerful content-area reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.