Discovering Treasure: Adapting Instructional Strategies to Meet Student Needs

Understanding student needs is only part of the teaching expedition.

By: Shelby Notbohm

I started the group discussion with what I believed to be a rather easy question: "How does the article, 'Rise of the Machines,' connect with your life experiences?" After all, students interact with technology each day, smartphones are glued to their hands.

After I posed the question, I followed the good teacher protocol and waited painfully for more than 15 seconds. No response. I thought to myself: Do I need to rephrase the question? What are these students not getting? The question is all about their experiences and opinions.

I backtracked with some different questions. First, "How many of you decided to read the entire article?" Well over half the students raised their hands. Then, "How many of you understood the article?" Most students made every effort to avoid eye contact with me.

I felt like a pirate discovering hidden treasure on a deserted island. The pirate opens the treasure and sees the wealth, but soon realizes he is stuck on the island alone with no way to leave. What good was the treasure?

Searching for the Treasure

For the first few weeks of school, I was a pirate in search of my treasure: knowledge about where my students—English Language Learners—were academically, what they already knew and were able to do. Because the Common Core State Standards focus on reading informational texts and citing information to support understanding, I wanted to ensure my students developed these skills throughout the year. After reading Kelly Gallagher's persuasive and insightful book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It, I decided to jump on board with the Article of the Week strategy.

Each week, I assigned an article about a current event or topic that I thought would appeal to students' interests. Each article was divided into "chunks," or digestible bites, to help their comprehension. With each chunk, the students read, then summarized the main idea and made real world connections. After reading the entire article, they used evidence from the text to support their answers to various "reading for meaning" questions.

During my attempted discussion related to "The Rise of the Machines," I realized that the students needed to develop more background knowledge, better comprehension strategies, and a clearer understanding of how to read informational texts. That knowledge was my treasure.

Then the realization set in: I was on a deserted island. I was not an expert on the best strategies or practices to help students develop these skills—especially with the wide range of abilities within my classroom.

Action Research, Action Plan

After discussing my classroom discovery with my colleagues and mentors, we decided action research would be the best way for me to learn best practices and keep a clear track of students' progress throughout the remainder of the year.

As I began researching different strategies to help improve students' reading comprehension of informational texts, I noted that almost all the articles discussed the students' lack of background knowledge and the impact this disconnect has on students' comprehension abilities.

Although the articles provided teachers with several practical strategies to improve students' comprehension skills, I decided to stick with two while conducting my action research: cloze reading and structured small-group discussions.

I continued assigning an article on Monday with the expectation that the students would read the article and complete the annotations by Friday. At the beginning of class on Friday, the students completed a cloze reading activity, which was a summary of the article with important vocabulary words missing and placed in a word bank. The students read the passage and placed the correct word from the word bank based on the context clues and their understanding of the article.

I looked at these cloze reading passages to see what words the students were struggling with and where they might need some clarification.

After the students completed the cloze reading passage, they discussed the week's article in structured small groups. I provided clear expectations and structure to each small group discussion. For example, I expected the students to continue to practice respectful speaking and listening protocol by using "Accountable Talk" stems such as "I agree with _____ because _____" and "I'm not sure I understood you when you said _____." Also, each student was required to participate in the conversation by bringing up a new point or extending another student's comment.

Each week, I structured the discussion a little bit differently and had the students communicate their ideas and comprehension in various ways such as orally, in writing, or visually. We also used technology and tools to help build the discussion.

As the students discussed, I walked around to monitor their comprehension and mark their understanding on a rubric (Figure 1). An important part of helping students improve their speaking, writing, or reading skills is to set clear expectations through a rubric, clearly explain the expectations, and provide oral

or written feedback.

Figure 1
Self-Assessment Rubric for Article of the Week

  Comments 3 (Above Standard) 2 (Meets Standard) 1 (Below Standard)
I can understand and explain the vocabulary.   All of 2, plus I am able to listen to the definitions others suggest and expand upon them. While discussing, I use words from the text correctly in speaking.

I am able to use the word in a sentence correctly.

I can explain the definition so other members of my group understand.
I use some words from the text incorrectly.

I am unable to properly use the word in a sentence correctly.

I attempt to explain the definition to my group members, but they don’t fully understand.
I can identify the main idea and support with textual evidence.   All of #2, plus I can use the main idea to explain the author's purpose of writing the article. I can correctly pinpoint the main idea of the article.

I can explain the main idea to my group members.

I am able to support my ideas with appropriate textual evidence.
I am close to identifying the main idea, but I am missing important parts.

I am unable to explain the main ideas to my group members.

I am unable to support my ideas with appropriate textual evidence.
I can summarize the article and include specific details.   All of 2, plus I can explain connections between different chunks of the article. Using my own words, I can summarize different parts of the article.

I am able to identify specific and important details in the text.
I am unable to summarize different parts of the article.

I am unable to identify important details in the text.

For the discussions, I listened for students' understanding and ability to 1) explain the vocabulary; 2) identify the main idea and support with textual evidence; and 3) summarize the article and include specific details. If the students addressed these three checkpoints throughout the discussion, I determined they understood the material.

Digging Deeper

For the cloze reading strategy, I was not surprised that the students completed the passages more easily when the article's Lexile® level was below grade level. However, I realized that more than half of my students were reading well below grade level. I knew I needed to continue the cloze reading strategy to help build up the low-level readers' vocabulary.

In addition, using the cloze reading passages helped hold students more accountable for learning the definitions of the challenging vocabulary words. Rather than skipping over the words they did not understand, the students took the time to look up the definitions. This, of course, helped their comprehension.

Since most middle school students learn better when interacting with their peers, the small-group discussion was a great way to get them to interact with each other. Often, the students helped clarify something and explain misconceptions in a way that their peers better understood. Sometimes students' comprehension of the article improved after the small-group discussion.

An indirect benefit of this small-group discussion strategy was the students' development of speaking and listening skills. The Common Core State Standards focus on ensuring students express and share their knowledge clearly. After using the small-group discussion, I noticed a significant increase in the students' social skills—especially listening and meaningfully contributing to a discussion.

A Happy Ending

Now the tale comes to an end. Eventually, the pirate finds help, escapes from the deserted island, and shares his wealth with his rescuers. Just like the pirate, I found my help and support by collaborating with professors and colleagues and through the process of action research. Now my students are equipped to handle more challenging texts because the skills they practice with the Article of the Week assignment will transfer to texts in other classes.

Shelby Notbohm teaches middle level English Language Learners in West Fargo, North Dakota.

Published in AMLE Magazine, January 2016.


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