Reading From the Roots: WHAT, HOW, WHY?

On Saturday, I ran a workshop entitled Reading from the Roots, unpicking the nuts and bolts of reading skills and strategies in a bid to move away from technique labelling and little else beyond that.

The question is: are we teaching to read our way, or providing routes for students to read their way? There IS a difference, and whilst comprehension, clarification, inference and analysis have their place, perhaps we are missing out on utilising the toolbox that students already have.

Inspired by Doug LeMov’s Reading Reconsidered, Margaret Meek’s How Text Teach what Readers Learn and Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, I wanted teachers to consider stripping back their teaching to use said toolbox:

– prior knowledge- not of the text, but intertextuality OR the real world; where have we seen this sort of story line before? Who does this character remind you of? How so? How can we make links with other readings? Empower students with the confidence that they are not already on a back foot, irrespective of the challenge level of text.

-This leads nicely into context; what impact will the time that the text is written place upon certain subjects? How does this idea or event relate to our own personal contexts?

– Opinion-led learning: students can make an evaluation of character or mood based upon first impressions or viewpoint that isn’t essentially critical.

This three-point starting point acts as a somewhat valuable crutch for readers to access texts through HOW rather than WHAT. By giving them the WHAT (the setting, the characteristic traits, the presence of tension), we can move swiftly onto the HOW and WHY. By forming personal evaluations and opinions, this allows us to return to such evaluations once we have studied the HOW with much less unease at correcting our ideas. They were simply opinions; there’s no right or wrong to them but we’re simply slightly more expert now.

Moving onto unpicking the HOW needed practical application. Again, three strategies that I suggested would focus upon both reading with purpose, but exploring the writer’s intention beyond the labels:

  • Modelling. Modelling at every level. Modelling reading of the text, discussing if the tone, pitch or projection was appropriate for the content, re-hashing and giving it another go as a group. Modelling verbal interpretation. Modelling response (this comes later). Each step of the process provides a backbone to the entire emphasis placed upon how an element has been achieved. The value of a student hearing your voice deliberately shape the text and then contemplate how to shape a response is immeasurable (visiting Michaela sold me on this entirely; I’d always been taught to ‘let the kids read’).
  • Text Dependent Questioning. In order to focus on the HOW, reading must be an active process and tailored towards a big question, but not reliant on that question alone. From whole text to sentence level to word level, the questions selected are crucial to ensuring that you and the students are making your way towards the same destination point (section 2 of this  from Doug LeMov’s field notes is a perfect example but the picture of my TDQ for the opening extract of OMAM works).
  • Question-led annotation or Help boxes to support the annotation process are also key to a HOW reading. For those less confident with the annotation process, it ensures that the WHAT is covered so that we can move onto consideration of the HOW. For example, when considering the line, ‘the fine sliced through the water,’ from The Life of Pi, questions to accompany the text may be: how does the verb sliced raise particular images in our mind? How has the writer used the verb to create a sense of fear? How does the verb convey the mood of the narrator? Why is the verb particularly effective or a well-made choice made by the writer? It layers reading through our reaction, narrator reaction, writer’s deliberation by providing the what. The what isn’t the most vital stage of this process so it’s worth handing over.



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