The Highlighter role of Academic Reading Circles is language focused. A great deal of research in academic reading and writing has stressed the need for building academic vocabulary (see my previous post for an example of this research). Academic vocabulary is not so easily defined, however. Academic vocabulary differs depending on genre, purpose, audience, and discipline among other factors. Still, there are some commonly used words that apply across most disciplines. Learning these is essential, but a good reader needs to also be able to grasp one-off discipline specific vocabulary. By doing so, it is hoped that they build not only the skills to handle this vocabulary, but actually add it to their own mental lexicon.
The Highlighter role for ARCs does a good job at addressing both types of vocabulary in learner-centered, intensive, and collaborative ways. Students discuss and explore both discipline-specific and academic or general vocabulary, looking at its meaning, usage, and related words. Through discussion, association, and repeated encounters, students are more likely to assimilate, remember, or recall the vocabulary.
However, there is a lot more to vocabulary than a word or phrase’s meaning. It’s usage in context at the sentence- and paragraph-level, its connotation, and the decision to use one word as opposed to another are also important. What’s more, a sentence or group of sentences can affect how a word’s meaning and purpose is understood and interpreted by a reader. While the Highlighter role does stress looking at context and even language usage (“tonal language”), I have found that this focus has either been too vague or too lexically/locally focused. This may not be true for ARC users, but in my experience, unless I am closely monitoring a group, even after much modelling, there still remains a superficial focus for most students.
To address vocabulary and meaning from a difference perspective, I recently experimented with integrating strategies of close reading into the Highlighter role, with great success. I had students keep their focus on topical vocabulary and keywords. However, instead of the “tonal language,” I had students apply close reading questions for specific words, sentences, or passages of the text. These questions were adapted from a close reading guide discussed in a previous post. Each question starts with “Look at ______”, in which line numbers would be written. I asked students to choose three interesting phrases, sentences, quotes, or passages, and apply the questions to them. The questions I adapted are:
- Quotes or citations: What is their purpose? Are they credible?
- Language Usage: Look at ______. Why has the author used one word rather than another? How could change the words change the sentence’s meaning?
- Transitions: Look at ______. What connections do the transitions words or phrases represent?
- Statements: Look at ______. When you read a particular statement, how does its meaning change? What can you infer from the statement?
- Background: Look at ______. What are the author’s beliefs or assumptions? How do you know this?
- Organization: Look at ______. How has the author organized their points?
- Numerical Data: Why is this data here? Could it be understood differently? Is it believable?
Questions such as these gave students a greater focus on trying to understand how and why language was used – important skills for developing academic reading. I also found that by having students ask these questions, the discussions became a bit more interesting, and involved students really working with the language to try to interpret the author’s meaning. To me, it revealed those who are still struggling with superficial reading based on mental translation or very shallow processing of a passage.
My first few attempts at using these have convinced me that they are worth exploring further. I am wondering what other questions and what other ways would be useful to build a stronger focus on language usage during independent intensive reading and group discussion. In what other ways can the Highlighter role be strengthened?