Do coursebook writing tasks engender confirmation bias?

Bias is part of human nature. We all have biases, many of which are implicit. One particular form of this is confirmation bias, the “tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs” (Wikipedia). In other words, it is having an opinion and accepting anything that supports it while rejecting anything that does not. Critical thinking is considered a kind of antithesis or antidote to this type of bias, which is why it and related concepts (i.e. evidence-based thinking) have become so popular lately, being a major part of the United States’ Common Core standards and a skill that is constantly being discussed in all circles of education, ELT included. Continue reading

Summaries, Responses, and Short Answers…oh my! – Using Student Samples in Writing Instruction

Last year at the 2016 SETESOL conference in Louisville, Kentucky, I attended a presentation on using student samples in summary writing instruction. The presentation was given by Dr. Cui Zhang, and it consisted of a literature review and her own action research. I was intrigued by the idea because, unlike peer review where effectiveness is hit or miss and the focus could be on anything from grammar to structure, analyzing student examples allows for the precise identification and evaluation of specific aspects of a writing. This type of analysis allows students to see various ways students were able to successfully or unsuccessfully achieve a specific goal, one which they also have attempted. I recently incorporated Zhang’s ideas with not only summary writing but also response writing and short-answer writing, and I saw immediate positive results in student revisions and subsequent writing. Therefore, I wanted to share these ideas with you.

What Does the Research Say?

  • Baba, 2009: Reading comprehension plays a large role in successful summary writing, while the role of lexical proficiency varies. However, “well-structured semantic network of words and the ability to productively use this network as well as the L2 writer’s metalinguistic knowledge” also has an influence.
  • Keck, 2006: L2 writers paraphrase less and copy more of a source text than L1 writers.
  • Demaree et al., 2008: Students feel that summary writing is useful, and it is better done when there is an authentic purpose (such as preparing for an exam). Students feel the only summary writing audience is themselves and it is not very helpful for others.
  • McDonough et al., 2014: Summary writing improves over time, but requires explicit instruction and may be a lengthy process. The authors looked at reference to the source (increase), verbatim copying (increase in frequency, decrease in length), a “phrase-level modifications” (no change). According to the authors: “the path toward eliminating textual misappropriation may be both indirect and lengthy.”
  • Becker, 2016: Students who develop or practice applying a rubric show greater increases in summary writing performance.

Zhang’s Action Research

The goal of Zhang’s research was to see if students could reliably judge summaries written by their peers and then use these judgments to improve their own summary writing. Zhang worked with 9 students in a university-level ESL course. After a text was read and summaries were written, Zhang collected the summaries and chose several for analysis. They analyzed the summaries without a rubric and discussed their judgments. They read a second article and then produced another summary.

Overall, Zhang found that students could all find the weaknesses or strengths in the summaries and their own summary writing did improve, though not to the point of perfection. She recommends that summary improvement will take time. She also recommends that using previous students’ writing rather than writings from the current students may reduce some reluctance to judge their peers.

My Experiences

Summaries – In my classes, I followed a similar procedure for this article. However, I used a modified checklist rubric to help students evaluate the summaries. I gave students a handout with 4 summaries collected from students. They were modified for clarity (grammar, spelling) and were chosen because they represented very poor, fair, and great summaries. Here is an example (note: the bullets on the right were actually check boxes):

Although sleepiness is a part of life, it seems difficult for schools to start school late. The students can change their schedule to get enough sleep. Whether someone likes it or not, adequate sleep is important for our lives, and it’s especially necessary for children. The more sleep, the healthier and happier life people will have. This summary…

  • …introduced the article and the author.
  • …contained the overall main idea in the second sentence.
  • …contained all the main ideas:
    • not enough sleep
    • they are busy, puberty,
    • school should start later
    • starting school later is difficult
  • …had no extra details.
  • …had no change of meaning
  • …was written in the student’s .own words.

From the four different examples, most students were able to identify the best summary and understand what it had that the others were lacking. After the group discussions, a class discussion of each summary entailed, each time highlighting the elements that were missing or included. This was an attempt to be explicit and reinforce what a good summary contained.

After this activity, students revised their summaries. About a week later, they also wrote new summaries, and for many I saw great improvement. In particular, there were more references to the original source text (According to [author], in [title],…) and less verbatim copying. However, there were still issues with including main ideas and excluding irrelevant details. This showed me that being able to identify what is important was something that needed to be focused on more in class.

Responses – A summary is a pretty straight forward genre that requires students to simply retell important details using new words. Responses, on the other hand, are more varied in terms of content. With only minor directions (“Give your evaluation of the article”) and no instruction, student responses to this article went from clear evaluation of the original text to complete departures and explorations of students’ own, often unrelated, opinions. I saw another chance for students to analyze student samples and improve their writing.

Since no students completed the assignment correctly, I collected 3 student samples and wrote a fourth. I then created another check list rubric that students could use to evaluate the articles. Students discussed the responses together and then we discussed them as a class. Here is an example from the handout:

I agree with the PRO statement that people should eat less meat. First, eating less meat is healthy for us. People will be less obese and avoid disease. Second, we should eat more fruit, vegetables and cereals. These plants need to use machines and they need to use the power. People should use more solar energy, wind energy and water energy to generate electricity. Finally, we should plant more trees because the trees can help reserve the water and prevent soil erosion.
  • The student refers to a claim in the article
  • The student states whether they agree or disagree with a claim from the article.
  • The student gives reasons why they agree or disagree.
  • These reasons show good evaluation of the claim.
  • The reasons focus on the claim and not unrelated ideas.

For this rubric, I was trying to direct students to the fact that a response to an article is not simply an opinion of the topic but an analysis of the ideas contained in the article. In other words, the focus should still be on the article, not only the student’s opinion. And even when the opinion is given, it must be clearly related to the ideas in the article. This seemed like the first time students encountered such an assignment and the evaluation clearly – hence me writing a fourth example. As with the summaries, student revisions and subsequent writings showed some improvement.

Short Answer – Seeing a pattern in students writing and their familiarity with writing assignments, I preempted difficulty with short answer writing assignments and gave students explicit and step-by-step instructions in both understanding the question and writing the answer. Working with this text on driverless cars, we first looked at the default writing prompt from Newsela:

Summarize the central idea of either the PRO or the CON article in a few lines. What claims made by the author of the chosen article are not supported by evidence? Give two-three examples from the text to better illustrate your point.

We analyzed this assignment by breaking it down into parts:

  1. In your own words, write the main idea of the PRO or CON article in a sentence or two
  2. Answer this question: What claims are weak because they lack evidence?
  3. Answer this question: What are two or three examples that show there is a lack of evidence.

Students seemed genuinely surprised that the question was very complex. Therefore, this question analysis proved to be very valuable. We then discussed how to answer this question in a paragraph and wrote a model answer together. For homework, I had students consider the driverless car article as well as this article about a horseless carriage. I then gave them the choice of answering ONE of these questions:

  1. What similarities exist between horseless carriages and driverless cars? Provide two or three examples from the text to help support your point.
  2. How do technological advances like new types of automobiles affect everyday life? Use one or two examples from each article to explain past or future changes.
  3. Do you think the author of this article would share similar opinions (or tones) as the PRO or CON author? Provide two or three examples from the text to help support your point. (no students answered this question).

I collected the student examples in the next class and redistributed them to students individually. I then gave each student the following rubric:

QUESTIONS/CRITERIA POINTS
Did they try to answer all parts of the question?
Only one part: 1 point | Both parts: 2 points
Did they provide evidence from both articles?
Only one article: 1 point | Both articles: 2 points
Did they do a good job answering the question?
Yes (3 pts) No (1 pt) Maybe (2 pts)
(please explain on the back of this paper)
Did they use phrases such as “according to” or “the author states”?
Yes (1 pts) No (0 pts)
Did they give extra details that were unnecessary?
Yes (-1 pt) No (1 pt)
Did they write a summary?
Yes (-2 pts) No (1 pt)
Did they give an opinion that was unrelated to the questions?
Yes (-2 pts) No (1 pt)
Was the answer easy to understand?
Yes (1 pts) No (0 pts)
TOTAL  __ / 12

Students had about 20 minutes to read and analyze the answer they were given. I assisted students with answering questions, and I prompted students to leave clear feedback on the back of the paper. As students worked, I made sure their analyses were accurate, and if I disagreed with a student, I asked them to provide justification for me. Sometimes I had to gently nudge students to fix their analysis because they had clearly misunderstood something. However, more times than not, students noticed something that I had overlooked.

After the 20 minutes, I collected the answers and the rubrics and redistributed them to the appropriate students. I then gave students the rest of class to revise their answers, if necessary, and ask me any questions to clarify or improve their writing. For most students, there was immediate improvement. On a subsequent reading test that involved a short-answer question, I saw more answers that fully answered all parts of the questions, something they had been previously lacking.

Overall Impressions

I found that getting students to analyze student samples was very effective at not only understanding what good writing should contain, but also at helping to clarify writing expectations, something that is often hard to communicate, especially with unfamiliar genres or complex assignments. For most of these assignments, I provided rubrics beforehand, but students often do not pay attention to them. However, even if students had focused on them, I believe that providing rubrics afterward, focusing greater applied attention on them, and then allowing students to revise their writing could have a great positive impact on their writing.

References

Baba, K. (2009). Aspects of lexical proficiency in writing summaries in a foreign language. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18(3), 191-208.

Becker, A. (2016). Student-generated scoring rubrics: Examining their formative value for improving ESL students’ writing performance. Assessing Writing, 29, 15-24.

Demaree, D., Allie, S., Low, M., & Taylor, J. (2008, October). Quantitative and qualitative analysis of student textbook summary writing. In C. Henderson, M. Sabella, & L. Hsu (Eds.), AIP Conference Proceedings (Vol. 1064, No. 1, pp. 107-110). AIP.

Keck, C. (2006). The use of paraphrase in summary writing: A comparison of L1 and L2 writers. Journal of Second Language Writing, 15(4), 261-278.

McDonough, K., Crawford, W. J., & De Vleeschauwer, J. (2014). Summary writing in a Thai EFL university context. Journal of second language writing, 24, 20-32.

Navigating Newsela: Eight Weeks of Reading Instruction with Newsela.com

I was lucky enough to get a PRO subscription to Newsela and the chance to pilot using it as a main text source in an intermediate reading course this term. This blog post will detail my (and my students) experiences using Newsela for 8 weeks, its advantages and disadvantages, and how it could be used in your own classes.

What is Newsela?

Newsela is a visually appealing, daily news website that offers readings on current events, current issues, primary sources, historical articles, and a plethora of other categories (e.g. science, art, government, etc.). You can find historical texts in the Time Machine, speeches, biographies, important historical documents (in Primary Sources), and even Greek myths. There is enough content to fit almost any course.

Each article is offered at 5 levels, from the original level (Max) to levels as low and 4th or 5th grade. Articles are adapted in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure while keeping the essential ideas from the original. Each article also has a 4-question quiz and a writing prompt. Readers can also use highlighter/annotation tools. Newsela is useful for both extensive or intensive reading.

What is Newsela PRO?

With PRO, you have the ability to make classes, assign articles, collect students’ quiz scores, grade writing prompts, and access analytics about students’ reading behaviors. While you cannot customize the quiz, you can customize the writing prompt. You can provide annotations to students (with the ability for students to reply) and see student highlights. You also have access to PRO teacher resources, which give ideas on how to use articles in class, including activities, companion texts, etc. This includes access to suggested annotations for many articles. Finally, you can also create “Text Sets” – groups of Newsela articles. You cannot assign a set, but you can use the set to organize related readings or give students independent reading choices (note: you do have access to students’ independent reading through the PRO dashboard).

Information about an assignment in Newsela PRO

How Did I Use Newsela?

Our class had a main coursebook (21st Century Reading, level 3) and Newsela was used as an equal companion (as opposed to a subordinate supplement) to this text. Based on the articles in the coursebook, I found related articles on Newsela and assigned them as required reading and typically included discussion and activities using the articles in class. I required students to complete a quiz for each article, though this was not for a course grade but rather to test the analytics ability of Newsela PRO. I sometimes added writing prompts, but more often I gave separate writing assignments via Google Classroom. These typically required more work, space, formatting or steps than the simple Newsela writing prompt box would allow students.

What Activities Did I Do?

  • Martin Luther King, jr.
    • MLK’s birthday occurred during the beginning of our term, so I used that opportunity to introduce both Newsela and MLK via his “I Have a Dream Speech”. Students read the article in class (in the lab) and then answered discussion questions. Then, we had a whole-class discussion about race and MLK’s influence. I originally planned to extend the lesson by having students read this set and come to class prepared to discuss whether MLK’s “dream” has been realized or not. Unfortunately, time constraints forced me to skip this extension.
  • Sleep
    • Sleep was the topic of the first unit of the book, so I thought I could use Newsela to build up students topical knowledge by reading a number of sleep-related articles. Some of the instruction included identifying evidence in a text, referencing evidence, and how to write a summary.
  •  Immigrants
    • Donald Trump’s travel ban made news during this term. Students had expressed interest in discussing this topic. Instead of just giving students articles on the travel ban, I first had students gather some background on the history of immigration to the United States. Students read this article to prepare them for the discussion. In addition, students practiced their ability to understand numbers by highlighting (and writing down on a worksheet) interesting statistics and the years in which they occurred. In class the next day, we discussed the numbers and the history of immigration. Students then completed a jigsaw reading activity based on an article related to the travel ban and an article related to the wall. After discussing the articles in groups, students worked together to answer one question: Do trumps activities support the value of the United States? They had to use the immigration background article to ascertain America’s values and then compare those against Trump’s actions, making a great discussion and a great comparison activity.
  • Economics
    • The second unit that we used in the book was about economics. The article in the book begun with an interesting quote by Robert Kennedy:
      • “Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
    • The focus of this unit was to understand how a nation is measured and to introduce happiness as one metric of measurement. Before reading this article, I wanted students to have a good understanding of GDP, so students read a background article, which we used to introduce the topic in class. The coursebook article was based on a TED Talk by Nic Marks and the Happiness Planet Index. Most of the week’s focus was on visual literacy and reading different charts related to this topic. However, we also worked on inferencing and applying an author’s ideas to a different text. In the coursebook article, the author identified certain things as positive or negative. So, to extend this skill, I had students read this article about global warming and then apply Marks’ perspective to it, deciding whether he would consider the article to be positive and negative, as well as offering evidence as to why. This activity was tough for students, as it required finding evidence, identifying perspective, and comparing two articles. However, it was also good practice and informed a lively discussion.
    • Continuing our work with the article in the book, we looked at how the article compared two different ideas. We then used this article to write a summary in which two ideas are compared (as opposed to a just-the-facts linear summary). To give students independent practice, we read and analyzed this PRO/CON article about meat and global warming and then students summarized it on their own following the comparison model we had done previously.
    • Finally, we extended our use of this PRO/CON article by looking at response writing as part of the summary-response genre. Typically, students take the response section to be a chance for them to give their own opinion, often disconnected from the article. So, we focused on how to choose ideas for evaluation and then how our evaluations serve as opinions. After students wrote their responses, I collected 4 exemplars and we analyzed them together in class following a rubric. Students then had a chance to rewrite their responses following this analysis.
  • Technology
    • Our next unit was about cyborgs and technology. Newsela has a great number of articles about cyborgs and people with prostheses. However, I chose to include a PRO/CON article about driverless cars because I wanted students to continue working with various perspectives and evidence and the opportunities to evaluate these against each other. We used this article to prepare for a class debate. Students read the article and then worked in groups to analyze the evidence on both sides of the debate. They then took sides and focused on developing arguments and counter-arguments. Finally, we had a tennis-style whole-class debate that was engaging for everyone.
    • We used this text and the coursebook text to learn how to correctly answer short-answer writing questions. Students had been having trouble fully answering such questions, often times providing one part or a half-answer. This was because they were not carefully reading the questions and realizing they were actually multi-part questions asking students to do several things. So, we used this article to practice that. The questions I had students answer required them to apply authors’ ideas by looking at the definition of what a cyborg is and using that to answer, in writing, whether someone using a driverless car is a cyborg. Most said yes, but some said no. They had to cite evidence from the coursebook text to support their idea.
    • As a follow-up, students read this article from 1896 about the introduction of horseless carriages (part of Newsela’s “Time Machine” series). Students worked together to compare and contrast the horseless carriage to the driverless car. Surprisingly, there were more similarities than differences.
  • Empathy
  • Assessments
    • Throughout the term, I used Newsela readings as part of formal assessments in class. I took readings and made them into quizzes to assess reading comprehension, summary writing, response, short-answer writing, etc. For the final writing assessment, I asked students to choose an article from a text set I put together that was related to cultural conflict and had students submit a summary, response, and comparison.

How Can Newsela Be Used

As my examples show, Newsela can be used in a number of ways: as a source for background reading, as a main text from which to practice various intensive reading skills, as a set of texts to build topical knowledge and expertise, as a means to integrate reading and writing at lower levels, and even as a source for articles to use with Academic Reading Circles.

Really, there are any number of ways to use Newsela. The main point being that there is always new content, and you can almost always find something interesting to read. It just takes a bit of creativity on how to best employ it in the classroom.

Newsela & Newsela PRO: Disadvantages

While I am a huge fan of Newsela and have found it to be immensely helpful in this course and others, it is not without its issues.

For Newsela PRO, I found it to be extremely convenient to be able to assign and track students’ reading assignment fromNewsela PRO’s binder feature. I liked seeing analytics such as how long they read for, their quiz scores at various levels, and their independent reading. However, I found the Write prompt to be less useful than giving assignments on Classroom – it is far too limited and suitable only for the most basic prompts, ones that require little to no feedback or revision.

In addition, while the analytics were interesting, I am not so sure about their accuracy. One of my students was ranked in the highest percentile on Newsela based on quiz scores yet he was average or below average in terms of reading quizzes and writing assessments given in class. I’m not sure how to make sense of this discrepancy. Is Newsela too easy? Am I too difficult? In addition, some of my higher level students (in class) scored lower than expected on Newsela, often times owing to understanding the quiz questions, which can sometimes be difficult for students.

Example analytics from a student’s reading profile

Is the PRO account worth it? In general, if your program is willing to pay for the PRO account, then I would definitely go for it. However, don’t let money stand in your way of using this great resource – what they offer for free is completely adequate and can be exploited to almost the same level as I have outlined above.

Are there any other issues with Newsela? Sure. Their app on iPhone and Android is terrible. Students had a lot of issues with it, including the app not refreshing to show new assignments. They often had to log out and log back in to see assignments. On both the app and the website, the Binder was not always easy for students to use. They often didn’t know they had assignments waiting for them. Newsela should definitely add some way for students to be notified of assignments, or at least make it more noticeable.

In addition, Newsela’s cookies are terrible. By this, I mean that I am constantly having to log-in to the website. It never remembers me and keeps me logged in. This is very minor, but it is quite annoying to always have to log in.

Finally, in terms of content, sometimes the adapted levels are too simple and consist only of simple sentences. While this is easy to read, the overuse of simple sentences seems limiting. Using complex sentences with adverbials or subordinating conjunctions would not necessarily increase difficulty. Doing so would allow students to see how ideas relate more clearly. Using these kinds of structures combined with simple lexis could serve as a way to introduce students more slowly to features of academic and higher level discourse.

Student Reactions

Again, issues aside, I have an overall positive assessment of Newslea, but, what about my students? I had 14 students in my class and I surveyed them on using Newsela. Here are the questions and responses.

What are some reasons you liked Newsela?

New information, new vocabulary
Fun topics
A lot of interesting tipics
I read some article to improve my reading and know news in English.
I like simple web site system
have different level
I can choose the level in each aticle.
Fresh and advanced topic.
easy to know what level you are
Because newsela has many subjects in diffrente fileds
The activities
I can search meaning easly
You can change the levels, which is very nice to those low level readers such like me. I felt Newsela is very friendly to me.

What are some reasons you disliked Newsela?

Newsela has some negative topics
Too much difficult issue
Article is long

Think about Newsela and the textbook. Which did you like more and why?

Textbook, it’s more easy to understand than Newsela
Newsela because it is more clearly than the book
Newsela more simple with the quiz
I am prefer to Newsela because it is clearly for understanding.
I like Newsela more then text book because it can be change the reading level.
textbook have video
Newsela is more interesting.
Anytime, anywhere I can read or study English, especially I can choose appropriate level for me.
Newsela APP. is the best tool I like.
Newsela. Because that makes you clearly to know which level is more suit to yourself.
I like newsela for tha same reason I wrote it in the previous question
I will choose Newsela because there are a lot of interesting articles and you can make activities
Newsela
Newsela, because I have more choices.

Conclusion

I hope I have made it clear that Newsela is a very useful tool for any reading or writing course, at almost any level. I will continue to promote Newsela as both a supplement and replacement for the coursebook. I will continue to work on different ways to use Newsela in the EAP classroom, including integrating reading and writing at lower levels.

While preparing to use Newsela PRO, I became a Newsela Certified Educator, so you may even see me presenting about some of these ideas at ELT-related conferences! It is my hope that students can engage with content that is recent, relevant, and interesting. I hope that students engage with this content through reading, informed writing, and informed discussion. I see Newsela as an important tool to help make this happen.

One More Thanksgiving Lesson: Four Skills and Synthesis Writing

What do you do when you have finished a project the day before and there is one more day before a 4-day holiday? Games? Party? How about some reading and writing?

I love games and fun days “off” from teaching in the classroom, but I wanted to gives students some context and substance for the day they might be celebrating – one which seems like a big deal to many Americans: Thanksgiving.

Newsela provided the source material, which I adapted into a jigsaw, similar to my previous Thanksgiving post.

I began the lesson by asking students about the food they have heard about or eaten for Thanskgiving. I showed a picture of a Thanksgiving spread and went through some of the common foods: turkey, stuffing, potatoes, salad, pumpkin pie, etc. I then asked them why we eat these foods and had them recall the story of Thanksgiving. There were vague notions of harvests and thanking the land. I gave a very brief overview of the story of Thanksgiving, including explaining who Pilgrims and Native Americans are. Then, I introduced the activity for the day. We were going to answer the question: Did the Colonists eat the same foods in 1621 that we eat today?

I explained we would read some information, share it with each other, and then write about it.

Reading

I showed the introduction to the article on the screen so that everyone had the same background. We read and discussed it together.

I then gave students each a different section of the article to read. My adapted version can be downloaded here. In my adapted version, there were four sections: What about Turkey?, Please Pass the Eels, No Pie?, and Modern Thanksgiving.

After reading it for five minutes and me helping students with unknown vocab or concepts, I put students together in groups, jigsaw-style, so that each group member had read a different article.

Speaking and Listening

Students had to share what they had learned from their article. While listening, students had to take notes. I gave about 10 minutes for this activity. Students worked to give their information, clarify (for example, the difference between clams and mussels), and finally, ask me any questions.

Writing

Finally, for the remaining 15-20 minutes, I told students they would need to describe, in writing and using both their article and their notes, the foods eaten during the first Thanksgiving and why our modern Thanksgiving menu is different. I reminded students about writing a clear topic sentence and gave a model outline, though students were free to organize their writing in any way they wanted. I gave feedback as they wrote.

Reflection

I was actually very surprised at the quality of the work. They were able to incorporate many of their partners’ details and most write in a very logical way. I felt, though I did not explain, that this was good practice for synthesizing information, and I think I could use this similar framework for teaching synthesis in the future. I wish students had more time to write, but given the brevity of the class, what they turned in (about a paragraph) seemed very good. I will give some general feedback and return their papers in December. This activity also gave me a chance for informal assessment of writing organization, grammar, mechanics, etc., which I will definitely incorporate into our final weeks together.

Like my previous Thanksgiving lesson, this one was not “fun” in the traditional sense, but was received as very interesting and, as I explained, would make a great conversation topic for anyone sitting down to a Thanksgiving feast.

Comparing Stories of the First Thanksgiving – A Lesson in Understanding Author Perspective

I’m no historian, but I am a fan of History. I have binge watched Crash Course, attended local history events, enjoy reading history books for fun, and from time to time, teach a US history-themed course. Whenever I can, I inject US history into my classes, not as a form of patriotism, but because it provides a great platform for critical thinking and contextual / cultural understanding.

Thanksgiving is in several days and I was inspired to do something related to the holiday in my reading class, where most of my critical thinking instruction happens. I found a great lesson plan from the New York Times called “What Really Happened? Comparing Stories of the First Thanksgiving“. In this lesson, students are supposed to investigate competing stories of the first Thanksgiving and by doing so consider evidence and author perspective. They link to several general articles about Thanksgiving, several articles written from a Native American perspective, and several from a more conservative or right-wing perspective.

The articles they link to are great, but are written in a way that is very inaccessible to English language learners, even at advanced level. Furthermore, the lesson plan as they described it would likely take several hours or class sessions. Given that my learners are advanced but still would struggle with the readings, and that I simply wanted to do a one-off pre-Thanksgiving lesson, I heavily adapted their suggestions and did the following in jigsaw reading lesson in class:

  1. I found three suitable articles, one from each perspective, and simplified the language so that they were short (could be read in less than 10 minutes) and relatively easy to understand. You can see the articles I used here.
  2. I divided the class into three groups and gave each group copies of their respective articles. They had 10 minutes to read the article.
  3. Students then discussed the article in their groups. They had to answer the following questions:
    1. What were the main events of the article?
    2. What was interesting or surprising about the article?
    3. Who wrote the article? Why do you think they wrote it?
  4. After about 10 minutes, I broke the students up into new groups, where 1 student from each article came together to form a group of students who read different articles. I then gave them the final discussion question:
    1. Briefly summarize your article.
    2. What differences exist between the stories?
    3. Why do you think the stories are different?
  5. I walked around, monitored and facilitated student discussions, hinting at them to check the article’s authors to help answer the last two questions.
  6. Finally, we came together as a whole class and I asked them about the last question. We talked about perspective and the need to understand who the author is and why they may be writing something.
  7. We then briefly review each article and why they were written. I frame this debriefing discussion in terms of “myths” and explain how all countries have them, and that the story of Thanksgiving is an important founding myth of out country.
    1. The First Thanksgiving” from National Geographic Kids is the typical story of Thanksgiving, but it is simplified story missing many details. This is due to the general audience, trying to take a neutral stance, and the fact that kids should probably not be exposed to violence. We talked about what a neutral stance means and the fact that this may be the only story Americans are exposed to.
    2. The Real First Thanksgiving” is told from the Native American perspective. It is described as one event in a long series of injustices against the Native people, and it is mostly historically accurate. I reviewed briefly how Squanto and the Wampanoags are treated in these first two stories. (Note: despite its unprofessional look, the website contains information that is very accurate – I checked them against several other sources).
    3. The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” is told from a conservative, right-wing political perspective. Students generally have little background on what this means in the American context, so this needs a brief explanation. I also point out that the article focuses on individualism, capitalism, and American values, but it has debatable accuracy (something that is explained more in this New York Times article).

By the end of this lesson (which, by the way, I taught for the first time), students were shocked by the details of Thanksgiving, but they also really enjoyed seeing a story from multiple perspectives and they told me they realized how important it is to not only judge an article based on where it was published, but also on who wrote it, and that this may actually have an effect on how something is interpreted.

This is a lesson I will definitely reuse again, as it was very timely and interesting for the students, and introduced a powerful lens of critical thinking. Hopefully, next time I can take more time and get students to do deeper reads on this and similar topics.

ARC Priming: A Quick Idea for Getting Students Started with Academic Reading Circles

If you are a reader of my blog or a follower on Twitter, you will probably note that I am a big fan of Academic Reading Circles. I have convinced at least one other faculty member to use them regularly, and I have given several presentations about ARCs. I own the e-book, but hope to get the paper edition one day, signed by Tyson himself.

Anyway, I am always trying to find new ways of tweaking ARCs to fit student levels, class needs, and in general, improve the quality of the work students do. Sometimes, the biggest struggle is getting students to analyze texts in-depth from the different perspectives (roles). It’s not uncommon for students to ask superficial questions as the Leader, choose irrelevant vocabulary as the Highlighter, or unimportant references as the Contextualizer. A lot of this comes down to introducing and scaffolding ARCs in the right way.

We typically build an abbreviated version of ARC handouts together as a class, working with all roles. I also get students of the same role to work together during their first ARC so that they can work together to build knowledge of their role, and so I can easily give feedback. We also work on the different microskills that ARCs encourage throughout the term, such as working with contextual references during non-ARC readings.

However, I have also found one other idea to be very effective at introducing and maintaining ARC perspectives: priming articles with guiding questions. I believe Tyson has mentioned this before, but I’m not sure where – I don’t think in his book. What I mean by priming is giving students articles that are annotated with a few questions meant to get them thinking and reading through the lens they have been assigned. I always provide printed copies of the articles and add line numbers for ease of discussion. I also provide comments in the margins that ask different roles questions. I have found that this priming is effective at getting students in the right mindset, assuring deeper analysis, and, in turn, a quality discussion.

Check out my example below:

A recent "primed" article given to students for an upcoming ARC.

A recent “primed” article given to students for an upcoming ARC.

Academic Reading Circles in the University Classroom

This is a companion post to my 2016 Innovation in Teaching and Learning Symposium at UT. You can click here to download my presentation and handout.

Academic Reading Circles (ARCs) is an intensive reading activity that is meant to improve reading engagement and deep processing of text (as opposed to superficial engagement) while at the same time promoting independent reading, learner inquiry, ownership of knowledge, and collaborative meaning making. In other words, It was originally designed for foreign and international students studying English for Academic Purposes (EAP). However, the ARC approach can be easily transferred to any university classroom where reading and discussion are commonplace.

In addition, there is a lot to suggest that ARCs are effective at improving comprehension. First, they are based on literature circles, which have a great deal of research behind them. The research on literature circles shows improvements in comprehension, even in struggling readers (Williams, 2015; Murphy et al, 2009). Increases in motivation have also been observed (Covert, 2009). While much of the research has been conducted at the K-12 level, there is some evidence that it is effective at the college level as well (Thomas, 2013).

ARCs are very similar to literature circles; however, rather than fiction, semi-academic and academic texts are explored in-depth. The types of skills and strategies that ARCs engage, as well as the social nature of the discussion, lend themselves to comprehension improvement. The range of strategies that are utilized is large: summarizing, rereading, monitoring, questioning, critical thinking, evaluation, visualization, researching, synthesizing, and connecting to name a few.

Below is a basic outline of ARCs. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend checking the links at the end of the post or purchasing the book, Academic Reading Circles by Tyson Seburn.

The Process

  1. A common text is given to students to read independently outside of class.
  2. Students read the text-based on an assigned role and produce a handout following the role’s requirements.
  3. Students bring copies of their handout for each group member and discuss text.
  4. Students complete a follow-up activity (optional).

The Text

The text can be any non-fiction text that you find suitable. Examples could be academic journal articles, magazine or newspaper articles, textbook chapters, primary sources, government documents, white papers, and so on. This text must be the same for all members in a group.

The Roles and Handouts

  • Leader
    • Asks critical thinking to ensure foundational understanding of text
    • Sections text by idea/topic (n.b. journal articles, conveniently, often come pre-sectioned!)
    • Provides summary of key points of each section of the text
    • Asks discussion questions to promote greater analysis of text
    • Promotes group member participation
  • Highlighter
    • Focuses on meaning and use of topical/discipline-specific vocabulary
    • Focuses on meaning and use of repeated and important keywords unrelated to topic or discipline
    • Asks close reading questions to promote analysis of language usage
  • Contextualizer
    • Identifies important references to key people, places, events, or ideas (that are not fully explained in the text) in order to improve comprehension of article
      • This may also include background knowledge of concepts mentioned in the text
    • Gives short, bulleted points about references and provides an explanation as to why the author mentioned this reference
  • Visualizer
    • Uses visuals to help students understand important concepts in the text
      • Photos, charts and graphs, maps, timelines, infographics, etc.
  • Connector
    • Find connections between the text, outside sources, and personal experience
      • Typically, students find connections between the text and other readings in the course, other courses, current events, and personal experience

The Handout

The handout can be made in any way that suits your teaching context and needs. Typically, students make the handouts and print them out – one for each member of the group. The quality of the information on the handout can be assured through a scaffolded and guided process during the first ARC. For information on what is included on a handout, you can check Tyson’s original book, or read my post here, which includes example student handouts and more detailed information.

The Discussion

Discussions are typically 50-75 minutes and require a great deal of interaction from students. Discussion usually follow this format:

  1. Leader asks critical thinking questions.
  2. Leader gives line numbers (if available) for each section of the text.
  3. Leaders gives summary of section one, followed by group discussion. This discussion could include adding or amending any points.
  4. Highlighter discusses important vocabulary in section one, if any.
  5. Contextualizer discusses important references in section one, if any.
  6. Visualizer presents visual information in section one, if any.
  7. Connector discusses important connections in section one, if any.
  8. Leader moves to section two and the process repeats for each section.
  9. Finally, the leader asks discussion questions.

The Follow-Up

It is important to take the great effort, learning, and momentum of the discussion and direct it towards a coda. This could be anything pertinent to your class. Examples of follow-ups could be a whole-class discussion/debriefing, a group summary or written report, short writing assignments, or group or individual quizzes.

Conclusion and More Information

I hope that you can see the value of employing ARCs in content classes. For more information, please check the following links:

References

Covert, K. (2009). Literature circles and their effects on student motivation and reading comprehension (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1460&context=ehd_theses

Murphy, P. K., Wilkinson, I. A., Soter, A. O., Hennessey, M. N., & Alexander, J. F. (2009). Examining the effects of classroom discussion on students’ comprehension of text: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(3), 740.

Thomas, D. M. (2013). The effects of literature circles on the reading achievement of college reading students (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from here.

Williams, C. (2015). What impact does literature circles have on struggling readers’ comprehension? (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://csusm-dspace.calstate.edu/handle/10211.3/142289.