Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Assessing Text Structure

At some point, teachers need to know: What do students know? What can they do independently? What do they still need support to do?

There are several ways to assess student use of text structures. Each of them can help a teacher to figure out where students area and what the next steps for instruction should be.

Graphic organizers: As students read expository text, you can learn a great deal by observing how they interact with text. Can they complete a graphic organizer to represent the ideas in the text? If not, the student might be struggling with the thinking that underlies the structure. You may want to see if students can do the kind of thinking outside of text. For example, if the student is having trouble with completing a graphic organizer that goes along with a cause and effect text, you may want to try some work with cause and effect in pictures.

Given a choice of organizers, can they choose the one that best fits the text structure? This shows a deeper understanding of how main ideas and details work together in a text. Hint: If a student chooses an incorrect graphic organizer (for example, trying to represent details from a text that is description with a chronological order graphic organizer), resist the urge to correct the student immediately. Often the problem will become obvious after a few sentences, and the student will be able to figure out how to fix the problem. What a great lesson this becomes!

Individual paragraphs: Observe students as they read paragraphs and try to identify the text structure of each. Are they able to do this? While this is not really authentic reading, it can tell you about what students are thinking as they read.

Longer texts: Assessing student use of text structure in longer texts doesn't have to mean a long, drawn-out assessment. Try putting questions about a longer text on the overhead and having students go back to the text to find the evidence to support their answers. Then watch them carefully as they start to look! For example, if the question about a problem and solution text is, "How can you try to solve the problem of invasive plants?", a student with a strong knowledge of text structure will know that solutions are probably found later in a text than problems. A student who starts at the beginning to reread the entire text, on the other hand, probably has a weaker understanding of text structure.

Open-ended questions related to the text structure can also help you to see how students are able to integrate the details and the text structure. Here are some questions for each text structure:

Chronological Order
Which event do you think is most important? Why? (Students will need to be able to pick out an event and explain its importance)

Cause and Effect
What were some effects of _______? (Students will need to isolate the effects in the text)
What caused ___________?

Problem and Solution
Why is ___________ a problem?
How was the problem of __________solved?

Compare and Contrast
How is _______ like ___________?

Authentic Reading
Probably the best way to see how kids are understanding text structure is to watch them in their authentic reading. Readers rarely stop to consider the text structure as they work through a text. However, students who understand text structure can use the structure to find the information they want.

Last week, several of my students worked their way through a tricky compare and contrast paragraph in a field guide as they tried to figure out if a pond bug was a backswimmer or a water boatman. "They both look so much the same," one student complained.

Another student took the field guide. At the bottom of the page was a lengthy discussion of how water boatmen and backswimmers are similar and different. "Yeah, but look at what it says," she said. "The water boatman swims upright, but the backswimmer looks like it's upside down. We definitely have a water boatman."

This is what we want for my students--to be able to use text structures to help them understand the world.

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