Monday, December 20, 2010

Paths to Paraphrasing

Last week, as part of our nonfiction study, we looked at how to paraphrase sentences. Paraphrasing is the process of putting ideas from the text into your own words.  It's an important skill, one that is used across the content areas as students write summaries, take notes, and answer questions about text.

But teaching paraphrasing is tough! In order to paraphrase, readers need to have two basic skills:

Being able to replace words with synonyms-This means that readers need to have a wide range of vocabulary. When paraphrasing nonfiction, readers especially need to understand general academic vocabulary.

Being able to rearrange sentences-Readers need to be able to change the order of sentences and ideas.

Both of these are hard for fourth graders. Our first step is to look at how we can rearrange sentences. I showed students a sentence with an underlined prepositional phrase.

At the South Pole, no plants can grow.

We looked at how we could move the prepositional phrase around the sentence. Then we tried one that was a little longer:

The seas around Antarctica are filled with tiny plants called phytoplankton.

Of course, just moving around a prepositional phrase isn't paraphrasing. So then we looked at how we could replace words with synonyms:

The United States operates three research stations in Antarctica.

What words could we use to replace the word "operates"? Students came up with several that work--runs, keeps, has. Then we looked at what words we couldn't change in the sentence, like research stations. This phrase has a very specific meaning with no real synonyms. This also highlights the role of background knowledge in paraphrasing. When kids have well-developed knowledge about the topic, they have a better idea of what can be replaced and what needs to be kept.

Finally, kids tried to put it all together to paraphrase a few sentences. It takes some time to teach, but students respond well to the instruction. When we work on summarizing after the holiday break, our task will be much easier.

Looking for help with paraphrasing? Here are some ideas:

1. Work with students to develop their academic vocabulary. The Academic Word List by Averil Coxhead is a great resource for this.

2. Show students how to move ideas around in sentences. This could fit in during writing instruction or even handwriting time.

3. Work with sentences that relate to content. Kids need to have some background knowledge about the topic in order to paraphrase successfully. In fact, when readers are having trouble paraphrasing, that's a good indicator that comprehension just isn't happening!

Paraphrasing Powerpoint

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cause and Effect Text Structure

In the text structure of cause and effect, an author explains one or more causes, and then explains one or more effects. Young readers can have many different problems with this structure. (Classroom-ready texts for teaching cause and effect: Cause and Effect Texts for Teaching Text Structure)

The underlying thinking: Kids have many problems with understanding causality. If students are having trouble finding causes and effects in real life, they will also have trouble with causes and effects in text.

Multiple causes, multiple effects: Depending on the topic, there can be multiple causes and multiple effects. Readers need to be flexible in their thinking as they read.

Tricky graphic organizers: If you are teaching students to map out ideas on a graphic organizer, cause and effect may lead to some problems. You may need to customize a graphic organizer for a text, matching the number of boxes to the number of causes and effects. Or you may want to have students draw their own depending on the text. If you use a generic organizer, be ready to tell students, "You don't have to fill in all the boxes" or "You may need to add some boxes"--over and over and over again.

Changing order: In real life, causes come before effects. But authors sometimes start a paragraph with an effect. For example, in Extreme Animals, author Nicola Davies often describes the inhospitable environment that an animal can live in--the effect--and then explains the adaptations that the animal has to live there--the causes. The cause is that the animal has many adaptations; the effect is that the animal can survive.

Picture Book for Teaching Cause and Effect
Aliens from Earth: When Animals and Plants Invade Other Ecosystems

Here is a great little book that uses a clear cause and effect text structure. On each spread, the author describes an invasive species, explains how it arrived in the new habitat, and outlines the effects of the invader. Working in groups or at a center, students could map out the causes and effects on each spread.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Reading Nonfiction: Dealing with Faulty Prior Knowledge

Reading about Antarctica creates the perfect situation to help students learn more about how to change their prior knowledge. In general, readers don't like to change their ideas. With students, this means that they often cling to faulty prior knowledge.

Kids have many faulty ideas about Antarctica. Most of them think that polar bears do eat penguins, that lots of snow falls in Antarctica, and that there's no need for sunglasses or sunscreen. How do I help them to change these ideas while reading nonfiction?

Back when I was doing research for The Forest and the Trees, I came across the work of Graham Nuthall. He was an amazing researcher, taking hours of classroom footage, coding it, and interviewing students weeks and months later to find out what they remembered and why. In a 1999 article, he explained the kinds of activities that students need to engage in to make rich connections:

"This evidence suggests that tasks need to be set up that model and give students practice in activities that involve making connections between related pieces of information and identifying implications and potential differences and contradictions. As students practice these activities and become expert in the habits of mind involved in the activities, these habits become internalized and an unconscious but automatic part of the ways their minds deal with new experiences." (Nuthall 1999)

So I can't just sit the kids down and say, "Hey, kids. Guess what? Polar bears don't eat penguins." Instead, I need to build situations that create an internal mismatch in students' schemas, so that they experience the feeling of resolving this conflict. Our Antarctica readings are perfect for this.

Is it working? Listen to what a student said on Friday: "I know that there aren't any plants at the South Pole. And if there are no plants, there can't be any animals, right? So why is there a research station there? What would they study*?"

This student was putting together related bits of information and identifying the conflict. What great thinking! This is the payoff from reading multiple texts on the same topic--kids have the time and space to think about what fits, and what doesn't.

*We'll be reading about the South Pole this week. While there aren't any animals, there is some interesting research...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Teaching Nonfiction: Antarctica

As the cold winds begin to howl, I like to bring an assortment of texts about Antarctica into the classroom. Antarctica is a great fit for fourth grade for several reasons:

Shared knowledge building-My students don't have much prior knowledge about Antarctica. As we learn about it, then, we can experience the feeling of adding to our schemas together. It's fascinating to see how kids pick up on new words and share their experiences. For example, the word "skuas" came up in two different texts. A skua is a kind of bird that lives in Antarctica, but most students had never heard of it before. When one student found a picture of a skua in a book, the others were eager to see it--I overhead one say, "Oh! A skua is a bird!"

As we read multiple texts, then, we all can experience adding to what we know. Students filled out an anticipation guide at the beginning of the unit. Then, after each text, we go back to see if our thinking has changed. Sometimes, what we find is surprising, like the fact that visitors to Antarctica need to wear sunglasses and sunscreen!

Interesting texts-In the Toolkit Texts from Heinemann, there is a nice nonfiction first-person piece about doing research at Palmer Station, as well as a map of Antarctica. (By the way, the map is available as a free sample on the website.) These texts started my unit. Since then, I've found additional books. Jennifer Owings Dewey's Four Months at the Bottom of the World is a nice example of personal journal text, while the Magic Treehouse Penguins and Antarctica book gives kids a thorough introduction to the continent.

Online resources-This blog is documenting the LTER Cruise that is about to begin for the new season. LTER means Long-Term Ecological Research, and these scientists return to the same places each year to see how things have changed. At this link, you can find other resources. And there are plenty of videos as well. When I have written to researchers with questions, they have neat!

Penguins and other cool animals- My students are fascinated by penguins each year. They like to pore over the encyclopedia of penguins that I check out of the local library, look at the names of the different types, and find out where they live. Not all penguins live in Antarctica, which is surprising for many of the students.

Antarctica is also home to some interesting invertebrates, like sea spiders and carnivorous sponges. (My students this year are especially intrigued by the carnivorous sponges. One said, "That's like my worst nightmare come true! A meat-eating sponge!")

My interest-When I started working with this topic, I knew very little about it. This helps to keep me interested! I admit to following the research season to try to learn more each year. I've learned all about the IceCube project at the South Pole and figured out how to tell the different kinds of penguins apart. This year, I want to try more of the resources from PolarTREC.

No matter what the topic, reading a series of interconnected texts helps students to make sense of nonfiction. Next week, kids are eager to read more about Antarctica--and I'm eager to help them!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Picture Books for Teaching Text Structure

Over the past few weeks, I've been working on a project to put together a list of books to use for teaching text structures. The list is finally finished! I've posted the document on Slideshare.

One of the hardest parts was finding books that have a common theme. After all, text structure is linked to content. The structure that an author chooses is connected to what ideas the author wants to convey. Using a scattered array of books, then, might not help students to see how ideas connect across texts.

But texts with similar topics can help to bridge the different text structures, and even help students consider similarities of texts within a structure. Two of my favorites for this are A Puffin's Year by Katherine Zecca and Nights of the Pufflings by Bruce McMillan. Both are organized in chronological order, and both detail how puffins come ashore to lay their eggs and raise their pufflings. However, each book explains the steps differently, and Nights of the Pufflings adds a slight wrinkle of problem and solution. Teaching the two of these books together can yield great results in both content and structure. (Plus, pufflings are really cute!)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Text Structure: Description

The text structure of description can go by various names. Some resources call it description; others call it statement and support; still others call it main idea/detail. Whatever it is called, this text structure is based on making a statement, and then supporting it with details.


The buttonbush is a plant that can be found along many rivers and streams. Although it can reach 15 feet tall, it usually only grows a few feet. Its flowers, about the size of a ping-pong ball, bloom through the summer. The flowers are replaced by brown, ball-like fruits in the autumn.

In the past, I've found description to be the easiest text structure to find,whether in textbooks, trade books, or magazines. One especially nice series is published by Peachtree. The latest one is About Raptors.

About Raptors
written by Cathryn Sill
illustrated by John Sill
Peachtree Publishing

All of the books in this series are written in a simple style. Each page contains only one sentence. There are about three main ideas in each book, supported by details. This book is an easy read, but the pictures and specific information make it worthwhile for read alouds even up through sixth grade. If you're looking for a place to start with description, these books would be a strong choice.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Problem/Solution Text Structure: When the Wolves Returned

While it's been tough to find good books that sustain the compare and contrast text structure, I've found some great problem and solution books. One that is easily available is the title When the Wolves Returned.

Why do I like this book? Like many recent nonfiction books, it's written on two levels. Simple text is included in white boxes, while the author goes into more detail in a longer paragraph. This two level readability makes it a good fit for most classrooms.

I also like the way that the author interweaves causal relationships within the problem/solution structure. This is the way that text usually works. Problems don't just appear overnight; they have causes. The relationship between the causes and effects--and how they fit with the problem and solution--are very clear in this book.

The first half of the book explains how wolves were eliminated from Yellowstone, and the effects of this elimination. This is the problem. Then, in the second half of the book, the author describes how bringing back the wolves has been a solution to the problem. Of course, to show how the return of the wolves is a solution, the author needs to explain the effects of the wolves' return.

I can see this book working well as an introduction to the text structure of problem and solution. Even better, the endpages show an interconnected web of animal photos, with a caption inviting the reader to recall the effects that the wolves' return has had on each species. Pretty neat!